Psalm 119: Relating to God through His Word

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.

– Psalm 119:97 (ESV)

This is going to be a different week at URC Psalmody.  Michael is gone at the RYS Convention in Georgia; meanwhile, we’ve come in our weekly rotation of examining the psalms to Psalm 119.  We discussed how to handle Psalm 119 in depth and decided to treat it all in one fell swoop, like we do all the psalms, but to extend that “swoop” over an entire week.

So this week, we will be examining Psalm 119 and its representation in the blue Psalter Hymnal.  As usual, we will start out with a brief meditation on the content of the psalm.  There is benefit in treating the psalm in a cursory overview, as it allows us to get a glimpse of overarching themes and ideas, but of course such a treatment will miss out on a lot of the details of this glorious psalm.

For a more in-depth examination of Psalm 119, we recommend Ascribelog, the blog of our friend Glenda Mathes, who last year embarked on a excellent series of thoughtful meditations through Psalm 119.  HERE is a link to her first meditation in the series (we’ll be linking the entire series as the week progresses).

Literary Form

It is well known that Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem.  There are 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Each stanza has eight verses, and the first word of each of those verses begins with the stanza’s letter.

On the one hand, it could be said that such a format limits the author – he can’t necessarily write what he wants to unless it starts with the right letter.  This might keep the author from developing a consistent thought and ending up with disjointed stanzas.  When we read Psalm 119, however, this is not what we find, for on the other hand, the very form of Hebrew acrostic poetry speaks volumes.

A well-crafted acrostic, such as Psalm 119 or portions of Lamentations, communicates completeness of thought.  An acrostic is a poetic catalog of thought, specifically ordered from “A to Z.”  Such a structure encompasses everything.  Lamentations, for example, is a complete catalog of Jerusalem’s suffering.  It’s complete, it’s full.

Psalm 119, then, is a complete celebration of God’s revelation in the Torah (the Law, Hebrew for “instruction”).  It is a full, well-ordered, and structured catalog of God’s condescension to His people in Special Revelation.  Psalm 119 is a tool for God’s people to use to make God’s Torah their “meditation all the day” (verse 97) and to praise God “seven times a day” (verse 164).

Perhaps Christians complain that “my prayers all end up sounding the same,” or that our praise can “become too repetitive.”  Psalm 119, in its very form, is an antidote for boring prayers and praise.  It teaches us to fully catalog and vary our worship, specifically on the topic of God’s Law.

Content

Much has been made in Sunday Schools and Bible Studies that almost every single verse of Psalm 119 contains a synonym for God’s “Law.”  “Testimonies,” “precepts,” “commands,” “statutes,” “words,” “rules,” etc.  The ESV Study Bible points out that “except for ‘precepts’ (which appears only in the Psalms), all of these words can be found in Deuteronomy and denote God’s Word, focusing on its role in moral instruction for His people.”  God’s revealed Word in the Torah is blatantly the theme of this psalm.  Psalm 119 celebrates God’s gift of the Torah and teaches us how to use it to relate to God.

Relating to God is the other major theme of Psalm 119.  Eastern Orthodox commentator Patrick Henry Reardon has pointed out that “almost every line also, if one looks closely, is structured on an I-You polarity.”  That is, if you look, almost every verse of Psalm 119 contains a first-person singular pronoun referring to the author (“I,” “me,” “my”) and a second-person singular pronoun referring to God (“You,” “Your”).  Noticing this as you read, pray, and sing through Psalm 119 adds a remarkable personal aspect, revitalizing the longest chapter of the Bible with an intensely intimate I-Thou relationship focus.

So use Psalm 119 to celebrate God’s Word (both the Torah and also the entire Scriptures), use it to teach us how to better relate to God through His Word, and above all use it to celebrate Jesus Christ who is the Word become flesh (John 1:14), who fulfills God’s Law and makes the I-Thou relationship possible.

I long for your salvation, O LORD,
and your law is my delight.
Let my soul live and praise you,
and let your rules help me.

– Psalm 119:174-175 (ESV)

-JDO

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