Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40
Here we are again, so to speak. As was the case about a month and a half ago, the psalm selection for this week is one stanza of Psalm 119.
This weekend in the United States we will mark the observance of Labor Day — the “official, unofficial” end of the summer season. At this time of year, schools start back up. And with schools, churches launch their program years — rally Sunday, Sunday school resumes, confirmation classes get going, choirs and music programs crank up. And in the midst of all this — an extra “day of rest” to honor the laborers among us.
With all of this work cranking up, Psalm 119:33-40 offers a word about that which the church’s work is all about — desiring God, God’s ways, and God’s Word.
The theological theme of the psalm is the Word of God. The psalm repetitively employs eight different synonyms for the Word of God: “law” (better, “instruction”), “commandments,” “ordinances,” “precepts,” “decrees,” “words,” “promises,” and “statutes.” The poetic theme of this section is desire — desiring, longing for the Word of God, to be more specific.
But first, some notes on about Psalm 119 as a whole. This “wisdom” or “instructional” psalm is by far the longest psalm in the Psalter, and the longest chapter in the Bible. The psalm is an alphabetic acrostic poem. It has 22 stanzas — one stanza for each of the 22 consonants in the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza has eight verses, with the first word of each stanza beginning with a succeeding consonant of the Hebrew alphabet.
In stanza 1 (verses 1-8), every verse begins with the Hebrew letter ‘alef. In stanza 2 (verses 9-16), every verse begins with the Hebrew letter bet. And so on. One theory scholars propose about alphabetic acrostic poems is that such poems serve a fundamentally educational purpose–the alphabetic structure makes memorization easier, especially for children. While there is something to that theory, this explanation does not suit Psalm 119. The psalm is simply too long and too repetitive for memorization to be a primary goal.
Rather, the alphabetic, acrostic pattern in Psalm 119 is more likely trying to say something about the very nature of language and the nature of God’s Word. Perhaps what the psalm is trying to say is that ultimate expression of human language is the divine word. As noted above, the psalm repetitively employs eight synonyms for the Word of God — “law” (better, “instruction”), “commandments,” “ordinances,” “precepts,” “decrees,” “words,” “promises,” and “statutes.”
Most of the stanzas of the psalm use all eight of these synonyms. And with the sole exception of verse 122, every single verse in the poem contains at least one of these eight terms. Thus, again, it seems that the poem is suggesting that the Word of God is the best use of the language, the ultimate expression of human meaning.
The section assigned for this Sunday is the he stanza. The first word in each verse begins with the letter he word — which correlates with the English letter H. Because prefixing the consonant he (“H”) to a verbal root is characteristic of the hiphil verbal stem in Hebrew — especially in this imperative form — it should not be surprising that seven of the eight verses begin with a hiphil, imperative verb: “teach me,” “give me,” “lead me,” “turn my heart,” “turn my eyes,” “confirm,” and “turn away.” Only the last verse diverges from the pattern, as it brings the stanza to a fitting climax: “See, I have longed for your precepts.”
Together, these seven imperatives along with the eighth, culminating verse, clearly identify the theme of the stanza: desiring God, God’s ways, and the Word of God. God is the ultimate human desire, because God alone can satisfy true human longing. God’s Word is that which is most to be desired by God’s people (see Psalm 19:10) because it alone is truly worthwhile. God’s way alone is the true way, therefore it is most to be desired.
To desire God, God’s ways, and God’s words, according to the psalm, includes both positive and negative longings. Positively, the life of faith means to learn to desire to seek God and God’s ways through God’s Word. It means to delight in studying God’s Word and to seek understanding and knowledge there. Negatively, the life of faith means turning away from other desires — the desire for selfish gain (verse 36), from vain pursuits (verse 37), from those things which only bring disgrace (verse 39).
Just as there are “sins of omission” and “sins of commission” so also there are “virtues of commission” and “virtues of omission.” Desiring God, God’s ways, and God’s Word means to cultivate both the virtues of commission and the virtues of omission.
But how does one preach this message?
The challenge is to preach “love and desire for God, God’s ways, and God’s Word” as a promise, rather than as one more obligation to keep. This is always the challenge of preaching the good news — to preach the promise, without turning the promise into a new law. To preach Christ, without turning the risen Lord into a new Moses. This sort of preaching requires “showing” rather than telling. It consists of offering a picture of what the promises of God look like when they are fulfilled. It requires giving examples of how Scripture satisfies the deepest desires and longings of human life, because Scripture is the means of grace that brings us Christ.
In closing, the great poem by George Herbert, entitled “The Pulley,” in which Herbert describes how by withholding “rest” from the human spirit, the Lord made sure that humans would never stop from desiring God.
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
The beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.