Last week I introduced a weekly series on the “Psalms of Ascent”, grouped together from 120-134 and used as a liturgy for pilgrims going to Jerusalem for annual festivals. Before jumping into Psalm 120 next week, today we consider what it might mean that Psalm 119 precedes it. Was this order intentional (as the grouping of Psalms 120-134 was) and for what reason?
Laws, Precepts, Statutes, Rules, and More
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, with 22 sections, or stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In it, the Psalmist poetically praises God’s moral law, using 8 different words to describe it, and including at least 6 of these in every stanza. It seems repetitive, but by approaching it from so many angles, the Psalmist is saying “no matter how you look at it, everyone is better off if they know and follow this law.” For example, verse 105 – “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” – says that not knowing the law is like walking in darkness, but that following the law keeps you on the right path. Verse 98 – “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me” says the law is a reliable source of wisdom, and better than the rules of God’s enemies. There are many such examples in the 176 verses.
But, while declaring that following the right moral law is good for us, Psalm 119 also declares that none keep it regularly. The Psalmist says “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” in verse 136, and also that “I have gone astray like a lost sheep” in verse 176. God’s word may be a lamp to our feet, but our feet go elsewhere anyway. Therefore, we mourn sin – that of us and that of others – because we are all guilty and we all suffer the consequences. We take no joy in other’s misfortune because we are not immune. Any moral law – including a perfect one from God – always shows us how far short we fall. Rules cannot make us perfect; they can only define perfection.
Therefore, there is another part of God’s law – the ceremonial law – which is never mentioned in Psalm 119 unless you want to include the “freewill offerings of praise” mentioned in verse 108. The Psalms of Ascent follow a Psalm praising God’s moral law because, although His law is good, it is not enough. Only by going to the temple regularly could God’s people see what sacrifices God prescribed to compensate for their failures and satisfy His justice. While these ceremonial sacrifices were insufficient, they always pointed forward to the ultimate, perfect sacrifice of Christ which would fully cover our sin, empower us to grow in obedience to His good moral law over time, but also make the temple sacrifices irrelevant and unnecessary from that time forward.
To today’s Christian, the Psalms of Ascent remind us not only of our need for salvation apart from law, but they prepare us to regularly contemplate His provision to accomplish that salvation. As these Psalms provided instruction on what Israelites should have been thinking about along the way to the temple in Jerusalem, we can benefit from them also as we travel to congregate with other sinners seeking our only hope together. God’s people didn’t just arrive in Jerusalem and become magically transformed by ceremonies. The Psalms of Ascent encouraged them to prepare and participate.