The Devotional Journey You Will Not Forget
Watch out. Psalms 119 is about to sneak up and draw you into a life-changing experience.
Before long and without mental gymnastics, you’ll remember all 176 verses of the longest chapter in the Bible. The 22 sections of this psalm will lock themselves into your mind and heart, changing forever the way you think about God’s Word.
How can I declare this with confidence? It happened to me and I have the memory of a gnat.
In fact, I was minding my own business when William Wilberforce told me about his experience with Psalms 119. Actually, that would have been creepy; the British politician who led the movement to abolish the slave trade died in 1833. His journal, though, tells the story. In 1819, Wilberforce wrote:
“Walked from Hyde Park Corner repeating the 119th Psalm in great comfort.”
The first time I read that statement, it startled me. Over the years I had read Psalms 119 and knew a bit about it. The structure of the psalm intrigued me—an acrostic poem using the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Writing a similar acrostic poem using the English alphabet would require eight lines beginning with “A” words, then eight lines beginning with “B” words, continuing through the alphabet and wrapping up with eight lines beginning with “Z” words.
Clearly, the writer wanted to remember this psalm and to help others remember it as well. The alphabetical acrostic provided a memory aid. I was impressed by the literary structure but I could not imagine memorizing 176 verses. Everything changed as I began my Psalms 119 Experience.
The Tune in Your Head
While I cannot remember a 10-item shopping list in the minutes between my house and the store, I can recall and even sing (in private, thank you), all sorts of song lyrics stuck in my brain like lint over the years. That started me wondering—could I use music to memorize Psalms 119? It sounded like a long shot but I decided to try.
I didn’t want songs about the themes contained in Psalms 119; I wanted to remember all the words of Psalms 119. So I gave myself some rules as I began my adventure.
- I would write 22 songs, one for each of the 8-line sections of Psalms 119.
- Each song would include all the words from each section. My goal was to leave nothing out.
- Within each 8-line section, I could reorder the lines to find verses, a chorus, and a bridge. I wanted songs with a familiar structure, not chants.
- Repeating phrases and lines was acceptable but I wanted to avoid reordering words within phrases.
- The songs should reflect the tone of the words in each section.
- The music for each of the 22 songs should be different, reflecting different styles that would aid memory.
- The songs should be simple enough for me to sing which meant that I had about an 8-note range with which to work.
At the time I started, I had a demanding corporate job with very little time for extra projects. Out of necessity, I commandeered some time slots for song development—while shaving, while showering, while drying my hair, and part of my commute to work. With no deadline in mind, I started, hoping songs would develop that would lock the words of Psalms 119 with tunes in my head.
Tell No One
Initially, I told no one, not even my wife, Lynn Marie. The whole idea of writing 22 songs to memorize Psalms 119 sounded odd. If you had told me that one day I would have the songs recorded and write a devotional based on what I learned, I would have laughed. My experience back then was personal, private.
What I did not anticipate was the impact my Psalms 119 Experience would have on my life. As one song became five, and twelve songs grew into fifteen, then into twenty-two, the collective impact of having these words in my mind and heart began to change me.
Psalms 119 songs became the soundtrack for my life. As I woke up in the morning, I hit “play” in my mind and began one of the songs, forcing my mind away from worries and setting my focus on God. As I went to sleep at night, I hit “play” once again and allowed particular songs to settle my anxious thoughts into sleep.
The themes of the different Psalms 119 songs began to fortify me for things I was facing. Memorizing the psalm did what reading could never do—I understood the heart-felt themes the writer addressed and how God’s word equipped him for life.
Since Psalms 119 is not attributed to a specific writer, it can be appropriated by anyone seeking God through His Word. This psalm became my psalm; these words became my words. Rather than professing God’s Word is important, Psalms 119 helped me grasp that God’s Word is my life.
Wrestling with all the words in Psalms 119 through 22 sections helped me see that the writer had shared a personal testimony about a lifetime of living God’s Word. From adolescence to maturity, he spoke with frank insight about the challenges and the conquests of life. His experience challenged me to live with robust faith, anchored in God’s Word, but not trivializing life’s tough times with Bible-plaque platitudes.
At the halfway point in my Psalms 119 Experience, I hit a “crisis of belief” as Henry Blackaby described it in Experiencing God. I questioned whether I could complete the project and fretted that the whole thing was a silly distraction. My wife, along with my friend Greg Nelson, stepped into my faith void and encouraged me to keep going. I did. And one day it happened; the twenty-second song was complete. No one was more surprised than me.
From Personal to Public Experiences
After months of nurturing my own heart with the songs that grew from my Psalms 119 Experience, I had the opportunity to share a few of them with a larger group. Although I had written songs, played the guitar and sung publically years ago, I was never really good, at best one of the fastest in the slow group. Years and perspective had helped me make peace with the level of gifts God had given me and I had determined not to inflict an audience with my singing again. But something changed. When the opportunity came, I wanted to share some of the Psalms 119 songs with this group, not for me, but for them. God had impacted my life so powerfully, I felt compelled to tell the story, to share some of what God had taught me. And so I did.
Most people are kind, especially in the South. This is the home of “heart blessings.” So as I sang my songs that day, people could say, “Bless his heart.” The uninitiated might comment, “Isn’t that sweet. Look how supportive they are.” The truth is that a Southern “heart blessing” means “God help him; he’s doing the best he can.”
When I talked about my Psalms 119 Experience that day and sang a few of the songs, people engaged. The lights were up; I could see people’s faces. They listened and responded. That’s when I began to wonder if others could have a Psalms 119 Experience as well?
I began thinking about a devotional book with short writings based on each of the 22 Psalms 119 songs, focused on the phrases and themes. Later, I dreamed of a recording that would draw on the strengths of other musicians to transform my feeble efforts into music that people could listen to, allowing the words of Psalms 119 to wedge into their minds and hearts.
Your Psalms 119 Experience
What you hold in your hand or are reading on your phone or tablet is an invitation. More than likely, you cannot imagine memorizing the longest chapter in the Bible. Here’s the good news; you don’t need to pursue that goal. In fact, I suggest that you do not set out to memorize Psalms 119. Instead, set out to experience it.
Begin using the devotional, reading a short section each day. Once you work through all the sections, begin again.
Begin listening to the songs in your car or on whatever device you use. Remember that the songs were designed to be sticky, like hot gum in your brain, not necessarily your favorite musical style. See if the words begin to lodge in your brain so you can draw on them as needed.
How will you know you’re having a Psalms 119 Experience? Here are a few positive indicators to anticipate.
- In a difficult circumstance, do the words of a particular Psalms 119 song come to mind? If so, pay attention and allow those truths to fortify your heart.
- Do you struggle to control your thoughts as you wake up or go to sleep? Intentionally think about one of the songs, letting the words set your mind on a God-ward plain, moving you out of a downward spiral of despair.
- When a circumstance in your life surprises you, draw on one of the Psalms 119 songs to settle your heart, protecting you from reactions you’ll regret.
- Capitalize on your “mindless” times to focus on God’s word. Reclaim your time in the shower, driving to work, shopping, working out, whatever else you do as part of ongoing life. Transform “mindless” time to discipleship time.
- Read through Psalms 119 in its entirety. Don’t allow songs and other tools to distract you from interacting directly with God’s word. The more you read this section of God’s word, the more deeply it will impact you.
You’ll notice that I used the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) for this Psalms 119 Experience. Since I was trying to write songs with each of the 22 sections, I needed a translation that captured the poetry of the text without drifting into paraphrase. Using different Bible translations is a privilege and a blessing. Find the Bible that fits your needs. Even if you’ve never used the HCSB before, I think you’ll enjoy using it for this Psalms 119 Experience as I did.
What Comes Next
What do you suppose prompted William Wilberforce to quote Psalms 119 on his walk from Hyde Park Corner that day in 1819? History tells us about the struggles he faced in his quest to abolish the slave trade. Critic confronted him. Power brokers accosted him. Friends betrayed him. His health failed. At times, his faith faltered. That day, though, he reflected on the power of God’s Word through the words of Psalms 119. Certainly, he needed God’s power that day. So do we.
Without God’s word we could never know God. Given thousands of guesses, we could not imagine the truth of the gospel on our own. God revealed so we could know. God speaks now through what God has spoken in His Word. Psalms 119 invites us to a deeper experience with God through a deeper experience with His word.
Perhaps one day you’ll note in your journal, “Drove to work quoting Psalms 119 in great comfort.”
Your can get a copy of The Psalm 119 Experience: The Devotional Journey You Will Not Forget, wherever you get your books these days or by clicking here.