Today we will be looking at the topic of vigilance, and how the quality of our walk with God will be directly proportionate to the amount of time we spend with God understanding and meditating on his commands. But just which commands are the most fruitful to focus our time and energy on?
In one of the most famous (and the longest) chapter in the Bible, we can gain some understanding of this principle.
Psalm 119:133 – Make my steps secure through your words, and do not let any wrongdoing control me.
Psalm 119:148 – I am awake through each watch of the night to meditate on your words.
If we take the immediate, surface meaning of each verse, we can see that abiding by God’s words makes our steps secure, they are firm and established on right principles. When we take the right steps, we will not be allowing any wrongdoing to control us; our sinful actions will be brought under the authority of the words of God.
Additionally, we can see the vigilance with which the psalmist illustrates the frequency with which we should be associated with the words of God. He states that he is “awake through each watch of the night” to meditate on God’s words.
Now a watch of the night is generally considered to be three hours, such as 6-9 pm; 9-midnight; midnight to 3 am; and 3-6 am. Of course, these are estimates since timekeeping devices were rude and not as accurate as our timepieces today. However, through the use of gravity water clocks or other visual star-based tools, general timekeeping could be maintained throughout the night and defined these various watches.
Regardless of the method, the result is that the psalmist relates how passionate he is to mediate on the commands of God, “through each watch of the night.” That is a commitment that few of us may realize today.
Now beyond the surface meanings which we can take away from these verses, I found an interesting underlying principle in the use of the Hebrew text where the word is translated either as word, or commands, or promise of God. Now, to me, these all have different meanings, so I wanted to try to understand more fully the intent of what is being described here and how it applies to the surface meaning we just discussed.
Now some of the English versions will translate the Hebrew for “words” as “promise,” as in “Make my steps secure through your promise…” However, as the the Keil and Delitzcsh commentary states: “imrah is not merely a “promise” in this instance, but the declared will of God in general.”
Is the “declared will of God” the same as the word of God?
I think we use the term “word of God” a bit loosely in our modern vernacular, meaning anything from the whole Bible, to a specific text, to the name of Messiah, to a personal prophecy one claims to receive. In my own writings, I will typically interchangeably use Word or Word of God with Torah, or the instruction of God. But in this case, I think we need to refine this distinction a little further.
When it comes to good and fruitful Bible study, I find it really helps to define terms and to follow those terms throughout various passages to see how they are applied and what kind of contexts they occur in. When we simply assume what a phrase means, we can many times inadvertently assign the incorrect meaning to a passage.
Looking at the two verses in Psalm 119 where this term occurs, it is actually a Hebrew phrase (beimratecha) that only occurs in this form in these two verses. The first is how following it keeps us firmly away from wrongdoing, and the second is that if we are passionate about it, we will meditate on it at all times.
Now Hebrew words have base forms that establish a root of a word, and most times we can gain a broader understanding of a word or passage by looking at the root word in different contexts. In this case, the root for beimratecha is imrah. We saw how the Keil and Delitzsch commentary defined this as the “declared will of God.” Yet, when we look at how imrah is used in other contexts, we begin to see a different emphasis. Here are some examples:
Genesis 4:23 – Lamech said to his wives: Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, pay attention to my words [imrah]. For I killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.
Deuteronomy 32:2 – Let my teaching fall like rain and my word [imrah] settle like dew, like gentle rain on new grass and showers on tender plants.
Psalm 17:6 – I call on you, God, because you will answer me; listen closely to me; hear what I say [imrah].
First of all, we can notice how these examples having nothing to do with the word of God per se, but with the spoken words of each of these individuals: Lamech, Moses and David. So this word imrah gives us the idea of speech or spoken words.
Every other instance of this Hebrew root-word imrah relates to to the word or words of God, and almost all occur throughout the psalms.
In one sense, we know that all true prophecy is ultimately from God, however, it was spoken (and written down) by men, even spoken by Yeshua.
2 Peter 1:20-21 – Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Hebrews 1:1-2 – Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, he has spoken to us in his Son…
This fascinates me, and makes me think of what words were specifically spoken by God, what words are the result of God’s actual speaking to his people?
I think you may know where I am going with this, because there are only a few specific instances where it is said God spoke decisively to the assembled group of people at once, where they directly heard the voice of God: Sinai and in the ministry of Yeshua.
Let’s look firstly at Sinai.
Exodus 20:1 – Then God spoke all these words: [and the passage goes on to list the Ten Commandments].
This incredible revelatory event freaked out the people so much that they begged for Moses to receive the instruction from God and relate it to them, but not for God to speak to them any longer.
Exodus 20:19 – “You speak to us, and we will listen,” they said to Moses, “but don’t let God speak to us, or we will die.”
This instance of God speaking directly to the entire congregation has a large emphasis throughout Hebrew thought even to this day. Jewish rabbinic lore even suggests that after every commandment spoken by God, the whole congregation physically died, and God brought them back to life each time. There are also legends that say all the people actually saw the voice or the soundwaves of God’s voice, and that it reverberated through the entirety of their bodies, through every atom or molecule.
While we may view these legends as fanciful embellishments to the story, they nevertheless present a basis for understanding just how significant an event this was in the life of Israel, and indeed, the world. God spoke directly to them, and the words he spoke were the Ten Commandments.
If we now revert to our study of the word imrah and view these passages as focused primarily on the spoken words of God, we find that the “word” that the psalmists focus on as being the primary way of keeping from sin is the spoken instruction of God: the Ten Commandments.
Psalm 12:6 – The words [imrah] of Yahweh are pure words [imrah], like silver refined in an earthen furnace, purified seven times.
Psalm 18:30 – God – his way is perfect; the word [imrah] of Yahweh is pure. He is a shield to all who take refuge in him.
These instances of God’s spoken word make an interesting study. If we consider that the primary instruction that is spoken of as being the meditation of the righteous and the ensuring of avoiding sin is the Ten Commandments, we can see that an in-depth appreciation and ongoing evaluation of God’s words to his people has much benefit. The Ten Commandments are the basis of all of God’s word to his people, and the path to life that even Yeshua speaks of when asked of a bystander.
Matthew 19:17-19 – “‘… If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ ‘Which ones?’ he asked him. Yeshua answered: ‘Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Yeshua validates the keeping of the imrah, the spoken words of God that were known to his audience, but what of the other spoken words of God? The gospels reveal some other instances that we can also draw inspiration from.
At the beginning of the public ministry of Yeshua, John the baptizer received a sign that Yeshua was the One whom he had the privilege of revealing to Israel.
John 1:32-34 – And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and he rested on him. “I didn’t know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The one you see the Spirit descending and resting on – he is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ “I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.”
The text is not clear that everyone else also saw the Spirit of God descending on him, but Matthew, Mark and Luke make it clear that God did make a spoken announcement at the same time to ensure everyone knew of the significance of Yeshua.
Matthew 3:16-17 – When Yeshua was baptized, he went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice from heaven said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Mark 1:10-11 – As soon as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”
Luke 3:21-22 – When all the people were baptized, Yeshua also was baptized. As he was praying, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in a physical appearance like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”
So, these examples are from the beginning of Yeshua’s ministry and establish validity for the works and teaching of Yeshua over the course of the next three and a half years.
There still remains another instance where the spoken word of God is mentioned, and that is at the conclusion of Yeshua’s ministry.
John 12:26-30 – “If anyone serves me, he must follow me. Where I am, there my servant also will be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. “Now my soul is troubled. What should I say – Father, save me from this hour? But that is why I came to this hour. “Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Yeshua responded, “This voice came, not for me, but for you.”
If the voice from heaven in these instances was indeed the voice of God heard by the assembled people, then it brings great significance to both the beginning of Yeshua’s ministry and the conclusion of it, validating who Yeshua was and also foretelling the glory that would be realized through his soon-coming crucifixion and resurrection.
This imrah or spoken words of God regarding his Son Yeshua presents a strong witness to the ministry of Yeshua and gives great weight to his teachings. In fact, Yeshua himself said repeatedly that he only taught whatever the Father instructed him to say.
John 12:49-50 – “For I have not spoken on my own, but the Father himself who sent me has given me a command to say everything I have said. “I know that his command is eternal life. So the things that I speak, I speak just as the Father has told me.”
John 14:10, 24 – “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who lives in me does his works. … “The one who doesn’t love me will not keep my words. The word that you hear is not mine but is from the Father who sent me.
If we agree that the teaching of Yeshua is the teaching of the Father, then I submit that the greatest summary of the Father’s teaching that Yeshua provides us is in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua admonished his hearers that all stumbling-blocks to righteousness must be removed from their lives with extreme diligence. He uses the powerful imagery of going to the extent of cutting off body parts to maintaining purity and vigilance in obedience to the commands of God if necessary (Matthew 5:29-30).
This level of vigilance now brings us full-circle to the meditation on the imrah or spoken words of God throughout the watches of the night, as the psalmist suggests. Vigilance involves extreme dedication exemplified by staying up all night to study and meditate, or to remove body parts that are used in sinful activities. It’s not that these are actual physical things that we could realistically do, but it’s having the same sense of tenacity and passion for the spoken words of God to do so in striving for obedience to God in all things.
This is why I conclude that the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are the core of the Bible message; these are the two primary sources of the purest instruction from God that we have recorded for us in the Bible.
The principal ideas conveyed in these passages is that the word of God establishes our way, makes a firm place for us to walk when we are struggling with the vanity of our own efforts. It implies that, left to our own ways, we will ultimately exhaust ourselves, panting breathlessly with those things that have the sum value of zero in the end.
By contrast, God’s word through the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount protects us, directs us, establishes us in the correct paths that we may remain faithful and fruitful for God’s kingdom. Let’s remember the surface teachings of the two primary verses in Psalm 119: When we take the right steps, we will not be allowing any wrongdoing to control us; our sinful actions will be brought under the authority of the words of God. By aligning our lives by the admonition of God through these passages, we can experience the life that God has designed for mankind since the beginning of time, and so his Kingdom can be realized in real time on the earth.
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