Revealed: God’s Law The ‘super psalm’ reveals the beautiful fruit of meditation
The “Super-Psalm” is of course Psalm 19. It is the psalm that is impossible to ignore; the psalm that the Bible reader is continual running into when searching for other psalms. Why it is so massive? Why do we have such a gigantic psalm in Scripture? It is not at all surprising that there is such a psalm; indeed the real surprise is that we have only one such psalm and not many more, when we consider and understand the character of the Book of Psalms.
The placement of Psalm One at the head of the Psalter is our best guide as to what use this inspired and inspiring book is to be put. This initial psalm offers the reader a pair of “hermeneutical glasses” through which to view the 149 psalms that follow. The man blessed by God is one “(whose) delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (1:2), and the next 149 psalms are the written-down fruit of that kind of meditation. There are other psalms which are obvious examples of meditating on God’s law — Psalms 19, 25, 78, 89, 93 and others — but this is most fully expressed in Psalm 119, which has been called the lodestone of the Psalter, the magnetic centre of the entire book of Psalms — that to which all the other psalms gravitate. This huge psalm shows what the whole book of Psalms is — an inspired, meditative response to the revelation of God in the Old Testament law. If you meditate on God’s law night and day you will come up with something like Psalm 119.
The formal framework of Psalm 119 is an acrostic arrangement of eight lines to a letter — that is, the psalm has 22 paragraphs matching the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and within each paragraph each of the eight lines begins with the appropriate letter of the alphabet. The psalmist having imposed such a rigid scheme on himself — eight lines beginning with the first letter of the alphabet (Aleph), then eight lines beginning with the second letter (Beth), and so on — has little choice but to circle round and round in his thoughts and is unable to develop any sustained sequence in thought. That would be a severe restriction if he were writing a thesis with a connected argument, but what he is doing is meditating on the word of God, and that means thinking in circles rather than in straight lines.
What is meditation? Let this psalm itself explain: “I will meditate on thy precepts, and fix my eyes on thy ways” (v.15). To meditate we hold an object in our view; we consider it from every angle; we refuse to turns our eyes from it; we “drink it in”; we seek to understand it fully. Here in Psalm 119, the psalmist centres his mind on this one great subject, the law of God. He reflects on its many relationships and aspects, but keeps coming home to the central thought. “The letters change, but the subject remains the same” (Clowney).
Meditation springs from love, love of an object. We are absorbed by the object of our devotion, as the psalmist himself says: “I revere thy commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on thy statutes” (v.48); “Oh, how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (v.97). The one thing (love) leads to the other (meditation). We do well to remember that this is not just an Old Testament attitude to God’s law: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self” (Rom. 7:22). Is this why we don’t get much out of our reading? We read, but we don’t meditate about what we read, because we don’t love this holy book as we might. Love will find a way of understanding the object of love. The key to an understanding of Scripture is not a certain patented reading scheme, a prescribed method of study, or a cleverly written handbook, but love — love that moves us to lavish time and attention on a passage of Scripture, so that we live with it until we know it.
Almost every verse of this psalm mentions the law of God in some fashion or under some guise. The psalmist never strays far from his one great love. He multiplies synonyms for the object of his every thought — it is “law”, “testimonies”, “ways”, “precepts”, “statutes”, “commandments”, “ordinances” and “word”, and he uses combinations of these expressions as well. No two words are exactly alike; there is no such thing as exact synonyms, and so each different name used for the law of God brings out a different aspect of the object in view. Psalm 19 does a similar thing (vv.7-9).
Why does the Psalmist love the law so? It is all too possible to “love” God’s Word for the wrong reasons, or, at least, for reasons that are less than adequate — because it is great literature, for the majesty of its style, for its “golden thoughts”, for its ability to move the emotions, in other words, for the same reasons that some people love the works of Shakespeare and the classics of English literature. But the Bible is not Shakespeare; it is in a class of its own. Our love for Scripture must be love for God. “I delight in thy statutes” (v.16) says the psalmist.
This huge psalm is an entire psalter in itself, having taken over all the functions of the different types of psalm we find in this book of Psalms. There is praise (v.7, “I will praise thee with an upright heart, when I learn thy righteous ordinances”) and there is thanks (v.67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I keep thy word”). There are cries for deliverance (v.88, “In thy steadfast love spare my life, that I may keep the testimonies of thy mouth”), and claims to innocence (v.121, “I have done what is just and right; do not leave me to my oppressors”), together with curses on enemies (v.78, “Let the godless be put to shame, because they have subverted me with guile”), and expressions of trust (v.166, “I hope for thy salvation, O Lord, and I do thy commandments”). In a word, everything found in other psalms is brought together and found in this one great psalm and made into a response to God’s revelation of himself in the law.
Psalm 119 provides us with a kind of A to Z on the word of God — giving the sense of exhaustive treatment of this grand theme. The psalmist finds this a delightful pastime; he is working and playing (at the same time). The elaborate literary structure that is the mark of the psalm is the result of disciplined craftsmanship but also of hours of leisure. The Word of God is not a thing to be hurried over. We are to have all the time in the world for the Word of God. Better than reading commentaries on Scripture is the patient reading and rereading of a chosen portion of God’s Word — until we begin to become expert on that passage, and notice things that even the commentators missed, because maybe they did not read the passage as many times as we did.
This is not to despise commentaries (“others have laboured and we have entered into their labours”). They have their place, even a necessary place — after we have spent much time ourselves meditating on the Word. The “happy necessity” of only having a Bible (as the biographer of Henry Martyn expressed it), the healthy discipline of having no other book to consult, so that we must meditate on the Book of God, is the key to experiencing the power of the Word of God in our lives.