Saturday, June 1, 2013

Psalm 119: Mem

My blog post about my weekly quiet time will concern Psalm 119: Mem.

The Psalmist says in Psalm 119:99-100 that he has more understanding than his teachers and his elders.  The following are some of the interpretations of one or both of these verses that I encountered in my reading:

1.  W.O.E. Oesterley relates these verses to the growing predominance of religious wisdom literature.  According to Oesterley, later wisdom literature was more religious than earlier wisdom literature.  Consequently, the Psalmist considers himself wiser than his teachers and elders who believed in the older, more secular wisdom mindset.  The Psalmist believes that he has more understanding than them on account of his greater recognition of God.

2.  Matthew Henry speculates as follows: "He means either those who would have been his teachers, who blamed his conduct and undertook to prescribe to him (by keeping God's commandments he managed his matters so that it appeared, in the event, he had taken the right measures and they had taken the wrong), or those who should have been his teachers, the priests and Levites, who sat in Moses's chair, and whose lips ought to have kept knowledge, but who neglected the study of the law, and minded their honours and revenues, and the formalities only of their religion; and so David, who conversed much with the scriptures, by that means became more intelligent than they. Or he may mean those who had been his teachers when he was young; he built so well upon the foundation which they had laid that, with the help of his Bible, he became able to teach them, to teach them all. He was not now a babe that needed milk, but had spiritual senses exercised, Heb. v. 14. It is no reflection upon our teachers, but rather an honour to them, to improve so as really to excel them, and not to need them. By meditation we preach to ourselves, and so we come to understand more than our teachers, for we come to understand our own hearts, which they cannot."

There are a lot of good thoughts here!  First of all, I like how Matthew Henry criticizes those who got on their judgmental high horse and presumed to criticize and teach David.  It's not that David was beyond criticism, mind you, but I'm sure that I'm not the only person who has come into contact with judgmental, holier-than-thou busybodies.  Second, Henry speculates that those who should have been teachers may have been neglecting their responsibilities, and that could be why David thought that his own meditation on the Torah gave him more understanding than his teachers.  Third, Henry speculates that David may have surpassed his teachers by building on what they imparted to him when he was young.  I think that it's one thing to outgrow one's teachers and to build on their instruction, but that it's something else to conclude that one is smarter than one's teachers.  I have outgrown and built on some of the teaching that I got in junior high school, but I wouldn't say that I'm smarter than my teachers from back then.  But, fourth, Henry suggests that we become smarter than our teachers when we apply the Word of God to our own hearts, for (among human beings) only we know our own hearts.  This makes a degree of sense, for, while teachers may teach us, only we know ourselves, and in that sense we're smarter than our teachers, at least when it comes to our own self-knowledge.  At the same time, there may still be areas in which our teachers are smarter than us: they, after all, have their own self-knowledge that is inaccessible to us!  So these are good thoughts, but I have reservations about a few of them.

3.  St. Augustine relates Psalm 119:99-100 to Jesus Christ.  Jesus as a young man of twelve years of age knew more than the teachers of Israel when he was astounding them with his wisdom in the Temple (Luke 2:42-46).  And Jesus must have thought that he knew more than his elders because he disobeyed and challenged the elders' tradition (Matthew 15:2-3).  According to Augustine, Jesus was wise because he received instruction from God the Father (John 8:28) and studied God's testimonies about him.  This, in my opinion, coincides with the depiction of the Torah in Psalm 119: that it is not just a written law or teaching, but that it also entails God's personal guidance of the Psalmist (see here).

4.  The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary appears to have a problem with the notion that the Psalmist would be wiser than his teachers.  Consequently, it understands the m- (short for min), not in the comparative sense of "than", but rather as "from": the Psalmist gains understanding from his teachers.  Appealing to Pirkei Avot 4:1, the Artscroll affirms that the point of v 99 is that the Psalmist gains understanding from all of his teachers, great and small.  He's open to learning from a variety of people, in short.  Regarding the m- as "from" in Psalm 119:99 appears to be common within Judaism, for such an interpretation is in the Midrash on the Psalms, and in the translation of this verse into English that the Chabad's web site uses.

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