Sunday, July 03, 2022

Psalm 119: The meditative, contemplative act of worship

The Book of Psalms contains prayers, laments, songs of praise, and psalms for special occasions. Through  all their variety, they share this: they are all recorded acts of worship. Psalm 119 is distinctive in this: it mentions meditation more than any other chapter of the Bible. In fact that one chapter, by itself, contains a sizeable portion of all the mentions of meditation in the entire Bible.* As I read that Psalm, the author's meditation draws me into an act of meditation which is shared, holding fellowship across a considerable distance in time.

I have heard a distinction that I find helpful: "meditation" can be the kind of meditation in which we still our minds, or it can be a meditation in which we engage our minds -- for example focusing on something blessed, spiritual, holy, or wondrous. The meditation that engages the mind is called "contemplation". Psalm 119 is the most extended contemplation in the Book of Psalms, focusing the mind on whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is noble, whatever is worthy of praise within the word of God. 

All the Psalms, as poetry and songs, can rightly be counted as art. In that collection, Psalm 119 is a masterpiece. This is not merely for supporting the acrostic 22x8 structure. While some acrostics struggle with quality in order to fill the contractual obligation of the acrostic form, the author of Psalm 119 reached exceptional content in depth, in spiritual beauty, and in engagement with his own human condition. And so the acrostic here does the rare job of fulfilling its promise: giving order and structure while lifting up the idea that every part has its value, and that staying the course is worthwhile. 

As mentioned previously, this one Psalm is the single most instructive chapter in the whole of the Bible on the topic of meditation. It is unlikely that a poem of such length and structure was written in one session. The author leaves us some insight into his private life: "My eyes anticipate the night watches, that I might meditate on your word" (119:148). He prized his hours of meditation, not as an obligation but as refreshment. 

* I am aware that there are those who assert that the Bible is not the book title of the Bible and so should not be capitalized. While acknowledging some unique situations to be considered, I think they are essentially wrong; it is the title by which I call the book, and there is no other title by which I call the book. And so I continue to capitalize. 

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