‘In Love With the Law’: A Reflection on Psalm 119

Written by Grace Elizabeth Stewart

The Psalms are a perennial favorite in Christianity. These ancient hymns and poems form an important part of many Jewish and Christian religious services, and are used as an aid in prayer and religious meditation. Among the psalms, 119 (in the Jewish/Protestant numbering) is a bit of a challenge. It’s the longest psalm, the longest chapter in the Bible, and on top of that, it’s an acrostic poem. Each of its twenty-two stanzas is labeled with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet, and each of the eight verses within that stanza begins with the same letter. This brilliantly arranged structure is both incredibly detailed and completely untranslatable, leaving most English translations with a mention of the original structure hiding in a footnote and leaving generations of Catechism students wondering why this psalm is so strange. Because it is strange. Each eight verse stanza is based on a single theme, but their connections are rather freeform. The poet alternates between devout, if formulaic prayer, tearful begging for deliverance, and bountiful praise of God and His law. In fact, some scholars have argued that this is the work of a trainee scribe who was practicing the poetic structure, not intended for public consumption.

Despite all this, I personally find Psalm 119, in all its stream-of-consciousness acrostic glory, to be an inspiring meditation on the burden of leadership as a person of faith.

Most interpretations of the Psalm focus on the theme of God’s law—it runs throughout the entire psalm, continually coming back to the speaker’s devotion to “statutes” and “ordinances,” in verses like “Put false ways far from me, and graciously teach me your law,” (29), “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law,” (34), “I hurry and do not delay to keep your commandments” (60). Phrases like this are constantly repeated throughout the 176 verses of this psalm, and when I say constantly, I do mean constantly. Because of this, it is easy to declare Psalm 119 nothing more than a discussion of the law and move on. However, though the verses of this psalm can of course  be a reminder for any believer of the need for submission to an authority and a will that is beyond and above their own, I think they can be especially inspiring and relevant to those in positions of authority themselves. Verses like “I know, O Lord, that your judgements are right, and that in faithfulness you have humbled me,” (75), speak to a person in a position of leadership, whose earthly judgement has been raised above that of their peers, nevertheless acknowledging that their earthly authority is nothing to that of their God. The speaker likewise speaks of God’s decrees as their counselors, who will advise them “though princes sit plotting against me” (23). The speaker repeatedly reaffirms their status as God’s servant, putting themselves in a subservient position, a reminder especially important to those who have no earthly authority over them. Again, the plea in verse 36, “turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain,” seems a clear reminder from the speaker to themselves that any power or wealth they have obtained is incidental and temporary, rather than a goal to be obtained.

Historically, Psalms have been a popular part of the Bible to memorize, and despite its length, several people have been noted for being able to recite it from memory, most prominently, British politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce. One of the most powerful men in the British Empire during the second half of the eighteenth century, Wilberforce was known to recite the psalm as he walked home from Parliament every evening. I imagine he found the words both a comfort and a reminder of his responsibilities as a leader and a very devoted Christian.

I think Psalm 119’s message about leadership can best be summarized by the first verse of another psalm, psalm 115 (my personal favorite): “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to your name give glory.” To be a leader of faith requires acknowledgment that your power is ultimately not your own, that any personal gain you make via your position is at best, temporary, and that you are forever, and always, a servant and a student of a much greater authority.

Grace Elizabeth Stewart is a fourth-year student at the University of St. Andrews, studying for a degree in International Relations and Modern Languages. Grace is the president of St. Andrews’ Coexistence Initiative.

Cover photo courtesy of Don Milonakis on Pexels.com