The word in Hebrew that is translated as testimony is עֵדוּת (eduth), and is derived from עֵדe (ed—note that both of these words are pronounced with an “ae” sound in English). Both words carry similar meanings, though the connotations vary somewhat in terms of how they are used.
The first word, עֵדוּת e (eduth), refers to a witness or testimony, but is normally used in terms of legally binding stipulations or laws. The Tabernacle is, for example, called the Tabernacle of Testimony (Numbers 17:4) because they were the home of the tablets of the Ten Commandments. This becomes very pronounced when you get to verse 10 of the same chapter, for Moses is told to put the staff of Aaron before the testimony — ultimately the staff then was kept with the 10 commandments (Hebrews 9:4).
Thus, when Psalm 119 speaks of testimony in this sense, it can be said to be speaking of the Moral Law (10 Commandments). Of course, all of God’s Law — all of the Scriptures even — are connected with the Ten Commandments. This word testimony is found 9 times in the 119th psalm (which should tell us something right there), and is located in verses 14, 31, 36, 88, 99, 111, 129, 144, and 157.
The second word עֵד (ed), is a massively important word in Hebrew and is found 118 times in the Old Testament even though it is not explicitly found in Psalm 119. It refers to the idea of witness in much the same way as the New Testament Greek term μαρτυρία (marturia—from which we get the term “martyr”) is used. This word refers to that witness which confirms the truth to be so. This is one’s testimony of faith before men, for example, as well as being a testimony in a court of law.
The connection between these two words is found in the concept of the covenant of God. God’s covenant with his people is his עֵד (ed), but this עֵד (ed) contains stipulations for those that would be in covenant with our Lord and King. Those stipulations are the עֵדוּת e (eduth) of God.
What is also worth noting is that another word that is derived from עֵד (ed) is the term עֵדַה (edah), which means “congregation,” referring to a gathering of God’s people. God’s people are those that he has put into relationship with himself through his covenant, his עֵד (ed), and regulates through his עֵדוּת e (eduth). All very closely connected. This word is found 14 times in Psalm 119 (vs. 2, 22, 24, 46, 59, 79, 95, 119, 125, 138, 146, 152, 167, 168). So closely are these words and ideas related that in most, if not all cases, when Psalm 119 is translated into English, they have translated it as “testimony” rather than congregation. This is probably a little misleading in the crossover to English, but at the same time, in the context of the Psalm, it appears that the Psalmist is doing much the same thing—wedding together these ideas. Or, to put it another way, the presence of the covenant people of God are God’s testimony to his own covenant faithfulness—his חֶסֶד (chesed—pronounced with a hard “ch” like in “Loch Ness”). The word חֶסֶד (chesed) is variously translated in our English Bibles, but refers to the covenantal faithfulness of God in spite of our covenantal unfaithfulness, and is found 7 times in Psalm 119 (vs. 41, 64, 76, 88, 124, 149, 159) and is often translated as “steadfast love” or “mercy.”
With this in mind, permit me to digress to Deuteronomy 6:4 for a moment, commonly called “the Shema” in Hebrew circles. The bulk of the book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ sermonic expositions of the Ten Commandments, forming a Constitution for the people of Israel. With this in mind, the Shema functions essentially as the preamble to the constitution for the people. In fact, in Judaism, Deuteronomy 6:4 is considered to be the single most important verse in the Bible and the very language that defines them as a people—giving them their national identity. It establishes their relationship with God as a covenant people and reminds them that they are a people who have been given a name, loved as such by their God. It is the first prayer that the faithful Hebrew prays when he wakes in the morning and the last prayer he prays before he goes to bed at night. It is also chanted at the beginning of a traditional synagogue service. What is especially interesting is the way it is written in the Hebrew Bible:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהינוּ יְהוָה אֶהָד
Note that the last letter of the first and last words have been written larger and in bold print. These two letters, when taken out of the verse spell, עֵד (ed) — or witness. In other words, the Shema itself is the witness of the Jewish people to their God, just as the covenant is God’s עֵד (ed) to his people. Lastly, if you reverse the letters of עֵד (ed), you end up with the word דֵּעַ (de’a), which means “knowledge.” Just as fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom (Psalm 111:10), so too is all true knowledge rooted in the covenant of God. Any pursuit of knowledge apart from God’s revelation through his covenant is vanity, Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes.
Covenant is, as we know, the context in which God interacts with his people. On the very first day that Adam was alive and placed in the Garden God established his covenant with Adam and set before Adam the עֵדוּת e (eduth) of the covenant—don’t eat lest you will die-die. The punishments given out after the fall are the consequences of their failure to fulfill the covenant. Genesis 3:15, though reminds us that a Messiah is coming who will redeem his people from bondage to the one who led them into sin. Genesis 15 provides us with a foretaste of what would happen to this divine Messiah, though. In the context, God is confirming his covenant with Abraham and Abraham is sent to divide up the animals and separate them creating a bloody path to walk through. In ancient times, when covenants were made between Kings and their Vassals, they would divide up a group of animals like this, and then the Vassal, as a pledge of faithfulness to the covenant, would walk through the middle of the line of animals as if to say, “if I don’t fulfill my part of the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me also.” Now, some have suggested that there may be evidence that both the king and vassal walked through this line, but the evidence is varied and this proposition makes little sense as the vassal had no power to enforce this commitment upon the king, where the king certainly had the power to enforce it upon his vassal.
Either way, what is significant is that Abraham should have walked through the bloody pathway, but God puts him into a deep sleep (not unlike the sleep that God put Adam into before he took out his rib to form Eve), and God walked through the bloody pathway in Abraham’s stead. God was saying to Abraham, I will be your covenant mediator and representative for this covenant. If you or your line fail to keep this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me as well. And that is exactly what took place on the cross of Calvary. Jesus fulfilled what God promised, bloody and bruised, because we could not be faithful to the עֵדוּת e (eduth) of God’s covenant.
In the context of Psalm 119, the psalmist completely understands that for one to be truly blameless and righteous before the Lord, one must first submit his life to the testimonies of our God—to the עֵדוּת e (eduth) of God’s covenant. Thus, he sets the Law before him as a guide and instructor. We must understand that while the psalmist speaks at times of being blameless before his accusers, this is not to be interpreted in terms of a form of human self-righteousness. Instead, he also understands, as Abraham understood, that his redemption would be paid for by another—by God himself through the promised Messiah, and that his personal righteousness was based, through faith, in the coming of the promised one. At the same time, he understands the thrust of what Paul would say in Romans 6:1-2. In light of that, the psalmist both begins and ends the psalm focused on remembering and obeying the Law of the Lord.
“And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me to be king over you, enter and take refuge in my shadow. But if there is not, let fire go out from the bramble, and let it consume the cedars of Lebanon!’” (Judges 9:15)
The sad irony of this picture is that here we have the great cedar trees, trees known to grow up to 130 feet in height, who are bowing down before a bramble bush — a thicket in the wilderness — just because they are desperate to have a king and ruler over them that is of their own making. Much like the person who carves an idol out of wood by the labor of his own hands and then bows before it, their folly will bring their downfall. And what a downfall it is as we look forward toward the leadership (or lack thereof) that Abimelek will bring and the warfare that will follow.
Notice, too, the change in language. The previous trees spoke of “shaking over” or dominating the other trees (which of course, would rob them of their good fruit), the bramble speaks of the trees taking refuge in his shadow. For this to happen, the bramble must literally consume the trees in its prickly vines. If you want to know what this looks like, take a visit to the mountains of West Virginia where the Kudzu vine has overrun the trees.
Notice, too, the imprecation that the bramble utters — that if they do not submit to the bramble’s consuming spread, fire will go out and consume the cedars. Do not miss the covenantal nature of this language. The agreement is binding and the cedars are being instructed that they will receive the same fate as the bramble if they do not submit. And so, the fire the bramble deserves will be shared with the cedars. The greater is essentially enslaving itself to the weaker. Such indeed is the case with the people and Abimelek; it would also be the case with Saul to come and so many of the kings that would be raised up amongst the people of Israel.
While there is a clear and direct application to Abimelek, intended by Joab, we can apply the principles within to our lives and churches today. How often do we raise people up into church leadership who are not spiritually mature? How often do we pursue sin and permit it to ensnare our hearts rather than to submit to God’s law for our lives? Are we any less guilty than the people of Shekem? I think not.
“And Abraham gave all that was his to Isaac.”
As with Ishmael, the other sons of Abraham are not meant for the covenant — the covenant line shall be set through Isaac. And thus Isaac is the inheritor of his father’s estate, but he is also the inheritor of something far more important — a covenant promise. It is for sure that the gifts mentioned in the following verse, given to the other sons, were substantial from an earthly perspective, but from an eternal view, they are like dust. The wealth of the nations will turn to dust but the promises of the Lord will last forever.
Why is it though, that so often we focus on the earthly inheritances that we are offered? When a man with great financial wealth passes away, people immediately begin dreaming of spending money and even professing Christians sometimes are reduced to bickering and fighting over what they perceive as their “fair share.” Yet, had Abraham given all of his earthly wealth and property to his other sons and left Isaac only with the promise of God’s covenant, Isaac’s wealth would have still infinitely surpassed that of his brothers’ and this statement, that all Abraham had was given to Isaac, would have been no less true. For all that Abraham had of any lasting value was the promise of God — all else was just a measure of earthly comfort.
In the west, we labor hard to provide an inheritance for our children, but sadly that inheritance for which we labor is often of no value. That which is of value is a spiritual, Godly inheritance offered in the name of Christ, Jesus. The children who inherit from their parents a knowledge of the Lord and a model of a life lived faithfully before the Lord, but not a penny in wealth, have received far more than the children who are given millions of dollars but nothing of lasting value. Take care in choosing that for which you labor. Set your efforts on things of lasting value, not on things of this earth.
“And so, that place was called Beer-Shaba for the two of them swore there.”
And here we learn the origin of the name Beersheba, a place that has Biblical significance to God’s people throughout the Old Testament. It was at Beersheba that God appeared to Isaac to renew the covenant (Genesis 26:23-25), it was part of the inheritance of Simeon (Joshua 19:2), it was the place from which Samuel’s sons would judge Israel (1 Samuel 8:1-3), and it is the first place to which Elijah fled when he feared Jezebel’s threats to kill him (1 Kings 19:19:1-3). As a whole, Beersheba is located in the southernmost region of what would later become national Israel, and thus be juxtaposed with Dan (in the northernmost region) to speak of the whole of Israel: “from Dan to Beersheba.”
The term “Beersheba” comes from two Hebrew words. The first, rEaV;b (beer, pronounced as two syllables, with the first “e” being short and the second being long: be-ear), is the word that describes a well or a shaft into the ground. The second term, oAbDv (shaba) or oAbRv (sheba) depending on the occurrence, carries with it several connotations. Literally, in Hebrew, this is the number seven. Yet, the number seven carries with it the connotations of completeness and eternality, hence the connection with a covenant that has been made in this place. Thus, Beersheba has been variously translated as “the place of seven wells”, “the well of covenant”, or “the well of abundance.” All of these are correct translations, but since the scriptures tell us the purpose of naming the well (being the covenant made between Abraham and Abimelek), we ought to prefer the second term or translating Beersheba as “the well of covenant.”
The discussion is important on several levels, but most importantly because it illustrates a principle that was part of the bedrock of the Protestant Reformation — the principle that scripture can interpret itself. Given that scripture has one ultimate author, then we ought not be surprised that all of scripture is useful in the process of interpretation and thus we don’t really have permission to import our own preferences into the text. While “the place of seven wells” might be a legitimate translation of the Hebrew, it is not consistent with the rest of the text, thus it ought to be rejected.
Thus we have the word of God before us and we have the origin of the name to this location of Beersheba that becomes quite prominent throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Isn’t it remarkable the way God uses isolated events of our lives like this to make a lasting statement about his sovereignty. This name is given simply as a result of a dispute over water rights; yet the place of covenant between a believer and an unbeliever becomes a monument for all time. The question is what events in our own lives will God so use to work in the life of future generations?
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all who breathe away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.
— Isaac Watts
“I will erect my covenant between me and between you and between your seed who come after you through their generations as an everlasting covenant—to be God to you and to your seed after you.”
Even the language that God uses here denotes the permanent nature of this covenant. He says, “I will erect…” The verb that he uses here denotes the idea of building a castle tower, something strong and permanent that stands for all people to see. In addition, the Hiphil form of this verb is used, which reflects that God is causing something to take place—God is the one erecting this covenant, Abraham has no part in its building (and as we saw in chapter 15, no part in its completion). In addition, the eternal nature of God’s unchangeable purpose (Hebrews 6:17-18) and character (Malachi 3:6) provide this everlasting covenant its absolute permanence. Because God is, this covenant stands even today despite the wickedness of the heart of man. Friends, that is something to rejoice about.
Notice too, the language about the seed of Abraham. This is a reference to his children and to his children’s children throughout the generations. Some would try and suggest that this language of seed only applies to Jesus, as Paul says that the Seed is Christ (Galatians 3:16). Yet, while the covenant is clearly fulfilled in and by Christ, to see Christ as the only end of this promise is to take the language out of context. God is clearly promising this covenant not only to Abraham, but to his covenant household—hence the sign of the covenant that will be given a little later in this chapter will be placed not only on Abraham and not only on those in Abraham’s household old enough to accept the covenant on their own, but also on their children and infants. Thus, in the New Testament age, we place the covenant sign of baptism on the children of believing parents to indicate that they are part of the blessings of this covenant because of their parents.
Loved ones, cherish God’s covenantal promises to you—he will be God to you and will never abandon you. This promise is more valuable than anything else on the whole of the earth. It is permanent and established in stone and God will never fail to bring it about in your lives. In addition, the covenant is not just about you, but it is about your children and your children’s children after you. Rejoice in that and raise your children up knowing these great promises of God that one day they too may accept them as their own. Sing of the might of our God, for these promises do not rest on the work of men, but upon the character and plan of God. He has established them in stone, confirmed them in blood, and will renew them in your life—day in and day out.
Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
In a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, through Jesus’ power, His Name to glorify;
And promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die.
I don’t want any nice Christians in our church! In fact, I don’t want to see nice Christians anywhere in the world! Okay, now that I have your attention, let me explain what I mean. The English word, “nice,” comes from the Latin word “nescire.” Nescire has as its root word, “scio,” which is the verb, “to know.” The “ne” prefix negates the term. Thus, the term “nescire” means “to not know” or “to be ignorant.” When the term originally came into Middle English, it meant the equivalent of “stupid.” Over time, the usage of the term changed from being stupid to being unthreatening (someone who knows nothing is not a threat!) to being pleasant to be around. Slowly, the term continued to change in its usage to the way we use the term today (pleasant or agreeable).
Thus, at least in the original sense of the word, I don’t want to see nice Christians in my congregation or even in the world. I want Christians to know what they believe and why they believe what they believe. I want them to be strong enough in what they do know to stand against those who would challenge their beliefs. In fact, I would argue that part of the reason the American church is in the mess that it is in is because of nice Christians—at least in the original sense of the term.
God speaks of this very thing through the prophet Hosea. In the fourth chapter of Hosea, God begins by lamenting that there is no knowledge of God in the land (Hosea 4:1) and as a result, the people’s lives are filled by swearing, lying, adultery, and bloodshed (Hosea 4:2). And when we get to verse six of the same chapter, God makes a devastating statement: “My people are ruined because they are without knowledge.” In other words, the knowledge of God (understanding that true knowledge comes through a relationship with God—Proverbs 1:7) is what keeps us healthy and whole as God’s people—it prevents us from utter ruin.
But look at what else Hosea records in this verse: “Because you have rejected knowledge, so I reject you from being a priest to me; and because you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children.” This is covenantal language, as when God makes his promises to his people, he consistently makes them with their posterity (Genesis 12:7; 17:19; Deuteronomy 12:28; Acts 2:39), thus the threat of discipline is not only pronounced against God’s people, but also against the generations that will follow them. In addition, Jesus uses similar language in Matthew 10:32-33, where he says that those who confess him, he will confess before his Father and those who deny him, he too will deny—all connected to the lack of knowledge of Him.
Now, it is fair to say that as Christians, we ought to be pleasant people to be around, but pleasant should not be our goal—loving should. So nice really should not be something that we strive for as an attribute even in the modern usage of the term. More importantly, though, we should strive to be knowledgeable in the things of God. To cite the old King James language, “study to show yourselves approved” (2 Timothy 2:15) because the Scriptures are profitable to prepare you for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Strive never to be nice—be loving, but also be knowledgeable in the Truth so that you will always be prepared to make a reasoned defense of the hope you have within you (1 Peter 3:15).