Studies in Psalm 119: Obedience and Flourishing

Psalm 119 is perhaps one of the most well-known psalms in the whole Old Testament. It is certainly the longest of the psalms, sitting at 176 verses. The focus of the chapter is the treasure of the Word of God, communicated through the terms “law,” “precepts,” “commandments,” “rules,” “statutes,” and “testimonies.” The psalmist loves the Word of God and sees all the benefits that belong to him as ar result of treasuring that Word. One such aspect is the idea of flourishing. Obedience to the Word of God leads to human flourishing.

It is tempting to believe that, because of the Fall, there is only devastating, destruction, and resistance in this life. Faithful doctrine does teach that labor will be hard and compounded by “thistles and thorns” (Gen. 3:18-19), and that this life will be full of trouble (John 16:33). And yet, the Bible does have something of a theology of human flourishing. The concept is not totally foreign, nor at odds, with the Biblical worldview. The Biblical terms “shalom” and “blessed” focus on aspects of this very idea (for more see Jonathan Pennington “A Biblical Theology of Human Flourishing). Psalm 119 ties this ideas to obedience to the Word of God. The person who is most “blessed,” the person who flourishes, is the one who keeps God’s testimonies (v. 2).

Verses 1-8 give the most clear exploration of this idea. Here we see repeatedly the principle that to flourish requires one to keep the commands of God. We read:

Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!
Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!
You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.
Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules.
I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!

The word “blessed” is hard to transliterate. We often think of it purely in terms of spiritual favor – as in, the person who receives favor from God is “blessed.” That is certainly true and there are numerous passages throughout Scripture that point to this dimension of the concept. The word also communicates the basic concepts of thriving, succeeding in life, and productive living. Psalm 119 demonstrates the relationship between both elements of that concept. So, Jonathan Pennington writes:

Thus, when the Psalms speak of the ‘a re state of the one who meditates on Torah (God’s covenantal instructions), such as in Ps. 119, this is simultaneously a claim that this God-oriented person is in a state of flourishing precisely because he or she is experiencing the most direct means of grace that God has ordained to effect favor upon his people – mediation on God’s self-revelation, or in short, knowing God. So, there is an inevitable, organic relationship between human flourishing and God’s favor or blessing. (The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing)

So, the word “blessed” in this passages carries both the connotations of human flourishing and the connotations of favor with God. In fact, they go together.

For the psalmist, flourishing happens because he walks in the law of the Lord (v. 1). Adherence to the commands of God is the means to living well. He is “blessed” when he keeps God’s testimonies (v. 2). He fleshes that out more clearly by stating that this means doing no wrong, and, again, walking in “His ways” (v. 3). He carries on with this theme of walking in verses 44-45:

I will keep your law continually,
forever and ever,
45 and I shall walk in a wide place,
for I have sought your precepts.

To walk in a “wide place” is to walk with confidence and security. A narrow spot would be tight and the walker would have to be continually on guard not to slip and fall from the path. But a wide place has lots of latitude and encourages a strong and confident walk without fear. The psalmist sees the within the borders of God’s law there is lots of space, and with that lots of confidence and security. In other words, he can flourish on this path.

The Bible as a whole picks up this theme of obedience leading to flourishing elsewhere. We see it, for example, throughout Deuteronomy (Deut. 5:33; 6:3, 18;  When Moses gives the law about sacrifices and worship in Deuteronomy 12 he states:

Be careful to obey all these regulations I am giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the LORD your God. (v. 28)

We see it too in other Psalms (Ps. 1:1-3; 112:1; 128:1). The principle is even applied in general with obedience to parents (see Eph. 6:3, referencing Deut. 5:16). Obedience leads to flourishing.

It is not, of course, true that we can apply this principle as an absolute. Both legalists and prosperity preachers apply it that way and teach us that suffering is always a result of sin. The Bible has a much more robust theology of both suffering and blessing (see Rom. 5:3-5). Obedience does not automatically equal flourishing in every instance, but as a general rule obedience to God’s way is the means to the right kind of “flourishing.”

This principle should make sense to the believer. If God created the world then He is the one who set up the way that it works. He is the one who set up what flourishing within this world should look like. When we attempt to succeed at life apart from Him, then, we are attempting to live in the world in a way contrary to His designs. That will always, eventually, lead to frustration and failure. But to live in the world according to the way of its maker is to find greater flourishing and success. The psalmist knows that and encourages us to experience what he knows: obedience the Word of God leads to human flourishing.

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