One of the things I like about poetry is its capacity to say a lot in a short space, in just a few words. And so I rarely see the point of long poems…
So you can probably imagine that my heart sank at the idea of preaching on Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it.
But it’s not just the length of Ps 119 that made my heart sink. For the English reader or listener, Ps 119 is kind of shapeless. It rambles around meditatively – and repetitively. There is a clear focus to all the reflections – but no narrative thread or logical progression.
But, while Ps 119 may seem shapeless in English, in the original Hebrew it has a very clear formal shape. It’s an acrostic, in 22 chunks (or stanzas), one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each chunk consists of 8 sentences, each beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. So for instance the first 8 sentences all start with the Hebrew letter aleph and the next eight with beth and so on.
A British Catholic, Ronald Knox, translated Psalm 119 into English using the same pattern. We’ll hear one letter’s worth of his translation, after we hear the NRSV translation of the same verses, 9 to 16, just to get a feel of how this works:
9 How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
10 With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments.
11 I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.
13 With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth.
14 I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches.
15 I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.
16 I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.
A number of commentators see the first verse of our reading, verse 9, as the key to the psalm, that is the question “How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word” or “By keeping to your word.” The whole psalm, then, is an answer to the question of how a young person can learn to be faithful to God. The heart of the answer is a deep commitment to and love for God’s word.
This answer holds true for any faithful Israelite, not just for the psalmist, and for all of us who ask the question, “How can we keep our way pure?” Walter Brueggemann talks about Israel as a community of joyful obedience. In the fragility and vulnerability that followed Israel’s return from exile (when the psalms were probably being edited into their final shape), this community needed identity and comfort. It found that in its relationship with Yahweh and its commitment to living within the tradition and the story.
Brueggemann says that Israel’s horizon is defined by the Torah, that they accept Yahweh as the “horizon of life”. Imagine being on a hill top or in a wide valley – or a 13th floor flat and looking into the distance. In that word horizon there’s openness and the reassurance of knowing that wherever Israel looks, she is still looking at the world of Yahweh – but there’s also a sense of an edge, a boundary to contain us and protect us.
Well, that was all by way of introduction. In thinking about how to preach on Psalm 119 I decided to focus on two main questions, what scripture is to the psalmist and how he experiences scripture.
So, to pull some of that together, we noticed a good number of different ways the psalmist refers to the scripture. Many are connected with direction – in both senses of the word. God’s word is directive, giving instruction and commandment, and it points out a path, a direction, a pattern of life for the faithful.
In our Western, 21st century culture, commandment and direction may not sound very welcome. Yet if we move to our second question, how does the psalmist experience scripture, I’m struck by the joy and delight and sense of freedom in God’s word.
Let’s take one example, verse 96: “I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad.”
The language and sentiment of “I have seen a limit to all perfection” remind me of Ecclesiastes, In Ecclesiastes nothing makes sense and choosing God and God’s commandments is an expression of faithfulness in spite of everything not because of the rewards. By contrast with Ecclesiastes, Psalm 119’s overall mood is positive and confident. Brueggemannn describes it as a psalm of orientation. There are some tastes of bewilderment and pain – “81 My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word. 82 My eyes fail with watching for your promise; I ask, "When will you comfort me? 83 For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten your statutes. 84 How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?” But it’s as if the psalmist has had brushes with the world of Ecclesiastes - . “I have seen a limit to all perfection” – and then found himself rescued by God’s word – “but your commandment is exceedingly broad.” The psalmist is intent on keeping God’s commandment but for him this is not narrow and limiting. It puts him on a broad open path in pleasant places. Indeed verse 45 of Psalm 119 captures just this sentiment: “I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought your precepts.”
Veronica’s headline for this sermon on Psalm 119 was “the Bible is there to benefit us not to condemn us”. And this psalm certainly sets out plenty of benefits of the Bible. Happiness or blessedness go hand in hand with keeping God’s commandments. Obviously that’s only one side of the story – bad things DO happen to good people – and in Brueggemann’s terms this psalm is part of the bible’s core testimony about Yahweh and must be taken alongside the bible’s voices of counter-testimony. But there are many other benefits which would hold true even in times of trial. God’s word delights the psalmist, revives him, keeps him from sin, gives him hope, sustains him through misery, gives him wisdom and understanding, gives him light and peace and keeps him from stumbling. God’s decrees are counsellors for him – a beautiful picture of scripture as companion and adviser.
And if this all sounds a bit self-centred, let’s notice two of the psalmist’s prayers. In verse 36 he pleads, “Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain”. In meditating on God’s precepts and fixing his heart on God’s ways the psalmist does expect some response from God – but he also expects to be transformed into a less selfish person – perhaps we could even say a more generous person, more committed to the welfare of the weak who are protected by God’s law, like the widow, the orphan and the stranger. And though he trusts that his obedience will translate into a good outcome – “173 Let your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts” – he is also determined that any good outcome for him will be a good outcome for God too, for he will have the opportunity to continue being obedient and praising God. To quote verses 88 & 175: “88 In your steadfast love spare my life, so that I may keep the decrees of your mouth… 175 Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances help me.”
As I finish, let’s return to our headline: “the Bible is there to benefit us not to condemn us”. The psalmist delights in scripture. It is his constant companion. The delight and constant companionship feed each other. Maybe there is something there for us to appropriate for ourselves in our personal lives. But I think there are corporate benefits too, to our wider community as we turn our hearts to God’s ways and not to selfish gain, and to our church community. Brueggemann describes Israel at the time of the psalms as marginalised (a new word to me!) and “a vulnerable, outsider community, endlessly at risk, without serious social power”. They find a dependable reassuring constancy in commitment and obedience to God. For the church generally in post-Christendom Britain – and for us as a congregation as we learn to live without Lesley and without the building in Shepherds Hill - perhaps a love for and obedience to the bible is one response to feeling fragile, vulnerable and on the margins. Beneficial indeed…