The Long and the Short of it: Psalms 117 and 119

Psalms 117 and 119 stand out for being respectively, unusually short and remarkably long. If there is any sense of editorial purpose behind the Psalter it seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that these two psalms are so close together. Their odd length also means they must have been selected with good reason. Despite the fact that psalm 119 is almost 100 times longer than psalm 117 they are both equally singular in their focus.

Psalm 119, as was seen two posts ago, focuses on Torah. This focus was also that of Psalm 1. Some scholars have suggested that on its way to completion the Psalter opened with psalm 1 and closed with psalm 119. If this was the case this would have given a key place to Torah in the Psalter, however, the final form of the Psalter still places a strong emphasis on Torah, with psalm 119 dominating book 5 because of its massive size and prominence before the Songs of Ascents. In this way, psalm 119 picks up a key aspect of the Psalter’s opening – delight in God’s Torah or instruction.

Interestingly psalm 117 also effectively picks up on a key aspect of the opening too. It is worth quoting psalm 117 in full:

O praise The Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise ye The Lord.

Compared to psalm 2 something has happened, in psalm 2 the question raised was: ‘Why do the nations rage, . . . .?’ (2:1). The nations appear many times in the Psalter and here in a positive light. Psalm 2 articulates the problem of particularity, the good news comes first to Israel and then the nations. Psalm 117 in all is simplicity anticipates the gospel having gone out to all the nations. This is the nature of the psalms, they are concerned with ‘the now’, but then there are glimpses forward. The psalms are eschatological and in this context articulate a simple worldview where all is resolved. This is what we find in psalms 1 and 117. In other places the questions of now are at the fore. Such questions are there in psalm 2: why do the nations reject Yahweh? Why have the kings of Israel failed. Psalm 119 for all its focus is still asking questions: is devotion to God’s Torah enough? Will the faithful find vindication in the end?

In a way this is what we have in the Psalter, a twofold blessing: (i) permission and language to deal with the troubles and challenges of the life of faith, (ii) glimpses of that perfect future when all has been set right.

Praise ye The Lord.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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