Psalm 119 – A light on your way

Here is an excerpt from Psalm 119:

25 My soul clings to the dust;
 revive me according to your word.
26 When I told of my ways, you answered me;
teach me your statutes.
27 Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
28 My soul melts away for sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
29 Put false ways far from me;
and graciously teach me your law.
30 I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
I set your ordinances before me.
31 I cling to your decrees, O Lord;
   let me not be put to shame.
32 I run the way of your commandments,
   for you enlarge my understanding.

Psalm 119: 25-32 NRSV

On the way

Psalm 119 describes life as traveling a path. It is a pretty common metaphor. If you travel for any amount of time, you know the importance of having a good route in mind, so that you know where you are going. Whether that route takes the form of an itinerary, map, an experienced guide, or an actual road, it is helpful to have something or someone to help you navigate as you go.

This psalm has a particular route prepared. Over and over in this psalm, the writer talks about walking in God’s teaching, law, or instruction. For them, this teaching is the guide on the journey of life and a help for the turns life takes along the way.

The verses quoted above highlight the theme of life as “on the way.” As James Limburg describes in his commentary on the psalms, in Hebrew these verses all begin with the same Hebrew letter, d, and then uses the Hebrew for way, derek, throughout.

This fits the pattern of the psalm. The psalm as a whole follows a pattern called an acrostic. Each section of 8 verses begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The pattern of the psalm gives an impression of wholeness by covering the entire alphabet. So reflected in the written language is the wisdom of the psalm, the teachings of God for people as they walk through life in its wholeness.

Ways and means in Psalm 119

There are a variety of different circumstances outlined in the verses (25-32) above. Desperation, instruction, sorrow, confusion, dedication, and learning are all on display. There isn’t a whole lot of room for fluff or frivolity. It is all pretty heavy. The stakes are pretty high and that runs throughout the whole psalm in a similar way. This section highlights a particular emphasis on teaching and understanding. That emphasis is important, because it opens the psalm up in ways other emphases might not. It emphasizes the God’s guidance more as teaching than as law.

Teaching and law

Because of the way society is set up, talk of “law” has its own sense of authority. That authority is strong. When faced with a law, your situation has consequences. If you follow the law, you won’t suffer consequences. Likewise, if you break the law, you open yourself to punishment. In keeping with the theme of travel, if you are driving above the speed limit, then you could get a ticket. The line is definite, and it is enforced. Laws are helpful and necessary, but they aren’t everything.

Verses 25 through 32, mention “laws and statutes” and while the sense of law I just mentioned is certainly included, the idea of “teaching” is equally, maybe more, important to the section. The writer stresses the teaching aspect of the “law”, which doesn’t have the same sense of distinction and enforcement. The line between following a teaching and straying from it is much fuzzier than the line between abiding by the law and breaking it. Not only that, but people rarely get fees, fines, and sentences for failing to follow a teaching.

Likewise, you can’t reduce life to legal matters. When a person follows every law, they don’t necessarily lead a full and fruitful life. A human being can live blamelessly in the eyes of society, and still feel none of the deep wonder and vibrancy that life has to offer. Legal matters help keep a person from pitfalls, but they won’t necessarily “enlarge [your] understanding” in a deep way. Teaching does that.

The path is open

So, if the teaching is more than the legalities of right and wrong, what is it? Rather than only a well-defined, like the example of the speed limit from before, maybe what we have here is more like learning to walk. Traveling the way of life may be continually learning how to walk. When a child learns to walk, they don’t learn by following rules. Imagine what would happen if a parent wanted their child to walk, so they made a numbered list outlining how to take a step. Then, with list in hand, they told their child, “This is how you walk!” It would never happen.

Instead, the child, seeing how people move, starts moving, then starts to take steps. They start with one step, then more and more, and so grow into walking, running, really learning how their body moves. Those children learning to walk, learn one step at a time, and that is really all they need.

Psalm 119 - a lamp in darkness

The lamp in Psalm 119

I heard a very good sermon on Psalm 119 once. It was along this line of teaching. I wish I had some video or audio to put in here, but unfortunately I don’t. It was preached by Mark Throntveit, and it covered verse 105.

105 Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.

Psalm 119:105 NRSV

The sermon was so memorable because of a prop Mark used. He brought an oil lamp with him which he had gotten while in Israel. The lamp was roughly historical when compared to lamps in ancient Israel, so it was a lot like the lamp in the psalm may have been. The lamp was beautifully crafted with a thick wick sticking out the top of it. He showed it off to those of us who were there, then lit the wick. It was an impressive flame. But you could tell right away that this lamp wouldn’t put out much light.

On a dark night, the light from that lamp wouldn’t be enough to see more than a few feet in front of you. It lights up the path, but only really the next step. The only way to navigate would have been one step at a time. So, taking the path, following the way, is just taking the next step.

Learning how to walk with Psalm 119

So, we need to learn to walk. Like small children, learning to move is all about observation. Children learn to move watching their parents as an example. An example might help us, too.

Martin Luther wrote about Psalm 119 near the end of his life. He was introducing his written works and, after giving a lot of reasons not to read his stuff, lays out a way “to be a theologian.” The word “theologian” can be intimidating, but Luther doesn’t mean it to be. For Luther, a theologian is not necessarily someone with a lot of academic training who writes books about God. A theologian is someone who holds a position relative to God (belief, wonder, contempt, trust, etc…). It is a broad category.

Luther’s inspiration for his theological way comes from two places. On one hand, it borrows from the reading practice he learned as a monk, Lectio Divina. On the other, Luther cites Psalm 119. According to Luther there are three pieces of this way presented throughout the psalm. Those pieces are oratio, meditatio, and tentatio.

Oratio

Luther took all the pleas for instruction in Psalm 119 as the first piece. We should also ask for guidance from God. This is oratio, prayer. So, there is need at the very beginning to ask for or acknowledge the need for teaching and instruction. Luther recommends asking for the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment.

Why would we need to ask for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit just to read? Well, maybe you’ve had this experience, I know I have. You start to read. At first, you are reading through the words, and tracking what the text is saying. After a while, you kind of stop listening. You start to think about all the things that the text might mean somewhere behind it all. You might come to a passage about law and jump to the conclusion that everything is really about rules, because this passage says how lovely law is. So, the premature meanings you come up with, distract from the substance of the teaching, the text you are reading.

Luther recommends that people pray to have this stumbling block removed. In other words, it is a prayer that God would open you up to the text, not your thoughts about it, what you’ve heard about it before, or the meaning you might assign to it. Pray that you will read the text without a lot of assumptions.

Meditatio

Next, Luther takes all the references to singing, clinging, hearing, and speaking the teachings of God as an appeal to meditate. This is a kind of meditation similar to the meditation in Psalm 1. Luther recommends reading and re-reading the text of the Bible over and over. He says to do this not only silently to yourself, but out loud, too.

Luther stresses the need repeat the reading, and to give the text diligent attention and reflection. In this way, meaning will start to emerge. Consider it something like music, if that helps. Instrumental or classical music, more than music with lyrics. What does a song without words mean? Keep listening. Listen and listen and listen. Attend to your listening rather than any preconceived notions you might have and just see what meanings start to emerge from your listening.

Tentatio

The last of Luther’s three pieces is tentatio. Tentatio can be translated as suffering. Luther equates this with a lot of uncomfortable experiences. All the references in the psalm to evils, sorrows, falsehoods, and sufferings are the inspiration for this final piece.

Luther mentions his own struggles (largely the ones around the reformation) as being the gift that put the text of the Bible into practice. In other places, too, Luther talks about the gift of these struggles and sufferings as what really brought his insights into existence.

Once you’ve prayed and read, you go out and live and, well, you are bound to be beset by some suffering. It can’t be avoided. How could it? It’s all life, and how else can we know sweetness without bitterness. Luther says something much the same in regard to scripture. Without his suffering, he claims he wouldn’t know the wisdom of scripture as “wisdom beyond all wisdom.” This struggle was the “touchstone.”

Walk your walk

You are on the path of life. There are no certainties about it, just walking. The light of your lamp is not bright enough to show you much except another foothold. There will be slips and spills along the way. You can keep asking for teachings and guidance. You can keep listening. And, you can keep taking that next step. You can keep reaching out for that next foothold.

When you ask for help, ask for something beyond your own opinions and presumptions. Then, when you listen, really quiet yourself down and pay attention. Finally, when you walk, just take the next step, feel that next footfall.

Life is on the way, and this is what we have as we walk it.

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