Commentary on Psalm 119:129-136
The appointed psalm for this week is a small section of Psalm 119, which is the longest psalm in the Psalter.
The theological theme is the Word of God–pay attention to the synonyms for Scripture: “your decrees,” “your words,” “your commandments,” “your promise,” “your precepts,” “your statutes,” “your law.”
The poetic theme is the body–pay attention to the “embodied” poetry: “my soul” (literally: “my throat”), “open mouth,” “my steps,” “your face,” “my eyes.” And at the heart of it all is a living relationship between the Lord and the human being: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your custom toward those who love your name” (verse 132).
Why not break up the hot, dog days of July and August by preaching on this refreshing word?
“A,” Your Word is Adorable. . . “B,” Your Law is Beautiful. . .
First, a few comments about Psalm 119 as a whole. As noted above, this wisdom psalm is by far the longest psalm in the Psalter. It is an alphabetic, acrostic psalm. Its 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas. Each stanza is precisely eight verses long. Similar to the old song, “A, You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Love Song,” each verse in each given stanza begins with the appropriate letter from the Hebrew alphabet. In stanza 1 (verses 1-8), every verse begins with the Hebrew letter ‘alef. In stanza 2 (verses 9-16), ever verse begins with the Hebrew letter bet.
And so on. The section assigned for this Sunday is the pe stanza. Each verse begins with a different pe word: “wonderful” (pila’ot), “unfolding” (petach), “my mouth” (pi), “turn” (pe’amay), “my steps” (pe’ami), “redeem” (pedeni), “your face” (paneyka), and “streams” (palgey). As a whole, the theological theme of the psalm is the Word of God–over and over, the psalm employs eight different synonyms for God’s Instruction (Hebrew, torah): law, commandments, statutes, ordinances, decrees, words, precepts, and promises.
All eight occur in this stanza. The constraints forced on the poet by the acrostic structure probably explain why, at times, the psalm is so repetitious and shifts somewhat awkwardly between wisdom sayings (“Your decrees are wonderful,” verse 129) and petitions asking for help (“Turn to me and be gracious,” verse 132). The poem is not really a consecutive, linear argument. Rather it is a circular, repetitive meditation on God’s Word and a prayer for God’s guidance.
The “Body” of the Pe Stanza
As noted above, the pe stanza of the poem has a theological theme (God’s Word) and a poetic theme (the human body). The stanza can be described as having the following structure:
Verses 129-131 Wisdom-like statements about God’s Word: “Your decrees are wonderful. . .”
Verses 132-135 Petitions: “Turn to me… Keep my steps steady… Redeem me from oppression”
Verse 136 Wisdom-like statement: “My eyes [cry] because your law is not kept.”
The force of verses 129-131 are that the Word of God is a means of grace. Through the Word–which is both law and gospel–the Lord of Israel encounters the people of God. The word is “wonderful.” This Hebrew word (pila’ot) is often used in the psalms to describe God’s mighty actions on behalf of both the people as a whole (77:10, 14; 105:2; etc.) and also of God’s redeeming actions on behalf of individual people (9:2; 17:7; etc.). Here in Psalm 119, this characteristic is applied to God’s Word.
In other words, just as God’s might acts of deliverance can be means through which God shows grace to suffering people, so also the Word itself is such a means that mediates God’s wonders to his people. The psalm then compares God’s word to light that gives guidance (the image here is one in which a scroll is unrolled and light shines upward and outward).
Verses 132-135 build on the promises of verses 129-131, by essentially asking that the Lord make real for the psalmist that which has been promised in the word. The phrase that is translated “be gracious to me, as is your custom” by the NRSV, more freely means, “be gracious to me as you have promised in your word (“your custom” is “your judgment” in Hebrew). The psalmist prays for relationship (“turn to me,” “be gracious to me”), guidance (“keep my steps steady,” “never let iniquity have dominion over me”) rescue (“redeem me from human oppression”), and blessing (“make your face shine upon your servant,” “teach me”).
At the heart of these petitions is a very realistic theological anthropology. The psalmist knows that we cannot by our own strength or effort, believe in God, keep God’s word, or defeat the power of sin. That is, left to our own will, we cannot maintain a relationship with God. We cannot keep our feet on the narrow path. We cannot defeat sin. Therefore, we need guidance (a light to shine in our darkness) and we need rescue (from ourselves and from other human powers) and we need blessing. In short, we need a teacher: God.
The closing comment is, “my eyes shed streams of tears, because your law (Hebrew, torah; better: “instruction”) is not kept.” Far from being a self-righteous statement, this closing verse should be understood in a communal and personal way. The psalmist sheds tears both because his or her own community does not keep the word, but also because he or she is aware that personally, he or she fails to keep the commandments (see Psalm 19:12-13).
Embodying the Sermon–Creative Strategies for Preaching
As noted above, why not break up the hot, dog days of summer with a creative sermon based on Psalm 119:129-136? The psalm’s bodily metaphors references–“my soul” (literally: “my throat”), “open mouth,” “my steps,” “your face,” “my eyes”–point to some creative possibilities for preaching. The Word of God is a word that came among us as a body (John 1). After Easter, the Word continued to be embodied–now in the church, which is the body of Christ. The word is never disembodied as it comes to us. It is spoken or read to us by human bodies. We respond to the Word with our own bodies–walking the walk of faith, talking the talk of the gospel.
Why not find ways literally to “embody” this message, using the bodily poetry of the text? A preacher could bring in a manikin and decorate its throat, mouth, feet, face, and eyes appropriately. Or, the preaching could make available paper dolls or paper drawings of a body, and invite the congregation to decorate, color, or label the paper appropriately. The preacher might be willing to use his or her own body in the sermon–to embody in the sermon, in a rather dramatic way, the promise of this text.