Psalm 119: An Introduction
The 119th Psalm is probably the most notorious psalm due to its extreme length. At 176 verses, no other psalm even comes close to this colossal praise. It is likely that the reason for Psalm 119’s notoriety is also the reason why so few people know this psalm. Sure there are many verses that we have heard and know, even though we may not realize where they come from.
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your Word.” 119:9
“Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.” 119:18
“O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.” 119:97
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” 119:105
But few are the people of God who have taken the time to study this psalm, to know it, to understand it, and to live by it. The irony of this sad state cannot be overstated because that is the whole purpose of this psalm. Before we begin our journey into this massive hymn, there are a few things we need to know.
1) The Psalm’s Focus
The psalmist is greatly concerned with the Word of God and uses 8 different synonymous terms that all refer to the Bible. Each term brings a slightly different nuance as they describe the purpose and effect of God’s Word.
Law (תּוֹרָה – Torah) – This term is better translated as instruction and is commonly used to refer to the first five books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy), but is also used for the totality of Scripture. In God’s instruction He teaches us about Himself, His character, His person, and His nature. The prophets use this same root to describe the coming Messiah as the Teacher of righteousness.
Testimonies (עֵדוּת – Eduth) – This word is closely related to the word for witness. It is a legal term describing the account of a witness (what he has seen, heard, or experienced) on the stand. Scripture is thus equated to God’s first hand account of all things. God has born witness to who He is, what He has done, what He will do, and all the implications thereof. This testimony is found upon the pages of the Bible.
Precepts (פִּקּוּדִים – Piqqudime) – This is one of my favorites because it reminds me of Lego instructions. The idea is step-by-step instructions given to come to a desired outcome. Our lives will have the desired outcome (God’s divine favor) if they are in accord with the step-by-step instructions found in Scripture.
Statues (חֹק – Hoqe) – Here we have a nuance that most are familiar with. It indicates rules and regulations that have been appointed, predetermined, and written down with the intention that they be followed. They indicate specific parameters that must not be trespassed.
Commandments (מִצְוָה – Mitswah) – To issue a command is to speak in imperatives. Scripture is full of imperatives, dos and don’ts, which must be followed and obeyed. Just at the mention of this word commandment we think of the Ten Commandments given to Israel on Sinai.
Judgments (מִשְׁפָּט – Mishpat) – This is another legal term that refers to the pronouncement from the judge. Whatever the judge decrees is the final word on the matter. Scripture is God’s final word on all matters and what He pronounces stands.
Word (דָּבָר – Davar) – This is the most general term used to describe Scripture, but it is one that we use all the time. We refer to the Bible as the Word of God. What we mean by that is exactly what the psalmist means; God spoke these words. God is the primary source of all that is found between Genesis and Revelation.
Promise (אִמְרָה – Imrah) – This term can also be translated as word, but can also carry the nuance of promise. We use this same terminology today. When someone makes a promise they give their word to keep their end of the bargain.
All of these terms bring different views to what we call Scripture. They are not to be taken separately, but work together to emphasize and bring to light what Scripture is, where it comes from, and what it does.
2) The Psalm’s Format
You’ll notice that in most English Bibles, Psalm 119 is broken into 22 sections with 8 verses each. The eight-verse arrangement likely reflects the eighty synonyms used for Scripture. Not every stanza contains all eight synonyms, but the force of the psalm as a whole is drenched with the glories of Scripture.
You may notice that these sections all have a heading that includes a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This is because the psalm is an acrostic that runs the course of the entire Hebrew alphabet. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is א (Aleph). The first letter in each verse of the first stanza begins with א.
This pattern runs through the entire psalm. The effect is one of completeness. We might call Psalm 119 the “A-Z on the relationship that God has with His people through His Word.” Regarding the people of God worshiping and obeying God through the study and practice of the Word of God, Psalm 119 exhausts the subject.
3) The Psalm’s Function
We cannot miss the point of this psalm. This is so much more than a pursuit of Scripture itself, but a pursuit of God through His Scripture. The psalmist is not conducting an intellectual pursuit devoid of spiritual significance. But neither is he attempting to have a spiritual connection with God apart from the didactic instruction contained in God’s Word. This psalm was written so that the reader would know, trust, and obey the Word of God because that is the ONLY way one can know, trust, and obey God.
This psalm is more than an intellectual pursuit of knowledge, but is not less than that.
This psalm is more than spiritual relation with God, but is not less than that.
This psalm is more than physical obedience to the laws of God, but it is not less than that.
This psalm lifts up and extols the Word of God because it is only through the WORD (not through personal experience, dreams, or fortune cookies) that we can know, trust, and obey the God who spoke the Word.
Speaking for myself, I am very excited to begin this study.