Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 19, 2017

Psalm 119:33-40 Commentary

Psalm 119 asserts again and again (almost ad infinitum) that the Law of God is the source of joy and delight, because it gives life and light.  But that’s not how the Law feels to most of us most of the time.  And, as we saw last week, that’s not how Paul talks about the Law in many of his epistles.  So, who is right?  Well, both Psalm 119 and Paul.  God intends his Law to be a blessing to his people, but it often isn’t.  That’s because we don’t understand it correctly and we try to keep it in our own wisdom and strength.  Psalm 119 explains the correct approach to God’s blessed Law.

The main assertion in our reading for today is that God must be our Teacher.  “Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees…. Give me understanding…. Direct me….”  Because it is God’s law, we will not be able to understand it unless the Law Giver teaches us.

It may seem to us that we can interpret God’s law properly if we just use our heads– read carefully and think clearly. But when we approach God’s law that way, one of two errors can occur.  First, we can idolize the law, making it more important that God.  It is the medium by which God relates to his people, but it is not God himself.  Ancient Pharisees and modern day legalists tend to focus on law so much that it actually gets in the way of communion with God.  Some might call this a kind of bibliolatry.  Psalm 119 reminds us that the Law comes from Yahweh, but it is not Yahweh.

Brueggemann correctly points out that Psalm 119 is first of all a call to utter trust and submission to God, not a call to works righteousness.  Our willingness and ability to obey Torah comes from God, as does our redemption when we don’t obey.  “It is by mercy and not by obedience that we live.”  But it is easy to get that wrong, if we approach God’s law without the guidance of our Teacher.

The second error that arises from a self-directed approach to God’s law is the exact opposite of that first error.  Instead of a kind of divinization of the law, people over-humanize it.  So rather than being seen a communication directly from God, the law is read as a collection of human moral conventions from the ancient world.  Instead of divine revelation, the law is a human invention, the finest result of the moral reflections of the first monotheists.  If that’s what “God’s law” is, then we moderns are free to come to different conclusions about how to live.  “God’s law” is nothing more than a helpful set of ancient ideas to be consulted, but probably not obeyed.

Over against those two misunderstandings of Torah, Psalm 119 insists, every time it uses one of its 8 words for law, that it is “yours.”  Thus, to understand God’s law properly, we need instruction from God himself.  Given that it comes from the incomprehensibly complex mind of God, it follows that God’s law is not simplistic or reductionistic.  Accordingly, the Torah-oriented life can’t be reduced to one dimensional commandment living.  Brueggemann may put this too strongly, but he is surely headed in the right direction when he says, “Torah is a starting point, a launching pad from which to mount our on-going conversation with God….  So Psalm 119 explores a wide range of issues related to faith—not the whole of biblical faith, but the indispensable beginning point.”

So the heart of our 8 verses for today is this prayer that the God who gave his law now teach us what it means and how to keep it.  What deeper meaning could there be?  Our other lectionary readings for today give us a hint.  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 (especially verse 18) and Matthew 5:38-48 focus on love for neighbors and even enemies.  This is the heart of Torah, which could be and has been easily missed if we focus on all the negative “thou shalt not’s.”  We can’t see the forest of love for all the trees of law.  Jesus criticized the Pharisees for doing this very thing in Matthew 23:23.  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin.  But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”  Clearly, Jesus was talking about the centrality of love for neighbor that demonstrates our love for God.

This is not a problem limited to ancient Jewish legalists.  In my own Dutch Reformed tradition, for example, there was once such an emphasis on Sabbath observance and on being separate from the world by avoiding “worldly amusements” that we paid virtually no attention to loving our unbelieving neighbors.  Our idea of witnessing was to tell our neighbor that she shouldn’t cut her lawn on Sunday.  And our righteousness consisted largely in what we did not do.  We were obedient “do be’s,” filled with both self-righteousness and guilt.  We needed to pray with the Psalmist, “Teach me, O Lord, so that I can understand” not only the letter, but also the spirit of the law, pairing careful obedience with other centered love.  Psalm 119:33-40 is a great text for any community that tends toward legalism.

That is even more obvious when we notice that this is the “he” stanza of Psalm 119.  Remember that Psalm 119 is an extended alphabetic acrostic, each of its 22 sections corresponding to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  This is the section in which each of the 8 verses begins with the Hebrew letter “he.”  One enterprising Hebrew scholar points out that “he” is the characteristic letter of causative verbs.  That suggests that each of the verbs in the first clause of each verse is the cause of the action in the second clause of each verse.  So, “teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees” is the cause of “then I will keep them to the end.”  “Give me understanding” is the cause of “and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart.”  And so forth.

This tells us something profound.  God’s gracious action is the cause of our obedient reaction.  In other words, we cannot keep God’s law in our own wisdom and strength.  It is only by God’s grace that we can live by his law.  Obedience requires God’s prior grace.  This is precisely where so many well-intended moral renewal projects go wrong.  I remember reading Benjamin Franklin’s list of rules for self-improvement, and being impressed and depressed.  He and we need God to teach us again and again that merely having God’s rules for happy living will not make us happy.  We cannot keep them unless the grace of God gives us a push, keeps us going, guides our progress, and forgives our failures.

Note how Psalm 119:33-40 asks a gracious God to do all those things.  “Turn my heart toward your statutes” sounds like “give me a push.”  “Give me understanding” suggests “keep me going.”  “Turn my eyes away from worthless things” is the prayer of someone who has not kept her eyes on the prize and has strayed off the path.  And “fulfill your promise” and “take away the disgrace I dread” can be read as a reference to salvation following disobedience.  Each of the petitions in this stanza of Psalm 119 is a prayer for God’s grace as we undertake an obedient life.

When I think about all of that, it is clear to me that Psalm 119 (like the rest of the Law and the Prophets, ala Luke 24:27) points to Christ in a number of ways.  Most obviously, Jesus was the great Teacher of the Law.  The legal experts of his day tried to convict him of false teaching with a trick question in Matthew 22:36.  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  In the spirit of what I said above about the heart of the Law, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God…. Love your neighbor as yourself….”  But he also upheld the letter of the law, even down to its depths, as he so clearly demonstrated in the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5:17-20.  Jesus is the teacher for whom Psalm 119 prays.  And Jesus is the bearer of the grace we need to keep that law (cf. Romans 8:1-4 to which I alluded last week and II Cor. 3:18).

But best of all, Jesus takes care of our disobedience, so that we do not suffer the penalties so fearfully promised in Deuteronomy 30.  He kept the law perfectly, not simply to show us how to do it, but even more to atone for our not doing it.  Usually, when we think of atonement, we focus on his sacrificial death for our sins, but his obedience of God’s law was also crucial to our salvation.

The letter to the Hebrews emphasizes Christ’s passive obedience, his atoning death, but it also stresses his active obedience.  Think of these mysterious words from Hebrews 5:7ff.  “During the days of Jesus life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him….(emphasis mine)”

And Hebrews 10, that locus classicus for the doctrine of Christ’s once for sacrificial death, also highlights the importance of Christ’s obedience to God’s written will.  Quoting from Psalm 40, the writer of Hebrews puts these words in Jesus’ mouth.  “Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God.’”

Psalm 119 assures God’s people that the way to blessed living is to walk faithfully in the Law of God.  But, given our sin, that assurance of Psalm 119 is good news only when God teaches us the Law’s true meaning, when God’s grace enables our obedience, and when Christ is at the center of our obedient faith and the cause of our forgiveness.  Otherwise, the Law causes us to cry out, “What a wretched man I am!  Who shall rescue me from this body of death?”  If we read Psalm 119 in the light of the Gospel, we can cry instead, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  (Romans 7:24-25)

Note: Sermon resources for Year A Lent and Holy Week are up on our website.

Illustration Idea

Imagine a class of first grade students.  They are sitting in a state-of-the-art classroom with all the latest technology at their disposal.  In front of them on brand new desks are volumes of the very best first grade curricular material.  But there is no teacher in the room.  Though they have all they need at their fingertips, they will not learn and grow and thrive without a teacher. That is why Psalm 119:33-40 is a prayer for a Teacher.


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