Psalm 119 א Aleph - Those who walk in the law
2) Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart,
3) who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.
4) You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.
5) O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
6) Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
7) I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances.
8) I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.
Psalm 119 (NRSV)
6th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Proper 26, verses 1-8
Proper 26, Year B, Proper 26, verses 1-8, Sunday between October 30 and November 5
Psalm 119 is, by word count, the longest single chapter in the entire Bible. It is also constructed as an alphabetic acrostic. In each group of eight verses, each verse begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So verses 1-8 begin with A-aleph, verses 9-15 begin with B-bet, etc., to the end of the psalm and the Hebrew aleph-bet.
This is an aid to memorization, and as a psalm focused on Wisdom, would have been memorized by young students and scribes.
Happy are those who obey the law. We might have problems distinguishing between laws and Law. The underlying Hebrew word is torah, which means law, but also teaching, instruction, and might also be translated as "Way." The idiom of the psalm, "walk in the way of the Lord," helps us think about God's will as somewhat more than a set of rules, however good they might be.
Not that this is an issue for this psalm. The Lord's decrees, precepts, commandments, ordinances, statutes - those are legal terms. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) contains 613 laws ordinances statutes, commandments - at least that's how the rabbis count them - and they really mean commandments, "to be kept diligently."
We can do worse than follow the laws of Torah. Even if the world might not hang on tithes of mint and cumin, obedience in small things is discipline (disciple-ing) for weightier matters.
I have no doubt that the poet(s) who developed three words knew that discerning what is right is not always struggle-free. The words on the page are not the whole story in the life of faith.
Nonetheless this is a confident proclamation that God's instruction is sound. The words on the page need to find life in people's lives, but they are enough to guide those lives, to bring forth good lives. The commandments of Torah give order to society and are meant to provide a wholesome result when followed.
"Happy" here is the Hebrew אַשְׁרֵ֥י, esher, happy or blessed. It here may mean simply that things will go well for those who follow the Lord's law. But I hope it has a more expansive meaning. We are happy when things go well, but we let us also be happy, being able to appreciate the blessing, to rejoice in the goodness that the law has led us to.
"O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes... [I will have] my eyes fixed on all your commandments." The intention is to keep the Lord's will - seen in the law - ever before us, that we might follow this path and not another. "Happy are they" who walk this road.
Walking the path together, Public domain.