Psalm 119

Of the 150 psalms (Greek for “song”), psalm 119 is the longest. It is an “acrostic” poem spanning 176 verses in 22 stanzas; one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic means that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the first letter of the first word of each stanza (aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet, heh …). There are about a dozen acrostic poems in the bible. These literary techniques were done to help people memorize the scripture.

It is likely that 119 was composed over a long period of time and stitched together later. Different stanzas do not flow naturally from one to the other; although, the general theme of the psalm is to glorify God (YAWEH) and God’s word.

There are other structures from Hebrew poetry employed throughout the psalm. The first and last sixteen verses form a “chiasmus” (cross) where you can see a pairing of meaning and ideas between the first verse and the last verse, the second verse and the next to last verse, and so on. This pairing works down to a central axis (one or more) in each “bookend” section. Unlike western poetry where the central idea may be at the beginning or almost anywhere, the chiastic structures of Hebrew poetry work from the outside into the middle so that the central axis contains the main point the author wants the reader to grasp.

There are lots of other literary devices used in 119 and other psalms; chiefly synthetic and anti-synthetic parallelism. Time and space do not permit much discussion here, but one idea that surfaces again and again in 119 is that the author (and by implication, you, the reader) are to seek the Lord with your whole heart. At the other end of the chiastic X you will find that is because the Lord seeks you too.

The ancients memorized ALL the psalms. That is why when Jesus utters the opening line from psalm 22 from the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), it was instantly understood by those listening to be a reference to the mercy of God found in the middle of the psalm. Some modern figures memorized the psalms including William Wilberforce who was responsible for the abolition of slavery in England 30 years before the US did it.

Knowing scripture just might save your life. George Wishart was the Bishop of Edinburgh in the 17th century (not to be confused with another Scot by the same name who was martyred a century earlier). Wishart was condemned to death and would have been executed. But when he was on the scaffold he made use of a custom that allowed the condemned person to choose one psalm to be sung, and he chose Psalm 119. Before two-thirds of the psalm was sung, his pardon arrived, and his life was spared.

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