Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #7 (Zayin)

Let us recount 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
  • He (vv. 33-40): the Psalmist’s “poverty of spirit” pushes him to plead with Yahweh for assistance (for this life is not possible with mere human strength)
  • Waw (vv. 41-48): all of this begets a renewed inner resolve to follow Yahweh, whatever the cost

And he will need that resolve, for the heat is about to get turned up again with the next stanza, each line beginning with the Hebrew letter zayin:

49 Remember your word to your servant,
for you have given me hope.
50 My comfort in my suffering is this:
Your promise preserves my life.
51 The arrogant mock me without restraint,
but I do not turn from your law.
52 I remember your ancient laws, O LORD,
and I find comfort in them.
53 Indignation grips me because of the wicked,
who have forsaken your law.
54 Your decrees are the theme of my song
wherever I lodge.
55 In the night I remember your name, O LORD,
and I will keep your law.
56 This has been my practice:
I obey your precepts.

Inevitably, our big, brash “I WILL!” statements are put to the test no sooner than they leave our lips.  The Psalmist finds a new inner resolve to follow Yahweh and almost immediately he finds that the proud and arrogant, those who live their lives outside of and against Yahweh’s gracious “instruction” (Torah) are “mocking” him “without restraint”.

So what will he do?  Will he survive the onslaught?  If so, how?  And what will this do to him in terms of his formation?

I am struck by three things:

1) The centrality that “remembering” plays in this stanza.  It opens with the Hebrew word “zachar”, which means, “to remember”, and that word is repeated three times in this section.  It is noteworthy who is doing the “remembering” and what is being remembered.  In verse 49 it is Yahweh who is being called upon to “remember his word” to the Psalmist.  “Don’t forget what you’ve said to me God!” the Psalmist cries.  In verse 52 it is the Psalmist who is “remembering” the the ancient laws spoken by Yahweh and finding comfort in them.  And then again in verse 55 it is the Psalmist who is “remembering” Yahweh’s Name.

Yahweh remembers his word to us.  We remember his Name and his Way, and we find comfort therein.  And so if you ask the question, “How is the Psalmist preserved through the onslaught?”, the answer in part is, “by remembering…”  As the founder of Hasidic Judaism put it, “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”  If Yahweh forgets the Psalmist, all is lost, and exile is sure to result.  And if the Psalmist forgets Yahweh, similarly, he’ll get swallowed up by the onslaught, and exile is sure to result.

We remember who and Whose we are… it is how we are preserved.

2) But the Psalmist does more than “survive” in the midst of this – he positively THRIVES.  Despite the onslaught of persecution and hardship that comes his way for his commitment to walk with Yahweh, the Psalmist finds a way not only to “make it”, but to find deep deep reservoirs of strength and vitality.  He saturates his mind and soul with Yahweh – his character, his promises, his word, his will, his ways; erects for himself a sort of Torah-tabernacle, and finds therein that the “word” of Yahweh “causes me to come alive!” (v50).

This is no “eeking” it out.  No “just getting by.”  No “hanging on by a thread.”

No.  It is EXPERIENCING A SORT OF VITALITY THAT HAD LIKELY NOT BEEN AVAILABLE TO YOU UNTIL THE MOMENT OF YOUR SUFFERING.

Suffering because of our commitment to God has a way of doing that.  It ushers us into depths of communion, vistas of “presence” and “being-with”, that were simply not possible for us to taste until the moment of our suffering.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” said Jesus.  And why?  “Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to you” (Matt 6).  A huge part of our journey is learning the joy that comes from standing alone – alone with God that is.

3) All of this has amounted to another new experience for the Psalmist – he “burns”.  At the very center of this stanza the Psalmist says this:

Burning indignation has gripped me because of the wicked who have left Torah behind…

The corollary of loving Good is hating Evil.  The corollary of loving Light is hating Darkness.  The corollary of loving Justice is hating Injustice.  The corollary of loving Yahweh is “burning indignation” over what stands against Yahweh – his Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  And the longer we journey with Yahweh, the deeper we venture into communion with Him, the more we’ll come to detest what is anti-Yahweh.  

It is what Abraham Heschel called “sympathy with the Divine pathos” – to experience intimate fellowship with Yahweh is to find ourselves sharing in Yahweh’s deep experience of displeasure over what is “out of whack” in his world.

“To fear Yahweh is to hate evil” (Pr 8:13).  And how could it be otherwise?

Sadly, it is not always so with us, is it?  As often as we are seized with “burning indignation”, we are also numbly indifferent.  We are not yet like our Maker, who loves what is right.

Would to God that we would become as He is.

Amen.

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