The Psalms are the songs of the Hebrew Scriptures but also shape the hymnody and song traditions of the Christian Church. We may not be allowed to sing in Chapel but we can say the psalms which provide such a rich commentary and reflection upon the powerful ethical teachings presented to us in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and which connect as well to the wisdom and understanding of other philosophical and religious traditions. That is especially the case, it seems to me, with Psalm 119 in relation to the profound wisdom of the Ten Commandments; in short, the Law.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm and indeed the longest chapter in the whole of the scriptures. It is made up of twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each for a total of one hundred and seventy-six verses. The first word in each stanza begins in order with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet which consists of twenty-two letters. Every verse contains words which signify the Law - the various synonyms in the King James version are word, precepts, commandments, statutes, testimonies, judgements. The whole psalm is an extended meditation on God as Word in whose Law we find our delight and our freedom; in other words, our good.
This meditation on God’s Word or Law looks back to the Torah, the first five books or scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures, at the center of which are the Ten Commandments delivered by God to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. Israel in the wilderness is the theme of the Book of Exodus, a going out of slavery in Egypt and into the freedom of service to God. Something is learned in the wilderness journeyings of the people of Israel, all their murmuring, complaining, (or kvetching to use a wonderful Yiddish word) notwithstanding. The freedom is the Law, the will of God for our humanity. The Ten Commandments are light and freedom.
This challenges our negative view of law as restraint and limitation and the assumption that freedom means doing just whatever you want or think you want to do. The very idea of the Ten Commandments counters the childish and adolescent commonplace of ‘you’re not the boss of me’ kind of attitude. To the contrary, the Ten Commandments are our freedom and truth. They are not a random list of proscriptions or prescriptions; they embody a comprehensive understanding of the nature of our obligations and duties towards God and one another and as such articulate the truth of ourselves as responsible and rational agents. There are ten - no more no less. There is nothing to be taken away from nor added to them. They are complete, comprehensive, and compelling in their logic and form.
This is not to say that there are not different traditions with respect to the numbering of the commandments. They don’t come with numbers attached and so there are two major traditions about how they are ordered. Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches following Augustine regard the first commandment about God as including the proscription against idols and divide the last commandment about coveting into two, coveting things and coveting people. The Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Churches treat the proscription against idols as the second commandment and keep as one the commandment about coveting. These differences are really about matters of emphasis.
They begin emphatically with the idea of liberation or freedom. “I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The whole point of the commandments is the idea of a positive freedom, a freedom to God and for his will for our humanity. As such the commandments recall us to the logic of creation and our humanity as made in the image of God. The Ten Commandments, we might say, are the logical outcome of the story of the Fall and of Cain and Abel. They call us to account explicitly in terms of what belongs to our lives as lived together. Knowledge is power is a statement usually attributed to Sir Francis Bacon but misconstrued. What he really said was that God’s knowledge is power - a very different thing from the human arrogation of knowledge as power over nature and one another which is only a form of slavery, an enslavement to the devices and desires of our hearts in disarray and brokenness. The Ten Commandments recall us to a vision of wholeness and completeness as found in the will of God. This way of thinking complements wonderfully the ethical teachings of the Plato and Aristotle as well as other cultures such as in ancient China and India. They are the universal moral code of our humanity.
The commandments are engraved on two stone tablets, Exodus tells us. They can be divided between our duties to God and to our neighbour, the common fraternity of our humanity. Because God is God, there is and can be no other first principle, no other gods before me. Because God is God, the principle of the being and the knowing of all things and as such prior in all ways to everything else, God cannot be confused with anything in the created order, hence no images - such is idolatry. Because God is God, his holy name is not to be taken in vain: God is not to be invoked for human ends and purposes, not to be profaned. Because God is God, we are to remember the Sabbath and to keep it. This recalls us to creation and to the purpose of creation and of our humanity within creation. All things exist for the delight of God and for our delight in God, something which Psalm 119 amply illustrates in the idea of taking delight in the law of God.
The commandments then turn more explicitly towards our relations with one another. Because God is God, you shall honour your father and your mother; in other words, we are bidden to honour our natural derivations regardless of how broken, how mixed up, or how confused our families might be. They are still your family. You can’t do anything about that, except, and this is the great and liberating insight, to honour or respect the fact of your family irrespective of the irritations and annoyances, hardships and failings that there may be. It is a powerful antidote to many of our current distresses. Because God is God, you shall not kill. Murder entails a contradiction as we saw in the story of Cain and Abel. We are not the authors of one another’s life and so cannot presume to take another’s life. “Your brother’s blood,” God says to Cain, “is crying to me from the ground.” God is the author of all life. We are called to honour and respect the life of one another. Because God is God, you shall not commit adultery. Human sexuality also is part of our being and we are bidden to honour marriage, the source of the family. Because God is God, you shall not steal. To take what belongs to another is to violate the other. Property is an extension of personality.
Because God is God, you shall not bear false witness. A lie presupposes and betrays the truth upon which it depends. A lie has no power apart from the truth. And finally, because God is God, you shall not covet. Covet? What does that mean? To desire what belongs to another but which you want for yourself and probably at their expense. Notice that with this commandment - one which catches us all in its net, as Paul notes - has to do with our hearts. Thus, the Ten Commandments are comprehensive in their range and scope. They are the ethical teaching which will be summed up in the Jewish Shema or what Christians call the Summary of the Law: the love of God and the love of neighbour. This is the love which concerns the whole of our being and the nature of our being with one another in respect and love.
Such is the Law, at once light in the darkness of human life and freedom from all and every form of oppression, not the least of which is our enslavement to ourselves in the disorder of our passions and desires. Here is the love which sets us in order and in understanding. God’s Word is our light and our delight; the light in which we see light.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy