An Introduction to Psalm 119
The 119th Psalm is probably my favorite section of Scripture. Over the years, I have spent hundreds of hours poring over its contents. It is a Psalm that, as Matthew Henry would say, will either ‘warm’ a man’s love to God, or ‘shame him.’
Psalm 119 describes the godly man’s love for the Word of God. At first glance, the 176 verses seem highly repetitive, rephrasing the same concepts in different forms. Examine the Psalm, however, and you will realize that almost every verse introduces a new thought. It is a Psalm that has something for everyone: encouragement, exhortation, and sometimes, rebuke.
As the longest Psalm in the Bible, there certainly isn’t time to examine it fully. However, if you are familiar with the structure, summary, and subsections, you may benefit more from the Psalm.
The Psalm consists of 176 verses, divided into subsections of 8 verses each. There are 22 of these subsections.
Each subsection is identified by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse in that section begins with the corresponding Hebrew letter. Using the English alphabet as an example, the first section is named “A” and each of the first eight verses begins with the letter ‘A.’ The second section is named “B” and each of those eight verses begins with the letter ‘B.’
The alphabetical structure of the Psalm is not only interesting, but useful. For ancient audiences, it provided a helpful tool for memorizing the Psalm. Evidently, the Psalm is designed for memorization. While modern readers do not have the alphabetical benefit, it is still an ideal Psalm to memorize (as many Christians through the centuries can testify).
As I studied Psalm 119, I formulated the following summary statement. You may formulate a better statement, but for the present, this communicates the primary message of the Psalm:
“Running the path of God’s commandments with delight, desire, and determination to obey.”
Running the path – This Psalm is filled with descriptions of God’s Words as a ‘path’ or ‘way’ that the godly walk in (see verses 1, 45, and 102 as examples). The Psalmist is not simply one who ‘walks’ in these paths, but one who desires to run (verse 32).
God’s Commandments – Almost every verse in the Psalm refers explicitly to God’s Word, which is given different titles, such as ‘law,’ ‘commandments,’ ‘statues,’ and ‘judgments.’
Delight – The law of God is not boring or chafing to the Psalmist. He expresses constant delight in God’s laws and obedience to them (examples include 56, 97, and 111)
Desire – The revelations of God are also the great desire and longing of the author (examples include 40, 82, and 131).
Determination to obey – Finally, the writer is resolved that he will obey the Word of God. He expresses this numerous times (examples include 8, 44, and 141).
While the Psalm is a single unified composition, each of the 22 subsections also contains its own specific message. Here is my summary of the subsections:
Aleph: The blessing of, and longing for, obedience to the divine law.
Beth: The Word of God enveloping the whole life of man.
Gimel: A heart-felt longing for a pilgrim-life directed by God’s Word.
Daleth: Rejection of false ways and resolve for life in the way of God’s Word.
He: Earnest requests for divine teaching, guidance, quickening, and deliverance.
Waw: Salvific blessings and shameless delight in the Word of God.
Zayin: The remembrance of God’s Word as a comfort surpassing the afflictions of earthly pilgrimage.
Cheth: The whole-hearted pursuit of God through obedience to His Word.
Teth: The goodness of God and depravity of the proud an argument for further instruction in revelation.
Yod: Comfort, fellowship, and edification in a perverse world stemming from God’s Word.
Caph: Intense yearning for the salvation promised in God’s Word, from the persecutions of the proud
Lamed: God’s eternal Word, the archetype of his faithful ordinances, as the Psalmist’s only hope for deliverance from the perishing, imperfect world system.
Mem: Obedient, meditative love for Scripture yielding the inestimable benefits of wisdom, pleasure, obedience, and zeal.
Nun: Constant remembrance of God’s law as the Psalmist’s record and resolution despite tribulation.
Samech: God’s law as the Psalmist’s love, hope, deliverance, and fear, repelling those thoughts and men whom God destroys.
Ain: The quickening Word loved, pursued, and longed for in a lawless generation.
Pe: The radiant nature of the Law evoking yearning, love, and prayers for mercy.
Tzaddi: God’s perfect truth provoking love, zeal, and pleasure by exhibiting his timeless righteousness.
Koph: Whole-hearted appeals despite trouble for quickening in the believed-on Word
Resh: Enlivening salvation according to Divine grace and truth sought by the obedient in adversity.
Schin: Joyful love for the divine Word producing obedience, praise, and transcendent peace
Tau: Heart-felt pleas for understanding, salvation, and direction according to the chosen, Divine Word
“In Matthew Henry’s Account of the Life and Death of his father, Philip Henry, he says: ‘Once, pressing the study of the Scriptures, he advised us to take a verse of this Psalm every morning to meditate upon, and so go over the Psalm twice in the year; and that, saith he, will bring you to be in love with all the rest of the Scriptures.’ He often said, ‘All grace grows as love to the word of God grows.’ (Quoted by Spurgeon)