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Psalm 119:97-104

In 1969, the iconic children’s educational television production Sesame Street launched it’s fast-paced programming. Each weekday morning the show was “brought to you by the letters…and the number” Its bold colors and targeted content changed the way that media has addressed young children over the ensuing 50 years.

Psalm 119:97-104 is “brought to us by the letter mem, and the number 13.” Mem isthe 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet in this dynamic acrostic poem from the book of Psalms. Mem maps to the sound of our letter M and it frames the words used in this particular stanza of the Psalm.

The passion and enthusiasm of this particular portion of the longest chapter of the Bible is almost Sesame Street-like, presented at a fast pace in bold and colorful language. “Oh! How I love your law!” To the moon and back…Then, for several verses, the author proceeds to link the law to what it does for the self in rather grandiose and childlike terms: it makes me wiser than my enemies, smarter than my teachers, better than my elders. I am super charged to keep myself from every evil way; and later, the law is represented as ancient candy for the soul—sweeter than honey. Yum! What kid wouldn’t choose sweetness over substance?

Removed from the context of the rest of the chapter, a background knowledge of Torah, and the second line of each couplet in those verses, one could be tempted to believe that keeping the law is at best a rapid-fire shortcut to superiority or at worst an invitation to ethical egoism (I should follow God’s ways because I like it and because it’s good—FOR ME!).

Isn’t that the temptation of the human condition? To skim across the top? To choose the parts that make us look powerful and to leave out parts like the hard work of deep meditation on the ways of God? We seek out the parts that sound scrumptious as the sound of the letter MMMMMM. The temptation to play superficially with Scripture is essentially the strategy used by Satan when he attempted to lure Jesus away from his purpose by tempting him to use Scripture for selfish ends (Matthew 4). And we dare not take the bait!

From the perspective of someone who has spent much energy in ministry considering the spiritual formation of children, I am grateful that Scripture speaks on so many different levels throughout our ages and stages. There is a time in the development of every Christian that we need to see “what’s in it for me.” But if we are to live a life of rich and deep faith, we cannot stay there in the ego driven space of childhood. To use the structure of the poetry and the “brought to you by” language of Sesame Street, we have to move from single letter faith into the world of words, and from isolated words to reading the bigger story. If the images of this Psalm are to be believed, engagement in Scripture is continuous and life consuming, and moves us ever deeper into living out God’s story in our world.

In vs. 97, the passionate embrace of the love of law is followed by the formative discipline of meditation—not the 1-minute breathing reminders that pop up on our Apple watches, but an all-day long awareness that Scripture must infuse our every thought and act. Our relationship to God as understood through Scripture literally becomes our life’s breath and changes the way we breathe though our days—our work, our stress, our joy, our recreation. We are brought to life through the breath of God in our nostrils and we bring God’s life to others as we engage in the living and active process of submission to God’s will as revealed through Scripture. It is not enough to have a God-moment or a cursory read over the verse of the day. We live meditatively, allowing ourselves to be shaped and formed by the law of the Lord in each moment, not a moment.

In vs. 98, being “wiser than my enemies” is likewise paired with active engagement with the law as we face those enemies not on our own, but with the resource of God’s illumination of the Scriptural record that lead us to the heart of God. We know how to deal with the enemies of our souls because God teaches us how to do so. There is a qualitative difference in how the Spirit-led, Scripture-guided believer deals with conflict and life challenges—or there can be—because we are not left to our own myopic perspectives.

In vs. 99, commentators differ in how the Psalmist might have “more understanding than teachers” (an apparent disrespect for the office of teacher so intolerable that Jewish translations of the passage offer an alternative interpretation of the Psalmist’s assertion). Some commentators postulate that the teachers referred to were apostate and not worthy of deference. Others say these were teachers of ancient wisdom who did not represent Jewish tradition, but contributed to a royal education for political purposes. I wonder if the Psalmist refers to teachers of the law who had simply become so numb to the routines of teaching that they no longer felt the passion and commitment the Psalmist experienced. Regardless, this verse makes clear that practicing an integrated application of the word of God leads to deep understanding. Nothing less. We can’t merely grasp at objective knowledge rained down on us from an external source. It isn’t enough to know it for the test. We must be people who practice what we’ve been privileged to learn. Only then can we have true understanding of what we have been taught.

Verse 100 makes clear that neither time nor natural developmental progress can substitute for the hard work of practicing what we’ve learned or are learning. While traditional authority figures may be worthy of respect, there is no “glass ceiling” that can oppress the one who seeks God, and there is no age barrier to receiving God’s blessing.

A deep understanding of the ways of God requires the positive action of attending to and applying God’s law with intentionality as seen in the previous verses, but it also requires removing oneself from evil ways and not turning away from the truth God has revealed (vss. 101-102). This demonstrates the mutuality of the way of affirmation and the way of negation in our spiritual formation. We are called to both affirm the significance of the biblical way and to avoid those things which interfere with appreciation of the biblical way. Both leaning in and walking away are meaningful ways of allowing the word of God to dwell richly within us, and both paths together invite God to speak to every aspect of our being and behaving.

The passage concludes by circling back to the love expressed in verse 97. It engages language that is strikingly similar to Solomon’s appreciation of his bride in Song of Songs 4:11. The imagery of sweet honey reminds us that deep engagement with God’s story is not to be dreaded, even if it is demanding and requires that we become different in multiple steps along the way. The journey is filled with pleasure to the senses and to the soul. But it is a story of both passionate love and diligent marriage. The contrast of love for God’s truth in the beginning of the passage and hatred for false promises of wisdom and understanding at the end are a powerful invitation to choose well between deep love and hope-filled promises.

This passage is quite far from the braggart’s stanza of Psalm 119, though it might appear to be ego driven at first glance. The passage actually reveals the passion of a poet who is committed with nearly childlike enthusiasm to a deep relationship with God through Scripture and who is unafraid of making bold claims about the benefits of who he is becoming through that interactive process.