Dear Christ Church Family,
Well, it’s back! I mean Psalm 119. It’s the really long one that’s hard to read and even harder to understand. It has something amazing to tell us, though, so hang in there and have a look at what the Psalmist is trying to tell us. If we do, we just might gain a deeper understanding of Jesus too.
Wednesday, May 20, 2020 RCL Daily Office Readings, Year 2
Alcuin of York
Psalm 119: In defense of a much-maligned Psalm. Whenever this Psalm comes up in the Rota (and this is the second time since I first started these devotionals), the attempt to really read it through in one sitting usually turns into a slog. The fact is, it is tedious. The themes are repetitive, and seemingly without coherence. It’s easy to see that it is about God’s Law, but just like a law book, it can feel pedantic, cerebral and dense.
Yes, those criticisms can seem justified, until we understand what the Psalmist is attempting to do. The Psalmist is attempting to create a great piece of literature that will forever stand in praise of the great gift of God’s Law to God’s people. While most Psalms will follow a certain style or form, what the Psalmist is doing is taking nearly every form of Psalm – petitions, laments, psalms of trust and confidence in God, meditations, wisdom sayings – and mixing them together into one single work of praise.
To do this, the Psalmist creates a literary device of letters and numbers to organize the whole thing. The whole Psalm is an alphabetical acrostic. It consists of 176 verses, (which, of course, makes it the longest psalm of all), which are arranged as a series of 22 stanzas of eight verses each. Now here’s the hard part for this author: each verse in a given eight-verse stanza must begin with the same letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. There are 22 letters in that alphabet, hence each stanza is formed around one letter of that alphabet. It’s the Hebrew equivalent of going from A to Z. (Though in Hebrew that would be from A, Alef, to T, Tav.) If that isn’t hard enough, the Psalmist applies one further challenge: since this Psalm is in praise of God’s Law, every verse in every stanza must mention the law. To do that, the Psalmist uses eight synonyms for the Law: law, decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances, word, and promise.
Now despite how artificially contrived this might all seem, the Psalmist in accomplishing this piece of literature did manage to show just how central God’s gift of the Law was to the identity of God’s people. In this light we are to understand that the purpose of the Law is that it gives people their sense of who they are. The Law also gives a person freedom by giving them a lamp with which to see the path of life for themselves. (As in verse 105 today; my personal favorite of the 176.) Further, rather than being a sour demanding burden, the person who takes delight in it will find it sweet to the taste, a way to live life with joy.
All this explanation about this Psalm, then, is to help us understand the centrality of God’s Law in ancient Israel. But that’s not the biggest reason for explaining this Psalm. More importantly to us right now, is that knowing this helps us to better understand Jesus. This understanding is why Jesus called himself the fulfillment of the Law. Yes, he condemned those who abused its precepts to abuse God’s people, but the Law itself was still something righteous and good in his eyes. In contrast to those who would use the Law to “lay heavy burdens” on a person (see Matt. 23:1-4), Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle (compassionate) and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy (kind and good), and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30.)
As the fulfillment of the Law, Jesus’ life and teaching make the Law plain, and our life’s purpose clear. When asked to explain it he said, “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. On this hangs all the law and the Prophets.” So, the next time you attempt to read Psalm 119, use the love of Jesus as your metaphor for the Law. That will make it come to life.