Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8
Since this pericope represents the first eight verses of Psalm 119, it might help to say a word or two about the entire psalm.
Psalm 119 is among several psalms that are arranged acrostically, according to the letters of the Hebrew alephbet. Psalm 119 is the longest of these — and the longest of all Psalms — with 22 eight-verse sections corresponding to the letters aleph, beth, gimel and all the way through tav. Even more impressive is the fact that in each eight-verse section, the first word of each verse begins with the letter assigned to that section. So each one of verses 1-8 begins with aleph, 9-16 with beth, 17-24 with gimel, and so on, through verses 169-176, each of which begins with the letter tav.
Martin Luther would have been very familiar with Psalm 119, likely knowing it by heart. As an Augustinian friar doing his daily devotions, Luther regularly recited the entire Psalm, all 176 verses. In Luther’s day, monks recited long sections of Psalm 119 as part of the Liturgy of Hours (or Divine Office). As a young man, Luther prayed Psalm 119 at 6:00 am, 9:00 am, noon, and 3:00 pm at the beginning of the week. According to the Rule of Benedict, a faithful monk meditates on all of Psalm 119 once each week, beginning on Sunday and concluding on Monday.
Still, it may come as some surprise that the later Luther would put Psalm 119 at the heart of his strategy for being a top-notch theologian. “I want to point out to you a correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that,” Luther wrote in a preface to a collection of his writings. “This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio. “1
On the other hand, those who are familiar with Luther’s spiritual struggles during his years as a friar living in the monastery in Erfurt may have an inkling about why Luther understood Psalm 119 as having such import. As a young monk, Luther experienced Anfechtungen (tentatio in Latin), the devil’s attacks against God’s promises in Christ. Luther came to understand that his only defense against such attacks was to wield the Word of God.
It is in the context of Luther’s experience with Anfechtungen that Luther believed he could imagine the motive behind the composition of Psalm 119: “It is as if [David] said, ‘It is a great thing for a person to have the doctrine of God and a desire to hear his Word. But it is just as great for a person to be able to continue in it and to keep it pure and fine against Belial and his servants, who are always opposing it.'”
Luther then observes, “Belial not only lures people from the right way by giving lies a great and glorious appearance and giving a despised and wretched appearance to the truth. He also drives them away from it through the power of tyrants. Thus body, property, and honor are in danger; and cross and suffering, hatred and persecution, are always present.” 2
In the Christian tradition, Belial is, of course, another name for The Opposition, that is, Satan. In the New Testament, Belial is named but once. Paul asks, “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?” (2 Corinthians 6:14b-15a, NIV). Luther’s invocation of Belial in his reflection on Psalm 119 was likely on purpose, since it connects to Paul’s sole use of the name.
Luther wanted to underscore that there is sharp contrast between God’s ways and the ways of the Evil One. It is worth noting, then, that Luther did not read Psalm 119 as primarily “The Law” by which sinners are condemned but primarily as Torah (teaching) by which God communicates the liberating Word. For Luther, Psalm 119 provides a framework for the steadfast theologian committed to oratio (praying over), meditatio (meditating upon), and tentatio (defending the gospel using) divine teaching. The implication is clear: the better one knows God’s Torah the more equipped one is to beat back the attacks of the devil. In other words, Psalm 119 — this long and sustained reflection upon the Torah of God — amounts to so many fightin’ words. And happy are those who win.
As mentioned, the pericope at hand, Psalm 119:1-8, represents the first section: Aleph. So if Psalm 119 is a kind of A-Z description of oratio-meditation-tentatio over divine Torah (that is, over God’s law, teachings, testimonies, commandments, precepts, statutes, judgments, righteousness, way, word, and truth), then you could be cute about it and point out that verses 1-8 delineate the A-game. It is fitting then that the psalm begins with the word “happy” (or “blessed” or “fortunate”). The Hebrew word is ashrei. “Ashrei are those whose way is blameless,” the psalm declares at the outset.
Indeed. You’d be pretty happy, too, if you were blameless, sinless, perfect. Now if only such blameless people could be found, we could ask them for some advice. How do you do it? How do you keep yourselves so blameless? How do you keep God’s decrees, seeking the Lord with your whole heart, and do no wrong? (See verses 1-3.) Oh, but wait. Such people do not exist (as the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 14:3 and, later, Paul, in Romans 3:10). There is no one who is blameless. No, not one. Psalm 119 starts by describing something that exists only in the imagination, a chimera, a fancy: namely, one who is blameless according to the Law of God.
Well, there is One. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells how God made this One who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.