Scripture: Psalm 119:97-104
I remember going to this mini-golf course once on a beach vacation with some seminary friends. This course featured a sign with an uplifting Bible verse at each hole; for example:
Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. –Matthew 7:13
It seemed a bit heavy for a mini-golf course, but Jesus did say it, and I guess there’s no arguing with that.
Regardless of the mildly questionable context, this verse in essence expresses the worldview of the biblical wisdom tradition. There are two ways, this tradition tells us. One is good, the other is wicked. The way of the good leads to blessing, and the way of the wicked leads to destruction. The world is as simple as that.
Proverbs is one of the main places in the Bible we come across this tradition. If you read Proverbs, the world makes sense. Raise up your children in a certain way and they will continue in that way (22:6). A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich (10:4). The desire of the righteous ends only in good, the expectation of the wicker in wrath (11:23). These are things that experience tells us is true…some of the time.
Over the past couple weeks I’ve been talking about the ancient practice of praying the Psalms, which we know Jesus did, and which I am trying imperfectly to make my practice too. When we pray the Psalms, we might find that many of the words that cross our lips come out of this same tradition and worldview. For example, starting with Psalm 1:
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
Or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
But their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
There are two ways. One is good, the other is wicked. The way of the good leads to blessing, the way of the wicked leads to destruction. The world is as simple as that.
When it comes to praying psalms like this, I’d rank them somewhere between the beautiful hymns of praise we started with in this series, and the potentially very objectionable imprecatory psalms that ask God to curse our enemies. Wisdom psalms are kind of nice. It’s a nice world that they depict.
But I do have some questions.
Can I really say with integrity that this is how the world works? Can I say that in the wake of the shooting in Orlando, that people generally get what they deserve? Can I say that as I look at many of our politicians and world leaders, that the way of the wicked comes to ruin? Can I say that as I look at the wealth and poverty around me, that it’s all a result of work ethic and not of privilege?
In our real-life world, prayers like that sound kind of glib. They’re nice, they’re just not real.
My second question is why these psalms often make the person praying them sound kind of self-righteous. Take Psalm 119 which Mary read a few minutes ago. “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me,” the psalmist writes. “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.”
Really? And I’m humbler, too!
And, “I hold back my feet from every evil way,” he says a few verses later. “I do not turn away from your ordinances.” Really? What about all that stuff we believe about how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Are you trying to say you’ve never strayed from that narrow path? That doesn’t seem like the kind of prayer that God really wants to hear.
So those are some of my questions about praying these kinds of psalms. But I am praying them, anyway, because I feel like Jesus’s prayer book is probably good enough to be my prayer book, and as I’ve said before, when something challenges me, it’s often because there is more there for me to chew on than I’ve gotten to yet.
As for the first question, about whether in today’s world we can really pray like we believe there are two paths and they both lead exactly where they’re supposed to, well, I have to remember that the biblical authors weren’t dumb or naïve, and they didn’t live in a perfect world either. One of my seminary professors used to say that at the gathering of wisdom writers Job and Ecclesiastes were the ones chain smoking in the back of the bar. Those books dare to challenge the conventional wisdom that the world is ordered as it should be and everything happens for a reason. That’s part of what makes the Bible such a beautiful conversation of faith. But there are psalms that reflect that challenge to an ordered worldview, too—like all of the ones where the innocent psalmist is being hounded by his enemies or persecuted or seems to be close to death. As I’ve said before, one powerful thing about the Psalms is they truly express the full spectrum of human experience.
And as for the second question, does God find me a bit insufferable when I pray something like, “Oh God, I am wiser than all my elders!”, I have to think maybe that’s not really what the psalmist means. This psalm isn’t specifically attributed to or associated with David, but many of the Psalms are, including ones that sound a little like this, and David certainly knew he was a sinner. David knew what it meant to step off that narrow path. In the end, those words aren’t about my righteousness—they are about the beauty and power of God’s law.
And that’s why I think there is actually a lot these wisdom psalms have to offer. For one thing, there IS some wisdom in the image of two paths, even if the image is overly simplistic. We need to know, to have ingrained in us, that you reap what you sow, even if it only pans out like 60% of the time. We need to know that hard work, in general, is a better path than laziness, and treating people with kindness, in general, will make us more popular than treating people rudely, and that honesty, in general, is the best policy. These are things that are true—to a degree.
I read one book in which the author knew a recovering addict, who said he thought at one time that he could “live comfortably in two radically different worlds.” In one he was a functional human being. In another he was an addict. Finally, he said he realized, “my two worlds can no longer coexist. There really are two distinct paths for me.”
I think of some of the people I know who I have visited in jail, and how they say as they sit there on the other side of that glass, “This is the chance I needed, and this time things are going to be different. I know it’s going to be hard, but this time things are going to be different.” And my prayer for them is that when they get out, when they are back in this very complicated and broken world, that God will help them stick to that narrow path, because I believe they will find blessing there.
But that kind of prayer is a prayer for me, too. Life may be a lot more complicated than just choosing between two paths, one good, one bad, but in a sense there are always two paths I can take: each step of the way, I can choose God, or I can choose me. I can choose bitterness, or I can choose grace. I can choose fear, or I can choose hospitality. Every step of the way. Two paths. But in order to follow the right one I have to remember, constantly, which is the one I love.
And that’s the other reason I find it meaningful to pray prayers like these: because they remind me that it’s not just enough to follow God’s law, I need to love it.
“Oh, how I love your law!” is how this section of Psalm 119 begins. “It is my meditation all day long.” And the verses that follow—it makes me wise, it gives me understanding—aren’t really about me. They are a continuation of the psalmist’s love song to God’s law, God’s way, God’s teaching.
“Oh, how I love your law!” Have you ever exclaimed something like that?
As Christians, especially, “God’s law” is not something we are necessarily taught to love. We are taught that God’s law was the old way, that Jesus is the new way, that love and grace are the new way.
But just like Jesus prayed the Psalms, Jesus loved God’s law, too. “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” he says. When Jesus walked on earth and showed us what it meant to love one another, he was showing us what God’s law looked like in action, the way it was supposed to.
Personally, I think a lot about God’s law, as made visible to us in the life of Jesus, and how I should follow it.
I don’t know that I would often say I love it. More often it’s something I believe in, but I fail at, and failing at it makes me despair of ever following it like God wants me to.
But the Psalmist isn’t worried about all that. The Psalmist is too busy singing a love song.
And I love that. And I want those words to be mine. And when I pray them, I get to sing along.
At the end of these eight verses the Psalmist writes, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” When Jews celebrate Shavuot, the holiday that corresponds to our Pentecost, they eat sweet things like cheesecake to remind them that the Torah is sweet, like milk and honey. I like that image too. God’s law, the way God wants us to follow, is sweet and delicious, like cheesecake.
The thing is, to love something you have to know it. I don’t mean memorizing the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. I do mean being staying connected to God enough through prayer and Bible reading and worship and study and conversation that what God wants from you becomes a part of you.
That’s part of what I’m trying to do by praying the Psalms three times a day, even if I don’t always accomplish that: to stay connected to God throughout my day so that God’s word and God’s love become a part of me. So that I learn the words of the love song and it becomes true because I say it is, over and over. So that the path before me, or at least the next step, is a little clearer.
I think of that in the wake of the shooting in Orlando. It is clear to me that all is not right with the world. People do not get always get what they deserve. People do not deserve to live in fear. But I can’t change that, fundamentally. I can’t singlehandedly order this world the way it seems like it should be ordered.
But what I can do is choose the right path in front of me. I can choose the path that corresponds to God’s law of love and grace. In a case like this I think that means something like standing up for LGBT people who feel like they do not have a safe place to go. It means trying to make sure church is that place, even while recognizing it has often not been, subtly or unsubtly.
Praying these wisdom psalms won’t make a broken and complicated world black and white. They won’t change the disorder of this world. But as I pray them more, what they will do is remind me to live every day seeking that good path, even when it’s not clear. What they will do is help me to love that path even as I figure out just what it looks like. Those prayers won’t change the world, but my hope is that maybe they will change me.
 Walter Brueggemann describes the Psalms as taking us through a process of orientation-disorientation-new orientation. Psalms of orientation depict the world as it should be. Psalms of disorientation come when everything seems to fall apart. Psalms of new orientation reflect the psalmist’s new understanding of God’s blessing and goodness once the psalmist has emerged from the darkness. Unfortunately, the book of Psalms doesn’t present these three different kinds of psalms in order—but again, maybe life is more complicated than that, anyway.
 Denise Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms