From Reflections on the Psalms
As everyone knows, the psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point-of-view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statues, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections – which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. (This may have given an ancient ear something of the same sort of pleasure we get from the Italian meter called the sestina, where instead of rhymes we have the same end words repeated in varying orders in each stanza.) In other words, this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch-by-stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.
Now this, in itself, seems to me very important because it lets us into the mind and mood of the poet. We can guess at once that he felt about the Law somewhat as he felt about his poetry; both involved exact and loving conformity to an intricate pattern. This at once suggests an attitude from which the Pharisaic conception could later grow but which in itself, though not necessarily religious, is quiet innocent. It will look like priggery or pedantry (or else like a neurotic fussiness) to those who cannot sympathize with it, but it need not be any of these things. It may be the delight in Order, the pleasure in getting a thing “just so” – as in dancing a minuet. Of course the poet is well aware that something incomparably more serious than a minuet is here in question. He is also aware that he is very unlikely, himself, to achieve this perfection of discipline: “O that my ways were made so straight that I might keep thy statutes!” (v. 5) At present they aren’t, and he can’t. But his effort to do so does not spring from servile fear. The Order of the Divine Mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life? His “delight” is in those statues, (v. 16); to study them is like finding treasure, (v. 14); they affect him like music, are his “songs,” (v. 54); they taste like honey, (v. 103); they are better than silver and gold, (v. 72). As one’s eyes are more and more opened, one sees more and more in them, and it excites wonder, (18). This is not priggery nor even scrupulosity; it is the language of a man ravished by a moral beauty. If we cannot at all share his experience, we shall be the losers. Yet I cannot help fancying that a Chinese Christian – one whose own traditional culture had been the “schoolmaster to bring him to Christ” – would appreciate this psalm more than most of us; for it is an old idea in that culture that life should above all things be ordered and that its order should reproduce a Divine order.
But there is something else to our purpose in this grave poem. On three occasions the poet asserts that the Law is “true” or “the truth,” (vv. 86, 138, 142). We find the same in 111:7, “all his commandments are true.” (The word, I understand, could also be translated “faithful,” or “sound;” what is, in the Hebrew sense, “true” is what “holds water,” what doesn’t “give way” or collapse.) A modern logician would say that the Law is a command and that to call a command “true” makes no sense; “The door is shut” may be true or false but “Shut the door” can’t. But I think we all see pretty well what the psalmists mean. They mean that in the Law you find the “real” or “correct” or stable, well-grounded, directions for living. The Law answers the question, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” (Psalm 119:9) It is like a lamp, a guide, (Psalm 119:105). There are many rival directions for living, as the Pagan cultures all round us show. When the poets call the directions or “rulings” of Yahweh “true” they are expressing the assurance that these, and not those others, are the “real” or “valid” or unassailable ones; that they are based on the very nature of things and the very nature of God.