Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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The Great Psalm

THE GREAT PSALM

There are, of course, many great Psalms, but there is one, Psalm 119, that may deserve the accolade that is often used to describe it, the Great Psalm. One reason for this is that it is the longest of the 150 Psalms, albeit even the longest chapter of the entire Bible, and the most verses. It may also be deemed great because of its masterful and unique makeup, obviously planned by its gifted author, unknown to us. In his intention to exalt the law of the Lord the author skillfully weaves a reference to the law in every one of its 176 verses, except perhaps one, He does this without belabored repetition, using some seven synonyms for law — word, ordinances, testimonies, statutes, commandments, precepts, ways.

He does this without ever repeating a synonym from one verse to the next. Apparently aware that he was creating a piece of literary art, he goes on to divide the Psalm into 22 strophes of eight verses each, which makes for sixteen lines in English translation. Each of the 22 strophes is given the designation of a Hebrew letter, adding up to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with the first strophe given Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, and the last strophe given Tau, the last letter of the alphabet. This was one more way for him to exalt the law, for all the law is made up of these 22 letters. Some may not realize that they have the Hebrew alphabet in their Bibles.

Some scholars surmise that the author was an intellectual, a Palestinian Jew rather than one of the Dispersion, probably lived in Jerusalem, and perhaps a government official. It is evident that he had an uncommon devotion for the law, which meant to him not simply a code of ordinances, but a way of life. If he wrote this Psalm in about 300 B.C. as is supposed, he would have known of the Greek view of life, particularly that of Plato, who wrote a century before and raised two basic questions about life, What is the good? And How are we to live?

Plato answered that the good is knowledge of self based on reason, and he quoted Socrates, his guru, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So we are to live justly, according to reason, a pilgrimage of self-discovery. Not bad! Our author would agree, but would insist that the Greeks did not go far enough in their search for truth. They must transcend self and human reason to the source of all truth, the revealed law (teaching) of God, which is better than “thousands of coins of gold and silver” (119:72). Alongside Socrates’ call for self-examination, the psalmist would say, “Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things from your law” (119:18).

As with most great thinkers his life was touched by tragedy and affliction, but even this he saw the law and will of God at work, as in, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word (119:67), and “Trouble and anguish have overtaken me, yet your commandments are my delights” (119:143). In describing what God means to him in time of trouble he uses an impressive metaphor, one borrowed by Corrie Ten Boom, “You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word” (119:114. As for metaphors he applied one to himself that Jesus applied to us all, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for 1 do not forget Your commandments” (119:76). Notice the theology here. He asked that God seek him, not that he will seek God.

One of his laments eventually met an odd fate. In 119:161 he bemoans that “Princes persecute me without a cause, but my heart stands in awe of your word.” In one publishing of the King James Bible (1704), the typesetter typed “Printers” instead of “Princes.” It became known as the “Printers Bible! If I created a list of my own woes, often as an editor and sometimes as a professor, I might say the typesetter got it right, considering the bad press I got! But our author meant princes or authorities, one more reason to think he may have worked for the government, a good place to get persecuted!

Psalm 119 has lots of goodies, and one way to get at them is to read the Psalm with a view of selecting what I call “purple” (royal) passages. Select one verse in each of the 22 strophes that especially speaks to your heart and mind, just one of the eight to start with. That will give you 22 purple passages from the entire Psalm. Make them your verses; bond with them by taking them into your heart. In doing this I dare say you will have something of a grasp of the Great Psalm. I will illustrate by sharing some of the ones I selected, and I will add a word as to their theological significance.

Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you (119:11).

This is a superlative verse of Holy Scripture. It first of all reflects the author’s awareness of the destructiveness of sin, and his determination to resist sin. Unlike our culture, he took sin seriously. Again, it is the power of God’s teaching that is the answer. He “stored up” God’s word in his heart and mind as a bulwark against temptation. This may be what Paul had in mind when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that God will provide a “way of escape” for the believer when he is tempted. A mind and heart saturated with God’s teaching are resistant to the wiles of Satan. Paul writes similarly when he urges that we take the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” an offensive weapon, against the encroachments of Satan (Ephesians 6:17).

At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You, because of Your righteous judgments (119:62).

This writer teaches us that when we have to get up at night it is a good time to thank God once more for his tender loving care for us. This verse indicates that he got up for that purpose! He says in verse 97, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.” Gratitude is the queen of the virtues. We can believe that this writer was continually grateful for things in general, but especially that God had spoken and revealed his will and instructed us on how to live. As grateful as he was, we can be assured that he was also generous. They are twin virtues. A grateful person is also generous, a generous person is also grateful. The negative is also true. The ingrate is never generous, the greedy is never thankful.

Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path (119:105).

This is one of the most-quoted verses of the Bible, and is usually applied to the Bible. It is presumed that the writer was referring to the Bible, including this verse! By God’s word the author would certainly have had in mind such Scripture as would be available to him in the fourth century B.C., but far more than that. There was the oral law, which the Hebrews believed God gave to Moses along with written law, and was equal to the written. He would also have in mind all the wisdom of the rabbis, and what he had learned from his teachers in synagogue and his parents at home. Moreover there was the word that God had revealed to him personally. Such teaching enlightened his immediate steps — a lamp — as well as his distant steps down the road — a light.

I have become like a wineskin in smoke, yet I do not forget our statutes (119:83).

This is one more instance of the skill of this “master of metaphor.” We may speak of being “wrung out” or “put through a wringer” or Ouida’s favorite, “out of it,” but how about being a “wineskin in smoke”! We don’t witness the smoking of a wineskin so as to prepare it to be a utensil, but we have been at cook-outs where we’ve been stifled by the fumes of a fiery grill, “wieners in smoke.” Our author is saying what we all sometimes experience, that life has taken a cruel turn and that he has “had it.” But nevertheless he does not forget God’s teaching, and he knows something of how to respond when life becomes unfair.

(To be concluded)



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