In the midst of the heartache and tragedy of the current pandemic, one can still see opportunities and blessings. Churches have the opportunity of showing an extremely divided society that people can find and have unity in Christ. Moreover, in the two quarantines my family and I endured in our bouts with COVID, we were so grateful to be able to watch our church’s services on our own television. During these times of isolation, I often thought, “What would a pandemic have looked like 20 or 30 years ago?”
Life has changed a lot over the past year because of the pandemic, and life has changed a lot over the past two or three decades because of the internet. Despite these changes, some things are still constant. The dizzying speed at which news, images, memes, and opinions bombard our psyches hasn’t even modified the fact that God has chosen to communicate to us through His written word. No other chapter in the Bible conveys that truth as clearly or as persistently as Psalm 119.
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible. The psalmist has divided the psalm into 22 stanzas of eight verses per stanza. Each verse of each stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter. The first eight verses, for instance, all begin with the Hebrew letter aleph. Verses 9-16 begin with the Hebrew letter beth, and the trend continues through all 22 Hebrew letters.
More importantly, nearly every single verse of the 176 in this chapter mentions God’s written word. We see words like law, precepts, statutes, judgments, word, testimonies, and commandments littered through the text. The psalmist expresses delight in, love for, and devotion to God’s word, which gives wisdom, counsel, encouragement, and even life. Lest we think that the psalmist is guilty of what some have called “bibliolatry,” the psalm clearly and regularly expresses the fact that what makes the word of God so valuable is the speaker of that word.
What does Psalm 119 mean today for those who take the message seriously? First, the message of the psalm exhorts us to seek God in His word. If you long for God, look to Him prayerfully and humbly in Scripture. We must not interpret Scripture according to our own experience; we should instead interpret our experience according to God’s word. Second, we see even in this psalm — long before James warned his readers against being mere hearers of the word (James 1:22) — that to mine the riches of God’s word we must direct our lives according to that word. Obedience matters. Third, we should expect, pray, and seek for God to direct our churches according to His word.
Psalm 119 speaks often of affliction – a topic close to our hearts. Sometimes, affliction and grief drive us to God’s word (Psalm 119:67, 71). Other times we find strength in the midst of our pain through His word (28, 143), and yet other times we realize in hindsight that we could have never endured the trials we endured without strength from His word (50).
Much of what I have written in this column would apply to observant Jews. As Christians, however, we must always ask how a text points to Jesus, and we must remember that what this chapter says about Scripture applies ultimately to Christ. The word points us to the Word (John 1:1, 14). It is because of Him that lost sheep like we were can be found and forgiven in order to live according to His commandments (Psalm 119:176).