King David led a very different life from mine. He shepherded sheep, killed a nine-foot-tall warrior using just a sling, spent years on the run from the current King of Israel, ascended the throne himself when King Saul died, faced a rebellion by his son Absalom, and somehow in the midst of all that found time to compose a bunch of songs. Me? Well, my biggest worry right now is getting this blog post done. In Psalm 124, David wrote about facing hostile adversaries, but I don’t have any hostile adversaries, so I have to write about David writing about facing hostile adversaries.
Are you familiar with the expression “lower than a duck’s instep?” Given how many of you are my relatives, you probably are. But in case you need an explanation, it means “super-low”–because a duck, with its flat feet, has the lowest instep you can imagine. It’s basically the opposite of being “fine as frog’s hair.” And today’s psalm is for people in a situation that is lower than a duck’s instep.
Today’s psalm is, as the NASB summarizes it, a “Prayer for Deliverance from the Treacherous.” The psalmist asks the Lord to deliver him from “lying lips” and “a deceitful tongue” (120:2). For the time, he’s living in a foreign land with war-hungry inhabitants, so he turns to God for safety.
This is it: the behemoth, the magnum opus, the alpha and omega and everything in between. This is Psalm 119.
I expect that lyrical repetition has been around for as long as singing itself. It’s a potent device. If you want to write a hit pop song, get yourself a simple, singable chorus and a catchy hook, and lean into it hard: just drill it into your listeners’ heads. And whatever lyrical gymnastics you’re pulling off in your rap track, whatever rapid-fire vocals and complex internal rhymes, make sure you’ve got a good call-and-response chorus to get the audience bouncing. And to go back further, if you’re an ancient Hebrew lyricist, you too can put these techniques to work. Enter Psalm 118.
What’s the shortest song you can think of? Two of my favorite bands, Five Iron Frenzy and They Might Be Giants, have no shortage of short songs. Here’s one. Here’s another. And these short songs tend to be goofy ditties with nonsensical lyrics poking fun at their own brevity, but what happens when a short song takes itself and its subject matter entirely seriously? Psalm 117 happens, that’s what.
In junior high, my dad introduced me to Archimedes’ spiral, or the “goat on a rope.” If you take a compass and draw a line where the distance of your pencil from the center point equals the angle between your compass and the x-axis, you get this line. Or to put it in mathematical terms, it’s the polar coordinate equation r = θ. My dad told me that life is like Archimedes’ spiral: as you live and grow, you keep coming back to similar points in your life, but further out on the spiral. Say you’ve read a psalm before, and then you read it again. The second time around, you’re reading it on a more distant loop on the spiral. It’s a new experience–but it’s similar to the old one.