Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #2 (Beth)

(See here for #1 of this series)

The journey of discipleship has begun.  The horizon is full conformity to God and his ways, and nothing less.  Perfection is where this is all headed – the “self”, completed in God.

But how is that achieved?  The Psalmist will tell us here along the second leg of the pilgrimage: Psalm 119:9-16 – each letter of this stanza beginning with the Hebrew letter “beth”.

9 How can a young man keep his way pure?
By living according to your word.
10 I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.
12 Praise be to you, O LORD;
teach me your decrees.
13 With my lips I recount
all the laws that come from your mouth.
14 I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
15 I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.
16 I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word.

Bammeh” – “in what” – is how this section begins.  As in – “what is the substance of” the life of faithfulness about which the Psalmist is speaking?  And though we are not told how old the Psalmist is, he uses a lovely little word that helps solidify in our minds a sort of theoretical framework for all of this:

na-ar

A “na-ar” is a young person, a youth, a beginner, someone who’s just starting out on this path.  The Psalmist wants us to know, in a theoretical way, “in what” the journey towards moral and spiritual perfection consists.  So he employs a simple pedagogical device; not unlike the catechism or confirmation classes that many of us took in our youth to prepare us for full entry into the church.  He sets down a question, and then provides the answer:

QUESTION: In what shall a beginner’s way be [made] pure?

ANSWER: By keeping/guarding it according to [Yahweh’s] word

The Hebrew word used there for “keep/guard” is the word “shamar”.  It is the same word that’s used in Genesis 2:15 to talk about Adam’s responsibility in the Garden – that is, he was to “cultivate” and “shamar” (keep, guard, protect) it.  Elsewhere when this word “shamar” is used, it is used to talk about what the priests and Levites did for the Temple/tabernacle: they would “shamar” it against defilement.  Keep it sacred.  Holy.

Echoes of Eden and Temple ring in our ears here… our lives are sacred space to be zealously watched over.  We set our lives apart for God, for he has set us apart for himself.

And this we do by attending passionately to his speech.

Now the speech – the “dabar” – of God is no idle thing.  According to Scripture the speech of God is powerful.  By the “word” of God the heavens were made.  His speech DOES things.  He makes the worlds by his speech,  and addresses himself specifically to us by disclosing his name – “Yahweh” – the “I am that I am” – the “I will be with you” One (see Exodus 3) who leads us into human flourishing.  And of course in Christian thinking, when God speaks, “Jesus” – the “Word made flesh” – is what he has to say in a final and full way (John 1; Hebrews 1).  Jesus “the Word” leads us to the Father’s heart.

And so it is with all God’s speech, here in an anticipatory way… Yahweh talks… the interiority of the Divine being – which is all goodness and love – makes itself manifest in speech, and addresses the interiority of the human soul, rebounding in answering devotion.

The Psalmist declares:

With my whole heart I seek you!

I have hidden your word in my heart!

Teach me your decrees!

With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth!

I rejoice in following what you’ve said!

I meditate on your precepts!

I delight in your decrees and will not forget your word!

What the Psalmist hears, he loves.  The speech of God uttered straight from the heart and through the mouth of God, addresses the Psalmist straight to the core – to the “heart”, the very center of the self – and comes back out through the mouth of the Psalmist: “with my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.”

From the Divine Heart, through the Divine Mouth… To the human heart, and from the human mouth.

Love rebounding in praise and obedience.

The “beth” part of Psalm 119, interestingly, begins with talk of “words” and “ways” (v9), and ends with talk of “words” (v16) and “ways” (v15)… and in the middle is all this stuff about delight in and attentiveness to the Divine speech.

The message could hardly be clearer: the human way is perfected in the Divine way as the human heart attends itself in passionate devotion to the Divine “word”.

An analogy from the world of music.  A pianist hears a piece by Rachmaninov, is gripped by the beauty of it, and decides to try to play it.  She might just sit down and try to play it from memory.  But then of course her “way” in “re-presenting” what she heard will fall woefully short of the full beauty of the piece.  How will she bring her “way”, her “re-presentation” of the piece into full conformity with Rachmaninov’s intentions?

She’ll have to find the sheet music.  She’ll have to be able to read and understand it.  She’ll need to find a way to let Rachmaninov’s “word” make its way into the interiority of her soul – the totality of her being – so that the piece can rebound back out of her in such a way that Rachmaninov would be able to say, “That’s EXACTLY what I was thinking.”

The “word” of Rachmaninov bridges the gap between the pianist and the artist, bringing them into communion with each other.

That is why it is said that the “first word” of Israel’s life is “Shema” – “Hear” – as in:

Shema Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One…

God speaks.  We listen.  We “commune” with God in his “word”.

The implications of this for Christians are endless… ENDLESS…

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