1 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.
176 I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands.
(Psalm 119:1, 176)
“Ox, House, Camel, Door” (Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth)
Having raised three children of my own, and now watching my five (soon to be six) grandkids grow up, it strikes me that there are all kinds of common milestones along their journey of life—even from the very beginnings. There is that first smile, her first precious words, his first deliberate and unwieldy steps. Eventually, children gain the ability to memorize and repeat things. By sheer repetition and rote, she learns to count to ten without missing one along the way! With a little practice, he can finally recite the whole alphabet, with or without the song! Their ability and desire to learn and grow seems inexhaustible. In no time at all, these early milestones become building blocks that in turn create countless other opportunities—letters become words; words become sentences; sentences become poems—one deliberate and unwieldy step at a time. The creative possibilities are limitless, all because of a little readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic!
Psalm 119 is one of the most amazing creations in God’s great worship songbook. For starters, it’s the longest psalm by far, with 176 verses, making it about as long as the book of Ruth or James or Philippians! It is also one of the nine “acrostic psalms,” meaning that each of its verses begins with the 22 successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet—verses 1-8 each begin with the letter aleph, verses 9-16 begin with the letter beth, 17-24 gimel, 25-32 daleth, and so on. Eight verses for each of the 22 letters, for a total of 176 verses.
But Psalm 119 is more than just an amazing poetic exercise. It is a profound celebration of God’s Word…God’s self-revelation to us. Through the course of the song’s 176 verses, the psalmist consistently incorporates eight synonyms for God’s Holy Word: law (torah) words (imrah), statutes (huqqim), testimonies (edot), ways (dabar), precepts (piqqudim), commands (mitsvot), and rules (mishpatim). Each of these words offers a different lens through which God reveals himself to us. The point of the song is clear: if we want to know God and experience life at its best, we need to hang on every word and follow every instruction He has given us. The psalm is not a list of “dos and don’ts,” it’s an invitation to discover real joy and purpose in our life. As David Powlison writes, “The vocal faith of Psalm 119 is what happens when you finally wake up. It’s not hyper-religiosity. It’s sane humanity.”
So why all of the literary gadgets? What can the unique structure and substance of Psalm 119 help to teach us?
First of all, the psalm is an example of artistic CONSTRAINT. Despite all of the self-imposed rules and boundaries—or maybe even because of them—beauty and meaning are possible. The acrostic form teaches us that we can only experience and appreciate our human freedoms when we understand and embrace the gracious boundaries of divine constraints. God’s Word gives us freedom to find real life!
Second, the acrostic form of Psalm 119 communicates COMPLETENESS.Just like a musical scale is completed only when we sing the top note, the alphabet represents the whole spectrum of language and meaning. The eight synonyms for God’s self-revelation give us every possible nuance to consider. This song reminds us that God’s Word is sufficient…it’s the whole story…it’s everything we need (and nothing that we don’t need) if we are going to find real life!
Finally, the form invites us into a deeper CONNECTION. As a teaching tool, the acrostic psalms would help students of God’s Word remember and grasp its truth. At the same time, the repeated synonyms for God’s Word reminds us of the limitations of our human understanding and the infinite depth of the mystery of God. Rather than focusing on the distance between God and His creatures, the song celebrates the pathway to God’s heart and the light His Word has given us for our journey!
Recently I came across a little teaching tool called Ox, House, Camel, Door: A Hebrew Readiness Book. The book is intended to be a little Hebrew primer for young students. The title comes from the literal meaning of the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet, or “aleph-beth,” as Hebrew speakers would put it. The ox represents the strength of God’s Word; the house illustrates the safety and security of God’s Word, the camel symbolizes the endurance and conveyance of God’s Word; and the door communicates the freedom and invitation in God’s Word. Through His Word of self-revelation God offers us every building block we will ever need for life…every sentence of understanding…every poem of praise. We start with the basics, and the possibilities are endless!
And the best news of all? Jesus is God’s Word revealed to us (John 1:1-4, 14). Through Jesus, God has shown us the WAY, he has given us the TRUTH, he has offered us the LIFE. (John 14:6) Jesus is the only way to the heart of God! So what are you waiting for? God’s Word offers us the freedom and the fullness we need to find real life. Wherever you are on that journey, keep going and keep growing! And always stay thirsty, my friends!