Psalm 119- God's guidance for your life
This morning we are continuing with our series looking at the Psalms. Our Psalm this morning is a portion of Psalm 119. We are only looking at a portion of it because it is 176 verses long. It is famous for being very long.
It is an acrostic poem, so each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, if it was in English the first section would be made up of lines that start with A. The next section would be made up of lines that start with B and so on. Today’s section starts with the letter ‘mem’. So all the lines we will be dealing with start with the same letter. (It's a bit of a Sesame Street vibe.)
Even though Psalm 119 is very long it does have a consistent theme: God’s Torah. We usually translate the word “torah” as “law”, but the word is a bit more full than that. It doesn’t just mean ‘legal rules’. It can also refer to the first 5 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In its most full definition, however, “torah” means something like “God’s teaching” or “God’s instruction”. Torah is our guidance to live as children of God. It is something precious. It is guidance to live a good life. … We see it in a condensed form in the 10 Commandments, and even more condensed form in Jesus’ summary of the law- “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ … And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37-40).
Sometimes we think about Jesus’ summary of the law as a way to not have to pay attention to the rest of the Law. As if we have the Cole's Notes version of the law so we don't have to look at it. The Early Christians didn’t think that way. Jesus Says he came to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17-18). In Paul’s Second letter to Timothy he says,
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …” (2 Timothy 3:16).In the Early Church, Scripture referred to the Old Testament and the New Testament didn’t really exist yet. What became the New Testament was still in the form of letters that were being shared between the churches. There was a lot of respect for what we call the Old Testament and Christians constantly turned to it seeking wisdom from God. Though, they always looked back on Scripture with Christ in their minds.
For example, Maximus of Turin (a bishop who lived from the late 300’s to early 400’s) said this:
“[The] children of Israel, arriving at Marah and being unable to draw the water because of its bitterness (for the well had water but no sweetness and it was pleasing to the eye but polluted to the taste), drank water that became sweet and mild as soon as wood was thrown into it by Moses [Exodus 15:22-27].”Maximus is referring to an Old Testament story in Exodus when the people have been rescued from Egypt and are brought into the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. They were looking for water and when they finally found it, it was too bitter to drink. When Moses cried out to God he was shown a particular log. When he threw the log into the water it became good and drinkable.
Maximus goes on to say,
“The sacrament of the wood removed the harshness that the noxious water bore. I believe that this happened as a sign, for I think that the bitter water of Marah is the Old Testament law, which was harsh before it was tempered by the Lord's cross. For it used to command ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and, austere as it was, it offered none of mercy’s consolation. But, when it had been tempered by the wood of gospel suffering, at once it changed its bitterness into mildness and presented itself as a sweet drink to as the prophet says: ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, more than honey and the honeycomb to my mouth!’ [Ps 119:103] For sweet are the words that command, ‘If anyone strikes you on your cheek, offer him the other as well; if anyone takes your tunic from you, leave him your cloak too.’ This, then, is the bitterness that has been changed into sweetness: the austerity of the law has been tempered by the grace of the gospel. For the letter of the law is bitter without the mystery of the cross; about this the apostle says, ‘The letter kills.’ But when the sacraments of the passion are joined to it, all its bitterness is spiritually buried, and about that the apostle says, ‘But the Spirit gives life.’” (SERMON 67-4).Again, we find this principle of the Ancient Church to constantly turn to Christ as the way of understanding the Old Testament.
Our portion of the psalm begins,
“Oh how I love your [Torah]!”Most of us don’t have an attitude towards the law that would cause us to say such a thing. If we just think about the Torah as a bunch of rules imposed on us, then we are likely to resist and even feel resentful about this. But, if we see the Torah as God’s instruction for how to live life as children of God, then we might start to see how we might start loving the Torah. Maximus would say that this is especially true when we read it with Christ in our mind, who said that he came to fulfill the Torah. He brings out its deeper meaning and purpose.
If we are going to learn to love the Torah we should do what the psalmist does in the next line-
“It is my meditation all the day”.We should consider the instructions deeply, meditatively. We should consider that it might have something to teach us, so we shouldn’t dismiss it as just a bunch of ancient rules that have nothing to say to us. If we meditate deeply on this Torah we will hear God speaking to us about our life. We sit at God’s feet and ask what the meaning is for this law- What principle rests behind it? What wisdom does it have for today? What does the Torah have to say about our politics, our bioethics, our treatment of the environment and the vulnerable, or our business decisions? We have to wrestle with the Torah- Like Jacob wrestling the angel, we have to wrestle with it all night and not let it go until it gives us its blessing. (This is what the practice of Lectio Divina is all about). Is it wise to ignore thousands of years of accumulated wisdom as a result of such wrestling?
Verses 98-100 can make the psalmist look a bit arrogant. He says,
“98 Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.” (119:98-100)What is being compared isn’t necessarily the psalmist and his enemies, teachers, and elders. What is being compared is human wisdom as compared to the wisdom of God expressed through the Torah. Human wisdom has its limitations. …
We sometimes talk about “standing on the shoulders of giants” as a way of saying that we build on the discoveries and wisdom of the past. No matter how smart you are. No matter how long you live. You will be much more knowledgeable if you learn from those who went before you. That’s true of physics, astronomy, and engineering. You might be very smart, but you’re only going to go so far as an astronomer laying on your back in the dark at night and staring into the sky, never learning about telescopes or reading about Copernicus, Galileo, and Stephen Hawking. ... How much more is it true if we consider the source of the Torah as inspiration through human beings who wrestled with God?
What is the result of this meditation on the Torah? Our psalmist says,
“101 I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 102 I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me.” (Ps 119:101-102)The Psalmist says he is able to live a good life. Isn’t that the desire for all of us? To live a good, wise, fulfilled, and meaningful life? To avoid doing evil. To not hurt the people around us, and not leave the world worse than we found it. To live a life where our relationship are made healthier because we wisely know how to interact lovingly and wisely with people. To know how to spend money wisely so that you can use it to bless people. To have those younger than you seek your advice because you seem to know how to live life well. To have such a trusting relationship with God that you have a radiant life, and will have a radiant death. … When we see God’s instruction as leading us to this place we can say with the psalmist,
“103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!"