Given a choice, what busy preacher would preach on this reading from Psalm 119? I mean, it is stanza #17 in an endlessly long, apparently meandering, often boring meditation on a subject that most of your listeners won’t care about at all, namely, the importance and beauty of God’s law.
Some brands of Christianity don’t want to talk about Law at all, seeing it as abrogated by God’s grace in Christ. Even Reformed Christians who still think the Law of God is an important part of the Christian life (the famous third use of the Law, about which I’ll say a bit more later), that is, even the likes of me would rather talk about Jesus than Law. And your un-churched seeker dedicated to doing her own thing will be completely turned off by any insistence on objectively defined right and wrong. So why not move on to the other reading from the Old Testament or the reading from the Gospels or the Epistles? Well, consider the following observations.
First, Psalm 119, and this section in particular, is not quite as meandering as it seems at first reading. There actually is a rational movement here. Verses 129-131 are wisdom like statements about the beauty and utility of Torah. It is “wonderful,” it “gives light and understanding,” so that the writer longs for it with a breathless passion. Torah is a means of grace, the means by which God, here addressed familiarly as “you,” connects with and directs his beloved people.
Verses 132-135 is a series of petitions in which the divine “You” is asked to help us live by Torah. We cannot keep Torah by ourselves. We tend to wander from its well laid out paths. We are prone to sin. There are people who would hinder our obedience. We need God’s mercy and grace to know it, obey it, love it, and live by it. Only with God’s help will Torah be for us the delight that it is.
And then verse 136 is an expression of dismay worthy of the Apostle Paul and even our Lord himself. “Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.” Here is a real challenge for modern Christians. How much are we bothered by the lawlessness of our day? Do we weep over the sinfulness of our world? Or have we become hardened by the spirit of lawlessness that has taken hold of our culture? In Romans 1:32 Paul speaks a word that I find devastating. “Although they know God’s righteous decrees that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them.” Is that us? Does Psalm 119:136 call us to wake up and repent of moral torpor?
Or think of Jesus in Luke 19:41-44 weeping over Jerusalem, because its inhabitants didn’t recognize “the time of God’s coming to you.” God’s own Word had become flesh and dwelt among them, but his own received him not. Rejection of God’s ultimate revelation of “the Way, the Truth and the Life” made Jesus weep. Or think of Paul’s deep distress over the pagan ignorance of the Athenians (Acts 17:16). I know, this is not an acceptable response to religious diversity in a tolerant society. But if David and Paul and Jesus could weep over what people have done with God’s revelation, we should at least consider it. Or maybe all this will convince you that you should skip this Psalm and move on to other, more pleasant passages of Scripture.
Second, as all students of Psalm 119 know, it is structured by the Hebrew alphabet. There are 22 stanzas in Psalm 119 and each of those stanzas corresponds to a successive letter of that alphabet, from aleph to taw. On top of that, each of those alphabetical stanzas has eight verses, each of which begins with the letter that heads that stanzas. So our reading for today centers on the letter Pe and the first word of each word begins with Pe. That alphabetical structure accounts for what seems to be a disconnected collection of thoughts. What seems to be random is in fact very structured.
The more poetically inclined among your listeners may be mildly interested in this literary feature of Psalm 119, but most will say, “Who cares?” You might be able to grab the attention of the philosophers in your church with these mystical thoughts from the ancient rabbis, as summarized by Patrick Henry Reardon. “The way Psalm 119 is structured by the Hebrew alphabet is a poetic way of asserting that the Law of God is the inner core and essential substance of human language. The primary function of language is the formation of thought in accord with reality, and the world’s deepest created reality… is the Torah, the eternal Law of God, on which the inner being of all created reality is based. The Torah reflects in turn the very being of God, and the final purpose of language is to lead man’s thought to the knowledge of God.” Torah is not so much a list of rules as it is the revelation of God’s own nature. Living by Torah connects us with the Ultimate Reality of the universe.
Walter Brueggemann says something similar, but more practical. Those who live by Torah have made some basic life commitments. “They know to whom they belong, and they will answer. Therefore, they know who they are, and they have settled in large part the moral posture they will assume toward life. There is a focus to life, an absence of frantic moral dilemma, a sense of priorities matched by an absence of anxiety. In a well-ordered world [a world ordered by God’s revealed Will], such a decision can save one from an exhausting, endless reinventing of moral decision.” This take on Psalm 119 may well appeal to your ever striving, always stretching, often desperate millennials who might welcome a fixed point in this turning world.
But shouldn’t that fixed point be Christ, rather than Torah? This is probably the biggest challenge in preaching on the beauty of God’s law; Christ is a more beautiful Savior, a Savior from that very Law. After all, however beautiful the Law may be, we cannot keep it, no matter how much we pray Psalm 119. What we need to preach over and over is the message of Paul in Romans 8:1-4. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 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 righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.”
Why even bother with Psalm 119:129-136? Well, consider Emily Dickinson’s famous words about telling the truth. “Tell it slant.” We must be careful not to preach the same simple sermon about Jesus over and over. Christ and his saving work is multi-faceted, and we need to take care to expose the full beauty of our Savior. Coming at the Gospel through a Psalm like this can provide a different angle, a fresh slant on the Gospel.
Reardon helps us in this direction. He points out that Christians have always believed that God’s eternal Word has become flesh for us and for our salvation. Call him Word, Logos, Wisdom, Way, Truth, or any of the 8 words Psalm 119 uses for the revealed will of God. The point is that Jesus is the fulfillment of Torah, as he himself said in Matthew 5:17. The Torah, then, speaks of Christ. It points us to Christ and is fulfilled in Christ. As the Latin fathers said, he is God’s Word abbreviated, in the sense that all God has to say is summed up in him.
We can preach Christ from Psalm 119 in at least two ways, maybe even three. We could read it as the prayer of Christ himself, filled with resolve to do the Father’s will. He was the faithful suffering servant, obedient unto death. Hebrews 5:7-9 give some warrant for reading Psalm 119 this way. “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….” Read verses 129-136 again as the prayer of Jesus. It makes good homiletical sense.
Or we could preach these words as a description of Christ himself. All the words of praise directed here to the Torah are even more fitting as a tribute to the excellencies of the Word made flesh. On the Emmaus Road, Jesus said that Moses and the Prophets, all Scripture, was about him. Insert the name of Jesus wherever you find the words for Law, and you will say some glorious things about who Jesus is and what he does for sinful humans.
Or we could preach on Psalm 119 in accordance with the third use of the law revered in Reformed circles. Our lives are focused on Christ and Christ alone. We must live in love and gratitude toward him. But the Law of God gives shape to our love and gratitude. We focus on God’s law, not as a ladder that leads to salvation, but as a guide for our gratitude. In a world that is careening out of control morally, we should be grateful for guardrails. Christ, who is all we need, has shown us the Way to live, the Truth about the good life, so that we can have Life that is full and free. “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”
In Donna Tart’s national best seller, The Goldfinch, we read this description of the utter meaningless of life. The main character, Theo Dekker, has sunk into a profound depression about his miserable life. “But depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people kept breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.”
After a scathing rant about the events of the average human life, Theo ends with this. “But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom. Putting in your time at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home. It was better never to have been born—never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything.”
Psalm 119 offers a view of life, centered on the Will of God and anticipating the Incarnation of that Will in Jesus, that offers the only sure hope to the Theo Dekker’s of the world.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 30, 2017
Psalm 119:129-136 Commentary