Psalm 119 – The Noetic Effects of Sin

Psalm 119 Bible With Tony's Chocolonely Milk Chocolate with Caramel and Sea Salt

Today’s Chocolate: Tony’s Chocolonely Milk Chocolate with Caramel and Sea Salt

Today’s PassagePsalm 119

This is it: the behemoth, the magnum opus, the alpha and omega and everything in between. This is Psalm 119.

At 176 verses, it’s not only the longest of the psalms, but also the longest chapter in the Bible. Each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: eight verses for Aleph, eight for Beth, eight for Gimel, etc.. Its central theme is the value of God’s commandments as revealed in the Torah, and what’s more, it can be used to learn the language of the Torah. My dad actually used it to teach himself the Hebrew alphabet.

In order to do this psalm justice, I’d have to spend an entire entry on each stanza, each letter’s section by itself–and maybe sometime I will. But today I wanted to note a point that we see in verses throughout the psalm: in order to learn the things that matter most, humans need God.

The psalmist is well aware of his capacity for error. He prays, “Do not let me wander from Your commandments” (119:10), because if left to his own devices, he knows he’ll stray from the path. He needs God in order to adhere to the Torah. Moreover, he needed God to teach him the truth of the Torah in the first place. He asks God, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law” (119:18). Without God, he’s blind to the goodness of God’s commandments. We may sometimes be scientists in the universe, objectively studying reality to discover its nature. But we’re only able to learn things about the world because God made a world that will give up its secrets when probed–and when it comes to the moral dimension of human existence, we’re not scientists, we’re students. We need a teacher.

Why is this? To explain our need for moral instruction from the perfect Author of morality himself, I’d like to introduce the concept of the noetic effects of sin. I first learned about this concept in D.A. Carson’s The Gagging of God. In essence, it’s the proposition that doing evil affects our minds and how we view the world, distorting our understanding of the truth. Carson writes:

In the realm of knowing, we join the experts of deconstruction and of the new hermeneutic in insisting on human finiteness: more, we go further and insist on human sinfulness. The noetic effects of sin are so severe that we culpably distort the data brought to us by our senses to make it fit into self-serving grids. We are not only finite, on many fronts we are blind. (Gagging of God 98)

The psalmist understood his own limits and shortcomings, and what they meant for how he approached the Torah. I’m reminded of those moments in some video games where you touch an item you shouldn’t have or a poisonous enemy, and the controller inputs get temporarily remapped, or the screen warps and twists in ways that make the game semi-unintelligible. In each case, you did what you shouldn’t and now your ability to understand the world has been compromised. It’s the same way with sin: our desire to think the best of ourselves shapes how we see the world and blinds us to our own evil. If God didn’t reveal himself to us, our darkened natures would prevent us from finding him. Worse, they’d prevent us from even wanting to look.

We need a teacher. We need God.


3 thoughts on “Psalm 119 – The Noetic Effects of Sin

  1. I’m glad you wrote about “noetic effects of sin.” I had come across this before, but didn’t understand it as well as how you have discussed it. (I thought that it had to do with Noah! Well, the first part of the word does sort of sound like “Noah,” right?!?) Thanks!


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