New Medieval Bible Meditation: Psalm 119:1-8

February 11th, 2014

Psalm 119:1-8 (Revised Common Lectionary) or Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34 (Roman Catholic Lectionary)

At the literal level, this scripture shows the blessedness of striving to keep God’s law, God’s Torah. The whole length of Ps. 119 is a complex and edifying meditation on the goodness and wisdom of God’s Torah. It is ordered around the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The point is not only outward conformity to God’s law, as though God, like a dictator, has given an arbitrary set of rules and we must fall in line. Rather, as Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon notes, the ancient rabbis thought of the Torah, the eternal law of God, as the inner logic “on which the inner being of all created reality is based.” Thus, to be in accord with God’s Torah is just to be in touch with the deepest law of reality, with what is. The nearer you are to God’s Torah, the nearer you are to your true self.

Thus, Ps. 119 does teach merely an outward conformity to God’s Torah. Those are blessed “who seek him with their whole heart” (v. 2). The one who prays this Psalm cries out very earnestly and personally, “O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping thy statutes!” (v. 5). Jesus tells his friends, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). Praying Ps. 119 helps us both to love him and to desire to keep his commandments, by loving them.

At the allegorical level, this Psalm (as is the case with most of the Psalms) is thick with references to Jesus Christ himself. This is not only a typological fact, but a historical fact, since Jesus Christ, a first century Jew, is inside the historical continuity of those who pray this Psalm. Further, Jesus Christ still prays this Psalm on earth in his body, the Church. Jesus Christ especially is the one whose way is blameless, so much so that he is the fulfillment of the Torah (Mt. 5:17). He is the one who truly, in his humanity, seeks after God with his whole heart (v. 2). Jesus is the one who says truly, “I will observe thy statutes” (v. 8).

Further, Psalm 119’s speech about the “law” or Torah points to the Word of God. We begin to see this clearly from the rabbinic interpretation of ‘Torah’ above. And it is God’s Word of whom it is said, “He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn. 1:2-3). The Word of God is the one who became incarnate in Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14), of whose divine nature it says, “for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

So, when Ps. 119:1 says, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD,” one of the meanings is: Blessed are those who are blameless through walking in the Word of God, through walking in the holy pattern of Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate Word. Further, it means: Blessed are those who are blameless through baptism, having been washed through “water and the Word” (Eph. 5:26). For we are cleansed by faith and the contact with Jesus Christ’s forgiveness and divinity we’re given in baptism. Further, the Church is mystically included in Ps. 119:1, for it says: “Blessed are those.” The Church are those included in Christ through faith & baptism, those who thus “walk in the Word” since they are the body of Christ who is the Word incarnate. (The Church walks in the footsteps of Christ, and reads about his life cyclically again and again using the lectionary calendar, because the Church is “in” Christ, “in” the Word.) Finally, when we read this verse, we may rightly think of Mary. The Latin for those who are “blameless” is immaculati; and Mary Immaculate, who gives birth to the Word, is the first among those abiding in the pure power of Christ’s holiness. She is “full of grace” (Lk. 1:28).

The moral sense of Ps. 119 is near the surface: “Thou hast commanded thy precepts to be kept diligently. O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping thy statutes!” (vv. 4-5). The things Christ has ordered, we must do. In view of God’s mercies, we must strive for an imitation of Christ, an obedience to God’s Torah, that will set our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:20). For Christians, this is, first of all, the twofold love commanment – love of God and neighbor – and also the Ten Commandments and the moral injunctions of the New Testament. Much else could be said.

At the anagogical level, we note a fascinating deepening that has taken place in our study of Ps. 119. At the literal level, Ps. 119 is a long cadence of praise to the “law of the LORD.” Allegorically, we are able to see that this Psalm is also a hymn of praise to the Word, the Son of God and second person of the Blessed Trinity. Praise for God’s good gift of the law has opened us to praise of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God condescendingly reveals himself even in the inadequacy and imprecision of human language “for us and for our salvation,” making us worshippers and witnesses of the true God. By God’s initiative, God takes our finite language captive to his Word (2 Cor. 10:5), so that “his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). Glory to you, Word of God, who share your eternal life so freely with us who are dust, and unworthy.

Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, (Chesterton: Conciliar Press, 2000).


New Medieval Bible Meditations: Scripture Interpretations for Preachers, Nuns, and other Guilty Bystanders is Clifton Stringer’s contribution to the renewal of the Church’s reading and teaching of the Holy Bible. I try to pick a passage from the lectionary for the coming Sunday, usually one shared by both the Roman Catholic and Protestant (Revised Common) lectionaries.

The premise of this method of interpretation is that Sacred Scripture, since it is divine revelation, has wondrous depths. That Scripture is ‘divine revelation’ means that Scripture is divine truth and wisdom graciously shown to us by God. Scripture is thus a created participation in the divine Word (Jn. 1:1) who is the second person of the Holy Trinity. Sacred Scripture is thus, and ultimately, a participation in God’s own knowledge, the very joyful eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture is shared with us out of love that we might become wise and good, and be saved.

Since the infinite God is the author of Sacred Scripture, in addition to Scripture’s “literal or historical” sense, many passages of the Bible will have mystical senses (or spiritual senses). The literal sense is, as it were, the fountain and foundation of these mystical senses. These mystical senses are usually reckoned at three: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.

Here is how St. Bonaventure describes these three mystical senses: “Allegory occurs when by one thing is indicated another which is a matter of belief” – like when one thing in Scripture prefigures another later thing, or builds on an earlier prefiguration. “The tropological or moral understanding occurs when, from something done, we learn something else which we should do” – like when Christ or an apostle does something holy that we must imitate. “The anagogical meaning, a kind of ‘lifting upwards,’ occurs when we are shown what it is we should desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the blessed” – that is, when we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Aquinas even notes that, since God understands all things through one infinite act of being, God can intend for there to be more than one meaning of a scripture at the literal level.

All four senses (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical) are effective for preaching, teaching, and training in righteousness, as the Spirit leads.

To reflect further on these senses consider, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae 1.1.10 or Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, Prologue, section 4.

Also note that, in writing these meditations, I do not do any ‘historical critical’ research into the passage. If you would like to do this, it can add to your understanding of the literal sense, and even sometimes spur your imagination among the other senses. But many modern scholars focus on ‘historical critical’ questions almost exclusively; read their works, insofar as it is helpful for knowing and teaching Christ; there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

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