Psalm 119:1–18 (ESV)
We are continuing today in our series from the book of Psalms titled, “A Heart for God.” As with all sermons, the goal should not merely be to receive more information about God. We hope, each week, as we come together that our lives—not merely our minds—will be transformed by the Word of God through the Spirit of God.
Psalm 119 is special in several ways. First, it is the longest Chapter in the Bible, actually longer that several whole books of the Bible. It is around the same length as the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament and the book of Philippians in the New Testament. If we’re honest, sometimes when you arrive at Psalm 119 in your Bible reading plan, you may groan or speed-read it. I will appeal to you today to slow down and receive the grace contained in it.
Second, the Psalm is an acrostic poem. There are other Psalms which follow an acrostic pattern, but perhaps none so rigidly as Psalm 119. There are 22 stanzas—one for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza includes 8 verses which all begin with the same Hebrew Letter of the alphabet. Your Bible may have either the Hebrew letter or the pronunciation of that letter (“Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, etc.”) at the beginning of each section. If you’ve ever wondered about the Hebrew Alphabet, this is an interesting introduction to it. Of course, in English, we don’t get the same acrostic pattern, but we should still remember that this was not just a stream-of-consciousness Psalm when it was written. It is a carefully crafted masterpiece that required much meditation and discipline to write.
You likely have some idea regarding the subject matter of Psalm 119. Many here have likely memorized at least two or three verses from it at some point in our lives. All 176 verses except for several (84, 90-91, 121, 122, 132, 149) talk about God’s word in some fashion. There are 8 specific Hebrew words that refer to God’s Word. If you have a study Bible, you might have a chart listing the words. The ESV Study Bible has an excellent introduction to this particular Psalm. In English, the terms are:
Four of the stanzas include all eight words. The other stanzas include 6-7 of the words with some of them repeated.
The Psalm does not indicate who wrote it, or when it was written, though many commentators believe it was written after the Babylonian exile.
I realized I was in trouble preparing for this sermon when one of the commentaries I was reading made a statement to the effect of, “No preacher would try to preach on the whole Psalm at once, so this commentary will treat each stanza as a standalone section.” Obviously, we’re not going to go through the whole Psalm this morning, but we will cover several sections and individual verses. But, I mainly want us to walk away with a greater appreciation for this Psalm as a master-class in applying scripture to our lives through prayer.
We will think of the Psalm under these three points:
There are many ways that we experience God’s grace in our lives, and I’m using “Grace” to mean giving us good things we don’t deserve. Perhaps you grew up in a very God-fearing home with loving parents who disciplined you according to God’s word. Others grew up in homes where the name of Jesus Christ was mainly used as a curse word. Some here today have suffered significantly throughout their lives; others have had it pretty easy. God can use both of these kinds of circumstances to draw us to him, and that is God’s grace.
It is God’s grace to us that he displays his greatness and beauty to us through the creation itself.
Psalm 19:1 (ESV) — The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
God could have created a world where his creatures have no knowledge of his existence. But this is not the case, and this is God’s grace to us.
Romans 1:19–20 (ESV) — For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
God allows himself to be known by those he has created. This is God’s grace to us.
Specifically, we should give thanks to God this morning that God communicates his truth to us in words we can understand. This is so easy for us to take for granted.
I’m reminded of some creatures in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Dufflepuds (or Duffers) were monopod creatures that were completely unaware of the oversight and care of their master on the island. They complained, operated in their pride, and ultimately made their own lives harder all because they didn’t have eyes to see his gentle care of them.
If it were not for God’s word, we would walk in a similar plight. We might have some knowledge of God as creator, but we would not know what he was thinking or understand that he was working for our good.
We should acknowledge how significant it is that God speaks. Psalm 119 is one really long meditation on the grace of God poured out toward us through his words. How kind it is of God to tell us who he is, what he is like, how the world came into existence, where we came from, why we exist at all, exactly what God expects of us. God’s word explains the world as we see it, why people do the things they do. It tells us how to know God, how to please him, how to worship him, how to receive the forgiveness of sins, how to receive eternal life.
God was not required to tell us any of this. Imagine your life without this book. Imagine the tragedy of human history if God had not spoken to us, but merely created us to stumble through life wondering what the Creator intended for this world. Now, I realize there are many in this world who question the veracity or value of the Bible, but can you imagine the chaos and hopelessness of a world where God did not speak to his creatures in a way that they could understand and trust?
Psalm 119 is glorious in its appreciation for God’s word.
Sadly, millions of people around the world have no knowledge of God’s word. They don’t know that the one who created them and knows them by name has written a book to reveal himself to them.
If you’re here and new to Christianity or not yet a believer, I would ask you to consider what a miracle it is that the God who is above all, outside of creation, and infinite in wisdom and knowledge can so orchestrate his own creation that he uses dozens of human authors to write a book over thousands of years that perfectly and fully communicates his will to his creatures. It includes everything that we need in order to know him, know the way of salvation, obey his will, and understand our world.
Psalm 119:105 (ESV) — Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Each Sunday at the beginning of the sermon we are blessed to have individuals read the passage for the morning from the Word of God. They complete their reading by saying “This is the Word of the LORD” to which we reply “Thanks be to God.” We say this because it is God’s grace to us that we have his word at all.
Psalm 119 is a good reminder that we follow and serve and trust a God who speaks.
We have already mentioned that the Psalmist uses 8 different terms to reflect on God’s Words.
We should not try to make distinctions or contrasts among these words throughout the Psalm. I believe the broader point is to feel the complete and wholistic way in which God has spoken to his world.
Let’s look at one example stanza together that includes all eight terms.
Psalm 119:57–64 (ESV)
We should be grateful for the word of God. It’s not merely rules to limit our freedom or to keep us from living the way we want. It is our life.
What is so clear throughout the whole Psalm is how much regard and appreciation the Psalmist has for the Word of God.
Let’s look back at the beginning of the passage.
Psalm 119:1–5 (ESV)
I hope that verse 1 reminds you of Psalm 1.
Psalm 1:1–2 (ESV) — Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
This blessed life goes deeper than happiness, but certainly should include it. I actually love the comment in the ESV Study Bible on Psalm 1. “The truly happy person is happy because God showers him with favor.”
So it should be with us, and so it is with the author of Psalm 119. Do you desire God’s blessings on your life? Then take heed to this Psalm.
The two actions that we are encouraged to do here in the beginning are walking and keeping.
What does it mean to “walk” in the law of the Lord? It certainly means more than just to know it or to be familiar with it. You are blessed if you “do” them, if you apply them to your life. If you work God’s commands out into your actions, not merely your beliefs. There are certainly things in God’s word we need to believe and cling to, but “walking” in the law of the Lord goes beyond that. This is the message to the young child raised in a Christian home—walk in God’s ways. It’s the same message to the reprobate adult who repents and turns to God, “walk in his ways.”
It’s important to see that this Psalm is not only for the righteous, but for those who have fallen short of the glory of God. One might think by looking at verse one that this Psalm is for the super-righteous.
Don’t disconnect from this Psalm yet. There is more to come. The Psalmist is not claiming sinless perfection for himself or any other here, as we’ll see in a few minutes.
But, if you would be blameless, if you would like to walk in a clear conscience, if you would like to live a life pleasing to God, walk in the law of the Lord.
Remember that the “law of the Lord” is not merely the Ten Commandments (after all, they are actually called the 10 “words” not the Ten Laws). Law is also broader than the moral code giving to Israel in the wilderness. Sometimes, we refer to the first five books of the Bible as the Law. This is helpful, but still sometimes we think too narrowly about what is meant by law. After all, the Torah (Law) includes passages like Numbers 6.
Numbers 6:24–26 (ESV) — The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
In our libertarian, individualistic age, we too easily think of Law as limiting my freedom or enjoyment of life. But, this is not the way of God. His law (instruction, guidance, wisdom for living) gives freedom and life.
Psalm 119:96 (ESV) — I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad.
Following and walking in God’s ways brings freedom and blessing in the broadest sense. It doesn’t hem you in to a narrow place with no escape; it opens up countless possibilities of God’s blessings to flow into your life.
“Keep” is used 27 times in the Psalm to describe what we should do with God’s words. It means to guard, preserve, keep watch over, observe. Here are some example verses:
- Psalm 119:33 (ESV) — Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end.
- Psalm 119:44 (ESV) — I will keep your law continually, forever and ever,
- Psalm 119:167 (ESV) — My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly.
Like “walk” this is more than mere reading or hearing. There is a holding-on-to in this word. It’s not necessarily the exact idea of meditation, but is part of it.
I’m particularly struck by how this might apply to our generation specifically. We live in an age where you can “search” instead of “keep.” Why do I need to keep God’s word so carefully when a quick word search in Google, or even better, in my Bible Software yields exact results for words or phrases. I like a good computer search as much as the rest of you, but there is something stirring or even convicting about reading Psalm 119 and keeping God’s word. It’s personal. It requires sacrifice and effort. It shows a delight in God and his word that mere study and searching do not.
Do I hold God’s word close enough to my heart that it changes me? Do I guard it enough that if I lost my Logos Bible Software I could still delight in it? Have I kept it close enough to bring for the right truth in the middle of a significant conversation with my friend or neighbor?
May God make us into a church that keeps God’s word, law, testimonies, statues, promises, and judgements close enough that it affects our thinking, attitudes, and actions.
There is one more aspect to these introductory verses that I want to point out. Occasionally, one who diligently gives himself to keeping God’s word is criticized. Maybe something like this. “Yes, yes, you know God’s word, but do you know God?” Please don’t pit these ideas against one another. Jesus did warn the Pharisees against keeping the law but having their heart far from God. But that is not what the Psalmist is doing here. Notice verse 2 again.
The Psalmist puts keeping God’s words and seeking God with your whole heart in parallel. These can be the same thing. It’s important to keep these two things together. Seeking God apart from his word is risky, and studying God’s word apart from a desire to know HIM is deadening. May God help us keep these together!
Having said all of that, how would you characterize Psalm 119? What is it? What is it about? What is the writer trying to show us?
I would have said, “Psalm 119 is a great treatise on the Word of God and how we should view it.”
This is true to a point, but misses perhaps one of the most important aspects of the Psalm.
What words would you think are used most frequently in the Psalm? If you said “word” or “law” or “testimonies” you’d be close, but would miss what’s actually happening here.
After the first four verses, the Psalmist actually gets to his real point. He prays for the next 172 verses. The most frequently used words are not those associated with the word, but “I, me, my, and mine” and “you, your, yours.” Have you noticed that before.
This Psalm is no mere “theology” of scripture. It’s great to have a robust doctrine of God’s Word, but that’s not really what this Psalm is. Instead, Psalm 119 is a master class in applying the word of God to your everyday struggles. It is not a teaching about God’s word, it is the longest prayer in the Bible. This is the real glory of these 176 verses. It is a saint of God seeking to live to God’s glory by walking in his word, acknowledging that he desperately needs God’s help. In other words, the Psalmist is showing us what we need to be doing.
Finding himself in persecution from powerful people who ridicule his faith in an effort to shame him into abandoning it, the psalmist strengthens himself by his detailed meditations on the Word of the LORD, which is his comfort, his prized possession, his rule of life, his resource for strength, and his message of hope, all of which inspire him to desire it even more, to live by it, and to pray for its fulfillment.
- Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (90–150): Commentary, vol. 3, 463.
I am struck by the Psalmists resolve to walk in God’s ways, but perhaps more in awe of his honest pleas for help from God himself to help him to that very thing.
This is such an amazing dance between his personal commitments and praying for God’s help, between zeal for God and dependence on God, for confidence in God’s word and the need for God to open our eyes to understand.
Isn’t this where we really live life? We DO believe the Bible, yet we need God’s understanding to know what to do in our failures or frustrations or successes. We are confident in God, yet we see so many external pressures attempting to lead us away from the ways of God.
In our look at Psalm 42 several weeks ago, we considered that sometimes when we are listening to ourselves, we should be preaching to ourselves. In other words, sometimes we listen to our doubts or grumbling or complaining. We meditate on “woe is me.” We believe our feelings even when we know our own heart may not accurately interpret a given situation, especially when we are suffering. In those times it is better to preach to yourself than to listen. You should remind yourself of what God says. We should remind ourselves of God’s promises and his character. We should remember and tell ourselves of the confidence we have in future blessings from God.
But, here, that is NOT what we have. It’s as if the Psalmist skips over the “preach to yourself” strategy and goes directly to prayer. He speaks to the one that can intervene and bring clarity. He prays to the one who can change the situation, who can bring judgment on the wicked, who can give him hope in the moment.
It’s astounding how honest the Psalmist can be, while still directing his prayer godward. We should learn from this.
The writer is clearly going through a difficult time. He’s under external pressure to abandon God and under internal pressure because of his suffering. But, notice how disciplined he is to take his concerns to God in prayer, while still staying tied and anchored to God’s Word.
Let’s look at some additional verses together. This is a little more reading than we typically do, but we need to hear this juxtaposition of prayer and word together.
Psalm 119:17–24 (ESV)
You can hear his desperation for God to help, but it’s right alongside his commitment to obeying God’s word.
Psalm 119:25–32 (ESV)
Psalm 119:36–37 (ESV)
Psalm 119:50 (ESV)
Psalm 119:67–72 (ESV)
Psalm 119:87–94 (ESV)
Psalm 119:105 (ESV)
Psalm 119:169–176 (ESV)
Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the one who seeks us when we go astray.
John 1:1–2 (ESV) — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
John 1:12–14 (ESV) — But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Hebrews 1:1–3 (ESV) — Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Express gratefulness for a God who speaks.
Keep it, don’t just skim it or search it.
Desire for God. Not just intellectual assent.
Pray with it.
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