YEAR A: EPIPHANY 6
(Sunday between February 11 and February 17)
Psalm 119 dominates Book V of the Book of Psalms by its sheer length. Its length also dominates the interpretation of the psalm. These 176 verses are homage to the torah or ‘teaching/law’ and its significance in the life of one who fears God. Every verse adds something to our appreciation of torah, the psalmist’s devotion to it, and its importance in the psalmist’s life. The length and the structure of the psalm make it more of an experience than a rational prayer or treatise on torah, although it is not without reason in its structure and themes. To select just a few verses from the psalm, as we need do in our readings this week, does not do justice to the psalm.
The basic structure of the psalm is simple. The psalm is an alphabetic acrostic consisting of twenty two stanzas, each with eighth lines, each of which begins with the letter of the Hebrew alphabet for that stanza. The stanzas work sequentially through the alphabet. Within the overall structure of Psalm 119, a reflection on torah and its synonyms is developed. Eighth words are used to speak of torah with, for the most part, one used in each verse. They are translated in the NRSV: ‘promise’, ‘word’, ‘statutes’, ‘commandments’, ‘decrees’, ‘precepts’, and ‘law’ respectively. The words ‘way’ and ‘faithfulness’ are less frequent but could be added. While these words are synonyms for torah, they each add their own nuance to our understanding of torah.
The structure of Psalm 119 bears on its interpretation. The alphabetic acrostic structure could indicate either that this psalm provides the A-Z of torah or that torah is complete and wholly adequate for the life of the faithful. The latter would seem more consistent with the lack of actual specific laws or prescriptions within the psalm. Moreover, completeness is also suggested by the inclusion of all parts of the psalmist’s body in adherence to torah. For example, near the beginning we find: eyes – vv. 6, 15, 18, 37; mouth – vv. 13, 43; heart – vv. 2, 7, 10, 11, 34, 36; ‘soul’ (‘myself, body’, lit. ‘throat’) – vv. 20, 25, 28. Each is repeated later in the psalm along with feet – vv. 59, 101, 105 – and tongue – v. 172. This is consistent with the point of the Deuteronomy reading this week. To choose the law is to choose life and vice-versa. To choose the law is to commit our entire being to it.
In some of its themes Psalm 119 is closest to Psalms 1 and 19 which are also concerned with torah. Some aspects of the psalm suggest it was written in the exilic or post-exilic period. It is also likely, given the form, that the psalm was penned as a unity.
There is no clear thematic development through the psalm, but some of the stanzas do have thematic concerns. Today’s verses, vv. 1-8, all start with the Hebrew letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, equivalent to our ‘a’. Consistent with its position in the psalm this stanza seems to have an introductory function. It begins in vv. 1-3 with an expression of the ‘happiness’ or blessedness of the person who walks in the law of the Lord. There is a great similarity to the beginning of Psalm 1 in these verses, although Psalm 1 expresses the same point negatively (see Ps 1:1-2).
Ps 119:4-5 express God’s intention in the law, namely that God’s laws might be kept diligently etc. The result of such diligence is then explored in vv. 6-8: the lack of shame in the obedient one and then their praise which follows. In fact, observance of the ordinances of God is itself praise of God (v. 7). Finally there is a prayer or plea by the worshipper not to be forsaken (v. 8). They express the nature of the relationship with God. Obedience does not in itself guarantee God’s presence. Like any relationship it depends on commitment by all parties involved.
One has a sense of a deep devotion on the part of the psalmist to God’s teaching or law. Learning and observing the precepts of God is the key to life.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
The beginning of the psalm can be used as either a general call to worship or with the addition of the threefold blessing at the end, and using the word ‘Blessed’ instead of ‘Happy’, it could be used as the final blessing:
Happy (Blessed) are those whose way is blameless,Verses 4 and 8 could be used as part of a response during the prayer of confession:
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Happy (Blessed) are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways.
[And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
be with you, now and forever.
You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.Old Testament reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
We will observe your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
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