Psalm 119 begins by saying…
Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.
Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways.
While this may be a true statement in a general way, in an ideal world, it occurs to me, at first glance, that there is no such person whose way is blameless, who keeps God’s decrees with his or her whole heart, who does no wrong. Did such a thought occur to the psalmist, or did he think that some human beings could be blameless? I am not sure. However, on second thought, I do believe that there is at least one person this statement is true of, namely Jesus.
The psalmist quickly shows, after this introduction, that he does not think himself blameless. He writes, “O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!” I doubt that the psalmist would say this if he thought he was blameless. There is a recognition here that he might fail and that he needs help from God.
The psalmist asks an important question, “How can young people keep their way pure?” He says that the keys to keeping one’s way pure include:
- Guarding one’s way according to God’s word.
- Seeking God with one’s whole heart.
- Treasuring God’s word in one’s heart.
Yet, I feel a sense of frustration here with the psalmist. That is because after trying to live the Christian life for forty years, and trying to follow the psalmist’s advice, I still find myself tripping up and falling short.
The rest of the psalm reveals what I can only regard as the psalmist’s obsession with God’s law. I can picture the psalmist re-iterating each of these verses, like a Catholic saying the Rosary over and over again, in order to try to keep evil out of his heart. But does it work?
I think the answer is simply “no”. At the end of this long psalm the author admits, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” The only solution to this problem is for God to seek out his servant, for God to show mercy.
C. S. Lewis offers the following, more positive, reflection on this psalm….
As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. (This may have given an ancient ear something of the same sort of pleasure we get from the Italian metre called the Sestina, where instead of rhymes we have the same end words repeated in varying orders in each stanza.) In other words, this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.
Now this, in itself, seems to me very important because it lets us into the mind and mood of the poet. We can guess at once that he felt about the Law somewhat as he felt about his poetry; both involved exact and loving conformity to an intricate pattern. This at once suggests an attitude from which the Pharisaic conception could later grow but which in itself, though not necessarily religious, is quite innocent. It will look like priggery or pedantry (or else like a neurotic fussiness) to those who cannot sympathise with it, but it need not be any of these things. It may be the delight in Order, the pleasure in getting a thing “just so”—as in dancing a minuet. Of course the poet is well aware that something incomparably more serious than a minuet is here in question. He is also aware that he is very unlikely, himself, to achieve this perfection of discipline: “O that my ways were made so straight that I might keep thy statutes!” (5). At present they aren’t, and he can’t. But his effort to do so does not spring from servile fear. The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life? His “delight” is in those statutes (16); to study them is like finding treasure (14); they affect him like music, are his “songs” (54); they taste like honey (103); they are better than silver and gold (72). As one’s eyes are more and more opened, one sees more and more in them, and it excites wonder (18). This is not priggery nor even scrupulosity; it is the language of a man ravished by a moral beauty. If we cannot at all share his experience, we shall be the losers. Yet I cannot help fancying that a Chinese Christian—one whose own traditional culture had been the “schoolmaster to bring him to Christ”—would appreciate this Psalm more than most of us; for it is an old idea in that culture that life should above all things be ordered and that its order should reproduce a Divine order.