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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

What’s in the Longest Chapter of the Bible?

by William Boekestein posted June 28, 2022

Psalm 119 is a majestic poem of praise for God’s word. But at 176 verses, the Bible’s longest chapter is intimidating. We know some verses: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). But the psalm is meant to be read—and probably memorized—in its entirety. The writer used a masterful scheme to ease memorization—an acrostic poem. The eight-verse sections follow the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

If we do read it all, this theme will be drummed into us from start to finish: God’s law is a matchless treasure (Ps. 119:162)! And this can be true for you no matter your trials. The writer had problems. Princes plotted against him so that his “soul clings to the dust” (Ps. 119:23, 25). But in real-world troubles, God’s ways buoyed his hope: “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word!” (Ps. 119:28).

The writer praises God’s law in three ways: He shows its objective goodness, he exemplifies how believers delight in it, and he seeks help in obeying it.

God’s Law Is Good

“Your rules are good” (Ps. 119:39). Rules often seem like meaningless restrictions that keep us from doing what we want. But God’s laws aren’t limitations; they wisely order his good creation. The writer isn’t simply praising rules; he’s praising God’s ways. To expand our view of law, God uses a host of synonyms: testimonies, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, rules—and that’s just the first eight verses! God wants to change our fundamental attitude about his rule. Christians must believe “everything laid down by the Law” (Acts 24:14), trusting that it’s good (Rom. 7:12).

Why is God’s law good? God’s laws are true (Ps. 199:142, 151). They “are based on the very nature of things and the very nature of God,” so “in the Law you find the ‘real’ or ‘correct’ or stable, well-grounded, directions for living.”[i] Human ways fail the test of reality. “Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time.”[ii] God’s rules are good because they reject “every false way” (Ps. 119:128). God confirms the goodness of his law by spurning all who hate his statutes; he discards them like dross (Ps. 119:118–119). We can trust God’s word (Ps. 119:42). His reliable laws prove his mercy (Ps. 119:77, 156).

Because God’s word is true, it blesses those who do it. God’s rules truly help us (Ps. 119:175). That’s the point of the lead verse: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! (Ps. 119:1). The psalm promises liberation, light, life, and stability.[iii] By keeping God’s law, we fight the bondage of sin (Ps. 119:133), gain wise counsel (Ps. 119:24), live faithfully before God’s face (Ps. 119:30), and find great peace against all odds (Ps. 119:165).

God’s Law Delights Believers

God’s good laws seem good to those who are beginning to see the universe from God’s perspective. In our fall into sin, humans rejected the good, true, and beautiful. Insolent people wander from God’s commandments (Ps. 119:21) and bring shame on themselves (Ps. 119:78). But, by grace, what we love gets recalibrated. We lose interest in what is evil (Ps. 119:101), false (Ps. 119:29, 104), and ugly (Ps. 119:37). And we pursue God’s commandments that can give even the simple more understanding than the smartest enemy of God (Ps. 119:98–100, 103). God’s law delights believers, giving true joy (Ps. 119:111). So we seek our closest companionship among those who share God’s outlook on life (Ps. 119:63).

We don’t simply delight in God’s laws because of their natural goodness, but also because of how they reveal God and help us fellowship with him. The writer can hardly distinguish God from his ways: “righteous are you, O Lord, and right are your rules” (Ps. 119:137). He praises the righteous God because of his righteous rules (Ps. 119:62), and by honoring his righteous rules (Ps. 119:108, 171–172). Spiritual people know that God’s word can make them wise unto salvation, so they long for it (Ps. 119:81). This is why we can say, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). Ignorance of God’s law means ignorance of God (Ps. 119:136).

So God’s people want to obey no matter the cost (Ps. 119:106), and the first step is knowing God’s will by heart: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Ps. 119:15, cf. Ps. 119:48, 148).

God’s Law Demands Divine Help for Keeping

Still, the writer is aware that he can’t keep God’s law perfectly. He remembers God’s commandments; he just doesn’t always do them (Ps. 119:176). So he asks God for help: “Let me not wander from your commandments” (Ps. 119:10). God must open our eyes and enlarge our hearts so that we can see the wonders of his law and run in his ways (Ps. 119:18, 32). We should pray, “Make me understand the way of your precepts” (Ps. 119:27). “Teach me good judgment and knowledge” (Ps. 119:65). The God who has made us also knows how to make us wise (Ps. 119:73) and how to attain the righteousness he requires.

This is how the law brings us to Jesus (Acts 28:23). The law’s sacrifices and other ceremonies foreshadow the gospel by emphasizing our need to be righteous like God.[iv] The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther struggled to understand how God’s purity was good news since we fail to be pure like him. But he came to see God’s righteousness as both making and supplying what it demands: “The gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes … for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Rom. 1:16–17). By faith we pray to God: “In your righteousness give me life!” (Ps. 119:40).

Throughout the psalm, there’s a strong note of promise—twenty percent of Scripture’s use of the word is found here. When the writer longed “for the fulfillment of [God’s] promise” (Ps. 119:123), he was longing for Jesus, who fulfills all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). Psalm 119 is a powerful commentary on the first verse of the psalter: “Blessed is the man” whose “delight is in the law of the Lord.” That man, properly speaking, is Jesus. And we can live like Jesus only in union with him, gained by faith in God’s gift of righteousness. Even we who love God’s law have gone astray, but Jesus, the good shepherd, seeks and finds his servants (Ps. 119:176), and puts us back on the path of life.

[i] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1958), 54.

[ii] Lewis, Reflections, 57.

[iii] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73­–150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1973), 421–422.

[iv] Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 19.

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