Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 30, 2023
Psalm 119:129-136 Commentary
A Bible reader could plunk down most anywhere in the Bible’s longest psalm and read pretty much the same kind of thing. For this week the Lectionary has chosen the 17th of Psalm 119’s 22 sections. Maybe as a nod toward the sheer length of this ode to God’s Law, each section corresponds to a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the first word in each line in that section starts with that Hebrew letter. So verses 1-8 all start with א Aleph and then the next 8 verses all start with a word with the Hebrew equivalent of B, and so forth. Our section is פ Pe or the Hebrew equivalent of P. Acrostics of this nature were aids to memorization.
Again, however, if one were to memorize all 176 verses, another aid to such memorizing would be the relative sameness of it all. To put it mildly, the psalmist throughout this poem evinces a head-over-heels love for God’s Law that might feel foreign to some of us today. Most all of us recognize the need for laws and rules in life, in society, and everywhere. Roads need prudent speed limits, property owners can regulate who may or may not come onto their land and whether they would allow something like hunting on their property. Households need rules to maintain good order and parents usually set limits with an eye toward keeping their children as safe as possible.
But as many of us experienced in the COVID pandemic, most people hold the view that we want as few rules as possible. Anything perceived as government over-reach will cause trouble and just generally we tend to chafe under rules and regulations that strike us as arbitrary. People are forever pushing the boundaries on speed limits on the roads even as we sometimes bump into rules to which we respond, “Well, that’s just dumb.”
So we are startled perhaps to hear from this psalmist so great a longing to receive more commands from God that he compares himself to a person panting for a drink of water when he is on the brink of dehydration on a hot summer day. God’s statutes are said to be like light shining in an otherwise dark place. The rules of God are “wonderful.” And at the thought of people not obeying God’s laws, this psalmist bursts into tears. If God said to this person, “I’ve got more rules—would you like to hear them?” then one could only imagine this person saying, “Oh yes, my Lord! Bring them on! Let me have them! I am going to swoon over these new rules too!”
Receiving laws from God is to this person what receiving an ice cream cone is to the average child. A treat!
What can explain this sentiment in these verses and all throughout Psalm 119? The foundation of all this has to be the ardent belief that God has our best interests at heart. In that sense this is what good parents want their children to believe about also household rules. Curfews, rules governing courtesy and mutual respect, expectations that everyone will pitch in to help the household run smoothly, rules governing what kinds of TV shows or movies children may or may not watch or how many hours they spend each day on a screen: these are all meant to contribute to flourishing, to safety, to learning how to be decent people and solid citizens.
The Law for Israel (Israel at its best anyway) was seen as a gift. We often pit Law against Grace as though they are opposite poles. But things like the Ten Commandments and all of God’s other regulations and statutes were seen as grace. That is why you would never chafe under such rules but give thanks for them, see them as a source of light and life, not as some smothering attempt at total control or a clipping of someone’s wings or a curtailing of personal freedom.
The Book of Deuteronomy is one long address or sermon from Moses to the new generation of Israelites who were going to at long last go in to take possession of the Promised Land. But this was not the generation that had stood at Mount Sinai some forty years earlier to hear God give the Law for the first time. So they need a refresher course. The English title of the book is from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scripture: deuteros nomos, or “the second law” or better put, “the law the second time around.” The Hebrew title for the book derives from Deuteronomy’s opening line “These Are the Words.” These are the words Moses spoke to the people to remind them of God’s laws and rules.
The book climaxes in Deuteronomy 30 when Moses challenges Israel: “Now choose life!” In the good land that they were about to enter, they would face a choice: choose life by following God’s decrees or choose death by ignoring them. It’s not that different for any of us even though we know we live in the grace of Christ Jesus. But when you know that all God has spoken and decreed is there for our delight, our flourishing, our very life, then it’s not a hard choice at all.
If you believe God wants the best for you, it changes your whole way of seeing everything, starting with rules and commandments and going from there.
The recent release of the latest—and apparently the last—movie in the Indiana Jones franchise reminds me of a scene in the third film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which actor Sean Connery plays the role of Henry Jones, Sr., father of Harrison Ford’s Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. The father and son had clearly had a complicated and somewhat fraught relationship over the years and it becomes clear that there had been more than a little distance between them too.
But at one point the senior Jones claims that he had been a great father. In this scene, Jones Sr. claims the proof that he had been a wonderful father was, “Did I ever tell you to eat up, wash behind your ears, go to bed, do your homework? No, and I taught you self-reliance.” In response Indiana essentially says that he could have appreciated more rules and structure if it could have assured him that he mattered more to his father than people who had lived “500 years ago in a different country.” Setting boundaries and enforcing them would have conveyed that his father saw his son and cared for him.
And that is pretty much how the writer of Psalm 119 viewed God and all of his commands too.
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