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The Longest Psalm

June 26, 2013

  “Lord, please give me a Bible. Amen” – Brother Yun (the Heavenly Man (Monarch Books)

Read Psalm 119: 129 – 136

Over the next two weeks we are going to take a look at something quite extraordinary. A part of the Bible that stands head and shoulders above anything else in the book. Even over two weeks we are going to struggle to even scrape the surface and do it justice. What are we looking at together? I am not talking about a book of the Bible. One chapter. This is nothing less than the longest chapter in the Bible. This morning I introduce you to Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it. How rarely do we hear it preached upon!

Years ago the preachers used to say “Our reading this morning is from John chapter 5 and verse 23. Perhaps for context we can start reading at verse 20”. I had a kind of dream of doing that. “Our reading this evening is Psalm 119 verse 176. Perhaps for context we can start reading at verse 1”. But I never had the nerve (or the time!!) to do it.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the Psalms were songs. People sang these things on many occasions. David was of course responsible for writing a huge number of them. As we are finding out at Tuesday church, David is an extraordinary man. He is a shepherd, a king, a musician, warrior and a singer songwriter. His back catalogue is full of favourites such as Psalm 23. Psalm 40 was even covered by U2. In his day David was a pop star. And the ladies literally sang his praises.

But when it comes to our subject this morning, it has to be said Psalm 119 is not your 2 minute pop song. A confession. I like my 2 and 3 minute pop songs, but my favourite song of all is a song by Genesis called ‘Supper’s ready’. It’s 23 minutes long. It passes through many places lyrically and musically, paints a picture of the battle between good and evil on a number of levels, and ends with Jesus “Lord of Lords, King of Kings has returned to lead his children home – to take them to the new Jerusalem!” What is there not to like? And with its multiple sections, its length, its recurring themes Psalm 119 is more of a prog rock epic than a hit single. It wouldn’t get the radio play. But there it is.

The first thing to say about song 119 is that we don’t know who wrote it. There is no mention. One theory says that he was a priest and the Psalm was intended to be used as a model for a godly life. But, the writer doesn’t even get the notoriety of being a one hit wonder. Anonymous.

But it isn’t just the fact that the song is so long that makes it extraordinary. In the words of no less than CS Lewis it “is not and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart…It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship”.
And because the lyricist has gone to so much trouble it is only right that we spend a few minutes looking at the technical stuff.

This is a labour of love. Just to remind you there were no verse numbers in the original Hebrew scriptures – they were added centuries later.

So what have we got? It’s all a bit lost in translation, but this is what the original Hebrew readers would have found. A poem of 22 equal stanzas, each stanza being made up of 8 phrases. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet:

(Here there should be a picture of the Hebrew alphabet (google image it))

And so each of the 8 phrases in a particular stanza are headed by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet moving from start to finish. So for example the first section is headed with the first letter Aleph, and each of the 8 phrases starts with that letter, the second section with Beth etc. And so the psalmist works his way through the alphabet, making a giant acrostic. Or to borrow CS Lewis’s analogy – an acrostic cross stitch!

In some cases he has to be quite ingenious in coming up with the words to fit. On the other hand the sixth section has the same starting letter as the word ‘and’. So every one of the 8 phrases begins with the word and, and, and and, and, and, and, and .

You don’t get any of this in the NIV or the Message!

As I said there were no verses, but the structure of Psalm is such that where to put verses was obvious and even in English we end up with a neat 22 sections of 8 verses each. 176!

So that’s all very clever, but what is it all about? It is said that Paul McCartney woke up one morning with the song ‘Yesterday’ in his head, but what would cause our friend here to be so meticulous in his writing? What was it that he was so passionate about that he went to all this trouble? It must have been hours and days.

If we are to sum up the theme of Psalm 119, it seems to be this: the Word of God. That was what inspired the anonymous writer to fashion this epic song. The NIV uses 8 different words to describe the word of God, which the footnotes indicate may have helped to set the pattern of the psalm. 6 of the stanzas contain all 8 words:

As well as word (God has spoken)

Commands

Decrees (both with a sense that obedience is demanded)

Law (reminding us of the 10 commandments, Moses’ laws, the first 5 books of the Bible – the books of Moses. In time it seems people saw the law as being the whole of the old testament. The people cam eto see the law as embodied in the old testament as a guide book given by a caring father to a loved child)

Statutes

Precepts (all reminding us of the law of the land)

Laws (reminding us of decisions made in the law courts)

Promises (Speaking of the other side of the coin in God’s covenant with us. It is not just about our obedience to him, but it is also about his faithfulness to us).

What the Psalm brings home to us is this – that God is a God who speaks. And to be called blessed, to know God’s pleasure comes down to one thing – our attitude to what he says.

Today we increasingly seem to hear that Christians have less and less time for reading the Bible. And yet God has spoken even far beyond anything that the psalmist could have dreamt of, most tellingly through his son Jesus – the one that John describes as the Word. We can read books about the Bible. But do we read the Bible itself? Do we find in ourselves a passion for the word of God that comes anywhere close to the song writer of no 119?

The theme of the Psalm is the word of God, but the emphasis is on prayer and praise not the reciting of facts. No fewer than 172 of the verses are addressed to God himself, the ultimate author, in prayer and praise. Mr Anonymous is getting really excited about this stuff!

I remember as a teenager reading a book called “Enjoy your Bible”. I remember reading it, not what it said. But I remember seeing a different edition of the book once and was drawn to the cover. Under the title was seated a young man, probably in his teens seated on a hard chair, nice and upright, with a very large Bible, wearing a suitable tie! To me the cover said the opposite of “Enjoy your Bible”. It said “this is NOT meant to be a good time”.

Whatever you may be hoping for there is no way we are going to cover all this so let’s focus in on one section. Section Pe. To you and me that’s verses 129 to 136, where we get an insight into the Psalmist’s strength of feeling.

“Your statutes are wonderful”.

As a lawyer I can name you a few statutes:

The Wills Act 1835
The Law of Property Act 1925
The Housing Act 1988

All important stuff, but I cannot imagine myself standing here now and saying “these statutes are wonderful!” When I talk to people looking for a career in the law, I rarely hear them say that it’s because the law is wonderful, they talk more about what they want to do with the law, or how much money someone has told them they can make.

For some the law of the Bible is what puts them off Christianity. It’s just a list of rules and regulations. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. It’s so restricting. I value my freedom too much. But our Psalmist doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t grudgingly obey the statutes because he has to. He obeys them because he loves them. He realises that behind them is a loving father who has given his word as a manual for living a life of freedom and fulfilment.

So for him, it is actually a joy to live God’s way – to live an obedient life. So studying and getting to know the word of God is seen as a way of getting to know the author, and that produces obedience. What about you and me? Are we stuck in a rut of legalism. Doing stuff out of duty rather than pleasure? Living to avoid God’s anger rather than to enjoy his favour?

“The unfolding of your words gives light”. To read God’s word is to learn more about God and about ourselves. About how we should live. It throws new light into the darkness. It enables us to see things as they are and to see the path ahead of us. “Directs my footsteps” as it says in verse 133.

“I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands”. Crumbs that’s a bit over the top! Do you or I ever feel like that? I am absolutely starving for the word of God. There is nothing I want more right now.

And just as the Psalmist expresses his love for the word of God, he gets equally emotional at the thought that he sees so many other people who do not obey God’s word. “Streams of tears flow from my eyes”. Talk about passion for the word of God!! There are so many methods for reading the Bible nowadays. I reckon this man would be a Cover to Cover reader, not a Word for Today man. He’d have probably done “the Bible in one year” in 3 months though!

In his book “The heavenly man”, Brother Yun describes how he became a follower of Jesus at the age of 16. His first prayers as a young Christian in a China that had outlawed Christianity were “Lord, please give me a Bible. Amen”. When his prayer was not answered his pastor told him to “fast and weep”. When he received it he says “I clutched my new Bible to my heart and fell down on my knees outside the door. I thanked God again and again. I promised Jesus that from that moment I would devour his word like a hungry child”. To be found with a Bible by the Chinese authorities would spell disaster for Yun – and his family.
Yun’s mother was a preacher in the village, but neither she nor any of the other believers had any idea what a Bible looked like!

Is it too easy for us with our shelves and phones full of Bible versions? Is it all too familiar? Has familiarity bred contempt? Perhaps in the words of the writer of Psalm 119, we need to pray “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law!”

But this doesn’t get handed to us on a plate. It doesn’t come miraculously for us any more than it did for the Psalmist.
Just flick through this Psalm and see some of the phrases:

“I WILL obey your decrees” (8)

“I seek you with all my heart” (10)

“I have hidden your word in my heart” (11)

“I meditate on your precepts” (15)

“I will not neglect your word” (16)

“I have chosen the way of truth” (30)

“I will speak of your statutes before kings” (46)

“My heart is set on keeping your decrees, to the very end” (112)

“I rise before dawn and cry for help” (147)

Etc etc etc

The Psalmist has made his choice and the challenge to us this week is, will we make that same choice? Are we feeling that hunger? Are we ready to make the word of God our priority? Let’s see if God’s word can change us this week.

Last week Rachel quoted from Ephesians 6:17 in the Message “God’s word is an indispensable weapon”. So how does that work.
And all this Bible Study – is it just an academic exercise?

What about when I am living the wrong way?

What about when I am facing the pressures and struggles of everyday living? Can all this be relevant then?

Next week we’ll stay with Psalm 119 and try to answer some of those questions, with the Psalmist’s help.

“Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law”.

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