Whenever I read Psalm 119, alarm bells go off in my head. For one thing, it feels like a literary monstrosity, 176 verses of boring, repetitious monotony. The great Old Testament scholar Artur Weiser wrote that Psalm 119 is “a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. The formal external character of the Psalm stifles its subject matter. The Psalm is a many colored mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in a wearisome fashion… without any recognizable order….”
In addition to those literary alarm bells, I also hear theological bells warning me away from preaching on this Psalm. Its profuse praise for the beauty and value of God’s law seems at least on the surface to collide with the warnings about God’s law in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s letters. Think of Paul’s strident words to the Galatians: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law or by believing what you heard? (Gal. 2:1-2).”
Or consider Paul’s personal testimony in Philippians 3. After talking about his former allegiance to all the markers of Old Testament faithfulness (“as for legalistic righteousness, faultless”), Paul says, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” He even says he considers all those covenantal blessings to be “rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ…” (Phil. 3:7-9)
Given those literary and theological issues, why would any Spirit filled, Christ honoring preacher take on the challenge of preaching on this stiff and boring piece of Hebrew poetry? Well, first of all, we should consider it, because it is God’s Word. As Paul put it in II Timothy 3, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable….” I take that as an article of faith.
And second, all of us have had the experience of tackling something difficult, like playing a complicated sonata on the piano or reading a 600 page Russian novel or learning a new golf swing, and finding great satisfaction when we mastered the challenge. Hard biblical passages can be more rewarding than the familiar old chestnuts. So I invite you to join me in an exploration of this alarming Psalm.
To do that well and in good conscience, we’ll have to deal with those literary and theological issues I raised above. As to the first, my initial judgment that it is boring and redundant fades away when we carefully investigate the structure of Psalm 119. It is the supreme acrostic poem. It is divided into 22 stanzas or strophes, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Further, each verse in each of those 22 stanzas begins with the letter in the alphabet that heads that section. So our reading for today is called “aleph,” the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse in this stanza begins with “aleph.” What’s more, each stanza has exactly 8 verses, which is possibly based on the fact that the Psalm uses 8 different words for “law.”
C.S. Lewis described Psalm 119 in his characteristic style. “In other words, this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart, like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidering, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject, and for delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.” But it isn’t just art for art’s sake. It is art for obedience sake. It is, says Brueggemann, “a massive intellectual achievement, an astonishingly crafted acrostic psalm designed to elicit full obedience.”
Why would anyone work so hard on such a theme? Here I must quote Brueggemann at length because he will make you want to preach on Psalm 119. “First, the Psalm is deliberately didactic. It reflects the work of a classroom teacher. Its intent is not casual. It wants to instruct the young in the ‘a-b-c’s’ of Torah obedience. Second, the Psalm wants to make a comprehensive statement of the adequacy of a Torah-oriented life. It affirms that Torah will cover every facet of human existence, everything from A to Z. Third, the dramatic intent is to find a form commensurate with the message. The message is that life is reliable and utterly symmetrical when the Torah is honored. And so the Psalm provides a literary, pedagogical experience of reliability and utter symmetry. A Torah-ordered life is as safe, predictable, and complete as the movement of the psalm.”
Isn’t that lovely? But here comes the theological problem, which is really an existential problem. No one actually lives a life that is perfectly ordered by Torah. Torah is beautiful and orderly, and if we lived by it, we would be perfectly happy. But we don’t. In fact, we can’t, because of the weakness of the flesh, the work of the devil, and the temptations of the world.
This existential problem is, of course, why God sent his Son. In the words of Paul in Romans 8:3-4, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteousness requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”
This is how we should read and preach Psalm 119. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) In Christ and by the power of his Spirit, we must obey the law, for it gives shape to our grateful love for God and our fellow humans.
When viewed in the light of Christ, Torah becomes, in the words of James 1:25, “the perfect law that gives freedom.” To quote Brueggemman yet again, “Our modern bias that sees commands as restricting is countered. The commandments liberate and give people space to be human. This Psalm instructs people in the need, possibility, and delight of giving settlement to the foundational issues of identity and vocation. Torah living does not require keeping options open about who we shall be.” The law answers such difficult questions (of identity and vocation) already; we need only study and obey through faith in Christ and by the powerful leading of the Spirit.
Now we are ready to focus on this opening stanza of Psalm 119, which sets the stage for all that follows. Verses 1-3 lay out the theme of the Psalm. It is possible to be blessed in this cursed world, to be happy in the midst of all this unhappiness, to be content (the fundamental meaning of the Hebrew word translated “blessed”) in a wildly restless culture. The secret is to “walk according to the laws of Yahweh… keep his statutes, and seek him with all [our] heart.” That is the theme of the entire Psalm and the following 170 some verses show what it means to do that. Verse 3 spells out the obvious. If we actually do walk in the ways of Yahweh, we will do nothing wrong. We will live blameless lives and we will be blessed. Here’s the way to complete human happiness. Isn’t that good news? There is a way to be happy in this world. It is so simple.
We make life complicated by insisting on our own way. We view God’s commands as optional, as mere suggestions, as general guidelines, as outmoded rules from an ancient agricultural culture that can be ignored in our multi-cultural urban world. But we do that to our peril. Indeed, we subvert our own happiness. The law of God is meant to “be fully obeyed (verse 4).”
Verse 4 represents a turning point in Psalm 119. The first three verses are thematic, spoken to the listening community or the inquiring mind. In verse 4 the poet turns to God and addresses God for the rest of the Psalm. This turn transforms Psalm 119 from a theoretical meditation on a subject to a personal conversation with God about that subject. “You have laid down precepts,” says the Psalmist, and now I want to talk with you about those precepts.
The conversation that follows expresses the inner life of every genuine believer. We realize how “holy, righteous and good” God’s law is, but we don’t, in fact, live by it. As verse 5 says with obvious passion, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!” This is where we begin the rest of our lives, with a frank admission that we aren’t where we ought to be. I don’t actually do what verses 1 and 2 describe.
And that is why I’m not as blessed, happy, content as I want to be. Indeed, I often feel “shame when I consider all your commands.” Most scholars believe the Psalmist is talking there about the shame he feels in the face of enemies, a shame that would disappear if he kept the law. Such obedience would give him peace when he is confronted by illness, warfare, or poverty. That might be, but I wonder if he isn’t talking about the shame we feel when we realize that we don’t measure up. I’m not talking about guilt here, which has to do with the violation of specific commands. I’m thinking rather about that overwhelming sense that I’m not who I want to be. Think of the body shame an overweight girl or a skinny boy feels when they look in the mirror. When I look into the mirror of all your commands (as in James 1:23), I am ashamed of myself, because I am not what I ought to be.
But I’m not going to wallow in my shame. In Christ and with the Spirit, I’m going to keep learning your righteous laws (verse 7). Because I can have new beginnings every day, I’m going to keep going to school with Christ, as he teaches me the heights and depths of the Law (cf. the Gospel reading for today in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:21-37). So I will rejoice in your law. It is so good and right that I it provokes praise in my heart. I’m not perfect, but instead of getting stuck in my guilt and shame, I’m going to school. There I rejoice in what I learn from Christ about how to live happily and contentedly in this world.
The Psalmist closes off this first stanza in his poem with a promise and a plea. “I will obey your decrees….” I don’t do that yet, not perfectly, but I hereby make a promise, a vow, a resolution. “I will obey….” And until I do, O Lord, don’t forsake me. I hear this as a plea for help and forgiveness. By your Spirit, help me to do what I fully intend to do. And through the work of Christ, forgive me when I fail, however often that may be. Don’t forsake me utterly. If we pray that sincerely and faithfully, we can be sure that God won’t forsake us, because of what Christ has done. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Read this way, Psalm 119 is not the prayer of a perfect person characterized by what C.S. Lewis called “priggery and pedantry.” It is the prayer of a serious disciple who needs both law and Spirit, both moral effort and helpless faith, both obedience and trust in Christ. In a lawless age, where everything is relative, moral standards change rapidly, identity is fluid and calling is amorphous, this paean to the law of God is a much-needed counterbalance. Preach it in the light of Paul and Jesus, and it will set your congregation on a counter-cultural path to the happiness everyone is seeking.
Have you seen that commercial on TV for an asthma medication? It features a gold fish who has somehow gotten out of his fishbowl. Surrounded by spilled water, the little fish gasps for its breath. A child’s voice provides the commentary. “This is how I feel when I have an asthma attack.” It’s painful to watch, but the message is clear. When you have asthma, you need our medication.
I take a different lesson. When a goldfish is out of water, it gasps, it flounders, and eventually it dies, because water is its natural environment. Though water and, particularly, that bowl of water might seem restrictive, it is in fact the sine qua non of life for that little fish. The same is true for humans and God’s law. That law might seem restrictive, but it is in fact our natural environment. To live in freedom, we must live in the law of God. Blessed are those whose lives are bound by the Law of God. They are truly free to live and breathe and have their being in this world.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 12, 2017
Psalm 119:1-8 Commentary