Psalm 119 is often best known as the answer to the trivia question, what is the longest chapter in the bible? At 176 verses it easily triumphs over other chapters of great length. However, once one gets past the length and magnitude of the Psalm there are some interesting literary features. Psalm 119 is an alphabetic acrostic psalm. There are twenty-two stanzas in the psalm, one stanza for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza has eight verses or lines. And the first word of each line begins with the same Hebrew letter which designates that stanza. (For instance, the first eight lines in Hebrew all begin with a word that starts with aleph, the second eight lines all begin with a word that starts with beth…). This creates a beautiful poetic masterpiece that helps to show the Psalmist’s love for what he is writing about. And his topic of adoration…the law.
But why would anyone ever be in love with the law. Law seems so sterile, so set apart, so unlovable. Law is a set of rules to be followed, a boundary marker that says “you can go this far but no farther.” Law is about random stipulations to follow and boring messages to read. Laws like “Don’t plant two types of seed in the same field” or “Don’t round off the hair on your temples” have very little, if any, practical application today. Many laws appear to be nothing more than outdated rules for a primitive people to keep them from spreading germs or participating in sick or disgusting rituals.
So why would someone be so in love with the law? So in love that they say, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long(97).” or “Truly I love your commandments more than gold, more than fine gold (127).” Or even “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (103)” This is not just someone who wants to write a nice poem to get a good grade in school. These are the words of someone who has found a lifeline in the law. That through the law they have found connection with God. For the Psalmist, following the law is not a burden but a privilege. Following the law is not just about keeping the rules to make sure one gets to go to heaven when they die. Instead, following the law is about being in relationship with Almighty God. It’s about recognizing and experiencing God’s love and grace and forgiveness and living out of that reality. It’s about realizing that following the law is not done in order to receive salvation but in response to salvation.
It’s like Israel at Mt. Sinai. When they received the commandments they were already in relationship with God. God had already redeemed them and saved them at the Sea. The commandments were not a stipulation in order to receive God’s love, but a response to God’s love. By following the law, Israel was able to be in God’s presence, to remain in God’s presence, even though they were sinful. And so the law was an act of grace and mercy, it provided a means for Israel to remain in the presence of God. Thus the Psalmist is able to say, I love your law, it is my hope, and it allows me to be in relationship with you.
I must admit that while reading Psalm 119 I was struck with the Psalmist’s love and adoration for the law. The law which can often be seen as controlling was instead for the Psalmist life-giving. While our tendency may be to think law is bad, the Psalmist took great delight in the law and wrote a love song to God and the law. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the Psalm, and more importantly, a deeper appreciation for my God who loves me and forgives me even though I am imperfect and has provided a way for me to be in relationship with him.
God I love you, and I love your ways and your commands because they allow me to be with you. Amen!