Theme: “Giant among the Psalms”
In this first stanza of Psalm 119, we are told of the importance of loving and obeying God’s Word.
Scripture: Psalm 119:1-8
Not long ago we were studying the shortest psalm in the Psalter, which is also the shortest chapter in the Bible. Here, two psalms later, we are dealing with the longest psalm and the longest chapter. Psalm 117 contained two verses and five lines. Psalm 119 contains 176 verses and 315 lines. The first tells us to praise God. This psalm praises God for his Word, the Bible, because God has given us the Bible and it is only through the Bible that we can come to know who God is and how to praise him.
Psalm 119 is a great psalm. The German commentator Franz Delitzsch wrote, “Here we have set forth in inexhaustible fullness what the word of God is to a man and how a man is to behave himself in relation to it.”1
Derek Kidner, a more modern writer, says, “This giant among the psalms shows the full flowering of that ‘delight… in the law of the Lord’ which is described in Psalm 1, and gives its personal witness to the many-sided qualities of Scripture praised in Psalm 19:7 ff.”2
So much has been written on Psalm 119 that it is impossible to do full justice to it. In The Treasury of David Charles Haddon Spurgeon alone has 349 commentary pages, which is virtually a book in itself. Charles Bridges, a great Church of England evangelical in the last century, wrote 481 pages (Banner of Truth Trust edition). His book contains a sermon for each of the psalm’s twenty-two stanzas and was issued in 1827 when Bridges was only thirty-three years old. Most impressive of all is the three-volume work by Thomas Manton, one of the most prolific of the Puritans. Each volume is from 500 to 600 pages in length for a total of 1,677 pages (Banner of Truth edition). The work has 190 long chapters, more than one for each verse.
There are many fascinating stories connected with this psalm. One of the most amusing concerns George Wishart, a Bishop of Edinburgh in the seventeenth century.3 Wishart was condemned to death along with his famous patron, the Marquis of Montrose, and he would have been executed, except for this incident. When he was on the scaffold, he made use of a custom of the times, which permitted the condemned to choose a psalm to be sung. He chose Psalm 119. Before two thirds of the psalm was sung a pardon arrived, and Wishart’s life was spared. The story has been told as an illustration of God’s intervention to save a saintly person. But the truth is actually different. In his choice of psalm, Wishart was more renowned for shrewdness than for sanctity. He was expecting a pardon, requested the psalm to gain time and, happily for him, succeeded in delaying the execution until his pardon came.4
Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm, the most elaborate in the Psalter.5 It is divided into twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse of each stanza begins with one of these letters in sequence. Thus each of the first eight verses begin with the letter aleph, each of the next eight verses begin with the letter beth, and so on. The acrostic pattern is highlighted by subheads in some English versions.
The closest parallel to this pattern is chapter three of Lamentations. It is divided into twenty-two sections also, like Psalm 119, but each of its sections only has three verses.
1Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, n.d.), vol. 3, p. 243.
2Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 416.
3This George Wishart is not to be confused with the Scottish reformer and martyr by the same name who lived a century earlier and was executed at Saint Andrews in 1546.
4Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 3a, Psalms 88-119 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), p. 133.
5The others are Psalms 9-10 (together), 25, 34, 37, 111, 112 and 145, nine in all. Not all of these are perfect alphabetical poems, however. In some, letters are missing; in others the order of the letters is not exact. Proverbs 31:10-31 and the first four chapters of Lamentations also follow an acrostic pattern.
Why is God praised for this psalm?
What is an acrostic psalm and how does this psalm fit?
Key Point: This psalm praises God for his Word, the Bible, because God has given us the Bible and it is only through the Bible that we can come to know who God is and how to praise him.