“Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.” (He, Ps119:37)
If you’ve ever read through the whole 119th chapter of the book of Psalms, you have no doubt encountered, and may have even been exhausted a bit by, the repetitive phrase “according to Your word”. I have been tempted myself to gloss past the phrase (and others like it) to get to the “meaty” bits, the words that are fresh and new.
Throughout years of personal Bible study, however, I have learned a couple of connecting principles:
- Every word in the Bible is important and earns what I call “valuable real estate” in the whole of scripture. There is nothing wasted, word-wise.
- When anything is repeated (usually 2-3 times in the Hebrew pattern of emphasis), it is worth slowing down and checking it out. There is something meant by the repetitions, but they are easy to look past. Slowing down and doing a bit of tedious word, language or culture study, can unearth layers of meaning. Of course, the scripture makes plain sense without the intense study, but what treasures are there for those who will spend the extra time!
There are actually a few different words that are translated “according to” in the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, written initially in Greek, the word is κατά and is found in the gospel of Luke in the beautiful expression of Mary at the Anunciation: “Behold, [I am] the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38a, KJV). This Greek word means “down, against, down from” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, #2596), or “properly, down from, i.e., from a higher to a lower plane, with special reference to the terminus (end point)” (J. Thayer), or “a preposition denoting motion or diffusion or direction from the higher to the lower as in classical Greek,…” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Okay, filter and combine and you get the idea that Mary says, in effect, “May it happen to me here below as God on High designs it to be.”
Now, all that word study didn’t change the basic easily understood meaning of the text. Any reader gets that Mary is submitting herself to her LORD, bowing before Him as His willing servant, even at cost to herself. What is really brought forward, however, is that “from on high to us below” direction—a loving condescension of God’s favor on Mary, and Mary’s reception of it in grateful praise. This is a heavenly connection of the Immutable Holy One to the frail, simple, willing mortal in a loving unity of God’s purpose, a relationship of the utmost intimacy.
There are other instances in the New Testament; for example in Luke 1:18, it’s application (according to meaning #3c), “denotes reference, relation, proportion”, “agreeably to; in reference to agreement or conformity to a standard in various ways”, “with what criterion”. This gives a bit of a different flavor—something is being compared to and aligned with a ruling standard. Yes, it does take a bit of being still and thinking (“chewing”) on it a bit, but it is all there. And as I begin to understand the nuances of these meanings, I become more aware of the depth of God’s purpose and His insistence that we comprehend what is absolutely crucial to our welfare.
But our passage (all of Psalm 119) was originally in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament writers. What words did they use that translates into our modern “according to [thy word]” English?
Psalm 119:1 leaves off the “according to” (“those who walk ‘in the law’ of Yahweh”), so “according to thy law” (Strong’s #3451 torah, “direction, instruction, law”) means to be IN the instruction or commands of the Lord, or within those boundaries. The opposite is to be lawless, or ‘outside the law’ of Yahweh.
Psalm 119:9, 25, 65, 107, and 169 use a word that denotes the entire phrase “according to thy word” at once—”word” being in this case Strong’s #1697 Hebrew dabar, “speech word ‘to speak’, or “according to God’s commands in general” (Brown-Driver-Briggs). Psalm 119:37 uses the Hebrew expression “in your way” (Strong’s #1870 Hebrew derek, “way, road, distance, journey, manner”). In both of these, the “according to” preposition is implied; it means being within the boundaries of God’s expressed, vocal communication, and in or on the path or manner that God has laid out.
In both senses, God has made Himself extremely clear where we are to be in our lives. He has spoken and he has shown us the way that we are to live and think and relate to others and Himself. Those who live “according to” this expressed instruction receive the blessings found in the surrounding context of the passages. Those who don’t, do not.
Can I tax you just a bit farther? It will be quick. Psalm 119:41, 58, 76, 116, 133, and 154 use the term imrah (Strong’s #565 Hebrew), which is an ‘utterance of speech’, but only once is it translated as “by/according to your word” (see v133); the other instances it is translated “according to your promise“. God has not only spoken and shown us His expressed, Sovereign will for now, He has also called us to live according to that which is not yet. God has promised good things, and we are to live according to, or in relationship with, those promises. What promise is implied in the second half of 119:37 (above)? When is the last time we really thought about living like His promises are really true and applicable in our lives today? How would today be different?
Finally, Psalm 149 and 159 (and possibly one other that I may have missed) use the Hebrew checed (Strong’s #261), which means “goodness, mercy” and is often translated as “according to your love” or “according to your mercy”. Brown-Driver-Briggs defines this term as “[goodness and mercy] of God, kindness, lovingkindness in condescending to the needs of His creation”, specifically lovingkindness “in quickening spiritual life”. There’s that downward direction thing again in the definition: condescending from Holy Heaven to sinful selves in order to bring life.
God talks to us about living according to, or in alignment with His own mercy and love toward us. As He invigorates our spiritual life for our growth (i.e., tending like a Master Gardener to “the needs of His creation”), we are called to live according to His master design. We are called to be living, growing, beloved creations, fashioned in His own image. We are called to be like Him in His love. That’s not descriptive of a rules-centered Pharisaical God—that is the heart a loving and wise Father.
Now, maybe this whole word-study thing is a belabored venture for some. The Holy Scriptures are written so that ALL may read and understand the full counsel of God for salvation and growth in holiness, no special energy or education needed*. But honestly, didn’t it make you really just s-l-o-w down a bit and really drink in the full meaning of these passages more than you would have otherwise?
“According to” means “in line with” or “inside the boundaries of” or “as has been modeled or commanded or otherwise expressed” from Sovereign God down to mortal man in great, great love. It is love which drives the command, and it is all for our good that we live “according to” God’s design for us individually and corporately. This phrase shapes all of the message of Psalm 119.
Challenge: Print out Psalm 119 in its entirety. Highlight in yellow marker every instance of “according to” and contemplate the meanings in a fresh way. You can use the listings above to help. Then read Peter 2.
Pray with me?
Dear Heavenly Father, how little I appreciate the thoughtful care you have taken to communicate to us all that is good and safe and kind. You gave your word through the prophets and through the written scrolls, and you gave your Word as a visible gift to us in Jesus Christ. You sacrificed Your Word on the cross in order to satisfy the cost of our sin, and to empower us to live in the restoring evil-defeating power of Your Resurrection. But if I don’t ever read your Word, I can’t live within the wisdom and power of it; I cannot receive the blessings that you hold out for me in it through the power of Your Holy Spirit. I am left vulnerable, defeated and in pain and wondering why. How many times have I asked, “Where are you, Lord?” and you have had your counsel explicit for me within my reach the entire time! I know I am not alone. So many are asking ill-informed questions, waiting on the wrong criteria for eternal decisions, and suffering so needlessly. Sometimes I still rebel at what I fear are confining “rules” of do’s and don’ts, only to find in the end that Your way is always total freedom and pure joy. You Shepherd us by leading us in various ways: sometimes by green pastures, and sometimes by dangerous cliffs, but always leading us safely home inside the safety of the gates. Help me to see You as my Father, my Shepherd, and my Wise Counselor as well as my Savior and Lord. Help me and those who are suffering today to be willing and content to live “according to Thy Word”. For Your glory alone, Amen.
I have a wonderful treasure, a gift from God without measure, And so we travel together, My Bible and I. I have a wonderful Savior, He took me into His favor, Governs all my behavior, Since I made Him mine. -- Children's song, author unknown (Hymnary.org)
- All the references used in this blog post were easily obtained from BibleHub.com, a fantastic resource for anyone, all for free! You too, can peruse the Bible more deeply whenever something puzzles you in the scriptures. Don’t pass it over! Dive in and squeeze the goodie out of it. Listen as the Holy Spirit speaks life to your soul.