Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 10, 2023
Psalm 119:33-40 Commentary
The Lectionary now and again plunks down into some seemingly random segment in the sprawling Hebrew acrostic that just is Psalm 119. This week’s Year A lection lands us in the fifth section in which every Hebrew word in the first line of these 8 verses begins with the Hebrew letter ה or He, the fifth letter in the alphabet. Most of Psalm 119 sounds pretty similar section to section and so aside from yet another general celebration of God’s laws, statutes, commands, rules, etc., what is there to note in these verses? What is striking and interesting here?
As I read these verses over, I was struck by something you perhaps notice too. The psalmist makes no bones about the fact that he delights in God’s commands. The whole psalm bears witness to a kind of head-over-heels love affair with the Law of God. The Law is gorgeous, beautiful, elegant. The Law is a source of joy and light and life and delight. Following the Law is the path to beatitude and reward and flourishing. There is no missing the fact that the author of Psalm 119 knows full well that the Law is the path to shalom. Period. Full stop.
That is why it is curious in this section of the psalm that the psalmist also has to all-but beg God to keep him on the path of righteousness. Look at the string of verbs here:
Help me to understand.
Turn . . . my heart to you.
Turn . . . my eyes from looking at worthless things.
Take away disgrace.
Apparently even someone as in love with God’s Law as this poet clearly is even so needs help. Apparently even someone who knows full well in his head how good God’s statutes are needs assistance to keep his feet from wandering off into worthless territory or into pursuits aimed less at pleasing God and more about feathering the psalmist’s own nest for personal, selfish gain (vs. 33).
In other words tucked into these 8 verses is a portrait in which we can all recognize ourselves. In this sinful and broken world, even those with the best of intentions and who know right from wrong as well as any human being can have a lifelong tug-o-war with themselves to stay true to God and to God’s ways. To invoke a phrase Fred Craddock once used in a sermon, we are each of us perpetually crucified between the sky of our best intentions and the earthly reality of everyday life. Or to invoke the Apostle Paul: the good that I would do I cannot do. At least not consistently.
How’s that for honesty in Psalm 119? “You, O God, have given us everything we need to know on how to live life in this world in the best, safest, most fulfilling way. But we are constantly knocked sideways by competing ideas and if the things that lure us to veer left or right sometimes come from outside of ourselves, often times we confess those tempting tugs come from right inside our own hearts. Help us! Teach and direct and remind us. And do this all the time, Lord God!”
In the Bible there is a pretty consistent theme critiquing any form of self-righteousness. It seems to be the #1 item that upset Jesus when it came to the outwardly pious—but inwardly often wretched—Pharisees. Yes, hypocrisy was in the mix, too, what with Jesus’s mention of their being like “white-washed tombs” and all. But mostly it was the smugness of those who thought they had morality and righteousness all buttoned up on their own that irked Jesus.
Because among other things that is what kept them from again and again relying not on their own moral super powers but on God alone to guide, remind, forgive, renew. The Pharisees and those of their ilk all through history needed God for mostly just one thing: to punch their entry ticket to heaven. And make no mistake: they had that entry ticket in hand because of one reason: they had earned it. They had done it all on their own. It is the spectacle of the Rich Young Man: “I’ve got this righteousness thing all sewn up, Jesus. What do I still lack?” The implied answer was “Nothing.” All God can do for this man is reward him for his self-made path into the kingdom.
Well, said Jesus, not quite.
“Preserve my life!” the psalmist begs at the end of this section of the psalm. That is the honest cri de coeur of someone who “gets it” when it comes to reliance on God alone. The Rich Young Man walked away from Jesus with sadness. One can only hope that one day he discovered the path to joy once he realized there was a grace available to forgive what he could not do well and a Holy Spirit available to pick him up and brush him off every time he stumbled on Righteousness Road.
That is what one takes away from this part of Psalm 119, too. The Law leads to joy but so does knowing how much we need God to get us there.
A fitting song that could be sung in the worship service where a sermon on Psalm 119:33-40 is preached—at least if preached on along the lines suggested in this sermon commentary—is the song Lead Me, Guide Me. Because this song nicely captures the dynamics of recognizing how good it is to stay on the path of righteousness God has mapped out for us while at the same time knowing how prone we are to wander off that road.
“I am lost if you take your hand from me, I am blind without Thy light to see.”
That lyric nicely captures the overarching sentiment of this part of Psalm 119. It also reminds me of the oft-quoted line attributed to the writer Samuel Johnson that for most of us a lot of the time “We need less often to be instructed than reminded.” True, there are those situations in life that present us with genuine moral quandaries. A lot of the time, though, we know right from wrong. We just can’t get the right choice made without a lot of help by God’s guiding Holy Spirit.
Note: If you choose to preach on Psalm 149 this week, here is a commentary on the CEP website: https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2017-09-04/psalm-149/
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