Thursday, December 5, 2013

“Thy Word Is a Lamp and a Light”—the Word in Psalm 119

Two of the most memorized verses in the Bible (at least for someone of my era) are Psalm 119:11, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee,” and Psalm 119: 105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (KJV). When I learned this in 5th grade, I had no way of knowing that the Hebrew behind “word” was so full of the immediate presence of God in the lives of God’s children.  Instead, I understood it to be referring directly (and only) to the Bible, the written Word of God.

So in order to improve on my childish understanding, I recently took a look at the ways it is possible legitimately to translate dabar and ’imrah, both translated (for the most part) by word or words. Buried in dabar are the ideas of speaking, setting in order, promising, declaring, warning, conversing and singing.  Buried in ’imrah are the ideas of saying, uttering, speaking, answering, thinking, and promising. The verbs behind the nouns communicate a relationship of conversing with God and of being conversed with by God. How wonderful to find in these words the same thing we see in the many stories of people talking with God in the Old Testament and the intimate ongoing conversation between Jesus and our Father in the New Testament. From the Garden of Eden until today, God has been showing up to talk with us, and we can without shame turn and talk with God because Jesus has shown us the way and made it clear we are welcome.

Here is a distillation of what Psalm 119 says about the “word,” and what it is like when God speaks to us.

When God speaks to the child,
the next step is clear;
When God speaks to the easily led, the naïve, the open-minded,
they gain discernment, understanding.

The sick at heart, sitting in dust and ashes,
grief-stricken, wasting away;
the afflicted and humbled, the persecuted—
these long for, wait for, and hope for God to speak.
God leans toward them, is present with them, and speaks.
When God speaks, they are restored to life and health,
they are protected, defended, delivered, rescued,
comforted, consoled. God does justly by them.

Those who love it when God speaks,
who are awed by God’s speaking,
who pay attention to and obey what God says:
they live within God’s limits with pleasure and playfulness,
take pleasure in other servants of God,
hear God’s speaking as pleasant,
rejoice when they hear God speaking.

They respond to God’s speaking,
they make their requests in God’s presence,
they trust God to champion their cause,
they meditate on God’s speaking until it comes to life in them.

They experience God’s bounty, speak God’s truth,
treasure God’s speaking with their whole selves,
receive God’s mercy.
They avoid causing harm,
are not dominated by trouble and wickedness,
they keep to the clear path, they stay whole,
they trust God to be just.

Hearing the Psalm this way strikes me like a memory.  I have heard this before somewhere.  And then I recognize these words are echoed in several things Jesus said, beginning with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5).

Blessed are the poor in spirit, beggar souls.
They rule in God’s kingdom.
Blessed are those who mourn, lamenters.
They will be called to be by God’s side, comforted, taught, consoled.
Blessed are the meek, gentle trusters.
They will own the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, cravers of wholeness, integrity, God’s approval.
They will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, gracious helpers of the needy and wretched.
They will receive gracious help.
Blessed are the pure in heart, those who are purified, made whole, pruned in soul, desire, intelligence, will.
They will see and be seen by God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, lovers and nurturers of peace, harmony, tranquility.
They will be named “God’s children.”
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, those who run for their lives, who face hostility, who are abused because they are who God made them to be, because they are just, because they live in wholeness.
They rule in God’s kingdom.

Psalm 119’s teaching on the “word” easily fits with Jesus’s teaching on who is blessed, who is happy. Each passage helps us read and understand the other. I come to see both as describing a daily conversation between God and human beings, a conversation in which what God says breathes life and health into us and thus helps us be our real and best selves.