Friday, May 14, 2010

Psalm 119 – A Theological Monster (Revised)

There are few chapters of the Bible that effectively shrink-wrap gospel messages both tightly yet comprehensively. Psalm 119 is one the rare ones. Of course, it could be said that its 176 verses gives it a ‘lengthy advantage’ over the rest, but I don’t buy that for one minute.

Sure it has range—considering it has more text in it than many of Paul’s letters—and quite a considerable range at that, yet its intricacy is also remarkable. It is so carefully designed that each of its sub-ordered twenty-two sections starts with consecutive letters of the Hebraic alphabet. Moreover, each verse of these 22 eight-verse stanzas begins with its designated letter. It has been crafted; stitched carefully together.

A Number of Genres

It calls personal attention to God, yet speaks of communal issues. It’s a lament, yet it’s also intrinsically of the wisdom genre. It has eight ‘law’ term words[1] sprinkled throughout and only five of the 176 verses are not covered by these words.[2] It speaks of God’s faithfulness at various points, praising and thanking him for it. It thereby covers a number of genres.

Its significance, however, centres on the faithful obedience of the psalmist to consistently fall upon God’s law as his defence. With every lament-plea and request is the habitual coming back to the basis of life, the Lord.

Faithful Obedience in Lament

Taking the section from verses 145–152, for example, we see this particularly. The interfolding of the tripartite arrangement ‘enemy-self-God’ is consistent with nearly all laments of the individual, and it is marked right here (v. 150), albeit in a non-specific way.

Verses 145–148 show the lament-obedience pattern in respective (a/b) lines of each verse. Verse 149 is a two-fold request to both ‘hear my voice’ and ‘preserve my life.’ Then there is a contrastive sort of chiasm in the next two, verses 150–151, featuring a ‘near-far / near-true’ pattern. The wicked are both near to the psalmist but far from God’s law; yet God is near and his commands are true. The final verse of the stanza (v. 152) has the psalmist reflecting—even from afar the original painful situation.

In another section, (vv. 25–32), the features above are visible but they’re ordered differently. The talk surrounds lament but in a more urgent sense. But with the urgency comes an even more fervent dedication to God’s truth (v. 30). The psalmist recognises how desperate his situation is yet he also knows he’s totally reliant on God’s teaching (vv. 26–27). And again, like the previous example, the final verse (v. 32) reflects over a long-established commitment to the Lord; the psalmist has remained steadfast and he’s had his heart set free as a result.


It could be that this psalm was constructed over a lifetime of the psalmist’s obedient adherence to the Torah. Being as it is so carefully constructed it is both beginningless and endless, although it is not without flow and direction. It is proverbs-like in many respects, with single verses extractable for great meditational benefit.

Taken as a whole—some 15-minutes in length in the audio—or in part, this psalm is richly beneficial for any believer.

If one might have to desperately tear only one chapter out of the Bible to swallow in the event of capture in wartime, it could easily be this one. It could ‘feed’ that person spiritually for a lifetime.

© 2009, 2010 S. J. Wickham.

[1] The law term words are: statutes; law; precepts; word; way(s); decrees; commands; and promise(s).

[2] These verses are verses 84 (lament in both lines), 90 (praise in both lines), 121 – 122 (situation, lament, request, plea in the four lines), and 132 (plea).

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