The prayer of the first stanza or strophe of Psalm 119 begins with beatitudes that echo Psalm 1: “Blessed are those who way is blameless, who walk in the way of the LORD!” These blessings introduce us to the intense prayers of a Yahweh-worshiper who reveres the LORD and his revealed word, or law. God’s name, Yahweh, which appears in English translations as LORD, Lord, or Jehovah, appears through all of Psalm 119. The Psalmist uses the Name exclusively, never referring to the object of his worship as God. He aspires to obey the LORD faithfully. He prays that he may reliably obey the statutes of the LORD (verse 5) by remaining focused on his commandments (verse 6). The psalmist promises that he will praise the Lord. His praise will emanate from an “upright heart;” he is no legalist seeking to earn God’s favor with precision obedience. He promises, however, that he will keep the LORD’s statutes. He will obey the LORD because he loves him and his word. The prayer foreshadows the statement of Jesus, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Psalm 119 is a highly structured psalm of 176 verses divided into twenty-two sections of eight verses each. Beginning with the first section, where each line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet in the original language, each section’s lines begin with the next letter of the twenty-two letter Hebrew alphabet. The psalmist also uses eight synonyms for “law” liberally throughout the psalm. In the English Standard Version, the synonyms used in the first section appear as “law,” “testimonies,” “precepts,” “statutes,” “commandments,” and “rules.”
I just finished teaching a twenty-three-lesson course on Psalm 119. I began each session by reading aloud the section twice. In the first reading I emphasized the synonyms for “law.” In the second reading, I emphasized key emphases unique to that session. In the first eight verses, I stressed words like blameless, walk, keep, seek, ways, steadfast, shame, fixed, upright, and learn. The group and I then read the section for that session aloud together from a more idiomatic translation.
Psalm 119 is a prayer, and each section within it may be read as a component of the larger prayer or as an independent prayer in its own right. As we read these words of prayer, we gain insight into the discipline and the fervent faith of a life lived in prayer and study of the word of God. The psalmist teaches us to pray when we recognize his desires, his fears, and his hopes as our own. We learn how to pray a prayer of praise. We learn how to pray that we may obey the LORD in a way that will please him. We learn that when we pray, we realize our need for God and his presence. We pray that we will be faithful, that we will not embarrass God or ourselves with our failures. We pray for focus. We pray with the psalmist, “I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!” (verse 8).
O Lord our God, we seek your blessing. You are our strength, our refuge, our Rock. As we live, we navigate paths of worry and doubt. We stumble into ravines of illness and despair. We meet opponents who challenge our commitment and mock our faith. We meet friends who encourage us and walk with us. We pray as we walk that we will keep our eyes focused on your Son and your word. Strengthen us, that we may not do wrong. Walk with us and protect us. In Jesus’ name, amen.