What’s the longest psalm in the Bible? Remember this for your next Bible quiz: it’s Psalm 119. It’s a fascinating part of the Bible, which stands out dramatically from the psalms that surround it. What’s it all about? Here are seven things you (probably) didn’t know about Psalm 119.
1. Yes, it is really long.
It is the longest psalm, composed of 22 stanzas, 176 verses, and is also the longest chapter in the Bible.
2. It’s a Hebrew acrostic
In the first stanza of the psalm, the first word of each of the eight verses begins with the Hebrew letter aleph, the first letter of the alphabet. In the second stanza, the first words all begin with the second letter of the alphabet, beth. So on it goes, with one stanza for every letter of the alphabet. Its inherent emphasis on order and design has been interpreted as a symbol of how God and his law promote order, and not chaos. You could say Psalm 119 is a Hebrew A-Z, in poetic form.
3. It has a legend attached
There is an ancient tradition that says that the acrostic, alphabetic pattern of the psalm was utilised by King David, who used it to teach his son, Solomon, the Hebrew alphabet. In doing this Solomon would not only learn letters, but could learn the ‘alphabet’ of the spiritual, ethical life. It’s not something the Bible tells us anything about, and we don’t know who wrote the psalm, but it is a nice idea. If you want to practise your Hebrew alphabet, now you know what to do.
4. Its all about the law
“Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord” reads the first verse of the psalm. This beatitude sets the theme of the rest of the psalm: the Law (Hebrew: Torah, with various other synonyms for ‘law’ used throughout the psalm). The psalmist doesn’t just talk about doing the law, he talks about loving the law:
“I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word” (verses 14-16).
5. …and the law is a good thing
Protestants can sometimes get nervous about loving ‘the law’, eager to celebrate the grace given by Christ, and wary of falling into pharisaic ‘works-righteousness’. But this psalm stands as something of a challenge to that view. Without ‘The Law’/Torah, the Bible would have quite a few holes in it. This psalm teaches us that what God commands is good, and reminds us that being a Christian isn’t just about believing in abstract ideas about ‘grace’, but actually becoming holy, good people, sanctified by God, who love like Jesus does. The law is concerned with justice, how we live and ultimately reflects the good character of God. Christians shouldn’t find their identity in the law, but they should love it; the psalmist certainly did.
6. It’s crafted poetry, not spontaneous praise
CS Lewis wrote of the psalm that it “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.”
The psalmist, Lewis wrote, “felt about the Law somewhat as he felt about his poetry; both involved exact and loving conformity to an intricate pattern…The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life?”
7. It’s a post-Passover prayer
One biblical scholar, Michael Goulder, theorised that Psalm 119 came at the end of a passover liturgy: it would be read out at the end of the celebration of Passover festival. Passover celebrated freedom from slavery in Egypt, while the next festival, the feast of Weeks, is traditionally a celebration of Israel’s arrival at Sinai and her receiving of the law. Psalm 119 then looks forward to that law that is to come, and so says “I shall delight in your commands and meditate on your decrees”(verses 47-48). The Jewish people lived out their own history in their prayer and praise.
It continued to be a significant part of Christian tradition. In the monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Psalm 119 is read daily at the midnight office. As the psalm says in verse 62: “At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws.”
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