“How can those who are young keep their way pure?,” asks the psalmist in the opening line of the Beth lines of Psalm 119 (v. 9a). Some think the entire psalm is the journal reflections of an ancient Israelite as life progresses. What impresses me is other verses in this great psalm that give context to the concern of this young man to get started when young.
Notice the following verses (culled from Derek Kidner):
1. Some are skeptical: 119:126: “your law is being broken.”
2. Some seek the psalmist’s life: 119:95: “The wicked are waiting to destroy me.”
3. Some smear the psalmist’s name: 119:69: “Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies.”
Notice that this causes the psalmist pain: he is sensitive about the words being said (“Take away the disgrace I dread” — v. 39), he feels humiliated (“Though I am lowly and despised” — v. 141) and he is exhausted by it all (“My soul is weary with sorrow” — v. 28).
Sometimes he lashes out against them — “Indignation grips me because of the wicked” — v. 53 — and sometimes he loathes them — “I look on the faithless with loathing” (158). So, the young man asks, how does one make it when the whole institution seems to be against the person committed to God? “By living according to your word” (119:9b). Not just by reading it; not just by listening to it; but by “living” it. The word “live” here comes from shamar — “to keep or observe.”
Start when you are young, the psalmist is saying, and what he means is start observing and keeping the Word.
In spite of what everyone else thinks. The genuinely counter-cultural person is observant.
“With all my heart,” the psalmist says in 119:10, “I have turned to You; do not let me stray from Your commandments. In my heart I treasure your promise.” Commitment to God, a life absorbed in Torah, begins in the heart. And when the commitment begins in the heart (13x in Ps 119), Torah produces wisdom rather than just knowledge. Such commitment, because it opens one entirely to the presence of God, purifies in and with love. Here are some observations:
1. Heart commitment implies inside-out, total revolution.
2. Heart commitment implies “faith seeking understanding.”
3. Heart commitment implies trust in God rather than self.
4. Heart commitment implies vulnerability to God — an admission of what the self is really like.
5. Heart commitment implies treasure in God and turning from sin.
6. Heart commitment implies finding instead of wandering.
Others suggestions? (Try to stick to Ps 119:9-16.)
Psalm 119:12-13 expresses the psalmists commitment — to learn the law and to rehearse the rules. Thus:”Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.”
Here the young psalmist blesses God (baruk) and petitions God to be the teacher; then the psalmist states that he will “rehearse/recount” all the laws (mishpat). What I hear is this: the heart set on God learns the Torah — by reading it regularly, listening to it longingly, and loving it with life. Do you regularly read the Bible so that you listen to it? Or is it just something to analyze, study, break apart?
The Torah students begin sessions with this prayer: “Blessed are you, O YHWH; teach me your laws.
The pleasure the psalmist speaks of in Psalm 119:14-15 is not simply the mental exhilaration of study and discovery — the sort of thing many experience when they chance upon something previously unseen in the Bible, which I think is grossly overrated for Bible study. No, the pleasure of the psalmist is otherwise. We sell ourselves short if we equate the “statutes” and “precepts” and “decrees” of these verses with the words on the page of the Bible. The psalmist finds these words to be communication from God, discovering these words as establishing relationship with God, and therefore the words as interpersonal communication. In knowing them as communionn with God the psalmist exhilarates.
Notice the words of pleasure:
I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.
I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word.
The psalmist rejoices (shis) and delights (sha’ashu’im) — as one does in great riches. Exhilaration.
This exhilaration transcends knowing as cognition; it is the absorption in Torah and being absorbed by Torah, it is delight in knowing and being known, it is delight in both knowing and doing. I like how it begins in v. 14: “in” the way (derek) of your statutes — not just knowing but the knowing-doing in relationship with God; in the way of communing in in knowing-observing.
A meditation on the experience of the psalmist in Psalm 119; esp vv. 1-16. I take the key idea of this psalm to be absorption. I see this in three directions:
First, the psalmist is absorbed in the Torah as communication from God so that the psalmist is absorbed in God. Over and over the focus is on “Your” word, statutes, precepts, laws, regulations, and teachings. The psalmist delights in God, in hearing from God, and in knowing that God communicates through the Torah to God’s people.
Second, the psalmist is absorbed by the Torah. Not only is the Torah the object in which the psalmist delights; the Torah is the subject that overwhelms the psalmist so that one is caught up in and by the wordy presence of God. Not only is the psalmist studying to learn, but the psalmist is being studied by the Torah so that it becomes the “other” that addresses the psalmist.
And, third, the psalmist is absorbed toward others. This wordy presence of God in Torah, the authority of God that comes to the psalmist in the Torah, directs the psalmist’s life toward others. That means, the psalmist speaks about others, to others, and for others. The psalmist summons others to the Torah, to listen and learn.
Why? Because the Torah, this wordy presence of God, is not just words on a paper and not just propositions to be analyzed, but the missio Dei — it is the atoning presence of God among us. As we hear and listen and receive and observe and do and share and summon, we are caught up into the missio Dei in this world. Word is missio Dei, so if we are absorbed in it and by it, we will be caught into its fundamental missional direction of speaking to us so that we might hear God and speak to God and speak to others on behalf of God.