Psalm 119: 1- 8 – Follow….the Law of Life
Psalm 119 is massive. It is the Mount Everest of Psalms and is the longest chapter found in any book of the Bible. It consists of 176 verses. To put that in perspective, all of Psalm 119 is equal to the first six chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. For the Eucharist of today, the lectionary has picked verses 1&2,4&5,7&8; however we will study all of the first eight verses.
Like Psalm 34 which we studied a few days ago, Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. In these poems, each verse typically begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, the first verse would begin with ‘aleph’ and the second with ‘beth’, and so on, until the poet reached the end of the alphabet. Psalm 119 is a bit different when compared to other acrostic poems. While it contains all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each section consisting of eight verses, begins each verse with the same Hebrew letter of the alphabet. So, the first eight verses all start with ‘aleph,’ the first letter of the Hebrew alphabets, the second eight verses begin with ‘bet’ and so on. In this way all 22 letters of the alphabets are grouped in sets of eight verses. 22 letters of the alphabets multiplied by 8 verses each give you a total of 176 verses; the length of the Psalm. The use of acrostic psalms served as a memory device.
Psalm 119 has the “law” as its major interest or theme. Seven Hebrew words are used in synonymous interchange with the word “torah,” usually translated as law, but better translated as instruction. Those seven words are (in the NRSV Bible and it would be good to mark them): decree, precept, statute, commandment, ordinance, word, and promise. While each synonym carries a slightly different nuance of meaning, little is gained by attempting to distinguish a separate meaning, theological or otherwise, for each of them. The repeated use of these synonyms is just to make a point; the law is paramount, the law is good.
Throughout this psalm, the psalmist speaks of following God’s law; not as a burdensome discipline but as a saving grace. It focuses on the good that comes from keeping God’s law. Even though it basically says the same thing over and over again with slight modification, it reflects the need to praise God with endless variation on this same theme that is often looked at unfavourably in our day. Christians today, do not typically share the psalm’s unflagging insistence on the strict adherence to the “law” or torah. The law of God sadly seems to be a rallying point for rebels with any cause.
The first verses of this grandest of the psalms offer a beatitude or a blessing. In fact, since it appears twice in verses one and two it can only be seen as a double blessing. The word ‘ashre’, is rendered in most English translations as “happy” or “blessed.” In our text it reads as “happy, are those whose way is blameless, who walks in the law of the LORD (Yahweh). It occurs some forty times in the Old Testament, twenty-seven times in the book of Psalms (Psalms 1:1; 41:2; 89:16; 112:1; 119:1,2; 128:1; 146:5).
To “walk in the way of the law” is a lyrical way of describing what it means to follow the law in every respect. Walking in the path of the Lord is unjustly pilloried as joyless by our modern world. The law may be difficult to keep but what is difficult is not impossible. The Psalm encourages us to walk in the way of the Lord and such a walk brings us blessedness. It is for this reason that the psalm opens with a double blessing for those who walk in the way of the law. According to Psalm 119, this type of walking, consistently choosing to follow the path that God has revealed through the law, leads inexorably to a happy, blessed life. However, walking contrary to the law only causes trouble and suffering (verses 6, 8; cf. Ps 1).
The word ‘ashre’ most likely comes from the Hebrew root ‘ashar, which means “to walk in a particular way, on a particular path.” A better translation for ‘ashre’ may be “content,” that deep-seated feeling that one experiences as a consequence of their being and moving “in the right way.” This lesson of being blessed by walking in God’s laws (his way) can best be seen in the Israelites who leaned into God’s torah. They did not lean into a set of “laws” to be followed, but instead they leaned into a God who sought to shape his people through his word.
There is a need for us be open to the law, not as a static rule book but one that is vibrant, one that shapes our everyday life. Following the torah, following the ways of God, can never be construed as legalism. To the contrary, following God always leads to life, a transformed life.
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