Psalm 119: By the book

‘Happy are they who walk in the law of God’ (1)

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Psalm 119 has at its heart the ‘law’, or the premises, principles, precepts and promises of the biblical record. It forms an important part part of the justice pillar in the Psalter.

At 176 verses, this is longest psalm — and the longest chapter in the Bible. The psalm is made up of a succession of 8-verse sections, 22 of them, each labelled acrostically with a Hebrew letter. Further, the verses begin with that letter. This was perhaps a teaching aid, maybe a touch of poetic flair. The alliteration is lost in English versions. The song is seldom sung in its entirety, save in the Orthodox tradition where it appears on the Saturday of Holy Week. Seven of these sections appear on a total of nine occasions during the three-year Lectionary cycle, sometimes two consecutively.

This extended lesson on divine law explores how it might influence the life of the follower: from the opening lines, inviting the reader or listener to follow the ways and decrees of God; through the great centrepiece of verse 105 declaring this “Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path”; to the last verse 176 suggesting that in remembering the commandments, sheep who have gone astray may be returned to the fold.

The book of law — principles, precepts, promises. A 15th century Psalter in the Bibliothèque Humaniste, Selestat, France, with commentary in Latin

This all sounds good — but exactly what is that ‘word’? The psalm constantly refers in each verse, depending on the translation, to decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, judgements and commandments.

Immediately following David’s era, the several tribal Abrahamic descendants would naturally have read this as references to the writings in the Torah, be they commandments or narrative elaborations. Later descendants may have turned to the Bible as a whole or sections of the Qur’an.

Today however, an integrated view of scriptural concepts is an asset in deciding just what constitutes ‘God’s way’, whether taken metaphorically or theologically. Just as Renaissance writers like Erasmus savoured classical philosophies and updated them by adding a healthy dash of humanism, the modern reader is inevitably influenced by graceful New Commandment principles. Psalms for All Seasons has this to say about this long poem:

The psalm focuses on the decrees, laws, commands, and promises of God. It depicts life as a walk or journey down a path; it lifts up the importance of a righteous heart, mouth and voice, and righteous feet; it challenges us to treasure and take delight; it presents God’s law as both command and promise; and it gives us hope.


Each octet of this song sung separately may inspire a different musical response according to text and context. However, their source from the great psalm can still be acknowledged by a common refrain. Here are some:

  • PFAS has fifteen settings. 119B provides verses for four of the Lectionary selections set to an old hymn ST CRISPIN. 119F similarly takes a sprinkling of verses, spoken not sung, with the refrain: “Order my steps in your word”; while those that follow (119G to M) assume the full section of the week is read.
  • TiS applies verse 105 (the ‘light and lamp’ mentioned above) to a pleasing refrain, while the sprinkling of verses taken from the whole psalm are sung to a double tone.
  • NCH limits the readings to RCL sections, offering a nice, short and simple refrain for all by Elaine Kirkland, 1994.
  • Everett has clearly pondered this situation and found a good solution. For detail read on; otherwise skip the next page.

The Everett solution is to integrate the separate sections by providing a refrain system of two alternating compatible and complementary tunes throughout. Refrain lyrics are drawn from the section of the week. These refrains can be added together at the end to form a hymn in their own right — well thought out and effective.1 Here is just one couplet:

All who know your voice and listen ardently uphold your laws / binding to their heart your wisdom, base their lives upon your cause.

The tune is simple, with alternating backing chords D minor and C repeating. The tune continues unchanged throughout, using the first three notes of the scales as the chords alternate. Variation and interest are introduced for the second line by subtly changing backing chords to Bb and A minor, both closely related respectively to the first chords – for example, A minor is the relative minor of C. The root notes across the whole song progress modally down the scale from D to A. A good effect can therefore be achieved by having a backing chorus to sing a root note ostinato. If there are enough singers, add the parallel fifth, starting on A. (Incidentally, in classical composition theory successive fiths were discountenanced: but it sounds good in this context.) These little delights of composition and musicality often swing the balance when choosing which antiphon to use. ‘Singability’, being easy to pick up, is the sine qua non – ‘must have’. But if it’s too simple the whole experience can be flat or even boring.

As the song progresses to the fifth section, ה or He (pronounced ‘hey’), often associated with the breath or creativity of God, it continues the theme of inviting us to walk in God’s ways. The psalmist seems to be going further to say that the more we absorb the culture and concepts behind the commandments, the more we will gain ‘understanding’. Everett’s tune is now fitted with the selection:

Elevate my understanding ever in my heart keep watch / find my strength in your commandments for your truth is all I’ve sought.

The text then draws from מ (mem) and נ (nun). Everett hints at the original form by alliteration in each line beginning with M and N:

Mindful of your truth inside me / Meditate with every breath / Needing only you to guide me / Never turning from your path.

This is not a direct quote of the text of the psalm. The author has taken a step back, zoomed out and looked at the whole psalm to summarise the ideas.

Understanding, guidance, justice in successive verses of Psalm 119 in a 19th C family Bible.

Another person who pondered this dilemma was Isaac Watts, (1674 – 1748, a few years ahead of the life of JS Bach.) Watts was a nonconformist English theologian who was also a prolific and popular writer of hymn lyrics. His solution to this smorgasbord of delights in Psalm 119 was to pull the verses apart and reassemble them thematically in a new order of sections or ‘Parts’, as he called them. Part 1 for example included verses 5, 29, 33, 35-37, 133 and 176. He also took the liberty of updating the paraphrased psalms as though the original writers had knowledge of New Testament scriptures. As mentioned above, this seems sensible for interpretation by the modern reader, but goes a step too far for faithful translation. Many composers such as Thomas Clark grasped this alternative arrangement and wrote settings for these parts. These days the overly liberal translations and dated language argue against their use.

Amongst the classical composers of years gone by, it is interesting that Lassus wrote at least ten settings of various selected verses from Psalm 119 (such as that shown above from He verses 33 and 34) while but one is attributed to Tomas Luis de Victoria, and then doubtfully. Robert White also wrote four or five settings including one for the last half-dozen verses.

Ps 119:169, Robert White

Another local invention is a refrain to which can be added a relevant quote from the section set for the week:

Psalm 119 antiphon
Antiphon for Ps 119:5 by the author

We now turn to look now at the separate sections appearing in the Lectionary.

Aleph א

In words reminiscent of Psalm 1, this first section Aleph begins by inviting us to walk in God’s ways.

A good dozen classical settings are listed against this section, a few for SATB but most for 5, 6 or more voices. Some employ just the first verse quoted at the outset, the Latin incipit which is Beati immaculati in via.

Several other motets are listed against Psalm 119, others as separate compositions but clearly drawing on the same text. Tomas Luis di Victoria used this text for his sole composition on this long psalm. It is listed in his works as a ‘manuscript’ rather than one of his vespers psalms; and a note says it may not be by Victoria anyway.2 Another such (illustrated below) is a setting for seven voices by a leading Lutheran composer from Thuringia in Germany, Johann Walter (1496-1570, about 50 years before Victoria).

Beatus immaculata, Blessed undefiled. Ps 119:1, Iohannes Vualtherius, for seven voices.

In more modern settings:

  • Everett introduces the first of his series of additive antiphons discussed earlier.
  • Meanwhile in PFAS, the single song allocated to Aleph is a nice refrain and metrical verses by Lucien Deiss (1921-2007) a French liturgist and composer of many chants.
  • The setting in TiS samples several sections in a Watts-style mixed salad.
  • Keeping what may well be the best wine to last, the refrain in New Century Hymnal is short and sweet: “Teach me O God the way of your statutes.” This quote is actually from verse 33, and is one of those generic refrains that is used in NCH and other psalters (see PFAS 119B to E) for all Lectionary selections whenever they arise.
A setting of 119 He by Heinrich Schütz (detail)

He, ח

This fifth section (33-40) reads like a plea from a faltering student for assistance in following a path that is definitely right but steep or poorly defined. The psalmist seeks divine tuition in the way of right statutes, understanding of the law, and the path to justice. He or she asks that heart and eyes may be turned towards divine standards, away from the unjust and worthless pursuits.

  • Everett in TEP homes in on ingredients crucial for justice, insight and integrity, understanding values and right ways in a complex and slippery ethical environment. The acrostic character of the series leads to rather quaint wording, but it is memorable: “Elevate my understanding. Ever in my heart keep watch.“ (34)
  • PFAS 119J provides an easy but effective refrain based on a ii-IV (or V11)-I which pertains to both the previous section, Daleth, and this one. Verses may be sung to the tone provided or, as usual, one of the cantor’s choice.

Several SATB settings of this section are listed in the classical arena — by Atwood, Boyce (with alto soloist) and Rogier to name a few. Five-part settings are available from William Byrd, and also Lassus whose incipit follows:

Throughout, the song affirms the importance of God’s word — sometime translated as ‘law’ or ‘decrees’. More than just a tablet of stone and a bunch of rules, it signifies all the writings which collectively describe the divine spiritual and ethical framework under which humankind should proceed. The psalmist hopes it will illuminate path and steps.

Throughout, the song affirms the importance of God’s word — sometime translated as ‘law’ or ‘decrees’. More than just a tablet of stone and a bunch of rules, it signifies all the writings which collectively describe the divine spiritual and ethical framework under which humankind should proceed. The psalmist hopes it will illuminate path and steps.

1 The Emergent Psalter page 19