Structure and Purpose

February 25, 2009 – 9:26 am

The purpose of Psalm 119 should be pretty obvious: to praise God for His word. What is less obvious is the structure, mainly because we are reading it in English. It is an acrostic, where the first letter of each verse is a character in the Hebrew alphabet.  Lets look at the first stanza to see what I am talking about.

1 אַשְׁרֵ֥י תְמִֽימֵי־דָ֑רֶךְ הַֽ֝הֹלְכִ֗ים בְּתֹורַ֥ת יְהוָֽה׃
2 אַ֭שְׁרֵי נֹצְרֵ֥י עֵדֹתָ֗יו בְּכָל־לֵ֥ב יִדְרְשֽׁוּהוּ׃
3 אַ֭ף לֹֽא־פָעֲל֣וּ עַוְלָ֑ה בִּדְרָכָ֥יו הָלָֽכוּ׃
4 אַ֭תָּה צִוִּ֥יתָה פִקֻּדֶ֗יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֥ר מְאֹֽד׃
5 אַ֭חֲלַי יִכֹּ֥נוּ דְרָכָ֗י לִשְׁמֹ֥ר חֻקֶּֽיךָ׃
6 אָ֥ז לֹא־אֵבֹ֑ושׁ בְּ֝הַבִּיטִ֗י אֶל־כָּל־מִצְוֹתֶֽיךָ׃
7 אֹ֭ודְךָ בְּיֹ֣שֶׁר לֵבָ֑ב בְּ֝לָמְדִ֗י מִשְׁפְּטֵ֥י צִדְקֶֽךָ׃
8 אֶת־חֻקֶּ֥יךָ אֶשְׁמֹ֑ר אַֽל־תַּעַזְבֵ֥נִי עַד־מְאֹֽד׃

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia : With Westminster Hebrew Morphology. 1996, c1925; morphology c1991 (electronic ed.) (Ps 119:1-8). Stuttgart; Glenside PA: German Bible Society; Westminster Seminary.
This is why most translations begin each stanza with something like “א Aleph”.  This tells us that each verse in that stanza begins with the first character of the Hebrew alphabet ( they read right to left, which is why the text is right justified above ).  So, as we read this, we need to remember that the author organized it that way, probably to help his readers memorize it.
Something else that I think is interesting is that the author seems to jump around between topics.  There is always the main topic of God’s word, of course.  But he seems to jump back and forth between many of these sub-topics.  I hope to see the thread of his thoughts better as I study Psalm 119 this time around.

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