Introducing the Longest Psalm
Before launching into Psalm 119, the longest of the psalms and the chapter with the most verses in the entire Bible, we need to understand its unique acrostic structure. Following the order of the Hebrew alphabet which consists of twenty-two letters, the psalmist composed his poem with twenty-two stanzas. Each of the eight verses in each successive stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter for a total of 176 verses. That is why today’s opening segment is entitled “ALEPH,” after the first Hebrew letter. The next segment is entitled “BETH,” the next Hebrew letter, and so on through all twenty-two stanzas.
Were we to translate these first eight verses into English so as to reflect the Hebrew, this is how they might appear although the translation is a bit stilted:
(1) Accounted blessed are those who walk blamelessly.
(2) Also blessed are those who keep his statutes.
(3) Abstaining from evil, they walk in his ways.
(4) All your precepts are to be fully obeyed.
(5) Assiduously I long to obey your decrees consistently.
(6) Avoiding shame is one benefit of my keeping your commands.
(7) Adoration results from my obedience.
(8) As I keep your decrees, so keep me safe.
Nearly every verse in Psalm 119 refers to God’s written Word. Eight Hebrew synonyms for the Scriptures are regularly used throughout the psalm:
- Torah: the law, God’s revelation given through Moses (25 times)
- Word: God’s truth expressed verbally (24 times)
- Statutes/testimonies: stipulations of the Torah (23 times)
- Judgments: the verdicts of the divine judge (23 times)
- Commands: the declared will of a personal God (22 times)
- Precepts: detailed rules for life under the covenant (21 times)
- Decrees: covenant requirements (21 times)
- Utterances: God’s revealed truth (19 times)
Why would the psalmist fashion such an elaborate, carefully structured poem of such length? Not only does Psalm 119 stand out as a tour de force of Hebrew poetry, it serves as a marvelous testimony to the beauty and comprehensiveness of God’s written revelation. The psalmist’s desire is to show the reader that in the sacred Scriptures we have everything we need for life and godliness from aleph (A) to taw (Z).
ALEPH - A Heart to Obey
(1) Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk according to the law (Torah) of Yahweh. (2) Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with their whole heart. (3) They also do nothing wrong. They walk in his ways. (4) You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. (5) O that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! (6) Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. (7) I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous judgments. (8) I will obey your decrees. Do not utterly forsake me.
Two words are repeated three times in these verses for emphasis. First, we find three occurrences of “way,” the blameless “way” of the godly man (vs. 1), (God’s) “ways” (vs. 3), and finally, my “ways” (vs. 5). In addition, “obey” is used three times: precepts to be “obeyed” (vs. 4), “obeying your decrees” (vs. 5), and “I will obey your decrees” (vs. 8).
I. God blesses those who obey his Word. (1-3)
II. God’s purpose in giving his Word is that it be obeyed. (4)
III. We respond to God’s desire for obedience (5-8)
- by longing to be obedient. (5 & 6)
- by determining to live obediently. (7 & 8)
Knowing that God blesses those who obey his Word should motivate us to have an obedient heart.
This opening stanza of Psalm 119 functions like an entryway into a large, beautiful garden filled with manifold delights. How appropriate that the first eight verses of this carefully crafted psalm should deal with the issue of obedience! It is never enough simply to read and appreciate the beauty of God’s Word. Even mastery of its message and memorization, though commendable, are not enough. The believer’s only fitting response to God’s revelation and the response which God desires above all else is wholehearted obedience. Until our behavior is conformed to God’s will, God’s Word has not really accomplished its purpose (vs. 4). That is precisely what the psalmist yearns for in his life (vs. 5).
This segment encourages us to examine our motives for studying God’s Word. Are we doing this simply because reading the Bible is a good spiritual discipline like exercising our bodies? Is our motive just to increase our knowledge or satisfy our curiosity? If so, we are in danger of becoming like the complacent observer James described in the first chapter of his epistle: “Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (Jas. 1:23 & 24). In contrast, our attitude should be like the person described in the next verse: “But the man who gazes intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does” (Jas. 1:25). Note James’ emphasis: “not forgetting…but doing.” As we read Psalm 119, our purpose should be to obey what it says, letting its message point out our deficiencies and then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, making the changes that God’s Word demands.