In the previous post, I gave the example of a nightmarish English assignment, the kind that would make a high school student break out it a cold sweat: write an acrostic poem about something you love, a poem of 26 stanzas, one for each letter of the alphabet. Every stanza must have eight lines; every line within a particular stanza has to begin with the same letter. And…the poem must use eight synonyms for its subject matter, with the words distributed roughly equally throughout the poem.
Any student who even completed the assignment would deserve an A+, whatever else one thought of the result.
But that is, in essence, what the poet who wrote Psalm 119 did.
. . .
Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm with 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet (your English translation may mark off those stanzas by inserting the letters as headings). Each stanza contains 8 lines, each beginning with the same Hebrew letter. That’s why the psalm is so long: it takes 22 stanzas times 8 lines to get all the way through the structure, making a total of 176 verses.
The psalmist has to get creative with the stanza for the letter waw — like the letter X in English, there are too few words in Hebrew that begin with waw. Taken by itself in a sentence, however, waw is often translated as “and” or “also.” Not surprisingly, then, the corresponding stanza uses “and” a lot. Not an elegant solution, perhaps. But again, this is what we need to understand about Psalm 119: the structure is itself part of the teaching, and must be preserved.
The subject matter is the beauty of Torah — God’s law or instruction. In its ode to Torah, the psalm uses a vocabulary of eight Hebrew synonyms that are variously translated in English: law, word, commandment, statute, precept, and so on. Torah is the most commonly used word out of the list, appearing 25 times in 22 stanzas. But even the least frequent of the words occurs 19 times, making for a roughly equal smattering of the synonyms across the entire composition.
Keep in mind that this is poetry, and in particular, Hebrew poetry. Looking for exact definitions and distinctions between the synonyms would miss the point. What the psalmist wants to show us is that Torah is a gem of many facets; rather than get lost in how one facet may be a little different than another, the point is to appreciate the jewel of Torah itself.
Although Psalm 119 is not the only acrostic poem in the Psalter, it is probably the most complex and complete example of the form. Psalm 34, for example, is also acrostic, with 22 verses instead of 22 stanzas. But it leaves waw out of the structure and tacks an extra verse on the end to make the full complement. The author of Psalm 119 makes no such compromise.
But even knowing all this, the question we might still ask is, Who cares?
. . .
As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested, quite apart from the content of the psalm, the structure of the psalm conveys two things. First, the psalmist wants to teach us the fundamental posture of obedience to Torah — our “ABCs,” as it were. If we want to learn to read, we need to learn words; if we want to learn words, we need to learn the alphabet. Letters are the building block from which everything else is built. So it is with the life of faith, the psalmist teaches: it needs to be established on the foundation of love and devotion to God’s instruction.
Second, the structure of the psalm, by covering the whole alphabet “from A to Z,” teaches that Torah is comprehensive — it touches on every facet of life. Nothing is untouched by its influence. Moreover, by achieving the fullness of the acrostic form without compromise, the psalmist also seems to signal the perfection and completeness of Torah itself.
Do we love God’s word as much as the psalmist did? Or does the idea of loving the “law” throw us off? Before looking at some of the content of the psalm, we need to tackle the question of legalism in the next post.