Psalm 119 is a difficult psalm to read, and this for a few reasons. First, the mere length of the psalm makes it difficult for those with a short attention span to read through it in a single sitting. Second, we live in a culture where “story” and “narrative” are the dominant ways we communicate. In this psalm, we are confronted with words like “decrees,” “words,” “commands,” “statutes,” and “laws.” In fact, the psalmist uses eight synonyms to describe the Word of God (ordinances, promises, and precepts round out the list) . The modern reader may be tempted to write off this psalm, as if she has gotten beyond rules and laws in her relationship to God. So what might this selection of Psalm 119, and the psalm as a whole, say to us today in the midst of our “story”?
Psalm 119 is a giant, alphabetic acrostic poem. This psalm is the longest in scripture, and the longest chapter in the entire Bible. There are 22 consonants in the Hebrew alphabet and there are 22 corresponding stanzas in this psalm. Each stanza has eight verses and the first word of each stanza begins with the succeeding consonant from the Hebrew alphabet. The eight verses under consideration for us today begin with the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet (he). This stanza deals with the central role of Torah in the life of God’s people. In fact, the composition of the entire psalm points to this centrality. By covering the entire Hebrew alphabet, it is as if the psalmist is saying there is nothing that falls outside the realm of Torah—that God’s Word is so expansive and deep that all of life is contained therein. It’s within God’s Word (laws, commandments, decrees, commands, statutes, ordinances, promises, and precepts) that we live, and move, and have our being.
The people of God are dependent upon God’s instruction, that much is clear. This would explain the repeated use of the imperative in this stanza. The NRSV helps us grasp the imperative nature of the psalmist’s request. There we begin each verse with “Teach me, O LORD…,” “Give me…,” “Lead me…,” “Turn my…,” etc. The result of this composition is the recognition that the one making these requests is in need. The psalmist needs God to do something for him that he cannot do by himself. This is a needed corrective for us today in our cultural context. It seems that many people just want God to rubber-stamp what it is they already believe—as if God is just another member of the social media echo-chamber. But the words of this psalm make it clear that we need God to intervene, to give us understanding, to help us turn away from that which we already know. The way of the Lord is to be different. The way of the Lord will lead us away from worthless things. Following the way of the Lord will be life giving.
What we have here in this lection is a good, old-fashioned holiness message. Here we have a call to turn away from that which is dead, and to turn toward the One who gives life. Our Old Testament lection for today from Leviticus 19 is a perfect complement to Psalm 119. While it may appear from the language of the psalm (“teach me,” “give me,” “direct me,” etc.) that the law of God is primarily for individual consumption and benefit, the reality is that the way of God moves us out from ourselves toward God and others. To follow the way of God’s decrees, to move in the path of God’s commands, is to re-enter the world in a particular way. To obey God’s law is not to retreat from the world; rather, following this way, this path, is to enter the world in a life giving way. In so doing we do things like revere our mother and father, we keep Sabbath, we make room and provision for the poor and alien, we honor our neighbor, we act justly, we love because we have been loved.
The psalmist is correct, without the gracious gifts of God we are destined to spend our time and energy on worthless things. Without the gifts of God, we are bound to act in ways that harm our neighbor and ourselves. But having experienced the abundant life that comes from following the way of God, we desire it more and more—not just for ourselves but also for the whole world. Following the way of God, then, is not about hollow rules, laws, and commands; rather, following the way of God allows us to participate in the ongoing redemptive story of God. It is here in this story that we find delight!
Pastor of Care and Discipleship, Flint Central COTN