Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wisdom of Psalms 119

Psalm 119. This psalm celebrates the gift of God's Torah, or covenant instruction, as the perfect guide for life. It thus belongs conceptually with Psalm 19 and overlaps with such wisdom psalms as Psalms 1 and 112. It is far more extensive, and far more elaborate, than they are; it is the longest psalm (and the longest chapter in the Bible, longer than many of the books) and the most carefully structured. By singing and praying its contents, one expresses heartfelt admiration to God, who has so lovingly bestowed this great gift upon his people, and fervent yearning for one's personal life to reflect the loveliness and goodness of the Torah. The psalm's structure observes a strict acrostic pattern : there are 22 stanzas of eight verses each, following the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence. Within a stanza, the first word of each verse begins with the same letter, the letter to which the entire stanza corresponds. This pattern severely limits the author's liberty in sustaining his flow of thought, but this does not hinder the psalm from accomplishing its goal, which is to enable God's people to admire his Word so strongly that they will work and pray hard to have it shape their character and conduct. The cumulative impact of the psalm is huge.

The psalm uses a number of terms for God's covenantal revelation: “law” ; “testimonies” ; “precepts” ; “statutes” ; “commandments” ; “rules” ; “word”. Except for “precepts” (which appears only in the Psalms), all of these words can be found in Deuteronomy , and denote God's Word, focusing on its role in moral instruction for his people. The person who will “keep” God's instructions will find that his “way” (the moral quality and orientation of his life) will more and more reflect God's own character. Only a few verses in this psalm lack an explicit mention of God's Word: The psalm calls these instructions “righteous” , “true” and “sure” ,and worthy of trust, hope, and faith. All of these are attributes of God himself, and it is no surprise that God's words would partake of his character. Indeed, the law expresses God's own “steadfast love” and “faithfulness”. This psalm reflects the view that the Lord, who abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness and who therefore freely and fully forgives his people when they confess their sins , loves his people without limit, and therefore also guides the faithful in the way of life that is genuinely good and beautiful . The psalm speaks the language of one ravished with moral beauty, to which there is only one fitting response—to try to reproduce this beauty, as much as possible, in one's daily life. There is no pretense of perfection here , only yearning, and trust ,and dependence on God. To say that these commands are “true” is to confess that, with all their elements geared to a particular culture and phase of redemptive history, the principles that underlie them are founded on the very nature of things, and of God. This is why Christians can sing these words with the same yearning, trust, and dependence. The psalm does not tell who its author was, nor when it was written. Many scholars think it comes from after the Babylonian exile, but this cannot be proven. The psalmist identifies with the faithful among God's people, when they face trials , and when they suffer contempt and ill treatment for their faithfulness, even from members of God's people who reject his grace. Even when many of God's own people forsake him, there will be those who want to pursue faithfulness. This fits, e.g., the time before Ezra and Nehemiah carried out their reforms, but it fits many other times as well. The words of this psalm can enable Christians to embrace its aspiration, both when they sing it and when they use those words as prayers for illumination as they attend to God's word in public and in private.

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