Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 119 is a massive alphabetic acrostic, in which its 176 verses are divided into stanzas of eight verses, each of which begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

"Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos at Coventry Cathedral." Image by Ben Sutherland via Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0.

September 7, 2014

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Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40

Psalm 119 is a massive alphabetic acrostic, in which its 176 verses are divided into stanzas of eight verses, each of which begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Thus, verses 1-8 all begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph; verses 9-16 all begin with the second letter, beyt, and so on. Verses 33-40 all begin with hey, the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The acrostic poem was a common “wisdom” form in ancient Israel (see, for instance, Psalms 34, 111, 112, 145, the book of Lamentations). They were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways. Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public — individual and corporate — recitation; literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, from aleph to tav, from “A” to “Z.”

Adele Berlin says this about Psalm 145, another alphabetic acrostic: “The poet praises God with everything from A to Z: his praise is all-inclusive. More than that, the entire alphabet, the source of all words, is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.”

The acrostic structure of Psalm 119 marks it a wisdom composition — a wisdom psalm — as do its content and message. We define wisdom psalms as those that provide instruction in right faith and right living in the tradition of the other wisdom writings of the Old Testament — Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. And in most of the wisdom psalms, the path to wisdom is through adherence to the Torah, the law of God.

In Psalm 119, seven Hebrew words are used in synonymous interchange with the word “torah,” usually translated as law, but better translated as instruction. Those seven words are (in the NRSV): decree, precept, statute, commandment, ordinance, word, and promise. While each synonym carries a slightly different nuance of meaning, little is gained by attempting to distinguish a separate meaning, theological or otherwise, for each of them.

Psalm 119 opens with the word ‘ashre, rendered in most English translations as “happy” or “blessed.” It occurs some forty times in the Old Testament, twenty-seven times in the book of Psalms (Psalms 1:1; 41:2; 89:16; 112:1; 119:1,2; 128:1; 146:5). The word most likely comes from the Hebrew root ‘ashar, which means “to walk in a particular way, on a particular path,” confirming the role of the wisdom psalm as outlining the way to right and faith and living. Thus, a better translation for ‘ashre may be “content,” that deep-seated feeling that one is finding their being and moving “in the right way.”

The path to ‘ashre – contentedness — is achieved in a number of ways according to Psalm 119. The psalm incorporates many psalmic types, including, among others, questions (verse 9); laments (verses 17-24); words of trust (verses 41-48); praise and rejoicing (65-72, 129-136); and, perhaps most prevalent, petitions to God (verses 49-56, 145-152).

Verses 33-40 of Psalm 119 fall into the last category, containing a series of petitions to God. The psalm singer implores God in a rapid succession of imperatives to “teach me the way of your statutes,” “give me understanding,” “lead me in the path of your commandment,” “turn my heart to your decrees . . . my eyes from looking at vanities,” “give me life,” “confirm your promise,” and “turn away the disgrace.” Why? Because, the psalmist says in verse 40, “I have longed for your precepts.”

In this eight-verse stanza, all but one of the synonyms for “law [torah] are used as the psalmist pleads with God to teach and lead in the right paths (“Word” is missing in this stanza.). The singer understands the difficulty of properly following God and asks repeatedly for instruction and guidance, employing a plethora of words of petition.

The stanza that follows verses 33-40, verses 41-48, contains hopeful words of trust, in seeming answer to the petitions of the previous verses. Here the psalm singer “shall have an answer for those who taunt me” (verse 42), “will keep your law continually” (verse 44), “shall walk at liberty” (verse 45), “will speak of your decrees before kings” (verse 46), “find my delight in your commandments” (v. 47), and “revere your commandments … meditate on your statutes” (verse 48).

The singer of Psalm 119 weaves together words of lament, petition, trust, and exuberant joy in this marvelous ode to the torah of the Lord. Claus Westermann writes, “If a person succeeds in reading this psalm’s 176 verses one after the other at one sitting, the effect is overwhelming. In its extent the psalm has the effect of a massive mountain range. One has the feeling that it represents the boundary between the world of the Psalms and a different world, that of law piety.”

Interestingly, though, the torah as presented in Psalm119 is not a strict set of rules and regulations. None of the specific injunctions of the Ten Commandments, the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are mentioned. Rather, torah is presented as a way of life or approach to being that brings one closer to God. The psalmist repeatedly implores God to “cause me to live (give me life, NRSV)” (verses 25, 37, 40, 77, 88, 107, 144, 149, 156, 159) because of the torah.

Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

Our God is not a God of arbitrary rules and regulations, although that is what Christianity often feels like in our day and time. God graciously gave the Israelites a means for living as God’s people, not to restrict them, but to free them to truly be the people of God. May we, with the singer of Psalm 119, implore God to teach, give, lead, turn, and confirm us as we strive to live out our calling to torah observance.