Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40
Across the street from the university where my wife attended graduate school was a church whose church sign included that famous quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there.”
In our attempts to reflect homiletically upon Psalm 119, we might do well to understand this lengthy psalm as a remedy, a balm of sorts, for the kind of meandering life that chases everything, and yet is satiated by nothing.
In this, the longest psalm (176 verses), eight different terms are employed in reference to God’s tora, and with the exception of only a handful of verses, every verse in the psalm contains the term tora or one of the related synonyms. But we should be clear: this is not a paean to tora; it is an invitation to life. Access to the kind of life intended by God is found by “walking in the tora of the LORD” (verse 1b) and seeking God with one’s “whole heart” (verse 2b). The language from the two opening lines of Psalm 119 echoes throughout the remainder of the psalm, and such language appears in the he stanza (verses 33-40) of this acrostic psalm.
In approaching this psalm homiletically, we might do well to focus our attention on this notion of an invitation. What are the images employed in this invitation that merit careful reflection?
Delighting in the way
The terms “way” (verse 33) and “path” (verse 35) appear in this stanza, invoking the complexity of ideas associated with the “pathway” metaphor. Within the book of Psalms, the “pathway” should not be understood as something akin to a precursor to finding the tora of Yahweh; for example, one does not walk the pathway in order to arrive at the tora of Yahweh. Rather, the pathway “fundamentally illustrates tora observance.” This idea is picked up in verses 33 and 35: “the way of your statutes” and “the path of your commandments.” The statutes and commandments of Yahweh prove to be the well-worn places where we are meant to walk in faithfulness with this God. There is no sense of obligatory dread by this psalmist. In fact, to the contrary, walking in these well-worn places proves to be the source of pure “delight” (verse 35b). Even more, the pathway of God and the pathway with God become the source of life (verses 37b, 40b).
Resisting distraction in the way
At the very center of this stanza (verses 36b, 37a), the psalmist petitions God to remove those things most distracting, those things that might take one off the pathway of God and with God. In verse 36, the psalmist implores Yahweh to turn his heart away from “unjust gain.” He confesses that the mark of true life is not wealth, especially wealth gained on the backs of others, but instead, a heart that is turned to God. In verse 37a, the psalmist implores God literally “to cause my eyes to pass over the worthless things” so that he might experience true life (verse 37b). The mention of these distractions is central to the pathway imagery that dominates these verses. To walk in the pathway of God is not some form of naive escapism that allows us to sidestep the distracting and disillusioning things of this world. To the contrary, this stanza reminds us that the pathway with God winds itself through such challenging terrain. Equally important, this stanza is a reminder that we ourselves are incapable of holding at bay those distracting and disillusioning things—that is the work of God alone. And so our bold prayer to walk with God must be matched with our humble confession that we need God’s work in our lives; we need God’s work of turning our “hearts” and “eyes” away from the distractions around us so that they might focus entirely upon God’s life-giving path.
Longing for the way
The first seven verses in this stanza begin with an imperative, but the string of imperatives comes to an end with verse 40. The line begins with the particle hinneh, “behold.” Although this particle has a variety of functions in Hebrew, sometimes it introduces a summative comment on the preceding verses. The psalmist declares, “hinneh, I have longed for your precepts.” The entire stanza is expressed in that one idea, “longing”—a longing for God, a longing for life absent of worthless things, a longing for a renewed life along the pathway of God. The pleas offered up by the psalmist in the seven preceding verses are the result of a deep longing, a longing that started in the past and gnaws at him still.
Perhaps the psalm ends where we should begin—with a fervent longing for the pathway of God.
William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2002), 34.
September 6, 2020