Commentary on Psalm 119:129-136
God’s decrees are wonderful. What else can be said? For this Psalmist, nothing really. But there are a variety of ways to say it.
Is this not the task of the preacher? That is, to take the same message, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” and present it at least 52 ways per year and potentially up to 2,000 ways in the expanse of one’s preaching ministry. Now there’s a task.
The author of Psalm 119 serves as a model for this task as he (most likely “he”) describes God’s wonderful decrees in the eight lines of the Psalm’s twenty-two stanzas. Even in this 17th of the 22 stanzas there is repetition and variety.
While some might consider repetition boring, consider the ways it serves us. All you runners know the importance of the repetition of one leg in front of the other and one breath after another in order to clear the brain, to build the capacity and stamina that lead to health and maybe even triumph.
Liturgically speaking we know that repetition serves us as well. There must be a reason we have recited the same prayer for centuries: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name … ” There is something to reciting the Apostle’s Creed on a regular basis. Why would we regularly confess our sins and hear the proclamation of forgiveness if such repetition were not life-giving?
The repetition in this Psalm summons for me images of Jewish people praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem by bowing in a most committed rhythm. We sense this rhythm in Psalm 119 as the Psalmist leans in, “Your decrees are wonderful,” and straightens back, “Therefore my soul keeps them,” and leans in again, “The unfolding of your words gives light,” and straightens again, “It imparts understanding to the simple.” The repetitive rhythm of reciting his reflections on the Torah guide the Psalmist’s concentration on this most important gift, God’s precepts.
The structure of the Psalm is rhythmic in a number of ways. In addition to comparing the content of each of the 22 stanzas, it is also important to note the form. Each stanza represents a letter in the Hebrew alphabet (which is why there are 22 stanzas), and each of the 8 lines within the stanzas begins with the same letter (even if you’ve forgotten the intricacies of the Hebrew grammar you learned in seminary, this feature will be noted with only a quick glance at the Hebrew version).
Since various elements of the structure of Psalm 119 are lost in translation from the Hebrew to the English, you may consider trying this for yourself using grace as your topic. Or, better yet, focus on the kingdom of heaven as the gospel writer does in today’s reading from Matthew. Chapter 13 can serve as your prompt:
- “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (13:31)
- “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (13:33)
- “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (13:34)
- The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls” (13:45)
- “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind” (13:47)
The gospel writer is essentially saying the same thing in number of different ways. Both repetition and variety serve us.
While writing a Psalm based on the structure of Psalm 119 would be an impressive feat, I recommend it in order to help you live the structure of this striking Psalm. Better yet, do this communally. Find 26 congregation members who would be willing to write 8 lines of reflection on the kingdom of heaven. Each person is assigned a letter of the English alphabet and then begins each of the 8 lines with that letter. This will certainly be helpful fodder for your sermon; it may even be the sermon! (If anyone does this, I’d love to read it and hear about the process.)
“The dramatic intent [in Psalm 119] is to find a form commensurate with the message. The message is that life is reliable and utterly symmetrical when the torah is honored. And so the psalm provides a literary, pedagogical experience of reliability and utter symmetry” (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 40).
While I usually encourage the preacher to stay within the Psalm itself, in this case I imagine if the Psalmist could go on and on about Torah/Word, how much more could we go on and on about Word/Logos/Jesus. This Psalm is about the extensiveness, fullness and completeness of what God offers for us.
James Mays reminds us of the importance of this Psalm’s possessive pronoun “your.”
“The unfailing repetition [of this] … emphasizes with an unwearied insistence that what matters is God’s use of these modes of language as divine communication” (James Mays, Psalms). The repetitive rhythmic recitation of God’s word connects us not only to that word’s structure and content, but also to the one who is represented by each appearance of “your,” God.