Saturday, July 27, 2013

Psalm 119: Shin/Sin

I have three items for my write-up today on Psalm 119: Shin/Sin.

1.  Psalm 119:164 states (in the KJV): "Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments."


Some believe that the Psalmist praised God seven literal times each day.  Rashi actually tries to map those times out: "In the morning, twice before the reading of 'Shema' and once after it, and in the evening, twice before it and twice after it" (see here).  Keil-Delitzsch say that Psalm 55:17 appears to suggest three times a day for prayer, and they contend that the Psalmist in Psalm 119:164 is saying that he has even gone beyond that!  

There are others, however, who do not interpret the seven times in a literal fashion.  The Jewish exegetes Radak and Ibn-Ezra interpret the seven times to mean constantly.  And W.O.E. Oesterley says that "seven was often used as an indefinite number of times..."

I don't try to make myself pray seven times a day.  I also can't say that I pray "constantly."  But I do believe that it is beneficial for me to make my relationship with God a part of my day, and to focus on the positive aspects of God's character (i.e., God's righteousness, God's love) rather than my discontent.  What is interesting in this section is that the Psalmist is continually praising God for his righteous judgments in a time when princes are persecuting him.  I've heard people talk about the importance of praising God in the midst of difficulties.  Sometimes, this is advertised as a path to a breakthrough, things becoming better.  Well, maybe things get better, or maybe they don't necessarily.  I can look back at times when I would sing praise songs, and that didn't exactly make my life go the way that I wanted!  Still, I can identify with clinging to God in the midst of problems.

2.  Psalm 119:165 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture.  It states: "Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them."

I am an easily offended person.  But suppose that I loved God's law and studied it more?  Would I be as offended by what people say or do, specifically when it's directed at me?  I am drawn to the concept of being so at peace that I am not offended by others.  That would strike some people as rather escapist: that I would study the Bible in an attempt to escape dealing with real life.  Well, we all should try to deal with real life!  But focusing one's attention on something positive can be a good coping mechanism.  In my opinion, a little escapism is not necessarily a bad thing!

Does the Psalmist's love for God's law lead him never to be offended, though?  In Psalm 119:163, he states: "I hate and abhor lying: but thy law do I love."  The Psalmist obviously is offended by something: lying.  When we draw closer to God, what can (or should) happen is that the things that break God's heart break our hearts, too.  Still, I'd like to think that occupation with God's law does not lead solely to discouragement about the state of the world, but allows one to elevate one's thoughts to something or someone higher.  Moreover, I would hope that occupation with God would lessen one's pettiness, especially when that pettiness does not relate to the grand battle between good and evil.

Augustine had an interesting interpretation of Psalm 119:165.  He said that its point is that the Psalmist loves God's law, and nothing in Scripture offends him.  When the law appears to be absurd, Augustine says, the Psalmist recognizes that his own understanding is limited, and that there is some "great meaning hidden" (see here).  I have long heard something similar within fundamentalist or conservative evangelical circles: that I should trust the Bible's inerrancy, even when a passage appears wrong or revolting to me, because that passage may be true or make sense in a way that I do not currently see.  Maybe there's something to this.  In the same way that I shouldn't make hasty judgments about people based on limited information, I shouldn't be quick to dismiss Scripture when it violates my sensibilities, for there may be something deeper.  But I have a question: How can the Bible benefit me right now, when my current understanding of it is imperfect?  Can an infallible Bible (assuming it is infallible) help those who read it so fallibly?

Psalm 119:165 may be about being offended, or it may be about something else.  I read interpreters who said that the message of Psalm 119:165 is that those who love God's law will avoid moral stumblingblocks, or the stumblingblock of divine punishment for sin.  The Hebrew word translated in Psalm 119:165 as "offend" can mean such things (i.e., Ezekiel 7:19; 14:3-4, 7; Jeremiah 6:21; etc.).  I do agree that adhering to a righteous path can enable one to avoid problems that unrighteousness can bring.  It doesn't mean a problem-free life, but I do have to admit that behaving in an unrighteous manner can result in steep consequences, which I would rather avoid.

3.  Psalm 119:168 says: "I have kept thy precepts and thy testimonies: for all my ways are before thee."

One interpretation of this that I read was that the Psalmist keeps God's law because God is omniscient.  I wonder if this portrays God as a sort of Santa Clause, who judges people according to their behavior: you better watch out, you better not cry, etc.  I'd like to think that the Psalmist's relationship with God goes beyond that, that the Psalmist sincerely loves God and God's laws, as opposed to obeying God because God is watching his every move and may strike him down if he does wrong.  Psalm 119 talks a lot, after all, about love for God's law.  Consider Psalm 119:162: "I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil."

Another interpretation I read is that the Psalmist is saying to God that he has kept God's law, and he is appealing to God's omniscience to argue to God that God should know that he (the Psalmist) is keeping God's law.  I think of John 21:17: Jesus is asking Peter more than once if Peter loves him, and Peter eventually responds that Jesus knows that he loves him.

I'd like to see Psalm 119:168 more in light of a love-relationship with God, however: God knows my ways because he cares for me, and I in turn love God back and try to walk in God's ways.

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