The Basis of Torah

YHWH is my portion / I have said that I would observe thy words.
I entreated thy favor with my whole heart / be merciful unto me according to thy word.
I thought on my ways / and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.
I made haste, and delayed not / to observe thy commandments.
The cords of the wicked have wrapped me round / but I have not forgotten thy law.
At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee / because of thy righteous ordinances.
I am a companion of all them that fear thee / and of them that observe thy precepts.
The earth, O YHWH, is full of thy lovingkindness / teach me thy statutes (Psalm 119:57-64 ח).

God’s instruction has great value, but only because God gave it and God stands behind it.

Psalm 119 is the great paean to torah and faithful observance thereof. Torah is the Hebrew word most frequently translated as “law” throughout the Old Testament; a fuller definition would be “instruction” since the Torah involved a lot more than just “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” but included explanations and illustrations. Psalm 119 is full of praise for YHWH’s Torah, expressed with meticulous order and care. Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm in octets, with each verse in each octet beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Toward the middle of Psalm 119 we have the ḥet section, Psalm 119:57-64, with each verse beginning with the Hebrew letter ḥet (ח).

Each octet of Psalm 119 maintains a type of theme regarding torah; ḥet in many ways summarizes the primary themes not only of Psalm 119 but the Psalter in general. YHWH is the portion of the Psalmist; thus the Psalmist has promised to keep the words which He has established (Psalm 119:57). The Psalmist knows he cannot live by his own righteousness or according to his own standard, and so he implores YHWH to obtain His favor and mercy (Psalm 119:58). The Psalmist considers the way he lives his life and on its basis recognizes his need to follow the ways or testimonies of God, to not delay in observing God’s commandments (Psalm 119:59-60). The Psalmist experiences adversity but does not forget the law (Psalm 119:61). Even in the darkness the Psalmist will give thanks to YHWH because of His righteous ordinances; the Psalmist maintains communion with all who fear YHWH and keep His precepts (Psalm 119:62-63). The Psalmist perceives that the earth is full of YHWH’s ḥeṣed, a term often translated “lovingkindness” or “mercy,” yet with the connotation of “covenant faithfulness” or thus “loyalty” (as you can tell, an essentially untranslatable term!), and thus asks YHWH to teach him His statutes (Psalm 119:64).

The Psalmist has laid it all out well in Psalm 119:57-64: he praises YHWH for His torah consisting of the Word of YHWH, His testimonies, commandments, law, ordinances, precepts, and statutes (cf. Deuteronomy 4:40, 45, 5:10). The Psalmist confesses how the earth is full of YHWH’s ḥeṣed; in other psalms such a declaration is a confession of how YHWH created the heavens and the earth and thus could fill it with His ḥeṣed (Psalms 33:5-9, 104:24-31). The ḥeṣed of YHWH, especially as it is granted to Israel, is a major theme throughout the Psalter, and part of the bedrock of trust in YHWH expressed throughout the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 23:6, 25:10, 85:7, 86:5, 89:1, etc.). Thus we have the theme of Psalm 119:57-64: YHWH has maintained His ḥeṣed, lovingkindness/covenant loyalty to Israel, manifest in His creation and in giving His torah, or instruction, to Israel. On account of this the Psalmist praises YHWH, promises to observe all the laws, ordinances, testimonies, and statutes of YHWH, and desires to be further taught in YHWH’s torah. Yet the Psalmist can only obtain these blessings through God’s favor and mercy, all because YHWH is his portion.

Likewise this understanding of how YHWH’s torah relates to His covenant loyalty, favor, and mercy, and how it is YHWH Himself who is the Psalmist’s portion, helps us to keep the rest of the Psalmist’s praise of torah in all its forms in proper context. It would be easy to reduce the praise of the law in Psalm 119 to mere law keeping for the sake of keeping and observing it, and many have gone down this path. Yet the Psalter does not commend keeping torah just for the sake of keeping torah as if it is a checklist to be marked off and then one can move on. There is great value in observing YHWH’s precepts and statutes, but their value is not in and of themselves; their value is in the fact that they are the expression of the will of YHWH, the Creator God of Israel who has continually displayed covenant faithfulness to His people and in fact to all the earth. The torah is not the Psalmist’s portion; YHWH Himself is. It is because YHWH is, has made all things, expresses covenant loyalty to His people and to His creation, and provides favor and mercy to His people, that the Psalmist upholds and affirms the great value of torah.

Torah was uttered by YHWH for the sake of His people; Torah was not God. Israel was supposed to follow torah because God had spoken it as His Word, the same Word which generated the creation, all life, and allows existence to continue (Psalm 33:5-9, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:1-3). To disconnect torah from YHWH by attempting to observe torah to its own end would not only be impossible but also worthless: as the Apostle Paul will later note, none save Jesus have kept the Law perfectly, and no one can be made righteous before God on the basis of works of the Law (Romans 3:1-20). One continues to need God’s covenant faithfulness, favor, and mercy, and for such things you have to turn to YHWH Himself. YHWH was Israel’s portion, and thus Israel should follow torah.

We serve God in Christ under a new covenant enacted with better promises (Hebrews 7:1-9:27), yet the premise of Psalm 119:57-64 remains quite important. Not for nothing does the New Testament speak of the Word of YHWH as God and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-18). The Word of God has great power to save (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12), yet that power is not on the page or in ink but in God who both sent the Word to the earth as Jesus and testified to that Word through the Spirit who proclaimed the message of this Life (John 1:1-18, 3:16, Acts 2:1-12, 5:20). In understandable attempts to defend the importance of the Scriptures many well-intentioned Christians will speak so as to suggest that the Scriptures are themselves God, and we must be on our guard about such a presentation, for just as torah was not Israel’s God, so the New Testament is not the Christian’s God. Instead the New Testament makes known to us what is true about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how God has wrought salvation and forgiveness of sins through Jesus of Nazareth and gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth (Romans 5:6-11, Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus is Lord; such is why the New Testament has great value for us. Jesus is risen from the dead; such is how the Word of God gives us hope for eternal life (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

As with Israel, so with us. God must be our portion; if we have any hope to stand before Him it is because He has been faithful to His covenant, displaying to us lovingkindness, favor/grace, and mercy, and we cannot find such things from a book, but only from a Person. We can have all confidence in God and the message He has revealed to us because He is the Creator and the creation is full of His lovingkindness/covenant loyalty. Therefore we observe God’s commandments, not as an end unto themselves, but as the embodiment of our trust in and loyalty to the God who loved us and saved us in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 John 2:1-6). Let us be sure that God in Christ is our portion, that we seek His favor and mercy, and seek to observe His commandments because He is God, our Creator and Sustainer and loyal to His people!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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