Summary: A short talk to encourage the congregation to see Old Testament scripture as Jesus saw it, and specifically to receive the law referred to in Psalm 119 as instruction - like we receive instruction when learning to swim or play guitar.
Last week I had the wonderful privilege of spending four nights with the Benedictine monks of St. Augustine’s Abbey Chilworth in the Surrey hills. This was my second visit after spending 5 days with them in July 2012 at the start of my extended study leave.
Their ministry is prayer and hospitality. The monks pray together 8 times a day in addition to their own times of prayer and devotion, and once again I was struck and challenged by their commitment to reading the scriptures; including reading and singing the Psalms – sometimes in Latin but mostly in English.
As a boy in my local church choir I was a bit frightened of Psalm 119 because it is 176 verses long but over the last 25 years since becoming a committed disciple of Jesus I have loved Psalm 119. Jesus would have read this Psalm, studied it, meditated upon it, worshiped his Father in heaven through it, and dwelt within it by loving it and living it!
Psalm 119 is an acrostic. In the Hebrew version it is made up of 8 sections or verses like a hymn, and as the Psalm progresses it uses every letter of the Hebrew alphabet one after another. I’m no poet but an English acrostic might go like this: And when I awoke this morning; before the birds were singing; carefully I descend the stairs because; darkness has yet to break. Another example is a word that my son Matthew has on a wristband. The word is Frog and it stands for fully reliant on God.
The Psalms are at the heart of the Bible that Jesus knew and loved, so when we read, sing or meditate on these words it can be really helpful to remember that Jesus studied and treasured the Psalms; but more than that, he learnt to trust his heavenly Father and he discovered more about his identity as the Messiah through these words. So when we read or hear something from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, let’s consider Jesus as we do so.
Let’s do that now, consider Jesus as together we meditate upon Psalm 199 verses 1 to 16.
In 119:1 when we come across the word law it is an English translation of the Hebrew word Torah; but I wonder what is happening in your heart and mind when you hear the word law. Are you thinking about a time when you broke the law? Back in 1997 I broke the law by driving my car wilfully through a bus lane in Staines. The Police pulled me over and I had to pay a fine. I broke the law. Last year I broke the law by driving at 35 mph in a 30 mph speed zone. A camera flashed and my law breaking was recorded and the rest is history. Well in Psalm 119 it is not that kind of law, thank God - although the blessings and consequences of either following or not following the law of the Lord are very real. In 119:1 the phrase ‘the law of the LORD’ means ‘the teaching and instruction of the LORD. For example in 119:33 the verb form of ‘Torah’ is translated as ‘teach’. Teach me, O LORD!
In this Psalm the law of the Lord is more like the instruction I was given when I was learning to swim or the instruction I gave when I used to teach basic guitar lessons. Swim like this through life and your relationship with God will go swimmingly. Fail to float, breath and move and inhabit the water and you will sink. Practice the guitar and you will make joyful music; whereas if you leave the guitar in its case it will go out of tune, your fingers will stay soft and the sound will be as awkward as a badly played violin.
For those who persevere with the instruction of their teachers, ‘blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD’ – the teaching of the LORD! And imagine how the 12 year old Jesus listening to the teachers in the temple courts might have heard 119:9, ‘How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.’ Jesus grew in wisdom and stature as he received, and walked in the LORD’s teaching.
This Psalm doesn’t go into the tiny detail, the minutiae of life. It focuses on the general principles for holy living, for walking the way of the LORD, teaching about matters of general lifestyle.
I’d like to end by reading a few words and phrases from Psalm 119: Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart (119:2). I will praise you …as I learn your righteous laws (119:7). I will obey your decrees (119:8). I seek you with all my heart (119:10). I have hidden your word in my heart (119:11). Teach me your decrees (119:12). With my lips I recount your laws (119:13). I rejoice (119:14). I meditate (15). I delight (16). I will not neglect your word (119:16).