< November 01, 2009 >

Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

 

Christians generally have not been in love with Psalm 119.

It is too long: 187 verses, the longest chapter in the Bible. It has the "law" as its major interest or theme, repeatedly using synonyms to make the point. If taken seriously, it might undo all our efforts to set people free from the burdens which a law-oriented life might impose on its unfortunate victims. Besides, Ephesians 2:15 clearly says that, "we who are in Christ," are set free from such obligations.

But the "law" was not an alien subject years ago when we old-timers went to seminary. Especially in homiletics class we were urged to preach both law and Gospel. Preferably, one should prepare the hearers for the Gospel by using the law to convict them of their sins. Then they would gladly hear the good news of God's forgiveness. Perhaps that is why the catechism begins with an explanation of the Ten Commandments rather than with Baptism where our life of faith began.

Living with Psalm 119 for some weeks has opened up, for this writer, a more positive approach, one which probably is nearer that of our psalmist. Here we find one who was so in love with God, so full of joy and thankfulness, that the law is received as a special gift. It is as if a bride has been given a diamond ring from her groom. It is a sure sign of promises made and love freely given.

So, holding it up to the light is a continual source of joy and assurance. Even in times of sadness or tension, it is something to admire. The psalmist sees God as the Creator of all that exists, including the psalmist's own life. Yahweh is the one who rescued Israel from slavery and has all human history in his hand. The covenant at Sinai was a special event when Israel became the chosen and covenanted people of God. The gift of a land, and the choosing of Zion as the Lord's dwelling place on earth, combine with everything else to make the psalmist's heart overfull of praise and thankfulness. No wonder those who put together Israel's hymnal, the Psalter, included this outpouring of one person's heart to be used by generations of worshipers since.

Can a Christian congregation appropriate this? Are we too antinomian to find a place in our theology or lives for such a great love song? Wouldn't this endanger us into becoming law-oriented Christians? Would someone misunderstand and think that salvation is something for which to strive rather than a gift?

What would or did Jesus do? He obviously believed the law to be God-given. While he may, at times, have disagreed with some of his fellow Jews as to how to observe the law, he did not throw it out or live an ungodly life. He knew that even religious people needed guidance in their daily lives. The One who created life and the world was the only One wise enough to show people how to live here. Human laws, cultures, philosophies, left to themselves, always find ways to exonerate one or more of the seven deadly sins.

A cartoon in the St. Paul Dispatch some months ago depicted American culture as scratching out greed. Three theologians on TV recently classified greed as America's chief virtue. So Christians need God's guidance for their economic, political, social lives. Rather, than get rid of the law as an Old Testament relic, we are, in this psalm, invited to praise God for it. Where would we be without it?

Scholarly Aids:
As with the rest of the Bible, there are many commentaries on the Psalms. Not all of them show appreciation of Psalm 119. Some see it as a move toward legalism. Because Psalm 119 is so long, most commentaries have few helps on any one of its 8 line, 22 stanzas. We are dealing with only one of these (verses 1-8), whose every line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Psalm 119 is thus called an acrostic psalm with each stanza moving up the alphabet one letter. The poet who wrote it thus shows considerable creativity which no translator has tried to follow. To do so would require us to begin each of the 8 lines of our text with a word beginning with 'a,' the next 8 lines with 'b,' and so on.

Of the many commentaries available, this writer recommends three:

  • Elmer A. Leslie, The Psalms. Abingdon Press. New York, 1949.

  • J. Clinton McCann Jr. The Book of Psalms. Abingdon Press. New York, 1996.

  • Samuel Terrien. The Psalms. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 2003.

None of the commentaries suggest an author for our psalm. Because there is no reference to the exile in Babylonia, it must come from the first Temple period or after Cyrus permitted exiles to return. Psalm 119 does not fit any one type of psalm such as individual lament, praise or thanksgiving. While the law is a continuing theological focus, using eight synonyms to express this, there are other foci as well: creation, sacred history, personal lament over persecution, praise for God's presence and deliverance,

To gain these perspectives one must move beyond verses 1-8. But then, every pericope needs to be understood in its larger context. All writers emphasize the Temple worship led by musicians, priests and choruses as the place where this great piece found its home.