Friday, March 5, 2010

Introduction to Psalm 119

I had the blessing of delivering the adult Sunday School lesson at my church last Sunday. If you'd like to watch it (and be annoyed by the speaker's tics in my delivery!) a video is below. For those who prefer to be put to sleep by a monotone, you can listen to just the audio if you prefer.

While my delivery left much to be desired, the Psalm itself does not. I have been repeatedly overwhelmed by the beauty, depth, and power of what appears at first glance to be a flat text.

The notes I spoke from have been pasted below for your convenience.


I. If I told you we were going to read Psalm 119 out loud this morning, what would be your reaction? (Inner dismay)

Why don’t we like Psalm 119?

  • NOT because it’s so long (we enjoy other long writings)
  • NOT because it’s sterile (it’s very emotional)
  • Because it seems repetitive
  • Because we can’t relate to the love the writer is expressing (like reading a love note to someone we don’t know, like a kid reading Song of Solomon)

II. If the Pentateuch were removed from your Bible, would it make any difference in the way you live? What role is the Pentateuch supposed to play in the life of a modern Christian?

This Psalm gives us a glimpse into the soul of a man in whom the law of God is functioning properly.

III. “It is strange that of all the pieces of the Bible which my mother taught me, that which cost me most to learn, and which was to my childish mind, chiefly repulsive—the 119th Psalm—has now become of all the most precious to me in its overflowing and glorious passion of love for the Law of God.” – John Ruskin

In the midst of a London season; in the stir and turmoil of a political crisis, 1819; William Wilberforce writes in his Diary -- "Walked from Hyde Park Corner repeating the 119th Psalm in great comfort". William Alexander, in "The Witness of the Psalms". 1877.

It is recorded of the celebrated St. Augustine, who among his voluminous works left a Comment on the Book of Psalms, that he delayed to comment on this one till he had finished the whole Psalter; and then yielded only to the long and vehement urgency of his friends, "because", he says, "as often as I essayed to think thereon, it always exceeded the powers of my intent thought and the utmost grasp of my faculties". William De Burgh, 1860

IV. We’re going to look at just the first two sections of Psalm 119, but as we look at them, I’m not going to just teach you what they mean, I’m going to teach you how to study them for yourself, so you will be able to study the remaining 20 sections in your own private devotions.


It would be incredibly hypocritical for us to study a prayer for God’s help in understanding, delighting in, and obeying God’s word, without praying that God would do that for us in this chapter.

General Overview

I. Longest chapter in Bible. Longer than 30 books of the Bible. Near the center of the Bible.

* What does its length and position in the Bible perhaps signify?

II. Acrostic format. Why an acrostic?

What are some Christian acrostics? GRACE. ICHTHUS. Why do we use acrostics?

What might be the significance of using all the alphabet in your acrostic?

“One of the reasons the Psalmist may have done this was to make it easier to memorize this psalm. Another important reason may have been his desire to communicate the completeness of what he had to say about his theme. In other words, Psalm 119 was designed to communicate from “A to Z” on the topic of God’s Word.” – Sam Horn

There may be something more than fancy in the remark, that Christ's name, "the Alpha and Omega" -- equivalent to declaring him all that which every letter of the alphabet could express -- may have had a reference to the peculiarity of this Psalm, -- a Psalm in which (with the exception of verses 84 and 122, exceptions that make the rule more marked) every verse speaks of God's revelation of himself to man. Andrew A. Bonar, 1859.

It is observed that the 119th Psalm is disposed according to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, perhaps to intimate that children, when they begin to learn their alphabet, should learn that Psalm. Nathanael Hardy, 1618-1670.

III. Why did the author restrain himself to a framework for expressing his emotions? John Piper on Lamentations:

1 – a deeply emotional book – weeping, desolation, mockery, groaning, hunger, grief and the horrid loss of compassion as mothers boil their own children to eat them

2 – Seems to be the most formally crafted book of the Old Testament. Chapters 1, 2 and 4 each are 1 verse acrostics, chapter 3 is a 3 verse acrostic

These observations “imply that genuine, heartfelt expressions of our deepest emotions does not require spontaneity. Just think of all the mental work involved in finding all the right words to construct 4 alphabetical acrostics! What constraint, what limitation, what submission to form! Yet what passion and power and heart!” “After reading Lamentations we can no longer believe that unpondered prayers are more real or passionate or heartfelt or genuine or alive than prayers that are thoughtfully and earnestly (and painfully?) poured out through a carefully crafted form. The danger of formalism is real. Prayers and sermons that are read from a manuscript are unusually stiff and unnatural and artificial. But the danger of spontaneity is also great. If the heart is without passion it will produce lifeless, jargon-laden spontaneity. And if the heart is aflame, no form will quench it. But not only is spontaneity no necessary advantage and form no necessary hindrance to deep, personal expression of feeling, but even more, formed affection often strikes deeper. Deeper into reality and deeper into the hearer.” (Pg 146-147, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.)

IV. Why 8 verses per section?

A number of regeneration, renewal, resurrection? Christ raised the 8th day, 8 people on the ark, circumcision on the 8th day… Origen, the number of perfection

How to Study Any Passage

I. Look for Key Words.

What are some words that seem important or are repeated often?

  • Way(s) (1 3, 5, 9, 14, 15)
  • Law (1)
  • Testimonies (2, 14)
  • Precepts (4, 15)
  • Keep (4, 5, 8, 9)
  • Statutes (5, 8, 12, 16)
  • Word (9, 11, 16)
  • Heart (2, 7, 10, 11)
  • Ordinances (13)
  • Commandments (6, 10)
  • Judgments (7)
  • Your
  • Seek
  • Walk

What are the primary ways God has revealed Himself to man throughout history?

  • Creation
  • Law
  • Israel
  • Prophets
  • Jesus
  • Church

Which of these were available when the author wrote this?

  • Creation
  • Law
  • Israel
  • Prophets?

Which of these means of revelation did the author choose to focus on? Why?

How many different synonyms for God’s Word do you see in this passage?

  • Way(s) (?) (1 3, 5, 9, 14, 15)
  • Law (1)
  • Testimonies (2, 14)
  • Precepts (4, 15)
  • Statutes (5, 8, 12, 16)
  • Word – dabar (9, 16)
  • Word – imrah (11)
  • Commandments (6, 10)
  • Judgments (7, 13 (ordinances))
  • Truth/Righteousness(?)

Some say 8 synonyms (and think that’s why he did 8 verses per section); others say 10 (tying in to the 10 commandments).

Why does he use different words? Just trying to avoid saying “Word” repeatedly? What does this variety of words show us about the author? (cook, broil, braise, boil, simmer, stew, poach, roast, fry, bake, grill, steam, sauté)

"Focal vocabulary" is a specialized set of terms and distinctions that is particularly important to a certain group; those with a particular focus of experience or activity…. For example, the Nuer of Sudan have an elaborate vocabulary to describe cattle. The Nuer have dozens of names for cattle because of the cattle's particular histories, economies, and environments. – Wikipedia

He never uses fewer than 6 of these synonyms in each 8 verse segment, employing a different order in each stanza.

So what DO the different words mean?

Genesis 26:5

Exodus 18:16, 20

Lev. 26:46

Deut 4:45

Psalm 19:7-9

  • Law, torah, = Directions, Instructions, Guide
  • Way = course of life, habits
  • Testimonies = witnesses. Who is giving the witness? And what is he/she witnessing to? Witnesses to God’s character. May be referring to the veracity of the Word of God (God’s deposition, so to speak). God will not perjure Himself. Stories? Ark containing 10 Commandments Tablets called Ark of the testimony.
  • Precepts – only used 3 x outside this Psalm, all in the Psalms. “His precepts, because prescribed to us and not left indifferent.” – MH. “An authoritative charge or order that is binding upon the recipient.” – Dr. Lawson
  • Commandments – yes, a command!
  • Word (dabar) – the utterance of a mouth. “His word, or saying, because it is the declaration of his mind, and Christ, the essential eternal Word, is all in all in it. – MH.”
  • Word (imrah) – promises. “I’ve given my word.”
  • Statutes – boundary lines
  • Judgments/Ordinances: verdict/sentences. “His judgments, because framed in infinite wisdom, and because by them we must both judge and be judged.” – MH
  • Righteousness (not found in our section, used 6 times in chapter)

II. Author

What do we learn about the author from this passage?

  • Very familiar with the word of God (use of synonyms)
  • One person
  • Young man? (9)
  • Seeking knowledge (v.12)
  • Seeking holiness (v.6)
  • Afraid of wandering (v. 10)
  • Afraid of sinning (v.11)
  • Has “evangelized” (v 13)
  • Has had riches, or at least observed rich people (v. 14)
  • Has sought God (v10)
  • Has treasured God’s Word (v. 11)
  • Has not fully followed God as he wants (v.5,6)

Some commentators argue for David, others for a post-exilic person like Ezra. Some say a priest. Some say as late as Maccabean period. In prison? Wurmbrand. Would also explain lack of allusions to nature.

“Some interpreters complain about the tone of the Psalm: it does not seem to breathe the fresh air of the out of doors—figures from nature are rare—but savors rather of the musty air of the study” -- Leupold

III. Recipient. Who is the author writing to?

a. Do you ever write prayers down? (aka ‘journaling’)

IV. Reason for writing. Why would someone publicize their personal prayer?


Besides the sectional breaks, can we identify any verses that seem to connect together?

  • Person
    • V 1-3 (“They”)
    • V 4 (“We”)
    • V 5-8, 10-16 (“I”)
    • V 9 (“Young man”)
  • Tense
    • V 1-3 (Present)
    • V 5-8 (Future)
    • V 13-14 (Past)
    • V 15-16 (Future)
  • Type of statement
    • Panting (v 5)
    • Prayer (8b, 10b, 12b)
    • Promise (15-16)
    • Past (10a, 11, 13-14)
    • Praise (12a)
  • Positive and negative
    • + (1b, 2, 3b, 4, 5, 7, 8a, 9, 10a, 11a, etc.)
    • – (1a?, 3a, 6, 8b, 10b, 11b etc)

No comments:

Post a Comment