The Hebrew word yarah lies in the heart of the word usually translated “law” in Psalm 119, towrah. Towrah itself can be translated by “law, direction, teaching, principles.” These nouns cloak the dynamic nature of God’s interaction with human beings by means of the active Holy Spirit of Jesus in the world. Yarah includes the ideas of throwing, casting, pouring, raining; this active verb takes us directly to Jesus’s teachings about to sowing seed, to rain falling, to casting pearls, and immediately we understand that God is always teaching all humans, always pouring truth over us, always sowing the seeds of God’s life in us, always casting a net to bring us human fish into the boat. Once we hear this through our awareness of the life and teaching of Jesus, we can read this aspect of Psalm 119 with the joy and gratitude and love expressed by the psalmist toward the law, the towrah, the continuous teaching of God.
The verses from Psalm 119 can be reorganized to reveal the following themes.
Wholeheartedly following the instructions of God brings happiness, peace, and a clear sense the next step to take.
1: Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD!
165: Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing causes them to stumble.
Jesus taught us to recognize “the undefiled in the way” by describing those who are blessed: Blessed are the poor in spirit, beggar souls; Blessed are those who mourn, lamenters; Blessed are the meek, gentle trusters; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, cravers of wholeness, integrity, justice; Blessed are the merciful, gracious helpers of the needy and wretched; Blessed are the pure in heart, those who are purified, made whole, pruned in soul, desire, intelligence, will; Blessed are the peacemakers, lovers and nurturers of peace, harmony, tranquility (Matthew 5).
Jesus taught us to “seek first, crave the kingdom of God, the God who is just as God ought to be, the rightness of God, and God will take care of your daily needs” (Matt. 6:33).
The psalmist wants God’s help to see and understand these instructions, and then pays attention and mulls them over.
18: Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things from your law.
34: Give me understanding and I shall keep your law; indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart.
44: So shall I keep your law continually, forever and ever.
55: I remember your name in the night, O LORD, and I keep your law.
97: Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.
Jesus taught in parables to separate those who could see, those who could hear from those who couldn’t (Matt. 13:13, 16). He healed the blind, an acted parable of opening the understanding. He warned those who misinterpreted the nature and function of the law by focusing on details and missing the point. He said that he came to complete the law, to fill it up with himself, to permeate it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus came to open our eyes; after the ascension, God sent the Spirit to give us understanding (John 14:26). We are the friends of Jesus as we live into and out of that understanding.
The opposites of hearing and understanding and obeying what God teaches are dishonesty, divided loyalty, greed, pride, dullness—all interior to the self.
29: Remove from me the way of lying, and grant me your law graciously.
163: I hate and abhor lying, but I love your law.
113: I hate the double-minded, but I love your law.
72: The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of coins of gold and silver.
51: The proud have me in great derision, yet I do not turn aside from your law.
85: The proud have dug pits for me, which is not according to your law.
70: Their heart is as fat as grease, but I delight in your law.
I think of the disciples arguing over who was to be greatest, and then dissembling when Jesus asked them what they were talking about. I think of the rich young ruler who could not part with things in order to follow Jesus. I think of the farmer who sets out to plow and then looks back. I think of the people of Nazareth saying they knew who their father was. I think of the scribes and lawyers trying to trap Jesus with tricky questions. I think of the “children” in the marketplace complaining about the asceticism of John the baptizer and the exuberance of Jesus. The call in Psalm 119 and the call of Jesus are coherent: love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. These comprise the essence of the law and the prophets. Seek with your whole heart; sell all you have to buy the field; take up the yoke, the cross, and follow. Come with me and I will make you fishers of humanity.
People who disregard God’s teaching frustrate the psalmist; they threaten and entangle the psalmist, who asks God to intervene.
150: They draw near who follow after wickedness; they are far from your law.
61: The cords of the wicked have bound me, but I have not forgotten your law.
109: My life is continually in my hand [I am continually in danger], yet I do not forget your law.
53: Indignation has taken hold of me because of the wicked, who forsake your law.
136: Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do not keep your law.
126: It is time for you to act, O LORD, for they have regarded your law as void.
It is easy to remember the frustration and anger of Jesus against those who saw without seeing, who knew without knowing—the experts in the law who evaded the central teachings of the law. They treated their parents stingily but tithed strictly; they treated the poor as law-breakers but gave them no help so they could be obedient; they turned converts into hypocrites; they took pride in obeying the purity laws but ignored the truths found in the relationships between God and human beings. Jesus could not abide the duplicity of those who were publicly religious and privately selfish. He wept over them and then went to work cleansing the temple of commercial interests.
The psalmist finds life, delight, justice, and truth in God’s instructions, and as a result trusts God for mercy, deliverance, and salvation.
153: Consider my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law.
174: I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight.
92: Unless your law had been my delight, I would then have perished in my affliction.
77: Let your tender mercies come to me that I may live; for your law is my delight.
142: Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness and your law is truth.
Jesus said that it was like a meal to him to do what God commanded and bring to completion the will of God (John 4:32). God sent him and he spoke the words of God (John 3:34). Jesus said that he spoke and acted as God told him to (John 14:10). Jesus prayed, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). The record of Jesus’s life gives us the great gift of seeing how to be human in relationship with God. We hang on God’s every word every day, and we welcome the everyday experience of God’s continuous teaching.