Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119: #4 (Daleth)

Let us recount the journey so far:

  • Aleph (vv. 1-8): the horizon is perfection
  • Beth (vv. 9-16): the path is God’s gracious speech
  • Gimel (vv. 17-24): the commitment to Yahweh’s “way” makes us by definition strange (something we’ll have to grow increasingly comfortable with)

And so the next leg (each line beginning with the Hebrew letter “daleth”) commences:

25 I am laid low in the dust;
preserve my life according to your word.
26 I recounted my ways and you answered me;
teach me your decrees.
27 Let me understand the teaching of your precepts;
then I will meditate on your wonders.
28 My soul is weary with sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
29 Keep me from deceitful ways;
be gracious to me through your law.
30 I have chosen the way of truth;
I have set my heart on your laws.
31 I hold fast to your statutes, O LORD;
do not let me be put to shame.
32 I run in the path of your commands,
for you have set my heart free.

The journey began so energetic and hopeful.  “I will obey your decrees!” (v8) the Psalmist cried.  “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches!” (v14)… “I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word!” (v16) he loudly proclaimed.  And even “though rulers sit together and slander me,” he declared, “your servant will meditate on your decrees!” (v23).

And now… as was likely inevitable… he hits the “wall.”

My nephesh (“soul”) clings to the dust… (v25)

Now when the Psalmist uses the word “nephesh” (soul), he doesn’t mean what WE usually mean by “soul”.  For us, the “soul” is that ephemeral, invisible, “misty” part of your total self that may or may not actually be real.  For Hebrew writers, however, the “nephesh” referred to the totality of our living being (which includes “invisible” things but is so much more than that), as in Genesis 2:7 which states that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being,” – the words “living being” of course being a translation of the Hebrew “nephesh.”

So when the Psalmist announces that his “nephesh” is clinging to the dust (“dust” of course being a prominent symbol in the Bible of mortality and consequently, humility), he is saying quite literally: the whole of my being, all that I am… it’s flat on the floor… “on the mat”, as it were… 

He’s “hit the wall.”

And yet…

In the midst of that…

Perhaps precisely because of that…

…He stretches out towards God.  “Preserve my life according to your word…” (v25)  “teach me your decrees…” v26)  “strengthen me…” (v28)  “be gracious to me…” (v29)  “don’t let me be put to shame…” (v31)  His lips resound with desperate cries for help.  He can’t do it and he knows it.

And right there… in that moment… Yahweh has him exactly where he wants him.  In the place of full acceptance of his limitation and mortality, and consequently total abandonment to God.

At the breakfast table this week, Mandi and I began working through the Beatitudes with our kids.  Yesterday, appropriately I suppose, was the first one:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of God is theirs!

How to teach this to a 5 year old, a 4 year old, and a 2 year old… I wondered to myself.  So I went ahead and began with the words.  “Guys, what is ‘poor’?  Do you know what that means?”

(They did not.)

“You know those people we see sometimes when we’re driving – standing by the side of the road holding up signs?” I queried.  “Oh yeah, we’ve seen those guys!” they announced.  “Well those guys are poor – very poor. Most of them have no homes, no food, and very few clothes.  That’s the reason they ask for help on the side of the road.  They are TOTALLY DEPENDENT on the kindness of other people to survive.”

“So to be poor ‘in spirit’,” I continued, “must mean to be completely dependent on God for our survival, right?”

(They agreed)

“And Jesus says that when we’re poor in spirit, we’re blessed… and why?  Because we’ve thrown ourselves at God, and we know that unless he’s kind to us, we’re not gonna make it.”

In my own life, this has constantly proven to be the case.

When I “hit the wall” in my efforts to be everything I’ve been called to be in creation and redemption…

Then I am blessed.

When I “hit the wall” and am totally frustrated with my husbanding and parenting…

Then I am blessed.

When I “hit the wall” and feel like I am without answers for a relationship that has gone awry…

Then I am blessed.

When I “hit the wall” and realize that I cannot be everything that the congregation I get to serve needs me to be…

Then I am blessed… then I am on the doorstep of the kingdom!

The quicker we come to embrace our weaknesses, our inabilities, our vulnerabilities, our limitations… the TOTAL PAIN of our finitude and mortality, the better it will be for us… for God’s desire for us “dusty” human beings is that not that we would rise up in hubris, puffing out our chests, pulling ourselves up by our moral bootstraps, and proving once for all that we really ARE awesome and capable and amazing… but rather that we would stretch out towards his illimitable grace and kindness and find therein the joy of having abandoned ourselves to the God “from whom all blessings flow.”

Paul said it beautifully:

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Co 12)

Which sure sounds a lot like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…

And when we embrace this, chances are we’ll be able to say with the Psalmist:

You have enlarged my heart! (v32 – more literally in Hebrew)

So may you – with JOY – embrace your “dustiness” this day… when you “hit the wall”, may you know that you are blessed… may your dustiness in every way push you to reach out to God, “in whom we live and move and have our being”, and may God “enlarge your heart” with his goodness.

Grace and peace.

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