Sermon: Psalm 119 and St Benedict
Preached on 2nd September 2007
(Trinity 13, Matins)
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and
always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
It is a happy coincidence that as the Cathedral and St Chad's College host a Benedictine weekend, the appointed Psalm for this morning should be a section of Psalm 119; for the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm has a particular place in monastic spirituality.
Psalm 119 is of course the longest Psalm in the Psalter - 176 verses. My favourite story about it concerns the notorious 18th century Evangelical Rector of Haworth, William Grimshaw, who it is said, if he found that not all his parishioners were at Church, ordered the congregation to sing this lengthy Psalm, as he left the Church, and on horseback and with whip in hand, he drove the impious to divine service.
The Psalm is an acrostic, its 22 stanzas corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza has 8 verses of 2 lines, each verse beginning with the same Hebrew letter. Its dominant theme is God's law, and 8 different words are used to express this one concept: law, word, commandments, statutes, judgments, precepts, promises, and testimonies. They are, in fact, synonyms. This emphasis on 8 is clearly deliberate; it may signify entire completeness and perfection; going even beyond the sacred number 7 in Hebrew thought, just as Christians think of Sunday as the first day but also the 8th day, signifying the eternal day inaugurated by the resurrection. ‘Law' and its synonyms probably relate to the Psalmist's grasp of God's self-revelation. It is significant that he speaks of your law, your precepts, your testimonies; the focus is on God - the living God, who reveals his character and will to his people. This is important - this Psalm is not at all about a cold legalism, it is rather a ready, joyful and focussed obedience from a creature, a mere human being, to God, the perfection of wisdom. Just as in the rule of St Benedict, obedience is a gift, a freedom, something to embrace for love of Christ. And as we shall see, for the Psalmist this devotion to God's law arises out of a context of personal difficulty, affliction and persecution; there are strong strands of lament in Psalm 119.
So this morning's section of the Psalm, verses 81-88. It's a strange mixture of distress and trust, of longing and perseverance. There is that curious verse, ‘For I am become like a bottle in the smoke', where ‘bottle' means ‘wine-skin'. I like to think of it as an elegant smoke-matured claret, but precisely because the context is one of affliction, it may rather mean the Psalmist likens himself to wineskins stored in domestic houses, that in time become withered, dirty and dried up. For his eyes ‘long sore' for God's word, suggesting tears and distress, he longs to be avenged of those who persecute him, he speaks of pits that the proud have dug for him to fall into, of maliciousness that sought to make an end of him. Yet, he is sustained by God's goodness; he believes that God has power to save him; that he has a good hope precisely because of God's word, and that in the end he will be vindicated. This is passionate talking to God. It is a reminder to all of us, that whatever our personal circumstances, or the circumstances of our nation and world, the invitation is there to engage with God; that our relationship to God is never passive, as if God were some impersonal, fatalistic, absolutist.
Let me change tack, and think of this Psalm in the context of monastic spirituality. When we think of God's ‘word' or his ‘law', we perhaps think most readily of Holy Scripture, through which we expect to hear God's voice, so that we receive his word as a word for today. As Venite, Psalm 95, states: ‘Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts'. In the monastic tradition, as the Rule of St Benedict bears witness, there was substantial reading of Scripture and the traditional Biblical commentaries during the night office. This in itself reflects the Psalms. Psalm 1:
His delight is in the law of the Lord:
and in his law will he exercise himself day and night.
Or in Psalm 119:
I have thought upon thy name, O Lord, in the night-season:
and have kept thy law.
In the other offices, there was a very short reading, called a capitulum; often a verse or two of Scripture, a kind of echo of the longer readings of the night. And then in the minor offices, the marker services of Prime, the first hour around 7am, Terce, the third hour at 9am, Sext, the sixth hour at noon, and None, the ninth hour at 3pm, at least for part of the week, sections of Psalm 119 were recited. This was not simply because the Psalm is long and its stanzas commended themselves to this kind of scheme. It's rather, that throughout the day, there is the reminder, amidst all the day's activities and concerns that
‘Man does live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'
You see, in the Benedictine tradition you have this blending of corporate prayer, study, manual work, sacred reading and meditation and meeting and eating in community. It's all there in the concept of cloister, a garden, bounded by church, library, refectory, chapter house, work space. All of these aspects of life yield God's word: we discern it in the meditating on Scripture, in the experience of common Christian worship, through work on the land by being close to creation, another aspect of God's self-revelation, in conferring together in the presence of Christ as we seek the mind of Christ, in personal prayer and meditation, in study of the Bible and of holy books. It is a kind of divine dialogue, seeking the sanctified life.
And there is a further insight. For if Psalm 119 is the great Psalm of the word of God, the law of God, then in Christian imagination there is a further application. We learn to relate it to Christ himself, Christ the fulfilment of the law; Christ the very Word of God, the Word made flesh. Indeed, if you think of those themes of intense affliction and yet of perfect obedience, then Christ is the ultimate fulfilment of Psalm 119 - persecuted to the uttermost, even to the point of death, the death of the Cross, and yet, perfectly obedient to the Father's will, entirely submissive to God's law, sustained, even in his darkest hour, by his own meditation on God's word, day and night. And so, we learn to trust his word, his promises, his commandments, his statutes, his ordinances, for they are the foundation of our hope; in them we find our salvation, and comfort, and strength, and wisdom. And I know, both from personal experience but from the testimony of others, that in affliction we do not find his promises to be empty or vain.
I close with what I'm told was a favourite verse of Hensley Henson, sometime Dean and Bishop of Durham. It comes, in fact, in the next section of Psalm 119 to today's reading, in verse 96:
I see that all things come to an end:
but thy commandment is exceeding broad.
The older I get, the more wisdom I see in that verse. All earthly things, however good, fall short, wax and wane, die and decay. But there is One more perfect than perfect - the 8 rather than the 7, the word of God, Christ, the eternal Word - ‘exceeding broad'.