On the 25th day of the month, at Evening Prayer, the Anglican Prayer Book tradition leads us through the middle of Psalm 119. The end of this evening’s portion of the psalm includes verses 97-104.
Lord, what love I have for your law;
all the day long I meditate on it.
You, through your commandments, have made me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than my teachers,
for your testimonies are my study.
I am wiser than the agéd,
because I keep your commandments.
I have restrained my feet from every evil way,
that I may keep your word.
I have not turned aside from your judgments,
for you yourself have taught me.
Oh how sweet are your words to my taste;
indeed, sweeter than honey to my mouth.
Through your commandments I get understanding;
therefore I hate all evil ways.
All of Psalm 119 is broken into 8-verse sections, clearly marked in every translation I’ve ever seen, so these verses are a discreet unit within the psalm. The first verse in here is an introduction to the overarching thought for this piece: “I” love God’s law and meditate on it throughout the day. Even with that verse alone… who could say this with complete honesty? Only Jesus, seriously. So let us proceed with him in mind.
The next three verses are comparisons: the one who truly loves God’s law is wiser than enemies, teachers, and elders-by-age. This is born out in Christ’s life – one can think of the pharisees and scribes astonished at his public teaching, and the Temple priests impressed with his questions and answers when Jesus was only 12 years old. Saint Paul also advised the young bishop Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 4) not to let people put him down for his youth, but to trust the good Word taught to him since childhood, and to remember his ordination – the laying on of hands by Paul and the other elders. This is an encouragement to young ministers to this day – the ultimate test of wisdom is not sheer age but love for God’s law.
And yet wisdom is not a purely internal matter. The next two verses of Psalm 119 deals with how God’s law is loved: restraining feet from evil, not turning aside. Wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matthew 11:19). A holy life, a blameless character, these are also signs of true wisdom, and love for God’s law. Again, Jesus is the only perfect example of this reality – he is himself the Word of God and the only sinless man. And so the requirements for ordination in the pastoral epistles (primarily Titus and 1 Timothy) also emphasize good character and Christian maturity as critical necessities.
The final two verses sum up and celebrate. God’s words are sweet to those who love them. Those who truly love God’s Word can never get enough of the Bible. Those who truly love Jesus can never spend too much time in his presence. These joys are greater than earthly joys, honey being the example of sweetness in this psalm (and throughout the biblical wisdom literature). By contrast, at the end, evil ways are rejected, or hated. This is in essence repentance, or turning around: one turns away from evil (rejecting and despising it) and turns toward the good (accepting and embracing, with the Church, Christ as Lord and Savior).
Can you pray this part of Psalm 119 with integrity? Probably not… the more spiritually aware a person is, the more aware one is of one’s own sinfulness. We can not declare our perfect love for God’s law or Word; it would be presumptuous of me to declare myself wiser than the agéd in my congregation (even if I am their pastor)! And yet, by God’s grace, we do have tastes of his grace working in our lives, deepening our love for him and his word, growing us in holiness, making us more like Jesus who alone fulfills this Scripture to utter perfection. Thanks be to God!