November 12, 2014

Not alphabet soup: the truth about Psalm 119

by Jesse Johnson

Psalm 119 is the longest poem in the Bible. It is the longest prayer in the Bible. It is the longest acrostic in the Bible. It is the longest chapter in the Bible. It stands at the center of the Bible, and it is about the Bible. The longest Psalm is a psalm about Psalms. The most intimidating chapter in the Word is also a chapter about the Word.

The scope of Psalm 119 is both huge (22 stanzas) and limited (every verse is about scripture). The chapter covers every aspect of life—successes, failures, victories, defeats, prosperity and adversity—and yet is also almost entirely a prayer (nearly every verse is directed to Yahweh).

Because of its length, the unity of it can often be missed. The stanzas are not interchangeable. Instead, this Psalm is masterfully crafted to guide the reader in a progression through the believer’s life. It covers all you need to know about leading a godly life, from A-Z (or aleph-to-tav, as it were). And it does so in order.  

A to Z

A (aleph) is the foundational principle to Christian living: happiness comes from holiness. If you aren’t holy, you aren’t happy, and if you want to be happy, try holiness (this is why this stanza alone, but also bet and het, are powerful antidotes to the Jesus-plus-Nothing/let-go-let-God approach to sanctification).

B (bet) shows that sanctification produces satisfaction. This is a satisfaction that affects every area of our life, and it grows into delight and joy that makes a person feel better than the wealthiest people alive. In fact, these first two stanzas make the believer’s life sound easy, if it were not for:

C (gimel), which teaches that believers are pilgrims. This world is not our home. We are passing through, and we never will really belong here. That would be hard enough, but then we find out that

D (dalet) the life of pilgrim is marked by trials. Our soul will spend time in the dust, filled with sorrow, while we beg God to help us be obedient.

E (he) is a truism: the result of these trials is that you are what you love. The worth of a man is seen in the worth of the object of his affections. Do you want to be a worthy person? Then love the worthy Word!

F (vav) serves as a recap, and shows the progression of a believer’s life. Faith leads to trust, trust to perseverance, perseverance to trials, trials become trails to holiness.

G (zayin) then reminds us that while all of that is true, that doesn’t make it easy. Just because the path is spelled out, does not mean that it will be effortless to walk. Thus our lives will be marked difficulty. Happiness is connected to holiness, but that doesn’t mean that holiness is easy.

H (het) is written in light of that tension: even though the road will be hard, the Psalmist vows that he will walk it, no matter the severity of the trials and persecution. Knowing the dangers and difficulties, the true believer vows to endure.

I (tait) in turn teaches that this vow is not made in a vacuum. Rather, it is only possible knowing the truth of what we might call irresistible grace. God will indeed pursue his own children. The elect will not get away from the path, because God is the hound of heaven.

Then J (yod) shows that when God catches us, we experience the full force of the reason for which we were made: we were made to obey. God made us with his hand, so that we would serve him with ours.

K (kaph) then pauses for a moment and shows us that not all trials come because of the world. In some cases God choses to afflict even his own obedient children in order to sanctify them. As a side point, this is obviously seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

L (lamed) answers K by proving that God will save even though he strikes. God may strike his own son(s), but the righteous will always be vindicated by him—even if it requires a resurrection.

M (mem) is a response to the gravity of the truths described in K and L. It is a declaration that true wisdom develops from God’s word and God’s ways. His ways are not ours, his plans not ours, and thus the one who knows his word will have hate false wisdom, and cling to God’s path.

N (nun) answers this basic question: how can the wise person stay on God’s path in a world that is so hostile to believers? The world is filled with the darkness of false wisdom, and God’s children are aliens surrounded by danger. But his word is a light for our feet—our GPS that will bring us home.

O (samech) teaches us that while God’s word may guide believers, God’s judgment certainly awaits those who do not come to the light.

But for those who do come, ayin shows that God holds them in his hand. If you are in the light, you are a slave to God, a slave to holiness, and a slave to his word.

P (pe) then shows how God uses his slaves. He puts us in a holy war, a battle against sin. We are his warriors, and sanctification is our battlefield.

Tsade illustrates the battle lines: God is righteous, and everyone else is on the other side. Unless you are reconciled to him through his word, you are his enemy.

In light of that division, Q (cough) shows that we must rely on prayer. We are deployed soldiers, and prayer is the walkie-talkie to our commanders. It bridges the gap the in the battle.

R (resh) simply teaches that prayer is not enough for our battle—which is good because it is not alone. God will always respond to those who pray in faith, and he will save those who cry to him.

S (shin) is then a picture of what those who are rescued look like. It describes what they do, what they care about, and how they feel. It shows that those who are rescued love God’s word and hate God’s enemies.

T (or “Z”, tav, the last letter) then rolls the credits and provides the eternal imagery of the rescued believer as a sheep in need of a shepherd. Even after going through the believer’s life from A to Z, we are still in our position as a sheep, totally dependent on God’s word.

I just preached 22 sermons from Psalm 119. The audio/video of each of those is available here .

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.