Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #5 (He)

Once again, we recap the journey:

  • 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)
  • Daleth (vv. 25-32): sooner or later, followers of Yahweh “hit the wall“, and when they do, Yahweh has them right where he wants them

What happens on the other side of “the wall”?  The Psalmist continues –

33 Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees;
then I will keep them to the end.
34 Give me understanding, and I will keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
35 Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
36 Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.[b]
38 Fulfill your promise to your servant,
so that you may be feared.
39 Take away the disgrace I dread,
for your laws are good.
40 How I long for your precepts!
Preserve my life in your righteousness.

We’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth saying again because this text is a perfect example of it… There is a longstanding tradition within Protestant Christianity to treat Old Testament faith as “just a bunch of rule-keeping”.  The Old Testament believer is looked at as a symbol of the “dead religion” which we’re all hoping to escape from, which thankfully Paul (and later on Luther) did in fact liberate us from.  “No more rule-keeping and dead religion!” we declare, “All is grace!”

Well, not so fast with that whole line of thought.  Of course in Jesus’ day and Paul’s day (and even the Psalmist’s day) there were those in Israel who did not perceive the “hard core” of what obedience to Yahweh was all about.  And of course there were those for whom Torah obedience devolved into “merely” legalistic ritual observance.  But may I be so bold as to suggest that such persons represented defections and aberrations from Yahweh’s intention?

Listen to the language of the Psalmist… each line of this stanza begins of course with the Hebrew letter “He” (pronounced “hay”) and (with the exception of verse 40), leads off with a verb in the “Hiphil” stem.

Now that may not sound like a big deal to you… but it’s actually an INCREDIBLY theologically significant maneuver (linguistically speaking), for the Hiphil stem carries a “causative” sense with it, the effect of which is that we are to hear the Psalmist saying, “Do this to/for/in me Yahweh!”  Let us listen to the verbs:

Teach me… and then I will keep… (v33)

Cause me to understand… and then I will keep Torah and obey it with all my heart… (v34)

Direct me in the path… (v35)

Turn my heart toward your statutes and not towards unjust gain… (v36)

Turn my eyes away from empty things… (v37)

Just listen to it… “Teach me”, “Illuminate me”, “direct me”, “turn my heart”, “turn my eyes”… this is not a person who is slavishly following some cold standard.

This, rather, is a person who has seen the beauty of Yahweh’s life-giving way, has hit the wall in their own efforts, apprehended their limitations, and has come to the place of poverty of spirit in which their soul reaches out for Yahweh’s assistance… “Show me how to do this!” this person cries.  “And show me how it all connects… help it make sense to me!”  And even more, “Cause my heart to stretch out towards your way!” and “Keep my eyes away from things that have nothing to do with this life-giving way!”

This is a plea for God’s enabling grace if ever there was one.  And here again, we find, perhaps to our surprise, that the Psalmist and Protestantism’s favorite pre-Luther theological figure, Augustine, are on equal footing – “Grant what you command; command what you will!” said Augustine.  “Enable me to follow you” said the Psalmist, “and I will keep your instructions straight to the end.”

It’s in moments like this of reading and meditating on the Psalms when it starts to become obvious to me why the Church has always seen in the Psalter the voice of the One in whom the whole of God’s people is summed up – Jesus, David’s (to whom much of the Psalter is ascribed) True Son.

The Psalter of course was always the favorite prayer book of the ancient Jew, and as such it must have been the favorite prayer book of Jesus (we have ample evidence in the Gospels that Jesus was well familiar with the Psalms).  Let your imagine wander for a moment… to an adolescent Jesus at prayer:

Teach me, Father…

Give me understanding…

Direct me in the path…

Turn my heart…

Turn my eyes…

Fulfill your promise…

Let your imagination wander further, to a now grown Jesus in the desert, during the days of his temptation:

Teach me, Father…

Give me understanding…

Direct me in the path…

Turn my heart…

Turn my eyes…

Fulfill your promise…

Let it wander still further, to Jesus in the last hours of his life, in the Garden of Gethsemane…

Teach me, Father…

Give me understanding…

Direct me in the path…

Turn my heart…

Turn my eyes…

Fulfill your promise…

Take away the disgrace I dread…

Preserve me in your righteousness!

Jesus, David’s Son, lifted up and brought to a climax the whole spiritual ethos of the Psalter.  The desperate pleas of the Psalmist became his desperate pleas as he threw himself time and time again at the mercy of his Father.  The Psalmist’s cry for public vindication (which is also a public vindication of Yahweh’s way) – “Fulfill your promise to your servant so that you may be feared!” – is “filled up” in his death, resurrection, and ascension whereby the Faithful One, Christ Jesus, is vindicated by his Father as Lord of All, to whom the nations will finally come and worship.

And as such, he bears in his body the destiny of those who put their confidence in him.  

This is at least part of what we mean in the Church when we say that we pray “in the Name of Jesus”… it is a realization that when we pray, we are praying “in, with, and through” the One who filled up in his life the whole spirituality of the Psalter.  He is the ultimate horizon of Israel’s, and hence the world’s, cries to God.

Who knew?  May you pray the Psalms today, and find yourself thereby in the company of Jesus.

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