Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, will either bore your socks off or fascinate you endlessly. At least that’s my experience.
Right now it’s fascinating. I think that’s because I’m spending so much time wondering about things like: How does anyone know anything? How can two people be looking at the same thing and see completely different things? Why does it seem that people sometimes really don’t know something, but then also you get the strong impression that they don’t want to know it, that there’s something they like a lot better than knowing that thing that might make them do something different?
In fancier words: what is the relationship between affection, volition, and cognition—what you love, what you want to do, and what you know? “Epistemology” is what we call an account of how people can know things, and biblical epistemology says the three are interdependent.
Psalm 119 is an acrostic—a section for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and every verse in that section has to begin with that letter. But the sections all say similar things. So round and round it goes. But with differences.
The section for the letter He is in the picture—verses 33 through 40. These verses each come in two parts. 33a: if I am praying this psalm, in this first half of 33 I am asking the Lord for knowledge, for instruction in his statutes. In 33b, I promise to observe, to live according to, the instruction that I receive. Breathe in: knowledge; breathe out: faithful living in accordance with that knowledge.
34a, I ask for understanding—which is related to instruction in statues, but different. Instruction in statutes sounds perhaps rote: give me a rule. But in this next round, I move beyond ingesting a rule to acquiring wisdom, which suggests construction of a faculty within myself that enables me to discern correctly on my own. But I don’t get to wisdom without passing through instruction in the statute. And I don’t get instruction in the statute without being willing to observe the statute. One step after another. Why do I want understanding? To what end? 34b: so that I may keep God’s law and observe it with my whole heart.
Law is like statutes, but with a further development. A statute suggests an individual regulation, but law is torah, comprehensive instruction. So from 33 to 34, when I progress from observing individual statutes (which is obedience within a particular scenario) to observing the law with my whole heart (which is freely and joyfully staying on track through any terrain), I have progressed from receiving a bit of instruction to becoming a participant in the mind from which the instruction is generated. The heart is whole, not divided between the internal self that might want to do one thing and the external teacher who might advise something else, but at one with itself because it is at one with God.
35a: I pray to be led: I am following. I am on a path—not stationary, but moving forward. I expect to progress, to travel farther into understanding. It is the path of God’s commandments, because the dynamic of moving through obedience to particular commandments to internalized understanding and unified volition is recurrent, reiterative, spiraling upward. 35b: And, I say, letting the words of the Psalmist become my own words: I delight in it. Delight. Not compulsion. Not drudgery. No reluctance, no resistance. Delight.
Down to 40a: what pulls me forward is longing, strong desire, because 40b: the one I am following on this path has the virtue of righteousness, and the characteristic action of a righteous one is to give life to another. I follow after God because I desire—life. What would the alternative be? 36b: selfish gain; 37a: worthless things. Desire for them would not lead me into life. But I am naturally inclined to desire those things. So 36a: I must ask God to incline my heart differently; 37a: I ask God to turn my eyes in a different direction. They are my eyes! Can I not rotate them slightly myself? No, even for this slightest of movements in the direction of righteousness, in the direction of life, I must ask God to cause the movement within me: “Turn my eyes.”
What could I know without being willing to obey? Nothing. How much understanding could I have without being willing to take the next step forward in a certain direction, in the footsteps of my guide? None. Can I even generate the desire to follow in that direction from within myself? No, I must long for it, and accept it joyfully, from without.
The knowledge described by biblical epistemology is not abstract. It does not consist in my sitting here gathering perceptions and making judgments about something or someone over there, judgments that do not also require and inspire some new volition, some new action, on my own part. No such knowledge is on offer. What is offered is instruction in walking in a way that leads further into life, and understanding, and righteousness. But for the one walking in that way, there is growth in understanding, in the knowledge of self that is reciprocally implicated in knowledge of God, and as a kind of byproduct—not as an end in itself which one might be able to desire and then pursue and achieve separately, without knowledge of self and knowledge of God, but only as a byproduct of those two higher knowledges—comes insight into other persons and things in the world around oneself, tagging along in train of knowledge of self and knowledge of God.
Which is perhaps why accurate perception and understanding of the diverse and conflicting realities and mirages that make up our social and political and ecclesial environment seem so hard to come by, so rare. Boasted of, but not possessed. Not even wanted.