Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #1 (Aleph)

I remember the first time I sat down to actually READ Psalm 119.  I was in grade school at the Christian school I attended.  Maybe 5th grade or so.  I had heard about the mythically long Psalm 119, and though I had been reading the Bible for a couple years at that point, had never worked up the nerve to give the legendary Psalm a go.  So one day, during a class devotional time in which we were all encouraged to make use of the time however we liked, I decided to give it a try.

It was in every way as long as I expected, and maybe a bit longer.

But my goodness I felt accomplished having read it.

That sense of “whew, I finished it” is perhaps appropriate to the nature of Psalm 119, since it recounts the long and oftentimes arduous struggle of a person who has deliberately set out on the way of devotion, experiencing God’s help throughout, and does so using a lovely poetic device: the acrostic.  Most English Bibles will note in the margins that each section of Psalm 119 begins with a succession of different letters in the Hebrew alphabet (that’s what an acrostic poem is).  So, in the first section, each line begins with “aleph”; in the second section, each line begins with “bet”; in the second section, each line begins with “gimel”, and so on and so forth.

In this way, the Psalmist again is trying to communicate: “Here is a more or less complete picture of the journey of devotion… the ABCs of fidelity to the God we’ve come to know and worship.”  (Interestingly, chapters 3 and 4 of Lamentations are also an acrostic… can you guess what they’re trying to communicate?)

And so it is… the journey of longing love for God and faithful submission to his ways begins with the letter “aleph”, the first letter of a powerful Hebrew word, “Ashre” – “Blessed”:

1 Blessed are they whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
2 Blessed are they who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart.
3 They do nothing wrong;
they walk in his ways.
4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
8 I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Several things to note:

A picture is being painted, and with it, a theological vision for life.  The Hebrew word “ashre” – “blessed” – is one of two words we translate as such, but whereas the other (“berakah”) denotes something like a promise of what will be, this word marks out something that IS RIGHT NOW.  “Well off”, “fortunate”, even “happy” are good ways to render this word.  Who’s got the good life?

The Psalmist is clear: the person who has “the good life” is a person who has achieved full conformity to God and his ways.  “Blameless” (v. 1) is the Hebrew word “tamim”, coming from a verb that means something like “complete” or “finished”.  In other words, the person with the good life is someone whose ways have, through an often arduous process, come to reflect fully the divine will.

Not a person with money…

Or talent…

Fame or fortune have nothing to do with this theological picture…

Nope.  None of those things.  Nor any of the things we usually equate with “having the good life.”  Instead, it is conformity.  Obedience.  Submission.  Surrender.  Perfect reflection of Yahweh’s purposes for humanity.

More still, apparently Yahweh’s intention for humanity is nothing less than this “full conformity”.  As the Psalmist says in verse 4, “You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed (or “kept continually”).” Perfection is the horizon of human devotion.

Against this backdrop, and quite naturally, the Psalmist senses the tension between Yahweh’s will and his own life.  When he considers the beauty of Yahweh’s will, and then looks at his own state, he is quite frankly embarrassed.  But the embarrassment is no self-loathing.  No, the embarrassment arises out of the purity of his soul.  He is a person who sees and loves what is good.  A burning vision of “the beauty of holiness” rests in his soul, and he is distressed that his life doesn’t live up to it.  So what does he do?

He cries for help.  “I will obey your decrees!  Do not utterly forsake me!”  He knows that he’ll never live up to Yahweh’s transcendently beautiful will for him if Yahweh himself doesn’t enable him.  So he pleads… “Don’t leave me alone in this!  I need you!”  His love leads him to throw himself completely at Yahweh in surrender and an ardent desire to please…

And so the first beginning sketches of a portrait of discipleship have been laid down.  A heart alive to Yahweh, longing for his beauty, aware of the disparity between his life and that same beauty, and pleading for help to live up to all that Yahweh intends for him…

A compelling portrait.  Two final observations:

There is a tendency in the Christian Church to treat the Old Testament as “just a bunch of legalism and rule-keeping.”  The New Testament is about love and grace while the Old Testament is about religious drudgery and trying to “earn our way” with God.

This first stanza of the Psalm should dispel that notion, for…

1) There is nothing in this Psalm that is at odds with Augustine’s memorable line: “Grant what you command, and command what you will.”  Augustine saw rightly that what God commands, he also enables us to live up to.  He commands what is good for us; he enables us to live up to his good.  This is ESSENTIALLY what the New Testament teaches: God himself makes possible and enables human devotion.  The Psalmist, the New Testament writers, and Augustine would probably enjoy each other’s company in this regard.  And…

2) It is longing love that drives the Psalmist’s obedience, and confidence in Yahweh undergirds and makes possible that love.  And here again we here echoes of Paul… “faith working itself out in love”… and Jesus… “whoever loves me will obey what I command”… Confidence in God makes possible a love that throws itself at He Whom the heart loves in full devotion.

Quite simply: there is not a shred of difference between love and obedience.  For that is what love does.  It gives itself to what it loves in ways that are appropriate to the relationship… and when we are in relationship with our Maker, what is more appropriate than abandoned obedience and surrender?

Love gives itself, and gives itself utterly.  As St. John of the Cross said:

 There He made me gently free // had honey of revelation to confide // There I gave all of me // hid nothing, had no pride // There I promised to become his bride // Forever at his door I gave my heart and soul, my fortune too // I’ve no flock anymore, no other work in view // My occupation: love.  It’s all I do.

Enraptured with Yahweh’s beauty, and longing for it to be made manifest in his life with every shred of his being… the Psalmist’s soul should inspire us.  Would to God that we would be like him.

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