Psalm 119: The ABCs of Praise for God's Word
Blog by Rob Vandeman
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this psalm is its unusual length, 176 verses. The theme, generally speaking, is the Word of God. The primary emphasis of such lengthy praises of the Word must then be that the person of faith cannot weary in singing the merits of the Word of the Lord.
The author laid a threefold restriction upon himself. He apparently resolved (1) to address God continually throughout his song, barring the first three verses. He further resolved (2) to make mention of the law of God in one way or another so that synonyms for the law appear in all verses except 122 and 132. And finally (3) he laid down a fixed pattern for himself in that he proposed to make this psalm an acrostic. The psalm is composed of twenty-two stanzas of eight verses. Each of the eight verses of a stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as the psalmist works his way from the beginning (aleph) to the end (taw). Many English translations reveal this structure by placing the corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet as a heading of the stanza. The acrostic form gives a sense of completion and totality, and to be sure, by the end of the psalm, one feels that the psalmist has surely covered his subject. In spite of these artificial restrictions the psalm has an unusual warmth and devoutness of tone.
Readers of this psalm tend to think that wherever the word “law” or its synonyms appear in the Old Testament there is a reference to those portions of the Word of God that are more a matter of legislation. However the term “law” as used in this psalm should not be understood in a narrow sense. It is a much broader concept. It includes the whole wide range of what God has revealed in His Word, words of instruction, of caution, of precept, and of comfort.
By way of achieving a variety of treatment, the author uses 10 synonyms for that which we have designated by the collective term “law.” The synonyms are: law, word, saying, commandment, statute, ordinance, precept, testimony, way and path. In each section of eight verses the majority of these appear; and though they are distinctive terms that convey the many-sidedness of the Word of God, the specific meaning of the Hebrew word should not be pressed too precisely. The use of the various terms is the author’s way of securing variety of treatment of his subject.
The particular emphases that come to the front again and again as the psalm progresses are thoughts such as these: thanksgiving for the law or the Word of God; prayer that it may faithfully be kept, or that one may experience the comfort of that Word in difficult times; prayer for steadfastness, or that God may not forsake His people; the overthrow of the ungodly; praise of the law in its various aspects; prayer for understanding of God’s Word and for the ability to keep it.
We must be careful to not approach this psalm from a New Testament perspective, or more specifically, from the Pauline use of the term “law.” Paul’s understanding of the law as exacting and demanding and twisted by the carnal nature as a means of meriting one’s own salvation, is not present in the psalm. The law to the psalmist is a completely different concept. The author knows himself to be entirely dependent on God’s mercy. He loves God’s word and hides it in his heart (v. 11). It is “a lamp” unto his feet, and “a light” unto his path (v. 105).
Take your Bible and during your quiet time with God thumb through its pages, noting those favorite passages that you have underlined or circled or to which you have added a comment in the margin. Think how those passages have chronicled your journey through life and how they still continue to guide your decisions and choices. Then make a concerted effort to share some of those passages with a friend, a coworker, a neighbor or a stranger. Nothing is more powerful than your personal testimony and nothing is more important that encouraging others to become better acquainted with God through His Word.