About Psalm 119

Psalm 119 and You

How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to your word.
          Your word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
                  Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
                                                                                                                Psalm 119:9, 11, 105

At one time or another while I was growing up, I memorized all five verses of Psalm 100, all six verses of Psalm 23, and just three of the one hundred seventy-six verses of Psalm 119. (There they are, up at the top of the page. Maybe you know them, too.) I memorized hundreds of verses through the years, but as far as Psalm 119 is concerned I was still batting .017. Not impressive. So about a year ago, I decided to memorize the entire psalm. My son Nick has been memorizing it with me.

It’s been an eye-opening year. As I passed the first hundred verses, I suddenly realized three things:

Memorizing Psalm 119 is unlike any other Bible memorization I’ve done before. This is true certainly because of the length of the passage, but also because of its subject matter. Memorizing the 104 verses of Philippians was way easier for me—in Philippians, Paul moves from subject to subject; the context make memorization easier. Almost every verse in Psalm 119, though, talks about the same thing–the excellence of the word of God. There’s a lot of repetition, and not a lot of connection or movement between verses. You could change the order of the verses in your pastor’s Bible without him noticing. All this means it takes a lot more concentration and repetition to keep them straight, especially as you get past fifty or sixty verses. A benefit of concentrating more, of course, is that you end up getting more out of it.

Psalm 119 exists to be memorized; that’s the purpose for which it was written. The psalm has 22 sections of 8 verses, with each verse of the section beginning (in the original Hebrew) with the same letter of the alphabet. (If written in English, all the verses of the first part would begin with the letter A, those of the second with the letter B, and so on–as indeed they do the Knox translation, minus Q, X, Y, and Z.) That’s not an accident, it’s an acrostic, a memory aid. The psalmist intended for the psalm to be memorized.

This isn’t news, of course; it’s been known forever. Yet somehow over the years the psalm turned into a curiosity, a museum piece. (“Look, son, here’s how people used to memorize things before they had TV!”) But if we’re not memorizing Psalm 119, we’re not using it for its intended purpose. An unmemorized Ps. 119 is an unworn dress, an uncashed check, an uneaten feast. There are blessings in Psalm 119, I’ve found, that are available through memorization that aren’t available through other means.

I’ve always found Ps. 119 a little monotonous, a little hard to get into. But I was going about it the wrong way. Reading a commentary on Psalm 119 without working on memorizing it is like trying to get nourishment out of a can of peas by reading the label. Doing a 12-week Bible study on Ps. 119 may represent more than just licking the can, but not (perhaps) much. Memorization is the can opener.

Psalm 119 was written to teach foundational truths to the young. I saw, as I meditated on Psalm 119, that the truths I found there were the very ones I was hoping my kids would learn:

that there will be times of great affliction and persecution, but God will always be there for us;
that following God requires the whole heart, and is worth every ounce of effort it takes;
that God’s approval is worth more than that of kings, his law more than riches;
that God’s ordinances bring hope, liberty, safety, comfort, and life;
that success comes from character, not circumstances;
that there is great joy to be found in God’s word;
that God is in charge;
that God is good;

and many others. I also saw that memorizing these truths would teach my kids how to pray effectively, how to follow God even when others around them don’t, and how God’s word relates to all of life. They would also learn the satisfaction of completing a long job, and–possibly most important of all–learn to appreciate memorization as a lifelong spiritual discipline.

Of course, these are the same things I’d wish for myself, for my church, my friends. So I’ve invited those in my church plant here to memorize Psalm 119 with me and my family (in Spanish this time). We start in September, learning just eight verses of the psalm per month, so we’ll have time to really meditate on and internalize each section. If all goes according to plan, we’ll have the psalm memorized in 22 months. I’m hoping the non-believers in the group will join us; God’s word does not return to him without accomplishing its purpose. The youth will join us, and the elderly in the group as well. Even if some forget the first section as they begin learning the second, I’m confident that the benefits of memorizing will be worth their efforts.

I’ll be inviting friends from other churches here to memorize with us, and my older kids in the States. (Boy, did I miss a golden opportunity by not learning this psalm with them while they were young!) Our Andrea will memorize a simplified verse from each section of the Knox version, and maybe add more verses in the coming years. [Note: this plan changed almost immediately, when Andrea began memorizing the verses as quickly as anyone. Read more in the page dedicated to her.]

I’d like you to consider memorizing with us, too. Sure, 22 months is a long time–but just think, if you had started two years ago, you’d know it by now! I’m convinced that Psalm 119 holds great blessings for your family. If you have younger kids and wonder how to do something with them that’s age-appropriate, I have some ideas. If you’re older and gave up memorizing years ago, how about trying it again? It would be an encouragement to everyone around you, and a blessing for you as well.nbsp;nbsp;