< February 20, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40


At 176 verses, Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Book of Psalms, and yet it is perhaps the most noticeably, or even most rigorously, ordered.

It is an acrostic poem, meaning that the first letter of each line follows the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In the case of Psalm 119, the acrostic is grouped into eight-line sections, so that each of the first eight lines starts with alef, each of the second eight lines starts with bet, etc. This week's lectionary reading is the he section, meaning that each of these eight lines in Hebrew begins with the letter he, the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

God's torah (i.e., law or instruction) is the primary theme throughout Psalm 119. Walter Brueggemann points out that the acrostic provides, "a form commensurate with the message. The message is that life is reliable and utterly symmetrical when the torah is honored. And so the psalm provides a literary, pedagogical experience of reliability and utter symmetry. A torah-ordered life is as safe, predictable, and complete as is the movement of the psalm."1

The formal order and the thematic consistency present in Psalm 119 as a whole are magnified in microcosm in verses 33-40. The structural rigidity continues past the repetition of the initial letter of each verse. Seven of the eight lines (33-39) begin with imperatives,2 contributing to a total of nine imperatives concentrated in this eight-verse section.  The address throughout the unit is directed toward Yahweh, to whom the psalmist is making a series of requests -- or, perhaps better, demands, as the imperative mood suggests: teach me, give me understanding, lead me, turn my heart, turn my eyes, confirm your promise, turn away disgrace, and -- in verses 37 and 40 -- give me life.

The last line (verse 40) begins with the Hebrew interjection hinneh, often translated as "Lo!" or "Behold!" The interjection draws the hearer to the speaker, as if to say, "Pay attention!" Though its form is not technically imperative, it serves a similar function, and the NRSV appropriately translates it with an English imperative, "See!" Thus, the sense of urgent pleading persists, well-ordered, through all eight verses.

The repetition and symmetry apparent in the verbs of the unit are echoed in the nouns that accompany them. Seven synonyms for torah appear in these eight verses. In addition, the language of the psalm is full of words referring to the body and its movement. The learning the psalmist seeks is not merely an intellectual exercise; it is an orientation of the whole self toward fulfillment of God's commandments. The petitioner wants to observe the law with his whole heart (verse 34), have his heart and eyes turned toward the law and away from vanity (verses 36-37), and to have disgrace turned away from him (verse 39). He even wants to walk in the path of God's commandments (verse 35, cf. "way" in verse 33), a metaphor that imagines movement of the whole self dictated by torah.

In the fall of 2010, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life released a survey on religious knowledge in the United States. The survey that found that Americans who identified as Christian knew less about world religions in general, and often less about their own religious tradition in particular, than atheists, agonistics, or Jews.3 Forty-three percent of Christians did not, for example, know that "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is not one of the Ten Commandments. The survey illustrated a disconnect within American Christianity between religious feeling, which appears to be ample, and religious knowledge, which is much more scarce. Why study my faith, when I can feel it in my heart?

This section of Psalm 119 affirms no such division between knowledge, discipline, and faith. In verses 33-40, keeping the law goes hand-in-hand with learning the law. Moreover, the disciplined engagement of religious law is itself spiritual fulfillment. Knowing and following God's precepts does nothing less than give life (verses 37, 40), for which God alone is the source. The stack of imperatives in verses 33-40 may make the psalmist seem demanding, but his pleas come out of a deeply-felt realization that understanding comes from God, not through any accomplishment of self.

To say, "Teach me, O Lord," is to acknowledge that God is teacher. In this unit within Psalm 119, God is also leader, turner, confirmer, and giver -- giver of understanding and giver of life. Life cannot be separated from understanding. We would do well, then, to make the psalmist's prayer our own: "Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart."

1 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 40.
2In terms of Hebrew grammar, each initial imperative is in the Hiphil (i.e., causative) stem, which uses a he-prefix at the beginning of the verb, thus facilitating the consistency of the acrostic form in this section.
3 For the text of the report, see http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx; Accessed October 19, 2010.