Oliver O’Donovan on Psalm 119

In a profound section of Resurrection and Moral Order, in which he is discussing the problem of historical novelty and the place of “wisdom”, Oliver O’Donovan offers this brilliant reflection on Psalm 119. I have spent some time looking at this psalm, and this comment captures for me something I was grasping at yet couldn’t articulate anywhere nearly as well.

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“The tone of delight with which the worshippers of the Old Testament spoke of the torah can be understood only if we appreciate the existential which God’s gift of law had met. The law evoked the most moving expressions of gratitude for rescue from the threat of ‘death’. Who could meditate long on Psalm 119, for example, without being struck by the constant association of law (and all its synonyms) with life, health, delight and well-being? For it is nothing else than death to have to confront the future as entirely unknown, knowing only that one is oneself subject to the same insecurity as everything else in the world about one and that one may dissolve with any new constellation of circumstances that may emerge. [The rationale for this thought is found on pages 183–85: our identity as moral agents exists only in relation to the world in which we participate; and so if there is no continuity to this world, there can be no continuity in our moral agency.] But ‘you word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens’ (Psa 119:89 NIV). As the worshipper aligns himself and the world under the scrutiny of that word and that law, he has a stable point of reference and is secure. Can this admiration of the moral law lead to the legalism of which Christianity is properly afraid? Of course it can. It can become a cover for complacency, or it can become a new source of dread, as soon as the soteriological context of the law ceases to be vitally experienced. But in this lyrical outpouring it is precisely the meaning of law as salvation that predominates over every other thought.” (Resurrection and Moral Order, p.190)

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