This summer we are exploring the songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. Among them are songs of triumph and songs of lamentation; personal songs and political songs; long songs and short songs. We begin today with the longest song: Psalm 119.
Perhaps you have forgotten that we have a hymn book as part of the library that is our bible. Unfortunately, the music was not supplied, but we do have the words. The psalms were an important part of the worship life of ancient Jewish communities, and they have continued to be central to Jewish and Christian worship since then.
If you are paging through the book of Psalms, Psalm 119 sticks out. It is the longest Psalm by far. In fact, it’s the longest chapter in the entire bible. Psalm 119 is also remarkable because of its form. This psalm has one stanza for each consonant in the Hebrew Alphabet. A whole stanza of lines starting with aleph, then a whole stanza of lines starting with beit, and continuing on through the whole alphabet. I can only imagine how hard that was for the writer.
No matter where it is in the alphabet, the psalm is focused on one theme: God’s word. God’s word is mentioned so often that the psalm uses seven synonyms for it, often all in the same stanza: Torah, commandments, ordinances, precepts, decrees, promises, and statues.
If you try to take in the whole psalm all at once, it’s a little dizzying. The lines are organized, alphabetically, but the sense of the lines circles around and around, using the same words and ideas again and again in new variations. We only listened to 6 of the 22 stanzas; that was my guess about how many we could handle in one sitting.
So, I wonder: Why? Why write such a long song? Why write it in this way? And why on this topic – not the most thrilling one could have chosen: God’s instruction, commandments, ordinances, precepts, decrees, words, promises, and statues?
One important thing to note is that the psalm doesn’t actually contain the contents of God’s instruction. This psalm doesn’t include the 10 commandments, for instance; it doesn’t mention any commandments or ordinances at all. Instead, the psalm proclaims the importance of a way of life we find through immersing ourselves in the totality of God’s guidance.
Another thing to note: although we might find ordinances a dry topic, this writer definitely doesn’t. There is passion in their tone. “I treasure your word…my hope is in your ordinances… I delight in your way as much as in all riches… I will not forget your word.” And even, “My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times…I cling to your decrees…your promise gives me life.”
God has a beautiful way, the psalmist tells us. All of God’s instructions guide us towards life at its very best: a life worth living.
I’ve never heard anyone say their favorite psalm is 119. But I wonder if this passionate longing that the psalmist describes lives, at least a little bit, in each of our hearts. The psalmist writes of God: “You are good and do good.” We long to live closer to good, closer to God. At least some part of us longs to be good and to do good ourselves.
This longing that so many of us have, faces challenges from both within and from without. Inwardly, our longing for God and God’s ways competes with all of our other desires, many of them much less admirable: wealth, power, safety, attention, approval. “Put false ways far from me,” asks the psalmist. “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.”
External forces of evil are also threaten us. There are so many who desire to lead us far from God’s ways in order to increase their own power and wealth. Environmental devastation; racial persecution; economic oppression; LGBTQ discrimination; inhumane treatment of immigrants — these are all are carried out and justified in the name of profit, privilege, or even in the name of our God – which is, by the way, blasphemy, a breaking of the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain.
“Redeem me from human oppression,” writes the psalmist; “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word”
Maybe we need every letter of the alphabet; every possible synonym for God’s Torah; 22 stanzas and 176 verses to call us back towards God and God’s ways. In the rule of Benedict, the guiding document for Benedictine spiritual practice, psalm 119 is read in portions daily, so practitioners read the whole thing every week. 22 stanzas of course correction. 176 verses of redirection. Each piece a reminder of other, truer, more beautiful ways that God opens up for us.
The psalmist tells us that the outcome of continually surrendering to God’s way is happiness. As the first stanza says, “Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole hearts.” Happy may not be the best translation here. Better, perhaps, to say blessed; or content.
God’s way is a gift. We as humans so often get it very, very wrong about what we need, what kind of living will make us happy, and how we should be treating one another. And that leads to unbelievable suffering: in our own hearts, and in the hearts and bodies and lives of others. There is another way, God tells us. There are so many better paths. Travel with me; open your heart to me and to each other. This is how you were meant to live; this is who I created you to be: to be good, and to do good. On the ways that I open for you, you will find contentment, integrity, peace, rest for your soul. Thanks be to God.