Theme: Meditating Day and Night
In this first stanza of Psalm 119, we are told of the importance of loving and obeying God’s Word.
Scripture: Psalm 119:1-8
In today’s study I must say something about the words that are used for God’s law in this psalm. When we hear the word “law” we think of the kind of laws that are made by local, state and federal legislatures, things like tax laws, environmental laws, traffic laws, and scores of other kinds of laws. These laws are intended for our good, but they are essentially restrictive and for the most part we have a negative reaction to them. There are laws like that in the Bible, of course: “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” and so on. But generally when the Bible speaks of the “law” (torah) of God, it has something much bigger in mind. It is referring to the whole of God’s spoken and written revelation, containing all the various elements that the other words for law in this psalm suggest, including “words,” “testimonies,” “charges,” “promises” and “ways.”
We will look at each of those terms in detail as we go along. But here it is enough to say that what is being commended to us at the start of Psalm 119 is getting to know and live by the whole of God’s revelation, which is what we call the Bible.
I stress living by the Bible, because that is what these opening verses emphasize. This is because the blessedness they speak of is for those who “walk” according to God’s law and “keep” his statues. In other words, from the beginning we are to understand that this is a practical matter, a way of life and not merely a course of academic study. On the other hand, it is also clear that we cannot live by the Bible unless we know it well. As the first psalm says, it must be our “meditat[ion] day and night” (v. 2).
May I suggest that if we are to meditate on the Bible day and night, we must have at least some of it committed to memory, which is what Christians in past ages of the church did. When I preached the sermon that on Psalm 117 (“The Shortest Psalm of All”), I suggested that because it is such a short psalm it might easily be memorized and that this would be a good thing to do. Afterward at least one person said he intended to do it. But what if I told you that in past days it was not uncommon for people to memorize Psalm 119?
John Ruskin was not a minister or even a theologian. He lived in the nineteenth century and was a British writer who specialized in works of art criticism. But he had been raised by a Calvinistic mother who was unsparing both of herself and others and who, in his youth, had made him memorize large portions of the Bible. He memorized Psalms 23, 32, 90, 91, 103, 112, 119 and 139, to give just some examples. Later in his life Ruskin wrote of Psalm 119, “It is strange that of all the pieces of the Bible which my mother taught me, that which cost me most to learn, and which was, to my childish mind, chiefly repulsive—the 119th Psalm—has now become of all the most precious to me in its overflowing and glorious passion of love for the Law of God.”
How about William Wilberforce, the British statesman who was largely responsible for the abolition of the slave trade throughout the empire? He wrote in his diary in the year 1819, “Walked today from Hyde Park Corner, repeating the 119th Psalm in great comfort.”1
Does it seem strange that busy Wilberforce should know this psalm by heart? Perhaps. But here are two others who memorized it.
Henry Martyn, that great pioneer missionary to India, memorized Psalm 119 as an adult in 1804. He had an extremely arduous life, but he confessed that it was the Bible alone that gave him strength to keep going. He died of near exhaustion in 1812.
David Livingstone, the great pioneer missionary to Africa, won a Bible from his Sunday school teacher by repeating Psalm 119 by heart—when he was only nine years old.
Each of these persons achieved a great deal for God. And who is to say that it was not their personal, word by word knowledge of the Bible that not only enabled them to life a godly life but also to accomplish what they did?
1Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1904), p. 307, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 3a, p. 133.
What is the first step to living a godly life?
What is generally meant by the word “law” in the Bible?
Why did so many prominent Christians memorize Psalm 119?
Reflection: Have you developed good Bible study habits, or have you allowed the busyness of your daily routine to crowd out time for study?
Application: Choose a portion of Scripture and memorize it this week.
For Further Study: Download for free and listen to Philip Ryken’s message, “The Law and the Gospel.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)