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But It's So Long

by Tim O'Hearn

In the New International Version (NIV) it is 2,337 words long. It takes almost thirty minutes to read aloud. At 176 verses, it is the longest chapter in the Bible. It is Psalm 119.

Why is this Psalm so long? Why does the psalmist seem to say the same thing over and over? And what is this Aleph, Beth, Gimmel stuff that some Bibles put between sections of the song?

The 119th Psalm is intriguing in many ways. Some of it has to do with the nature of Hebrew poetry. Some of it has to do with the nature of God. And some of it has to do with human nature.

It’s human nature

People like to know the best, the most, the least, the first, the last, the middle. Because Psalm 119 is so long, it lends itself to the interest of those seeking obscure and possibly unimportant facts.

The psalm is the longest of the psalms, and the longest chapter in the Bible. It is two psalms after the shortest chapter (and psalm) in the Bible. It consists of 176 verses divided into twenty-two sections. (But more on that later.) In most English Bibles (consisting of both theIf you have trouble understanding exactly what is meant, check a few verses forward or backwards. Old and New Testaments) the Psalms are in the very middle of the book. If you open the pages approximately half way you will be in the Psalms, and very near Psalm 119. This, of course, does not hold true if the books are arranged in the Jewish manner, in which case the Psalms come very near the end.

All the verses of Psalm 119 relate to one central theme. Almost every one contains one or more of nine different, but related, words. Those are, in English and Hebrew:

Law (Torah) 26 times
Commandments (Mitzvah) 24 times
Word (Dabur) 24 times
Judgements (Mishpat) 23 times
Precepts (Pikkud) 21 times
Statutes (Chok) 21 times
Testimonies (Edah) 14 times
Way(s) (Derech) 14 times
Truth/faithfulness (Emunah) 6 times

Part of what intrigues us about the book, and maybe drives some of the facts above, is the nature of Hebrew poetry. The Psalms, and especially number 119, are not like English poetry.

The nature of Poetry

In English poetry, and some in other Western languages as well, rhyme is king. There are some types of poetry in which rhyme is minor or non-existent. The greatest of all English poets, William Shakespere, only used rhyme in the closing couplets of each scene, in his plays. But when we think of poetry in English we most often think of rhyming poems, like those of Robert Frost or Edgar Alan Poe, of Tennyson or Cooleridge. Hebrew poetry does not emphasize rhyme.

Psalm 119 is a prime example of two aspects of Hebrew poetry. Those aspects color both its structure and its message.

One of those aspects is repetition, and boy does Psalm 119 use this. A quick reading of the Psalms and the Proverbs will make even the most casual observer note that the author frequently repeats a thought in slightly different words. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Ps 119:105)

Sometimes this method is used merely to show two ways of looking at something. Sometimes it is used for emphasis. Sometimes it serves as clarification. If you read something in the Hebrew idiom, especially in the poetic books, and have trouble understanding exactly what is meant, check within a few verses forward or backwards. Sometimes you will find a parallel sentence that will clarify the thought. This is true not only in the poetics; it may hold true in the Law as well. For instance, there are those who argue that the fruit of the vine used at Passover must be unfermented, because alcoholic wines are fermented with yeast. Since there is to be no leaven in the house, the argument goes, there must necessarily be no alcoholic wine. A look at one verse, which uses this parallelism, may suffice to show that wine does not fall under the prohibition. “Ye shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall ye eat unleavened bread.” (Ex 12:20) Moses’ use of the poetic form here explains that “leaven” in the first part of the verse is specifically a reference to leavened “bread.” Thus it applies to leaven (which is not necessarily yeast) in any of the five grains from which bread was made (wheat, oat, barley, rye, and spelt—and some add rice and corn/maize), and does not apply to grapes, from which bread is not commonly made. Thus it is not uncommon for Jewish families to use kosher wine during Passover. The repetition explains and limits the first phrase.

The 119th Psalm is, essentially, one massive repetition, in which there might be other parallelisms. Every verse repeats, modifies, or explains every other verse of the psalm.

The second aspect of Hebrew poetry most evident in this psalm is the use of an acrostic. It normally does not come across clearly in translation, but some translators have made it more obvious in this one psalm. In an acrostic, the first letter of each line or group of lines either spells out a word or phrase, or consists of consecutive letters of the alphabet.

Let me tell you
Of my feelings;
Very much,
Emotions flow.

This is a very crude acrostic in which the first letters of each line spell out the emotion that the poet wants to express. Of course, this would not translate well because the English word “love” might translate as “amor” or “lyublyu.” That would destroy the effect. Most of the acrostic psalms, however, are alphabetic rather than linguistic. Some are twenty-two lines long, with each line beginning with successive letters. Psalm 119 consists of twenty-two groupings of eight lines, each grouping beginning with the same letter. That is why some translators put the appropriate Hebrew letter at the beginning of each section. The poet could even have made each alphabetic section contain a separate thought, had he so chosen. Thus the structure of the poem dictates its length, as well as constraining its language.

The nature of God

The interesting facts and the structure of the psalm are very good, but they don’t primarily impact the message of the poem. That message is the nature of God and his relationship to those of his creation who follow him. Look again at the list of key words in the psalm. They all relate to God’s message to man. Some may refer to things he tells his people without explaining the reason why (chok). Some relate to commands that demand our active attention (mitzvot). Still others relate to his characteristics that man should emulate (mishpat and emunah). All generally fall under the descriptions law, words, and way. God, in accordance with his nature, has communicated his will to man. He is not a creator who has put his toy on the shelf to let it run down and gather dust, as many of America’s founding fathers believed. He did not make man in his own image and then leave him to blindly grope about, nor did he make robots that must blindly follow him. He gave us his word, and the option to follow it.

And that leads to the second part of the message. God’s communication to man shows in almost every verse of the psalm. So does a reason for man’s acceptance of, and obedience toPsalm 119 consists of twenty-two groupings of eight lines; each grouping, like many acrostic psalms, begins with the same letter., that communication. The psalmist shows the benefit of listening to God. Sometimes God’s word helps us to praise him. “I will praise thee with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned thy righteous judgments.” (Ps 119:7) God’s word helps us answer those who oppose us. “So shall I have wherewith to answer him that reproacheth me: for I trust in thy word.” (Ps 119:42) It teaches us how to avoid sin. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” (Ps 119:11) It gives us wisdom.

O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.
Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.
I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word.
I have not departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me.
How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way. (vv. 97-104)

It gives us hope. “Thou art my hiding place and my shield: I hope in thy word.” (v. 114). Mostly, it helps us to stand as righteous in God’s presence. By following the communications that God has given us, we have the right to commune with him. Just the fact that the psalmist takes 176 verses to say this shows how important communion with God was to him, and should be to us.