Psalm 119 dominates Book V of the Book of Psalms by its sheer length. Its length also dominates the interpretation of the psalm. These 176 verses are homage to the torah or ‘teaching/law’ and its significance in the life of one who fears Yahweh. Every verse adds something to our appreciation of torah, the psalmist’s devotion to it, and its importance in the psalmist’s life. The length and the structure of the psalm make it more of an experience than a rational prayer or treatise on torah, although it is not without reason in its structure and themes. To select just a few verses from the psalm, as we need do in our readings this week, does not do justice to the psalm.
The basic structure of the psalm is simple. The psalm is an alphabetic acrostic consisting of twenty two stanzas, each with eighth lines, each of which begins with the letter of the Hebrew alphabet for that stanza. The stanzas work sequentially through the alphabet. Within the overall structure of Psalm 119, a reflection on torah and its synonyms is developed. Eighth words are used to speak of torah with, for the most part, one used in each verse. They are translated in the NRSV: ‘promise’, ‘word’, ‘statutes’, ‘commandments’, ‘decrees’, ‘precepts’, and ‘law’ respectively. The words ‘way’ and ‘faithfulness’ are less frequent but could be added. While these words are synonyms for torah, they each add their own nuance to our understanding of torah.
The structure of Psalm 119 bears on its interpretation. The alphabetic acrostic structure could indicate either that this psalm provides the A-Z of torah or that torah is complete and wholly adequate for the life of the faithful. The latter would seem more consistent with the lack of actual specific laws or prescriptions within the psalm. Moreover, completeness is also suggested by the inclusion of all parts of the psalmist’s body in adherence to torah. For example, near the beginning we find: eyes – vv. 6, 15, 18, 37; mouth – vv. 13, 43; heart – vv. 2, 7, 10, 11, 34, 36; ‘soul’ (‘myself, body’, lit. ‘throat’) – vv. 20, 25, 28. Each is repeated later in the psalm along with feet – vv. 59, 101, 105 – and tongue – v. 172.
In some of its themes Psalm 119 is closest to Psalms 1 and 19 which are also concerned with torah. Some aspects of the psalm suggest it was written in the exilic or post-exilic period. It is also likely, given the form, that the psalm was penned as a unity.
There is no clear thematic development through the psalm, but some of the stanzas do have thematic concerns. Today’s verses, vv. 97-104, all start with the Hebrew letter mem, the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, equivalent to our ‘m’. A number of the verses have a comparative function developing a series of ‘better than’ or ‘more than’ clauses. The opening verse where the psalmist says they meditate on Yahweh’s torah all day long echo the sentiments of Ps 1:2. Verse 103 recalls the imagery of Psalm 19 with references to honey and sweetness. One has a sense of a deep devotion of the psalmist to Yahweh’s teaching or law. Learning and observing the precepts of Yahweh is the key to life. Yet the psalmist’s wisdom exceeds that of their predecessors, particularly because Yahweh has taught them (vv. 99-100).
The identity of this psalmist whose trust is an example to others is not made clear at any stage of the psalm. However, details within the psalm hint at the likelihood of a royal figure. The claim in v. 102 that Yahweh is the psalmist’s teacher and that they understand more than the elders and teachers (vv. 97-100) suggests it is unlikely that this psalmist comes from a wisdom school. Clearly, the psalmist is one of elevated rank.
The nature of torah referred to in Psalm 119 remains unclear. The psalm speaks in different ways about torah, as ‘word’ implying a body of teaching, as ‘statutes’ and ‘precepts’ implying a body of discreet laws. In today’s portion from the psalm, torah or its synonyms can be kept (v. 101 etc.), studied for their wisdom (v. 102 etc.), and meditated on (v. 97, 99 etc.). Elsewhere in the psalm at one time torah can sound like some form of natural law (v. 64) while at another learning the statutes can involve reflection on past experience (v. 71). At times one could perceive torah in Psalm 119 as something fixed and in relatively concrete form, such as the Pentateuch, although no specific laws are mentioned; at others, as some form of authoritative oral tradition or prophecy, or as revelation in a general form from nature or experience. What remains constant is the witness to Yahweh who always stands behind his word. In this sense torah can be the object of love (v. 97) and taste sweeter than honey (v. 103).
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
The psalm this day lends itself to that part of the Sunday liturgy called ‘The Service of the Word’. It could be used entirely, just changing the singular pronouns to the plural, ‘I’; to ‘we’ etc., to be used as a litany before the reading of Scripture.
Alternatively, vv. 97 and 103 could be used as the responsive words before and after the reading of Scripture:
Oh, how I love your law!And after the readings:
It is my meditation all day long.
How sweet are your words to my taste,Old Testament reading: Jeremiah 31:27-34
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
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