The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


It’s a Long Way to the Punch Line

Is obsessive devotion to the law something to be mocked?

by Russell Rathbun

Psalm Reading: Psalm 119

For Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010: Year C - Ordinary 29

This is a really long Psalm.

I know that’s what everyone says about it, and it’s especially hard on those of us who have to preach about it.

Well, it is hard not to mention, it is really long. It’s the longest Psalm and also qualifies as the longest chapter in the Bible—which only seems right since it is a paean to the Bible. It’s David’s hymn of praise to the Law.

Believe it or not, I don’t always enjoy questioning everything. Sometimes, I think, I would just like to take the plain meaning of a text and accept it—that’s all there is! In this case, it’d be: This is David’s song about how much he loves the Torah and how much delight he has in following the Law. The Bible is a good thing to praise, celebrate, and go on and on about. I love the Bible, too. I read it a lot, like every day.

So why not join in, sing along with such great lines like:

How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.

My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times.

Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, those who forsake your law.

At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous ordinances.

I have more understanding than all my teachers. I understand more than the aged.

That’s some great copy!

Me Thinks He Doth Protest Too Much

OK, as much as I want to take all 176 verses of this love letter to Torah as the earnest ode it purports to be, it’s really hard for me to bring the same sincerity that David seems have. The phrase longing for your ordinances is a hard one for me to swallow. Unless it is a euphemism for something else, it’s difficult for me to see how longing and ordinances ever make it into the same sentence. An ordinance is something issued by the parks department to keep people from dumping their garbage in the woods. It is not an object of desire.

I wonder if my questioning of the psalmist’s sincerity is similar to what was going through Jesus’ mind when the Rich Young Ruler said that he had kept all the laws since his youth. I feel like David is either going overboard trying to convince someone of something, or possibly that this is a satire. That this psalm is written as an acrostic poem, using every letter of the Hebrew alphabet, only adds to my suspicion that this is meant to be funny. And the length—to start every sentence in every stanza with the same letter and work your way through the whole alphabet—this is Andy Kaufman material.

The Hardest Question

Maybe complete uncritical adherence to every jot and tittle of the law is not something to be lauded. Perhaps this is even what Jesus is suggesting when he does not praise the Rich Young Ruler for finding his worth in the law, but instead invites him into a relationship. Is this Psalm satire? Is obsessive devotion to the law something to be admired or mocked?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Katherine says:

    I never in a million years would have thought to see this psalm that way, but… yup. It works.

    Love the site – thanks for the good words and hard questions.

  2. John Maas says:

    Answering Biblical poetry with Biblical wisdom literature:

    “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise — why destroy yourself? do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool — why die before your time?” Eccl 7:16-17 (NIV)

    The verses struck me as I read your comments.

  3. bill hoogland says:

    I’ve never read Psalm 119 as obsessive. Rather, as an ideal. The tragedy is way too many today attempt to wiggle out from under the law, just as most have in the past. The wonder is now freed from sin’s slavery by God’s grace in Jesus we can strive for joyful holiness as revealed in God’s perfect law. I think the hard question is: why do so many Christians have so little desire to please God thru joyful obedience?

    Bill Hoogland

  4. Tim Fleck says:

    If one genuinely understands Law as God’s gift to Israel… not as a set of standards to live up to (or not), not as a series of tests to be passed (or failed), but as a blueprint for a way to live together in shalom, as a way for God’s people to understand how God intended creation to work for the blessing of all, as an instruction manual for the Kingdom of God…

    Then perhaps a long paean to the beauty of the Law doesn’t seem so silly.

  5. David S says:

    The comments this week on THQ have been really thought provoking. Thank you! I keep thinking of how in the heck my righteousness could ever “exceed that of the Pharisee’s with their 613 mitzvot (great list, BTW, at ). So…did Psalm 119 get nailed to the cross ala Colossians 2:13-15?

  6. Rev. Russell says:

    I didn’t really mean to imply that devotion to the law was silly, but I can see that I did come to my hardestquestion in kind of a flippant way. I think David articulated it in, perhaps a more constructive way. The way I read the Gospel, does give me however a radical notion of grace that is built on a complete inability to find God in the observance of the law. The law breaks me (and I don’t find joy in that) and in my brokenness I can see the healer.

How do you read?