The 176 verses of Psalm 119 easily make it the longest chapter-type division in the Bible. As stated previously, I refer to it as a chapter-type division since psalms are technically not the same as chapters. By any designation, however, the 119th Psalm is significant apart from its considerable length.
Structure of the Psalm
In our society of instant information from electronic or printed sources it is easy to assume that people of other times in history had similar materials. Not only were such printed resources unavailable to people of older historical periods, they would have been irrelevant as well, since a majority of people in those times could not read or write. Despite such limitations, these people maintained accurate accounts of information relevant to their societies by relying on other means of retaining and transferring their history. People of the Old Testament utilized a number of literary devices to help them remember their texts. Psalm 119 was composed using a literary device known as an acrostic.
An acrostic uses sets of letters to form a pattern within a segment of a text. For example, most of the Old Testament is composed in the Hebrew language whose alphabet has twenty-two letters. The first and second chapters of Lamentations each have twenty-two verses, and each verse begins with the succeeding Hebrew letter. The first word of Lamentations 1:1 begins with ALEPH, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, the first word of 1:2 begins with BETH, the second letter. The pattern continues through this chapter so that the first letter in each verse begins with the next letter in the alphabet. Acrostics are used in several places within the Old Testament, including Psalms 9, 10, 25, 37, 111, 112, 145, and Lamentations 1-4. The third chapter of Lamentations contains sixty-six verses arranged in sections with three verses beginning with each Hebrew letter.
Psalm 119 is composed in a similar manner, yet eight verses begin with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Eight verses for each of the twenty-two letters produce the 176 total verses in this psalm. You may have noticed headings above these sections in some Bibles. Prior to the first eight-verse section you would see ALEPH, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Just before verse nine would be BETH, the second letter. The following sections would include words representing the remaining letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Theme of the Psalm
The central theme of Psalm 119 is the Word of God. In fact, the Scriptures are mentioned in almost every verse of this psalm, using a variety of words such as law, precepts, statutes, decrees, and testimonies. In addition to the number of synonyms for the Word of God, the psalm includes a number of attributes for God’s Word. Attributes mentioned include words such as good (v. 39), true (vv. 142, 151, 160), righteous (vv. 7, 62, 75, 106, 138), right (vv. 128, 137, 144), faithful (vv. 86, 138), and pure (v. 140).
Many verses in Psalm 119 comprise the writer’s thankfulness to God for providing the Scriptures. His constant modifier for the synonyms mentioned above is the word your, as in, your precepts (v. 4), your statutes (v. 5), your commandments (v. 6), your righteous judgments (v. 7), your word (v. 9). The constant references to God as the source of Scripture underscore the divine authorship of the Bible.
In the last article we focused on the first verse of Psalm 119 which presented the blessedness that corresponds to the one whose manner of life is fulfilled by a commitment to following God’s Word. Verse one emphasizes that one’s relationship to God’s Word establishes a person’s completeness, or maturity. The remainder of the psalm provides more detail on aspects of this maturity. For instance, the Word of God enables a young man to cleanse his way (v. 9; cf. 1 John 2:14), provides light for one’s path (v. 105), and enables one to be wise (v. 98). The characteristics and benefits of the Word of God lead the psalmist to declare his delight over the Scriptures nine times in this psalm (vv. 16, 24, 35, 47, 70, 77, 92, 143, 174).
Spiritual victory is dependent on one’s knowledge of Scripture. The psalmist wrote, “Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee” (Ps 119:11). Early in the Book of Joshua, God assured him that his success was dependent on his relationship to the Word of God (Joshua 1:8). Those who desire to be victorious against sin must be well-acquainted with God’s Word. Their consistent meditation on the Word will establish them spiritually (Psalm 1:2-3) as the Word provides a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (Psalm 119:105).