November 13, 2014

The best of the best for Psalm 119

by Jesse Johnson

When I came to Immanuel in March of 2012, the first series I preached was Psalm 119. I chose this Psalm because I wanted to impress on people the foundational nature of the Bible. As Christians, we never get beyond the fact that the word of God is absolutely necessary for everything related to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Psalm 119 makes that point in every single verse.

Yesterday I catalogued the themes of each stanza. Today I want to pass along the most helpful Psalm 119 resources. All four of these interact with every single verse of the stanza (whereas most commentaries have sections on Psalm 119 shorter than the actual psalm!)

These four were the most helpful to me in my preaching, and three of them are free on-line:  

Psalm 119, The Diary of a Captive, by Gene Cunningham, was my favorite resource. Cunningham has spent 30 years as a missionary training pastors in India and Papua New Guinea. He has taught through the book multiple times, and has put his material in the form of this concise book.

This is a unique book because Cunningham takes each Hebrew letter, illustrates it, then shows how that letter has a meaning by itself (aleph is an ox, bet a house, and so on). Then he ties the meaning of that letter to the content of each stanza. This is an eye-opening approach, and one that is extremely helpful to the preacher. Cunningham comments on each verse in light of the overarching letter, ends each stanza with a prayer, and begins each stanza with a statement about Yahweh (e.g. “The Lord is my wealth,” “The Lord is my home,” etc.).

He believes the author to be an unknown prisoner, taken in the Babylonian captivity, and writing the psalm on a forced march to his new home. Much of his interpretation is in light of that authorship. You can buy the book used on Amazon, or download an updated version for free here.

Charles Bridges, an Anglican pastor in the early 1800’s, wrote what is easily the most monumental book on the psalm: Exposition of Psalm 119 (free online here, or hardback from Amazon; I recommend the Kindle version for .99 so you can underline and take notes). This book is massive, but that’s ok because Spurgeon said it was “worth its weight in gold.”

Bridges takes the psalm to be Davidic, and he frequently has pages of commentary on a single verse. He interprets the psalm as given by God to be one of the most critical passages motivating a pure heart. If you have not read anything by Bridges before, this is a great place to start. You can jump in at any part, and when you come back, go again to any section. The book is huge, but there are no wasted words.

Charles Spurgeon loved Bridges’ book, but that didn’t stop him from writing his own. The Golden Alphabet is Spurgeon’s tribute to Bridges, as well as to the Psalmist himself (like Bridges, Spurgeon argues for Davidic authorship). Spurgeon translates most of the psalm himself, and he reworks a few of the stanzas to get them to start with the same letter throughout (as they did in Hebrew). He argues for the unity of the psalm and the progressive nature between the stanzas.

I’m familiar with Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, and it is obvious that Psalm 119 held a special place in Spurgeon’s devotional life. All his sermons are good, but his exegetical work in Psalm 119 is near the top.

You can get The Golden Alphabet for free in any number of places. This one here is hyperlinked by stanza. I recommend the Kindle version. The .99 cost is worth the pagination and ability to underline that the on-line versions don’t have.

Finally, if you can read Hebrew words then George Zemek’s The Word of God in the Child of God is an essential tool. Zemek, who teaches Hebrew at The Expositor’s Seminary, gives his own translation of the whole psalm. But what sets Zemek’s work apart is that it is the only one I know of that outlines each stanza (he actually does this 2xs—once in English and then in the back of the book in Hebrew).

After the translation and outline, each stanza has technical notes, followed by a synopsis and finally a commentary. He persuasively argues that the psalm was likely written by Daniel, and the entire commentary is written with the preacher in mind.

You can get a hard copy at Amazon ($40), or electronically in Logos as part of a Zemek collection ($70). If you know what an aleph and a jussive are, then shell out the cash, because this book is worth it.

Does anyone know any other resources on this psalm that should be on the list? Have you read any that are here? What do you think?

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.
  • Mr. Mike

    Hey, who is this Spurgeon guy? I haddon heard of him before I started reading your blogs. (Was that too lame? Well, it’s 5am so…) Christianbooks.com has Psalm 119 by Bridges for 20 bucks, by the way. I’m going to pay you a visit one day as I’m only a few miles away in Pasadena, MD. You are an amazing servant.

    • We’d love to have you visit. We are about an hour away from you. Closer to you is also Hope Bible church in Columbia MD (hopebiblechurch.org) or George Lawson (who blogs here sometimes as well has a church in Baltimore (baltimorebiblechurch.org). If you do make it IBC, come say hi to me between services. Thanks Mr. Mike.

  • I really appreciate that you and the other Cripplegate writers share good Bible study sources like these. When my husband and I study, we don’t usually know the best sources for one Bible book or another. Also, although we prefer hard copies, buying books for each Bible book we study can get expensive, so the option of cheaper electronic copies is helpful. Thanks.

  • Markus

    Love Ps. 119. Appreciate the resources – very helpful. Eager to read the one by Spurgeon. Also enjoyed previous post on it. Ps. 119 is at center of my worship in the Word. Reading, praying, being convicted by three to four letters daily at meals plows my heart pretty well and covers all the bases. Any suggestions how to memorize it? Thanks.

    • One stanza at a time 🙂
      There were people in my congregation who did memorize it whiel we went through it. I, however, am not one of those.

  • J Stricklin

    I was also helped by Dr. Barrick’s notes on Ps. 119. Here is a link to a pdf: http://drbarrick.org/files/studynotes/Psalms/Ps_119.pdf

    Also, Jay Adams short commentary, “Counsel from Psalm 119” provides some help in thinking about practical application and counsel from the psalm.

    • Sweet. Thanks especially for the Dr Barrick link.

  • tovlogos

    I’ll go after Zemek’s book; and if Spurgeon endorsed Bridges’ book I’ll buy that also. I don’t want to spend too much time on proving authorship, however, just content.
    It’s all about God, His word, for the benefit of people. The Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer prayed over any Jewish person who dies is not about the deceased; but about the living — it’s mainly an exaltation of God, with a few lines about keeping Israel safe. Thanks, Jesse.

  • Donna Shannon

    Jesse, I have found reading a wide variety of commentaries and books on Psalm 119 has been helpful and fascinating. The Diary of a Captive has been one I have returned to repeatedly for devotional reading. But an article by David Powilson, “Suffering and Psalm 119” has been extremely helpful to wrap one’s mind around it from both a counseling and comforting perspective but also to be able to address the entire 176 verses in one message. Dr Varner has a devotional Commentary, “Awake O Harp” that I also enjoyed.

  • george canady

    It seems that at the cross the old testament death penalties for the enemies of God was taken and a new command was given. In Christ we now have been given a desire to pray for Gods’ enemies to be saved. It seems, as I hear the Psalms read sometimes now, many pray the death penalty back on to the enemies of God and forget to pray for their salvation as if they know who is condemned already.

  • David Moore

    Interesting article, as always, Jesse. I think Spurgeon also thought highly of Thomas Manton, a Puritan clergyman. Writes Spurgeon in his “Flowers from a Puritan Garden,” 1883: “While commenting upon the One Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm, I was brought into most intimate communion with THOMAS MANTON, who has discoursed upon that marvellous portion of Scripture with great fulness and power.” Manton’s approach to Ps. 119 was to discuss each verse in a sermon. There are available in Logos here: https://www.logos.com/product/8562/the-complete-works-of-thomas-manton