Praying the Psalms

That I may live and keep your word

I’m working my way slowly through Psalm 119, again.

Psalm 119 is all about the words, the testimonies, the commands, the teachings of God. It’s an acrostic psalm, suggesting order – both the act of ordering life and the state of order, as opposed to chaos. It uses the whole alphabet, suggesting wholeness and completeness.

It’s pretty clear that the voice is a Levite teacher, teaching God’s people about the good life, life in the community of the spoken-to. It’s a whole life, an ordered life. It’s a wholeness and order that allows people to thrive, even in the midst of evil and disorder.

Today’s reading was Gimel, verses 17-24.

Gimel

17 

Deal bountifully with your servant,

that I may live and keep your word.

18

Open my eyes, that I may behold

wondrous things out of your law.

19 

I am a sojourner on the earth;

hide not your commandments from me!

20 

My soul is consumed with longing

for your rules at all times.

21 

You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones,

who wander from your commandments.

22 

Take away from me scorn and contempt,

for I have kept your testimonies.

23 

Even though princes sit plotting against me,

your servant will meditate on your statutes.

24 

Your testimonies are my delight;

they are my counselors.

These little 8-verse mini-poems can be fun to interpret, as the brilliance is in how so much can be woven into so few words. In this passage we find the Speaker, who is speaking the entire time to God. We learn the Speaker understands himself  to be a sojourner on the earth – a traveler, somewhat homeless and definitely vulnerable. He is God’s servant, though, and we’ll see what he thinks that means, regarding God’s responsibility and his.

This particular poem lacks the naive tone of many psalms about the Word. That is to say, this poem has bad guys. Real ones. They are powerful (princes), whereas the Speaker is a pilgrim in a land not his own. They have focused, bad intentions (they sit plotting). Worse, the Speaker is the target. Not just a bystander, not just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the actual target of intended, carefully planned evil coming from multiple directions (‘princes’ is plural) and from people who have the power to do real, lasting harm.

Like Presidents of neighboring nations developing a dossier and planning to disappear you. Or ISIS leaders targeting you, hatching a plan and issuing a hit. On you. Personally.

This isn’t just some unfounded bogeyman fear, either. The Speaker has reason to believe people can hurt him. He’s already been the victim of “scorn and contempt” (which, in honor societies, come with real financial and security threats), likely from the “insolent and accursed” people of verse 21.

In a world where God is not the last word, the Speaker has reason to fear.

There is another character in this poem. It’s the main character, as it alone appears in every. single. verse. God’s words, his teachings, his rules, his commands. God’s word is the primary character, though always receiving the action.

Think about this. The speaker doesn’t say:

I am a sojourner on the earth, hide not from me the path to safety!

Open my eyes, that I may behold an accurate diagnosis, or a way to mitigate the evil that targets me!

My soul is consumed with worry and the sense that I have to figure this all out!

Nope.

While princes sit scheming, I leave them to you, and I sit meditating not on my defenses, but on your words.

Your testimonies (not the media) are my delight, and they (not the news, the pundits or the fear mongers) are my counselors.

I am a wanderer, yes, but don’t let me miss your words.

My soul is consumed, yes, not with obsessive fantasies of tragedy, but with desire to hear your voice, to think your thoughts after you, and not chase my own in a circle.

Open my eyes, and I’ll be looking not at more bomb footage, not at a Yahoo! bit on how 10 out of 10 people who die knew someone who knew a guy with cancer, not another depressing market analysis being made by people who are either always wrong or always right only in retrospect … open my eyes and I’ll be looking at your words, waiting for the wonder.

The Speaker is compulsive, yes. His mind is enthralled with the living word of God. Due to habits of selective and sustained attention, this thoughts and emotions trend toward the Book. That, and really only that, is in his power.

He can’t stop princes, pancreatic cancer or Pashtun jihadists. He can really only choose what he will think about. And only he can choose that.

But who is supposed to be thinking about all that evil, present and future, real and imagined?

Let’s go back now to that bit about God’s responsibilities and ours, as his sojourning servants. It’s the Speaker’s responsibility to obsess over and delight in the Scriptures and the Voice within them. It is God’s job to “deal bountifully with us, so we can … live and keep [his] word.” Since you’re his servant, it’s his job to keep you alive, to take away scorn and contempt and the vulnerable positions attendant thereunto. It’s his job to thwart the insolent and the accursed, and to handle the outcomes of people (and societies) who “wander far from [his] commandments”. It’s your job to become absorbed in a different conversation.

In other words, in this story, the Speaker gets to live, in order to live out the words he’s obsessing into, and because God deals bountifully with him. God gives more than the chaos takes. God’s provision is more than enough. It is God ALONE that makes us to dwell in safety.

Recall, finally, that this whole psalm is a prayer. The psalmist isn’t talking to himself, or listening to himself. He is saying his words to God, and he is listening to God’s words. Obsessively.

That is the responsibility of a sojourning servant of God in the midst of a tragic world full of evil intent. Our watchcare is His business. Our question should not be whether he will do His part, but rather whether we are doing ours.

May the LORD deal bountifully with us, that we might live to keep his word. And may that be the end of the matter.

Amen.

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