From the ideal to the real (part 2)

Don’t you just hate it when people think they’re all that? They’re smarter than everyone else. They’re better read than everyone else. They’re more spiritual than everyone else.

Truth be told, a lot of us play the game: we try to appear superior to others in some way, perhaps by dropping hints into a conversation. Pastors sometimes do this with each other by saying, “God’s been so good to us this past year; giving is up, and the congregation’s grown by 20%.” But there’s a line of subtlety that can be crossed, and when that happens, eyes begin to roll (or people really, really want to roll their eyes, but figure they’d better keep it to themselves and smile instead).

There’s a reason, after all, that someone had to coin the word humblebrag. And Christians are sometimes masters of it.

To be honest, that’s my first reaction to portions of Psalm 119. As we saw in the previous post, the psalmist is deeply devoted to God’s instruction and says so over and over in different ways. But then comes the part that sounds unnecessarily braggadocious. His devotion, he declares, makes him wiser than his enemies (vs. 98) — which we would expect, since his enemies don’t fear God. But he also sees himself as wiser than his teachers and the elders (vss. 99-100). Okay, back the truck up. If you’re so wise, how come you don’t know about humblebragging?

The psalmist, however, is neither naive nor narcissistic. While Psalm 119 has roots in the somewhat idealized worldview of Psalm 1, it is firmly planted in reality. Immediately after the opening verses declaring that those who obey God’s instruction do no wrong and are blessed (vss. 1-4), some tension and uncertainty begins to appear:

How I wish my ways were strong
    when it comes to keeping your statutes!
Then I wouldn’t be ashamed
    when I examine all your commandments.
I will give thanks to you with a heart that does right
    as I learn your righteous rules.
I will keep your statutes.
    Please don’t leave me all alone!
(vss. 5-8, CEB)

The psalmist earnestly seeks God and knows that there is one right path, but seems to worry about the temptation to stray from it:

How can young people keep their paths pure?
    By guarding them according to what you’ve said.
I have sought you with all my heart.
    Don’t let me stray from any of your commandments!
I keep your word close, in my heart,
    so that I won’t sin against you.
(vss. 9-11)

And if that’s not enough, look at the closing verse of the psalm. Imagine you’ve just written a masterful ode to Torah and its role in promoting a life of righteousness. On what note would you want that ode to end? What would you have as the final word on the subject?

Here’s the psalmist’s choice: “I’ve wandered off like a sheep, lost. Find your servant because I haven’t forgotten your commandments!” (vs. 176). The psalmist treasures God’s word, and chooses to live by God’s instruction. It’s not that he doesn’t know the way. He does. But in the end, after singing the praises of God and God’s Torah, the psalmist characterizes himself as lost, and needing to be found by God.

Psalm 1, then, sets the theological tone for the entire Psalter, with its ideal theological and moral view of a right path and a wrong path. Psalm 119 builds on that view, but complicates it: even those who love God’s instruction and know it by heart don’t always follow it.

So much for the idea that the faithful person does no wrong. And as we’ll see, even though Psalm 1 declares that the faithful prosper in all that they do (vs. 3), Psalm 119 will complicate that too.