Psalm 118/119, longest psalm, longest blog [sorry]

Sunday’s psalm : four verses but lots more to choose from

This week we have a small extract of Psalm 118/119 as our Sunday psalm (6 OTA), but don’t let that fool you.  Psalm 118/119 is the longest of all the psalms in the Psalter by a long way.  It is a technical tour de force.  It is full of loving variatio and verbal fireworks.  It fizzes with brio and enthusiasm, even in translation.  What is its topic, that calls out such devotion, passion and panache?  God’s Law, as laid out in the rule books of the Torah.  You might think this a dry topic, but this psalmist would not agree, and he is so invested in it that he is going to keep explaining it to you in the most elegant ways he can devise until you agree with him.

Discussing the beauty of the Law
Nothing is accidentally in the Bible

Because the text of the Bible is so ancient, we can assume that everything about it is significant. All the chapters of all the books have been studied again and again, and before they became the canonical books of the Christian version they were studied yet again to decide whether they qualified for inclusion.  We took all the writings about God’s Law without leaving anything out.  There may be other things which were left out which maybe should not have been (e.g. Anna’s words in the Temple, other female conversations), but we can be sure that anything left in was done so deliberately.  Sometimes we regret this (fill in your own least favourite bits here), but we have to deal with the text we have been given in its entirety.  As a Christian, I am allowed to prefer Jesus’ line on any question over that of the Old Testament, which is a relief; but I do have to take the Old Testament seriously and try to understand it on its own terms.

studying the Law, and asking for help
Form and content both have significance

And this means that I can also draw conclusions from its form. At the most basic level, this means that I don’t read all of it in the same way (some of it is history, some of it poetry, some of it prophecy, and so on), but I can assume that the arrangement of psalms in the Book of Psalms is significant and draw conclusions from it. The Book of Psalms is not a loose-leaf folder, where you can shuffle the individual songs to suit yourself, though of course you can choose which you want to use on any particular occasion. It has been organised over time, and for a long time, in a way that makes a particular sense.  It has sections and subdivisions which can help us to understand more about what it is telling us.

The context of Psalm 118/119

So when I look at a particular psalm, I can also look at its near neighbours, to see if there is something significant about that grouping or family of songs.  In Advent I discussed one of these families, the ‘Psalms of Ascents’ (120/121 to 134/135).   Here is another interesting cluster, the group which comes just before that one.  It’s not a group with its own long-established label, like Ascents, but there is at least one recognised sub-group within it :  Pss 112/113 to 117/118.  These psalms make up a group for Passover: the first two are sung before the meal (the Seder) and the last four after it.  But I want to go back slightly further than that, to Ps 110/111, and forward to include Ps 118/119.  Ps 110/111 starts a run where the first word of every psalm is Alleluia (until 117/118,  with only Ps 115/116 starting without it).

Alphabetical psalms

Ps 110/111 and Ps 111/112 are both alphabetical psalms, and so is Ps 118/119. The first two are short versions of the form, where each line starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  This has twentytwo letters, so each of these two psalms is twentytwo lines long.  (In Ps 118/119, the letter sequence is the same, but there are twentytwo eight-line stanzas, the longest psalm in the entire book.)

the Hebrew alphabet

There’s always a danger with formal poetry that the form become more important than the content, and it has to be admitted that Ps 110/111 is more choppy than the one after it.  It is a praise poem, but each line is a separate little idea, so the effect is rather like a collage on a noticeboard.  One of the lines praises the Lord’s ‘precepts […] all of them sure’, another word for ‘Law’.  Ps 111/112 works better, as it sets its topic, the just man (or maybe we could say ‘person’) and addresses it from several different angles, but the central idea gives it a better shape.  This is the psalm we had last week (again not the whole thing).   The beginning of the psalm reflects on the just person not just fearing and obeying God, but ‘taking delight in his commands’ (another synonym for the Law).

There are other alphabetical psalms (and other pieces of alphabetic poetry, like the praise of the good wife in Proverbs) in the Bible, but I gather that technically these three (110/111, 111/112 and 118/119) are the best and most complete.  I’m not qualified to judge this, so I don’t plan to discuss it; I’m just focussing on the shape and the contents of these psalms.

Praise and celebration after danger

Following the two shorter alphabeticals, we have Ps 112/113, a short and beautiful hymn of praise.  Then Ps 113/114 starts with a vivid retelling of Exodus but is quickly diverted (this is one of the places where the numbering changes in Hebrew, and another psalm begins) into praise for our God who is alive and active (and scorn for other people’s idols, who aren’t).  So the believers can be in fearful peril, but God will save them.  And the Alleluia shows that we are singing after reaching safety; we are celebrating after a happy ending.

personal peril and anguish

There is the same narrative, but a more individual tone in Ps 114/115 : more emphasis on personal peril and anguish, followed by calling on the Lord and rescue.  Ps 115/116 is prayer and sacrifice after deliverance, looking from safety at past danger, and looking forward to celebrating and thanking God as it were formally,  in the Temple at Jerusalem.  Following this  we have Ps 116/117, the tiny psalm, extending the prayer and praise to ‘all you nations’, which I have discussed before.

The Easter psalm (117/118)
Christ leaving tomb
resurrexit sicut dixit

The next psalm in this sequence is the one which we sing over and over again through the Easter season.  It is the psalm which contains many favourite lines and images.  It is difficult to choose among them, but there is the classic call to praise ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good’,

the repeated answer, like a shanty, ‘For his love endures forever’, and the crucial image about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone, and so on.  This is precisely the sort of formal, processional thanksgiving song to which the psalmist looks forward in Ps 115/116.

And finally….Ps 118/119

And so we arrive at Psalm 118/119, the song about the Law.  There are twentytwo stanzas, each corresponding to a different letter of the alphabet, and each verse in that stanza also starts with the same letter.  Every stanza describes the beauty of the Law in a very formal way, using several different words for it (law, will, word, precepts, statutes, commands, decrees, paths, promises, instructions, ordinances; – and this is not an exhaustive list, as it varies in different translations).   The words sound again and again, in a different order in almost every stanza.  It reminds me more of bellringing than anything else : there is a pattern, and it’s made up of subtle variations in the order of the different bells, but it’s more a mathematical pleasure than just a tune.  C.S. Lewis compared this technique to ‘a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftmanship’ (Reflections on the Psalms, ch.6).

A rare exclamation mark

You would think that such a concentration on quite literally the letter of the law would make for a dry narrative, and even lead to self-satisfaction or arrogance; but in fact, if you read it all the way through, what strikes you much more is the warmth and sincerity of the psalmist and his lack of priggery.  He starts by putting in the foreground not himself but those who follow God’s law, and this is the line that gives us our Response.  It is also interesting because it has an exclamation mark, rare in the Psalms, indeed rare in the Bible altogether, and not there in the original text, but sufficiently indicated by the words we have that all the different translations do have the exclamation mark there.  It’s even in Mary Herbert’s translation in the Sidney psalter.

Singing an exclamation mark?

You can’t sing an exclamation mark, but I did try to keep the Response definitely upbeat, and a bit more so than the verses, because they are more of a meditation.  I hadn’t come across the C.S.Lewis remarks before I set this psalm, but I’m glad that I’ve picked up the same atmosphere, and I think the verse tune conveys the leisureliness, even though you need a bit more brightness in the Response.

Less about the form, more about the content

The other reason why the psalmist does not sound like an obnoxious Pharisee is that, despite the bravura technique and artistic flourishes, his tone is almost tentative in places, and the psalm in its entirety shows an ongoing movement to embrace the Law,  his delight in finding it and his intention to follow it (I will obey your statutes, v.8), while at the same time the speaker moves freely between past, present and future.  He does not think that he knows it all, indeed he says repeatedly that he needs to know more about it and asks God to instruct him.  He repents of the past and refers to past suffering (Before I was afflicted I strayed, v.67), but he feels safe when he thinks of God’s law.  Even when things go wrong (v.81 ff), all his confidence is in the law and in God, although the tone occasionally sounds like someone bravely whistling in the dark.  The person he is encouraging is himself.  He speaks confidently about God’s love; and he keeps calling out to God to do something.  His attitude is a fine one to emulate.  He is not following God’s law for any other reason that that of love, as he declares repeatedly; the Law is his delight (he says that more than twenty times).  The Law is his nearest way of relating to God;  he is a deeds not words man, as we are all supposed to be.

In extremis veritas

The last stanza is particularly telling.  It is an elegant little poem all on its own, from the formal point of view.  It begins with a list of what he is doing to ask God for help, with God’s hoped-for action in the second half of the line. Let my cry come before you: teach me […]. Let my pleading come before you: save me […].  Then the causation is emphasized : Let my lips proclaim your praise because you teach me […], Let my tongue sing[..] for your commands are just.  Then there is a complete 180 degree turn. Let your hand be ready to help me, since I have chosen your precepts […].  He repeats again the central point of the psalm, with the stress back on the Law : I long for your saving help and your law is my delight. /Give life to my soul that I may praise you. Let your decrees give me help.

Job talking to Jesus
Link NT/OT : Byzantine Jesus coming to comfort Job

The last two lines are completely unexpected.  I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant : for I remember your commands.  This is no dry ascetic academic, no arrogant lawyer.  This is someone who is clinging to the law as his only protection.  He is in exactly the same position that St Paul was in, before God knocked him off his horse and Jesus came to look for the lost sheep.   Psalm 118/119 is not one of the psalms that people always quote as a foreshadowing of the New Testament, but I think it’s a wonderful example.

Conversion of St Paul
rescuing the lost sheep, and then having him learn all about it

Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.