Psalm 119: The Great Psalm of the Torah   Leave a comment




Psalm 119


Psalm 119, with 176 verses, is the longest entry in the Psalter and the longest chapter in the Bible.  This repetitive “Psalm of the Law” contains themes familiar in the Book of Psalms from Psalm 1 to Psalm 118.  Therefore, I choose not to address all of these themes in this post.  Instead, I opt to focus on the proverbial big picture of Psalm 119.

The key word is torahTorah, in the narrow definition, means “Law.”  Yet, in the broad definition, torah is “teaching” or “instruction,” incorporating the Law.  We do well to adopt the broad definition of torah in Psalm 119.

God seems distant in Psalm 119.  Therefore, the psalmist clings to torah, understood as a manifestation of God.  The author writes of torah as being the

decisive factor in every sphere of life.

–Artur Weiser, The Psalms:  A Commentary (1962), 740

So, a closer examination of torah is in order.

The Law of Moses (torah, in the narrow definition) may seem mostly irrelevant to most Christians, especially those who assume that St. Paul the Apostle was a proto-Lutheran and interpret the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians in a manner which may be inaccurate.  Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart contradicts the proto-Lutheran St. Paul hypothesis.  So does E. P. Sanders, notably in Paul and Palestinian Judaism:  A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (1977).  Hart avoids “justification” and “works” in his translation of Romans; he prefers “vindication” and “observances.”  And Sanders holds that St. Paul’s critique of Judaism was not that it was a religion with works-based righteousness, for St. Paul knew better than that.  Sanders also uses a plethora of Second Temple-era Jewish documents (some canonical) to prove that Second Temple Judaism did not teach works-based righteousness.  He argues that, in St. Paul’s mind, the death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything.  So, post-resurrection of Jesus, St. Paul’s critique of Judaism was that it was not Christianity.

The Law of Moses contains both timeless principles and culturally-specific commandments.  The latter may seem irrelevant in one setting in 2023, but “peaking behind the Law” (my term) reveals contemporary applications.  (This is a traditional Jewish practice.)  Consider, for example, the commandment regarding leaving food in the fields for gleaning (Leviticus 19).  One may fulfill this commandment in more than one way without being an agriculturalist.  One may, for example, shop for a local food bank, volunteer to distribute food bank food to people who need it, or volunteer at a soup kitchen.  My parish, Calvary Episcopal Church, Americus, Georgia, sits on a major street near downtown.  We have a “Blessings Box” beside the sidewalk and facing that street.  The raised wooden structure, with a door, is a receptable for food, as well as sanitary and health-related items, such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, and hand sanitizer.  The Blessings Box is a parish project, and members of the community who are not parishioners contribute, too.  The principle to feed the hungry poor is timeless.

The Law of Moses teaches mutuality and interdependence within the context of total human dependence upon God.  We are responsible to and for each other.  God commands us to take care of–not to exploit–one another.  Thus, we can have righteousness–right relationship with God, others, self, and all creation.

With this in mind, Psalm 119 may come to life in a fresh way for an otherwise bored reader.  Torah (in the broad definition) is a reason to celebrate.  It is a goal to which aspire.  So, one may say with the psalmist:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,

who follow the teaching the way of the LORD.

–Psalm 119:1, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures






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