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The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

Psalm 119

A few weeks ago, we reflected on the passage in which Jesus entrusts Peter with the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven” in the context of establishing the Church. The metaphor is restated in today’s gospel; this time, in the context of forgiveness. In my previous sermon, I suggested the following analogy: the “keys” might refer to the insights we glean from the scriptures, prayer, and conversations; the “locks” symbolize the instances of interpreting God’s Law in application to our lives, and the power to “turn the key” is found in love. As Paul wrote to his followers in Rome in today’s epistle, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Indeed, love, not retribution, is the fulfillment of the Law. I think, broadly speaking, this may refer not only to extending charity to each human being, but also to God's love for us, and our love of God. In today’s words from Ezekiel, God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live”. Rather than conceptualizing God as the one who spends eternity waiting for an opportunity to punish us as we stumble, the scriptures paint a picture of God and the one who desires for us to become co-creators of harmony in the world, to truly understand and emulate the expression of the divine goodness in the world. But to love God and people in such a way necessitates continued learning -- that is, the pursuit of the Holy Wisdom of God.

One way that God teaches us is by speaking to us from the pages of the scriptures. Some books in the Bible “lay down the Law” (as do the first five books of the Old Testament), and others respond to it. Today, we read an example of the latter - a segment of Psalm 119, which is a classic wisdom psalm. It might have come to us from the days of Ezra and Nehemiah that followed the Babylonian exile, possibly as a compilation of multiple segments over time. Its central idea is the importance of understanding and glorifying “the Word of the Lord” - that is, the Law. Psalm 119 is not only the longest of all the psalms (176 verses!), but it is also the most formal in structure. Each of its 22 sections corresponds to one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, from aleph to tau. Each section consists of exactly 8 verses, and in the Hebrew original, within each stanza, each verse begins with the same letter.

One could imagine ancient Israelite elites using this acrostic psalm to teach the alphabet to their children, just as we use the familiar tune to teach the ABCs to our own preschoolers. Except this psalm would have helped the Hebrew parents to impart onto their children not only the basics of literacy, but the very “ABCs of life”, just as the author of Deuteronomy had instructed them to do: “the commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up”.

Psalm 119 is a meditation on the scripture as a whole; on its goodness, beauty, and importance, primarily as a vehicle of connecting with God. Thus, the psalmist praises the scripture only in connection to worshipping God, which reminds me of the much later insight found in the mystical Gospel of St John: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Impressively, 171 of 176 verses of the psalm make a reference to the scriptures, using its various synonyms of which the Law or Revelation (torah) is only the first one; followed by spoken word (dabar or imrah); judgments (mispatim); testimonies (edut/edot); commandments (miswah/miswot); statutes, or inscribed words (huqqim); precepts (piqqudim). Each of these is used 21-25 times, in addition to the same number of instances of mentioning God by name (YHWH).

As such, the psalm is generously filled with synonyms and parallelism -- beloved literary devices in the ancient Middle Eastern literature. Admittedly, to us modern readers, such recitation runs the risk of becoming rather tedious. We cannot help but wonder whether the psalm will help or hinder in us the true “delight in the Law”, as the opening chapter of the Psalter encourages us to cultivate (Ps 1:2; cf. the hymn on delighting in the Law in Sirach 14:20–15:10). Nonetheless, the Psalm has a widespread liturgical use in the Jewish and Christian tradition, and in numerous musical settings. For instance, in the Orthodox monasteries it is read daily at the Midnight Office. Imagine getting out of bed after only a couple of hours of sleep, making your way to an unheated chapel, and chanting 176 verses from start to finish... every single night! In contrast, we Anglicans use it only about 20 times in the two-year cycle of daily morning prayer, and even then the temptation to substitute it with the psalm for that day’s evening prayer is ever present...

It is true that throughout the Psalter, we find plenty of much more interesting examples of a soul wrestling with God (and/or one’s own ego!), depicting a spectacular range of emotions from angst to contrition, gratitude, and wonder. Even within Psalm 119 we do find a number of feelings expressed, from a noble pledge of dedication to the Law (in alef and beth), to a dramatic lament (e.g. verses 81–88), praise (45–48), and petitions for deliverance and vindication (132–34). But first, not all prayer is like that. In fact, much of the day-to-day prayer, like life itself, is ordinary and plain. It is in such ordinariness that we find comfort and peace, even as we sometimes long for it to be punctuated by excitement.

And second, in Psalm 119, every type of feeling is circumscribed by the loyalty to and gratitude for the Torah, and an earnest desire to come to a greater knowledge of the Law as that which expresses God’s love. The psalm opens with the idea that to walk in the Lord’s path is a blessing. In today's portion, we notice an expression of the psalmist’s yearning for guidance in this pursuit: “Teach me, O LORD… give me understanding… lead me… turn my heart to… turn my eyes from…” Why is it then that to so many people in this world, in all places and ages, life lived in such a way has seemed “boring”? And how do we, today, intentionally or unintentionally, prove or disprove this stereotype in our lives and interactions with other people? How do we overcome boredom in our own prayers and worship (must we?), and does it present an obstacle in developing our understanding of God?

Consider reading all the 176 verses of Psalm 119 over the coming week, slowly and thoughtfully. Perhaps, you might find a partner and read the verses in a call and response fashion, as it is done in monastic traditions. Or at the very least, pause after each stanza and allow yourself savour its words and responses they evoke in your heart and mind. And as we do this, let us cultivate the same sort of humility that the psalmist has, and let us strive earnestly to delight in the love (that is, the Law) that God offers to us day by day. Thanks be to God.