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03 June 2013

Psalm 119.11:
Keeping in our hearts what God said.

I keep in my heart what you’ve said,

so that I won’t go astray from it.

Psalm 119.11 KWL

Decades ago I memorized this in the King James Version: “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” There’s a Christian song which has it as its chorus; and years later I found a hymn which also had it as its chorus. (One of my professors liked to sing it in chapel for us, once a semester. Brilliant guy, lovable character, but terrible singing voice. He sounded like Chewbacca from Star Wars. Still, God listens to the heart, not the vocal cords.)

In context, this verse is part of Psalm 119, the longest psalm (and longest chapter) in the bible. It’s a massive acrostic (each verse in each eight-verse bunch starts with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet) dedicated to God’s Law and how great and useful it is.

It’s a psalm Christians tend to skip through. We’ll quote this verse, and a few other memorable ones like it, and ignore the rest. It’s because this love for the Law isn’t how many Christians nowadays think it. Not at all. We ignore the Law ’cause we think, through grace, Jesus did away with it. We read Psalm 119, look at the verses about meditating on God’s principles and regarding his ways, (119.15) and disregard the fact that these principles are the principles from the Law; these ways are the ways God spelled out in the Law. We think of them as more generic principles and ways—you know, good behavior, righteous living, Christlike forgiveness—and never any of God’s specific commandments. Because those don’t count anymore.

Well, the psalmist didn’t think of the Law that way. He saw it as grace. God, in his grace, loved his people, and rather than let them live as slaves in Egypt, ignorant of how he wanted them to live, gave them his Law. In exactly the same way that God, in his grace, loved his people, and rather than let us live as slaves to sin, ignorant of how he wants us to live, gave us Jesus. Both are acts of grace. Both are forms of God’s revelation. Both are works of God’s love.

So the psalmist put God’s imrát/“saying”—the things God’s said, namely his commands and prophecies—in his heart. And as the ancients understood hearts, we realize he put it in his mind. He memorized it. He made it a part of him. His goal, as he said, was so he wouldn’t ekhetá/“go astray,” or as more folks tend to translate it, “sin.” He wanted God’s messages to stay at the forefront of his mind.

Most bibles tend to translate the second line, “So that I won’t sin against you.” That’s correct; it does say that. But the “you” it refers to isn’t actually God. Both “God” and “the LORD” are masculine-form words, yet in line 2, the “you” is feminine. (Few languages have a different masculine or feminine word, or word-ending, for the second-person singular “you.” Hebrew does.) The “you” in line 1 is a masculine “you,” and obviously refers to the LORD. The psalmist is addressing more than one “you.” There’s a male “you,” God; and a female “you.” Who’s the female “you”?

It’s actually imrát/“saying.” Two of the words for “saying” in Hebrew are the feminine “imrát” and the masculine “emér”/“omér.” The feminine form appears 37 times in the bible. The masculine form appears way more often: 5,439 times. Now, why’d the psalmist use the much rarer feminine form? So he could refer a male “you” and a female “you” in the same sentence, and not mix them up. The male “you” is the LORD. The female “you” is what the LORD said. The psalmist doesn’t want to go astray from “you”—meaning the LORD’s saying.

Yeah, the LORD’s saying reflects the LORD’s will, and technically going against God’s saying is the same as going against him. Even so: The psalmist wanted to make that very fine distinction clear. Our English translations make it muddy. My translation still makes it a little muddy: The psalmist was, after all, addressing the LORD’s saying as “you,” like a person; and in my translation, he doesn’t do that. Still, it’s a little clearer.

Well. Either way, the psalmist has left us a good example to follow: We ought to do likewise, and keep God’s teachings in mind. Not just bury them in the back of our brains, along with all the trivia of our popular culture: Put ’em in the front of our minds, where we can meditate on them and follow them, and not slip away from them.

Other versions.

If you don’t want to memorize my translation, that’s fine. Here are other versions you might want to put in your brain.

Original. Be-lib-bí chafánti imrat-ékha, lema’án lo ekhetá-lakh.

King James. Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.

New Living Translation. I have hidden your word in my heart, / that I might not sin against you.

New Revised Standard. I treasure your word in my heart, / so that I may not sin against you.

English Standard. I have stored up your word in my heart, / that I might not sin against you.