Originally each division and verse began with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Hebrew, each verse begins with the respective Hebrew letter/name for that division. There are 22 divisions
of 8 verses each, for 176 verses. Naming goes as follows:
ALEPH, BETH, GIMEL, DALETH, HE, VAU, and on
for 22, completing the Hebrew alphabet.
There is no special title to this Psalm, neither is any author's name mentioned. It is THE LONGEST PSALM, and this is a sufficiently distinctive name for it. It equals in bulk twenty-two psalms of the average length of the Songs of Degrees. Nor is it long only; for it equally excels in breadth of thought, depth of meaning, and height of fervor. It is like the celestial city which lieth four-square, and the height and the breadth of it are equal.
Many superficial readers have imagined that it harps' upon one string, and abounds in pious repetitions and redundancies; but this arises from the shallowness of the reader's own mind: those who have studied this divine hymn, and carefully noted each line of it, are amazed at the variety and profundity of the thought. Using only a few words, the writer has produced permutations and combinations of meaning' which display his holy familiarity with his subject, and the sanctified ingenuity of his mind.
He never repeats himself; for if the same sentiment recurs it is placed in a fresh connection, and so exhibits another interesting shade of meaning. The more one studies it the fresher it becomes. As those who drink the Wile water like it better every time they take a draught, so does this Psalm become the more full and fascinating the oftener you turn to it. It contains no idle word; the grapes of this cluster are almost to bursting full with the new wine of the kingdom. The more you look into this mirror of a gracious heart the more you will see in it. Placid on the surface as the sea of glass before the eternal throne, it yet contains within its depths an ocean of fire, and those who devoutly gaze into it shall not only see the brightness, but feel the glow of the sacred flame. It is loaded with holy sense, and is as weighty as it is bulky. Again and again have we cried while studying it, "Oh the depths!'" Yet these depths are hidden beneath an apparent simplicity, as Augustine has well and wisely said, and this makes the exposition all the more difficult. Its obscurity is hidden beneath a veil of light, and hence only those discover it who are in thorough earnest, not only to look on the word, but, like the angels, to look into it.
The Psalm is alphabetical Eight stanzas commence with one letter, and then another eight with the next letter, and so the whorl., Psalm proceeds by octonaries quite through the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Besides which, there are multitudes of oppositions of sense; and others of those structural formalities with which the oriental mind is pleased, formalities very similar to those in which our older poets indulged.
The Holy Spirit thus deigned to speak to men in forms which were attractive to the attention and helpful to the memory. He is often plain or elegant in his manner, but he does not disdain to be quaint or formal if thereby his design of instruction can be the more surely reached. He does not despise even contracted and artificial modes of speech, if by their use he can fix his teaching upon the mind. Isaac Taylor has worthily set forth the lesson of this fact: " In the strictest sense this composition is conditioned; nevertheless in the highest sense is it an utterance of spiritual life; and in thus finding these seemingly opposed elements, intimately commingled as they are throughout this Psalm, a lesson full of meaning is silently conveyed to those who shall receive it that the conveyance of the things of God to the human spirit is in no way damaged or impeded, much less is it deflected or vitiated, by its subjugation to those modes of utterance which most of all bespeak their adaptation to the infancy and the childlike capacity of the recipient.'"
The fashion among modern writers is, as far as possible, to take every one of the Psalms from David. As the critics of this school are usually unsound in doctrine and unspiritual in tone, we gravitate in the opposite direction, from a natural suspicion of everything which comes from so unsatisfactory a quarter. We believe that David wrote this Psalm. It is Davidic in tone and expression, and it tallies with David's experience in many interesting points. In our youth our teacher called it "David's pocket-book,'" and we incline to the opinion then expressed, that here we have the royal diary written at various times throughout a long life. No, we cannot give up this Psalm to the enemy. "This is David's spoil.'" After long reading an author, one gets to know his style, and a measure of discernment is acquired by which his composition is detected even if his name be concealed: we feel a kind of critical certainty that the hand of David is in this thing, yea, that it is altogether his own.
The one theme of this Psalm is the word of the Lord. The Psalmist sets his subject in many lights, and treats of it in divers ways, but he seldom omits to mention the word of the Lord in each verse under some one or other of the many names by which he knows it; and even if the name be not #fete, the subject is still heartily pursued in every stanza. He who wrote this wonderful song was saturated with those books of Scripture which he possessed. Andrew Bonar tells of a simple Christian in a farmhouse who had meditated the Bible through three times. This is precisely what this Psalmist had done, he had gone past reading into meditation. Like Luther, David had shaken every fruit-tree in Gowns garden, and gathered golden fruit therefrom. "The most,'" says Martin Boos, "read their Bibles like caws that stand in the thick grass, and trample under their feet the finest flowers and herbs.'" It is to be feared that we too often do the like. This is a miserable way of treating the pages of inspiration. May the Lord prevent us from repeating that sin while reading this priceless Psalm.
There is an evident growth in the subject-matter. The earlier verses are of such a character as to lend themselves to the hypothesis that the author was a young man, while many of the later passages could only have suggested themselves to age and wisdom. In every portion, however, it is the fruit of deep experience, careful observation, and earnest meditation. If David did not write it, there must have lived another believer of exactly the same order, of mind as David, and he must have addicted himself to psalmody with equal ardor, and have been an equally hearty lover of Holy Writ.
Our best improvement of this sacred composition will come through getting our minds into intense sympathy with its subject. In order to this, we might do well to commit it to memory. Philip Henry's daughter wrote in her diary, "I have of late taken some pains to learn by heart Psalm 119., and have made some progress therein.'" She was a sensible, godly woman.
Having rehearsed the subject-matter of this golden Psalm, we should still further consider the fullness, certainty, clearness, and sweetness of the word of Gad, since by such reflections we are likely to be stirred up to a warm affection for it. What favored beings are those to whom the Eternal God has written a letter in his own hand and style! What ardor of devotion, what diligence of composition, can produce a worthy eulogium for the divine testimonies! If ever one such has fallen from the pen of man it is this 119th Psalm, which might well be called the holy soul's soliloquy before an open Bible.
This sacred ode is a little Bible, the Scriptures condensed, a mass of Bibline, Holy Writ rewritten in holy emotions and actions. The Germans called it "The Christian's golden A B C of the praise, love, power, and use of the Word of God. Blessed are they who can read and understand these saintly aphorisms: they shall find golden apples in this true Hesperides, and come to reckon that this Psalm, like the whole Scripture which it praises, is a pearl island, or, better still, a garden of sweet flowers.
The study of this sacred song has often proved helpful to holy men. Henry Martyn mentions it again and again in his diary; as for instance "I experienced a solemn gladness in learning this part, MEM, of the 119th Psalm.'" William Wilberforce makes this record during a time of political trouble: "Walked from Hyde Park Corner repeating the 119th Psalm in great comfort.'" Pascal, in the reading of this holy song, seemed to pass out of himself in holy rapture.
May those who shall read the Psalm, accepting, the help of our exposition, feel their hearts burn within them! To this end, at the very outset let our prayer ascend to God, that his Holy Spirit may rest upon us while we devoutly peruse the volume.