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“Holding forth the Word of Life” Philippians 2:16
“Holding fast the Faithful Word” Titus 1:9
How long does the purity of the Word last? Does it last only for one generation, the generation that received the inspired Word? or does it continue to remain holy, perfect, pure, and true, even for the generations to come? There are several scriptural passages that talk about God’s Word being preserved for ever. Psalm 12:6–7 says, “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.” The same thought has been echoed in several other portions of the Scripture. The psalmist in Psalm 119 says, “For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven” (verse 89); “Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever” (verse 152); and “Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever” (verse 160). In Isaiah 40:8, the prophet says, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” The Apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:23–25, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.” In this article, Psalm 119:89 will be discussed in detail.
Psalm 119 is the locus classicus, when it comes to the doctrine of the preservation of the Bible. This is the longest psalm with 176 verses and the most elaborate of the Alphabetical Psalms. It consists of twenty-two groups of eight verses each. The first group has all its verses beginning with the Hebrew letter Aleph, the second with Beth, and so on alphabetically. The Masoretes observed that in every verse of this psalm, except verse 122, there is direct reference to the Word of God, using one of these ten terms: law, way, testimony, precept, statute, commandments, judgment, word, saying, and truth. Along with several themes concerning the Word of God, the psalmist, in this psalm, talks about the nature of God’s Word (see vv. 89, 144, 152, 160). There are several verses that talk about God’s Word as true/truth (vv. 142, 151, 160).
The immediate context (vv. 81–88) is all about comfort from God’s Word in times of affliction. In this section, the psalmist shows how he was comforted by faith in God’s eternal Word while he was under persecution. For that reason, he commends the worth of God’s Word. His commendation of God’s Word is based on four reasons: (1) the stability of God’s Word in heaven (v. 89); (2) the durable usefulness of it in every age of the church (v. 90a); (3) by God’s Word, the earth is established (vv. 90b, 91); and (4) his own experience of deriving comfort and strength from God’s Word in his affliction (v. 92).
The psalmist says, “For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven.” Significantly, the psalmist places “for ever” in the beginning of the sentence, followed by “O LORD” in the vocative, together adding great emphasis to the statement. The adverb “for ever” indicates indefiniteness of time. It is used in relation to God’s everlasting covenant (Genesis 9:16; 17:7, 13, 19; Exodus 31:16), God’s law (Isaiah 59:21; Psalm 119:160), God’s promises (promised dynasty of David: 2 Samuel 7:13, 16, 26), His relations with His people (1 Chronicles 29:18; Psalm 45:17), Messianic reign (Psalm 110:4; Isaiah 9:6), etc. Here it is used to express the extent of the preservation of God’s Word, i.e., “for ever,” a time that is indefinite in its extent. The same adverb is also used in verses like Psalm 12:7; 119:152, 160; Isaiah 40:8; 59:21 (also in 1 Peter 1:23, 25), all referring to the same topic.
That which is settled for ever is “thy word.” What does it refer to? Some people believe that it is “a general designation for God’s communication, whether spoken or written, although the vast majority of its uses have direct application to the spoken, not the written word” (James G. Williams, God’s Word in Our Hands, 90–91). Without much objection, one may accept that “word” could mean word spoken by God since it has “speech” as its lexical meaning along with “word.” However, this in no way minimizes one’s understanding of “word” as God’s written Word because the written Word of God is His breathed-out words.
The prophets in the Old Testament frequently used this word, especially the construct phrase “the Word of the LORD” or its counterpart “the Word of God” to refer to God’s revelation which they received from the Lord and also to that which is already written. (For example, see the superscriptions of the prophetical books such as Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zephaniah 1:1; Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 1:1; and Malachi 1:1; also see 1 Chronicles 17:3.) When the Apostle Peter talks about the written Word of God (“prophecy of the scripture”) in 2 Peter 1:20–21, he refers to it as the Word that was spoken, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
Significantly, the psalmist mentions the other synonyms such as “ordinances,” “law,” “precepts,” “testimonies,” etc. in the same section, all referring to the written Word of God. The psalmist, in Psalm 119, constantly uses these synonyms along with “word” to refer to the written revelation of God.
The psalmist uses the verb “settled”, which has the root meaning of “to set, to put, to place.” It is in passive form (Niphal stem), and hence, “to be put, set.” So, it has the sense of to “be stationed,” and “stand firm.” Then the psalmist mentions the location of God’s Word standing firm, “in heaven.” It is the eternal habitation of the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God.
What does the psalmist assert here? The psalmist affirms that God’s Word is for ever certain and sure because it is for ever set firm in the eternal heaven. Some say that this verse only talks about the “immutability of God’s truth” and nothing has been said about the “durability of the text” (J. G. Williams, 92). No one challenges the fact that this verse talks about the immutability of God’s Word. However, the point here is that this verse affirms more than the immutability of God’s written revelation. As noted earlier, the adverb “for ever” is placed very emphatically in the beginning of the sentence, and with the added locative “in heaven”. By this, the psalmist emphasizes the durability as well. Delitzsch comments on this verse, “Eternal and imperishable in the constant verifying of itself is the vigorous and consolatory word of God, to which the poet will ever cling. It has heaven as its standing-place, and therefore it also has the qualities of heaven, and before all others, heaven-like stability” (Psalms, 254). Plummer adds, “However fleeting, changeable and unsatisfactory are all things merely temporal; yet the word of God is stable, unchangeable and everlasting. It depends upon his truth and faithfulness, and these are so much a part of his nature that if he were without them, he would cease to be God, vv. 89, 90, 91. The divine faithfulness has never failed” (W. S. Plummer,Studies in the Book of Psalms, 1060).
Some people regard what verse 89 teaches to be God preserving His Word primarily in heaven. William Barrick writes, “… God preserves His Word primarily in heaven. God’s revelatory Word is fixed firmly in heaven. Regardless of what might happen to His Word on earth, it is securely preserved in His mind” (“Ancient Manuscripts and Biblical Exposition,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 9/1, 28). It is totally illogical for God to preserve His Word perfectly in heaven and never care about what is happening to His Word on earth. If God is concerned to perfectly preserve His Word in heaven, by the same token, He is also concerned to preserve His Word on earth. What is the point of God having His perfect Word in heaven, and His church on earth having a corrupt Bible! God has given His Word to His people on earth, for their profitability—“for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). Therefore, it is imperative that the church must have all of God’s Word always. D. A. Waite writes along the same line, ‘Some people say, “Well, it is settled in Heaven but not on earth.” But God needs it less than we do; He knows His Word. We are the ones who need it. He is using this verse, Psalm 119:89, to show us that God has given us Words that are settled’ (Defending the King James Bible, 7). The Word that is settled in heaven is also available to the psalmist on earth and for that reason he commends the worth of God’s Word.
Several points can be observed from this verse: (1) this verse begins with an emphasis on the durability of God’s Word, “for ever;” (2) the psalmist then mentions the content, it is “thy word,” the Word of the LORD, the written revelation of God; (3) the verb “settled” explains the nature, it is firmly set; (4) the location is the eternal habitat of the eternal God; (5) the ever settled Word is ever available to men on earth for His faithfulness is unto all generations; and therefore (6) the church on earth has the certainty of every Word of God. For God’s children, this is a comforting thought: they have all of God’s revealed words in their hands. Therefore, they should love His Word and treasure it in their lives by meditating upon it every day and building their lives in accordance with God’s holy oracles.
– Published in Bible Witness, Vol 5 Issue 2 (March – April 2005)