Psalm 119 verses 1-32

A part of Psalm 119 is frequently appointed to be read on a Wednesday as one of the alternatives for a psalm or portion of a psalm for Morning Prayer.  When we think of this psalm, probably the first notion that we have is of its length.  It is never used in its entirety in the liturgy of the Church - as far as I am aware.  Two other simple facts can be added to this general thought: firstly that it is in equal sections of eight verses and that each of these begin with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, used consecutively, giving it is mathematical construction; secondly, that it has no narrative.  It is a series of reflections all around the same theme of an examination of the heart seen against a meditation on the Torah - on the Law of the Lord.  

For these reasons, the psalm lends itself to being read in sections and dwelt upon without needing to read the whole psalm in one sitting, which, as I say, we rarely if ever do in public worship.  That is not to say there there may not be value in doing so, but nothing is actually lost by taking a section - any section, in fact - and pondering its meditative style and intent.

This being a Wednesday, it is no surprise to see a portion of Psalm 119 popping up for our reading today, as an alternative to Psalm 55.  Psalm 119: 1-32 comprises the opening four sections, each one beginning in order with the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet Aleph, Beth, Gimel and Daleth.  I admit to my shame, having studied Biblical Hebrew for three years for my BD, that I have little of it left now (it was a long time ago) but the letters I do still recognise, and the careful construction of the psalm I do appreciate.  Much more importantly, for the use of both Jews and Christians, is the need to meditate on words that, though repetitive in ideas, form a joined up theme of verses that construct a kind of bedrock to life, which in other ways may be ever-changing.  It could be said to be a psalm for our day.

So, taking this first part of four even-length blocks of eight verses, we find as we pause them over, that the author is encouraging his reader to try to understand the law of the Lord, to keep it, to delight in it and to seek it - in order to walk in it.  Looked upon in this way the psalm lights up with wisdom and assurance.  The writer eyes up his weakness and he finds strength; he considers his blindness and feelings of alienation and he is drawn back to the source of his life.  In taking up this psalm in youth or old age, or any time between, it opens our anxieties and places them firmly where they should rest in the sight of God, whose presence and divine law bring our steps into order and peace.

John Mann