Psalm 119: Law (Part 1)
We now come to, not only the longest chapter of the psalms, but the longest chapter of the entire Bible. Today, rather than concentrating on a single word or even a single verse, I want to consider Psalm 119 as a whole; the structure, the theme, and the One great truth that lies at the heart of all 176 of its verses.
The psalm is an acrostic, organized in the order of the Hebrew alphabet, 22 sections, eight verses per sections. Because the vast majority of us are reading this psalm in English, the incredible intricacy of it is probably lost on us. Because this is an acrostic, it means that each line of each section begins with the corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In the psalms we have seen other, much shorter acrostics, we just recently read through Psalm 111 and 112, where each line started with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. But in Psalm 119, each section represents a single letter, each line of verses 1-8 begin with the letter aleph, verses 9-16 start with beth and so on. The detail of and effort in writing this psalm are tremendous.
Because we believe that all Scripture is God-breathed (II Timothy 3:16), inspired by the Holy Spirit, we tend to think of it as just prophetic downloads and excited utterances, that the Holy Spirit just took over people’s mouths and writing instruments and the Word of God burst forth. The Psalms tell us an entirely different story. David wrote from the depths of his emotions, sometimes pain and fear, others faith and joy, but he wrote, with the Holy Spirit’s influence, from his heart. Psalm 23 is not something that just came to David in the night, it is something that came from David as well, it was born in him, he lived it even as he wrote it. The problem with viewing God’s Word as something that just flowed to and from the authors is that we then want the Holy Spirit to work in us in similar ways. But hearing from God requires effort, listening to His voice requires commitment, obeying His Word requires endurance.
Can you imagine the care that the author of Psalm 119 put into it? Each line had to fit not only the context, but the structure. I imagine it taking much prayer and thought, even trial and error as he searched by His heart and the Holy Spirit for the right words for each line. We should read God’s Word in the same way it was written, with great care and effort. We should read it not to find something for ourselves, but to hear what the Holy Spirit, the author is saying. We tend to read our chapter or our measured group of verses, checking it off our things to do list or looking for our motivation or blessing for the day, but if the Holy Spirit labored to give us His Word, if the authors labored to write God’s Word, if God has labored to protect and preserve His Word for us, should we not labor as we read it? Should we not labor to understand, interpret, and obey it? Should we not give not just a few moments of our times, but a measure of our sweat, our concentration, and our effort to know not just what is written, but the One who wrote it and His purpose in its writing?
C.S. Lewis wrote that Psalm 119 “is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart . . . It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.” I love the idea of Scripture as embroidery, even as a tapestry. At times while we are reading it seems like we are looking at the back of the tapestry, we see strings and knots, different lines, themes, authors, stories, commands, verses and letters. And yet, when we begin to read the Scripture as a whole rather than disconnected parts, we begin to see that all those separate strings form one beautiful almost unimaginable truth. Revelation is filled with truth from Genesis, Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and many others. Galatians only begins to make sense when it is read with Genesis and Abraham’s blessing in Genesis 12, which also only begins to truly be understood through Galatians. Psalm 119 is 176 verses about the Word of God and yet, it is not until we get to John 1 that we begin to fully realize what Psalm 119 wanted us to learn.
As a preacher and Bible teacher I love that the longest chapter in the Bible is in fact a chapter about the Bible. I find that to be much more than a bit of trivia, in fact, I put it right up there in importance with Jesus’ astounding statement in Matthew 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The Word of God has more weight, more value, more power, and more purpose than even its most conscientious student realizes. The author of Psalm 119, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, decided to write about the weight of God’s Word with every letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Throughout the chapter the author used 10 synonyms for God’s Word: law, testimonies, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgments, words, sayings, and path. As He wrote about God’s Word, he, at the same time called the readers to respond using words such as: obey, keep, observe, meditate, rejoice, delight, and love. The Word of God does not simply give knowledge it demands a response, it has been given to us, but it also requires that we give ourselves to it. To know God’s Word and not do it, not obey it, is to be judged by it. To read it and not meditate upon it is to devalue it. To try to use it to get to heaven rather than realizing that it brings heaven to us misses the fact that it is both spiritual and practical, eternal and timely, that if we will yield to it and trust in it, the Word itself does the work.
But what is the work it is doing? Psalms 1, 19 and 119 all focus directly on the Scriptures, their power and our calling to live by them. What is most interesting is that Psalms 2, 20 and 120-134 all focus on the Messiah, His person, power, and purpose. How gracious is God that He would inspire not only the writers of the Psalms, but the organizers of them, that they would be put together in such a way. If we are willing to pay attention, to really focus not only on what we are reading but how it all fits together, we discover that if you search the Scriptures, you will find the Messiah. The written Word reveals the Living Word. The purpose of the Bible is to teach us God’s character.
As you sit and read Psalm 119, do not push to get through it, take your time, even a few days if you need to, and carefully, slowly go deep into it. Do not get bored with the repetition, find value in it. Do not just try to follow the law, hear God’s heart. His Word is not telling us who to be, but who He is. It is written for us, but it is not about us. It is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, but the path it lights is the way to His heart. What Psalm 119 reveals more than anything else is that if we want to know God we must labor in the Scriptures and if we are willing to labor in the Scriptures, there is no limit to how much of God’s heart He will make known to us. What if it is not the law to teach us how to live, but the law that teaches us just how fully God loves? Hide God’s Word in your heart and you will find yourself hidden in God’s heart.