Is Psalm 119 a Love Poem About the Bible? (Part 1)

psalmsYour word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path (Ps 119:109).

Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, has two prominent features. First, it is an acrostic poem. It has 22 stanzas corresponding to the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse within a stanza begins with the appropriate character. Second, nearly every verse of this psalm contains a reference to Torah. The psalmist refers to Torah by various terms which, depending on the English translation, are rendered as God’s word(s), his law(s), precepts, commands, statutes, decrees and promises.

Among conservative evangelical Christians, Psalm 119 has two common and related interpretations. This psalm, together with other passages such as 2 Timothy 3:16 (“All Scripture is God-breathed…”), Isaiah 55:11 (“…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire…”) and Psalm 19:7 (“The law of the Lord is perfect…”), are often used as proof-texts to establish doctrines of the Bible’s divine inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy. Second, this psalm is often used by pastors and teachers to exhort people to read, study, memorize and meditate on the Bible. The psalmist is held up as a positive role model for us to follow in our attitude and approach to Scripture. Psalm 119 is seen as a Christian love poem about the Bible.

Indeed, the psalmist’s relationship to the written word seems to be nothing short of infatuation. Consider verse 48:

I reach out I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees.

Or verse 62:

At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws.

Or verse 97:

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.

Constant study and meditation on scripture is said to yield countless benefits in the life of a believer; it leads to purity, delight, wisdom, strength in the face of opposition, comfort in suffering and trial, the sure promise of salvation, and so on.

Before I continue, please allow me to say this. It is an excellent thing for Christians to read, study and meditate on Scripture. I believe that a life immersed in Scripture, when done in a sensible and proper way, is a truly blessed life. Regular Bible reading, Bible study, Bible-focused prayer, and Bible-focused worship are invaluable spiritual disciplines that draw us into fellowship with God. My intention is writing this article is not to discourage anyone from studying the Bible, but to promote a deeper understanding of Scripture and encourage Christians to approach the Bible with greater care, thoughtfulness, and respect.

Having said that, I will now raise some objections to the traditional understanding of Psalm 119 as a declaration of unbridled love for the Bible.

I have discovered that, as Christians read this Psalm, they often perform a mental substitution. When they encounter one of the synonyms for Torah – God’s word, his laws, commands, precepts and so on – they automatically replace each of those terms with “the Bible.” And without thinking too much about it, they simply assume that the author must be talking about same book that evangelicals refer to as “God’s instruction manual for our lives.” Reading “the Bible” into the verses of Psalm 119 can be helpful up to a point. But it distorts the poem and misrepresents how it would have been understood by the original hearers, because the Bible simply did not exist at that time. The Old Testament as we know it did not exist at that time. Scholars agree that the books of the Old Testament were not arranged into a fixed, authoritative canon until the final centuries before Christ. Even the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) may have undergone some editing during and after the period when this Psalm was composed. The process and timing by which the books of the Old Testament were compiled, edited and fixed is not fully understood. Regardless of how it happened, we may be certain that whenever the psalmist referred to God’s word, God’s commands, God’s law, and so on, he was not talking about the Scriptures that Christians have today. Inserting “the Bible” into each verse of Psalm 119 is an anachronism. It extrapolates beyond the author’s intent. It assumes that whatever role the Torah played in the spiritual life of the psalmist, the Bible should play an equivalent role in our Christian lives today. Whether or not that assumption is correct, it deserves to be recognized and examined.

I believe that the best guide to how Christians are to understand and apply the Old Testament is in the New Testament. Jesus taught his disciples that the Old Testament is all about him (Luke 24:27). The New Testament authors describe Jesus as the fulfillment of the Torah (Matthew 5:17), as the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). I would argue that, if Christians are going to perform a mental substitution as they read Psalm 119, it would be more appropriate to insert “Jesus” rather than “the Bible” into every verse.

Another reason why I resist inserting “the Bible” into every verse of Psalm 119 is that it may promote unhealthy and unbalanced approaches to Christian discipleship. The greatest positive contribution of evangelical Protestantism to the larger Body of Christ has been its high regard for Scripture and its emphasis on Bible study and Bible teaching in community and individual life. But the movement’s strength can also be a weakness. If study of Scripture is emphasized to a degree where other spiritual disciplines and crucial aspects of the Christian life are neglected, believers can get stuck in an overly intellectualized, impersonal, principle-driven and non-experiential faith that substitutes abstract learning for personal transformation. The evangelical passion for Scripture can morph into a kind of Bible-worship that has been called biblicism, Bible-only-ism and bibliolotry.

Disciples of Christ are supposed to model their lives after Jesus, not after the Pharisees, scribes or teachers of the law. Jesus certainly knew the Scriptures. The Old Testament figured prominently in his childhood education, worship, prayer and teaching. But the gospels do not show Jesus or his disciples devoting endless hours to private or classroom-style exposition of the Bible. Jesus modeled a healthy Christian life that kept the necessary spheres of work, study, rest, worship, compassion for the poor and needy, contemplation, recreation, etc. in a healthy balance.

When we approach Psalm 119 – or any other chapter of Scripture – I think it is best to view the passage in light of the great themes of the Bible, in light of the whole sweep of God’s history from and the continuous experience of God’s people from Genesis to Revelation. When viewed in that way, Psalm 119 is much, much more than a love poem about the Bible and an exhortation to study Scripture. I will attempt to explain this in my next installment.


  1. Joe, I am appreciative for this post. It is new and fresh. You made me re-read this psalm immediately – thanks. I agree completely with you about mental substitution. I also agree that we should keep in mind historical context.

    I want to also say that the psalmist is mainly speaking directly to God, The Lord, his Creator – that we can identify as Christians with Jesus. Everything is expressed and often repeated again and again in slight variation and articulation.

    Love for God’s word and commands. Deep vulnerability of weakness to sin and oppressors. Acknowledgment that God is sovereign over one’s life and the only way to be sure of long life and blessed life. There is so much more than limiting ourselves to man made approaches. Once again when comparing Jesus to Pharisees and learned men etc….I am reminded somewhere of a video presented here a while ago. The speaker mocked the elitism and exclusivity that man tries to impose on salvation when Jesus clearly made it open for all who come to him.

    When I read this psalm I am reminded about Jesus’ willingness to accept anyone of us without conditions beyond simply accepting him. When simply reading the psalm I could be reminded that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all that I am dependant on in this walk. I don’t care about what church or organization – most often there will always be more to the application that suffocates us. But with Jesus it is all very simple. We can be vulnerable, humble, thankful, dependant etc….on Jesus.

  2. Joe, after re-reading your essay on worship recently, I have become keenly aware of how I address God and approach God in worship. I’m realizing newly that the beauty of the psalms is that they are primarily directed to God, and are personal conversations or enunciations to God, while much of other scripture seems to be about God, and is less personal. Oftentimes, I find myself talking about God in church, or listening to others talk about God. But these days, I want to talk to God and pray to God in our corporate worship. I understand that the psalms were used by the Jews for their corporate worship, and I think they were used also in the early church if I’m not mistaken. I believe that Bonhoeffer called the psalms the “prayer-book of Jesus” in Life Together. I like this. I like it because the psalms are to God, contain many personal pronouns, and I can borrow the words of the psalmist to make my personal confessions of praise and love and worship to God.

  3. Joe Schafer

    gc and Joshua, thanks for your kind words.

    The administrators of UBFriends (Brian, Ben and myself) have each expressed some desire to move forward and use this website to discuss topics other than UBF. Speaking for myself: I have said just about everything that I need to say about the organization. I do not regret anything that I have written, and anyone who might to listen and consider my perspectives has already done so. The GD knows exactly where I stand, and more words from me are unlikely to sway anyone. It’s now up to the organization leaders to figure out whether and how to address the difficult issues that we have already laid out. Brian expressed his intentions in his previous article. My intention is to post articles that can spawn useful discussion beyond the realm of UBF.

    • Kudos for this effort. I look forward to many useful articles and discussions.

    • Joe, like you I also feel that I have said all I can say about UBF. At best I want to keep fresh comments for younger people who would not participate here but seek answers or insight. That being said, we have enough covered among the articles in the archive.

      I want to see more articles (and I wish to compose them too!) that look at the various books or chapters within the Bible. I also want to have open discussion on the non-canonical books. I am a scholar at heart on Biblical matters but my present circumstance has limited my ability to sit down and do what I want to in terms of reading and research. I have many books and resources in Canada – but not here.

      Recently I expanded on explanation of gnosticism during a group study – referring to the texts. Okay – If we are university students then does it not make sense that some of us have a curiousity about these things. Since they are not in the canon then they should be ignored – I don’t think so. But “such people” always reduce the desire to read to your personal faith. (If you really need to….but I of course do not need to…)

      Personally, if there is a topic, theme, reference or anything that I have not thought about before I am thankful when someone points it out to me. It has nothing to do with building my faith. But maybe it has something to do with the fact that “others” attempt to control and limit what I read. Are we not in error when we read those silly DB books? Anyone of us can read the Bible cover to cover – without a gun to our head. But it is for God alone to speak to us and the Holy Spirit to intervene with our understanding. Instead, those books which recycle the same summaries again and again, stop us from thinking. Instead they tell us what to think and how to understand each passage.

      No, I want to see Christian living or education or even scholarship which opens the door for blasphemous conversations. It is not so much a need for our faith, but certainly a fascination and appreciation for the history and controversy. Hell, even in UBF we have a variety of ideology and theology without looking at the books. Makes talking to people in real life face to face conversations look scary.

  4. Joe,

    Some of the readers here might be saying “So what? Who cares if the word is Jesus or the bible? Same thing.” I used to think like that about all theology issues.

    But a big part of my transformation 2 years ago was something I like to call “butterfly theology” or “outlaw theology”. I realized through many conversations that it really is true: “word = Jesus”.

    The popular notion, especially among Western Evangelicals, is that “word = bible”. John 5:39-41 comes to mind immediately now. The bible is not some sort of spell book, where we gain a magical power simply from meditating on it so much.

    Your article is an excellent look at a much needed topic, which I call “bible idolatry”. This is spot on “I believe that the best guide to how Christians are to understand and apply the Old Testament is in the New Testament. Jesus taught his disciples that the Old Testament is all about him”.

    In regard to Psalm 119, your article prompted me to take a second look at this. I see something similar to what Chris mentioned about God’s flock. The Psalm may seem to be about the law, but the Psalmist seems to me to be infatuated with the Lord, speaking over and over about seeking him, his statutes. So I’d say this is a love/worship of God himself. Just as we might express love for a great author by commending his writings, the Psalmist seems to me to be expressing love for a great God by commending his precepts, statutes, words, etc.

    • Joe Schafer

      Thank you, Brian. Your comment anticipates Part 2. Since I began praying the Psalms a couple of years ago, I wanted to avoid 119 because I kept hearing a voice in my head saying, “Get back to Bible study! Get back to Bible study!” I didn’t know how to process it. Now I feel as though I’m starting to hear God’s voice again.

  5. Another thing Joe, your article might not cause much of a stir here. But among Evangelicals in America, this topic is a “hot button” topic that has caused much heated debate and animosity. There are quite a few Christians who are adamant that the “word = bible” and that we must uphold the inerrant word in our generation. I’m not in favor of such a position, as most of you probably already guessed.

    My newfound virtual friend Joe Machuta loves to talk about this subject. It is part of his thinking behind the article he submitted to us a while back: Finding the key to Real Transformation. JoeM’s blog expresses much of the “butterfly transformation” I’ve been going through, and it was amazing to talk to him on the phone and connect via Facebook. Plus he’s from Michigan originally.

  6. This conversation on facebook (which is public) shows the kind of proof-texting of Bible verses Christians use to enforce their ideas upon others by using the Bible:

    A missionary is trying to say to UBFriends that UBFriends needs to repent of their own sins rather than pointing out the sins of UBF. It is a very interesting exchange. More than anything else, it should teach anyone how NOT to use the Bible.

    God willing, I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to meet this missionary (whom I do not know) and engage him face to face, so that I may love him and embrace him.

    • Ben that discourse from Paul Kim is both hilarious and sad at the same time. Your thoughtful and restrained replies are appreciated. Anyway, Paul’s words are a classic example of what “world class leadership training” and “CME training” will produce :(

    • Ben, I do know him, and he really is a lovable and embraceable fellow. I know that he has experienced many of the authoritarian abuses, boundary issues, etc, that we have discussed here.

    • Joe Schafer

      Except for two comments by Ben, I was the one interacting with Paul.

    • Ah, then I should say “Joe, Your thoughtful and restrained replies are appreciated!”

  7. Just wanted to throw in my appreciation for this article. Thanks Joe. I’ve long viewed Psalm 119 in my evangelical, “love-my-Bible” mentality. But I’ve often wondered how Jesus viewed Psalm 119 when he speaks that all “Scriptures speak of Me.” Seeing Psalm 119 as a love story of Jesus is quite an interesting perspective of reading this psalm and any of the Psalms for that matter.

    How does Psalm 151 speak of Jesus? Haha. Just trying to bring in my Catholic and Orthodox friends here to this discussion…Just provoking another controversy regarding the canonization of Scripture…