The psalm which is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Psalm 112:1–10) portrays “those who fear the Lord” (verses 1–9) in contrast to “the wicked” (verse 10). I suspect that this psalm was chosen as a fitting companion to the Gospel reading, in which Jesus strongly affirms the Law: “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17).
This affirmation of the Law (in Hebrew, תּוֹרָה, transliterated as Torah) is a distinctive characteristic of the book of origins which we attribute, by tradition, to the disciple Matthew. In this Gospel, Jesus holds consistently to the requirements of Torah, advocating strongly for the righteous-justice that is at its heart, debating strenuously the interpretations offered by the scribes and Pharisees, and claiming his role as the authorised Teacher of Torah: “you have one teacher, and you are all students … nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Matt 23:8, 10).
[As a side note: the last verse of Psalm 112—which should not be omitted, despite the suggestion that is possible by the lectionary itself—also resonates with the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. It is largely in this Gospel that Jesus speaks of evildoers being thrown into “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; cf. Luke 3:28). That phrase, of course, is used by the psalmist to characterise the fate of “the wicked”, who, when they see the blessings of the righteous, “are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away” (Ps 112:10).]
The strong affirmation of Torah which is expressed in Matthew’s Gospel is ubiquitous throughout Hebrew Scripture. The Law is God’s gift to Israel; in Exodus, God tells Moses, “I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instructions (Exod 24:12).
In a later retelling the story of Moses, the Deuteronomist has Moses, speaking on behalf of God, telling the Israelites, “take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today; give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law” (Deut 32:46). Indeed, he intensifies this in the next sentence: “this is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life” (Deut 32:47). The Torah is the very heart of the matter.
Some of the great figures in Israel (at least in the historical sagas that were collected) are remembered as those who were faithful to Torah. On Josiah, the great reformer who recalled a faithless Israel to the covenant, we are told “before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).
On Hezekiah, who had the neglected Temple cleansed and sanctified and then restored the right worship of the Lord in the Temple (2 Chron 30:8–9), we read that “every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God, and in accordance with the law and the commandments, to seek his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered” (2 Chron 31:21). And during the restoration of Jerusalem, we are told that Ezra “had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
Each of these leaders manifested in their life what this Sunday’s psalm states; they are “those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments” (Ps 112:1). Elsewhere in the psalms, this same piety is clearly evident. The opening psalm affirms that for the righteous, “their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Ps 1:2). A later psalm declares that “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Ps 40:8).
The longest psalm of all, Psalm 119, is an acrostic series of 22 eight-verse stanzas (arranged alphabetically) in which the author(s) consistently affirm this. “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Ps 119:16). By contrast to “the arrogant”, whose “hearts are fat and gross”, the psalmist declares, “I delight in your law” (Ps 119:70).
Again, we hear, “let your mercy come to me, that I may live, for your law is my delight” (Ps 119:77); “if your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my misery” (Ps 119:92); and “I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight” (Ps 119:74). Echoing these words many centuries later, Paul, in the midst of his agonising about Torah in Romans 7, is able to affirm, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self” (Rom 7:22). Delight for the Law runs through Jewish history.
So this longest of all psalms, a series of 22 meditations on Torah, contains regular affirmations of its place in personal and communal piety: “give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (v.34); “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long” (v.97); “I hate the double-minded, but I love your law” (v.113); “I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law” (v.163); and, “great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble” (v.165).
In the long speech attributed to Moses (but actually crafted many centuries later during the time of a renewal of the covenant), the lawgiver distills the essence of Torah: “now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 10:12). Love is at the heart of the Law, as later faithful Jews would affirm. the Preacher, writing as Hellenism comes to the ascendancy, declares that “those who fear the Lord seek to please him, and those who love him are filled with his law” (Sirach 2:16).
Just a few centuries later the Pharisee-turned-evangelist Paul declares that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” and, citing a number of commandments, emphasises that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8–10); and again, citing a verse from the Torah, he affirms that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:14, quoting Lev 19:18).
The terms used in Psalm 112 to describe “those who fear the Lord” and “delight in his commandments” are striking. Most strikingly, they are characterised by their “righteousness” (112:3), which is at the heart of Torah. The psalmist places these two concepts in poetic parallelism in the song, “your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is the truth” (Ps 119:142).
They are depicted as “upright” (112:2, 4) and they “conduct their affairs with justice” (112:5). This is a central claim of Torah on the people: “justice, only justice you shall follow” (Deut 16:20), “with justice you shall judge your neighbour” (Lev 19:15)—with the corollary that “anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” is to be cursed (Deut 27:19). The call for justice is, likewise, a regular refrain amongst the prophets, calling the people to act justly (Amos 5:18–24; Micah 6:6–8; Isa 5:1–7; 42:1–4; 56:1–2; Jer 21:12; 22:3; 33:15; Ezek 18:5–9; 34:11–16; Zeph 3:5; Zech 7:9, to name just some of the many key passages on justice).
These people are “blessed” (112:2), a word which resounds through the stories and songs of the ancient Israelites. God’s blessings are given in the story of the creation of the world, where God blessed “living creatures of every kind” (Gen 1:22), and then humankind, made “in the image of God” and blessed to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 1:26–28). God blesses Noah and his sons, with the same charge to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1), and Abram (Gen 12:2), and through Abram promises to bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3; the b,easing is on “all the nations of the earth” at Gen 22:18).
An early prayer, later attributed to the priests, began, “the Lord bless you and keep you” (Num 6:23); these words are picked up in a later psalm, praying “may God be gracious to us and bless us” (Ps 67:1–7). God’s blessing is indeed realised by those who are faithful to God’s way, as expressed in Torah, with each of the patriarchs blessed: Abraham (Gen 22:15–18), Isaac (Gen 26:24), Jacob (Gen 28:1–4), and Joseph (Gen 49:22–26).
God blessed the people in the land (Deut 30:16), Elkanah and Hannah, parents of Samuel (1 Sam 2:18–20), David (2 Sam 7:28–29), and on through the ahead the blessing continued for the faithful people of Israel (Psalms 3:8; 5:12; 24:5; 29:11; 63:4; 107:38; 115:12–13; 133:3; Isa 44:1–5; Jer 31:23; Ezek 34:25–31; 37:26; Hag 2:19; Joel 2:14; Mal 3:10).
These blessed people, righteous and upright, thus are said to have exhibited the character of God, for they are “gracious, merciful and righteous” (Ps 112:4). This description echoes the refrain heard many times through the Hebrew Scriptures, affirming that the Lord God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9). This is the Lord God who enters into covenant, time and time and again, with the people of Israel; they, in turn, exemplify the qualities of God in their daily lives. They are “gracious, merciful, and righteous” (Ps 112:4).
Such a strong affirmation and deep appreciation for Torah, as we find in this psalm—and, indeed, in a number of other psalms—underlies the portrayal of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel that we will encounter, week by week, throughout this Year A of the liturgical cycle. This is the emphasis that Matthew offers, for he wants to heighten the fidelity of Jesus as a Torah-abiding Jew, and encourage his hearers and readers to follow that same pathway of faithfulness to the Torah. Jesus stands firmly in the tradition of the psalms, grateful to God for his covenant relationship with God, and seeking to live with justice and steadfast love in all the ways that God expects and requires; and he beckons us to follow in that same pathway in our lives of faith.