Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Bible. But what sort of psalm is it? Royal psalm? Psalm of ascent? Personal lament? To the extent that Psalm 119 is one thing, it is a meditation on and celebration of God’s law–God’s torah. Nearly every verse in this long psalm mentions that law in one way or another. To that end, it employs several terms that are, at least in this psalm, synonyms:
word (dabar) saying (amreh) commands (mitsvot) judgments/rulings (mishpatim) law (torah) testimonies (edoth) precepts (piqudim) statutes (huqim)
In fact, each of the stanzas of Psalm 119 contain several of these terms. In this respect, Psalm 119 is similar to Psalm 19:7-10. Some scholars, in fact, believe that Ps. 119 may represent a later expansion of the basic message of Ps. 19:7-10.
Psalm 119, then celebrates God’s torah. But it also contains themes typical of wisdom psalms, especially when, as in vv. 1-2, it pronounces blessings on those who observe God’s torah. In this sense it is much like Psalm 1. Additionally, it contains theme associated with the psalms of lament, as when, in v. 6, it speaks of being delivered from shame, in v. 8 when it prays that God not forsake those who keep the torah.
Psalm 119 is also an acrostic psalm. Its 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas, each with eight verses. Within each stanza, each verse begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet: The first word of each verses in 119:1-8 begins with aleph; the first word of each verse of 119:9-16 begins with bet, and so on, until we get to verses 169-176, each of which begins with tav.
It is easy to regard the acrostic format as a curiosity or as a display of literary cleverness. It must indeed have been challenging to construct a poem of 176 lines, with each group of eight verses beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet. There is, however, a lesson to draw from the acrostic form.
Use of this form tells us that this psalm was written with great care. it is, after all, an homage to God’s law. It accordingly called forth the greatest rhetorical skill of the psalmist. The lesson to draw from this is that a sermon, which exists to serve the word of God, demands as much attention to rhetorical detail as Ps. 119 exhibits. We live, unfortunately, in an age in which homiletical skill is poorly valued. Hearing contemporary preachers, one gets the impression that preaching is nothing more than talking in front of an audience about biblical subjects. We have lost the psalmist’s dedication to the art, the craft of rhetoric–the awareness that presenting the word of God in words is more than just throwing words at people. It is more than this because power of the word of God resides not simply in our words but in the way in which those words are composed and presented. The how is as important as the what. This is one of the lessons of Psalm 119.
As noted, the subject of this psalm is God’s torah. We get a very distorted picture of torah if we translate it as law, because Protestants have been trained to law in opposition to gospel and grace. Law for us has a negative connotation. Hence this psalm’s celebration of torah seems odd. Why is the psalmist praising God’s torah and those who observe it? Didn’t the psalmist know that it is impossible to keep God’s law? And yet, this psalm does in fact celebrate torah.
We get some insight into the psalm when we learn that torah is better translated instruction. We see this in Proverbs 1:8, which speaks of a mother’s moral instruction to a child. Torah is not law in the sense of arbitrary rule. If a state establishes a speed limit of 65 miles per hour on a freeway, this rule is quite arbitrary–there is nothing inherently logical about the number 65 as a speed limit. Why not 63? or 67? For that matter, why not 55 or 75?
God’s torah contains commands, but, unlike the speed limit, they are not arbitrary. They are the concrete forms in which God’s instruction comes to us. They thus represents God’s wisdom. They are intended for human good; they establish the necessary conditions of social life, without which human existence is impossible. Of course, some laws did concern mundane affairs–regulations about priests and sacrifices, for instance. Any community will need rules of procedure to ensure that institutions run smoothly. But the torah that Psalm 119 celebrates is not so much these procedural rules as it is the divine wisdom treated in Proverbs 8.
Finally, commentators have noted that this psalm shares with Deuteronomy an emphasis on obeying God from the heart. Compare Ps. 119:2:
“Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart” (NRSV) with Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (NRSV).
These verses tell us forcefully that God’s torah is not a matter of arbitrary rule. If I obey the speed limit, it will not be with my whole heart. On the contrary, my obedience is based simply on self-interest–fear of the consequences. But because God’s torah is instruction in the way of life (note how often the word way occurs in this psalm), I can and should follow it with all my heart. Observance of this torah, in other words, is not about obeying a rule; it is a matter of committing oneself existentially to a way of life, a way rooted in God’s wisdom. This is what the symbol heart means in the Old Testament–the totality of life devoted to a single purpose. The message of Psalm 119 is that one thing and only one thing deserves and demands our entire devotion, namely, God’s torah.