Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
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.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
Verses 97 through 104 of Psalm 119 are called section “Mem” because we should MEMorize them, or at least reMEMber them.* We have to be told that because we otherwise tend to forget them. Why? Because they don’t fit that comfortably.
For one thing, when we try to read this as a prayer, speaking these words with our own voice, they just don’t ring true.
“Wiser than my enemies?” Well, I don’t think so. I don’t think they’re all that wise, but I can’t convince them of anything, so I must not be much wiser.
“I have more understanding than all my teachers?” Ha. Maybe some of them. But when I think of my teachers—and this includes everyone all the way back to Mrs. MacMeans in first grade, through Mrs. Furr and Mrs. Garrett and Mr. Sober in 12th grade, and Dr. Holmes and Dr. Hawthorne in college, and Dr. Fee and Dr. Walters and Dr. Pendleton in seminary, plus Anne and Pheme and Fred and Chuck (by the time you’re a PhD student you just call your profs by their first names) and Prof. Berger (except some of them you don’t), plus (because when we’re talking about teachers we can’t forget the people from whom we learned the most) my parents and my grandparents and pastors named Mr. Smartt and Frank and Miles and Guy and Rob and Beth (one of whom might also be my wife), and some of these are people who changed my life just by asking me one question—when I think of all my teachers, those named here and others—if I think hard enough I can come up with SOME cases in which I would say “I have more understanding” but not in the cases I have named here, and actually in precious few cases, absolutely not ALL, very, very far from all. Compared to the teachers who live on in my head and occasionally speak up, I am an absolute dunce.
“How sweet are your words to my taste?” I say, and the Spirit, in the fashion of a good Hee-Haw riddle response, says, “I don’t know—how sweet are they?” and I have to reply that I more frequently find myself craving some literal honey on a biscuit, or stirred into an Old Fashioned, or better yet dripping out of a big, sticky piece of baklava—which if I thought there were any in the house right now I would definitely drop this iPad and this Psalm like a hot potato, or a cold potato, and go and grab me a piece of that baklava. So in all honesty I’d have to reply to the Spirit, “They are soooo sweet that I’d rather have a piece of pastry.”
So it occurs to me that here’s another reason for praying the psalms, another way in which praying the psalms can form us. Sometimes we identify so closely with the emotions and aspirations they express that they draw us in and pull us along and then like a good chiropractor deliver a sudden twist or snap that pops us back into alignment, but then other times, like this right here, the more we read, line by line, the queasier we feel, because the words just DON’T fit very well—and that can give us a clue and motivate us.
Motivate us because, for example, these days I would love nothing better, and long for nothing more fervently, than to be “wiser than all my enemies,” and I am not; and this psalm slyly insinuates that perhaps if I were making “your law” (your law of love, your law of humility, your law of “do unto others. . . “) my meditation all day long, if “your decrees” were my meditation, if I kept “your precepts,” if I hated “EVERY false way” and not just the false ways that are easy for me to hate because they are OTHER PEOPLE’s false ways, then maybe, just maybe, I could get closer to where I want to be. Maybe I could be wiser than, if not my teachers, at least my “enemies.”
Note to self: reMEMber Psalm 199, verses 97 through 104.
* Mem is a letter of the Hebrew alpabet. This Psalm is an acrostic, working its way through the alphabet. The lines of each successive section all begin with the same letter. Here I am having a little fun with the name of this letter. The English word “memory” is not derived from the name of this Hebrew letter.