Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it, is my favorite Psalm for meditation. As a reminder it’s divided into 22 eight-line stanzas exploring human engagement with God’s law. Each stanza begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, working it’s way from ‘aleph’ to ‘taw,’ which is interesting, but loses significance in the English translation. Long ago I decided it was written by several authors, each contributing a little something about their relationship with God, and God’s word as revealed to them in the Pentateuch. Some were hopeful, some contrite, others smugly self-righteous, Some wanted to be taught, some knew it all, and some were confused.
Whenever I read portions of Psalm 119 in the context of prayer, I’m led into conversation with the authors, God, and myself, that occasionally becomes a hot argument. One psalmist claims to seek God with his whole heart, and I say ‘not me; at my best I’m at about 50%, and I think you’re lying.’ More to my liking is the admission of another to being a stranger on earth, more than a little confused, and wondering what’s going on around here. I can relate to that. Several stanzas remind me of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in the temple (Luke 18). One describes being prostrate in the dust hoping for grace. Another gloats pridefully about how well he follows all of God’s laws. I don’t think I’m either one, but both at the same time. An author tells how he hates the double minded. I think we’re all double minded most of the time, and the most double minded are the ones who think they aren’t.
The central theme of the Psalm is God’s righteousness revealed through scripture as a dependable guide to a better life. The more one gives it serious thought, and works to live into it, the more fully the better life is realized. Failure has come, and will come again, but God’s grace abounds – we will not be abandoned. The very last stanza says it this way: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” Isn’t that the truth. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love…,” it’s certainly my confession. Maybe that’s why “Come thou Fount of every blessing” is one of my favorite hymns.
Psalm 119 is a reminder that God’s word, as expressed in scripture, is a living thing. It’s not etched on stone tablets. It doesn’t demand blind obedience; it invites honest conversation in which God honors doubt, confusion, and disagreement. It’s conversation that opens doors to deeper understanding, and more certain faith that God’s abounding and steadfast love will not turn away.
There is a heresy in Christian thought called Pelagianism (named after Pelagius, a 4th century British monk) that claims humans can choose between good and evil without God’s help, and can lead a sinless life if they want to. That’s an over simplification, but in condemning it the Church went the other way to say humans are so corrupt that they can do nothing good without God’s help. Being Episcopalian, I’m always curious about the middle way, and I think the writers of Psalm 119 got it right. God’s word describes the better way; God’s grace leads us on it; We can choose to follow; Meditating on what it means helps us stay closer to the path; Failure is certain, but it need not be fatal because God will not abandon us. In other words, I guess I’m a semi-Pelagian tending toward Erasmus.
Lest someone complain I’ve left Jesus out of it, I haven’t. Jesus, whom I recognize as the Word of God made flesh, is the seal and guarantee of God’s grace that has been there all along.