< February 16, 2014 >

Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

 

Most modern Christians find Psalm 119 rather difficult to engage.

After all, at 176 verses, it is extraordinarily long. Moreover, mainline Christian theology might seem at odds with the central theme of Psalm 119. Christians today do not typically share the psalm’s unflagging insistence on (and celebration of) strict adherence to the “law” or torah.

Ancient readers, however, would have found this psalm utterly compelling because it makes bold claims about how to live a happy life and have a healthy heart.

Psalm 119 is an alphabetic acrostic poem, one of several poems of this type found in the Psalms and Lamentations. In these poems, each verse typically begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, the first verse would begin with aleph and the second with beth, and so on, until the poet reached the end of the alphabet.

Psalm 119 is a singularly complex alphabetic acrostic in that every line in an entire stanza begins with the same letter. So not just one verse, but eight verses start with the letter aleph -- the next eight with beth, and so on, all the way through the Hebrew alphabet.

So why would a poet bother to write a psalm this way?

The ancient Israelites had to learn their alphabet just like we all did. Reciting and writing the alphabet were fundamental aspects of one’s education. In fact, archaeologists have discovered numerous abecedaries -- lists of letters in alphabetical order -- from the ancient Near East. Abecedaries have been discovered on shards of pottery, carved into stone, and pressed into clay. Since learning the alphabet was a critical element in ancient education, students practiced writing the alphabet all the time.

For ancient Israelites, another critical aspect of one’s education was, of course, learning the law of God, the torah. Grammar and spelling lessons were as important as learning the law, because the written alphabet was the medium through which the law of God was transmitted. So learning the law and learning the written language of God’s law were bound together.

We should not be surprised, then, that the alphabet serves as an ordering element in this psalm celebrating God’s law and all the good that comes from keeping it. From aleph to tav (that is, from A to Z), Psalm 119 is a song about the law. Its complex alphabetic structure presents an orderly presentation of “order” itself -- God’s law, God’s very word to Israel, extolled in a most orderly way.

This long poem begins with a double blessing, using the formula “Happy are those who” (verses 1-2), sometimes translated “blessed is the one who” (NIV, KJV). This same blessing formula appears a number of times in the Psalter (1:1-2; 34:8; 40:4; 41:1; 84:4; 106:3; 112:1) and Proverbs (3:13; 8:32; 14:21; 16:20; 29:18). It also forms the basis for the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Throughout the Bible, the phrase functions simultaneously to encourage the righteous and to call for those who are not living righteously to change their ways. Psalm 119 is no exception.

Verse 1 describes this blessed, happy person as one who “walks in the law.” This might sound odd to modern readers. One could certainly imagine what it means to “keep,” “read,” or “obey” the law, but the image of “walking in the law” prompts us to wonder just how such a walk would look. The psalmist is actually trying to prompt just such a reflection from the reader. And, indeed, the next 175 verses of the psalm aim to answer the question: “what does it mean to ‘walk in the law?’”

The metaphor of walking appears throughout the psalm to express the totality of one’s behavior and activities (cf. esp. verse 105). Thus, to “walk in the law” is a lyrical way of describing what it means to follow the law in every respect. According to Psalm 119, this type of walking -- consistently choosing to follow the path that God has revealed through the law -- leads inexorably to a happy, blessed life. However, walking contrary to the law only causes trouble and suffering (verses 6, 8; cf. Ps 1).

The first verses of this psalm also highlight the importance of a healthy heart. The happy ones are known by the way they walk and by the nature of their hearts.

A literal translation of verse 7a reads “I will praise you with straightness of heart when I learn your righteous laws.” This image also piques our imagination: what in the world does a straight heart look like? Again, this is just the type of question that the psalmist wants the reader to ask.

Moderns typically understand the heart to be the seat of one’s emotions, especially romantic love. But the ancient Israelite understanding of heart would be most similar to our concept of the mind: the seat of our will, convictions, and intellect. So we could understand verse 7 to mean that learning God’s law produces “straight minds.” These minds comprehend the word of God clearly and allow that law to direct their actions. By contrast, a crooked mind, like a crooked path, leads one into trouble.

The psalm also describes the heart of the righteous as “whole” (verse 2), which is to say, undivided. If someone were to have a divided heart, that person would have his or her focus and attention split between God’s law and something else. By contrast, Psalm 119 suggests that true happiness comes to those whose whole heart, or even better, whose whole mind is completely dedicated to understanding God’s word. 

In the introductory stanza to this monumental hymn to the law, we find a crystallization of the psalm’s major themes. The psalmist exhorts readers to walk in the law, for this way of life is the key to happiness and blessedness. Walking the straight path of obedience to God’s law requires a straight heart even as it creates such a heart. The psalm proclaims that God’s word guides and sustains all those who attend to it carefully.