Meeting the Author of Psalm 119

Psalm 119 is the longest poem in the Book of Psalms. It has 22 stanzas of 8 lines each giving a total of 176 verses. The psalm is an acrostic. It has 22 stanzas because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Many English versions will put the name of the Hebrew letter above each stanza (e.g., Aleph, Beth, Gimel). That means each of the eight lines of a stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet as the author works through the entire alphabet.

That is not the only challenge in the composition of this poem. The author also uses the word law (the Hebrew word is Torah, which also means instruction) and seven other synonyms of law. These eight words for God’s instructions in the ESV are law, testimonies, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, rules, and word. The poem uses one of these words in every line of the poem except for four, and it appears the author compensates for these four lines because in five lines of the poem a word for God’s instructions occurs twice. Clearly, the psalmist has signaled that this poem is about God’s instructions, and by using the entire alphabet, he is attempting to express himself as we would say from A to Z.

But I must confess that my early readings of this psalm found only a few nuggets, verses that I thought were worth underlining. I also read over a lot of things in the psalm missing what was going on. What helped my reading of the psalm was an inductive approach. I read the psalm asking a set of questions: What do I learn about the author? What are his petitions? What does he say about God’s instructions? Let me finish this first article with some observations about the author.

The author seems to be a younger man, because he says he has more understanding that all his teachers (119:99) and the aged (119:100), since he meditates on God’s testimonies and keeps God’s precepts. Maybe that is why he asks the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure” (119:9a)? Although he now memorizes God’s instructions so that he might not sin (119:11), he confesses “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” (119:67). The circumstances of the psalmist are persecution (119:84-87) and desire for salvation and comfort (119:81-82). He complains, “I have become like a wineskin in the smoke” (119:83). The image is of a wineskin becoming so dried out and brittle that it is in danger of perishing. In the midst of his difficulties, he hangs on to God’s faithfulness and steadfast love (119:88, 90), and he is sustained in his trials by God’s word.

Through this inductive study I have more than a few verses worth underlining. I now see a real person in the ups and downs of life, who hangs on to God by reliance on God’s word. I find a valuable life lesson through this inductive study by meeting the author of Psalm 119.

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