Introit – Psalm 119: 1-2, 5-6, 134, 137
September 17, 2016 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Obedience is a big deal in Psalm 119. You probably know that it is longest Psalm and you probably know verse 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
You may also know that it is an alphabetic acrostic. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. So Psalm 119 has twenty-two sections. Each section has eight lines, each of which starts with the same letter. This doesn’t carry through in the translation but it is as though you have eight lines that start with “A” and then eight lines that start with “B” and then with “C” and so on. It is striking in Hebrew.
It is a serious literary accomplishment, to make all make sense, to carry on the single theme of the goodness of God’s Law, and to figure out so many clever ways to rephrase and restate that. In order to appreciate this Psalm we really have to ask ourselves why would someone work so hard at that?
The reason is that the goodness of God’s Law is order and symmetry. When one obeys God’s law, when one follows His Word and lives according to His precepts, then everything is balanced and reliable, full and neat. Obedience to God’s Law is the opposite of chaos. So the poet goes to such lengths to find a form that is commensurate with his message. The form itself witnesses to this truth.
The psalm develops this theme fully. The word of God is not dead. It is active and living. God’s Word is not just a bunch of rules to be followed for a good life, but is where God promises to be. He speaks in His Word to His children and He gives them life through His Word. His Law is not just accusations. It is also a description of what we were meant for, of who Jesus is, and of who we are becoming in Him as the good work begun in us is brought to completion.
Love of the Law is not legalism. The commandments, the statutes, the precepts of the Lord are not restrictive or burdensome, but create and establish the community and families in which we live. The Law reveals God’s will. It is not a fence to keep us in. It is a fence to keep Satan and the demons out and to create a home for us. They establish who our God and Father is and who we are in Him. They give a focus to life, a freedom from moral dilemma and uncertainty, from chaos and selfishness. The Law of God creates and gives a well-ordered world in joyful conformity to God’s good and gracious will.
Thus the poet can sing: “I will run the way of thy commandments, When thou shalt enlarge my heart (32, KJV). Running in the way of the commandments is not legalism. It is joyous freedom. It is running as we were meant to run, being what God meant us and created us to be. It enlarges our hearts, fills us with contentment. It is a canoe running with the current as opposed to a canoe being awkwardly carried over dry land.
All this leads us to the strange prayer that starts the Psalm and serves as the introit this morning:
1 Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. 2 Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart. 5 O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes! 6 Then shall I not be ashâmed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.
This seems like standard stuff. Those who are undefiled in the way, who walk in the Law of the Lord, who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart are blessed. The problem, of course, which runs throughout Psalm 119 is that we aren’t quite them, and neither was the poet. That is why he exclaims in the middle of these verses: “O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!” If a mother exclaims, “O that my children would learn to put their laundry away” it is because they didn’t. The poet cries out in frustration. It is a complaint. “Why, of why, can’t I keep the commandments? Why, O God, don’t You direct me? Why did You give me the freedom to sin? Why do I do the things that I hate and sabotage not only my own happiness but also my eternal fate?”
The poet sees that he is hurting himself with his sins and hurting those that he loves. He is not walking in the way of the Lord. He is not keeping the commandments, let alone running in them. He is carrying a canoe across dry land. Progress is slow. His hands are chafed. The canoe itself may be damaged. He is thus, by sin, by seeking his own way, complicating his life, creating drama, and sabotaging his own happiness. He is not seeking God with his whole heart. He is seeking his own pleasure, and it is vain. His sins don’t deliver. Canoes were meant to ride the current. He can see what would make Him happy: living by the Law of God, loving God’s Word, obedience, but he also sees that he keeps screwing it up and desires the supernatural help that alone is able to help.
So he cries out in pain and frustration. And don’t miss this: he levels his complaint not only against himself, as his own fault, but also against God. He is begging God to pay attention to him and to help him. He is saying: “Direct my ways, O Lord. Keep me from sin, from myself. If you love me, stop me. Then I shall not be ashamed. Then I could be happy. When you sanctify me, when you direct my ways, then I will have respect unto all your commandments and be blessed.”
This sort of honest prayer is shocking to us, but it shouldn’t be. What should be shocking is that we try to hide our true selves from God. We find ourselves carrying the canoe and we secretly think that we are doing it because God put the stuff we want on dry land. Sure, we’d prefer to ride the current, but God put all the twinkies on dry land and we need twinkies to be happy. So it is not our fault, it is God’s fault. In our saner moments we know that was stupid of us, that it is our fault, but part of us also thinks, and never forgets, that God is the one who put the tree in the garden. He set us up. We don’t trust Him to love us if we admit these feelings and thoughts so we don’t speak them, we distance ourselves from Him, we deny Him intimacy with us.
Not so the poet. He is raw in the implied complaint: “O that I were directed.” But don’t miss this: he isn’t hiding from God. He isn’t pretending to be something he isn’t. He is bold in his prayer because he is fully confident that God can and will help him, that God is not abandoning him or leaving him to his sins. He can make this complaint because of faith in God’s goodness and mercy and because he knows that he is part of the family. He has the right.
Which brings us to the antiphon:
Verse 137: “Righteous art thou, O Lôrd, and upright are thy judgments.” And verse 124 “Deal with thy servant according unto thy mercy.”
He complains about not being directed, but he also asks for mercy. He complains, but he also trusts. He leaves it to God, complaining but then moving on, leaving it with God, trusting that God will do what is best no matter how much the poet mishandles and abuses it. He leaves himself, his fears and his joys, his weaknesses and his strengths, in God’s hand and submits to God’s Word because of God’s mercy in the Messiah.
It is not enough that we be guided into the goodness of the Law and that we be kept from sin, that we have nothing to complain about or repent of. We do want that. We want to stop sinning, to stop hurting ourselves and those we love, to stop playing fast and loose with our faith. But above all, even before instruction in the Law and sanctification we need mercy. The Lord is righteous. His judgements are upright. That isn’t a function of the Law in the narrow sense, but is what drives His mercy. He is righteous. His judgements are upright. That means He keeps His promises. That means He hears our prayers. That means that He has accepted the Sacrifice of His Son as the payment for our sins and given us the privilege to pray.
In His righteousness we are unafraid to throw ourselves on His mercy and even to complain. We trust Him to do what is best. We pray that He “deal with thy servant,” that with us, “according unto mercy” and we beg Him to get us out of sin, to stop our sins, to increase our sanctification, and to lead into the obedience that is happiness and contentment. To this end, you can’t do much better than the longest Psalm in the Bible.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
 Brueggmann, The Message of the Psalms, 40.