An Introduction to Psalm 119
Psalm 119 captures the heart of the book of Psalms and the spirit of all Scripture. It is famously known as the longest Psalm in the Bible (it is a whopping 176 verses). It is also one of the most thematically focused Psalms (virtually every one of those 176 verses says the same thing in different ways: “I love God’s Law!”).
This is a Psalm given to help us learn to love God’s Word, the foundation of which is the Books of the Law–Genesis through Deuteronomy–where all Scripture begins.
In modern, Western countries, we think of law as something that regulates society, compels us to do certain things and not to do others, and overall serves a rather restrictive role. Apart from the rare lawyer devoted to his profession, citizens of America don’t find delight poring over the volumes of the U.S. Law Code at the public library. Why then does the voice in Psalm 119 call to us with such delight in God’s Law?
In the ancient world of the Old Testament, laws were written down for very different reasons than those familiar to us today. One of the primary reasons for compiling a law collection was to provide a picture of the kind of kingdom which that nation’s king was promising to establish for his people.
One of the most famous archaeological finds of the 20th century–the Law Code of Hammurabi–records hundreds of laws from the royal court of the Babylonian king inscribed on it. The purpose for that mammoth stone was to instill respect and love for King Hammurabi amongst the readers. Scholars have discovered other ancient law collections as well, with similar functions.
The same can be said about the laws and stories woven into the Books of the Law at the beginning of the Bible. But Israel’s law collection introduces the kingdom promises of the true, heavenly King and of his Messiah.
In a world filled with sin, the laws God gave His people set a high standard of perfect holiness. In a world of sinners who can never attain that standard of holiness, the laws of God also describe His acceptance of an unblemished sacrifice to atone for our sins.
Those two themes–holiness and forgiveness–are woven through the Books of the Law, which lay the foundation of all Scripture. These laws are there, not as regulations to constrain God’s people and make them feel hopeless in their sin. The laws are there to expose our sin and to answer the problem of our sin with the promise of a new kingdom of holiness and grace. The Old Testament laws were given to instill faith in the eternal kingdom of grace God promised to raise up, starting with the household of Abraham and spreading into all the world.
We might compare the Bible’s Law Books (Genesis-Deuteronomy) to the blueprints of a great building. The blueprints are not themselves the building, but a capable builder can use those blueprints to construct the building according to the design they represent. But until that builder does so, the blueprints offer a detailed (albeit sketchy) vision of what the finished project will look like. Then, as the builder finishes the project, the blueprints continue to provide a detailed description of all the nooks and crannies of the glorious structure before us.
In a similar manner, God gave Old Testament believers His laws as a picture of the holiness and grace of His kingdom while they waited for the Messiah to fulfill it. For those of us living on this side of the Messiah’s first coming, the Books of the Law continue to provide us with aids for understanding the full glories of what Jesus accomplished.
Therefore we can also sing with the saints of Old Testament Israel about our delight in God’s Law. We are no longer “under the law”–expected to observe the sacrifices and other shadows of Christ contained in it. Nevertheless, with the fulfillment of the Law in Christ, we should continue to delight in the lessons on holiness and grace which the Law teaches us as the features of Christ’s kingdom.
Psalm 119 was written to capture that delight in what God’s Law teaches to us, and to help us learn that same delight. Even though Jesus has completed all that is required for our forgiveness (as foreshadowed in the “blueprints” of the Old Testament Law), we are still waiting for His Second Coming and the final completion of His kingdom-building work in all its glory. Like the voice in Psalm 119, we, too, continue to face temptations that threaten to undermine our faith. We also see sin and wickedness prospering in the world around us, and it breaks our heart and sometimes fills us with despair. For such people of God’s kingdom today, Psalm 119 still provides needed spiritual aid.
This Psalm helps us cling to the high (and gracious) calling of holiness taught by the Lord, as we learn to sing lines like these:
Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?
by taking heed thereto according to thy word.
With my whole heart have I sought thee:
O let me not wander from thy commandments. (vv 9-10, KJV)
This Psalm helps us confess our unholiness, taking hope in the Lord’s promises of forgiveness, as we sing lines like these:
Incline my heart unto thy testimonies,
and not to covetousness.
Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity;
and quicken thou me in thy way.
Stablish thy word unto thy servant...
quicken me in thy righteousness. (vv 36-40, KJV)
This Psalm reminds us, even amidst the pain and heartache of a godless world, to take heart in the righteous kingdom God has promised for His people:
My soul fainteth for thy salvation:
but I hope in thy word.
The proud have digged pits for me,
which are not after thy law.
Unless thy law had been my delights,
I should then have perished in mine affliction. (vv 81, 85 & 92, KJV)
Psalm 119 is a practical tool for strengthening Christian faith in the midst of our constant struggle with sin and temptation and in the discouragement of a broken world around us. Bob and Susie Kimbrough have done a great service for Christian families by giving us these beautiful and memorable songs that enable parents and children alike to take advantage of this great Psalm.
There is an ancient legend about Psalm 119, based on its acrostic structure. (Through each of its 22 sections, the first letter of each line begins with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.) According to ancient legend, David composed this Psalm to teach his son Solomon the alphabet—not only the alphabet of writing, but also the alphabet of life.
That is just a legend, but it captures the true value of this Psalm. It is given to teach parents and children “the alphabet of life.” May God be pleased to use Psalm 119 In Song to help your family delight in the “alphabet of life” taught in God’s Word!
Michael LeFebvre, Ph.D.
Author of Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms
Pastor of Christ Church RP (Brownsburg, Ind.)