“I hate vain thoughts: but thy law do I love” (Psalm 119:113).
Literally, this stanza begins: “Branched ones, I hate; but Your law, I love.” In other words, I hate those who cannot make up their mind about You, O God, whether You are good enough and wise enough to obey or not; but as for Your law, I love it. What a way to begin a stanza that was written to be sung!
Two things here are striking. First, it is sometimes right to hate a fellow human being. Such hatred is found elsewhere in the Psalms, and should be interpreted according to its context (e.g. 139:21-22). Second, if we do not hate certain individuals, we do not love God’s law. In other words, there is something important about hating these “branched ones” in order to maintain a love for God’s law. Given this importance, we must ask, Who are these “branched ones”? And what makes them so dangerous to my spiritual health?
In the world of sinners, there are different kinds. Some sinners are out-and-out wicked. They have strong affections, but they are unholy affections, having wrong objects or wrong motivations. It seems that the psalmist had this kind of sinner in mind when he wrote, “Thou puttest away all the wicked of the earth like dross: therefore I love thy testimonies” (v. 119). In the smelting pot of judgment, God puts an end to all those who foul the silver of His world.
In some ways, the out-and-out wicked are not as dangerous as the “branched ones”. While the wicked may be more dangerous to our bodies, these “branched ones” are often more dangerous to our souls. These “branched ones” have a forked heart, with divided affections. In the New Testament, they are called “double minded” and are noted for their outer instability and inner impurity (James 1:8; 4:8). According to Jesus, they are the “lukewarm” professing Christians that cause Him to hurl (Revelation 3:15-16). This same revulsion should be in our heart. We should hate these individuals the way some children hate broccoli: Get them away from me! In the words of the Psalm: “Depart from me, ye evildoers: for I will keep the commandments of my God” (v. 115).
But what makes the “branched ones” so dangerous? After all, it hardly seems right to identify as “evildoers” those who spend their lives waffling between two opinions! What makes them so harmful?
While not explicitly spelled out in the text, there is a subtle contrast in this stanza between the “branched ones” and the strong protection of the psalmist through strong affections. In a word, the “branched ones” deaden our affections for God. Coming to no firm conclusion about God, these individuals come to no firm conclusion about sin. As a result, their lives are characterized by a mixture of God’s word and human opinion, of religious rites and social wrongs, of pious talk and misplaced trust. Instead of out-and-out rebellion against God, they simply “err” (v. 118), that is, they slowly go astray. In the words of one commentator, “They simply nibble their way to lostness” (Victor P. Hamilton). As a result, God Himself treats them in the same way, and simply sloughs them off, seeing so omnisciently that “their deceit is falsehood” (v. 118).
In contrast to this putrid indecision, we must strongly assert to God, “Thou art my hiding place and my shield; I hope in thy word” (v. 114). Instead of mixing our religion with worldly wisdom or with talk of “financial security,” we must make God and God alone our hope of future safety: “Uphold me according unto thy word, that I may live,” and “Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe: and I will have respect unto thy statutes continually” (v. 116, 117). Literally, the goal of our safety is to gaze upon God’s rules continually.
This gaze stands in sharp contrast to the “branched ones” who go astray. Instead of gazing at God’s word, they nibbled their way astray through alcohol (Isaiah 28:7), sexual sin (Proverbs 5:20, 23), or just plain ol’ poor listening (Proverbs 19:27). (These references also come from Hamilton’s article.) It is tragic to note how many youths of Christian parents never rebelled, but nonetheless went astray through the worldly pleasures of a sensual culture! And how many of those young people did so through a poor choice of friends? Instead of hating those who waffled, and wishing them to go away in order to better concentrate on the word of God, these tragic youth chose the “branched ones” as friends and acquaintances, and thus eventually went astray themselves.
Ultimately, the only strong protection is found through strong, holy affections. It was Jonathan Edwards, who once asserted, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” Love. Hatred. Fear. In the words of the Psalm, we must hate the double-minded; we must love the law of God; and we must fear His judgments to the point that our flesh bristles up for fear of Him (v. 120). In these strong affections comes our strong protection, for it is out of a single heart that we enabled to assert, “You alone are my hideout; therefore, lean me up that I may live, and sustain me that I may be saved.”
How are your affections? Whom do you love? Whom do you hate? Whom do you fear? On these questions largely hangs your assurance of salvation.