Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart.
Psalm 119: 1-2
Psalm 119 is notable for three reasons. First, it is the longest chapter of the Bible, at 176 verses.
Second, eighteen of these verses comprise three “stasis” that make up the beginning of the Orthodox Funeral service. Much of this Psalm is written in the first person. For instance, verse 73: “Thy hands have made me and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn Thy commandments.” This is one of the verses sung at the funeral service. (And it is also one of the prayers that a bishop, priest or deacon offers as he puts on his epimanikia, or cuffs [vestments] before the Divine Liturgy.) Much of the funeral service is offered in the first person. There are two reasons for this. First, we are praying for the mercies of God for the person who has passed away and whose soul is now going to the Lord for judgment. We pray for that person using his or her own voice, praying on their behalf using their voice, making it personal to them. Second, the funeral service is an opportunity for us to meditate and reflect on both our own lives and our eventual passing from life. If our judgment is based on faith and obedience to the commandments of God (things we can control, as well as God’s grace, which is His to give), this Psalm talks about how we should delight in the Law of the Lord and follow it. Thus, the funeral service is a plea for mercy for the deceased and an opportunity for learning and reflection for those who are participating in it.
Third is a tradition that sadly many people do not know. Most of us are familiar with the Lamentations Service on Good Friday. This is, in essence, the funeral for the Lord. We gather around His tomb, and later carry His burial shroud in procession around the church. The Lamentations consist of three stanzas of hymns. Just like there are three stanzas of the funeral. In many parishes, about 50-60 total Lamentations are sung, with 15-20 from each stanza. There are actually 176 Lamentations, the same number as the verses of Psalm 119. The Lamentations are still in three groups, but there are 176 total. And when done properly, one verse of Psalm 119 is sung before each Lamentation, matching the Lamentations to the verses of Psalm 119. This is totally appropriate, as the funeral verses are paired with the Lamentations to make up the funeral for the Lord.
Today’s highlighted verses are the first two of the 176 verses of this Psalm. They set the bar for what the ideal Christian life looks like—to walk blameless in the law of the Lord, to keep His commandments and to seek Him with our whole heart. This is the ideal. The ideal can’t be “do good 90% of the time.” Because they would also be telling us “Plan to sin 10% of the time.” Rather, the ideal is to walk through life blameless, to keep God’s commandments and to seek after Him with our whole heart.
No one can do this. The rest of the Psalm, then, focuses on striving for the ideal:
Make me understand the way of Thy precepts and I will meditate on Thy wondrous works. (v. 27)
Put false ways far from me; and graciously teach me Thy law! (v. 29)
Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding that I may keep Thy law and observe it with my whole heart. (v. 33-34)
Incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to gain. (v. 36)
Let Thy steadfast love come to me, O Lord, Thy salvation according to Thy promise. (v. 41)
Hear my voice in Thy steadfast love; O Lord, in Thy justice preserve my life. (v. 149)
As with many Psalms, this one reads as a prayer for ourselves, both for God’s mercies at the end of our lives, as well as His guidance throughout them. A goal, then, is to delight in the Law of the Lord, both what we are to do, and what the final objective is. Or maybe it is better to say that we should understand the objective—salvation—and then we will delight more in the path to get there.
Let my cry come before Thee, O Lord; give me understanding according to Thy word! Let my supplication come before Thee; deliver me according to Thy word. My lips will pour forth praise that Thou dost teach me Thy statues. My tongue will sing of Thy word, for all Thy commandments are right. Let Thy hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen Thy precepts. I long for Thy salvation, O Lord, and Thy law is my delight. Let me live, that I may praise Thee, and let Thy ordinances help me. I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant, for I do not forget Thy commandments. Psalm 119:168-176
Remember the objective—salvation—that the path that God has laid out for us to attain it!