As New Covenant people the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 119 can sound foreign. The whole of the Psalm is a love letter for the Law. As Christians familiar with Paul’s perspective on the Law, the sentiments of the Psalmist might even sound inappropriate. After all, Paul has acknowledged that the Law is merely an exposition of the primary sign of the covenant; faithfulness. Right? “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.” (Gal. 3:6-7)
But Paul doesn’t stop there, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith…” (Gal. 3:10-12a) Knowing what we know about a former Pharisee’s perspective on the Law, what are we to do with the words of the Psalmist? With what are New Covenant people to resonate? How can we say with the writer, “Oh, how I love your law!”?
In order to address this, let’s take a closer look at our text for Proper 24C. Psalm 119 might be called a behemoth. I challenge you to read the entire Psalm in one sitting; all 176 verses. If you do, chances are you might just remember what it says, for the Psalm is very repetitive. And this is on purpose.
Like many other Hebrew poems, Psalm 119 is an Acrostic; starting with the first Hebrew letter Aleph (א), we find ourselves in the Mem (מ) stanza. By this point in the poem, the reader has a general idea of what is going on. The themes - particularly the love and exaltation of Torah - permeate the text in such a way that the reader, or perhaps, listener, can’t forget them. The reader/listener is supposed to dwell and meditate on these themes. They are supposed to swirl through one’s mind.
Perhaps the second line of our stanza, “it is my meditation all day long,” is not hyperbolic; but is telling the reader/listener how to employ this Psalm. As lengthy as this Psalm is, perhaps it was intended that one recite this poem in it’s entirety in a meditative state for a day. The acrostic nature helps one remember the poem, so maybe it was to be memorized and spoken/prayed over the course of an entire day.
By the time you get to verses 97-104 you are on your way down. The themes are familiar, you’ve passed the halfway point and the climax. Yet, the stanza stands one it’s own. If the phrase “it is my meditation all day long” isn’t hyperbolic, perhaps verses 98-100 are. For the Psalmist all other wisdom and understanding takes a backseat to the wisdom and understanding of Torah. It’s understandable that the author would diminish the wisdom of her/his enemies, but why the comments about teachers and elders?
These might not be written as an insult to her/his teachers and elders, but as hyperbole acknowledging that, as valuable as their understanding may be, it is not as valuable as the understanding of Torah.
After acknowledging her/his commitment to living according to Torah (101-102), the text takes a turn towards the sensual. Reminiscent of the Song of Solomon (4:11), the Psalmist writes just how sweet are the words of Torah.
As foreign as these words might feel to New Covenant people (were I to hear someone speak of the scriptures in this way today I might be inclined to accuse them of Bibliotry), we must read this text within it’s own context. We Christians may not express this same type of affection for the Law for a couple of reasons; the primary being that Christ has come. You see, for us, the fullness of the revelation of God is found in the person Jesus Christ. For the Psalmist, and this is important, the fullest revelation of God was found in Torah. One gained understanding of the nature of God through Torah.
While a hermeneutic would be applied to Torah through the prophets, it was still Torah that taught the Psalmist about YHWH.
So, what do 21st century New Covenant folk do with this Psalm? While we may not write of the Law with the same affection, perhaps the devotion and affection of the fullest revelation of God is appropriate. Have we ever spent “all day long” meditating on Christ and Christ’s ways? Have we the devotion to Christ that the Psalmist had of Torah?
Or do we spend all day long meditating on the next election soundbite and the words of those who are seeking to be elected? What is the source of our wisdom and understanding? Do we dwell on the fullness of God revealed to us in the incarnation or do we dwell on how to denigrate the candidate we don’t support?
Preacher, this is a Psalm of priorities. And for the Psalmist the priority is Torah; the revelation of YHWH. What are your priorities?