That says it all

Several months ago, as we explored the famously long Psalm 119, I asked you to imagine the following homework assignment in a high school English class: Write a poem with 26 stanzas, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each stanza must have eight lines. Every line in the same stanza has to begin with the same letter. Thus, the first stanza has to have eight lines beginning with the letter “A”; the second, eight lines beginning with “B,” and so on…

Unthinkable? For an entire class of high school students, perhaps. But this is essentially the feat that the author of Psalm 119 accomplished with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It’s a way of making a point not just with the words of the psalm, but with its structure: Let me tell you of the beauty of God’s Instruction in every way I can, from A to Z (or in Hebrew, aleph to taw). It’s a tangible and literary symbol of fullness, of completeness. This is known as an acrostic poem, and Psalm 119 is by far and away the most impressive example.

But Psalm 145 is also an acrostic, the last of its kind in the Psalter. It’s much simpler than Psalm 119: there’s only one line per letter, as opposed to a whole stanza. Moreover, in the Hebrew text of Psalm 145 — specifically, the Masoretic Text, from which the NASB, NIV, and others are translated — one letter (nun) gets skipped. Nevertheless, your English translation probably has a stand-in for the missing line, in the second half of verse 13. It’s taken from alternatives to the Masoretic Text (like the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures).

But it’s not just the acrostic structure that conveys the fullness of the psalmist’s praise. The psalmist declares that he’ll never stop praising God:

I will extol you, my God and King,
    and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
    and praise your name forever and ever
. (vs. 1-2, NRSV)1,2,13,21

A similar thought occurs in verse 13: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” The word “everlasting” is essentially the same translated as “forever” in verses 1 and 2. And the final verse of the psalm brings us back full circle to language that’s quite similar to the way the psalm began:

My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
    and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
(vs. 21)

Note the phrasing: praise comes not just from the psalmist’s mouth, but from “all flesh.” That notion of “all” (in Hebrew, kol) permeates the psalm. God’s goodness and compassion is to all (vs. 9). All of God’s works will give him thanks, and all the faithful will bless him (vs. 10). His kingdom is for all generations (vs. 13). God sustains all who fall down (vs. 14), and all look to God for their sustenance (vs. 15, 16). God is righteous in all his ways and merciful in all he does (vs. 17). He is near to all who call on him (vs. 18), and preserves all who love him (vs. 20).

That pretty much says it all.

In the psalms, praise is more than gratitude for answered prayer. It’s part of an all-encompassing vision of the goodness of God. There is no sphere of life over which God is not sovereign, no existential nook or cranny into which God’s mercy cannot reach. Praise may be spurred by the blessings of the moment, but the psalms want to usher into a full recognition of the ongoing blessing of living in the company of a God who has always been faithful, loving, and compassionate — and always will be.

“Every day I will bless you,” the psalmist declares to God, “and praise your name forever and ever.” Praise be to God by all, in all things, forever — because God is forever worthy of praise.

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