A sermon preached by Graham Low on Psalm 119 verses 1-8 on 14 March 2021.
Whenever the psalms are mentioned I realise that part my knowledge of them is grounded in the song of my childhood years: as a family we went to mattins, or evensong which were sung by a large robed male choir. They followed the Parish Psalter in which all 150 Psalms are set in order for the mornings and evenings of each day of a month. Thus the verses of tonight’s Psalm were sung on the evening of the 24th day of the month. The way the choir sang and the organ was played strikingly underlined the mood of the words. We know that psalms have been expressed and accompanied by music from the time they were written.
Tonight’s words were sung to a cheerful chant in C Major, which gave a sense of the way, the path of happiness towards God. This is the theme of the Psalms chosen for study this week in Patrick Woodhouses’ book Life in the Psalms, which some of you are reading.
Tonight we have heard the first eight of the 176 verses in Psalm 119, which is divided into 22 8-verse section. The whole psalm is about obedience to the teachings of the tradition, the law, with eight words repeated over and over again: promise, word, statutes, judgements, law, commandments, precepts, testimonies. Though some see this structure as an indication of the completeness or fullness of God, there is nothing complete about the person who prays it.
The whole Psalm is an address to God. Its direct speech gradually shapes us into a relationship with God, with a sense of intimacy, of love, of joy, of hearts set free, as well as wisdom, clarity, and treasure. We find a particular delight in God’s word which the people of the time thought of in terms of honey. Thus in verse 103 we read: how sweet your sayings to my tongue, sweeter than honey to my mouth. But the Psalm also searches the depths of our hearts: our deceit, our ignorance, our folly, of lack of care. We may lose the path to God, but the path is always there for us to find again.
Some translations of this Psalm begin with the word happy rather than blessed. Happiness is what this Psalm is about. In recent years political policy makers have paid some attention to the fact that happiness is not the same as economic or material wealth. Among many current offerings, The Office of National Statistics publishes a set of statistics which may help to measure well-being. But what shapes well-being is elusive. The philosophical and psychological thinking and language to express wellbeing is often lacking in policy-makers: thus it is all too easy for them to retreat into economic criteria.
We know that economic inequality is rising rapidly in this country, and all the more so during the pandemic. We can see that the major economic approach of worldwide free-market fundamentalism during the present decade has greatly contributed to this. We also know from the now classic work by Richard Wilkinson called The Spirit Level, that the greater the economic inequality of a country or community the greater the difficulty of providing even the basic welfare which avoids poverty, let alone happiness.
What does this psalm say about the way forward? Blessèd are those whose way is pure, who walk in the law of the Lord. The law. The Hebrew scriptures contain laws defining behaviour. These are God’s laws, commandments, the ways to God’s happiness. The psalmist boldly says that he no longer merely desires to keep the laws of God: he will keep them. But immediately he says that he will fail and asks God not to forsake him utterly. We may all desire to walk in God’s way, and yet we know that we shall fail, and go on doing so.
How then may we still follow in God’s way? The Dutch Jewish writer Etty Hillesum suggested that we can develop a particular kind of listening: this is about making ourselves more aware, more attentive, moment by moment, to the gift of God. By doing so we may mysteriously come closer to God who always forgives us and gives us life and love, as he does in our celebration of the eucharist now. May I suggest that we make our way through the coming days, by praying verse 8:
I will keep your statutes; O forsake me not utterly.