How to Read Psalm 119

To be a Bible reader is to read poetry. Someone has estimated that sixty percent of the Old Testament is in poetic form. Poetry also occurs in the New Testament. The basic marker of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. The two parallel lines will say the same thing in different words, or say contrasting things, or sometimes the second line will build on the first.

The longest poem in Psalms is Psalm 119. I have to admit in the early days of my Bible reading I would feel a little dread of Psalm 119. It is so long! It is twenty-two stanzas and 176 verses long. Even then, it was easy to recognize some high points in the psalm:

How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. Psalm 119:9, ESV

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Psalm 119:11, ESV

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105, ESV

Yet 176 lines is a long way to go for a few choice nuggets. I recognized some familiar trees, but I didn’t have a sense of the beauty of the entire forest.

I wasn’t alone. Some unkind things have been said about the psalm by commentators through the years. Some have felt that the poem is disjointed. Yet to be a Bible reader is to read and to read again. In time, I’ve come to appreciate the psalm as a whole and to see its beauty.

Psalm 119 is a tightly structured poem. It is an acrostic poem. The twenty-two stanzas of the poem are usually marked in English with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Hebrew has only twenty-two letters in its alphabet. That means that each of the eight lines in the stanza begin with that letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Eight lines beginning with the same letter and a stanza for each letter of the alphabet is a challenging task. The poem uses the word law (Hebrew torah which also means instruction) and seven synonyms for law. Likely the reason for 8 lines per stanza is the fact that the psalm uses 8 words for law. One of these 8 words for law occurs in every line except four, but in five lines of the poem a synonym for law occurs twice.

What helped my reading of this psalm? Read through the psalm and look for the circumstances of the psalmist. Read through the psalm and look for the petitions of the psalmist. Read through the psalm and look for the things he says about law or instruction and its benefits. Read through the psalm and look for praise of God. Do this and I think your appreciation for the psalm will grow. You will see its lament, wisdom, and praise. You will see how the whole psalm fits together in a wonderful way.

2 Responses to How to Read Psalm 119

  1. Patrick Mathias, English Faculty says:

    Interesting piece on the poetry of the Bible, especially on the alphabetic acrostic. Do you know the history of the acrostic as a form? Is it Hebrew in origin? What are good sources for researching Hebrew poetic forms? Thanks for your help.

    • Russ Holden says:

      Thanks for the comment. Acrostics also appear in Babylonian and Greek according to the Anchor Bible Dictionary. I don’t know what the earliest occurrence would be. It is likely something natural to any alphabetic language. Other examples of acrostic poems would include Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112. Each of the first four chapters of Lamentations is an acrostic poem, although how the pattern is done varies. For more info on Hebrew poetry, some good beginning points would be How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart and the Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant R. Osborne.

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