Psalm 119’s Surprising Side Effects

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

In time of trouble I often turn to the 40s chapters of Isaiah or the Book of Psalms. After a particularly trying season, I found myself on a memorizing roll. Beginning with Psalm 104, I skipped only David’s imprecatory rant in 109 and just kept going—until I hit Psalm 119.

Screeching halt. No way! Reading the 176-verse giant to the kids every year was daunting enough. Most of our three daily chapters were easier to get through than that one. It was the longest chapter in the Bible! How could I memorize it?

I’d enjoyed the other psalms so much, I didn’t want to stop. At first, however, Psalm 119 gave me no joy and seemed like nothing but law, law, law. Gradually I began to see how much was made up of prayer. And promises. And blessings. I began liking Psalm 119. Eventually, I came to love it.

Most scholars suspect the author was Ezra, Daniel or David. It sounds like David to me, but whoever penned it knew about suffering—and persevering through God and His word. I started sharing what I was learning, and soon our entire family was working on Psalm 119.

During the year of memorizing, we experienced more physical, spiritual, emotional and financial challenges than ever before. I finished last April but couldn’t bear to stop reviewing until this month, when I chose another passage I’m excited about, especially considering the season: Matthew 2. Our youngest daughter, Beth, is still working on Psalm 119. Our middle daughter Arie’s closest friend group in college decided to start a Bible study and are all memorizing what another of them had already begun before they’d met: Psalm 119.

What’s the draw? And what makes people tackle the psalm in spite of its size (or because of it)? I can’t speak for others, but the first five verses are a sampling of what’s sustained us:

How blessed are those whose way is blameless,

Who walk in the law of the Lord.

How blessed are those who observe His testimonies,

Who seek Him with all their heart.

They also do no unrighteousness;

They walk in His ways.

Thou hast ordained Thy precepts,

That we should keep them diligently.

Oh that my ways may be established

To keep Thy statutes!

Prayer, promises and blessings focused on the Lord and keeping His word: that’s Psalm 119.

I put it in my head before putting it in my heart by reading through it often. To memorize or review, I covered a line at a time and quizzed myself. Sometimes our family members quizzed each other, or made it into a contest. Each of Psalm 119’s twenty-two sections corresponds to one letter of the Hebrew alphabet which starts every verse in the section. The psalm’s acrosticism is lost in translation, but tackling it phrase by phrase and section by section still makes memorizing easier. So does using the references.

Psalm 119 was my cold-weather project, hit or miss in the fall but sometimes by whole sections in a day come spring because I wanted to finish and partially knew it just from reading it so many times. Getting through the whole thing word-perfect took more than a month in itself.  

Working with the same passage for so long yielded unexpected results. I felt more connected with the Bible as I kept discovering the connections in the chapter. Though our family members were on different verses and farther apart physically than we’ve ever been, our common bond connected us, making the distance seem less. I felt inspired to host a ladies’ home Bible study, connecting me with others. The repetition of prayer, promises and blessings has made me feel connected and closer to the Lord, too—just another surprising side effect of Psalm 119.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

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