Psalm 119, captured by some as Torah piety, is a “medley of praise, prayer and wisdom” (R. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word). This Psalm, noted above by it being an acrostic with eight lines beginning with the same Hebrew letter (vv. 1-8 begin with aleph) as it works it way through 176 verses. So, today I begin with the letter Aleph, or A. We will proceed through the Psalm in the order of the Hebrew alphabet.
There are eight major terms for God’s Torah — Torah (25x), Word (24x), Rulings and Covenant (23x), Commands (22x), Statutes and Charges (21x), Sayings (19x).
In this series we will work our way through Psalm 119. Our focus will be on seeing Torah as wisdom, and Word of God as identity-shaping. It opens with this:
“Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who follow the Torah of Yahweh.”
Blamelessness (tamin) can only be found by reading, listening, hearing, absorbing, and heeding the Torah. “Blamelessness” translates “perfection in way.” This speaks of focus, of concentration, of aim, of telos, of object, and of ambition — the ambitionm of the blessed person is to be shaped by the Torah. The reason this blog has something about the Bible almost every day is because I believe Psalm 119:1.
Commentaries on Psalm 119 fade. That is, they treat each paragraph in sum and make only brief comments. I suppose this saves space because Psalm 119 can be treated as 22 individual psalms. Notice the flow of the first “letter” (vv. 1-8). It begins with a blessing on those who listen and learn from the Torah, then it reminds everyone that, after all, the Torah is the law of God to be kept. Then the one who utters this psalm expresses the wisdom of this psalm: “would that my ways were firm in keeping your commands (chaqim).” This leads to a resolution on the part of the psalmist: “I will praise you … as I learn your just rules (mishpat). I will keep your laws.” Then the dark word: “do not utterly forsake me.” Think it through: the Torah is God’s gift to guide God’s people; God’s people is wise when it listens and heeds; this leads to God’s blessing. It is foolish to avoid the Torah.
Psalm 119:3 says “They have done no wrong, but have followed God’s ways.” The one whose identity is shaped by Torah, by the revealing words from God, are characterized by (at least) two attributes: They don’t do some things and they do do some things. They don’t do what is wrong; they do do what is right. They avoid sin; they do what is good. We can react against negative piety at times — wrankling under the prohibitions: “don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t say this, etc etc.” Our reaction is at times justifiable; loving God is more than “not doing specific things.”
But, we are foolish to think that there aren’t some things that are bad and contrary to God’s plan — and we are wise not to do those things.
In fact — though we have to be very careful here — there is a sense in which not doing sin is a way of doing what is right. (Again, not doing something is not the same as doing what is good.) If the “not doing” is shaped by this thought — I shouldn’t do this because it is not of God — then the heart is in the right place. If the “not doing” is shaped by this thought — others will hear about me — then our heart is misplaced.
R. Akiva said Israel responded to the prohibitions with “Yes” while others said Israel said “No.” Saying “Yes” to God’s “No”s is a good thing.
Still, I maintain that the one whose identity is shaped by God’s revealing words will be characterized (at least) by both what they don’t do and by what they do do.
It is good to be free. It is unwise to use our freedom to do what we shouldn’t do.
I am impressed this morning with Psalm 119:5-6: “Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.” What impresses me is that desire (v. 5) leads to imagination of what life would be like if that desire were fulfilled (v. 6). The psalmist’s desire is to be absorbed in “statute” (haqim) consideration, contemplation, and focus. “Then,” such a person announces, “I would not be put to shame.” As the person contemplates the Word/Torah, and sees what is expected of God’s people, that person will be able to say “By God’s grace, I’ve done what God called me to do.” Such a person is not self-deceived about himself or herself.
Torah is like a mirror — when we look into it, it shows us who we are, what we have done, and what we need to do.
Blessed is the person who looks into that mirror and can say “Thanks be to God.”