If there were Seven Wonders of the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 119 would top the list. At 176 verses in length, it is the Mt. Everest of the Psalter. If you have ever unwittingly begun reading Psalm 119 and given up part way, don’t feel bad. No one has ever unwittingly climbed Mt. Everest, either. Poetry is tough going after all. So if you arrive at Psalm 119 unprepared to trek its mountainous four or five pages of parallelism, you might not make it in one go.
Biblical poetry is all the more demanding. It is, to change the metaphor, God’s Word simmered down, like a savory reduction sauce. Psalm 119 is no exception, so come hungry. The Puritan Thomas Manton wrote and preached 190 sermons on it (published in 3 vols.). So how do you navigate a poem of this scale? Especially one so dense and rich? I want to focus on some broad themes in the psalm to guide us through this scriptural monument.
How Do I Love You? Let Me Count the Verses
The first theme is rules. Psalm 119 is basically a love poem to the law (vv. 47, 48, 97, 113, 119, 127, 159, 163, 167). This theme might sound strange at first, but the psalmist finds the law so outrageously loveable because it belongs to God. Since the law is distinctly God’s law, and comes right from his mouth, it is better than anything else, including heaps of treasure (v. 72) and delicious honey (v. 103).
The notion of “law,” however, goes much further than just the Ten Commandments. “The law” is a big, multi-sided idea for the writer of Psalm 119. It is nearly impossible to read even a single verse of this psalm without bumping into it. That’s because the idea of “the law” is described by lots of different words in Psalm 119, including “commandments,” “precepts,” “testimonies,” “ordinances,” “judgments,” “statutes,” and—most popular of them all—“words.” Only seven verses in this whopper psalm don't mention this “law” idea in some way.
So basically the psalmist is writing about his incredible love for anything God says. Whether actual commandments, or blessings, or prophecies, or decisions, or stories—whatever God says to his people, it’s utterly loveable. Every last scrap of what God reveals in speech is priceless, including his rules. And words beget words, as God’s communication throws the psalmist into extended poetic rhapsody.
Rule-Keeping and Repentance
A second theme is repentance. Maybe you're a bit discouraged while you read through Psalm 119—and not just because it’s so long. After all, it can be spiritually distressing to read verse after verse basically about how much this psalmist loves rules. By the time you get to v. 164 and read “seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules” you might start thinking about the Pharisee in Luke 18 pretentiously “thanking” God for how absolutely fabulous he is at obeying all the rules. That kind of tone can be disheartening on an average weekday, particularly if you have not been particularly fabulous at rule-keeping lately.
Don’t let it get to you. The difference between that Pharisee and the psalmist is this: the psalmist knows he is in fact sinful and desperately needs God’s grace. Despite all the ways he goes on about loving the law, there is also petition and repentance. The psalmist pleads for God’s salvation (vv. 41, 81, 123, 166, 174), and desires mercy (vv. 77, 156). He knows that life—his life—is not perfect. In fact, the psalm ends in the key of repentance: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments” (v. 176a).
So acknowledging sin and loving the law are fully compatible according to this psalm.
Love Is a Many Splendored Affliction
The third theme of note is suffering. This repentant and rule-loving psalmist also faces grief (v. 28), struggles with covetousness (v. 37), endures afflictions (vv. 50, 141, 143), mocking (v. 51), threats and danger (vv. 61, 85, 87, 95, 110), and slander (vv. 69, 78, 86). In fact, that’s the exact reason for his love poem. The psalmist fully and lovingly depends on God’s words, especially in repentance and hardship. “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (v. 50). The psalmist is deeply aware of God’s promises (vv. 38, 41, 50, 58, 76, 82, 116, 123, 133, 140, 148, 154). He knows God’s covenant love (vv. 64, 76, 88, 124, 149, 159).
Most importantly, the psalmist knows he needs life (vv. 37, 40, 50, 88, 93, 107, 149, 154, 156, 159), and that life only comes from God according to his Word. He writes, “Great is your mercy, O LORD; give me life according to your rules” (v. 156), and “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (v. 25).
The psalmist knows that God’s speech does not just condemn sinners. God also redeems them through speech. While the words of God—his rules and commandments and statues—tirelessly remind us of our sin, they also reveal God's promise to fully redeem his people from sin.
That is why the psalmist can't stop writing. He knows that by the same speech of God he is both condemned and redeemed. Affliction under the law and love for the law operate on the same principle: God’s faithfulness to his own Word. God is unshakably faithful to himself, and therefore unshakably faithful to his people.
You’re a Sinner: Take Joy in the Words of God
In short, Psalm 119 teaches us that loving God’s rules is qualified and produced by knowledge of sin, grace, and the promises of God. The more you can relate to the psalmist’s repentance for sin, the more you will relate to his love for God’s rules as you endure the trials of life.
So on this average weekday, you may be like the writer of Psalm 119: suffering under temptation to sin, or afflicted by circumstances or people around you. Plead with God to deliver you on the basis of his promises (v. 170). Rest in his covenant faithfulness to his people (v. 76). Rejoice that God eternally keeps the terms of his own law, his own rules, perfectly (v. 65). Remember that he has given you life in himself according to his Word (v. 50). Let the true Word of God, Jesus Christ, abide in you richly today, and be filled with love for your Savior.