Word, laws, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgments-have you ever read passages in the Old Testament and wondered what the difference is between all these words for Scripture? Aren’t they just flowery, poetic ways of referring to the Bible with a variety of terms to avoid sounding redundant? If that is all they are, then passages such as Psalm 119 are redundant, indeed. Yet these words are found in other contexts throughout the Old Testament as well. There is a reason these different words are used and translated distinctly from one another besides mere poetic variety.
Synonyms possess both overlap and distinction; overlap is what makes them synonyms, but distinction is what makes them separate words. For example, animals, creatures, wildlife, fauna, livestock, denizens, beasts, living things, critters and varmints are largely synonymous; but they are certainly not identical, nor can they be indiscriminately interchanged. A passage such as Psalm 119, where these and other terms for God’s Word are used over and over again, presents a picture of the multifaceted character of Scripture. Psalm 119 is the thesaurus of the Word of God. The addition of each synonym cuts a new facet on the gem of Scripture, heightening its beauty and depth. The better we understand the true character of the Word of God, the more appropriately we can respond to it.
Psalm 119 is an acrostic composed of twenty-two sections of eight verses each. Every section marks a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which is used to begin each of the eight verses of that section. Each of the words discussed below appears about once in every section. For readers wishing to study this passage more thoroughly, a transliteration of the Hebrew word for each term is given, followed by the reference number in Strong’s Concordance, the number of times the word occurs in Psalm 119, and a concise definition of the term. Finally, a brief explanation and application of the term is provided, along with key passages to consult.
The Bible as God’s Personal Letter
Hebrew: dabar/’imrah [1697/565]
Occurrence: 23 times /19 times
Literal Meaning: word, speech
The “word” is an expression of God’s thought, emphasizing the fact that God has communicated to man. These terms, both translated “word,” denote both the activity of communicating (the fact of communication) and the content of what is spoken (the content of communication). The Bible is not merely a book of religious advice or instruction written by spiritual men; it is the personal and direct communication of the very mind and heart of God. See Deuteronomy 29:29; Psalm 119:89, 105 and 162; Isaiah 45:19; 48:16.
The Bible as God’s Instruction Book
Hebrew: torah 
Occurrence: 25 times
Literal Meaning: direction, teaching, Instruction
The “law” is a revelation of God’s authoritative instruction, emphasizing His standard of behavior to which we are obligated to conform. We think of “law” in simplistic terms of rules and regulations, but at its root, God’s “law” is essentially divine instruction, which we ignore only out of great foolishness and at great peril. This term “reminds us that revelation is not simply for interest but for obedience” (Kidner). See Psalm 119:34,72,97 and 165.
The Bible as God’s Affidavit
Hebrew: ‘edah/’edoth [5713/5715]
Occurrence: 23 times
Literal Meaning: reminder, witness
A “testimony” is a witness to God’s character, activity or affirmations, emphasizing the reliability of all God says. Many passages of God’s Word function exactly as a testimony in a court of law and are frequently used with the verb “to keep” (Ps. 119:2, 22, 88,129,146,167,168). How does one “keep” God’s testimonies? “Testimonies” witness to the reality of God’s recorded character, to His activities and to the reliability of all His pronouncements. Therefore, to “keep His testimonies” means to order one’s life and conduct in accordance with the revealed character of God, to which the Scripture functions as a reliable and eternal witness. Every account of the acts of God-from His parting of the Red Sea to His sending serpents among Israel in judgment- and every affirmation of the character of God-from His omniscience to His holiness- confirms what God is now through the Bible’s reliable testimony of what He has always been. See Psalm 119:24,46,99, 111 and 138.
The Bible as God’s Verdict
Hebrew: mishpat 
Occurrence: 23 times
Literal Meaning: verdict, sentence, legal decision
A “judgment” is a declaration of God’s just decisions, emphasizing the settled value system of God as the all-wise Judge. We usually think of God’s “judgments” in terms of punishment. Yet God executes “judgment” in the same sense that a judge examines a case, weighs evidence and finally renders a verdict; a judge’S decision may be favorable or unfavorable, but it is always binding. This term is also frequently used with the verb “to keep” or “to do.” How does one “keep” or “do” judgment? God’s “judgments” (also “ordinances” in Ps. 119:91) are the results of His examination of various cases, situations, sins, etc., on which He has passed judgment, pronounced sentence, rendered a verdict-i.e., expressed His divine conviction. To “do” or “keep” God’s “judgments,” then, means for an individual to decide and to order his conduct in accordance with God’s decisions and God’s value system, not man’s. See Psalm 119:7, 106 and 160.
The Bible as God’s Rule Book
Hebrew: mitswah 
Occurrence: 22 times
Literal Meaning: command, right, claim
A “commandment” is an expression of God’s will, emphasizing His rightful authority to give orders with the expectation of full compliance. Interestingly, this word is not used for the Ten Commandments; instead, the terms used are literally the “ten words” (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4; see definition for “Word” above). Why do we call them the Ten Commandments? “The ten words are what God said [as a genuine expression of His thought]; they are Ten Commandments because of how God said them.” See Psalm 119:32, 35 and 73.
The Bible as God’s Boundary
Hebrew: khoq/khoqah [2706/2708]
Occurrence: 22 times
Literal Meaning: portion, prescription, limit, boundary
A “statute” is an expression of God’s restrictions, emphasizing the fact that God places boundaries and that those boundaries are fixed. David’s constant cry with this term is that God would “teach” him His “statutes.” “Statute” refers to that which is appointed with the expectation of conformity or fulfillment (See Exodus 5:14; 12:24; Leviticus 10:11, 13, 14 and 15). In prophetic and poetic usage it has the idea of a limitation or boundary (Job 14:5; 26:10; 38:8-11; Provo 8:29; Jer. 5:22; 31:35, 36; 33:25). A “statute” describes a divinely appointed limitation, boundary or restriction not to be breached. See Psalm 119:5 and 112.
The Bible as God’s Assignment Sheet
Hebrew: piqudim 
Occurrence: 21 times
Literal Meaning: chore, appointment, charge, assignment, stewardship
A “precept” is a charge or responsibility laid on God’s people, emphasizing His sovereign oversight, inspection and intervention. This word is actually a participial form of a verb (often translated “visit”), which means to inspect and intervene. Precept is always plural and found only in the psalms (24 times total). 1t pictures God’s Word as containing our Teacher’s assignments, our Captain’s charge, our Master’s stewardship, our Father’s chores for us. See Psalm 119:168 and 173.
A Household Illustration
The distinctions between these synonyms for various aspects of God’s Word can be illustrated in terms of a household meeting:
Word — The father calls a family meeting and one member records, for future reference, the following discussion:
Law — If a friend ever asks you to join in something wrong, you should refuse because it is wrong and because you will share in his trouble and punishment.
Testimony — If you touch the stove you will get burned.
Judgment — It is right to be kind and share; it is wrong to call your sister “stupid.” If you do, you have to apologize and give her a kiss (or worse, let her give you a kiss).
Commandment — (During the meeting) “Son, stop kicking the table.”
Statute — Youngest child may not go out of the yard into the street; the edge of the grass marks the boundary.
Precept — Brush your teeth every night (remember the dentist). Mom will check your room each morning to see that you made your bed.
A Biblical Application
“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul” (Ps. 9:7a); God’s instruction turns us around inwardly as well as outwardly.
“The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (v. 7b); believing God’s testimony about issues gives wisdom to the inexperienced and discernment to the gullible so that there is no need to “learn the hard way.”
“The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart” (v. 8a); knowing God’s boundaries gives delight and security to the soul.
“The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (v. 8b); God’s will expressed in Scripture enlightens us to make right decisions.
“The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether” (v. 9); all of God’s decisions are sure and right all together. This word does not mean “altogether” in the sense of “completely” true and righteous, but true and righteous all together, simultaneously with each other, all at the same time. All His decisions are dependable and right not only individually but in relation to one another so that there are no contradictions or conflicts in God’s value system as expressed in the Bible.
Psalm 119 is a lengthy, poetic look at God’s Word. The point of this study is not to force lines of distinction in every single occurrence of these words. Although these synonyms possess a degree of interchangeability, their distinctions can often help us get a better overall picture of Scripture. As Derek Kidner observed on these words in Psalm 119, “The synonyms belong together, and we should probably not look for each to show its distinct character at each occurrence, but rather to contribute, by its frequent arrival, to our total understanding of what Scripture is.” Indeed, the psalmist’s “untiring emphasis” on the Word and its Author offers an instructive picture of “true piety: a love of God not desiccated by study, but refreshed, informed and nourished by it.”
Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.
(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 1994. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)