Thursday, September 10, 2009

Psalm 119: The Longest Psalm

I singled out Psalm 119 for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's freakin' long. One hundred seventy-six Verses long, in fact, which (sez here) makes it not only the longest Psalm but also the longest book in the Bible.

Secondly, it is divided into 22 sections, each of which is labelled with a Hebrew letter. On the page, this makes it look pretty cool and potentially experimental and interesting. On reading it, unfortunately, I was a bit underwhelmed and unable to see what the point of all the alphabetic divisions was. Then, however, I consulted an authoritative commentary on holy scripture and all other things -- it's called "Wikipedia" -- and was glad I did. Check this out:

This psalm is one of about a dozen alphabetic acrostic poems in the Bible. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each, and in Hebrew forms an acrostic, with each stanza starting with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Further, within each stanza, each line begins with that same letter.
In other words, the eight verses of the "Aleph" section all start with the letter Aleph, the eight verses of the "Beth" section all... well, you get the picture. Cooool.

This aspect of the Psalm doesn't survive in the translation, however, so in reading I naturally focused on the simple meaning of the text. And the meaning is fairly straightforward, and consistent throughout the Chapter. I'll give you a sample line from each section, and you can see if you can find any sort of overarching theme. Ready? Here we go.

Aleph: You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. (4)
Beth: I rejoice in following your statues as one rejoices in great riches. (14)
Gimel: My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. (20)
Daleth: I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws. (30)
He: Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. (33)
Waw: ...for I delight in your commands because I love them. (47)
Zayin: I remember your ancient laws, O Lord, and I find comfort in them. (52)
Heth: I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. (60)
Teth: The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. (72)
Yodh: I know, O Lord, that your laws are righteous.... (75)
Kaph: Preserve my life according to your love, and I will obey the statutes of your mouth. (88)
Lamedh: Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you. (91)
Mem: Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (97)
Nun: My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end. (112)
Samekh: My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws. (120)
Ayin: Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. (124)
Pe: I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. (131)
Tsadhe: The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy. (138)
Qoph: Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever. (152)
Resh: Look upon my suffering and deliver me, for I have not forgotten your law. (153)
Sin/Shin: I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you. (168)
Taw: May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. (172)

EXTRA CREDIT: Rewrite an English translation of Psalm 119 so that, in each eight-verse section, each verse begins with the same letter. For full credit, get all twenty-two sections in alphabetical order. You may skip any four letters you wish.

AMAZING SIDENOTE: As I finished today's reading, I was all like "wow, it looks like I'm getting to the halfway point in this book!" Well. There are 923 pages in my Bible. Today, I read most of page 462. ~You~ do the math!


Jennifer said...

Well, at least you don't have that problem with inconsistency you were finding in earlier psalms!

(The "Pe" line you quoted sounded a bit more like something Rex Parker might find on page 123 than the other lines, but my guess is the Psalmist didn't intend that....)

Anonymous said...

A Psalm by Matthew West

There you go changing my plans again
There you go shifting my sands again
For reasons I don't understand again
Lately I don't have a clue

Just when I start liking what I see
There you go changing my scenery
I never know where you're taking me
But I'm trying just to follow you

It's out of my hands
It's out of my reach
It's over my head
And it's out of my league
There's too many things
That I don't understand
So it's into your will
And it's out of my hands

There you go healing these scars again
Showing me right where you are again
I'm helpless, and that's where I start again
I'm giving it all up to you

It's out of my hands
It's out of my reach
It's over my head
And it's out of my league
There's too many things
That I don't understand
So it's into your will
And it's out of my hands

Move me, make me
Choose me, change me
Send me, shake me
Find me, remind me
The past is behind me
Take it all away
Take it all from me, I pray

It's out of my hands
It's out of my reach
It's over my head
And it's out of my league
There's too many things
That I don't understand
So it's into your will
And it's out of my hands

Michael5000 said...

@Anon: I think you'd have to call that an "extracanonical" Psalm.

Neatner said...

My favorite Psalm. Historically the 22 letters are highly significant in the more ancient writings of the book of Thoth and the Sacred Tarot. Each verse matches a signification in the Spiritual meaning of Tarot Deck (where our playing cards came from) as well as an initiation into the Ancient Religion of the Stars. This Psalm is one of our only biblical links to the truth, pre-Constantine Roman Catholic intervention. For more information, man, see C.C.Zain (aka Elbert Benjamin) but hold onto your panties cuz the doors of perception cannot be closed once opened.

Anonymous said...

I was just doing a short study on the 119 psalm and why it was entirely devoted to God's Word when I came across your blog.
Strangely enough your blog was posted just around the time I started my study.