It has no title, but it is “The Longest Psalm.” Some attribute it to David, and Spurgeon calls it a “royal diary” written at various times through his long life.
This psalm is 176 verses divided into 22 stanzas, each stanza beginning with a consecutive letter of the hebrew aleph-bet. It precedes the Songs of Ascent in the Psalter, towards which it also seems to grow. The early verses suggest a young man’s devotion, while the middle verses reflect experience, careful observation, and earnest meditation. The later passages could only have been penned in age and wisdom. Origen says it is alphabetical because it contains the elements or principles of all knowledge and wisdom; and that it repeats each letter eight times, because eight is the number of perfection. The number eight could also correspond to the eight hebrew words for Word, that are translated into the English words: law, commandments, judgments, rules, testimonies, precepts, statutes, word.
The prevailing theme is the revealed Word of the Lord, in its manifestations of Law, Commandments, Judgments, Testimonies, Rules, Precepts, Statutes. The effect of these is the maturation of the psalmist according to the Word of the Lord, through remembrance, study, discipline, affliction, and praise.
“This Psalm is called the Alphabet of Divine Love, the Paradise of all the Doctrines, the Storehouse of the Holy Spirit, the School of Truth, also the deep mystery of the Scriptures, where the whole moral discipline of all the virtues shines brightly. And as all moral instruction is delightsome, therefore this Psalm, because excelling in this kind of instruction, should be called delightsome, inasmuch as it surpasses the rest. The other Psalms, truly, as lesser stars shine somewhat; but this burns with the meridian heat of its full brightness, and is wholly resplendent with moral loveliness.” -Johannes Paulus Palanterius, 1600.
This Psalm is a miniature 22-course syllabus that might be called the Holy Spirit’s School of Emotion and Devotion. Mind you, in the world, we generally pay a tuition for a school we apply to, and then choose our classes based on a course description. Once we have mastered the material, we graduate. If Psalms are the texts for the School of the Holy Spirit, we find that we are not told the course until graduation, which oftentimes feels just like failure. However, Psalm 119 is pretty clear cut, structurally, so it is not a terribly obscure curriculum to follow, for those who like to plan ahead. But the cost is high, and eventually is everything you are and own. But the graduation certificate, no matter how much it feels like failure, is eternal life.
“Princes persecute me without a cause, but my heart stands in awe of your word.”
The Psalm stands in marked contrast to the world’s rules of value and emotion. It reflects the experience of one, who for love of the Word of God and indignation toward sin (his own and others’), faces derision. We find the psalmist enduring such emotional extremes.
Let’s look at the emotion of the psalmist. The psalmist feels like a blind stranger in the earth (v18-19), like his soul is in severe drought (v25, 28), confronted with attraction to what he knows is worthless and his own selfishness and sin (v36-37, and 59), taunted (42) and derided (51), ensnared by others’ devices and lies (61, and 69, and 84), lonely for companionship (79) and disciplined by God (67, 71, 75), on guard against those who would ensnare and destroy him (110 and 95), disconnected from mentors, elders, and teachers (99-100), allergic to falsity (128, and 136), consumed by his own zeal, and left troubled and anguished (139-143), sleepless (147-148), full of disgust, and the object of others’ disgust (157-158), wrongfully judged (161), and astray from God (176).
Nonetheless, “O how I love your law, I meditate on it all the day,” (v97) in the 13th stanza is perhaps the crystallization of the psalmist’s feeling and action. As in other places in the Psalms, he still insists on his faithfulness and hope in God’s promises, yet his dejection, and his lostness is apparent as well. The collision of these two poles is apparent in Samek, where he says “I hate double-minded men” and “my flesh trembles in fear of your judgments”…he is recognizing and affirming a just judgment of God, while revealing that very nature in himself.
Why all this trouble? Does following Christ look like this? It is because the heart must be trained to follow the head. But in this world, our Godward affections are dimmed and emasculated, and our head is given lesser objectives to value and pursue. The point of following Christ is abundant life—to broaden, or enlarge our heart (v32) so that we can “run” and to make choices about facts, what is objective and real, namely the eternal, the invisible, the Alpha and the Omega. In contrast, the world describes the benefits money brings as profitable and objective, but in relationship to the Almighty it is always subjective (the man whose soul was required of him, or what does it profit a man to gain the world but forfeit his soul?) though it can be useful to display his nature (through interest and generosity). He is that which brings form out of void and chaos, makes the abstract into personality (a living being from dust), and makes what was dead alive, what was not, become, by His presence.
The psalmist has this contrast of value: (I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold. v127) (I delight in your testimonies as much as in all riches. v14) Test your delight. Would you be more inclined to memorize scripture if you were paid to do it? What do you forfeit so that you may have a better grasp of the Scriptures? Money has temporary value that is based on the demand of the people for it, and it is produced by men’s government; the Word is creative (all things seen were made by it), powerful (it holds all things together), and eternal (founded in the heavens forever, will never pass away); a currency of hope, able to produce faith, which is precious to God.
We naturally feel pleasure and hatred, and this Psalm documents the formation of what already exists within us, by repetition in experience, into appropriate conformity to what is acceptable: which things should be enjoyed and which hated. “Emotion is not in and of itself a judgment, but reasonable or unreasonable only as it conforms or fails to conform to something else.” (CS Lewis) So emotion corresponds to something beyond itself, to facts and feelings. The heart should follow the head, and the head should be conformed to the pursuit of the likeness of the beauty and terror of God. Our emotions conform to our mind which is in tune with the Spirit who follows Jesus, the head of the Church. A community of such people know “the comfort of the Holy Spirit and the fear of God” (Acts ).
Thanks to the following contributors who inspired this humble article: