READ : Psalm 119:1-176
I’m sure you know at least one love song written to a person, but can you imagine a love song that was written about a book?
The 119th Psalm is the longest chapter in the Bible. Each of its verses mentions the Word of God in some way, using a variety of synonyms such as “law,” “statutes,” “precepts,” “commandments,” “testimonies,” – eight different ones in all. For example, when the psalmist says in verse 97, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long,” the word law is the Hebrew torah. That’s the Jewish name for the first five books of the Bible. But its basic meaning is “teachings,” and torah is also used to refer to the entire written word of God. So for us today, as we read the 119th Psalm we can apply every one of its 176 verses to the Bible.
The structure of this poem is complex. It consists of 22 eight-verse stanzas, one for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the original, each stanza begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, and each verse within that stanza begins with that same letter. Thus, in the first stanza, every verse begins with “A,” in the second stanza, with “B,” and so on. It must have taken a lot of imagination for the psalmist to write!
No doubt one reason for Psalm 119’s elaborate structure was to enable devout worshipers to memorize it more easily – although I can’t imagine doing that myself! But more important than the structure is the wonderful theme of this massive Psalm. It is all about the incomparable word of God.
A Love Song to a Book
Believers have always recognized the Bible to be God’s Word. Everyone knows love songs that have been written to people. But listen to how our ancient Hebrew poet sings a love song to the Bible:
Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. . . . To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless. Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. . . . Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. . . . The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. . . . All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal. . . . I hate and abhor falsehood but I love your law. . . . May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous.
(Psalm 119, selected verses, niv)
Now whether the psalmist calls it God’s law, his word, or his commandments, he is talking about the scriptures, the written Word of God. This has come to us in complete form in the book we call the Bible. To the psalmist the Bible was unlimited perfection, all its words were righteous and true, and it was more to be desired than anything else on earth, more precious than gold.
The same understanding of the Bible, the same attitude toward it, is evident in the New Testament. The apostle Paul, for example, said that all scripture, even though it was written in human words and came from the pens of various authors, nevertheless was inspired by God:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17, nrsv)
Peter confirmed this view when he said that the Bible came to be written as “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21, niv).
And Christians of all ages and places have agreed that the Bible, unlike any other book on earth, is uniquely the Word of God. John Wesley spoke for every believer when he wrote these words, which he called “the inmost thoughts of my heart”:
I want to know one thing, the way to heaven: how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book! Oh, give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me.
(John Wesley, from the Preface to his Collected
So here is the issue: Is the Bible “the book of God,” as Wesley calls it? Or is it merely another human book, a collection of interesting stories and ancient myths that shares the limitations and imperfections of every other human writing? If the Bible is just a human book, we might find it useful or even inspiring. We might even choose to adopt some of its precepts and try to live by them. But basically we would decide how much of the Bible to accept. We would take it or leave it as we please, or take some parts of it, the ones that appeal to us, and discard other parts. But if the Bible is God’s Word in written form, then we must accept it – all of it – and believe it, and obey it. If it is nothing more than an ancient human book, we can judge the Bible. But if it is God’s word in written form, the Bible judges us.
YOUR WORD IS TRUTH
Evangelical Christians believe this question of the unique nature and universal authority of the Bible is one of the most critical issues facing people today. Do we believe what the psalmist and apostles did about the Bible, or do we believe something else? To the psalmist, the Bible was an utterly reliable guide. “A lamp to my path,” he wrote, “and a light to my feet.” The Bible was those things because it was true. The Bible came from God – through the minds and personalities of the human writers God chose to write it. Each writer contributed his own unique human perspective and insights, but always as he was moved along by the impulse of God’s Spirit. Because of this, we say that the Bible is “inspired” (literally, “God-breathed.”) Therefore the Bible’s words are true, that is, they always correspond accurately with reality. “Your word is truth,” exclaimed Jesus (John 17:17). The Bible never misleads us or gives us false information. It is utterly reliable and trustworthy in everything it intends to teach.
Because it is true, because it comes from God, this Word has authority, the very authority of God himself. It must be followed and obeyed (Psalm 119:9-16, 129-130). The Bible is useful, wrote the apostle Paul, “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” What that means is that we don’t make up what we want to believe about God. We don’t choose religious truth for ourselves. We don’t decide right and wrong behavior by majority vote. No. Christians are people under authority. The Bible, not speculative thought, teaches us the truth about God, Christ, salvation, the church, and every other religious belief. The Scriptures also define moral truth: questions of right and wrong. The Word of God arouses our conscience and shapes our living. It sets us straight when we go off-course morally. It is indeed a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It always shows us the right way to go in our walk with God.
You may be wondering, “Can the Bible really do this?” More basically: can I trust it? If I accept it, believe it and do what it tells me to do, will the Bible lead me to God? Well, there’s only one way to find that out, and that brings me to my final point.
“OPEN MY EYES”
Here is one other thing the psalmist asks in Psalm 119: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (v. 18). That prayer points toward a final, crucial truth about the Bible: it doesn’t work the same for everyone. All the wonderful things it contains – the spiritual beauty, the divine power, the God-revealing, soul-saving, life-changing truth – aren’t equally obvious to every reader. It is entirely possible to read the Bible, even to read it through from cover to cover, without seeing any of these things. Many people have done exactly that. They open the Bible, read a little in it, and put it aside with a shrug. They read the story of Jesus in the gospels, and to them, it’s no different than reading a novel. Jesus is no more real for them than Huckleberry Finn or Winnie-the-Pooh. To them, the Bible really is nothing more than an ancient human book. They see no good in it, at least no ultimate good. They don’t find God there.
The problem with those who read the Bible in this way is that their eyes are closed. All of us are spiritually blind by nature. We are not alive to God. We don’t perceive his presence around and above us, either in the world of creation or in the words of scripture. The apostle Paul describes the normal human condition this way:
They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.
That’s a very strong statement. In that verse from Ephesians 4 Paul outlines a chain of connected events that occurs in people who don’t know God. He states the end result first: they are separated from God and darkened in their understanding about him. But that happens because first they harden their hearts against God – they turn away from him, they resist his love, they give themselves to alternative gods. They choose against God. And as a result of that they become ignorant about him, and therefore separated from him. So the end of the process is that they are “darkened in their understanding.” It’s as if a black cloud fills people’s minds and thinking, so that they could not find and know God even if they wanted to, apart from his help.
I don’t mean that human beings are completely blind to all truth and beauty. Even if they don’t know God, people can still know and do many things. They can appreciate the worlds of nature and art. They can discover the secrets of science and history. They can study the Bible, and some of them even write scholarly books about it! People who are spiritually blind can still understand the words and sentences of the Bible, at least on a grammatical level. But what they can’t understand, apart from the supernatural work of God’s Spirit in opening their eyes, is the truth about God himself. What they can’t see is the beauty of God, the glory of Jesus Christ, the attractiveness of pure and holy living. What they can’t find in the Bible is the presence of the living God, who causes those who believe in him to be born again to eternal life.
So we need to have our eyes opened continually. We need to pray, “Lord, as I open your book, open my eyes to see your truth and your beauty, to see your reality.” Christians need to pray that just as much as anyone else. We all have a tendency to slip back into the old worldly ways of hardening our hearts and closing our eyes. So we need God’s Holy Spirit to illumine us, to flood our minds with the light of God’s truth and awaken us to his surpassing beauty. We need to pray like the psalmist: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.”
Should you read the Bible? Definitely, every day! But as you read, you should also pray, “Lord God, show me your truth, your beauty, yourself, so that I may know you, worship you, and enjoy you forever!” When you do that, you too will fall in love with the Book.