For years, my heart would sort of sink when my annual Bible-reading cycle took me to Psalm 119. I found each of the acrostic sections to have such similar language I couldn’t make head or tail of it.
One year, I looked up all the original Hebrew words that began each verse of the sections— all the ‘aleph’ words, all the ‘bet’ words, etc.— and penciled them in my Bible, circling the English word they translated. For example, in the first verse, I circled the word ‘blessed’ which in Hebrew can be transliterated ‘ashray”, or in verse 27, the first word in Hebrew is ‘derech’ corresponding to the English words ‘the ways’. I looked up translations of Psalm 119 that tried to shoehorn the syntax into starting with the same word in English as it did in Hebrew or that tried to find English words beginning with the same sound to start each verse.
It was an interesting exercise, but I still didn’t feel like the psalm was resonating with my spirit the way other psalms did.
One Saturday morning, I did a Google search on Psalm 119 and came across a video by Rabbi Mendel Kaplan called “The Secret Matrix of Psalm 119”. It was long and technical and culturally somewhat foreign to me, but God used it to help me understand at last what was missing in my reading of this glorious psalm. The gist of Rabbi Kaplan’s teaching can also be found on this Christian website just in case you were wondering whether it was a purely judaic interpretation.
Let me share with you what I learned, in the hope that God also deepens your understanding and appreciation for the genius of the Holy Spirit working through the psalmist.
As you’ve gathered from my other blog posts, I love structure. Today, however, I’m just going to give it a passing remark because that’s not the key. Psalm 119 is an acrostic. Each of the 22 sections is composed of eight verses, or statements, that begin with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Why eight and not seven? Good question- I’ll try to summarize orthodox Jewish thought on that near the end of the article. So the structure is simply 22 sections of 8 statements containing many parallelisms and chaisms, as we’d expect from Hebrew poetry.
But the carousel effect of Psalm 119 actually turns out to be the key.
One of ten nearly synonymous words is found in every verse but one (verse 122). It can feel redundant until you understand the precise meanings of those ten words. And then the Psalm comes to life.
That’s a brief overview, but for me, it was enough to start understanding the psalm on a whole new level. Let me give you an example, from the Nun section, Psalm 119:105-112, of how I understand the verses in the light of these word definitions.
Your WORD is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. - Just as God’s Word made light shine out of darkness at creation, God’s Word creates light in my darkness, guiding me forward.
I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to keep your RIGHTEOUS RULES - Two words here, ‘tzadak’ and ‘mishpatim’. First, God’s legal decisions are just and moral. Second, I make a binding commitment to carry out his sentences.
I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your WORD. - Here we have ‘word’ again. It reminds me of the verse, ‘He sent forth his word and healed them.’ (Psalm 107:20. Just as God’s word created, it also heals.
Accept my freewill offering of praise, Lord, and teach me your RULES. - Instead of fearing his judgments, I draw near with praise, asking God to teach me his ways of solving problems.
I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your LAW. - Perilous times are no excuse. The psalmist remembers God’s specific instructions on what to do and how to do it. ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ Romans 12:21)
The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your PRECEPTS. - Even though there are evil people (and spirits) trying to prevent me from fulfilling God’s purposes for me, I will reach my full potential if I don’t deviate from what his Word says.
Your TESTIMONIES are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. - So beautiful! This connects to making the Sabbath our delight (Isaiah 58:13), or, say, the joy that wells up within us at a baptism.
I incline my heart to perform your STATUTES forever, to the end. - Even though I don’t understand with my mind all that God is saying, my heart says yes.
Another rabbi taught there are eight levels of creation, and you can quibble with this if you like.
Perhaps Psalm 119:96 (incidentally, the eighth verse of the lamed section) confirms this: I have seen a limit to all perfection (seven), but your commandment is exceedingly broad (eight).
Was this helpful to you? Let me know in the comments below.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.