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Psalm 119 for Life: A Review Article

Stephen J. Tracey

Psalm 119 for Life: Living Today in the Light of the Word, by Hywel R. Jones. Carlisle, Pa.: EP Books, 2009, 156 pages (including brief notes), paper.

Psalm 119 is known as the Great Psalm. Perhaps preachers more often think of it as the Monster Psalm. It is like a great leviathan writhing on the pulpit and the fisher-of-men is not quite sure what to do with it.

This little book is the fruit of Professor Jones's preaching through the Great Psalm in chapel addresses in Westminster Theological Seminary, California. Anyone who has tried that particular exercise—preaching consecutively through Psalm 119—will understand there are few resources to help the preacher. Outside the standard commentaries on Psalms, the staple diet is Calvin, Manton, Spurgeon, and Bridges. Jones gives us a little commentary that serves as a modest contribution to our understanding of the Great Psalm. When I say "modest," I mean that as a virtue.

The purpose of the book is to pay attention "to the content and purpose of Psalm 119 in relation to Christians and the church" (10). Unlike older works which approach the psalm in a verse-by-verse mode, Jones works though the twenty-two sections with brief expository notes on each section. This is surely the right approach. The key to understanding, and thereby spiritually digesting, Psalm 119 is to realize that it is made up of sections. It is most profitably digested one section at a time. One verse at a time is too little, rather like a pinch of salt on the main dish. To concentrate all our thought on one verse leads to the feeling that the song is repetitive—harping on the same theme, the law, the law, the law. The whole psalm is too much, likely to lead to mental overload. Each section is just right, designed for our spiritual well-being. How each section relates to the others, however, remains an elusive point.

In the conclusion of his introduction, Jones states that this psalm "anticipates true Christianity in every way and every Christian should give it his, or her serious and regular attention" (21). He argues that the central theme of the psalm is "that the Word of God provides all things [necessary] to life and godliness" (21). With all of its words for law, it is understandable that this psalm is understood as referring to the Word of God. Jones's subtitle is "Living Today, in the Light of the Word." This is the emphasis given by others too. For example, David Noel Freedman speaks of the "Exaltation of Torah," Christopher Ash speaks of "Bible Delight," and Christopher Wright speaks of "Life through God's Word."

There is nothing wrong with this application. We should love the Bible more than we do. However, the reflections of C. S. Lewis on this psalm point us further. He says, "The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful." The psalm, in Lewis's view, expresses the reactions of a man "ravished by moral beauty."[1] The psalm is more than a contemplation and exaltation of God's Word. It is a contemplation and exaltation of God. It is good to be ravished by the moral beauty of God's Word, but it is better to be ravished by the moral beauty of God. Jones, along with the other commentators mentioned above, pushes us to see more of the glory of God. He puts it well when he says, "God's word should never become a substitute for him" (73).

The other great struggle preachers have with Psalm 119 is not simply how to preach it, but how to preach Christ from it. That, in turn, is part of the larger struggle to preach Christ from the Old Testament. Jones approaches this in several ways. Most obviously he looks for Messianic types. He speaks of the psalmist as "a type of the Messiah and an example to all who follow in his steps, whether apostles or not" (84). A little further on Jones says the psalmist "is determined not to fall like Adam, and in that he is a conscious type of the Lord Jesus Christ, God's King over the church and the world" (85). I have some questions on the statement, "determined not to fall like Adam." It seems to be an overstated application, but it illustrates Jones's endeavor to preach Christ. At other times Jones traces the flow of redemption. Most of the time, however, the application is by way of analogy. Speaking of "enemies, teachers, and the aged" in verses 98-100, Jones says, "The Lord Jesus was surrounded by such people too" (103). Well, yes, he was.

I found this commentary helpful. I also found it frustrating. Please don't misunderstand me. This commentary is a warm and refreshing devotional work. The frustration is not the fault of Dr. Jones. He makes a valiant effort to do what few preachers would do—preach through Psalm 119 and seek to preach Christ from Psalm 119. This work is an appetizer, but only that, because there is clearly so much more to this psalm. Jones whets the appetite.

Here and there we are given tantalizing glimpses that underneath our English translation there is a poem of great beauty and power in the original language. The "content and purpose" of the psalm are clearly wrapped up in the form and shape of the poem in the original language. While Jones competently addresses some of the original language, there is little attention given to the technical structure of the psalm. One work that does give such attention is that by David Noel Freedman. He points out that "there is a direct correspondence between the structure and content of Psalm 119."[2] Jones makes reference to Freedman's work in his notes (151, n 4).

Admittedly, on first reading, Freedman seems over the top, as though this were too mechanical an analysis. On rereading Freedman, one feels that a seam has just been found that may help with mining the "content and purpose" of Psalm 119. Freedman's structural analysis suggests that there are rhythms of structure (including matters such as the acrostic form, arranged in eight verses, with eight words for law; the masculine, feminine, singular, and plural use of the nouns, etc.) that are both deliberately arranged and, more importantly, deliberately broken. It is the points at which they are deliberately broken that are fascinating. What we need is a work that takes Freedman's research and incorporates it into a commentary.

The stark contrast between the perfect and the imperfect is what lies at the heart of this psalm. Perhaps that is nowhere more obvious than in the final verse. It seems such an anti-climax. "I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments" (Ps. 119:176). It is like ending the great poem with a self-imposed "F" for "fail." It is like saying, "I wanted to love you and love your law, but I failed." From within that failure a cry rises, "seek your servant." Jones comments,

He is convinced that the Lord has a shepherd's heart towards his people and that he will not leave them in distress, seeing that he has given them the promise of a Messiah, a shepherd-kin ... And that is the best possible way to end an Old Testament poem—with an expectation of the coming of the Messiah." (150)

Preach the Great Psalm. Preach Christ, the Word incarnate.

Stephen J. Tracey
Lakeview OPC,
Rockport, ME


[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1958), 59-60.

[2]David Noel Freedman, Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 93.

Ordained Servant, December 2010.