A Meditation on Psalm 119

Psalm 119:9 “How shall a young man cleanse his way? By keeping to your words.” 

It was a young man who prayed this psalm and this verse (cf. w. 99-100). So this is not the question of an older person looking at the evils of youth. This question grows out of personal experiences of temptations and personal encounters with the Word of God. A young man here asks the question of his life, and he asks it not because of flaming idealism or enthusiasm for the good and noble in general, but because he has experienced the power of the Word of God and his own weakness.

Does this question about the blameless and pure way sound inconsistent with youth, freedom, and affirmation of life? If so, it is only because we have become accustomed to a very godless conception of youth and are no longer able to understand the power and fullness of life that is found in innocence. It is very presumptuous and wrongheaded to think that the human being has to become entangled deeply in the guilt of life in order to know life itself, and finally God. 

We do not learn to know life and guilt from our own experience, but only from God’s judgment of humanity and his grace in the cross of Jesus Christ. To want to bring in sin at a particular point in one’s education is a frivolous game for which a heavy price must be paid. “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). “Before falling ill, humble yourself, and when you are on the point of sinning, turn back” (Sirach 18:21). “Shun youthful passions” (2 Timothy 2:22).

To what shall I keep in the hour of temptation and trial? To God’s Word alone. So will my way be cleansed.

To be pure then, when impurity is still a danger, to be blameless not as a result of middle-class contentment, but love of God, that is no renunciation of life, rather it is life’s fulfillment; it is no contempt for God’s creation, rather it sanctifies creation through obedience to the Creator. “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth … walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” (Ecclesiastes 11:9). 

He who brings his coarse sins with him into mature adulthood will often find it too late to become their master. God is the ruler of the human being from his first breath, and he will not relinquish his rule for a moment. God does not ask about our more or less modern ideals concerning youth; he only asks whether a life has been surrendered to his rule.

In asking the question about the cleansing of his way, the young person acknowledges the sin that dwells within him. Otherwise he would not need to ask. And it is only because he knows the power of sin over his heart and his nature that he no longer looks for help by human means. 

Not good intentions, burning ideals, not even work and fulfillment of duty can keep the way pure, only God’s Word can do that. For only God himself can deal with sin. He has done it by forgiving us all our sins in Jesus Christ (cf. John 15:3); he does it by enabling us to know his Word of grace and judgment, and by leading us and giving us his grace day by day. To what shall I keep in the hour of temptation and trial? To God’s Word alone. So will my way be cleansed.

Psalm 119:10 “With my whole heart I seek you; let me not stray from your commandments.”

Whoever has received God’s Word has to seek God; she can do no other. The more clearly and deeply God’s Word shows itself to her, the more lively will be her desire for the total clarity and the unfathomable depth of God himself. 

Through the gift of his Word, God drives us to seek for an ever richer knowledge and a more glorious gift. He does not intend any false contentment for us. The more we receive, the more we must seek him, and the more we seek, the more we will receive from him. “To the one who has will more be given.” 

We can only seek God in his Word, but this Word is lively and inexhaustible, for God himself lives in it.

God wants to fully glorify himself and make himself known to us in his complete richness. Of course, we can only seek God in his Word, but this Word is lively and inexhaustible, for God himself lives in it. If we are responding to God’s Word we will say: I seek you with my whole heart. For with half a heart we might be seeking an idol, but never God himself. God requires the whole heart. He wants nothing (no thing) from us, but he wants us, and completely. His Word has told us that. Therefore, we seek him with our whole heart.

We have only one remaining concern, that we might stray from the way that has been begun for us, from the commandments we have heard. The psalmist speaks of straying; he is not thinking here of a deliberate, willful transgressing of the divine commandments. But how easily we stray when our vision is clouded by that which is evil. We wander into byways, lose our sense of direction, and cannot find our way back to the commandments of God. 

We must daily pray to God to keep us from the sin of straying, the unconscious sin (Numbers 15:22ff.); for we at first move unconsciously onto ways that are wrong, then we often experience pleasures there, and from what was a mistake there grows an evil intention. But the one who seeks God with her whole heart will not go astray.

Psalm 119:11 “I treasure your promise in my heart, that I may not sin against you.”

I do not treasure God’s promise in my understanding but in my heart. It is not to be analysed by my intellect, but to be pondered in my heart. It is like the word of a dear friend that lives in my heart even when I do not think about it at all. That is the intended destination of the promise that comes from God’s mouth. 

God’s Word must penetrate deep within us, dwell in us, like the Holy of Holies in the Sanctuary…

If I have God’s Word only in my mind, then my mind will often be busy with other things and I will sin against God. Therefore, it is never sufficient simply to have read God’s Word. It must penetrate deep within us, dwell in us, like the Holy of Holies in the Sanctuary, so that we do not sin in thought, word, or deed. It is often better to read a little in the Scriptures and slowly, waiting until it has penetrated within us, than to know a great deal of God’s Word but not to treasure it in our hearts.

Psalm 119:12 “Blessed are you, O LORD; instruct me in your statutes.”

Do we praise the holiness and piety of human beings here? Are we concerned with ourselves and our own purity? Does the “I,” which is so noticeably repeated in these psalm verses, signify preoccupation with the self in self-criticism and self-justification? Blessed are you, O Lord! May God alone be blest, who has made the new beginning with us, who has revealed his Word to us, who allows himself to be sought and served by us, who lets his Word dwell within us and protects us from sin. 

On the way of the faithful, there is praise only for God. All their strength and confidence reside in this praise for God. However, we must ask God again and again, like beggars: “Instruct me in your statutes!” (Job 23:12). In blessing God, we confess what we have received. In making our request of God, we confess our poverty. 

Never, as long as we live, will the request for enlightenment, knowledge, and growth in understanding of the Word come to an end; but the praise of him who has given us by his grace enough and more than enough will never come to an end in this life or in the life to come.

Psalm 119:13 “With my lips will I recite all the judgments of your mouth.”

The judgments of God go forth from his mouth and should come upon my lips. It is often easy to carry God’s Word in our heart, but very difficult to bring it upon our lips! Of course, we are not concerned here with empty lip-service, but with bringing to expression that which fills our heart. 

Do we not often find our mouth closed in the presence of great sorrow because we fear to put a pious formula in place of the divine Word? Is there not an atmosphere of frivolity and godlessness in which we no longer find the right word and simply become silent? Does not false modesty and fear of others often keep our mouths shut? The warning and exhortation remain unspoken, words of comfort and encouragement are denied the one who needs them. In what a tortured and anxious way does the name of Jesus Christ sometimes cross our lips! 

It requires a great deal of spiritual experience and practice, and at the same time a child-like faith and confidence, to be able to recite with one’s lips “all the judgments” of God; and to do so without becoming a spiritual “old hand,” a moralizing apostle, an endless prattler. Our whole heart must belong to the Word of God before we learn to place our lips, too, entirely in the service of Jesus Christ.

Psalm 119:14 “I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees than in all manner of riches.”

“Delight” is the great word, without which there can be no walking in the way of God. In Matthew we read about the man who found the treasure buried in the field. In his delight he went and sold all that he had and bought that field (Matthew 13:44). All riches and possessions were of no account to him compared to the divine treasure. Yes, in it he found all the riches he could desire.

The one who finds the way of God must first lose all his own riches in order to find in God all manner of riches. God’s word creates joy and delight in the one who receives it. It is delight about restored fellowship with God. It is delight about deliverance from fear and sin. It is the joy of the one who had gone astray and, after a long night, has found the right way again. 

Where the Word of God is, there is joy.

God prepares festive delight for us. He is himself the source of all joy and delight. Yes, he himself knows joy: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17).

We are invited to participate in this festival in which God delights in the deliverance and the faith of his people. God’s Word itself is full of this joy which ought to break forth in us. There is the great proclamation of joy about the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ in Luke – “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people” (Luke 2:10). 

The days of our Lord on earth were like the dawning of a single marriage day (Mark 2:19, cf. Luke 19:6). There is joy in heaven over the repentance and salvation of each sinner (Luke 15:7,10). The resurrection and ascension of the Lord fill the disciples with joy (Matthew 28:8; Luke 24:41,52; John 20:20), and the early church received the communion of Jesus with joyful hearts (Acts 2:46f.). 

Where the Word of God is, there is joy. As Jesus left the disciples to go to the Father, he said to them: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). The Word of God brings fullness of joy to its hearers. God intends joy for us; of course, it is a joy “with trembling” (Psalm 2:11) just because it is joy before the holy God. 

God’s Word is the source of all joy, and the way of his decrees is full of delight, because it is the way that God himself has gone and goes with us. Where God is with us, there is joy, and this joy no one will take away from us (John 16:22). In days of affliction and persecution, however, this joy attaches to the promise made by him who has gone before us: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11f.). These are the riches of the one who follows Jesus.

But the one who will not or cannot go on the way of God knows sadness instead of joy (Matthew 19:22; 17:23). “But I fear that we will have neither the joy nor the cross as long as we accept the gospel so little. We remain as in our old nature, despising the precious treasure of the gospel” (Luther).

This meditation was part of a series on Instructions in Daily Scripture Meditation, first given by Bonhoeffer to a group of seminarians he was training at Finkenwalde, Germany in 1935-36. They were written down by Eberhard Bethge, a seminarian who later became Bonhoeffer’s biographer and editor of his collected works. Reprinted in Meditating on the Word, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited and translated by David McI. Gracie,© 1986, Rowman and Littlefield Edition, UK and Cowley Publications, US.

Top image: A composite of an illustration of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, from © Shutterstock.com, I.D. 39066727, and a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer added. 

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