Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart –
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
I suggested a couple of weeks back that it is a really good idea to memorise scripture and it’s a practice that is commended in the Bible itself (Deuteronomy 11:18, 19). In this psalm the writer declares, ‘I treasure your word in my heart’ (v. 11) but if you are going to start memorising some of the Psalms this might not be the best place to start… it’s only one chapter but it’s the longest chapter of the Bible – by some distance!
This poem is artfully constructed and is an acrostic with every line of each section beginning with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, like someone writing a poem in English and composing each successive verse with the consecutive letters from A to Z. There are other acrostics in the Book of Psalms (Psalms 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145; plus Psalms 9 and 10 which probably were once one Psalm but somehow got separated) but Psalm 119 is an acrostic on steroids! Not only does each of the 22 sections (there are fewer letters in the Hebrew alphabet than English) begin with a consecutive letter of the alphabet but each of those sections is composed of eight verses all beginning with the same letter. It’s like getting eight acrostics poems for the price of one.
This Psalm was part of Israel’s song book, but it’s a long song and therefore a very, very long song! I have no idea how long it would take to sing it and I don’t intend to try; I wonder whether it would have been a bit like singing ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ or ‘I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In’. You start off singing those carols thinking it’s a good idea and you get two-thirds of the way through and the song’s just going on forever…the end is nowhere in sight and you wonder why on earth you started singing it in the first place. You thought it would be fun but it ends up being an endurance test. I suspect some people may have felt that about Psalm 119! Maybe it was one of those songs that got divided up into different parts so that a different verse was sung by a different group and gave everyone else a welcomed rest.
There are times when it feels like the Psalmist has taken up the lyrical sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut. Practically every verse refers to God’s commands, decrees, laws, precepts, statutes, ways and/or word. The Psalm has an intense focus on the way in which God communicates his will to human beings.
For many people in Western society any mention of law or being told what to do is an immediate turn off. Rules are seen as oppressive, interfering with our freedom and our pursuit of happiness. It is worth remembering that the Hebrew word most commonly translated as ‘law’ in our Bibles is ‘Torah’ which has a much broader meaning than our English word. The first five books of the Old Testament are known as the Torah and they are much more than legalistic instructions, a better translation might be ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’. Having said that there are some very specific and clear guidelines or rules which are given by God, covering everything from dietary requirements, sexual ethics, not murdering people, looking after animals and what to do with mold.
It may well be true that excessive legalism and all the misery it spreads has driven more people away from faith than all the arguments of atheism put together, but a little thought suggests that at least some commandments might be for our own good – our rules about stopping at a red light and not letting twelve-year-olds drive cars actually don’t sound too unreasonable.
Good parents give their children rules – not excessive ones, not unreasonable ones, but they give them rules so that they can keep safe, so they can prosper, so God our heavenly Father gives us rules for our good, that we might flourish (Deuteronomy 6:24, 10:13). There’s obviously so much more that could be said on the topic, but rules needn’t be restrictive and God’s rules are redemptive. No wonder the Psalmist delighted in God’s words and found them sweeter than honey and more precious than gold (vv. 127, 103).