With its one hundred and seventy-six verses, Psalm 118 is by far the longest of all. It has the form of an acrostic: each of the eight verses in twenty-two strophes begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. That is an arrangement that is almost impossible to reproduce well in English, although Ronald Knox attempted it. The Psalm is a celebration of the Law of the Lord, all but one of the verses containing the word “law” or “commandment” or some other synonym.
Augustine’s commentary on the ninth strophe (vv. 65-72) has some wonderful reflections on the place of law in the Christian life and on what it means to learn it and to do it. The words “sweet” (suavis or dulcis) and “sweetness” (suavitas or dulcedo) appear many times in this excerpt, and it will be important to remember that in Latin as in older English, “‘the word “sweet”...was a stronger and busier word then, spanning a range of pleasure and purity beyond the palate and not tainted by its patronizing modern usage.’” (Tobias Gregory, review of John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert in the London Review of Books, 18 December 2014, p. 27.)
My dictionary of classical Latin gives these meanings to the adjective “suavis”: “sweet, pleasant, agreeable, grateful, delightful,” and says that it can be used both of the senses and feelings and of the mind. Similar definitions are given for dulcedo and dulcis, and the passive form of the verb delecto (to delight) and its cognate noun delectatio (delight) also appear. Augustine, in fact, referred often to the experience of delight, and below he contrasts it with servile fear, that is, a slave’s or servant’s fear.
How many of us can say that we are delighted by commandments?
“You have dealt delightfully with your servant, Lord, according to your word” (Ps 118:65). ... I think that this means: “You have brought it about that the good delights me.” Delight in the good is a great gift of God. When some good work commanded by the law is done out of fear of punishment and not out of delight in righteousness, when God is feared and not loved, it’s as if it were being done by a servant and not by a child. “A servant does not dwell in a house forever, but a son does” (Jn 8:35), because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). So, then, “you have dealt delightfully with your servant, Lord,” making a servant a child, and this “according to your word,” that is, according to your promise. ...
“Teach me delight and instruction and knowledge,” the Psalmist goes on, “because I have believed your commandments.” ... It asks that the delight be increased and made perfect. How can one who had said, “You have dealt delightfully with your servant,” now ask, “Teach me delight,” unless he is asking that the grace of God become more and more known to him by delight in goodness? They already had faith who said, “Lord, increase our faith” (Lk 17:5). And as long as we live in this world, this is a song of people making progress.
“And teach me instruction,” it goes on, or, as several codices have it: “discipline.” Our Scriptures usually use “discipline” (which Greeks call paideia) to refer to instruction by means of troubles. ... This word in Greek occurs in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the Latin translator has, “All discipline at the moment seems not to be a matter of joy, but of sadness; later, however, it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who struggle through it” (Heb 12:11). Someone, then, to whom the Lord brings delight, that is, in whom he mercifully inspires delight in the good, to whom God gives love of God and love of neighbor for God’s sake, should insistently pray for so great an increase of this gift that for it not only will he scorn all other delights but will endure any and all suffering. It’s useful, then, that “instruction” is added to “sweetness.” For it is not for some minor increase of holy love that we pray and hope for delight or goodness, and for so great an increase that it can’t be quenched by any affliction but that, like an huge fire fanned by the wind, the more it is put down the more fiercely it can be stirred up again. It was a slight thing for the Psalmist to say, “You have dealt delightfully to your servant” if he did not beg again that he teach him delight, so great a delight that he can very patiently bear with being disciplined.
Thirdly, he asks for “knowledge,” because great knowledge, if it surpasses great love, does not build up but puffs up (1 Cor 8:1). When there is such great love in sweet goodness that it can’t be quenched by the troubles that discipline brings, that knowledge will be useful by which you come to know what you deserve and what things God has given you by which to learn what you can do that you didn’t know you could do, what by yourself you could not do at all.
The Psalmist says, not “Give me,” but “Teach me.” How is delight taught if it is not given? Many people know what doesn’t delight them and have knowledge of things that cause no delight. But delight cannot be learned unless it delights. In the same way, discipline, when it means some corrective trouble, is learned by being accepted, that is, not by hearing or reading or thinking, but by experiencing it. Knowledge, however, the third thing he asks to be taught, is imparted by teaching. What is teaching but imparting knowledge? The two are so linked that one cannot happen without the other. No one is taught unless he learns, and no one learns unless he is taught. That’s why, if a student is not capable of the things being said by a teacher, the teacher cannot say, “I taught him, but he himself didn’t learn.” He can say, “I told him what needed to be said, but he didn’t learn because he didn’t get it, didn’t grasp it, didn’t understand it.” For the one would have learned if the other had taught. That’s why God, when he wishes to teach, first gives understanding without which a person can’t learn the things that belong to divine teaching. And that’s why, shortly after, the Psalmist says, “Give me understanding that I might learn your commandments” (Ps 118:73).
A person who wishes to teach someone else, then, can say what the Lord said to his disciples after his resurrection, but he cannot do what he did. The Gospel says, “Then he opened their understanding that they might understand the Scriptures, and he said to them...” (Lk 24:45-56). What he said to them can be read there, but the reason they grasped what he said is that he gave them the ability to understand. God teaches delight, then, by inspiring delight; he teaches discipline by moderating the troubles; he teaches knowledge by bringing them to knowledge. ... So teach me delight by inspiring love; teach me discipline by giving me patience; teach me knowledge by enlightening my intelligence. (EnPs 118/17; PL 37, 1547ff)