Looking at the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as I reflect on these sections of the acrostic Psalm 119 makes me long to learn Hebrew. I’m sure a Hebrew scholar could point out many connections that my language-deprived brain misses.
Simply knowing the letter’s definition opens new realms of meaning. The seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Pe (or Pey) means “mouth” and implies expression.
That meaning peaks in verse 131:
I open my mouth and pant,
because I long for your commandments.
What an expression of desire! Do I long for God’s commandments so intensely that desire steals my breath until I open my mouth and pant?
Let’s look at this verse in the context of its “Pe” section:
Your testimonies are wonderful;
therefore my soul keeps them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.
I open my mouth and pant,
because I long for your commandments (129-131, ESV).
The section begins with praise for God’s wonderful word, closely followed by a covenant-keeping confession. As God commands, the psalmist loves God’s word with all his heart, mind, and his soul. For him, keeping God’s commands isn’t a matter of mere emotion (heart) or sterile doctrine (mind); it is a comprehensive and full-orbed obedience that permeates even the most integral aspect of being: the soul.
Because this covenant keeping begins in the soul, it brings light to the mind and gives wisdom to the simple. And it generates an emotional longing so palpable that the psalmist compares it to hyperventilating.
The next four verses are a series of petitions:
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
as is your way with those who love your name.
Keep steady my steps according to your promise,
and let no iniquity get dominion over me.
Redeem me from man’s oppression,
that I may keep your precepts.
Make your face shine upon your servant,
and teach me your statutes (132-135, ESV).
Notice the progression of the petitions. The psalmist asks God to turn and be gracious because that’s how God acts toward those who love him. Then he specifically requests that God will keep him from sin, asking God to steady his steps and prohibit sin’s dominion.
Once the psalmist has acknowledged God’s gracious dealings with his people and his own propensity toward sin, he begs for redemption from oppression. And as we’ve noted earlier, redemption is always for a purpose: to keep God’s precepts.
The psalmist then seeks the favor of God’s blessing. Notice that this a two-fold request. He first asks God to shine his face upon him, but he joins that with a request to teach him his statutes. We may long for God’s face to shine upon us, but we ought to always link that longing with learning.
This section concludes with a highly visual depiction of the weeping psalmist:
My eyes shed streams of tears,
because people do not keep your law (136, ESV).
We see the psalmist weep. Streams of tears flow from his eyes because so many people do not keep God’s law.
We live in a broken world. Is your heart broken over your own sin and the sin of others? Do you shed real tears when you see God’s law broken?
May we all open our mouths and pant with longing for God’s word! May we keep that word with all our hearts, minds, and even our souls! May we weep when we see God’s law broken and pray for God’s grace to all of us wretched sinners.