Deacons and Prayer
The Ascent of Psalm 119


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Praying the Beatitudes
Living the Beatitudes
The Ascent of Psalm 119
Morning Prayer
Camino de Santiago
Praying to the Living God
Praying for and with Others
Handbook of Prayers
Your Own Prayer of Dedication

The Ascent of Psalm 119


By Gary T. Johnson




          Psalm 119 is one of the spiritual summits of the Bible, but its length is very intimidating.  This need not be so.  The original Hebrew text is in short, eight-line sections, each of which can and should be read as a separate chapter.  Read that way, Psalm 119 can be ascended one step at a time.


          In Hebrew, Psalm 119 is acrostic.  Each line in a section begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  The twenty-two sections are arranged alphabetically, with all the lines in the first section beginning with aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, through the final section, where all the lines begin with the last letter, taw.  The acrostic arrangement does not work in any sensible translation, but it is important to remember that each eight-line section has a separate stamp.  For that reason, each Hebrew letter is included below.  Also included are the Latin words that name each section used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, words taken from the first few words of each section.  Why does this matter to the English-speaking reader?  Both the Hebrew and the Latin references remind us to mark off each section as a separate way-station in the ascent of Psalm 119.


          May I suggest a spiritual path?  Print out the text below.  Read one section a day, starting the first day of a month.  Read it early in the day, and turn to it often during the day.  Fix on a phrase or even a word during the first read, and recall it frequently.  Read the section again as a whole at the end of the day, but this time as a prayer.  Use all eight lines or fix on part of the text as your prayer.


          If you follow this approach, something startling will happen.  Psalm 119 actually will expand in length!  You fill find that each section, far from being a small and manageable way-station on the ascent of the Psalm, becomes a mansion full of ideas.  The more you ascend, the harder it will be to work through even eight lines in your mind in one day.  In a given day, you will start focusing intensely on a line or even half a line.  Do not despair.  You are deepening your spiritual life.  You will have the remaining days of the month to catch up.  If you cannot finish in one month, then keep going the next month.  Reaching the summit is well worth the effort.


          Each section below leads off with two summary sentences as brief guides.  They are taken from C. H. Spurgeon's gigantic work from the nineteenth century, The Treasury of David, a multi-volume exposition of each Psalm (currently offered by Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts).  This famous Protestant preacher attributed the summaries adapted in each first sentence to Christopher Wordsworth (1872), and in the second sentences to James G. Murphy, in a "Commentary on the Book of Psalms," 1875.  You may find these useful as you begin your ascent of Psalm 119, but my guess is that by the end, your own insights will be so deep that you will take only a glance at these summary sentences.


          The text is mainly that of the New Revised Standard Version, but I have kept some words from earlier texts such as "quicken" in the sense of enliven and revive, and "lovingkindness" in the sense of steadfast love.  These are words that I happen to like and that fit in well with the approach I suggest.  For that reason, I also chose the word "sojourner," rather than alien or stranger, because it conveys the sense of movement along the way, which is fundamental to understanding Psalm 119.  There are notes for further study after the text.


          My own view as a Christian is that a critical phrase is found in verse 81, "My soul languishes for your salvation," where it is possible from the summit of Psalm 119 to see another summit.  For me, this is a turning point, a reminder that in every spiritual journey, there always is more that lies ahead.


          May you have a good journey in your ascent.


Gary T. Johnson,

Evanston, Illinois

August 25, 2002



Aleph.  Section 1.  Beati immaculate.  The blessedness of walking in the way of God is declared.  The word is the source of happiness to those who walk by it.


(Psalm 119) 1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.

2 Blessed are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart,

3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

4 You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.

5 O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!

6 Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.

7 I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances.

8 I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.




Beth.  Section 2.  In quo corrigit?  The word is  the only safeguard of the young against sin.  The word is the source of holiness to those who give heed to it.


9 How can the young keep a pure way? By guarding it according to your word.

10 With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments.

11 I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.

12 Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes.

13 With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth.

14 I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches.

15 I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.

16 I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.




Gimel.  Section 3.  Retribue servo tuo.  Resolve to cling to the word, in spite of the scoffing of the world.  The word is the source of truth to those whose eyes God opens by his Spirit.


17 Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word.

18 Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.

19 I am a sojourner on earth; do not hide your commandments from me.

20 My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times.

21 You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones, who wander from your commandments;

22 take away from me their scorn and contempt, for I have kept your decrees.

23 Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes.

24 Your decrees are my delight, they are my counselors.




Daleth.  Section 4.  Adhæsit pavimento.  Expresses a longing for the consolation of God's words to fortify good resolutions.  The word is the source of law to those whose heart God renews.


25 My soul clings to the dust; quicken me according to your word.

26 When I told of my ways, you answered me; teach me your statutes.

27 Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.

28 My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.

29 Put false ways far from me; and graciously teach me your law.

30 I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your ordinances before me.

31 I cling to your decrees, O LORD; let me not be put to shame.

32 I run the way of your commandments, for you enlarge my understanding.




He.  Section 5.  Legem pone.  Declares a desire for grace to obey the word.  The word brings forth perseverance by its promises.


33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will follow it to the end.

34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.

35 Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.

36 Incline my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.

37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; quicken me in your ways.

38 Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you.

39 Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your ordinances are good.

40 See, I have longed for your precepts; quicken me in your righteousness.




Waw.  Section 6.  Et veniat super me.  Expresses firm trust and intense delight in God's word.  The word reveals the mercy and salvation of God.


41 Let your mercies come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise.

42 Then I shall have an answer for those who taunt me, for I trust in your word.

43 Do not take the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your ordinances.

44 I will keep your law continually, forever and ever.

45 I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought your precepts.

46 I will also speak of your decrees before kings, and shall not be put to shame;

47 I find my delight in your commandments, because I love them.

48 I revere your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.




Zayin.  Section 7.  Memor esto verbi tui.  Describes the blessed comfort derived from God's word in evil days.  The word awakens the comfort of hope in God.


49 Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope.

50 This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise quickens me.

51 The proud utterly deride me, but I do not turn away from your law.

52 When I think of your ordinances from of old, I take comfort, O LORD.

53 Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, those who forsake your law.

54 Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.

55 I remember your name in the night, O LORD, and keep your law.

56 This blessing has fallen to me, for I have kept your precepts.




Heth.  Section 8.  Portio mea, Domine.  Utters the joy which is inspired by the consciousness that God is his portion.  The word presents God as the portion of the trusting soul.


57 The LORD is my portion; I promise to keep your words.

58 I entreat your favor with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise.

59 When I think of your ways, I turn my feet to your decrees;

60 I hurry and do not delay to keep your commandments.

61 Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me, I do not forget your law.

62 At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous ordinances.

63 I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts.

64 The earth, O LORD, is full of your mercy; teach me your statutes.




Teth.  Section 9.  Bonitatem fecisti.  Describes the blessed effects of affliction, as described in God's words, in weaning the soul from the world and drawing it nearer to God.  The word makes affliction instructive and chastening.


65 You have dealt well with your servant, O LORD, according to your word.

66 Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments.

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.

68 You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.

69 The godless smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts.

70 Their hearts are fat and gross, but I delight in your law.

71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, so that I might learn your statutes.

72 The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.



Yodh.  Section 10.  Manus tuæ fecruent me.  Represents the example of the resignation and piety of the faithful, especially in affliction, as gently drawing others to God.  The word creates a fellowship in the fear of God.


73 Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments.

74 Those who fear you shall see me and rejoice, because I have hoped in your word.

75 I know, O LORD, that your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

76 Let your steadfast love become my comfort according to your promise to your servant.

77 Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight.

78 Let the godless be put to shame, because they have subverted me with guile; as for me, I will meditate on your precepts.

79 Let those who fear you turn to me, so that they may know your decrees.

80 May my heart be blameless in your statutes, so that I may not be put to shame.




Kaph.  Section 11.  Deficit anima mea.  An expression of intense desire for the coming of God's kingdom, and the subjection of all things to God, according to the promises of the word.  The word instils longing for the full peace of salvation.


81 My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word.

82 My eyes fail with watching for your promise; I ask, "When will you comfort me?"

83 For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten your statutes.

84 How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?

85 The arrogant have dug pitfalls for me; they flout your law.

86 All your commandments are enduring; I am persecuted without cause; help me!

87 They have almost made an end of me on earth; but I have not forsaken your precepts.

88 In your lovingkindness spare my life, so that I may keep the decrees of your mouth.




Lamedh.  Section 12.  In æternum, Domine.  Declares that the word of God is everlasting, immutable, and infinite in perfection.  The word is faithful and unchangeable.


89 The LORD exists forever; your word is firmly fixed in heaven.

90 Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast.

91 By your appointment they stand today, for all things are your servants.

92 If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.

93 I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have quickened me.

94 I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts.

95 The wicked lie in wait to destroy me, but I consider your decrees.

96 I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad.




Mem.  Section 13.  Quomodo dilexi!  God's word is the only treasure house of true wisdom.  The word commands the approval of the heart.


97 Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.

98 Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me.

99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.

100 I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.

101 I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.

102 I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me.

103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

104 Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.




Nun.  Section 14.  Lucerna pedibus meis.  God's word is the only beacon-light in the darkness and storms of this world.  The word is a light to the path.


105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

106 I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances.

107 I am severely afflicted; quicken me, O LORD, according to your word.

108 Accept my offerings of praise, O LORD, and teach me your ordinances.

109 I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law.

110 The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts.

111 Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.

112 I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.



Samekh.  Section 15.  Iniquos odio habui.  All skeptical attempts to undermine faith in the word are hateful and deadly, and will recoil with confusion on those that make them.  To swerve from from the word is hateful.


113 I hate the double-minded, but I love your law.

114 You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word.

115 Depart from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commandments of my God.

116 Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope.

117 Hold me up, that I may be safe and have regard for your statutes continually.

118 You spurn all who go astray from your statutes; for their cunning is in vain.

119 All the wicked of the earth you count as dross; therefore I love your decrees.

120 My flesh trembles for fear of you, and I am afraid of your judgments.




Ayin.  Section 16.  Feci judicium.  Prayer for steadfastness and soundness of heart and mind, amid all the impiety and unbelief in the world.  The word justifies the plea of innocence.


121 I have done what is just and right; do not leave me to my oppressors.

122 Guarantee your servant's well-being; do not let the godless oppress me.

123 My eyes fail from watching for your salvation, and for the fulfillment of your righteous promise.

124 Deal with your servant according to your mercy, and teach me your statutes.

125 I am your servant; give me understanding, so that I may know your decrees.

126 It is time for the LORD to act, for your law has been broken.

127 Truly I love your commandments more than gold, more than fine gold.

128 Truly I direct my steps by all your precepts; I hate every false way.




Pe.  Section 17.  Mirabilia.  Assurance that the word of  God brings its own light and comfort to those who earnestly pray for them, and fills the heart with compassion for those who despise it.  The word is a testimony to God's character and will.


129 Your decrees are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.

130 The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.

131 With open mouth I pant, because I long for your commandments.

132 Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your wont toward those who love your name.

133 Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity get dominion over me.

134 Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts.

135 Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.

136 My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.




Sadhe.  Section 18.  Justus es, Domine.  Declaration that even the youthful soul may stand strong and steadfast, if it has faith in the purity, and truth, and righteousness of God's law.  The word is a law of rectitude.


137 You are righteous, O LORD, and your judgments are right.

138 You have appointed your decrees in righteousness and in all faithfulness.

139 My zeal consumes me because my foes forget your words.

140 Your promise is well tried, and your servant loves it.

141 I am small and despised, yet I do not forget your precepts.

142 Your righteousness is an righteousness forever, and your law is the truth.

143 Trouble and anguish have come upon me, but your commandments are my delight.

144 Your decrees are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live.




Qoph.  Section 19.  Clamavi in toto corde meo.  An earnest prayer for the grace of faith.  The word justifies the cry for salvation.


145 With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O LORD. I will keep your statutes.

146 I cry to you; save me, that I may observe your decrees.

147 I rise before dawn and cry for help; I put my hope in your words.

148 My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.

149 In your lovingkindness hear my voice; O LORD, in your justice quicken me. 150 Those who persecute me with evil purpose draw near; they are far from your law.

151 Yet you are near, O LORD, and all your commandments are true.

152 Long ago I learned from your decrees that you have established them forever.




Resh.  Section 20.  Vide humilitatem.  A prayer for faith especially in times of affliction, desolation, and persecution from the powerful of the world.  The word justifies prayer for deliverance from affliction.


153 Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law.

154 Plead my cause and redeem me; give me life according to your promise.

155 Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek your statutes.

156 Great are your tender mercies, O LORD; quicken me according to your justice.

157 Many are my persecutors and my adversaries, yet I do not swerve from your decrees.

158 I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands.

159 Consider how I love your precepts; preserve my life according to your lovingkindness.

160 The sum of your word is truth; and every one of your righteous ordinances endures forever.




Shin.  Section 21.  Principes persecuti sunt.  Even in persecution from the powerful of the world, there is then peace, joy and exultation for those who love God's word.  The word offers deliverance from persecution without a cause.


161 Princes persecute me without cause, but my heart stands in awe of your words.

162 I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.

163 I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law.

164 Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances.

165 Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.

166 I hope for your salvation, O LORD, and I fulfill your commandments.

167 My soul keeps your decrees; I love them exceedingly.

168 I keep your precepts and decrees, for all my ways are before you.




Taw.  Section 22.  Appropinquet deprecatio.  An earnest prayer for the gifts of understanding, assistance, and grace from God, to the soul that acknowledges its weakness, and rests on God alone for support.  The word assures of an answer in due time.


169 Let my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word.

170 Let my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise.

171 My lips will pour forth praise, because you teach me your statutes.

172 My tongue will sing of your promise, for all your commandments are right.

173 Let your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.

174 I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight.

175 Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances help me.

176 I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.



          For those who want to learn more about the Psalms as a whole, I recommend Michael Barber's, Singing in the Reign:  The Psalms and the Liturgy of God's Kingdom (Emmaus Road Publishing, Steubenville, Ohio; 2001).  This is a modern analysis of the Psalms from a Catholic point of view.  For those willing to tackle writings from the Church Fathers, one of the classics is St. Augustine's Expositions on the Psalms.  I have added a link here:


St. Augustine on Psalm 119


The marvelous version created for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662), based on the Tyndale Bible that pre-dated the King James Version, is here, to be sung the morning of Day 22 through the evening of Day 28:


Book of Common Prayer, Psalms 107-138


The Scottish Metrical Psalter (1650), including Psalm 119 is here:

Scottish Metric Psalter