Psalm 119 – Laws as Songs of Praise
Introduction to Translation and Format
Psalm 119, unique in length and format, also proposes a totally new way of relating to God. It may represent a formative moment in the history of Israel's faith.
Psalm 119 has more verses than any other chapter in the Bible. Accordingly, I here exceptionally intersperse text and interpretation by section, reserving overviews for the end. Notes on the translation follow the text and comments. Toward the end, I discuss the radically new mode of relationship suggested by the psalm.
As previously, I translate using one English term for each Hebrew root. However, some of the repetitions require prior comment. Psalm 119 focuses on God’s communicated will, the eight most repeated terms being “instruction,” “decrees,” “precepts,” “laws,” “commandments,” “rules (rulings),” “word,” and “declaration.” Of these, “instruction” represents Torah, which in other contexts is more closely related to the law(s) and/or to a book associated with Moses or God; “word” and “declaration” sometimes bear the implication of “promise;” and “rules” (“rulings”) indicates a law, a code, and/or a court decision or process. Although the psalmist may have had eight clearly differentiated terms in mind, there is no such precision within the text, and the terms often replace one another in very similar phrases. They all seem to be rough synonyms for God’s “communication,” the term I use in the commentary to apply to any (and all) of them.
Among other terms with secondary meanings, “righteousness” also implies justice and is sometimes better so understood, and “dwell upon” (si-ach) can imply meditate. I also note that “learn” and “teach” are forms of the same root (l-m-d).
Concerning verbs, I usually translate the perfect mode (past through present) as the present perfect (e.g., “I have seen…”). The present tense in English represents either a participle or sometimes the imperfect mode in Hebrew. The latter can imply present, future, imperative, and/or jussive, and I translate each occurrence as seems most appropriate.
In Psalm 119, brevity is prized. This often leads to omission of the prepositions or conjunctions between or around two halves of a verse, and it is up to the reader to fill in such framing terms as: “though… yet,” “given… nevertheless,” “if… then,” “when… then,” “because… therefore” or, before the second half of the verse, “so that,” “because,” “but,” “although,” etc. Although many translations supply these, I usually choose not to do so, to allow the reader to make that judgment. (For examples, see verses 143–148.)
Psalm 119 is quite unlike any other in terms of reading and appreciation. The poet makes his points through many word repetitions, but usually not through subtle differentiation or careful comparison. Rather, he seems to rely on the overall impression of a few repeated central contentions, with slight differences in articulation. The reader is encouraged not to read slowly and carefully at first, but rather to allow the psalm as a whole to make its impression. (One would be well served by quickly reading through the entire text before considering any commentary.)
The Hebrew text is an acrostic—each group of eight verses beginning, in order, with the next letter of the alphabet. I discuss other aspects of structure at the end.
Text and Interspersed Commentary
1. Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk within the instruction of the LORD.
1. Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk within the instruction of the LORD.
2. Happy are those who are observant of His decrees, who wholeheartedly seek Him.
3. Indeed, they have performed no wrong; in His ways they have walked.
4. It was You Who command that Your precepts be kept completely.
5. I implore: may my ways be firm in keeping Your laws;
6. then I will not be ashamed when I regard all Your commandments.
7. I will acknowledge You with an upright heart as I learn Your righteous rulings.
8. I will keep Your laws—do not abandon me—completely.
Aleph (vv. 1–8) – Psalm 119 opens with a double definition of who is “happy” (a central phrase in Psalms; see my comments on Psalms 2, 41, and 72), a three-verse statement about God and man, framed appropriately by “walk” and “way.” These three verses use, respectively, participles (vaguely, our present tense), the imperfect mode (present through future), and the perfect mode (past through present), lending, as Hacham suggests, an encompassing tone. The relationship of the two halves of each of these three verses is delightfully veiled, the two qualities mentioned augmenting, defining, or causing the other. All might be implied.
Thereafter, throughout this section and the psalm, God is addressed and the speaker takes center stage. These last five verses, the beginning of the address, are framed by “completely” (again, encompassing). In verse 8 the awkward placement of that term might imply that complete obedience depends on God’s help (so Radak, citing his father) or, as many suggest, the inverse of “do not forsake me,” that is, “be with me” completely. If it is the latter, a balance is implied: man observes completely (v. 4) and God stays with him completely (v. 8). The last phrase, “do not abandon me,” balances the opening frame, “walk… way.”
9. How can a young man purify his path, to keep [it] according to Your word?
10. Wholeheartedly I have sought You; let me not stray from Your commandments.
11. In my heart I have cached Your declaration, so that I will not sin against You.
12. Blessed are You, O LORD; teach me Your laws.
13. With my lips I have stated all the rulings of Your mouth.
14. In Your decrees’ ways I have taken pleasure, above any riches.
15. On Your laws I dwell, and I regard Your paths;
16. in Your laws I delight; I do not forget Your word.
Bet (vv. 9–16) – In this section, the introductory question concerning a “young man,” will retrospectively be one of the few hints in Psalm 119 of its didactic purpose, for the wide range of experience of the author will clarify that he is not young, and he is here not thinking only of himself. The seven verses of response trace a process of expansion: heart to mouth, to eyes, to mind, indeed to total affect. Note the symbiosis as the speaker’s lips pronounce the words of God’s mouth (v.13).
17. Recompense Your servant, that I may live to keep Your word.
18. Open1 my eyes, that I may regard wonders from Your instruction.
19. A sojourner am I in the land; do not conceal Your commandments from me.
20. My soul has been crushed in longing for Your rulings at every instant.
21. You have rebuked accursed, arrogant ones who wander from Your commandments.
22. Strip1 from me disgrace and abuse, for I have observed Your decrees.
23. Though nobles met and spoke against me, Your servant would dwell on Your laws,
24. for Your decrees are my delight, are my counselors.
Gimel (vv. 17–24) – The speaker introduces his struggles, the first four verses reflecting his shortcomings and the second four indicating difficulties posed by others. The use of an identical Hebrew term (see note 1) in the second line of each half emphasizes the two-pronged challenge.
Two metaphors stand out. The speaker is a “sojourner,” that is, a non-permanent resident, a status implying time limitations, unfamiliarity with God’s law, and a right to special treatment (cf. Deut. 10:19). As opposed to the nobles, the speaker is counseled by God’s decrees, and he is God’s “servant,” the term that frames the section. Note that the speaker exceptionally keeps himself out of verse 21, the first in the psalm to speak of others, individuals who are not committed.
25. My soul has clung to the dust; grant me life according to Your word.
26. I have stated my ways and You have answered me; teach me Your laws.
27. Give me insight into the way of Your precepts that I may dwell on Your wonders.
28. My soul has melted away in sorrow; maintain me according to Your word.
29. The way of falsehood take away from me; grace me with Your instruction.
30. The way of faithfulness I have chosen; I have set Your rulings before me.
31. I have clung to Your decrees; O LORD do not shame me.
32. I speed along the way of Your commandments, for You2 expand my heart.
Dalet (vv. 25–32) – Picking up on the “disgrace and abuse” (v. 22), the speaker now reacts: his soul, depressed, “clings to the dust.” That misery is recalled again (v. 25) and is reflected by the fear of “shame” (v. 31), a concern he had previously dismissed (v. 6). The phrase “clings to the dust” is multivalent, spanning psychological depression, pleading before God, near death, and physical exhaustion. The term “cling” forms the inclusio of the section: clinging to God’s decrees (v. 31) is the alternative to the despair.
Here the guide word is “way,” repeated five times. The speaker opens with intimacy—he has exposed all his “ways.” The juxtaposition of verses 29 and 30 is central, suggesting a crossroads, a temptation and a clear choice between alternatives (thus complementing the two uses of “cling”). What he desires is to speed along the way of God’s commandments.
33. Instruct me, O LORD as to the way of Your laws, and I will fully3 observe it.
34. Give me insight, that I may observe Your instruction and keep it wholeheartedly.
35. Show me the way of the route of Your commandments, for that has been my desire.
36. Direct my heart to Your decrees and not to greed.
37. Avert my eyes from seeing worthlessness; grant me life in Your ways.
38. Fulfill for Your servant Your declaration concerning4 fear of You.
39. Avert my disgrace, which I have dreaded, for Your rulings are good.
40. Behold, I have longed for Your precepts; in Your righteousness grant me life.
Heh (vv. 33–40) – This section is one of continuity. Its three repetitions of the root “way” pick up the emphasis of the previous section, and the term reversal of “way” and “give life” (opposite order in vv. 25 and 40) combines the two sections. Here the double use of “turn away” (vv. 37, 39) echoes the emphasis of the previous two sections: rejecting temptation and avoiding shame. The two uses of “grant me life” echo the one previous use (v. 25) and are a foretaste of an emphasis to come. The power of the phrase emerges particularly in the last verse, which is almost a challenge to God and yet a summary of the speaker’s prayer at the same time.
Perhaps a result of the letter beginning each line (“heh”), which opens the causative-imperative form, this section focuses on petition. The first seven verses are all requests, and only in the last does the speaker include a justification: the background is not his passivity, but his great longing.
41. And may Your loving kindnesses come to me, O LORD, Your deliverance, according to Your declaration;
42. and may I have a word to answer one who disgraces me, for I trust in Your word
43. and do not remove the completely true word from my mouth, for I have put my hope in Your rulings;
44. and may I always keep Your instruction, eternally and evermore;
45. and may I walk about in the wide expanse, for I seek Your precepts;
46. and may I share the word of Your decrees in front of kings, and not be ashamed;
47. and may I delight in Your commandments, which I have loved;
48. and may I lift up my hands to Your commandments, which I have loved; and may I dwell on Your laws.
Vav (vv. 41–48) – The conjunctive letter vav (“and”), whose placement at the start of each verse may have been a necessity (very few words begin with that letter), certainly lends a connected tone to this section. The term “word” first dominates, coming from God to the speaker, to be enunciated before kings. The over-long final verse calls attention to the phrase “which I love.” That same last verse points to a repeated aspect of this psalm—verbs used elsewhere as relating to God are now related to his communication. Here the phrase “lift one’s hand (in prayer, threat, or oath) to” remarkably has as its object “His commandments,” whereas elsewhere in the Bible it would require a living being (occasionally, “heaven” for God) as the object.
Verse 48 is also a possible double entendre, indicating both prayer and physically raising one’s hands to perform commandments. As Hacham points out, verse 46 has a variety of possible implications (including: even though distracting royalty is around; preaching to royalty; defending oneself in trial; using the commandments as reference when advising the king; addressing foreign kings).
The imperfect verbs of verses 42, 43–48, translated as “may I” could be translated “I will,” a determination reflecting an assumed positive response to the large number of requests in the previous section.
49. Recall the word to Your servant, for which You have led me to hope.
50. This is my comfort in my affliction—that Your declaration has granted me life.
51. The arrogant have completely mocked me; from Your instruction I have not turned.
52. I have recalled Your eternal laws, O LORD, and I find comfort.
53. Hot indignation seized me because of the wicked, who abandon Your instruction.
54. Songs of praise have Your laws become for me in any house where I sojourn.
55. I have recalled Your name at night, O LORD, and I keep Your instruction.
56. Thus has it been for me, for I have observed Your precepts.
Zayin (vv. 49–56) – This section announces both its connection with and separation from its predecessor in its first two words, “recall” and “word,” the second citing the earleir dominant term and the first moving from a prayer of future hope to recollection. Indeed, this first “recall” is this section’s only request of God, but it is echoed by two other uses of “recall” describing the speaker and his past acts, which are the background and the justification of the opening prayer.
Verses 53 and 54 are particularly striking, for the strength of the language, the personification (indignation), and the metaphor of laws becoming a song. The two verses seem to balance each other, the first indicating the ferment of daily life, the second the subsequent refuge and quiet of the haven that is home. “Night” (v. 55) is occasionally a time of contemplation and prayer (see verse 62 and Psalms 4:5, 6:7, 63:7, 77:7, Lam. 2:19, et al.).
57. My portion, O LORD, I have declared, is to keep Your words.
58. I have pursued the favor of Your face wholeheartedly; be gracious to me, according to Your declaration.
59. I have considered my ways, and I return my feet to Your decrees.
60. I have hurried, not delaying, to keep Your commandments.
61. Groups of the wicked surrounded5 me. Your instruction, I have not forgotten.
62. In the middle of the night I arise to acknowledge You for Your righteous rulings.
63. Friend am I to all who fear You and to those who keep Your precepts.
64. With Your loving kindness, O LORD, the earth is filled; teach me Your laws.
Het (vv. 57–64) – Beginning where the last section left off, the speaker continues the biographical emphasis. Only a subtle phrase (he “returns his feet”) hints that there was ever any discord. The section has a certain undertone of tension, however, with terms indicating options and choice (“portion,” “considered my ways… returned,” “wicked… all who fear You”) set against terminology reflecting comprehensiveness (“wholeheartedly,” “the earth is filled”).
65. You have acted for the good of Your servant, according to Your word, O LORD.
66. Good sense and knowledge teach me, for I have believed in Your commandments.
67. Before, afflicted, I was wandering off, but now I have kept Your declaration.
68. You are good and You do good; teach me Your laws.
69. The arrogant have besmeared me with falsehood; I, I wholeheartedly observe Your precepts.
70. Coarse like suet is their heart; I, Your instruction I have made my delight.
71. It was good for me that I was afflicted, so that I might learn Your laws.
72. Good for me is Your mouth’s instruction, more than gold and silver in the thousands.
Tet (vv. 65–72) – Six appearances of “good” dominate and define this section, surrounding and isolating verses 69 and 70, the two that deal with the arrogant. The “good” starkly contrasts with one other repetition, “afflicted” (vv. 67, 71), reinforcing the striking contention that affliction can lead to godliness (also v. 75), an assertion found elsewhere (e.g., Job 5:17–18; Lam. 3:27, and see the verb “afflict” as a test: Deut. 8:2, 3, 16). In verse 71, “afflicted” could also imply self-inflicted in the speaker’s attempt to learn the laws or, as a pun, could hint at another meaning of the root “poor,” reflecting on the next verse’s rejection of wealth.
73. Your hands made6 me, created me firm; give me insight that I may learn Your commandments.
74. May those who fear You see me and rejoice because I have hoped in Your word.
75. I have known, O LORD, that Your rulings are righteous, and that out of faithfulness have You afflicted me.
76. May Your loving kindness please comfort me according to Your declaration to Your servant.
77. May Your mercies come to me, that I might live, for Your instruction is my delight.
78. May the arrogant be ashamed, for they have impugned me falsely; I, I will dwell on Your precepts.
79. May those who fear You return to me, as well as those who know Your decrees,
80. May my heart be blameless through Your precepts, so that I come to no shame.
Yod (vv. 73–80) – The psalm now picks up on the “affliction” and “falsehood” of the previous section. The speaker’s fate is held as model for all who fear God (vv. 75, 79). They “return” (root, shov, v. 79) to the speaker, within a reverse reference, for the arrogant are “shamed,” (root, vosh, vv. 78, 80), whereas the speaker is not.
In this section, the terms “made,” “set firm,” and “insight” (v. 73) might reflect the same Hebrew uses in Deuteronomy 32:6–7 (the poem Moses recited to the people at the end of his life), and God’s qualities as articulated in verses 75–77 may reflect God’s promised gifts to Israel in Hosea 2:21–22 (a possible pun on “according to Your declaration to Your servant,” verse 76, which would then also refer to Hosea).
81. My soul has wasted away for Your deliverance; I have hoped for Your word.
82. My eyes have wasted away for Your declaration as I declare, “When will You2 comfort me?”
83. Though I have become like a water-skin in smoke, I have not forgotten Your laws.
84. How many are the days of Your servant? When will You act according to the rulings against my pursuers?
85. The arrogant have dug pits for me, in contradiction to Your instruction.
86. All Your commandments are based in faithfulness; I have been pursued falsely; help me!
87. They almost wasted me away from the earth, but I, I did not abandon Your precepts.
88. According to Your loving kindness, grant me life, and I shall keep Your mouth’s decree.
Kaph (vv. 81–88) – Persecution by the arrogant, which had previously appeared occasionally (vv. 51, 69, 78), now emerges with a vengeance. The one guide word, “waste away,” which opens the first two lines, is clarified by verse 87 to be the work of these others. The first seven verses all reflect the speaker’s dire circumstances, brought on from the outside. Indeed, the call for “help” first appears here, halfway through the alphabet, and will reappear only in the last section. As in so many psalms, the speaker appears as a lonely man of faith, an adherent of a counterculture of belief and loyalty, facing a society of persecuting scorners. The last verse of the section, restating the major tone of the psalm, now seems to be painted on a much darker background.
The image of verse 83, the skin (flask) over smoke, is not clear. It may imply shriveled, dried up, or darkened, and the smoke may be inadvertent or a factor in the preparation of the skin for use with wine or water. Dahood, on the basis of later linguistic development, suggests an alternate translation—tears caused by smoke. In all cases, the negative implication remains.
89. Eternally, O LORD, Your word is established in heaven.
90. From generation to generation is Your faithfulness; You made the earth firm, and it stood.
91. By Your rulings they7 have stood through today, for all are Your servants.
92. Were Your instruction not my delight, I would have departed in my affliction.
93. I will never forget Your precepts, for through them You have granted me life.
94. Yours I am; deliver me, for I have sought Your precepts.
95. As for me, the wicked have hoped to make me depart; I look for insight in Your decrees.
96. For all that wastes away, I have seen the limit; Your commandment is completely expansive.
Lamed (vv. 89–96) – In the previous section, threats led to thoughts of mortality. The latter becomes this section’s theme, which is presented through contrasts. God’s eternity leads to stability (“established... firm… stands”), but death (“perishing”) remains in the background. The speaker seeks life, which is rooted in the expanse (connected to eternity, vv. 44–45) of God’s commandment, but all else is ephemeral.
The section is tightly bound through such contrasts: heaven leads to earth; “forever” leads to “generations” and “never”; and two uses of “perish” are set against “life” and “deliver me” (plus “stand,” which is repeated). It all leads to an unclear hapax legomenon in verse 96, here translated as "all that wastes away” (so translated because the term by root certainly recalls “waste away,” used three times in the previous section). Although one cannot pinpoint the exact meaning of the first part of the verse, there is clearly an emphasis again on the contrast, and since the root was used in the previous section in connection with the speaker (his longing, vv. 81, 82), he too seems to be among those things that have a limit. It is God’s commandment (v. 95, singular, possibly to indicate the collective communication) that is “completely expansive,” that is to say that therein he tastes the eternal, this being a response to the suffering and dangers of the previous section.
97. How I have loved Your instruction! All through the day, that is what I dwell on.
98. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies; for eternally that is mine.
99. I have understood more than all my teachers, for Your decrees are what I dwell on.
100. I gain more insight than the elders, for I have preserved Your precepts.
101. I held my feet back from every evil path so that I might keep Your word.
102. I have not swerved from Your rulings, for You, You have instructed me.
103. How sweet to my palate has Your declaration been, more [sweet] than honey to my mouth.
104. I gain insight from Your precepts; therefore I hate any false path.
Mem (vv. 97–104) – Here making no requests (an anomaly shared with the penultimate section, vv. 161–168), the speaker describes himself in two even parts, each ending with “insight” and “precepts.” He first cites three other groups (incrementally: enemies, teachers, elders), claiming superior achievement to them through attachment to God’s communication. However, the prepositional form used might indicate that he learned from these groups. Both are implied. The second half is enclosed by “path,” as he describes two paths: what he avoids and what he is devoted to.
As occurs occasionally elsewhere in Psalm 119, in verse 98 a plural noun form takes a singular verb (and pronoun), and in verse 103, a singular noun takes a plural verb. The speaker is comfortable seeing God’s communication both in its generality and its specifics—both the forest and the trees.
105. A lamp to my feet is Your word, and light for my course.
106. I have taken and will maintain an oath to observe Your righteous rulings.
107. I have been completely afflicted; O LORD, grant me life according to Your word.
108. My mouth’s free offerings please accept, O LORD; teach me of Your rulings.
109. My soul is always in my hand, but I have not forgotten Your instruction.
110. The wicked set a trap for me, but I have not strayed from Your precepts.
111. Eternally, Your decrees have been my heritage; they are my heart’s pleasure.
112. I have turned my heart to act by Your laws, fully3 and eternally.
Nun (vv. 105–112) – Here the opening verse indicates God giving constant guidance or emergency help (or both). The power of the verse also derives from the inverse implication— that the dark is a threat. The unique phrase “mouth’s free offerings” may refer to pledged sacrifices or to prayer. In its other biblical appearances, the phrase “one’s soul in hand,” as Hacham points out, indicates one who willingly accepts danger out of commitment. If that is the case here, note the speaker’s readiness to do so “always.”
113. I have hated double-talkers,8 but I have loved Your instruction.
114. You are my hiding place and my shield; for Your word I have hoped.
115. Swerve away from me, you evildoers, that I may observe the commandments of my God.
116. Support me according to Your declaration, so that I may live; let me not be shamed in my expectation.
117. Sustain me that I may be delivered, and I will always muse upon Your laws.
118. You have spurned all who wander from Your laws, for false is their deceit.
119. All the wicked of the earth—dross You have discarded; therefore I have loved Your decrees.
120. My flesh has bristled in awe of You, and I have feared Your rulings.
Samech (vv. 113–120) – The concentration on others who do not accept God is brought into focus by four references to them, plus the inclusion of the first verse not addressed to God since the psalm’s opening (v. 115), directed here to the evildoers. In verse 117, “be delivered… muse upon,” is a word play (ve’ivashe’a, ve’esha’), approximately, “saved and… crave.”
121. I have acted by rule and righteously; do not leave me to my oppressors.
122. Guarantee good for Your servant; let not the arrogant oppress me.
123. My eyes have wasted away for Your deliverance, and for Your righteous declaration.
124. Act for Your servant according to Your loving kindness, and teach me Your laws.
125. I am Your servant; give me insight, that I may know Your decrees.
126. It is time 9-to act for the LORD-9—they have violated Your instruction.
127. Therefore have I loved Your commandments more than gold, than even finest gold.
128. Therefore all the precepts, every one, I have declared upright; every false way I have hated.
‘Ayin (vv. 121–128) – In a continuation of the focus on the arrogant evildoers (they or their acts are again noted four times here, and this section ends with “hate,” which began the previous section), the emphasis now turns to request. Three repetitions of “act” parallel three repetitions of “Your servant.” The section ends, however, with justification, not request: the speaker compares his total dedication to the violations by others. (Verse 128 is the second of only two verses in the psalm in which God is not directly addressed.) The alternate readings of verse 126 (see note) seem to share responsibility between man and God.
129. Wondrous are Your decrees; therefore my soul has observed them.
130. May unfolding your words shine light, giving insight to the simple.
131. I have opened wide my mouth gasping, pining for Your commandments.
132. Turn Your face to me and be gracious to me, according to the rule for those who love Your name.
133. Make my steps firm through Your declaration; let no sin dominate me.
134. Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep Your precepts.
135. Let Your face shine light upon Your servant, and teach me Your laws.
136. Streams of water have my eyes shed because they10 do not keep Your instruction.
Peh (vv. 129–136) – Verses 129–136 encapsulate much of the speaker’s approach. “Wondrous” in earlier biblical literature (and possibly still so read in verse 18 above) implies superhuman, beyond one’s reach. Here the wondrous communication is precisely that which is achievable, the divine-human bridge. “Unfolding” (v. 130) might also be read as “the opening,” that is, may Your words shed light from the very first encounter.
137. You are righteous, O LORD, and upright, Your rulings.
138. You have commanded Your decrees of righteousness and complete faithfulness.
139. My zeal has consumed me because my foes have forgotten Your words.
140. Your declaration is completely pure, and Your servant has loved it.
141. I am insignificant11 and despised; I have not forgotten Your precepts.
142. Your righteousness is eternally right, and Your instruction is truth.
143. Despair and distress have found me; Your commandments are my delight.
144. The righteousness of Your decrees is eternal; give me insight, that I may live.
Tsadi (vv. 137–144) – Repeated five times, “righteous(ness)” is the guide word of this section. The translation “despair and distress” reflects two terms that often appear together to express misery and have a slight echo in Hebrew (one letter). The lead letter of this section (tsadi) opens the first four Hebrew terms of verse 143.
145. I have called wholeheartedly: answer me, O LORD, may I observe Your laws.
146. I have called on You; deliver me, that I may keep Your decrees.
147. I have greeted dawn, crying out; for Your word I have hoped.
148. My eyes have greeted the night watches, to dwell on Your declaration.
149. Hear my voice according to Your loving kindness; O LORD, grant me life, according to Your rule.
150. The pursuers of abhorrent plans drew near; they moved far from Your instruction.
151. You are near, O LORD, and all Your commandments are truth.
152. Of old12 I have known of Your decrees, that You have fixed them eternally.
Koph (vv. 145–152) – The prayer concentration of this section is reflected both in the opening verse and in the repetitions that open pairs of verses: “call,” “greet,” and “near.” It is not surprising that only here in the psalm does LORD appear three times. The section is structured as two pairs of verses (“call,” “greet”), mixing prayer and its purpose, followed by a summary and one pair of verses (“near”) followed by a solid confirmation. That last pair (vv. 50–51) effectively jumps from “near” to “far” to “near.” This section includes at least three word plays: “deliver me…call out” (hoshi’eni… ivashe’a), “keep… watches” (eshmera… ashmurot), and “I know…Your decrees” (yada’ti, ‘edotecha). In the first three verses, the second halves may be statements or quotes of the prayers noted in the first halves.
153. See my affliction and extract me, for I have not forgotten Your instruction.
154. Fight my fight and redeem me; in accord with Your declaration grant me life.
155. Far from the wicked is deliverance, for they have not sought Your laws.
156. Your mercies are many, O LORD; according to Your rulings, grant me life.
157. Many are my pursuers and my foes; from Your decrees I have not turned.
158. I have seen traitors and have been disgusted,13 because they do not keep Your declaration.
159. See that I have loved Your precepts; O LORD, according to Your loving kindness, grant me life.
160. Truth is the foundation of Your word, and all Your righteous ruling is eternal.
Resh (vv. 153–160) – As Psalm 119 approaches its conclusion, the speaker’s request becomes more pointed, as reflected in the two triple repetitions: “see” and “grant me life.” The double repetitions “fight” (riv) and “many” (rabim), previously unused roots that are both based on the consonants resh and bet (vet), place the speaker squarely in the familiar situation of Psalms, the lonely good man facing an antagonistic majority. The call in prayer of the previous section reaches its peak here.
161. Nobles have pursued me with no cause; but my heart has been in awe of Your word.
162. I take pleasure at Your declaration, as one who finds great14 spoil.
163. Falsehood I have hated and abhorred; Your instruction I have loved.
164. Seven times a day I have praised You for Your righteous rulings.
165. Great14 well-being have those who love Your instruction; they have no stumbling block.
166. I have hoped for Your deliverance, O LORD, and have acted by Your commandments.
167. My soul has kept Your decrees and I love them completely.
168. I have kept Your precepts and decrees; all my ways are in front of You.
Shin (vv.161–168) – Having clarified his request, the speaker now turns to describe himself, the supplicant, vis-à-vis God’s communication. Dominated by a triple repetition of “love,” the section ends with a bivalent phrase that is its summary: “all my ways are in front of You,” indicating both total exposure and total commitment.
This section reflects one of the great challenges of translating this psalm. Apart from participles, all the verbs here are in the perfect mode (or the reversed imperfect mode), indicating action past through present. I have translated with present perfect, but both past and present must be understood. (Indeed, even in English many of the verses would make no sense if understood as implying “today, but not yesterday.”)
169. May my prayer come before You, O LORD; give me insight according to Your word.
170. May my supplication for grace come before You; save me according to Your declaration.
171. May my lips utter praise, for You teach me Your laws.
172. May my tongue echo Your declaration, for all Your commandments are righteous.
173. May Your hand be my help, for I have chosen Your precepts.
174. I have longed for Your deliverance, O LORD; Your instruction is my delight.
175. May my soul live, that it may praise You; may Your rulings be my help;
176. I have strayed. Like a sheep that has departed, search for your servant, for I have not forgotten Your commandments.
Tav (vv. 169–176) – The urgent request of verses 152–160 and the prior justifications of verses 161–168 are resolved here in requests of a different kind—that the psalm as a whole be accepted by God. In a carefully structured section (by pairs, according to content), the speaker in turn prays for his prayer, utters a request for his utterance, clarifies his choice and throws himself on God’s mercy.
This last section includes a number of surprises. Before the speaker had declared that he did not stray (v. 110), and now he says that he did.. He previously noted that he did not “depart” (vv. 92, 95) and now he says that he did. New terms appear: “before You,” “prayer,” “praise,” and “search,” the last in conflict with the end of the previous section, wherein God is said to be aware of all the speaker’s ways, whereas God is now asked to search for him. Indeed the last verse, the metaphor of a lost sheep, offers a unique positioning within the biblical landscape: God searching for a lost man!
This last section, then, plays the role assumed by the final verses in many shorter psalms, providing a surprising ending that makes one reconsider the sections that came before. I reserve that discussion for my comments on the psalm as a whole.
The ending also implies mutuality—I do not forget Your commandments; do not forget me. Also in the last verse, the phrase “like a sheep that has departed,” befits what precedes it and what comes after, and probably should be applied to both. In the first four verses, the second halves could be ndependent statements, as translated, or the content of the prayers referred to. (If the latter, in the first two verses, the second half would be quotations, and in the second two verses, paraphrases, reading “that” for “for”).
- 1. “Open” (v. 18) and “strip” (v.22) are the same Hebrew term, gal.
- 2. Alternatively, “it (expands),” and both may be implied.
- 3. Literally, “at every step”; alternatively, “forever.”
- 4. Implying “leading to,” “promoting” or a reference to various verses promising reward for fear of God.
- 5. A hapax legomenon. Translation as Tur Sinai, Dahood, Hacham. Others: “ensnared” (and they take the first term to mean “cords”).
- 6. Hebrew root translated as “act” elsewhere in the psalm.
- 7. Evidently implies heaven and earth, as Ibn Ezra.
- 8. Uncertain. Root indicates “twisted” or “double.” Refers either to people (dissemblers, two-faced) or types of thoughts.
- 9. Alternatively or additionally, “for the LORD to act.”
- 10. Probably the arrogant, or possibly my eyes when I sin.
- 11. As the use of this term, I Samuel 9:21. Otherwise, “young,” and some interpret a young man, or “when I was young… did not forget.”
- 12. “Of old” is the same root as “greet,” verses 147 and 148.
- 13. Alternatively, “entered into conflict.”
- 14. “Great” in verses 162 and 165 is the singular of “many” in verses 156 and 157.
Overview: An Internal Revolution
The longest psalm, the longest chapter by verses in the Bible, and the only acrostic based on eight repetitions, Psalm 119 is truly unique, and its content is as unique as its form.
Form: A Psalm Like Any Other
There are elements of the form of Psalm 119 that declare its proper home within Psalms. Similar to eight other psalms, it is an alphabetic acrostic. Like many psalms, repetitions define its subjects and emphases. Like a few psalms, it has a regular rhythm that holds throughout. Like many psalms, the final verse (here, the final section) comes as a surprise, redefining elements of the entire poem.
Form: A Psalm Unlike Any Other
Nevertheless, Psalm 119 is unique, and not only in its length. Its acrostic is unique, repeating each letter of the alphabet eight times. (I note that some commentators cite this psalm as proof that the motivation for acrostics was not for memorization, which would scarcely help here. I also note that there is no agreed significance to the number eight, which bears no special implication elsewhere. All theories border on conjecture.)
Repetitions are used differently in Psalm 119, specifically those indicating God’s communication, reflecting more a desire for variety (or comprehensiveness) than development. There are many terms used for this communication, and although interpreters differ on the exact number (from seven to twelve), there seem to be eight basic terms that are most repeated, between nineteen and twenty-five times each.
There is another striking exception to the usual emphasis on repetition. In all 176 verses, there is almost no full phrase (a verset, half a verse) that is repeated. That took a lot of effort and must have been purposeful. As Meltzer points out, we have here a parallel to the variations on a theme in a symphony—similar but never quite the same. By way of examples, note how “keep,” mentioned in verses 5, 8, 9, 17, 34, 44, 55, 57, 60, 63, 88, 101, 134, 136, 146, and 158, has as its object all eight of the terms for God’s communication, and the repetitions are never in the same form. Similarly, “grant me life” appears in eleven verses with reference to God’s word, ways, righteousness, declaration, loving kindness, precepts, rule, and promise. In the two verses that nearly repeat, God’s name is added to the second appearance to make it different (see vv. 25 and 107, 88 and 159), and in the one other case, God’s name is part of the first verset, not the second (vv. 149, 156).
Another exceptional element in this psalm, considering its length, is the lack of development of a theme (though consecutive sections sometimes concentrate on different subjects). Here the poem is closer to a litany, a constant repetition of the same or similar ideas. The literary evaluations of this differ sharply. By way of example, in the Interpreters’ Bible, one commentator calls this “the greatest tour de force in the Psalter,” while a second states that it is “difficult to find… a more artificial arrangement than this.” Weiser calls the form “wearisome.”
David Noel Freedman, in a detailed study (Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah, Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, IN, 1999) finds several other aspects of arrangement that testify to structural sophistication. He finds only eight terms for communication, reflective of the eight verses in each section. Tracing the use of these eight terms (plus word and syllable counts), he finds that the two halves of the psalm balance nicely. Positing that the psalmist originally had a model of using one term each in every stanza, he traces a complex system of changes and compensations so that the number of these terms remains equal to the number of verses. (There is actually one extra use of a term, for which he offers a number of possible explanations.) In addition, he finds that the eight terms themselves are closely linked. They are four feminine and four masculine nouns (another hint at completeness). Although they vary in number of appearances from nineteen to twenty-five times, he is able to pair them in couples of forty-four appearances per couple (once forty-five, of course). The largest number of appearances is twenty-five, for Torah (in this translation, “instruction”), which he pairs with the only other term in the feminine also used only in the singular, “declaration” (imra) with nineteen appearances. One notes that the first letters of this pair are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, reflecting the acrostic! The twenty-five appearances of “instruction” (Torah) are further balanced by twenty-five references to God (twenty-four of “LORD” and one of “my God”). These and other points testify to a technical master who structured his repetitions most carefully.
I emphasize that Freedman’s first conclusions are not shared by all commentators. For example, others find seven through twelve key terms, not eight. Interested readers might note verses 3, 37, and 90, where Freedman sees no key terms, but where “word” and “faithfulness” clearly fill the function served by other key terms elsewhere. Similarly, “loving kindness” in verses 88, 149, and 159 fulfills the same role given terms for communication in verse 25, 107, and 156. Nor does everyone agree that there was an original model of one term per verse. I do not suggest, therefore, that Freedman’s is the definitive approach. However, his work demonstrates the psalmist’s attempt to balance and show completeness above and beyond the smooth acrostic pattern.
Content and Its Form: A Psalm Like Any Other
Owing to the overwhelming emphasis on God’s communication in this psalm, on occasion a reader misses the other constantly recurring theme, the existence of the wicked (often “arrogant,” “oppressors,” “pursuers,” etc., but also identified by actions, such as “afflict,” “despise,” “disgrace,” and “shame” ), as well as the speaker’s suffering at their hands. They are sometimes identified as the authorities (vv. 23, 161). As in so many psalms, the speaker appears as the righteous individual found among many who oppress him and disregard God. (There are more than sixteen references to them forsaking God’s commandments or deriding God, and “lies” are associated with them at least eight times.)
Moreover, as many other psalms, Psalm 119 comes with an unexpected ending, one that throws new light on the whole. The last verse calls attention to itself by being overlong, the longest in the psalm (except verse 48, where one suspects the inclusion of a phrase from the previous verse, by dittography), possibly of three phrases. As indicated in my comments on the final eight verses, apparent contradictions stand out: although previously he said that he did not stray or depart, here we understand that he did so. New terms appear: “before You,” “prayer,” “praise,” and “search,” the last being God’s new task: to search for a lost man!
All this forces reconsideration of earlier verses that may have included hints that the speaker had strayed, including verses 28, 29, 37, 59 (note the term “return”), 67, 115, and 133. Indeed, adamant claims to the opposite effect (such as verses 128, 163–164) make one wonder whether he does protest (or profess) too much! Certainly the purity of the opening three verses now seems not only a description of the speaker but also a challenge that the speaker addresses to himself. The psalm seems less monolithic and more human than before.
Finally, this psalmist, like others, depends on oft repeated words to carry and reinforce his message. We note (independent of repeated terms that are cited in the section below on God’s communication) the following. In terms of multiples of seven, the seven repetitions of “loving kindness” and fourteen of “right(eous)” place this psalm squarely within the overall framework of Psalms. As Martin Cohen points out, there is an unusual emphasis on “life,” that root repeated fourteen times (including the only nine appearances of “grant me life” in the Bible). Implications might range from the speaker feeling threatened to an exuberant celebration of living. Appropriate to the speaker’s struggles, “deliver” is repeated nine times. Other oft repeated words include “heart” (fifteen mentions) and “Your servant” (fourteen times, with an added use of “Your servants,” v. 91, thus fifteen in all).
Content and Its Form: A Psalm Unlike Any Other
The many unique formal aspects of Psalm 119 find their counterparts in its equally unique contention. Throughout there is reference to the speaker’s loyalty to, and inspiration from, God’s communication; it is the object of an ongoing prayer for closer understanding and dedication, and the source of promise, values, and life. Nearly two hundred times this communication is said to be “Yours.” God’s communication (which in later texts, mostly post-biblical, will gravitate to the one term Torah, translated here as “instruction”) is given more centrality than in any other biblical text.
The repeated terms used in conjunction with the communication set the tone for the relationship to it: “keep,” “teach-and-learn” (one root) and “dwell on.” Perhaps more striking are the repeated “hope,” “delight,” and “love.” There is a personal relationship here, some phrases borrowed from other statements relating directly to God. (Certainly that holds for “love” and “hope.”) Even within the psalm one witnesses the transition of terms, such as “seek,” which refers to God in verse 10, but to His precepts in verse 94, and “fear,” which refers to God in verse 38, but to His ruling in verse 120. (See also my comments above on verses 41–48.) Although it is unclear whether this communication means a body of literature (such as the Bible), prophecy and/or an oral tradition, it is in any case revealed, detailed, and communal, and it seems to serve in place of God as resource and sometimes as object of adoration!
It cannot be emphasized enough that this communication is presented as a matter of joy and love. Here, “the Torah is no burden, but a mode of joyous existence” (Brueggemann).
Not noted often enough are the twenty repetitions of the prefixed letter kaph, here always translated “according to.” God’s communication is the source of truth—and to the extent that it is repeated, written, or taught, the implication is a “direct intermediary,” as much as that might sound like an oxymoron, from God to the speaker. “God may be known through the medium of commandment and divine precept” (M. Cohen).
Was the psalmist aware of how very different and new his contention was? Although one cannot be sure, I suggest that the radically new format of Psalm 119 is designed to reflect precisely that. In its time, this psalm brought a new message, and its insistent use of restatement and reformulation, its extended acrostic form, and its careful balances all bespeak both an insistence on, and an awareness of, innovation. Again, as Brueggemann puts it, “A Torah ordered life is safe, predictable and complete as is the order of the psalm.”
A New Mode of Relationship
Psalm 119 is emphatically individual. Here there is no mention of king, Jerusalem, Temple, foreign enemies, sacrifice, or the nation. It is clearly individual in its prayer for help.
One must realize, then, that Psalm 119 is not only “about” God’s communication, even if that represents its revolution, but primarily about the speaker’s relationship to God. After the opening three verses, God is addressed in every verse but two (vv. 115, 128).
This emphasis is reconfirmed by the new terms of the final section: “before You,” “prayer,” “praise,” and “search.” All are matters of relationship. Certainly the final request that God search for man is such. The focus is also reflected in the psalm’s extremes of repetition: the pronoun “You” (atah, as opposed to the pronominal suffix meaning “You,” which appears endlessly throughout the psalm) is found a complete seven times, while the first-person references of the speaker to himself in one form or another are at the other extreme, approaching four hundred!
Indeed, in the overwhelming majority of verses, the communication is not the subject of the verse. There are only eight exceptions and of those verses 98 and 130 focus on interrelationships with man and verses 129, 130, 140, and 144 make specific reference to man. Man is absent only from verses 90, 142, 160 and in the last two man is implied through the emphasis on righteousness.
Evolving before the eyes of the reader, then, is a new pattern of relationship. Man still has access to God. Fear of God is mentioned often, and the psalm as a whole is a prayer. To hear God, however, man turns to his communication, and his commitment to his God is expressed in no small degree through his relationship to that communication. The radically formatted psalm presents a radical new understanding.
* * * * * * *
1. There is a theory that at one point Psalm 119 marked the end of Psalms, balancing Psalm 1, with its parallel emphasis on observing Torah. The opening of both psalms is “Happy…” and both first verses include the terms “walk…way.” Those who hold to this theory feel that following (“walking in the way of”) Torah was the chosen framework for the entire collection to that point, with other psalms added later. (Note that Psalm 120 begins a connected series, the Songs of Ascent, through 134, that theoretically could have been added en bloc.)
2. Two verses have their own interesting histories in Jewish tradition. The opening of verse 12, “Blessed are You, O LORD,” became the core model of Jewish blessings in prayer. Verse 126, interpreted homiletically, became the cited basis for the few occasions when widespread non-obedience to God allowed one to take drastic steps, even by breaking God’s commandments.
3. Although it is not the purpose of these interpretations to deal with the history of biblical thought, it is of note that this psalm fits well with the Deuteronomic focus on text and communication (which itself has echoes throughout the Bible). In Deuteronomy, the chosen term is always Torah. This emphasis also fits well with later Jewish emphasis on the explication of text and law, although that is not yet clearly articulated here.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in
and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jerusalem