Thoughts on Psalm 119 (Part 1)

I taught on Psalm 119 this morning in church. Since verse 11 of that chapter holds the namesake to this blog, it seemed fitting to share a few thoughts from the sermon here.

There is a definite hesitation in approaching this Psalm from the preacher’s point of view. The length, obviously, is a major factor.  It has 176 verses. (By way of comparison, the entire book of Ephesians has 155. ) Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm with each verse in each stanza starting with the same Hebrew letter. There are several of these type of psalms in the psalter. Most have 1 verse per letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a few 2 or more verses per letter. But Psalm 119 has 8 verses per letter, and most printed Bibles set off the stanzas and group them by their Hebrew letter. Of course, we lose this feature in our English translations.

Another challenge in approaching Psalm 119 is that we find no narrative, no neatly laid out logical discourse where an argument is postulated and supporting details or illustrations offered in support of some overarching thesis. Rather, the format is an extended prayer, more devotional than pedagogical, and while there are themes throughout, it has the appearance of somewhat random organization rather than a logically developed thematic progression.

And so the expositor looks at this mountain that is Psalm 119, and wonders how do I ascend this lofty work? How can I unravel it and explain it? On the surface, the concepts seem simple enough, but as we look deeper there is a depth that is mystifying.  Verse 18 seemed an especially appropriate prayer during my study: Lord, “Open my eyes that I may see, wonderful things in your law.”

I can identify with Charles Spurgeon as he wrote his Treasury of David, his masterpiece commentary on the Book of Psalms:

I have been bewildered in the expanse of the One Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm . . . its dimensions and its depth alike overcame me. It spread itself out before me like a vast, rolling prairie, to which I could see no bound, and this alone created a feeling of dismay. Its expanse was unbroken by a bluff or headland, and hence it threatened [to be] a monotonous task, although the fear has not been realized. This marvelous poem seemed to me a great sea of holy teaching, moving, in its many verses, wave upon wave; altogether without an island of special and remarkable statement to break it up. I confess I hesitated to launch upon it. Other psalms have been mere lakes, but this is the main ocean. It is a continent of sacred thought, every inch of which is fertile as the garden of the Lord: it is an amazing level of abundance, a mighty stretch of harvest fields. I have now crossed the great plain for myself, but not without persevering, and, I will add, pleasurable, toil. . . . This great Psalm is a book in itself: instead of being one among many psalms, it is worthy to be set forth by itself as a poem of surpassing excellence. Those who have never studied it may pronounce it commonplace, and complain of its repetitions; but to the thoughtful student it is like the great deep, full, so as never to be measured; and varied, so as never to weary the eye. Its depth is as great as its length; it is mystery, not set forth as mystery, but concealed beneath the simplest statements . . .

As I began to study the psalm, Spurgeon’s word “bewildered” definitely described how I felt. I thought perhaps word studies of the various terms used for the Word of God would be helpful in illuminating the text. There are about 9 terms used in reference to God’s Word: law (Torah), laws, rules, decrees, precepts, commands, statutes, word, promise. But I found that, for the most part, the English words are fairly straight synonyms and even interchangeable one with another to some degree.

Perhaps understanding the author, or the date of writing would be helpful. But, of course, there is no author designated in an opening inscription. Rabbinic tradition ascribes it to David, and there are many similarities to David’s other Psalms. It has that “Davidic feel” to it, as Spurgeon says. Most of the other acrostic Psalms in the Psalter are David’s. Some see an Ezra connection: Ezra who had a heart to see God’s people esteem the Law of God, and also not lose their Hebraic roots. As an acrostic, Psalm 119 is a great teaching psalm for the Hebrew alphabet as well as the constant theme of esteeming God’s law.

Another reason that we pause as we approach the Psalm is a question that comes to our minds about how this Psalm fits within the New Covenant? Psalm 119 praises the Law of God and the Psalmist makes many resolutions on how to keep it. But we are no longer under the tutelage of the Law, but under grace. In addition, we see the impossibility of keeping the Law, ‘this yoke that neither we nor our forefathers could bear’ as Peter says in Acts 15.

We must see the Psalmist, however, not just praising regulations on leprosy or sacrifices or mildews or the construction of the Tabernacle, we should see David praising God’s revelation to mankind! One of the wonderful truths of the Scripture is the simple statement: “Thus says the Lord.” God has spoken to us! (Hebrews 1:1).

For us, as believers in Jesus the Messiah, the first order of business is to look at this Psalm through the lenses of New Testament fulfillment, because while the Psalmist had seen a part of God’s revelation, we have that revelation in full!

First, we have the Full Counsel of Scripture. We have the completed Word of God. God’s revelation was progressive through the ages. With the death of the Apostle John at the end of the 1st century, our canon is now closed. The writer of the Psalm most likely had only the Torah (or possibly a larger subset of the OT) in mind when he penned this Psalm. How much more can we praise God for his completed revelation! So when we see terms like “laws”, “statutes”, “decrees” understand that we are considering the revelation of God, the whole counsel of the Scripture, not just the first 5 books of the OT.

Second, we understand that love is the Summation of the Law. Jesus tells us that the Law can be boiled down to this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:37-40) So when we see the words for the Law referred to in Psalm 119, let us remember that love for God and love for others is the summation of the Law.

Finally, our Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. (Matt 5:17) He is the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14). And so there is a sense, when we see the Psalmist cry out, “I trust in your word,” that there is an application beyond what the Psalmist himself may have ever dreamed. We’re talking about more than words on a page but the Living Word himself.  Again, ultimately, what the Psalmist is praising is God’s revelation of Himself to us, and that ultimate revelation was in the person of His Son.

So as you read through Psalm 119,  celebrate God’s revelation to us in all of its fullness!

[Next, Six Themes in Psalm 119]


About Neil Burleson

I serve as a missionary in the country of Papua New Guinea.
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