Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 119 follows Psalms 113-118, known as the Egyptian Hallel, which are psalms recited during the Jewish festival of Passover.

February 13, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Psalm 119 follows Psalms 113-118, known as the Egyptian Hallel, which are psalms recited during the Jewish festival of Passover.

It, like Psalms 111 and 112, is an alphabetic acrostic in form, but it is vastly in substance. While Psalm 111 consists of only seventy-two words and Psalm 112 of seventy-nine words, Psalm 119 has 176 verses, in which groups of eight verses of the psalm begin with each successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The three psalms, however, share a common theme of reverence for the Torah, the instruction given by God to the ancient Israelites at Sinai. Psalm 119 begins with the words “(‘ashre) are the ones whose way is sincere, the ones who walk in the Torah of the LORD.” It is recited at the Feast of Pentecost, the Spring festival observed fifty days after Passover, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai. 

The poet of Psalm 119 employs a common “wisdom” form in composing the psalm–the acrostic. Leslie Allen describes it as “the most developed instance [of the acrostic form] in the Old Testament.”1  H.-J. Kraus writes, “The art of alphabetic organization has produced an unusual opus which in schematism and compulsion of form has no parallel in the OT.”2  Acrostic poems 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 individual and corporate recitation; and, literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject from alif to tav, from A to Z. 

The acrostic structure of Psalm 119 marks it as a wisdom composition, as do its content and message. Wisdom psalms are defined as those that provide “instruction in right living and right faith in the tradition of the other wisdom writings of the Old Testament–Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. And in most of these psalms the path to wisdom is through adherence to the Torah, the instruction of the Lord.”3  Within the poetic lines of Psalm 119, seven Hebrew words are used in synonymous interchange with the word torah (translated below as “instruction”), which itself is used twenty-five times in the psalm. The words are:

  • ‘edah, “decree”  (used 23 times)
  • mishpat, “ordinance” (used 23 times)
  • choq, “statute” (used 22 times)
  • dabar, “word” (used 22 times)
  • mitsvah, “commandment” (used 22 times)
  • piqqud, “precept” (used 21 times)
  • ‘imrah, “promise” (used 19 times)

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.

Verses 1-8 of Psalm 119 each begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. The first two verses begin with the word ‘ashre (translated in the NRSV as “happy” and in the NIV as “blessed”), the same word which begins the Psalter in Psalm 1:1. “Happiness” or “blessedness” in Psalm 119 comes from the same source as in Psalm 1–the instruction (Torah) of the LORD. The word translated “happy” or “blessed” is ‘ashre, whose basic meaning has to do with walking in a prescribed path and not wavering off the path. While “happy” and “blessed” are good translations of the Hebrew word, a better rendering might be “content.” The person who walks along the path prescribed by God can rest in a sense of contentedness that they are following the words of God faithfully.

Torah occurs in verse 1, and five of the other seven synonyms for torah that occur in Psalm 119 appears in the first eight verses:  v.2 — ‘edah, decree; v. 4 — piqqud, precept; v. 5 — choq, statute; v. 6 — mitzvah, commandment;  and v. 7 — mishpat, ordinance.

The torah of Yahweh, in its eight synonymous renderings, is the central focus of Psalm 119. But Psalm 119 never actually defines or speaks of the origin of the instruction of Yahweh. Moses, Sinai, the content of the instructions is never mentioned. One scholar writes that the concept of torah in Psalm 119 is a monolithic presence, consisting of individual laws and teachings to be sure, but described in only the most general terms, namely the eight interchangeable synonyms. Torah has become for the psalmist much more than the laws by which Israel should live, as given in the Pentateuch; torah has become a personal way to God.”4  

In Psalm 119, then, the instruction of Yahweh is not presented as a strict set of rules and regulations, but a way of life or approach to being that brings one closer to God. The psalmist repeatedly implores God to “cause me to live” (verses 25, 37, 40, 77, 88, 107, 144, 149, 154, 156, 159) because of the torah, that is the instruction, the decree, the precept, the ordinance, the words, the promise, the statute, the commandment–because of all of the teachings of God for the good of humankind.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says,

Do not think that 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 in arbitrariness, but in hesed, in covenant commitment, loyalty, and love. May we, with the psalmist, be able to sing,

Your hesed, O LORD, fills the earth;
teach me your statues.  (119:64)
See, how I love your precepts;
O LORD, according to your hesed, cause me to live. (119:159)

1Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, The Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 21 (Waco:  Word Books, Publisher, 1983), 139.
2H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1993), 411.
3Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Introduction to the Psalms:  A Song from Ancient Israel (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2004), 25-26.  This author includes Pss 1, 32, 37, 49, 73, 78, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133, and 145 in the Gattung “wisdom psalm.”
4David Noel Freedman, Psalm 119:  The Exaltation of Torah, Biblical and Judaic Studies, ed. William Henry Propp, vol. 6 (Winona Lake, IN:  Eisenbrauns, 1999), 89.