Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The gargantuan size of this prayer casts a spell upon its would-be interpreters

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October 31, 2021

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Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Psalm 119, the first eight verses of which is the appointed psalm for this Sunday, is the big dog of the psalter.1

But the gargantuan size of this massive prayer frequently casts a spell upon its would-be interpreters that results in a flood of trivia:

  • Longest chapter of the Bible by verse count (176 verses)
  • Longest psalm (over 100 verses longer than Psalm 78)
  • Longest acrostic (series of lines/verses whose initial letters form a word, phrase, or—as here—the alphabet)

This last point is usually expanded to further describe Psalm 119 as comprising twenty-two eight-verse stanzas (one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet), in which each of the eight verses in a stanza begins with the same letter. The comprehensive nature of this aspect of the acrostic matrix is said to give readers a feeling of totality and completion, especially as realized in the colossal proportions of Psalm 119. This sense of totality is augmented by the recognition that all but four of the 176 lines of the poem contain at least one of eight regularly recurring synonyms for God’s law/teaching/instruction: “law” (torah); “promise” (imrah); “word” (dabar); “statutes” (huqqim); “ordinances” (mishpatim); “commandments” (mitsvot); “decrees” (edot); and “precepts” (piqqudim).

One wonders why the number 8 enjoys such prominence. The sages responsible for the wisdom literature were much enamored of numerology, but recent scholarship has questioned the previous assumption that the sages were ultimately responsible for this consummate “torah” psalm since the understanding of Torah in the psalm differs from that of the wisdom traditions and is much closer to that of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History. In Chinese thought, the number eight represents the totality of the universe. In mathematics, 8 is the first cubed number (2x2x2). Biblically speaking, the command to circumcise Jewish males on the eighth day of life, or recognizing the eighth day as the beginning of a new week or cycle after the Sabbath or rest on the seventh or final day of the previous week or cycle, seems more plausible.

So far, so good. One of the rants, to which my unfortunate students are frequently subjected, has to do with the dissing of the acrostic passages of the Old Testament in general and Psalm 119 in particular that seems to go hand in glove with the above comments. This disparagement is far too common in the commentaries and studies that deride the acrostics as rather simplistic, artificial, tedious, unimaginative, or merely derivative exercises whose main purpose was didactic, to teach students a reverence for Torah as they struggled to learn the alphabet. Such shortsighted approaches miss the inner riches that these psalms offer to those that take the time to read past the scaffolding provided by their acrostic architecture. This is especially true in our text, the “aleph” segment of Psalm 119, as I hope a close reading of the Hebrew, with particular attention paid to matters of structure and repetition will demonstrate.

In terms of repetition, the first thing one notices in the Hebrew text is the inclusio around verses 1-3 formed by the repetition of “walk” (haholakim verse 1; halaku verse 3) and “way” (derek verse 1; bederakayv v.3); and the inclusio framing verses 4-8 formed by the repetition of “keep” [NRSV: “observe”] (lishmor verse 4; eshmor verse 8) and “a whole bunch” [NRSV: “diligently” and “utterly”] (meod verse 4; ad meod verse 8). The division into two sections, verses 1-3 and 4-8, provided by the inclusios, is confirmed in verses 1-3, where Yahweh is referred to in the third person (“the lord,” “his,” “him”) and in verses 4-8 where Yahweh is addressed in the second person (“you,” “your”). Taking the psalmist’s announcement regarding Yahweh’s command to diligently keep the precepts of the Lord in verse four and his prayer that he remain faithful in verse 5 as a pivot yields a paneled structure of three general observations about those in relationship with Yahweh (verses 1-3) balanced by three personal statements of the psalmist’s faithfulness (verses 6-8a) and a “kicker” (verse 8b), to which we shall return. An ABCB’C’A’ pattern of repeated key words in verses 2-7 further binds the unit together and emphasizes the response to God’s commandments:

A “heart” (lev, verse 2)
B “in his ways” (bidrakayv, verse 3)
C “you have commanded” (tsivitah, verse 4)
B’ “my ways” (dirakay, verse 5)
C’ “your commandments” (mitsvoteka, verse 6)
A’ “heart” (levav, verse 7)

Simplistic, artificial, tedious, unimaginative, or merely derivative? On the contrary, one can discern a rather intricate arrangement, carefully worked out apart from the strictures imposed by the acrostic form, that presents a discernible message entirely appropriate for the first stanza of a monumental tribute to God’s instruction. After observing that those who walk in God’s ways are blessed/fortunate/happy, indeed (verses 1-3) the psalmist acknowledges, in a personal address to God, that this is so because God has commanded it (verse 4). Then, following a fervent prayer that he might be counted among those fortunate ones (verse 5), the psalmist promises to be that faithful person (verses 6-8a).

And yet, lest we think that such devotion to the law is easily acquired, or even possible through our conscious decision to be obedient, the psalmist concludes with a marvelously poignant prayer that lays bare the truth of the matter: “do not utterly abandon me!” (verse 8b). Like the father of the boy with an unclean spirit in Mark’s gospel who prayed “I believe … help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) true faith comes with the recognition that we are completely dependent upon God’s grace.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 1, 2015.