Fellow Passengers: The opening words of today’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 119:105-112), Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path quickly carry me to Cuba. Given the descending cold weather and the location of Stan, this seems like a worthy place to go. It is common in Cuban worship services to sing the opening line of this passage – Es tu palabra lámpara para mis pies Señor prior to the reading of scripture. It is your word that lights my feet Lord. With the clever Spanish alliteration and the vivacious Cuban rhythm, it always creates for me a great sense of anticipation. Yes, these words that I am about to hear are worth getting excited about. They are worthy of celebratory singing and dancing. They are a light for my way. To taste the excitement (at least mine), es tu palabra. Pardon the lack of Cuban rhythm. I did not inherit that gene.
One important aspect of Psalm 119, the longest of the Psalms, is literally lost in translation. We can’t know without reading the original Hebrew that is an acrostic psalm, meaning that it is built around utilizing the Hebrew alphabet in a successive pattern. For example in Psalm 145, also an acrostic psalm, the first verse begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second verse with the second letter and so on and so on. What is unique about Psalm 119 is that the writer creates 8 verses with each Hebrew letter before going on to the next. Hence, it’s length. Hebrew scholars consider it a poetic masterpiece. Walter Brueggemann, one of those Hebrew scholar types, believes that the point of this curious structure was to evoke the full obedience to the Torah. This theme of unwavering and unwishywashy commitment to God’s ways runs throughout Psalm 119. We hear in verse 106, I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances.
This may be when your shoulders begin to slump. Perhaps your suspicion is growing and the heaviness is increasing. Obedience and righteous ordinances – what a drag, what a danger. Isn’t this the misuse of power? Isn’t this what Jesus came to undo? We all know, as did Jesus, it certainly can be. However, I have to wonder, are we throwing the lamp out with the lamp oil? Psalm 119 is also filled with lightness and freedom. It is almost like the Psalmist is suggesting that obedience and joy are two rays of the same light. Look at verse 111, Your decrees are my heritage forever, they are the joy of my heart. Maybe these imperatives of the Torah; like the unproductive practice of sabbath, like the self-sacrificing vision of Jubilee, like the uncomfortable welcoming of strangers and the rigid rejection of false idols actually hold us in place – the place of joy and delight, the place of flow and participation, the place where the beauty of righteousness (right relationship with God, self and others and creation) can be seen and felt. After all, Jesus, the one who came to embody the Torah, also asks a lot of us. Maybe this obedience is that which keeps us on the road, to direct us and oblige us to a particular way with a particular end. Jesus also talks a lot about the end. It’s a party, a banquet, where all shall eat and be unafraid. Sounds joyful to me.
Could this be part of what the Psalmist and Jesus and our Cuban brothers and sisters are trying to teach us? What do you think? Where does this light-filled word lead you?
Mark Siler recently returned from a year in Cuba with his wife and two daughters. He spent his time there teaching courses and leading workshops on prison chaplaincy.