Saturday, March 23, 2013

Psalm 119: Gimel

For my weekly quiet time today, I'll post Psalm 119: Gimel in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), then I will comment on select verses.

17 GIMEL. Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word.

The Psalmist does not want God's blessing merely for the sake of being prosperous; rather, the Psalmist desires it because he feels that this will enable him to survive and thus to keep God's word.  A question that I have asked more than once on this blog is whether the Psalmist sincerely loved serving God, or merely used service of God as a bargaining-chip to get God to deliver him from whatever scrap he was in.  I do not know the Psalmist's heart, but it does seem to me, at least in Psalm 119, that the Psalmist truly valued God's law, for the Psalmist appears to have a clear idea about why he deems God's law to be valuable: because it provided him with reliable guidance, because it was a refuge to him in difficult times, because it contained wonderful things that weren't immediately obvious, etc.

18 Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.

I have long loved this verse.  Whenever I sit down to read the Bible, I would love to learn something new and wonderful.  Do I myself pray verse 18, though?  I'm usually hesitant to do so, for I tend to believe that the interpretation of the Bible is a human endeavor, as opposed to something that proceeds from God's guidance of the reader or hearer.  That's the basis of whatever humility I have in reading and interpreting the biblical text: that my interpretation may be flawed, that there are other ways to see the biblical passages, that there is information that I do not currently know about, and that my limited interpretation does not close the door on any subject.  So are my times in Scripture utter vanity, as I seek solid ground but can never quite find it?  I wouldn't go that far, for I do believe that I learn good, moral, and wholesome outlooks and ways to live my life as I read Scripture.  Could God have something to do with that?

19 I am a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me.

Why does the Psalmist call himself a stranger, or, in the Hebrew, a "ger"?  A ger was a resident alien in the land of Israel.  Because the ger did not own land in Israel, he was dependent on the goodwill of the Israelites, and God commanded them to leave gleanings for the ger in the fields.  Later, within the Septuagint and also rabbinic Judaism, the ger was often interpreted to be a convert to Judaism.

According to various interpreters whom I read, the Psalmist called himself a ger because he realized that he was a sojourner on earth, not a permanent resident, for his life was short (as are all lives).  As David says in I Chronicles 29:15 (and I quote the KJV): "For we are strangers (Hebrew: gerim) before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding."  What does life being short have to do with the Psalmist's desire to learn God's commandments?  According to the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, the Psalmist does not want to waste his brief life, for he desires to infuse his life with meaning through observance of God's commandments.  Do I identify with this sentiment?  Personally, my attitude is that life is short, so why should I spend it beating myself up because I fall short of some perfect standard?

The Midrash on the Psalms offered an interesting interpretation of Psalm 119:19, as it understood the "ger" in light of the rabbinic view that the ger was a convert to Judaism.  According to the Midrash on the Psalms, the Gentile who converts to Judaism does not know much about the Torah, and so he needs someone to teach the Torah to him.  While I am doubtful that Psalm 119:19 means this, since the Psalmist may not have regarded the ger as a convert, I do think that the Midrash on the Psalms is getting at something that underlies the verse: that the Psalmist, like a resident alien, is vulnerable and dependent.  He needed God's help, deliverance, and guidance.

Moreover, the Psalmist may have felt like an outsider in the world, the same way that a ger in Israel did not feel as if he were totally a part of Israel.  Why?  The Psalmist is experiencing reproach and contempt (v 22), and princes are speaking against him (v 23).  In the midst of this alienation, the Psalmist desires and finds a home in God's commandments.  The Psalmist longs for God's judgments and meditates on God's statutes when people are opposing him.  The Psalmist finds delight in God's law within a world that is not a particularly delightful place for him.  Do I identify with this?  I do.  I myself have often felt alienated from others in my life, but I experience joy when I study and meditate upon the Bible.

20 My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments at all times.

The Psalmist does not just find a home in a book of laws, in my opinion.  The Psalmist also finds a home in God's direct guidance of him, within the relationship that the Psalmist has with God.  God opens the Psalmist's eyes to the beautiful things in God's law (v 18), and the Psalmist longs for God's judgments (v 20).  Why would the Psalmist's soul break in longing for God's judgments, when he could simply read them in a book (assuming he could read, and, if he could not, others could read them to him) or recall them in his memory?  Perhaps he's not just talking about thinking about laws, but thinking about laws under the guidance of God, within a relationship with the divine.  In that case, the Psalmist would long for God to intervene.  Or maybe the Psalmist in v 20 is saying that he treasures the times that he spends with God in the contemplation of the Torah, and he wishes that he had more time to do so, as well as a greater capacity to understand and to appreciate what he contemplates.

21 Thou hast rebuked the proud that are cursed, which do err from thy commandments.

In my opinion, this verse is important because it shows that the Psalmist is not just talking about a hobby that he has (namely, contemplation on God's laws) that might not be for others.  Rather, God's commandments are for everyone, for they contain the right way to live.  No one is exempt from the necessity to love others.

22 Remove from me reproach and contempt; for I have kept thy testimonies.

I've long had the attitude that I can hide myself in God's word, and God will ensure that everything will turn out all right in my life.  I've thought that, if I am diligent in studying the Bible, going to church, attending Bible study groups, etc., then God will honor my devotion by giving me blessings, which would include favor in the eyes of other people.  Nowadays, to be honest, I'm a little more skeptical about this approach.  Whether I read the Bible or not, there will be people who will not like me, and I will have ups and downs in life.  Moreover, just speaking for myself, I do not think that me just reading the Bible and going to church are sufficient in terms of helping me to navigate my way through life, for I need the counsel of wise people about such things as social skills, searching for employment, etc.  But does reading the Bible help me to have a better attitude and perspective on life?  Yes, absolutely.  There are a lot of good things in the Bible.

23 Princes also did sit and speak against me: but thy servant did meditate in thy statutes.

The Hebrew phrase that the KJV translates as "speak against me" is "bi nidbaru".  We have the niphal of d-b-r ("to speak") plus the preposition "b" (which can mean "in", but does not always).  The Septuagint translates this phrase as "katelaloon", which deals with speaking evil and slander.  Moreover, in Malachi 3:13, the niphal of d-b-r (which appears with the preposition "al", which can mean "against") seems to refer to speaking against.  It may mean that in Ezekiel 33:30 (where it appears with the preposition "b", like in Psalm 119:23), or it may not.  The Septuagint for Ezekiel 33:30 does not appear to regard the niphal of d-b-r negatively, for it merely says that the people speak concerning the prophet, rather than saying that they speak against them.  Some English translations hold that Ezekiel 33:30 presents the people speaking against the prophet, while others maintain that its saying that the people speak concerning him.

Here's what puzzles me: Malachi 3:16 states (in the KJV): "Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name."  The word translated as "spake often one to another" is the niphal of d-b-r.  That doesn't sound negative, does it?  Those who fear the LORD are simply talking with one another.  It doesn't sound like they're saying negative things, right?  Yet, for some reason, the Septuagint for Malachi 3:16 uses the word "katelalesan" for the niphal of d-b-r, and "katelalesan" is speaking evil of someone or slandering.  Could it be that the fearers of God in Malachi 3:16 were speaking negative things to one another----perhaps they were lamenting God's reluctance to act, or criticizing the wickedness that was around them?

But, back to Psalm 119:23, it makes sense to me that the princes are speaking against the Psalmist rather than merely talking about him, for why would the Psalmist make a big deal about people just talking about him?  Plus, v 22 indicates that the Psalmist is experiencing his share of reproach and contempt, so that tells me that people are talking negatively when it comes to the Psalmist.  What historical situation would this scenario fit?  It may fit the Davidic monarchy, as the king laments that princes are undermining his authority and are plotting against him.  Or it may fit the exilic and post-exilic periods, when Jews were at the mercy of rulers who did not always care for them.

24 Thy testimonies also are my delight and my counsellors.


The Artscroll says that this verse means that the Psalmist can trust the counsel of God's testimonies, even though he can't necessarily rely on the counsel of his princes.  The Artscroll goes on to say that the Psalmist is not guided by what's fashionable among the rich and powerful.

I can identify with this, at least in part.  As I said in my comments on v 22, I think that I need people to counsel me, not just the Bible----or perhaps I can say that I need people to help me to apply concretely the principles within the Bible (at least the principles that are moral).  I also feel that I need people on my side, though I try to have faith that God is on my side, whether I think that enough people are on my side or not.  At the same time, I can understand the Artscroll's point that we shouldn't be guided by what is fashionable among the rich and powerful, for that may not necessarily be what is moral or right.  The rich and powerful do right things, and they do wrong things.  We should admire and follow the right things, the things that enhance humanity and demonstrate compassion for others.

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