In the massive beast that is Psalm 119, this evening’s psalms sets apart three stanzas. Being an acrostic poem, Psalm 119 not only follows the flow of the Hebrew alphabet, within each stanza, each line starts with the letter as well. This evening’s selections are the yod, the kap, and the lamed letters. The entirety of the psalm, it is painfully clear, is written by someone meticulous and for someone for whom tightly structured study and praise give them a framework within which to celebrate God’s hesed (or lovingkindness). Reading through these sections reminded me of two people I admire.
First is a Rabbi and Rabbinical school professor from California that I met by happenstance; we quickly connected and in the short time we spent together at a retreat, she quickly became a voice to which I listened with sincerity. She told me that, for her, her study is her prayer. It was through digging into the Torah and all that the scriptures offered that provided her connection and communication with God. The structure of Psalm 119 is meant for people like her.
Second is the Hebrew professor and Old Testament scholar at my first seminary; he has a brilliant mind and a compassionate heart, which isn’t always an easy combination to find. In our Wisdom Literature class, in which we read through the Psalter and discussed each of the books and psalms, when we got to Psalm 119, he said at the beginning of class: “It’s just so boring.” And he’s not wrong; because of how the psalmist so rigidly stuck to the structure of the acrostic, the same phrase, thought, or idea gets repeated over and over and over, and rather than Psalm 119 being a complex, intricate web of God’s people relating to God, it can feel more like running into the same wall again and again and again.
Psalm 119 uses eight different synonyms for Torah (commandment, word, judgments, promise, law, precepts, decrees, and statutes), most of which are used in every stanza. Including the word Torah, Psalm 119 references the scripture a total of 177 times in 176 verses. It’s a lot.
The first two sections (yod and kap) of tonight’s reading use all eight synonyms, while the last (lamed) only uses six. These three sections are a sort of peaks and valleys of the experience of the psalmist. In the yod section, the psalmist is a excited about God’s instruction and is delighted to follow God’s will. In the kap section, the psalmist gives rise to a complaint. And in the lamed section, the psalmist again finds hope and joy in the direction of God’s instructions.
While this psalm may be boring, especially if you are painstakingly translating it, our reading this evening keys us into two important things about a life of study:
It’s going to get boring. Even for those of us who love, are drawn, and have promised to God and the church to study the scriptures, it will get boring. But spiritual disciplines, like reading the scriptures are important in the exciting and fun moments and in the boring ones too, because it’s the continuing of the habit through the boring bits that shapes who you are.
It’s going to have highs and lows. It is telling that, even in a 23 verse selection of scripture, in which not a lot is talked about other than God’s word, there are highs and lows. The spiritual life, and especially the spiritual disciplines, will have you singing God’s praises one day and giving rise to a painful complaint the next day. But this is the gift of our spiritual practices; they make room not just for the joy, but also the pain.