18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B - Lutheran Worship readings)
Saturday, October 7, and Sunday, October 8, 2006
Sesame Street, the children’s television program on public television, has always kind of mimicked commercial television, especially when they close show the saying, “Sesame Street is brought to you today by the letter ‘D’ and the number ‘10’.” The kids’ show has sponsors—sponsors from the alphabet and numbers.
Well, in a similar way, today’s service is brought to you by the letter ‘D’. The reason the letter ‘D’ is a sponsoring today’s worship service is because of our reading from Psalm 119, verses 25-32 featured on the cover of your bulletin—if you’d keep that handy for the sermon.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm, 176 verses. It’s an acrostic psalm, meaning that it’s organized around the alphabet. The psalms of the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew, and there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. So Psalm 119 has 22 sections, one section for each of the letters of the alphabet. Each section has 8 verses, with each verse starting with a word that begins with the same letter. Verses 25-32, then, are the daleth section, the Hebrew letter D, with each verse starting with a word that begins with D.
The writer of Psalm 119 probably designed it as an acrostic, using this repetition of letters in alphabetical order, so that people could more easily memorize the poem. It’s an educational tool, so that someone could keep God’s Word in their head.
So that’s why today’s service is brought to you by the letter ‘D’, because we’re focusing on the daleth section, the D section of Psalm 119.
Of course, most of our English translations just translate the Hebrew words, but they don’t keep the alliteration, they don’t try to make all of the lines begin with D. I was doing some research, though, and found some translators and a poet who developed a version of Psalm 119 that does try to repeat in English that poetic art of each line starting with the same letter.
What you have on the cover of the bulletin is my arrangement of many different versions, trying to let you hear something that has the poetry, meaning, and imagery of the original. I want you to hear how Scripture can sing with God’s truth, how the Psalm was constructed carefully to paint a picture in your mind of what it means to trust in God’s Word.
So now, listen again as I read these verses of Psalm 119. Listen for the pattern of D’s; watch for the imagery; and then we’ll unpack this beautiful section of poetry, a beautiful section of God’s Word.
Translation arranged by Pastor Ben Squires
Dirt is my soul’s adornment, six feet under,
Give me new life according to Your Word!
Didn’t I pour my heart out? And you answered me;
Teach me Your will:
Direct my understanding in Your ways
So I may study Your wondrous acts.
Depression has dulled me, has drained me, has melted my soul—
Yet the sound of Your voice would solidify me.
Detour my footsteps around false ways,
And graciously lead me in Your instruction.
Determining to follow the way of faithfulness,
I set Your governance before me.
Dear Lord, I cling to Your testimonies;
Do not let them mock me and my Bible.
Dashing, I will run in the way of Your commandments
When you stretch my heart!
This version of Psalm 119:25-32 is compiled and/or inspired by the following versions: English Standard Version, New Jewish Publication Society Version, God’s Word to the Nations, The Psalms: Chronologically Arranged (Hibbard, 1856), and Gordon Jackson’s The Lincoln Psalter (1997). For more information, see endnotes.
Dirt. It begins with dirt. Our soul’s are clothed in dirt, the kind of dirt that’s six feet under. We’re not talking about getting muddy while working in the yard or riding an ATV. We’re talking about the dirt of the grave. The emotion, the spiritual condition that the writer is describing is the feeling that your soul is dying, symbolically already buried.
Dirt. That’s what you feel covering up your soul when you’re mourning for a loved one, when you’ve been dragged through the mud by life, when life’s circumstances threaten to take you under, when you’ve let yourself go too far down that swampy road dug by the devil. Dirt. You’re feeling death haunt your soul with a cold, clammy, closed-in layer of deep, dark earth.
Yet, if that first line of the poem puts us down in the grave, then the second part of the line comes just as quickly to make us alive again. “Give me new life according to Your Word!” It’s a resurrection for the soul; it’s a shaking off of the grave’s dirt. When all hope seemed lost as your soul was six feet under the dirt of sin, suddenly God speaks, God resurrects, God raises you up to new life.
Certainly, this first line talks about Jesus Christ Himself. On Good Friday, Christ felt that dirt of death, but then on Easter, the Father raised Him to new life. Now, looking at these words, we see that what happened for Christ will also happen for us. That first sentence of poetry tells the whole story of Law and Gospel, the whole story of God’s plan of salvation, saving sinners like you and me from death, raising us to new life through His Word.
So now the poem continues, exploring what God has done, exploring it from different directions, as we try to get our heads around this incredible truth, this incredible thing that God has done.
“Didn’t I pour my heart out?” In other words, “Didn’t I confess everything? Didn’t I tell you, Lord, every sin that I keep in this heart of mine?” Confession is death talk again; confession leads us back to seeing the dirt grave we deserve.
Yet, again, as quickly as we speak God’s Law, we hear His gracious, loving answer. “And You answered me, Lord; Teach me Your will.” What is God’s will? His will is to give us new life according to His Word. His will, His heart of hearts is to forgive our sins, to save us from death, to pull us out of the dirt grave. Confession of sins doesn’t end with judgment; God follows it up with this hopeful knowledge of His will—He wants to save us.
And now that we know this beautiful, gracious news, well, now we pray in the psalm asking, “Direct my understanding in Your ways/So I may study Your wondrous acts.” If it’s no longer true that our souls are headed for eternal dirt, if we don’t have to be afraid that God will destroy us because of our sins, then the best way to keep ourselves from feeling that we’re doomed is by studying God, studying His wondrous acts. The poem shifts to a prayer asking God to “direct my understanding,” to work His Spirit in our hearts and minds to see His truth for our lives. May we not just go by what we see, hear, and feel; may we go through life through the understanding that comes from God’s Word.
Yet, that’s sometimes easier to say than to believe. Sometimes it’s easy for us to come here, nod our heads in agreement, thinking, “Yes, Jesus loves me, this I know,” but really, we don’t feel loved, we don’t feel secure, we’re still concerned that we’re sinful, dirty, creepy, evil.
The writer of Psalm 119 certainly knew that it was hard to hold onto God’s truth, and so the poem keeps coming back to the feelings of sorrow and fear as it does in the next line: Depression has dulled me, has drained me, has melted my soul.” Here’s one of those powerful images to help us understand the truth being described here. The image is of melted wax. Depression—not in a clinical, psychological sense, but just in the sense of overwhelming sorrow—has hit us in our souls like flame to wax. Faced with sorrow over our sins, our souls melt. Our souls can’t stand up on their own against the flame of the devil, the flame that slowly turns us into a puddle of melted wax.
But again, the poem immediately comes back with God’s Word that renews: “Yet the sound of Your voice would solidify me.” God’s Word takes our melted souls and makes them solid again. The puddle becomes a candle again. God’s Word renews, restores, re-forms, re-molds, reshapes us. That depression, that overwhelming sorrow, that flame of Satan is completely extinguished by God’s Word. God’s Word gives us shape again.
Another line, and now another image and prayer. “Detour my footsteps around false ways,/And graciously lead me in Your instruction.” The only way to avoid that depression and sorrow, those lies of Satan that would drag us down into the dirt again, the only way to avoid that is to follow God. The image sets up a prayer with two requests: put me on the detour and bring me to the right road. In praying “Detour my footsteps around false ways,” we’re asking God to put up all of the barricades to block the dangerous road ahead, to mark the detour that goes around Satan’s road, and really, this prayer asks God to grab our feet and make them walk in the way of His detour.
Keep that image in your mind, because the prayer continues with the same picture. God has grabbed your feet to put you on the detour, but He’s going to continue moving your feet in the right direction, in the way of His instruction. If God were to let go of our feet, or if we shake off God’s hands, we’d be right back to climbing over the “Road Closed” barricades, sneaking around the cones and barrels and fences, so that we could go on that muddy road of Satan. So we pray with this image that God would grab our feet, make us walk in His ways.
And just in case you might be thinking that maybe God doesn’t know just how hard it is to walk away from the dangerous road of Satan, just in case you think God doesn’t understand what it means to be tempted to go down the wrong road, just remember that this image and prayer certainly describes Jesus Himself. Jesus was tempted by Satan. For 40 days, Satan kept trying to get Jesus to climb the barricades, to head down the dangerous, muddy road, but for 40 days, Jesus resisted and followed the way, the instruction of God the Father. Jesus knows what it means to be tempted, and Jesus knows that without His help there’s no way we can follow the detour and get on the path of the Father. So you can be very sure that Jesus is kneeling down throughout your life, grabbing your feet—even when you’re kicking Him—and He makes your feet go in the right direction.
Melted wax that’s been made solid again. Wandering feet that are made to walk the right road. And now another image in this poem that shows how God changes our hearts: “Determining to follow the way of faithfulness, I set Your governance before me.” Jesus moving our feet in the right direction gives us the determination to follow the way of God the faithful One. Wanting to follow the Lord, we set “His governance” before us.
“Governance,” the word here, is often translated as “judgments,” and I suppose it really has the sense of the written opinion of a Supreme Court Justice. In order to follow God, we read His Word, read the Bible, which is like His court opinion, His ruling on what it means to follow His Law. Yet, the word means more than just what happens in our Judicial Branch. It means more than what the courts and judges say. It also covers the Executive Branch—how God as our President leads us; it also covers the Congressional Branch—how God writes His laws. We set all of this before us; we read everything about how God rules, reigns, governs, judges, decides; and that’s what will show us the way of faithfulness. That’s how we’ll know what it means to follow God.
But again, remember the determination to follow God’s governance comes from Jesus moving our feet down this right path; we are just melted, muddy souls without Jesus, and so it’s taking the Lord’s determination to keep us on the path of truth.
Perhaps, that’s why the writer of the psalm then hints at some fear that he’s going to backtrack, get off the right path, sin again, fall away. He says, “Dear Lord, I cling to Your testimonies; Do not let them mock me and my Bible.” It’s like saying, “Lord, I’m trying to hold onto Your Word, but everyone around me is laughing at me, making fun of me for carrying my Bible.” There’s a real sense that this whole determination to follow God’s ways could very quickly end.
And isn’t that how life really is? Sometimes I haven’t really wanted to read Psalm 119, because it just seemed absurd to say things like, “So I may study your wondrous acts.” I know myself, and you know yourself, and sometimes the furthest thing from our minds is God’s Word. Psalm 119 seemed so happy-go-lucky, so falsely committed, like a fake believer who says, “Oh, yes, I love God’s Law; I never think about anything else.”
Yet, already in the D section, we’ve seen how the writer is fully admitting his sins, his need for God’s help. He knows that God provides the truth, but God is also the One who gives new life, makes us solid again, detours our footsteps, and gives us that determination of faith.
So when the writer says, “Don’t let them mock me,” the poem’s still right with us today. The poem’s still speaking from our experience. The poem is still all too aware that we’re not going to be able to cling to God’s Word if God doesn’t help us when we’re under threat of mocking, insults, and more. It’s like saying, “If those people laugh at me for going to Bible study, Lord, I might just give up. You’ve got to help me!”
And that brings us up to the last line, the last image of the D section of Psalm 119: “Dashing, I will run in the way of Your commandments/When you stretch my heart!” Again, at first the image seems so self-assured: “Oh, I am faithful to Jesus; I run in the way of His commandments,” but really, it’s nothing like that. The writer doesn’t say he decided to follow Jesus, that he always makes sure to follow Jesus; the writer isn’t bragging about being faithful to Jesus.
Instead, everything hinges on the last phrase, the last image: “When you stretch my heart!” If you run without stretching, you’re going to pull a muscle or worse and seriously injure yourself. You can’t just run without helping your muscles to be ready to move and work.
In that same, we can’t run after God without stretching, but notice in the psalm, we’re not the ones who can do the stretching. Our hearts need to be stretched, and that’s something only God can do. If we try to run without God stretching our hearts, we’re going to pull a muscle, pull up lame, be on the disabled list, be out of the game, lose the faith.
However, with God stretching our hearts, with God’s Spirit working in our souls, with God bringing us out of the dirt grave, solidifying our melted wax puddles, detouring our footsteps, giving us determination of faithfulness, with God stretching our hearts to make room for faith, then surely we will run in the way of His commandments.
So today’s service is brought to you by the letter “D”—the “D” section of Psalm 119. But really today’s service is brought to you by God, His action. While at first it seems that Psalm 119 talks as if we are the ones who will faithfully follow God’s ways; as we’ve seen, God is the actor. God is the One who works faith in our hearts, raising us from the dead on the Last Day through Jesus Christ. As we run the race of faith, the crowds are lining the road, cheering and shouting, but they are cheering for God, the One who stretches our hearts, the One who gives us faith, forgiveness, love, and salvation.
Exegesis of a Translation: Psalm 119:25-32
Translation arranged by Pastor Ben Squires. This version of Psalm 119:25-32 is compiled and/or inspired by the following versions: English Standard Version (esv), New Jewish Publication Society Version (jps), God’s Word to the Nations (gwtn), The Psalms: Chronologically Arranged (Hibbard, 1856) (pca), and Gordon Jackson’s The Lincoln Psalter (1997) (gj). Abbreviations below show which version(s) are represented or provided inspiration for that line.
Dirt is my soul’s adornment, six feet under, (gj)
Give me new life according to Your Word! (esv)
Didn’t I pour my heart out? (gj)
And you answered me; (esv)
Teach me Your will: (esv, gj)
Direct my understanding in Your ways (gj, esv)
So I may study Your wondrous acts. (jps)
Depression has dulled me, has drained me, has melted my soul—(gj,esv)
Yet the sound of Your voice would solidify me (gj, esv).
Detour my footsteps around false ways, (gj)
And graciously lead me in Your instruction. (esv,gwtn)
Determining to follow the way of faithfulness, (pca,esv)
I set Your governance before me. (esv)
Dear Lord, I cling to Your testimonies; (esv)
Do not let them mock me and my Bible. (gj)
Dashing, I will run in the way of Your commandments (esv)
When you stretch my heart! (esv)
This arrangement © 2006 Benjamin C. Squires.