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Learning the longest psalm – its ‘s easy as ABC

May 5, 2014

Psalm 118: 23-24, 26-27, 29-30            Monday of Easter Week 3, 2014

The ‘responsorial psalm’ we recite during the Liturgy of the Word each day is always carefully chosen to be an echo of the message in the first reading: that’s why it’s called the ‘responsorial psalm’ – it’s a response to the first reading.

And when you look at today’s psalm, Psalm 118, it is a psalm with some hidden features that I think are rather surprising.

We have only said six verses today, but in fact Psalm 118 is the longest psalm in the Bible, with 176 verses.

The full version is divided into 22 stanzas; each stanza starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, so it’s what is known as an acrostic psalm. The idea is that it’s easier to learn things using this method to jog your memory.

It’s said that King David used this psalm to teach his son Solomon the alphabet. In the process it would have taught Solomon how to lead a spiritual life, focusing on something that is absolutely central to the Judaic tradition – ‘The Law’, the law as set out in the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.

This is something else to notice in Psalm 118, its focus on The Law. In what is the longest psalm in the Bible, virtually every single verse makes a reference to God’s law. Even in the six verses we said today, three verses refer to “your statutes”, and the other three verses include the words “your precepts”, “your law”, and “your ordinances”.

In the Eastern Orthodox Churches Psalm 118 is solemnly recited at funeral services as a message of hope in God – and between each verse the Orthodox insert an “Alleluia” (“Praise the Lord”), as a reminder of the chanting of the Easter liturgy of Holy Saturday, when Christians celebrate the promise of eternal life given us through the victory Jesus made over death through His resurrection.

[Incidentally, in the Western Catholic Church we do a similar sort of thing at funerals to remind us at of our Christian trust in God through obeying Gods law – we light the Paschal candle at funerals to remind us of our baptism and the baptismal promises we renew every Easter on Holy Saturday.]

So, you may ask why we use a psalm about ‘the law’ to celebrate St Stephen? Surely he was a victim of ‘The Law?

To understand this, we would do well to remember the words of our Lord when He Himself was being closely scrutinised by the religious authorities, for what they considered to be His blasphemous explanation of The Law:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.[1]

Today we see St Stephen suffering from the same attitude towards the Law that led to the trial and unlawful execution of Jesus. Stephen followed as another victim of an over-interpreted, stultifying, legalised, dead misinterpretation of the Law by religious authorities who were more interested in maintaining the status quo rather consider the spiritual needs of ordinary people.

So Psalm 118 is a fervent prayer to God, meditating on the ultimate joy that comes from living according to God’s law. It is for its resounding message of trust in God and in God’s Law that this psalm is chosen today to go with the account description of the trial of Christianity’s first martyr, Saint Stephen.


[1] Matthew 5: 17

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