February 9, 2014 Session 10. Why Should I Trust the Bible?
The Point: The only safe place to build your life is on God‘s Word.
Introduction. Many people acknowledge the value of the Bible, but affirming its value does not mean they build
their lives on it … or that they even find it reliable. Skeptics want to dismiss Christianity, saying it is based on a
flawed document. If the Bible is flawed, then how can we trust it for matters of eternal significance? But the Bible
continually shows us its trustworthiness and reliability, and we can trust it in all matters.
The Passage: Psalm 119:1-8,137-144.
The Setting: Psalm 119 is not only the longest psalm, but it is longer than 30 entire books in the Bible. It is
comprised of 22 stanzas, and each stanza begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. What‘s most
important is what this acrostic psalm does: it lifts up the wonders and perfections of God‘s Word. The psalm points
us to the benefits we receive as we rely on the truths of Scripture.
Psalm 119 is a love poem written about the Law of God. The psalmist wanted to be creative, so he
began each stanza with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph, Beth, Gimel, and so forth. As if that was
not creative enough, he then arranged each verse of each stanza to begin with that stanza‘s particular letter.
Though not as long as Homer‘s Odyssey, Psalm 119 is the longest poem in the Psalms, and it poetically
extols the virtues and practical value of the Word of God. It portrays God‘s Word and law as the
determining element in all realms of life.
The psalm appears to have been written in a time of persecution, perhaps during a period when
idol worshipers were in charge and the worshipers of Yahweh were on the run (vv. 8,139,141,143,153154). In spite of his pain, the psalmist esteems the Law of God ―as his most precious treasure (vv. 72,127),
as the source of his joy and delight (vv. 16,24,47,70 and often), as the goal of his knowledge and the
standard of his conduct in life (vv. 12,26,64,68), and as the object of his love (v. 47).‖1 The psalmist
certainly had a love affair with the Word of God. Employed in almost (but not quite) every verse of the
psalm is a synonym for the Torah, such as dabar ("word, promise") mishpatim ("rulings"), & etc.
From collected sources.
It does not state in its title that it is a psalm of David, but tradition holds that King David used it to
teach his young son, Solomon, the Hebrew Alep bet. We don‘t know that to be true. Of its authorship,
We believe that David wrote this Psalm. It is Davidic in tone and expression, and it tallies with
David's experience in many interesting points. In our youth our teacher called it ‗"David's pocketbook,'" and we incline to the opinion then expressed, that here we have the royal diary written at
various times throughout a long life. No, we cannot give up this Psalm to the enemy. ‗"This is David's
spoil.'" After long reading an author, one gets to know his style, and a measure of discernment is
acquired by which his composition is detected even if his name be concealed: we feel a kind of critical
certainty that the hand of David is in this thing, yea, that it is altogether his own.
137 You are righteous, Lord, and Your judgments are just.
138 The decrees You issue are righteous and altogether trustworthy.
139 My anger overwhelms me because my foes forget Your words.
140 Your word is completely pure, and Your servant loves it.
141 I am insignificant and despised, but I do not forget Your precepts.
142 Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your instruction is true.
143 Trouble and distress have overtaken me, but Your commands are my delight.
144 Your decrees are righteous forever. Give me understanding, and I will live.
Judgments (v. 137)—Favored by the prophets, this word referred to a verdict in a court of law. Here
it refers to God‘s decisions about right and wrong.
Decrees (v. 138)—This word refers to covenant stipulations and is often translated testimony. God‘s
decrees bear testimony to what is true.
Precepts (v. 141)—A precept is a properly appointed principle, a mandate, a line for covenant living.
Instruction (v. 142)—Also translated Torah, this word was used to describe a statute, the Ten
Commandments, and even the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch.
Psalm 119 is a love poem written about the Law of God. The psalmist wanted to be creative, so he began
each stanza with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph, Beth, Gimel, and so forth. As if that was not
creative enough, he then arranged each verse of each stanza to begin with that stanza‘s particular letter.
Though not as long as Homer‘s Odyssey, Psalm 119 is the longest poem in the Psalms, and it poetically
extols the virtues and practical value of the Word of God. It portrays God‘s Word and law as the
determining element in all realms of life.
The psalm appears to have been written in a time of persecution, perhaps during a period when idol
worshipers were in charge and the worshipers of Yahweh were on the run (vv. 8,139,141,143,153-154). In
spite of his pain, the psalmist esteems the Law of God ―as his most precious treasure (vv. 72,127), as the
source of his joy and delight (vv. 16,24,47,70 and often), as the goal of his knowledge and the standard of
his conduct in life (vv. 12,26,64,68), and as the object of his love (v. 47).‖1 The psalmist certainly had a
love affair with the Word of God.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of our culture today. Though the Bible was once regarded as a
reliable source of principles for life and even government, it is no longer. People often say, ―You can‘t
trust the Bible. After all, it has been changed so many times over the years. And it is disproved by
science.‖ Nothing could be further from the truth. Of all the ancient manuscripts considered trustworthy
by scholars, the Bible is the best-attested and most reliable work in existence today. And where history and
the Bible seemed to disagree, further archaeological study has repeatedly vindicated the Bible. Where
science and the Bible seem to be in conflict, there is either a misunderstanding of the Bible, or science still
has more to learn.
However, one need not prove the Bible, for the Bible proves itself. Biblical principles guided our
Founding Fathers as they created the greatest form of government in history. Not only that, but lives built
upon the principles in Scripture are like sturdy steel ships that safely sail the stormy seas of life. To a
person skeptical of God‘s Word, one could reply, ―Try it; you‘ll like it.‖
(See group plan.) How can we determine right from wrong in our pluralistic culture where different
religions and truth systems muddy the waters and the prevailing opinion is that there are no absolute
standards of right and wrong? The psalmist answered: You are righteous, Lord. Righteous simply means
morally right, correct, or proper. In old cop movies, they used to refer to righteous shootings by which
they meant that the shootings were done ―by the book.‖ Everything God does is by the Book, for He wrote
the Book. In fact, one of the unifying themes of the Bible is that God is the standard of rightness in the
universe. Therefore, His judgments and decrees are altogether trustworthy. We can build our lives upon
them, for they are right.
The psalm writer apparently lived in a time much like ours, when people had forgotten God‘s words.
When God‘s people ignored their God to follow the gods of the land, things got uglier than a city dump on
a muggy summer day. He may have lived at a time when the worship of Baal led to temple prostitution,
and the worship of Molech led to child sacrifice, all so that these false gods would make the worshipers
successful. The psalmist refused to fit in or follow the crowd; instead, in anger he cried, Your word is
completely pure, and Your servant loves it.
In a society sold out to idols, the psalmist felt insignificant and despised, a flickering candle in a cave
of inky blackness. But he refused to reject God‘s ways. Why? He knew that God‘s righteousness is an
everlasting righteousness. God is eternal, so His character is eternal. That means His righteousness is
eternal. And since God is eternally right, then His instructions are eternally true. God‘s principles of right
and wrong can always be trusted in any age. The psalmist recognized what was right and wrong in the
garden of Eden was still so in the days of Abraham, in the days of Moses, and in his day as well.
Jesus reaffirmed the permanence of God‘s righteousness in God‘s Word when He said, ―Don‘t assume
that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. … For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not
the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished‖ (Matt.
In defiance of what God says is right in His Word and in accordance with what they see on TV and in
the movies, our culture says that premarital sex, living together outside of marriage, and abortion are
acceptable and right. And many believers in the church have agreed, declaring by their actions and
endorsements of these sinful behaviors that God‘s Word is old fashioned and outmoded. Like a beaver
dam blocks the flow of a mountain stream, by word and by deed we need to place our lives squarely in the
middle of the stream of culture pouring our way and say ―God‘s Word is right and our culture is wrong.‖
God‘s people who live by God‘s laws have always had trouble in a godless world. The writer of Psalm
119 was no exception. Trouble, perhaps from idol worshipers in the land, had overtaken him much in the
same way a lioness might run down a sick gazelle. Elijah the prophet gave us a snapshot of the kind of
trouble idol worshipers can make for God‘s people. He cried out to God, ―I have been very zealous for the
Lord God of Hosts, but the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed
Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life‖ (1 Kings
Galloping quickly behind trouble was distress. The former came from his circumstances, but the latter
came from his heart. Anxiety and fear erupted out of his heart and upon his life like Mount St. Helens
erupted upon Washington state. What did he do? The psalmist clung to God‘s commands, and they became
his delight. Do not miss this. God‘s Word, which had made him different from the world and had resulted
in his persecution, proved to be a source of joy.
How could the Word of God produce joy in the midst of persecution? First, in God‘s Word we hear
God‘s voice. Over and over again the prophets declared, ―Hear the word of the Lord.‖ Paul wrote in 2
Timothy 3:16, ―All Scripture is inspired by God.‖ The Scripture is the product of God‘s Holy Spirit
working through men, and is profitable. The Scriptures are God‘s Word, and in God‘s Word we hear God‘s
voice, and God‘s voice brings healing. Psalm 107:20 says, ―He sent His word and healed them; He
rescued them from the Pit.‖
Secondly, God‘s Word produced joy in tough times because God‘s decrees are righteous forever. The
entire world may be wrong, but God‘s Word is always right. When everyone is giving all of the wrong
answers for the problems and challenges of life, when God‘s people know God‘s Word, they know the
right answers. Do you remember in school when you knew the right answer? Do you remember how good
(See group plan.) The writer‘s prayer (v. 144) reveals an important truth about walking with God. Give
me understanding, and I will live, he prayed. He did not pray, ―After I have studied Your Word and figured
it out, then I will live.‖ Instead, He asked God to give him understanding. Proverbs 2:6 reminds us that
―the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.‖ And Paul said, ―Now God
has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of
God. … We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the
Spirit‖ (1 Cor. 2:10,13).
It is one thing to learn facts and backgrounds about the Word of God; it is quite another to understand
what God is saying to His people. Over the years I have bumped into unbelievers who had read the Bible
and used it to try to disprove Christianity. I have also run into many more believers who could quote the
Word of God with their lips but who denied the Word of God with their untransformed, worldly lives.
Therefore, whenever a believer opens the Bible, whether to read it or to study it, we should join the writer
of Psalm 119 in praying, Give me understanding, God, and I will live.
1 How happy are those whose way is blameless, who live according to the Lord‘s instruction!
2 Happy are those who keep His decrees and seek Him with all their heart.
3 They do nothing wrong; they follow His ways.
4 You have commanded that Your precepts be diligently kept.
5 If only my ways were committed to keeping Your statutes!
6 Then I would not be ashamed when I think about all Your commands.
7 I will praise You with a sincere heart when I learn Your righteous judgments.
8 I will keep Your statutes; never abandon me.
Where can a person find happiness—in a job? in a car? in a relationship? The psalmist said happiness
comes when a person‘s way is blameless because he lives according to the Lord‘s instructions. Living
obediently to God‘s decrees results in a happy life for two reasons. First, a blameless life removes the
problem of unresolved guilt. Psychiatrists spend much of their time trying to help their clients deal with
the guilt of what they have done in the past for which they both need forgiveness and need to forgive
themselves. Secondly, obedience leads to happiness, for it opens the door to God‘s presence. Unconfessed
sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:1-2), but turning away from our sins and turning back to God‘s ways
makes it possible for us to walk in God‘s presence (1 John 3:24). David declared, ―You reveal the path of
life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures‖ (Ps. 16:11).
The psalmist knew that happiness comes from obeying God‘s Word; indeed, he knew God commanded
His precepts be diligently kept. However, the psalmist also knew he could not do it perfectly. He failed,
and that caused him shame. When I tell people how to become a Christian, one of the things I have to get
them to see is that everyone sins, including them. I like to say, ―I am a pastor, but I still mess up.‖ When
he thought about how he failed, the psalmist was ashamed. Our failures call forth a similar response from
However, for Christians who have been made right with God by grace through faith in Jesus (Eph. 2:89), when we agree with God that what we did was wrong, our sin will be forgiven, and our shame will be
removed. ―If we say, ‗We have no sin,‘ we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess
our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness‖ (1
The psalm writer wanted to be able to praise God with a sincere heart, which could be translated, an
upright or honest heart. He wanted to praise God from a heart that was right with God. However, the only
way he could pull that off was to learn God‘s righteous judgments. In fact, he said three verses later, ―I
have treasured Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against You.‖
As believers, we need to daily seek Him with all [our] heart (v. 2). One way to do that is to study and
obey His statutes. You might start with Matthew 5–7, which reveal how believers behave in God‘s
kingdom. Then spend some time in Romans 6–8, which examine our sin problem and how to overcome it.
Then wade into Ephesians 4–6 and learn how to have godly relationships in the church, in the home, and
at work, and how to put on the all-important armor of God that is needed to defeat the devil. Happy are
those who daily seek God in the pages of His Word.
Years ago I worked for a man whose house was built on the shore of a channel that poured into the San
Francisco Bay. Over the years, the sidewalks around the house had sunk almost two inches from the level
of the house as the soil settled, but the house remained where it had been established, perfectly level and
plumb. The secret? Before he built his house, my boss had sunk concrete pilings down through the sandy
channel soil to the bedrock below, then he built his house upon those pilings. If we want to be happy, we
need to build our lives upon a solid and dependable foundation. The author of Psalm 119 described God‘s
Word as solid bedrock upon which we can build our lives. Jesus could have had Psalm 119 in mind when
He said, ―Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man
who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house.
Yet it didn‘t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock‖ (Matt. 7:24-25).
Building our lives upon God‘s Word certainly works, for it will lead us to happiness like a laser
targeting system will lead a missile to its target. However, just because it works does not make it right. In
our world, people often feel that if it works for me, then it must be true for me. However, what works for
me might not work for you, so for you, it is not true. For example, telling lies might work for you, because
lies on your resume got you a job, and lies to your boss got you a promotion. Therefore, is lying right in
spite of what the Bible says (Prov. 12:22)? Of course not! However, some say the Bible might work for
you, but it does not work for me; it‘s true for you but not for me. Yet God‘s Word truly is the only safe
place to build our lives, and it is true for everyone!
Jesus said that a thief comes only to steal, to kill, and to destroy, but He came so that people might have
life and have it in abundance (John 10:10). Outside of the church and inside, people are searching for
something to make life work, to make it happy. Some turn to entertainment, but that happiness is fleeting,
ending with the next commercial or the end of their favorite TV show. Others build their lives upon
success and the possessions they then can buy, but there is always something else to buy, and a rampant
recession and runaway unemployment will cause that foundation to crumble. God‘s Word really is the
only safe place to build your life, for those who live according to the principles found therein experience
reliable happiness and eternal truth.
1. Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press,
Live It Out
Psalm 119 calls us to move from abstract generalities to concrete realities about the Bible. Honoring God
means personalizing and applying His commands. Making God‘s Word foundational begins with a
commitment to read, study, and meditate regularly on Scripture. Most of us have a plan for our retirement
years. Yet very few Christians have specific plans for making God‘s Word the foundation of their lives. It‘s
not too late to begin.
As you think about what God has taught you during this session, consider at least one of these
application steps this week that can help you build your life on God‘s Word.
If you have never read the Bible on a daily basis, begin with the Gospel of John. Start at the beginning
and read for 10 minutes each day. Don‘t rush. Take your time and allow God‘s words to sink into your
spirit. Pray for a receptive heart and for help to be consistent.
Develop a Bible reading and study plan. What time of day? (Yes, every day.) How long? (At least 15-20
minutes with a goal of increasing to 30 minutes.) What resources will I use? (Study Bible, Bible
dictionary, other Bible translations, journal, etc.).
Disciple a new believer by helping him or her develop a lifelong habit of Bible study. Meet regularly to
study together, and encourage him or her to be involved in a small group Bible study.
Judgments—Judgments in verse 137 translates the Hebrew word mishpat. The Bible reveals a God who is
just and righteous. His actions, therefore, are judgments based on His justice. Other translations include
―laws‖ (NIV) and ―rules‖ (ESV).
Decrees—The Hebrew word ‘edah is often translated ―testimonies‖; here in verse 138 it is rendered decrees.
Like many of the words in Psalm 119, these two words are similar in meaning.
Precepts—The Hebrew word piqqud, rendered precepts in verse 141, is found throughout Psalm 119. The
English word refers to a principle or command stated as a general rule of action.
Instruction—Instruction, in verse 142, is the Hebrew word torah, which is usually translated ―law‖ (KJV,
NIV, ESV). The term is used for the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, but here, as in
many other biblical uses, it refers to God‘s commands.
The Setting—Psalm 119 has several features that set it apart. As is true if the Book of Psalms as a whole,
Psalm 119 is written in poetic form with nearly every verse being an example of parallelism. The psalm is
the longest chapter in the Bible. It has 176 verses arranged in 22 separate stanzas, with eight lines in each
stanza. It is written in an acrostic style; that is, each of the 22 stanzas begins with a successive letter of the
Hebrew alphabet, and within each stanza all of the lines begin with the same letter. For example, if it were
written in English, the first word would begin with the letter A. Each of the other lines in that stanza also
would begin with the letter A.
We do not know exactly when Psalm 119 was written, nor are we sure about the writer. A wide variety of
people have been suggested as possible writers. The names include David, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, Ezra,
Nehemiah, Malachi, and Daniel. However, reading this long psalm shows us the kind of person who wrote
it. The writer had to cope with some difficult situations and some bad people. The situations, however, did
not overwhelm the writer. He found his strength in the Word of the Lord. He used a wide variety of words
to describe this divine Word that support the point of the session. The three important terms in the point are
―His Word,‖ ―rely,‖ and ―transform.‖ ―His Word,‖ of course, refers to the written Word of God, which we
have in the Bible. Second, Psalm 119 shows how biblical truth can be relied on. Third, it emphasizes the
character of God and how He causes transformation to take place in our lives.
The focal verses for this session from Psalm 119 are from the 18th stanza (vv. 137-144; indicated by the
Hebrew letter Alef or Aleph) in your Bible. The amount of time available for a Bible study session forbids
looking at all 176 verses of Psalm 119 in one session.
But it would be helpful if you read the entire psalm as background. If you do this, you will be aware of
some familiar verses from the psalm that clearly point to God‘s Word as the subject of the psalm.
Overview of the Whole Psalm (119):
Dr. Luther and Hilary, and other excellent men, think that here a compendium of the whole of theology is
briefly set forth: for the things which are said, generally, about the Scripture, and the word of God, and
theology, are helpful to the examination of doctrinal questions. In the first place, it speaks of the author of
that doctrine. Secondly, of its authority and certainty. Thirdly, it is declared that the doctrine, contained in the
Apostolic and Prophetic books, is perfect, and contains all things which are able to give us instruction unto
everlasting salvation. Fourthly, it affirms the perspicuity of the Scripture. Fifthly, its usefulness. Sixthly, its
true and saving knowledge and interpretation. Lastly, it treats of practice; how, for instance, the things which
we are taught in the word of God are to be manifested and reduced to practice, in piety, moderation,
obedience, faith, and hope, in temptations and adversities.—Solomon Gesner, 1559–1605.
Names given to the Law of God:
The things contained in Scripture, and drawn from it, are here called,
1. God‘s law, because they are enacted by him as our Sovereign.
2. His way, because they are the rule both of his providence and of our obedience.
3. His testimonies, because they are solemnly declared to the world, and attested beyond contradiction.
4. His commandments, because given with authority, and (as the word signifies) lodged with us as a trust.
5. His precepts, because prescribed to us, and not left indifferent.
6. His word, or saying, because it is the declaration of his mind, and Christ the essential, eternal Word is all
In all in it.
7. His judgments, because framed in infinite wisdom, and because by them we must both judge and be
8. His righteousness, because it is all holy, just, and good, and the rule and standard of righteousness.
9. His statutes, because they are fixed and determined, and of perpetual obligation.
10. His, truth or faithfulness, because the principles upon which divine law is built are eternal truths.—
Names given to the Law of God
The next peculiarity to be observed in this Psalm is, the regular recurrence of nine characteristic words, at
least one or other of which is found in each distich, with one solitary exception, the second distich of the
12th division. These words—law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgments, word, saying,
and a word which only twice occurs as a characteristic—way.
These are, doubtless, all designations of the Divine Law; but it were doing a deep injury to the cause of
revealed truth to affirm that they are mere synonyms; in other words, that the sentiments of this compendium
of heavenly wisdom are little better than a string of tautologies.
The fact is, as some critics, both Jewish and Christian, have observed, that each of these terms designates the
same law of God, but each under a different aspect, signifying the different modes of its promulgation, and
of its reception.
Each of these words will now be examined in order, and an attempt will be made to discriminate them.
1. ―Law.‖ This word is formed from a verb which means to direct, to guide, to aim, to shoot forwards. Its
etymological meaning, then, would be a rule of conduct, a κα
. It means God‘s law in general,
whether it be that universal rule called the law of nature, or that which was revealed to his Church by Moses,
and perfected by Christ. In strictness, the law means a plain rule of conduct, rather placed clearly in man‘s
sight, than enforced by any command; that is to say, this word does not necessarily include its sanctions.
2. ―Testimonies‖ are derived from a word which signifies to bear witness, to testify. The ark of the
tabernacle is so called, as are the two tables of stone, and the tabernacle; the earnests and witnesses of God‘s
inhabitation among his people. Testimonies are more particularly God‘s revealed law; the witnesses and
confirmation of his promises made to his people, and earnests of his future salvation.
3. ―Precepts,‖ from a word which means to place in trust, mean something entrusted to man, ―that is
committed to thee‖; appointments of God, which consequently have to do with the conscience, for which
man is responsible, as an intelligent being.
4. ―Statutes.‖ The verb from which this word is formed means to engrave or inscribe. The word means a
definite, prescribed, written law. The term is applied to Joseph‘s law about the portion of the priests in Egypt,
to the law about the passover, etc. But in this Psalm it has a more internal meaning;—that moral law of God
which is engraven on the fleshy tables of the heart; the inmost and spiritual apprehension of his will: not so
obvious as the law and testimonies, and a matter of more direct spiritual communication than his precepts;
the latter being more elaborated by the efforts of the mind itself, divinely guided indeed, but perhaps more
instrumentally, and less passively employed.
5. ―Commandments,‖ derived from a verb signifying to command or ordain. Such was God‘s command to
Adam about the tree; to Noah about constructing the ark.
6. ―Judgments,‖ derived from a word signifying to govern, to judge or determine, mean judicial ordinances
and decisions; legal sanctions.
7. ―Word.‖ There are two terms, quite distinct Hebrew, but both rendered ―word‖ in each of our authorized
versions. The latter of these is rendered ―saying‖ in the former volume of this work. They are closely
connected: since out of twenty-two passages in which ―word‖ occurs, in fourteen it is parallel to it, or in
connection with, ―saying.‖ From this very circumstance it is evident they are not synonymous.
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The term here rendered ―word‖ seems the Λογος, or Word of God, in its most divine sense; the
announcement of God‘s revealed will; his command; his oracle; at times, the special communication to the
; is the oracle in the temple. In this Psalm
it may be considered as,—
(1) God‘s revealed commandments in general.
(2) As a revealed promise of certain blessings to the righteous.
(3) As a thing committed to him as the minister of God.
(4) As a rule of conduct; a channel of illumination.
8. As to the remaining word ―way,‖ that occurs but twice as a characteristic word, and the place in which it
occurs must rather be considered as exceptions to the general rule; so that I am not disposed to consider it as
intended to be a cognate expression with the above. At all events, its meaning is so direct and simple as to
require no explanation; a plain rule of conduct; in its higher sense, the assisting grace of God through Christ
our Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. John Jebb, 1846.
ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND READING:
The WORD A Description
By Kevin Hall, professor of religion and occupies the Ida Elizabeth & J. W. Hollums Chair of Bible at
Oklahoma Baptist University, Shawnee, Oklahoma.
MANY A BELIEVER has been inspired by the psalmist‘s statement—―Thy word is a lamp unto my feet,
and a light unto my path‖ (Ps. 119:105; KJV). This significant description of God‘s Word is part of a
meditation that provides a rich tapestry of images that give insight into the practical relevance of the Word.
Thus, an exploration of Psalm 119 yields multiple descriptions of God‘s Word that taken together broaden
and deepen our understanding of God‘s communication with His servants.
Significance of the Terms
The main term Hebrew employed by Psalm 119, and by all parts of the Old Testament for that matter, for the
Word of God is torah, customarily translated as ―law.‖ But whereas the English word ―law‖ implies a legal
standard organized and recorded in legal texts and precedents, the Hebrew word torah connotes the broader
idea of teaching or instruction. Also adopted as the name of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah is
comprised of a careful blend of legal material, history, and narrative. This blend implies that God‘s torah or
instruction for His people is inseparable from life lived with and under God. Thus, the apostle Paul could
challenge his opponents who desired to be under the law to hear the law by calling their attention to the
Genesis story of Abraham‘s two sons (Gal. 4:21-31).
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Likewise, Psalm 119 can begin its meditation on God‘s torah by comparing it to an undefiled walk or
lifestyle (v. 1).1 Significantly then, we see the great lawgiver Moses resisting the Lord‘s call because he was
not an eloquent speaker. In response, the Lord promised to teach Moses what to say (Ex. 4:12).
Psalm 119 employs no less than seven other terms to clarify and enrich our understanding of God‘s Word.
Each represents a facet of God‘s torah; collectively they emphasize the depth and breadth of the Word.
After torah, the second most frequent term is dabar, normally translated as ―word.‖ Though it may seem to
be a general term, dabar reminds us of the creative power of the God who speaks ―in the beginning‖ (Gen.
1). The term emphasizes that the truth of God‘s Word exists from the beginning and for all time (Ps.
Like an effective ruler, God leads by righteous ―judgments‖ (Hebrew, mishpatim; see v. 7). Being a term
commonly used to describe the way of a king (see 1 Sam. 8:11), this synonym for the Word draws us into
consideration of the kingdom of God, a kingdom established on the foundations of righteousness and justice.
The character of God‘s Word as witness is also on display. God‘s testimonies (Hebrew, edah) bear witness
to God‘s covenant with God‘s people and are a source of delight to the psalmist (Ps. 119:24).2
―Commandment‖ (Hebrew, mitzvah) implies authority. God‘s Word comes as commands for us to obey. Yet
the psalmist seeks God‘s commandments with his whole heart (see vv. 4,10).
When we speak of a word ―carved in stone,‖ we evoke the permanence of the record. The Hebrew term
choq (―statutes,‖ vv. 33,112) draws from the ancient Near Eastern practice of stone inscriptions to speak of
the permanence and binding character of God‘s Word.
Along with the permanence of God‘s Word is the Word‘s aptness for the particularities of life. Thus, God
speaks in precepts, words displaying God‘s attentiveness to the details of the lives of God‘s people.3
Derived from the verb ―to say,‖ the final torah imrah may be a synonym for the more common Hebrew term
for ―word‖ dabar. Even so, the psalmist can hide such a saying in his heart (v. 11), perhaps implying
something akin to a personal promise that ―strikes the right balance between the general and particular‖
character of the Word.4
Important Images and Themes
In addition to the basic torah terms, Psalm 119 develops a description of God‘s Word according to various
images and themes. These images and themes emphasize the faithfulness of the Author of the Word.
Further the images stress the practical benefits that readers receive from these faithful expressions of God‘s
will and purpose.
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Foremost among the images of the Word is that of a lamp or light upon the path (v. 105). The notion that
keeping the law is akin to walking in the way of the Lord or staying on the right path runs as a thread not
only through Psalm 119 (see. Vv. 3,9,15,33-35). It also stands at the beginning of the psalter (Ps. 1) and
guides many of the biblical meditations on wisdom (see Prov. 1:15; 2:20). Thus, the psalmist aptly
compares the revelatory power of God‘s Word to that of a light illuminating one‘s steps along a path. Even
understand as statutes inscribed in stone, the Word provides a way of life and a path to follow (Ps. 119:3335).
The justice of God‘s Word is another important theme. Numerous times the psalmist cries out for relief from
unjust circumstances, seeking the just rulings and dealings Judge (vv. 121-22,134,137,153-54). Even when
the psalmist‘s affliction is deserved, he is able to rely on the Lord‘s judgments (v. 75-77).
As is often the case in the wisdom writings of the Old Testament, images of prosperity, wealth, and riches
abound in Psalm 119. The psalmist openly confesses to delighting in the way of God‘s testimonies as he
would in all wealth (v. 14). God‘s commandments, treasured above even the finest gold (v. 127), represent
such a purity of pursuit (v. 140) that desire for God‘s Word actually deters the psalmist from covetousness (v.
In addition to being the delight of the psalmist, God‘s Word serves as his counselor (v. 24). Often in the
ancient Near East, counselors served kings, giving all manner of advice (see 2 Sam. 15:32-34; 17:1-14).
guided by God‘s counsel that gives understanding even to the simple (Ps. 119:130), the psalmist can
envision himself speaking before kings without shame (v. 46).
In the final analysis, however, the liberty the psalmist seeks (v. 45) comes in recognition of his need of God‘s
commandments as he lives as God‘s servant (v. 176). As God‘s servant keeping God‘s Word, the psalmist
finds life (v. 17). He even shares the fellowship of service with all of heaven and earth and each generation
Perhaps the ultimate image applied to God‘s Word by Psalm 119 is the image of breadth. Believers often
consider the perfection of the Word; but the psalmist, having seen an end of all perfection, remains yet
captivated by the unsurpassed breadth of God‘s commandment (v. 96; see Ps. 18:19). Forever settled in
heaven and a word for the ages (119-89-90), the Word of God, God‘s Torah, is worthy of continual
meditation and yields unparalleled understanding (vv. 97-99). The psalmist affirms what believers have
found through the centuries. God‘s Word is a lamp, and it is far more.
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The Canonization of the Scripture
By Thomas D. Lea, professor of New Testament, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth.
THE CHRISTIAN CANON is a list of those books that the church has regarded as divinely inspired and
authoritative. The concept of ―canon‖ entered English through a Greek word kanon, which originally
referred to a straight rod used as a rule. The term appears in Galatians 6:16 and in 2 Corinthians 10:13 with
the meaning of a rule or standard that God has given to His people. A church father of the fourth century,
Athanasius of Alexandria, appears to have used it first in this way.1
When the church agreed on the limits of Scripture, the Bible itself came to be seen as the rule of faith. Thus,
the canon for the church is that list of books that is uniquely the source of the faith and practice of the
For over 16 centuries the Christian canon of Scripture has been closed. Believers do not expect any future
additions to the canon, nor do they expect any of the present canon to be removed. Warnings concerning
either adding to or taking away from the inspired books are a part of both testaments (see Deut. 4:2; 12:32;
Rev. 22:18). However, we must not use these warnings to prevent either the practice of close textual
examination to determine the proper text of Scripture or the production of contemporary translations to make
the Bible more understandable.
The Old Testament contains 39 books in the English translations, but in the Hebrew Bible we find 24 books,
arranged in 3 divisions. The first division is the Law, containing the first 5 books of the Bible, Genesis
through Deuteronomy. The second division is the Prophets. This is subdivided into the Former Prophets,
which are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; and the latter Prophets, which are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel,
and the Book of the Twelve Prophets. The last book contains the prophecies of Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah,
Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The final division is the
Writings, containing Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther,
Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The Books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah all
are reckoned as single books in the Hebrew divisions.
The time of appearance of this threefold division is not known. It is believed widely that the grandson of
Jeshua Ben Sira referred to it when he translated his grandfather‘s book of Ecclesiasticus from Hebrew into
Greek about 130 BC. He used the phrase ―the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers.‖2
Several sources of information give insight about the development of the Old Testament canon. The Greek
version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint ([sep-TOO-ah-gent]; shown by the symbol LXX,
supposedly the number of translators who worked on it), became available sometime after 250 BC. Some
have suggested that the canon of the Alexandrian Jews who produced the Septuagint was wider than that of
the Palestinian Jews.
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The reason why some think that the Alexandrian canon was larger is that Greek-speaking Christians, who
took over the Greek Old Testament, also took over the Greek versions of some other books. Among these
were the books written later known as the Apocrypha, including Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon,
Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and some additions to Esther and to Daniel. Some do not feel
that there is sufficient evidence to prove that the Alexandrians had a different canon.3
The Jewish historian, Josephus, writing in the late first century AD, also provided evidence of the extent of
the Jewish canon. In his writing, Against Apion, he referred to the 5 books of Moses, the 13 books of the
prophets, and the 4 books that ―contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life‖ (1.8). In
giving a total number of 22 books, Josephus probably added Ruth as an appendix to Judges, and
Lamentations as an addition to Jeremiah.
Some believe that Josephus transferred the Books of Job, Esther, Daniel, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah
from the writings to the prophets. It is possible that the four books of Josephus‘ third division are Psalms,
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.4
The discoveries made at Qumran, northwest of the Dead Sea, in the years since 1947 have provided
additional information about the development of the Old Testament canon. All the books of the Hebrew
Bible except Esther appear among these texts. The Qumran documents only contain fragments of such
books as Tobit, Jubilees, and Enoch, literature that is not in the usual listing of canonical writings. The
inhabitants of Qumran left no clear list of the books they regarded as Scripture, but they probably agreed
with the Pharisees and Sadducees about the extent of Old Testament Scripture.
References to the Old Testament in the New Testament also help to establish limits of the Hebrew Old
Testament. Jesus frequently appealed to the Hebrew writings to support His mission, His words, and His
actions. His reference to Isaiah 61-1-2 as a prophecy about His life and ministry (see Luke 4:18-21)
indicates this practice. New Testament writers used the term Scripture in reference to the Old Testament
(John 10:35) and sometimes other terms such as the Law (John 12:34) and the law and prophets (Matt.
5:17). Luke 24:44 makes reference to the threefold division of the law, the prophets, and the psalms.
After the collapse of the Jewish nation in AD 70 some of the Jewish rabbis set up their headquarters at
Jabneh or Jamnia in western Judea. In the late first century AD and the early second century they Guided
and ratified the customary limits of the Old Testament canon. After much debate they finally accepted into
the canon the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Song of Songs, and Ezekiel. They ultimately rejected
the book of Ecclesiasticus. Their discussion did not create public opinion but only confirmed or ratified
what the Hebrew faithful already accepted.
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The New Testament canon contains 27 books produced over a period of just over 50 years. The Bible of the
early church was the Old Testament. Christians who wrote the books of the New Testament had little idea
that they were producing a new group of holy books. Their primary intent was to meet needs in the lives of
their readers. Several stages are important for the collection of New Testament books.5
In the period from the time of the apostles until AD 170, early Christian leaders shared copies of apostolic
writings with those who did not have these writings. Christians increasingly treasured the words of Jesus
and the writings of the apostles. ―Quite early the desire to have the benefit of all possible instruction led to
the interchange of Christian writings.‖6 These early collections were not the same as a collection of
canonical writings but were preliminary to it. References to the thought of the actual writings often are
incomplete, but there definitely is an acceptance of the substance and truthfulness of the writings.
A writer whose letters give insight to the development of the canon at this point is Clement of Rome, who
used material found in Matthew, Luke, Hebrews, and Romans, with some traces of 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and
Ephesians. The writings of Ignatius use language from nearly all of the Pauline writings.
Two factors were significant in the development of Christian literature in this period. First, the civil
government gave its increasing attention to Christianity because of its rapid growth. Second was the growth
and spread of heresies in the churches. About AD 140 Marcion came to Rome and began attacking the
church. Part of his heresy was to accept as Scripture only a heavily edited version of the Gospel According
to Luke and 10 of Paul‘s letters. He rejected the rest of the New Testament writings. His rejection of books
that others held sacred caused the church to select those books that it regarded as canonical.
In this period the concept of a New Testament canon clearly is present. Debates about its extent persisted.
Irenaeus, a firm defender of the truth, made reference to the New Testament as a source of his authority. He
accepted the four Gospels, Acts, the Pauline epistles, several Catholic epistles, and the Apocalypse.
Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria took essentially the same position. The geographical distance between
these men is wide enough to indicate that their views prevailed throughout the Christian world. Irenaeus
lived in Lyons, Gaul (now France) and Tertullian lived in North Africa.
The Muratorian Fragment, discovered in 1740 by the librarian of Milan, L. A. Muratori, dates from the near
the end of the second century AD. It accepts the authenticity of all books of our present New Testament with
the exception of Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and James, which it does not mention.
The noted Christian scholar, Origen (about AD 185-254) had extensive knowledge of, and was acquainted
with, opinions held throughout the early Christian world. Thus, his views about the extent of the New
Testament collection are important. He accepted the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, and Acts without
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He was uncertain of the authorship of Hebrews, but accepted it as Scripture. He accepted the apostolic
authorship of the Revelation and gave a sure witness to Jude. He was uncertain about James, 2 Peter, and 2
and 3 John.
The noted church historian, Eusebius (AD. 270-340), distinguished three categories of books—universally
acknowledged, disputed, and spurious. In the first category he place the Gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul,
1 John, 1 Peter, and the Revelation. He regarded Paul as the author of Hebrews and thus accepted its
genuineness. In the category of disputed books he included James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. In the
category of spurious writings he included such works as the acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the epistle
of Barnabas, and the teachings of the Apostles, also known as the Didache. No works from the last category
appear in our canon of 27 books.
At the Council of Carthage in AD 397 the complete number of 27 books received designation as canonical.
Just as the Jewish conclave at Jamnia between AD 90 and 110, this council did not determine public opinion,
but only ratified what long had been accepted by the majority of congregations.
The early church used several criteria to determine prospective canonical writings. First, they demanded
that a book originate from an apostle or his associate. Such Gospels as Mark and Luke were accepted
because they were believed written under the influence of Peter and Paul, respectively. James and Jude were
admitted because their writers were believed to have been members of Jesus‘ immediate family.
A second criterion was antiquity. The writing must have been produced during the apostolic age. Writings
of a later date had some merit and devotional interest, but they did not receive the acceptance of earlier
writings. This requirement led to the omission of the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache.
A third criterion was orthodoxy. It was necessary for the book to follow the faith as explained by the
apostles. A writing such as the gospel according to Peter was excluded when heretical contents (such as
implying that Jesus did not really suffer) appeared in it.
A fourth criterion was catholicity. The document had to be acknowledged by the greater part of the Christian
church. Many of Paul‘s letters started with only local acceptance, but the passing of time earned for them
acceptance by a larger portion of the church.
Inspiration is the process by which the writers of Scripture received the ability to express God‘s message in
words. Those books believed to have been inspired by God were accepted as canonical. After the church
had recognized the present 27 books in the canon, it became easy to recognize that their inspiration made
them different from all other books.
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