Ode to God’s word (part 1)

Quick: what’s the longest psalm in the Bible?

You probably already know: it’s Psalm 119. Clocking in at a full 176 verses, it’s not only the longest psalm, it’s the longest chapter in the Bible, period. It’s the one you might not want to see show up on your daily devotional, read-the-whole-Bible-in-a-year plan — not if you’re hoping to toss it off in ten minutes.

Even those who come to the psalm wanting to learn something from it, however, may find it puzzling or off-putting. Psalms of lament or praise can be emotionally satisfying. But a psalm extolling the virtues of God’s law? We’re Christians, we might think. We’re under grace. Aren’t we past all that law stuff? Accustomed to reading the gospels, we associate “law” with legalism and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who badgered Jesus. And even if we manage to hold all of that temporarily in abeyance, the psalm is just so…long. After just a few stanzas, we’re thinking, Okay, okay, I get it already. You really love the law. Can we move on?

To appreciate Psalm 119, two things have to happen. First, we need to understand why the psalm is so long; second, we need to get past our stereotyped ideas of legalism. We’ll deal with the first issue in this post and the next, before moving on to the question of law and legalism.

So, why is the psalm so long? It’s because the psalmist wants to build a poem with a particular structure, following a particular blueprint. That structure, unfortunately, is readily apparent in the Hebrew but invisible in English. And here’s the idea we need to grab hold of: much of the moral lesson of the psalm is contained not merely in the words chosen, but in the structure of the poem itself, in the way the words are arranged.

. . .

When I was a seminary student, I signed up for a course on teaching the Bible. On the very first day of class, the instructor started us off with an exercise: write a haiku, a Japanese poetic form composed of a mere three lines. It can be about anything you want, he said, but it has to follow the classic form: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, then five again in the third.

I thought we were here to learn about teaching the Bible, I thought. Part of me was tempted to go snarky:

But I went along with it, just as everyone else did. For the next twenty minutes or so, the room was silent except for the sound of people writing down words and then scratching them out, writing, scratching. Lips moved and fingers twitched as students counted syllables, then counted them again just to be sure.

Finally, one by one, we set down our pens and read our haikus aloud. I wrote about one of my wife’s high school students, who lived in a chaotic home and had recently been diagnosed with cancer. How does one put that into poetry? I don’t remember the words, but they were heartfelt.

And I forgot all about being snarky.

. . .

I would guess that somewhere along the way in your educational journey, a teacher asked you to write a poem. Some students find the assignment daunting, and feel utterly lost; others jump at the chance. Relatively speaking, a haiku is a small ask: just about anyone can manage to crank out seventeen syllables. But imagine instead your English teacher standing in front of the classroom and giving the following assignment.

“Good morning, class! Today, I want you to write a poem.” The students groan audibly; some roll their eyes. But the teacher soldiers on as if she hadn’t noticed. “You can write about anything important to you, anything you really love. And it doesn’t even have to rhyme! But it has to be what’s known as an acrostic poem.” When the students exchange puzzled glances, she explains.

“Here’s how it works. You will write a poem with 26 stanzas, one for each letter of the English alphabet, and every stanza will have eight lines. In the first stanza, for the letter A, every line must begin with the letter A. All eight lines in the second stanza have to begin with B, and so on, until you get to the end of the alphabet. Get it? Twenty-six stanzas, eight lines each.

“Oh, and one more thing. Once you’ve identified the subject of your poem, don’t keep using the same word for it over and over. Come up with a list of eight synonyms. For example, if you’re writing about how much you love your dog, don’t just keep saying ‘dog…dog…dog’ or ‘Rover…Rover…Rover.’ Use different terms, like dog, or Rover, or mutt, or beagle, or maybe even man’s best friend. Any questions?”

One quick thinking student raises her hand. “But what about the letter X?” she asks.

The teacher just smiles. “I guess you’ll have to get creative with that one.” More groaning. “Okay, get started.”

If you were a student in that class, how would you respond? And how much respect would you have for someone who actually did a decent job of finishing the assignment?

Whoever wrote Psalm 119 deserves that kind of admiration. I’ll explain why in the next post.