If we were to ask the folk in our church congregations to name their favourite Psalm, would Psalm 119 be foremost among them? Its sheer length can intimidate: at 176 verses it’s the longest chapter in the Bible, let alone the Psalter. And I wonder whether some Christians (particularly perhaps those in the Reformed Tradition) might even feel its focus upon relentless observance of God’s Law to be – well – somewhat graceless?
So it’s perhaps surprising to find, in today’s setting, those 176 verses distilled to just eight 3-line stanzas, winsome and wonderful. Indeed, Christopher Idle’s paraphrase-precis helps us to see that Psalm 119 is nothing if not graceful.
It’s graceful in its subject-matter: God’s Law, also named here as commandments, statutes, instruction, judgments, precepts and so on. Together these are expressions of God’s Torah – the entirety of God’s guidance for right living. And we’re reminded here that Torah is loving gift, not stern imposition: it comprises “Laws that spell freedom, true liberation”.
Furthermore, it’s graceful in its structure: have you noticed that each line of the Psalm in today’s setting begins with a subsequent letter of the alphabet? (Only X and Z are missing – fair enough really!) This style of writing is known as an acrostic, but it’s not just Christopher Idle’s idea: for in the Hebrew text of Psalm 119, remarkably, the eight lines of each stanza all begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, before moving on to the next letter in the next stanza.
And lest we assume the writers (both Hebrew and English) are simply being clever, their choice of an acrostic form itself offers us an important insight. For just as, in the absence of smartphones or GPS, we might navigate an unfamiliar city by consulting an ‘A to Z’, so likewise God’s Torah – God’s instruction – is comprehensive enough to guide us through all of life.
Elegance. Ingenuity. Above all, Grace. Thanks be to God!
Prayer (in which the words may be read from first-to-last or from last-to-first)
We offer thanksgiving and praise, with obedience, God of revelation. A life-shaped Law, bearing witness: gift divine, in joy and freedom. Amen and Amen! Freedom and joy in divine gift: witness-bearing, Law-shaped life – a revelation of God. Obedience, with praise and thanksgiving, offer we.
The Rev’d Dominic Grant, Minister, Barnet URC and St Andrew’s Chesterfield Road URC