Psalm 119: The ABC of the God-Centered Life

Psalm 119: The ABC of the God-Centered Life

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on May 24, 2024, which can be found here.

Q. I have heard Psalms 119 described as “The ABC of the God-Centered Life.” Can you explain why this is a fitting title for the longest psalm in the Bible?

A. Among the 150 psalms in our beloved Psalter, Psalm 119 stands apart from all the others. Not only is it the longest of the psalms, as you note; it is also the one with the longest list of well-deserved descriptive titles. It’s been called “The Mirror of a Gracious Heart,” “The Window of the Soul,” “The Paradise of All the Doctrines,” “The Storehouse of the Holy Spirit,” “The School of Truth,” “A Doxology of Praise for the Word of God,” “The Garden of Sweet Flowers,” “The Great Psalm,” and more.

What makes “The ABC of the God-Centered Life” so fitting for this psalm is the fact that its 176 verses are arranged alphabetically. Each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet takes eight turns introducing eight consecutive verses. Verses 1-8 all begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, verses 9-16 with the second letter of the alphabet, and so on. Although this stroke of poetic genius is lost in translation, some English Bibles put the names of the Hebrew letters in the heading above each eight-verse unit (Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, and so on). The alphabetic acrostic structure answers the ‘ABC’ part of your question. It also explains why there are 176 verses (22 letters x 8 verses each = 176).

As for ‘the God-Centered Life’ part of your question, if you read through the psalm from beginning to end, you will see why this is a perfect title. Psalm 119 is a prayer without parallel in the Bible, as the psalmist pours out his heart of devotion to the Lord, especially in praise of God’s Word. The Torah of the Lord (God’s instruction or direction) is sweeter than honey, more precious than silver and gold, a lamp to our feet, the source of divine wisdom, … the key to everything. In this psalm we discover the essence and shape of a God-centered life––a life that is consumed with and ordered by God’s Word.

For Hebrew readers, Psalm 119 is a thing of awe-inspiring beauty, befitting the subject matter, which is precisely the point: to highlight the all-encompassing wonder and perfections of God’s Word. What God says applies to every aspect of life, from Aleph to Taw (or as we might say in English from A to Z), and it does so without failure or flaw. Describing the truth, beauty, and goodness of God’s Word—where we hear God’s voice and discover God’s will––requires an entire alphabet! Psalm 119 is truly “The ABC of the God-Centered Life.”

This psalm might be the Bible’s most exquisite example of the alphabetic acrostic, but it is not the only instance. The poem to the virtuous woman at the end of the Book of Proverbs (Prov 31:10-31) also follows an alphabetic structure, with each of the 22 Hebrew letters introducing in turn the 22 consecutive verses. The wisdom author in this case produces a poem that depicts the perfections of the exemplary wife and mother from Aleph to Taw. Here, too, the literary artistry mimics the subject matter (as if I were to write a poem describing my wife Carol as an amazing person, with a beautiful heart, a compassionate spirit, an unfailing devotion to God, and so on). (There are other examples of this feature in the Bible as well, but that is a topic for another “Ask the Register” piece.)

Among the many other observations we might make about Psalm 119, it is noteworthy that this psalm immediately follows the so-called “Great Egyptian Hallel” cluster of psalms (113–118). As part of the Passover liturgy in ancient Judaism, these psalms, which praise God for his wonderwork of salvation in the exodus from Egypt, are likely the hymn which Jesus sang with his disciples at his last Passover meal in the Upper Room (see Matt 26:30Mk 14:26). How fitting that Jesus, the incarnate Word, would have sung a hymn that prefaces the Word (Psalms 113–118—> 119) on the occasion of instituting the Eucharist, where his disciples first consumed the Word!

Ultimately Psalms 119 is appropriately titled “The ABC of the God-Centered Life” because it celebrates the Word of God, which “became flesh and dwelt among us,” and who now shares his flesh with us in the Eucharistic Passover.