These days I’m reading A-B-C books to my year-old grandson. As he sits in my lap and hears the alphabet sounds, I sometimes think of children hundreds of years ago using “hornbooks” to learn the essentials of reading. Dating to the Middle Ages, when paper was scarce and expensive, they consisted of a paper attached to a paddle and covered with a semi-transparent animal horn that had been boiled and scraped. The hornbooks typically contained the alphabet and vowel combinations, the benediction, the Lord’s Prayer and Roman numerals. With improvements in making paper, hornbooks faded from use in the early 1800s
In some ways, Psalm 119, known as an acrostic psalm (based on the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet), is like a “hornbook.” Although not brief like hornbooks—the psalm is the Bible’s longest chapter with 176 verses—it does proclaim essentials of faith as it praises God for His Word.
Though it’s tempting to skim through Psalm 119, it’s also worth noting that its depths have gripped history’s great Bible teachers. Puritan Thomas Manton (1620-1677) wrote a 1,677-page book on Psalm 119, devoting a chapter to each verse. The Church of England’s Charles Bridges (1794-1869) at age 33 published a 481-page book on Psalm 119. Famed preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) devoted 349 pages in his massive Treasury of David just to Psalm 119. Obviously, they highly valued the scriptures. I wonder what they’d think of contemporary churches whose lost-and-found closets are full of forgotten Bibles.
No author is cited for Psalm 119, and perhaps it’s best we don’t know, for then its lessons come across for all of us. Psalm 119’s literary excellence includes its outline off the Hebrew alphabet, with each stanza’s eight lines also beginning with that letter. The subject matter speaks across centuries to issues we still face. We are “aliens” among the ungodly (2 Peter 1:11-12). Life is a struggle (1 Peter 4:12). Yet, with the Lord’s help, we are to press on (Romans 12:1-3).
Scholars say Psalm 119 uses eight different Hebrew words for scripture. All of its verses except perhaps seven directly mention God’s Word. Of those seven, four use strong synonyms (translated in KJV “thy ways,” twice; “thy Name,” “thy faithfulness”) and only three have no expression for God’s Word. In subject matter, it has a connection to Psalm 19, in which David used six names for scripture, five found in Psalm 119. Both compare the “Word of God” to gold (19:10, 119:72, 127) and honey (19:10, 119:103). Both emphasize keeping or obeying God’s Word, express a hunger for holiness, and reveal a passion to understand scripture.
The end of Psalm 119 comes back to this essential truth: God is holy, and people are in need of salvation. “I have strayed like a lost sheep,” the psalm says in the very last verse. “Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commandments. There’s an echo of this in Isaiah 53:6: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray.” Yet God is ready to help those “sheep” prone to wander, and Psalm 119 patiently rehearses the ways the scriptures help us live for Him. We need to keep in mind that the author of this psalm had only early scriptures to inspire him, mostly likely just the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and perhaps a few more historical books.
I’d be hard-pressed to pick one key verse from all 176 of Psalm 119. Even the first one has a significant message:Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD.
With the introductory word “blessed” (‘esher), it echoes the first verse of Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers, but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he mediates day and night.
Over the next three blogs, I’ll highlight significant verses from Psalm 119. My treatment will be like bugs touching a pond surface, but maybe it will encourage you to return on your own to this amazing alphabetical praise of God’s Word.