Previous article in this series: June 2014, p. 391.
In marvelous ways God reveals Himself. First, He reveals Himself in the creation, for “[t]he heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork” (). Because of God’s revelation in the creation the psalmist exclaims in , “O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” Besides God’s revelation of Himself in the works of His hands in the creation, He also reveals Himself in the history of the world, as He orders all things that happen for the accomplishment of His purposes. The psalmist teaches this in : “The counsel of the Lord standeth forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.”
But even more clearly than His revelation in creation and history, God has made Himself known in the Holy Scriptures. Deus dixit! God has spoken! “[F]or thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name” (). Because God has exalted His word above all His name, the prayer of the psalmist in is: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.”
The Bible is a book like no other book. The Bible is the word of God. The Bible is not merely a book about God. Neither is the Bible the testimony of religious people to God. The Bible does not only contain the word of God, as though the word of God can be found in the Bible, along with the words of men, particularly the men who wrote the various books of the Bible. This is the view that many today have of the Bible.
But all these views are mistaken. They are mistaken for the simple reason that the Bible is the word of God. The Bible is the word of God as a whole, and the Bible is the word of God in all its parts. From beginning to end, the Bible is God’s word. What it says, God says. Fromthrough , God is speaking. In every book, in every chapter, in every verse, we are confronted with “Thus saith the Lord.”
This is what the Bible teaches about itself. The Bible proclaims itself to be the word of God. What is true of the Bible as a whole is also true of the Old Testament. The Jews divided the Old Testament into three main parts: the law (Torah or Pentateuch), the prophets (Neviim), and the writings (Kethuvim or Hagiographa). We have considered together the testimony of the Old Testament that it is the word of God. We have considered together the testimony of the Pentateuch that it is the word of God. And we have considered together the testimony of the Old Testament prophets that what they wrote is the word of God. It remains for us to consider the testimony of the third division of the Old Testament, what the Jews referred to as the writings.
The Book of Psalms and Psalm 119
Although the third division of the Old Testament Scriptures includes more than the book of Psalms, the book of Psalms is prominent in it. And although every book of the Bible has its unique canonical significance, the book of Psalms is unlike any other book of the Bible. It is a book that has not one, but several different human writers, whose lives span more than a thousand years. Included among the human writers of the psalms are David, Solomon, Moses, Asaph, Heman, Ethan, and others. As far as its main content is concerned, the book of Psalms does not contain laws or record historical events, although many of the events of Israel’s history are referred to. But as far as the nature of the book of Psalms, it is a devotional book. It is made up of songs (a psalm is a song sung to musical accompaniment) and prayers to God. In the psalms the psalmists call upon God, cry out to God, praise God, beseech God, extol God’s greatness, and magnify His glorious name.
Moreover, the psalms are personal and experiential. Throughout the psalms the personal pronouns “I” and “my” and “we” and “our” occur time and time again. The psalms give expression to the struggles, sorrows, disappointments, righteous anger, fears, doubts, and cares, as well as the joy, hope, assurance, and triumph of God’s people in every age. John Calvin was accustomed to calling this book “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul” of the believer.1 The psalms were intended to be used not only for private devotion, but also in the public worship of God’s people, as indeed they have been in every age, beginning with the worship of the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament and continuing into the New Testament in the worship of the church. Many of the psalms indicate the place that they have in the public, corporate worship of God’s people, being directed, as the heading of many of the psalms indicate, to the “chief musician.”
The book of Psalms has more chapters in it than any other book; there are 150 psalms.2 The longest chapter in the book with the most chapters contains 176 verses. This is Psalm 119, which is by far the lengthiest of the psalms—more than twice as long as the next longest, Psalm 78, which has 72 verses.
The psalms are poetry and belong to the group of books that are often designated as the Poetical Books of the Bible. As poetry, Psalm 119 has a unique structure, a structure that sets it apart from most other psalms. It is an acrostic psalm. There are three main kinds of acrostic psalms. Psalm 119 represents the first type. Psalm 119 consists of twenty-two distinct sections or stanzas. The first letter of each of the eight lines that make up each stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza is devoted to the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet; in fact, each section is named after the letter of the Hebrew alphabet with which in the original Hebrew the first word of every line begins, Aleph through Taw. Other psalms than Psalm 119 use the same basic device, but altered so that each verse begins with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These psalms are Psalms 25, 34, and 145. This is also the structure of the last part of Proverbs 31, the section that begins with verse 10 and continues through the end of the chapter, verse 31. This is the section of Proverbs 31 that describes the “virtuous woman.” Then there is a third type of acrostic psalm, one in which not every section nor every verse, but every line within each verse begins with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. There are two such psalms and they are successive: Psalm 111 and Psalm 112.
There is a special significance attached to the acrostic psalms. It is not simply that the orderly arrangement of the psalm makes remembering the content of the psalm easier, although that is certainly part of the reason. But the main idea of the acrostic psalms is that in these psalms a given subject is covered, we would say, from A to Z, from Aleph to Taw. Everything important about a particular truth is contained in the psalm. The psalm covers a particular truth completely, from every angle and from every viewpoint. This is important as far as the exegesis (interpretation) of the psalm is concerned. That is also the case with, which sets forth every important truth regarding the virtuous woman.
What is true of the acrostic psalms generally is true of Psalm 119 specifically. Psalm 119 sets forth every important truth regarding the word of God. The truth of the word of God from A to Z is set forth in Psalm 119. This is very significant. The longest chapter in the lengthiest book of the Bible is not devoted to an exposition of the truth about marriage, the family, the church, the Trinity, or the coming of Christ. But this acrostic psalm is devoted to the truth of God’s word itself. This is of great significance. And undoubtedly the significance is that foundational to all truth and to every individual truth revealed in Scripture is the truth that the Bible is God’s word. The psalm is an ode to God’s word. In the psalm, God’s word is exalted. And the psalm makes plain the central place that God’s word occupies in the church and in the life of the believer individually.
This is the main, really the only, subject of Psalm 119. In nearly every one of the 176 verses of the psalm, God’s word is referred to. Nearly every verse of the psalm contains a reference to God’s word, by means of one of the synonyms for God’s word that appears throughout the psalm. Besides God’s word, the psalmist refers to God’s law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, and judgments.
The Attitude and Experience of the Psalmist
Although we are not informed who the human writer of Psalm 119 was, we do learn some important things about the psalmist. First, it is plain that the psalmist is a young man. He asks the Lord in verse 9, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” The human writer of Psalm 119 is a young man, likely in his teens or twenties. Everything that he says in Psalm 119, he says from the perspective of a young person. The delight in God’s word, the determination to obey God’s word, the love for God’s word, the persecution for the sake of God’s word—all are the delight, obedience, love, and persecution endured by a young man. When we read Psalm 119, we must not think of an old gray-headed saint, who has lived out most of his days and in the wisdom of old age makes confession of God’s word. Rather, we must think of a young man, a young man who has just reached maturity, a young man who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit sets forth in Psalm 119 the conviction of his faith with regard to the word of God.
In the second place, it is apparent that this young man was experiencing affliction, severe affliction, at the time that he penned Psalm 119. Verse after verse makes that plain. He prays in verse 22, “Remove from me reproach and contempt; for I have kept thy testimonies.” In verses 50-53 he writes, “This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me. The proud have had me greatly in derision: yet have I not declined from thy law. I remembered thy judgments of old, O Lord; and have comforted myself. Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law.” In verse 75 he traces his affliction to the sovereign hand of God: “I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.” In his suffering he laments, “For I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes” (v. 83). So extreme was his suffering that “[u]nless thy law had been my delights, I should have perished in mine affliction” (v. 92). In verse 107 he prays for the grace to bear up: “I am afflicted very much: quicken me, O Lord, according unto thy word”; and he adds in verse 153: “Consider mine affliction, and deliver me: for I do not forget thy law.”
The psalmist’s sufferings were sufferings that he endured at the hands of wicked men, men who did not love, but despised God’s word; men who did not delight in, but rejected God’s word; men who did not live in obedience to God’s word, but despised God’s good commandments. They were men who “had [him] greatly in derision” (v. 51). They were men who “reproached” him for his confession and walk: “Remove from me reproach and contempt; for I have kept thy testimonies” (v. 22), and “Turn away my reproach which I fear: for thy judgments are good” (v. 39). His suffering was suffering that wicked men brought against him: “The bands of the wicked have robbed me: but I have not forgotten thy law” (v. 61), and “The wicked have laid a snare for me: yet I erred not from thy precepts” (v. 110). They were “proud” men, who abhorred God’s humble servant: “Let the proud be ashamed; for they dealt perversely with me without a cause” (v. 78); “The proud have digged pits for me, which are not after thy law” (v. 85). Before God the psalmist pleads: “Leave me not to mine oppressors” (v. 121) and “Deliver me from the oppression of man” (v. 134).
Because the psalmist suffered at the hands of wicked men and because he suffered for his godly confession and walk, his suffering was the unique suffering of persecution. “Many are my persecutors and mine enemies” (v. 157), the psalmist cries out. His prayer to God is: “When wilt thou execute judgment on them that persecute me?” (v. 84). He complains in verse 86 that “they persecute me wrongfully.” And in verse 161 he laments: “Princes have persecuted me without cause.” The fact that “princes” persecuted him may indicate that the psalmist was David and that he wrote the psalm at the time when he fled from King Saul. But this is only a conjecture.
Psalm 119 magnifies the word of God. Fundamental to every other truth concerning the word of God is the truth that the Old Testament Scriptures are the word of God. Clearly that is how the psalmist views Scripture. The Scriptures are “the law of the Lord” and “thy law” (25 times); “thy commandments” (more than 20 times); “thy precepts” (more than 20 times); “thy word” (more than 20 times); “thy judgments” (20 times); “thy testimonies” (14 times); and “thy statutes” (more than 20 times). The Old Testament Scriptures are God’s law, God’s commandments, God’s precepts, God’s word, God’s judgments, God’s testimonies, and God’s statutes precisely because they are the infallibly inspired and inerrant word of God.
Next time we will return to Psalm 119 in order to see that the psalmist sets forth all the perfections of Scripture and also teaches us by his own example what our attitude ought to be towards the word of God.
1 John Calvin, “The Author’s Preface,” in Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1, p. xxxvii.
2 The book of Psalms, of course, does not, strictly speaking, consist of chapters, but contains 150 distinct psalms. It is also worth noting that the chapter and verse divisions in our English Bible are not inspired but are human inventions.