Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 6, 2020
Psalm 119:33-40 Commentary
The PBS show Sesame Street traditionally included as part of their educational efforts the opening line for each episode, “Today’s program is brought to you by the letter B . . .” Or it was by the letter R or E or G or whatever. That letter would then get woven throughout the episode in teaching vocabulary words that begin with the letter d’jour.
So for this Psalm lection I could also say to you, “This week’s Psalm selection is brought to you by the letter ‘He’” because that is the Hebrew letter to which this section of Psalm 119 is dedicated. Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem with each of its 22 sections dedicated to a successive Hebrew letter (the Hebrew equivalent of from A-Z) and with each line of that section beginning with a word that begins with that letter of the Hebrew alphabet. If it were possible to replicate this in translation—and it’s really not—each of the 8 verses in this section would start with the letter H.
In truth, though, that acrostic device probably sets off each section of this longest Psalm better than the content of each section. The parts of this poem tend to blur together to a degree. The entire Psalm is a celebration of God’s Law and so routinely includes every synonym for “law” that you can imagine. The basic idea of the entire Psalm—and of each of its individual sections—is that our greatest delight as human beings ought to be in the knowing of and the following of God’s decrees, statutes, rules, laws, commands.
This fifth section of the Psalm is no different. In a sense I am tempted to say that there is not a lot to say about this repetition across all 176 verses of Psalm 119. Were a cynical person to sum up this poem, he or she might say “I take delight in all your laws, O God, yada, yada, yada.” Because honestly, it does not take long to get the upshot and gist of this psalm. Still, there are some things we could notice from this snippet of the larger poem. One thing that stands out here is how well our human situation comes through when you really stop to think about it.
Because on the one hand the psalmist wants to say that God’s ways and laws are his source of delight, are life itself, are the precepts that make for flourishing and a good life. There is an abiding love for God’s Law, a zestful enthusiasm to know God’s commands. This delight seems to be presented not just as some kind of pious aspiration but as an already-present reality in the poet’s soul. Throughout Psalm 119 it seems that this delight in God’s ways is presented in the indicative mood of the verbs: “Right now I do take delight in all your laws . . . Your ways are my very life.”
And yet . . . in verses 33-40 there is something else woven in: a fierce desire for God to cause the psalmist to take this delight, for God to teach these commands, for God to direct the psalmist to the right paths, for God to turn the poet’s eyes away from worthless things. All of that kind of language sounds a bit aspirational after all, or at least it indicates that whatever delight in God’s ways the psalmist is able to talk about, that’s not quite the end of the story. Somehow or another the psalmist’s delight in God’s ways seems a touch precarious after all.
Probably if we are honest we can all say that we identify with this posture. On the one hand we know God’s ways are the right ways. We know that God’s Law was all along a gift given to us, the spiritual equivalent of an Owner’s Manual for an appliance or car—something we need in order to know what’s what and how to operate a given thing. God’s rules—we know deep down—are not arbitrary hoops for us to jump through to satisfy some divine desire to see us perform but are instead more like guardrails to keep our lives on track and to keep us out of life’s many ditches. God gave us rules not to make us chafe in unhappiness but to unleash our true happiness by living according to how God set things up in this creation. God wants our lives to be characterized by order, not chaos. Coloring inside God’s lines and living happily inside God’s moral boundary fences is how we flourish in this world.
We know all that. And yet . . . the temptation to go our own way is ever present. In our sinful natures we rebel against the law now and then, we think we know better than God, we’re pretty sure that some good could come if we trot down some of the world’s paths that ostensibly lead to success and wealth and prestige. We are all of us the person Paul sketches in the well-known section of Romans 7 and all that material on “The good that I would, I do not; and the bad that I would not, I do.”
And so we come to a central dynamic of the life of faith and it is what the New Testament will call our constant dying and rising with Christ. In baptism our “old self” is in one sense drowned, killed off. And yet although that is spiritually true and we are given a new birth, the old self somehow manages to still have its kicks this side of being fully renewed in the resurrection at the last day. We continue to battle what the Apostle Paul calls “the flesh” and it seems that we none of us are quite finished with that battle.
All by itself, that is not Good News, and in our preaching we ought to want to proclaim Good News and hope. But even in Psalm 119 the pleas for God to direct the steps of the psalmist are offered in the firm hope that God will do just that. And if this poet writing centuries before the advent of God’s Messiah could have that hope, how much greater is our post-Pentecost hope in that we now have no less than God’s own Holy Spirit living in us as a kind of internal spiritual compass?
Even with the Spirit we don’t always do it right. The tightrope walk we see reflected in Psalm 119 mirrors how the New Testament often talks: on the one hand and by the Spirit we already are a New Creation. On the other hand and despite the Spirit, the apostles often need to follow up that good news about our new spiritual status with urgent words to “keep step with the Spirit” and to “put to death the sinful nature still within you.” It’s a bit of a see-saw. We might all wish it were not such a struggle. But the main mistake we could make in this area is to pretend that it is not a struggle, that on our own we’ve got this thing covered and don’t need to keep asking God—as the psalmist does—to direct our steps and to keep teaching us God’s ways and to keep reminding us of who we are.
Humility demands that we be honest about our struggles to keep doing what we know to be right. But that’s OK: the humble heart is also the teachable heart and that is the heart—softened by the living presence of the Holy Spirit—that can be led along those righteous paths of God’s Law that alone bring life, and life abundant at that.
Some of the struggles we all have with sin–and with our perpetual temptation to deviate from the Law of God that we know deep down is our true source of life–is captured by this poem, this hymn of confession by John Donne:
A Hymn to God the Father
By John Donne
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
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