Even after spending so many years studying Psalm 119 and using the text to write 22 songs to help me remember the words, I remain fascinated by this chapter of the Bible. I’m not alone.
C.S. Lewis and Psalm 119
Here’s what C.S. Lewis said in 1958 in Sweeter Than Honey: Reflections on the Psalms. I’ve reformatted the text a bit to make it easier to read online.
As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all.
The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections — which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. (This may have given an ancient ear something of the same sort of pleasure we get from the Italian metre called the Sestina, where instead of rhymes we have the same end words repeated in varying orders in each stanza.)
In other words, this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.
Now this, in itself, seems to me very important because it lets us into the mind and mood of the poet.
We can guess at once that he felt about the Law somewhat as he felt about his poetry; both involved exact and loving conformity to an intricate pattern. This at once suggests an attitude from which the Pharisaic conception could later grow but which in itself, though not necessarily religious, is quite innocent.
It will look like priggery or pedantry (or else like a neurotic fussiness) to those who cannot sympathise with it, but it need not be any of these things. It may be the delight in Order, the pleasure in getting a thing ‘just so’ — as in dancing a minuet.
Of course the poet is well aware that something incomparably more serious than a minuet is here in question. He is also aware that he is very unlikely, himself, to achieve this perfection of discipline:
“0 that my ways were made so straight that I might keep thy statutes!” (v. 5). At present they aren’t, and he can’t. But his effort to do so does not spring from servile fear.
The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life?
His ‘delight’ is in those statutes (v. 16);
To study them is like finding treasure (v. 14);
They affect him like music, are his ‘songs’ (v. 54);
They taste like honey (v. 103);
They are better than silver and gold (v. 72).
As one’s eyes are more and more opened, one sees more and more in them, and it excites wonder (v. 18). This is not priggery nor even scrupulosity; it is the language of a man ravished by a moral beauty. If we cannot at all share his experience, we shall be the losers.
Note: For more information, check out C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 340-341
Through the writer, God showcases His extravagance — the structure, the intricate language, the down-to-earth insights, and the beyond-understanding implications.
The psalmist could have communicated his content without the exquisite attention to detail. To me, Psalm 119 is more beautiful than it needed to be as functional communication. For that reason, the art of the language must be central to the message.
How often we witness the extravagance of God — in the gospel, in the cross, in God’s initiative to redeem a world. So Psalm 119 continues this pattern, words arranged so that their sounds and the images they evoke prompt us to dig deeper into the human writer’s intent . . . and more importantly, God’s intent as He worked through this writer.
The more we dig into Psalm 119 and mine its truths, the more trails we discover left by previous adventurers like C.S. Lewis and others who made the journey long before us.
Well-worn trails promise profitable journeys. Traveling through Psalm 119 as a gateway to an encounter with God through all of the Bible remains an invitation to the ultimate pilgrimage.