2022-10-28, a reflection by Danny Schweers.
I love this saying, the last half of verse 144 of Psalm 119. It promises that, if we can understand, we can live.
Of course, people go on breathing even when they do not understand. I know. I have been doing it for decades! But when I do not understand, I do not breathe easily. I am anxious, not even half alive. Failure, suffering, even death can come at any time, and I worry. I am hunkered down. Celebration and joy are far off, a distant vision.
This verse is reassuring. Indeed, all of Psalm 119 points to joy and celebration as a result of understanding. “I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, when I have learned your righteous judgments.” “Open my eyes, that I may see…” “Your promise gives me life…” “Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path.” “My lips shall put fourth your praise…” “My tongue shall sing of your promise…”
One thing I now understand about Psalm 119 is that it is the longest of all the psalms. With 176 verses in all, it is the longest chapter in the Bible.
Doing a little more research, I now also understand that this psalm is an orderly progression through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Its first eight verses begin with the letter Aleph, the next eight verses begin with the letter Beth, and so on through the end of the alphabet to the last letter, Tav. Twenty-two letters times eight verses per letter equal 176 verses in all. This construction would make the psalm easier to memorize and, when said or chanted or sung, the repetition would be remarkable to hear in the original Hebrew. Or so I imagine!
Actually, I do not have to imagine. Neither do you! To listen to all of Psalm 119 chanted by a Sephardi Jew (32 minutes), click here.
Doing more research, I learned that Psalm 119 was a favorite of William Wilberforce. I had heard of him, but here are some details. He headed the British Parliament’s campaign against the British slave trade for 26 years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and then worked another twenty years to abolish slavery entirely. Soon after his death, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. A diary entry from 1819 tells us that Wilberforce once walked from Hyde Park comforting himself by quoting aloud the 119th Psalm. He had memorized it!
John Ruskin, the influential critic (one of my heroes), wrote: “It is strange that of all the pieces of the Bible which my mother taught me, that which cost me most to learn, and which was to my childish mind, chiefly repulsive — the 119th Psalm — has now become of all the most precious to me in its overflowing and glorious passion of love for the Law of God.” Mahatma Gandhi credits Ruskin’s book, “Unto This Last”, with transforming him from a lawyer into a social activist.
So, all this makes me want to memorize Psalm 119, perhaps in the original Hebrew after I have mastered that language some time in the next 50 years. In the meantime, I will work to memorize the last half of verse 144 and make it part of my prayers: “Grant me understanding, that I may live.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Danny N. Schweers chairs SsAM’s Communication Committee. He is an active photographer and writer. Click here to visit his website and make a comment. In the top photo, the author is about to go to a funeral and is eyeball-to-eyeball with his dog.