YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 10 and July 16)
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 Yahweh. 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. Selecting 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.
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. 105-112, all start with the Hebrew letter nun, the fourteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, equivalent to our ‘n’. The focus of the stanza set for today is the word of the Lord. It begins with a verse familiar to many congregations as the response given in preparation for hearing the Scripture readings each Sunday (v. 105). The word of the Lord is what guides the life of the psalmist. From what we hear in today’s stanza, the path the psalmist treads is not always easy. They are severely afflicted (v. 107), the wicked have set a snare for them (v. 110) and they hold their life in their hands all the time, which we can take to mean that they live a precarious existence and every daily decision could be life threatening (v. 100). Against these things, the psalmist vows their continual observance of God’s ‘law’ (vv. 106, 108, 111-112). But facing the difficulties they have is not just dependent on the psalmist’s effort. They also recognise their dependence on the continued blessing of God (vv. 107-8). For this reason the psalmist speaks of the Lord’s decrees as the joy of their heart (v. 111).
The nature of the Lord’s torah referred to in Psalm 119 remains unclear. The psalm speaks in different ways about torah, as ‘word’ implying a body of teaching, as ‘statutes’ and ‘precepts’ implying a body of discreet laws. In today’s portion from the psalm, torah or its synonyms can be observed (v. 106), learnt (v. 108), and performed (v. 112). Elsewhere in the psalm at one time torah can sound like some form of natural law (v. 64) while at another learning the statutes can involve reflection on past experience (v. 71, cf. v. 111). At times one could perceive torah in Psalm 119 as something fixed and in relatively concrete form, such as the Pentateuch, although no specific laws are mentioned; at others, as some form of authoritative oral tradition or prophecy, or as revelation in a general form from nature or experience. What remains constant is the witness to Yahweh who always stands behind his word. In this sense torah can be the source of joy (v. 111).
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
The psalm this day lends itself to that part of the Sunday liturgy called ‘The Service of the Word’. The first verse is already familiar to many as an introductory response to the reading of Scripture. Verse 111 could be adapted as a concluding response.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp to our feetAnd after the readings:
and a light to our path.
Your decrees are our heritage forever;Old Testament reading: Genesis 25:19-34
they are the joy of our heart.
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