Psalm 119 Journal - Stanzas 1 and 2
1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! 2Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, 3who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways! 4You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. 5Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! 6Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. 7I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. 8I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!
As translated into English, both Psalm 119, and the Book of Psalms begin with the Hebrew word esher. It means happiness or blessedness. Recently, I heard from the pulpit of my church that a passage being preached was “not about happiness because happiness is a feeling.” Is that what the Psalmist means when he associates walking in God’s law with happiness? The word ‘blessed’ is so frequently used in popular culture that its meaning is not always clear either. On television and in social media I hear people say they are blessed – but it seems they often mean that something in their life is gratifying – it makes them happy, at least for the moment.
In both theology and classical philosophical thought the concepts of blessedness, transcendent (not temporal) happiness, peace and human fulfillment are inextricably related. The Psalmist is addressing that which will make a human being complete and fulfilled as this accords with the design intent of God the creator. The bible pictures the human being teleologically – that is to say, as a designed (specific, purposeful, intentional) thing. Genesis 1 tells us our design is “in the image and likeness of God.” The operator’s manual describing the proper care and use of the human being is the law of God. The Psalmist sees the law of God, not primarily as a collection of prohibitions or limits on liberty, but as the only key to ultimate human fulfillment.
Another important idea is seen in the declarative tone of the first four verses. They indicate that the source of the law of God is the one and eternally existing God himself. The truth content of the Psalmist’s text does not depend on a set of ideas that were socially constructed by one particular ancient middle eastern cultural group. Indeed, God used such a group (the descendants of Israel) to conserve His communication to humanity, but they are not the source nor the sole recipients. Consequently, the law pertains to all humans individually and collectively. All the deep meanings embedded in this Psalm depend on acceptance of the premises that a transcend God exists and has chosen to communicate with humankind for the purpose of us attaining ultimate fulfillment – namely, living in accordance with His benevolent intentions for my/your/our existence.
If these things are true, then an honest human mind, pure human heart, and sanctified human body will seek to know what he says, delight in what he has provided, and kneel to worship Him.
9How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. 10With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! 11I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. 12Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! 13With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. 14In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. 15I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. 16I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.
The first stanza introduces two other important ideas that I did not highlight. They are the concepts of a “way” and a “walk”. The notion that life is a personal journey is common cross culturally. Everyone begins life at birth and ends it at death and what lies between is a way or a path. We walk through life along a path/way – often, but not always, choosing one among several alternatives. An ethic of life is integral to human existence - the question is which ethic one is wise to follow.
The second stanza offers our first insights into the relational interplay between God and a redeemed human being - that is a person who knows God and persues a relationship with him. It describes the Psalmist’s quest to choose and remain on the path that leads to ultimate fulfillment. In that narrow sense, we could say he is being as selfish as a human being can be. His whole self – heart, mind, and body are caught up in the quest.
The Psalmist is not afraid or ashamed to be caught up in his feelings. He is “delight”ed, and he tells God that he is so. Yet his feelings are not what he wishes to guide his selection of a way to walk. His intention is to base that choice on the commandments of God. In the midst of an ecstatic declaration of the affections of his heart, he pauses to acknowledge that unless instructed and transformed by God himself he will surely fail. This is a picture of a volitional being, a being that makes active choices regarding the path of his own life, yet one who is totally dependent on God when it comes to making choices that are in his ultimate best interest. He is freely God focused and motivated - not confined to the prison of self motivation and its consequences.