In praise of the longest psalm

By Derek Olsen

Psalm 119, weighing in at 176 verses, has the virtue of being the longest psalm in the Scriptures. According to Cranmer’s original 30-day plan for reading the psalms, we start 119 on the evening of the 24th and don’t finish it until two days later on the evening of the 26th. The more you look at, the more unusual it becomes. First, you’ll notice that it’s broken up into twenty-two parts, each containing eight verses, and that our prayer book identifies each with an odd word. Take a look at the original Hebrew and you’ll quickly see why—even if you don’t read any Hebrew at all… This psalm is an acrostic, meaning that different lines begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. There are other acrostics among the psalms but they tend to be 22 verses long: one for each letter of the alphabet. Only Psalm 119 dwells on each letter for eight verses.

Furthermore, this psalm doesn’t “go” anywhere. Some psalms are narratives; they literally take you on a journey whether it’s out of Egypt and into the Promised Land (like Ps 78) or from vignette to vignette (like Ps 109). But Ps 119 isn’t like these; you can read it forward or read it backward—starting with v. 176 and reading back up to v. 1—and it doesn’t change the meaning one bit.

Lastly, the closer you look at each set of eight verses, the more you start seeing certain words. In fact there are a set of synonyms which keep appearing over and over again: “word,” “statutes,” “judgments,” “decrees,” “commandments,” “law”… They appear with such regularity that it becomes clear that there is some highly elaborate pattern at work directing the structure of the psalm: each verse has to begin with the same letter of the alphabet and as many of these synonyms for “law” must be worked in as possible before moving on to the next letter.

For these reasons—especially the last—a whole school of Old Testament scholarship takes Psalm 119 to be people’s exhibit A of everything wrong with the worship of Israel before the time of Jesus. This school, German and beginning in the mid to late 19th century, was heavily influenced by Romanticism and its notions of authenticity, inspiration, and artistic expression. The prophets! they cried, the prophets were the truest and best example of authentic religion in the Old Testament because they present the individual genius (as in Romanticism), directly wrestling with messages from God (not just “texts”), rejecting conventional formulae, and presenting their bold calls to the people who subsequently reject them (a classic Romantic criterion for true authenticity). This psalm (they said) uses a formulaic structure that clearly stifles the creative spirit, points back to a legalistic religious text instead of living personal experience, and is completely and thoroughly anonymous; in no way does it satisfy their religio-aesthetic standards.

I’ve never liked this understanding of Psalm 119. Rather, I see Ps 119 as a word of invitation.

The German school sees this psalm as “artificial”—but, I’d argue—perhaps that is where we find its value. Lately when I read Psalm 119 I’ve been reminded of two things: a poem and a picture. I’d agree that it’s artificial—but then, so is all good poetry. That is, a poet voluntarily embraces restrictions in order to use a form that restricts expression in order to enable meaning. To accept the boundaries of rhythm and meter is to accept a challenge to communicate in a form that itself communicates by its very rules and strictures. Reading Psalm 119, I think of the Pantoum—a stylized form of poem where the first and third lines of each four line stanza become the second and fourth of the next. Because of its shape, the Pantoum lends itself to poems about time or experience because of the constant repetition of elements and the measured progress of meaning. (Here’s a good example.) So what is the function of this psalm’s particular form? Where is it inviting us? What state is it evoking within us?

And that leads me to the picture: a carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. One of the great treasures produced by early medieval English scriptoriums, the pages that set each gospel off from one another are a dizzy and dazzling nest of knots and curls and circles one within another. They, no less than the psalm, are artificial as well—but does this detract from or create the beauty they embody? And indeed it is the very curling and looping that leads me from this artistry back to the psalm. The curls do not lead us anywhere except back from whence we came. They invite us not to linear progress from one side to another but rather to the places and spaces within and among themselves. Just as the picture invites reflection and study and contemplation, so too the psalm invites us to rest, to wait, to ponder.

The form of the psalm—especially if you’re already familiar with the acrostic form and if you’re expecting the psalm to head directly to the next letter—holds you back. It contradicts the expectation of informed readers, deliberately slowing their pace through the poem. The use of synonyms further invites careful reading. They ask that attention to be paid to shades of meaning. Is there a reason why “decrees” appears in one place rather than another? What’s the nuance of “word”? Only close and careful attention to the text and its turns, a measured turning over of the verses and repeated readings will yield results.

As the form communicates, compelling a closer reading, to content surges ahead to reveal a why and wherefore. The world that the psalmist evokes is not a safe place. It’s a place filled with dangers and powerful enemies. This isn’t a psalm about contemplation that takes place away from the world. Rather, the sense the psalmist draws forth is that contemplation of God’s commandments and then translating that contemplation into righteous action is a means of survival! But it’s more than that too—moving through survival, faithful obedience becomes a source of joy. The word “delight” in regard to the Law appears no less than ten times.

Contemplation blossoming into righteous action proceeding into a disposition of holy joy leading once again into contemplation. At points, the Church has seen this psalm as a paradigm of how daily life ought to be understood. One classical scheme of arranging the psalms for the Daily Office—including the Tridentine Breviary of Pope Pius V—assigned the entirety of Psalm 119 to be read throughout the Little Hours that punctuated the day. Thus it would be begun shortly after the sun’s rise, then would be recalled three more times until the late afternoon and the sun’s wane, each and every day. Reminding and reforming those who prayed that their daily labor ought to be intertwined and entangled with the contemplation and incarnation of God’s Law and Word. A vestige of this theology remains in the first psalm selection of our current Noonday Prayer.

Psalm 119 is long. It is repetitious. But these are the qualities that invite us into a spirit of contemplation. It issues an invitation to dive into the Word and—yes—into the Law, to roll ourselves in it, to lose and loose ourselves within its depth and breadth and height and width. To find hope. To find delight. To learn to say with the psalmist, echoing the spirit of the true Psalmist, the great paradox of Law and Gospel: “I will run the way of your commandments, for you have set my heart at liberty.”

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable preschool girls and his wife, a priest in the Diocese of Atlanta, is complicated by his day-jobs as a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His blog is Haligweorc.

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