Blogging the Psalmist

“Why should anyone devote a contemporary blog to David, to delving deeply into his life and prayers and to reflecting and meditating on his poetry?” one might ask. It certainly is a legitimate question and one that deserves more than just a word or two in response. So I have attempted to address it as thoroughly yet succinctly as I can in the “Why David?” section of this blog. I invite you to take a look.

But before you go there, let me be the one to pose and answer a couple of related questions: why am I writing this blog? and why now? It’s a story I love to tell. You can read it here.

The Heart of Psalm 119 (Part 2)

In the first part of this series I mentioned the “acrostic pattern” and “intricate architecture” of this magnificent poem. Those passing references were insufficient to convey the importance of structure, however. Understanding it, and the purposeful complexity of design within it, is absolutely critical, I believe, to fully apprehending David’s purpose in this poem.

First, and most fundamental, is the fact that the poet himself was utterly dedicated to conforming his expression to a particular and stringent “architecture.” Serious poets and students and readers of literature, even in this postmodern age, acknowledge that form in poetry supports its meaning. The poetry of David’s era in both Hebrew and other related contemporary Middle Eastern languages was always, by definition and by practice, formal. It conformed to tight literary rules and formulae. A primary characteristic of Hebrew poetry, as we have noted before, is its reliance on parallelism. It is no surprise, therefore, that David would employ parallel construction — synthetic, antithetic and synonymous — in the composition of his poetry. Because such practice was standard, it alone does not set Psalm 119 apart from the other poetry of the time.linnes pass

In that context, the additional and complex elements or layers of form that David incorporated into this particular poem are what deserve our attention. Like several others, the 119th psalm is an abecedarian acrostic. That is, the first letter of each line of the verse in the successive sections follows in sequence the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Unlike many other simple acrostic psalms, the unique pattern of 119 is much more complex and difficult to accomplish. Here the initial Hebrew letter is repeated eight times successively. In other words, aleph is the first letter of the first eight verses, bet of the next eight, and so on, letter by letter, through all 22 “stanzas” to the psalms concluding line (verse 176).

David composed in the oral tradition, of course, even as he “wrote” not only out of personal need for dialogue with his God but also for the benefit of his people. Many scholars and critics suggest that the abecedarian acrostic pattern was employed as a helpful mnemonic device to spur the recollections of David’s contemporaries and the legions of worshipers who for centuries after his death were dependent only on memory to recite the work. I do not doubt there is truth in that. The parallelism embedded in the structure also contributed as a memory aid in a similar way. But suggesting that was the primary motivation driving the poet’s creative choices demeans both the value of the work and the skill and purpose of the author.

Laying that aside for a moment, we should also acknowledge the practical value of a prescribed structure, marked by signposts like the patterns David embedded in his poems. Formal grammatical and word patterns must certainly have assisted priests and others in distinguishing the poetic sections of Holy Writ from the narrative passages once they were transcribed. What do I mean? Biblical Hebrew is and was a purely consonantal language containing no vowels. Beyond that, and more to the point, it employed neither any capitalization nor punctuation — none at all. It simply was recorded letter by letter from right to left, all running together with no obvious sentence, stanza or chapter breaks. In that context, parallel structures and acrostic patterns were important guideposts to help scribes and readers alike navigate and categorize and segregate the sections of text.

But acrostics and the letters on which they turn were much more than signals dividing portions of text. The alphabet — a word itself derived from eliding the letters aleph and bet — occupied an exalted place and almost mystical meaning for David and his people. As the building blocks of language, as the elements from which words are formed, the alphabet was regarded and revered as holy. The ancient Hebrews were ever mindful that their God spoke the entirety of creation into being. The Genesis story was understood fundamentally as the record of the Holy One’s bringing forth the entire created universe simply by means His words. “And God said…” And the underpinnings of those spoken words were letters, the primary building blocks of language.

There is even more to the significance of alphabet than that. For David and his ancient Hebrew contemporaries, letters themselves held rank and sacred meaning. Genesis, the first book of Holy Writ, in Hebrew is named  B’resheet, based on the first two words of the book “in the beginning” and “created.” (In Hebrew, verbs precede and not follow the subject or actor as the generally do in English). So the designation of the book itself begins with bet, the second letter of the alphabet.

By modern reasoning, one might ask why the opening book would be introduced by a word beginning with the second letter of the alphabet rather than the first. The answer to that query, from the Hebrew perspective, is more logical than the question itself. Aleph, the silent first letter that standing alone is unpronounceable, is assigned to First Cause – that is, for the Creator God Himself. I AM, the name by which God revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14 when he inquired of Him, is a Hebrew phrase comprised of three words. All three begin with aleph. That hallowed phrase, written in Hebrew, is “ehyeh asher ehyeh.” In addition, aleph seems to be used frequently in designating other first, or primary, things. For example, Elohim, whose principal letter is aleph, is the plural word that is used repeatedly in Genesis to refer to the triune God (who speaks of Himself as “us” and “we”). Other aleph words worthy of our attention and representing notable ‘firsts’ are: aron, the Ark of the Covenant; or, light, the first reported object of creation; eish, man, the highest among the created order who was given authority over all the earth, and eisha, woman, his “helpmate”; adam, also man, as well as the specific name given to the first man; aretz, earth itself (also sometimes called adamha), the planet on which He would choose to give mankind habitation and dominion over all other created things and to send His son. Av, father, is another aleph word as is the name Avram (Abram)/Avraham (Abraham), the chief patriarch and father of the people Israel.

If all of this is interesting but seems to be a bit strange to our modern minds, and more than that a digression from the central question of “the other three words” I promised to probe, I argue emphatically that it is not. The sum of this substance is a necessary background on which together we can proceed, underpinnings which point to poet’s intent (which after all is critical) and to the importance of design.

The intricate pattern of Psalm 119 does much more than exhibit the skillful craftsmanship of history’s greatest poet. It reflects and speaks to the deeply ingrained elements of the collective belief of the Hebrew people. In addition, and arguably more important, by virtue of its attention to design, discipline and details Psalm 119 imitates and thereby honors the attributes of the Maker in a manner that an any less structured work could not.

The type of offering that the Holy One desires and deserves is the first, the best, the unblemished. Throughout scripture the Lord delivers frequent and detailed instructions about what he expects from His people in their conduct and their worship. This is seen in reference to the bringing of sacrifices to the altar and to the building of the temple, for example.

Acknowledging that, consider, as I do, regarding Psalm 119 as David’s great and most precious offering — as a “temple not built with hands,” the most perfect service the man after God’s own heart could bring to his God and simultaneously the most cherished gift he could leave for his people when his deepest desire — the opportunity to construct the temple– was denied him.

Such an interpretation admittedly can only be characterized speculation on my part. But as I study over and over the life of David and examine in Psalm 119 his extraordinary and enduring masterwork of praise, of faith, of instruction, of worship, of service and servanthood, and of heart, I can perceive and believe nothing else.sunset2 (1 of 1)

With that admission, I hope that you will continue to journey forth from here with me walking humbly, deliberately, and expectantly through the holy and spirit-filled corridors of this magnificent “temple” built for and left to us by the man after God’s own heart.

The Heart of Psalm 119 (Part 1)

Favorite Woodland Trail

It has been several months since I last spoke in this space. There is no easy transition from that silence, and even less to the subject that I have finally mustered the courage to engage. I must both confess and warn that in finally breaking the silence, I will also be breaking with the tradition of literally centuries of scholars and theologians who have examined, studied, prayed, written and instructed others about the intricacies and meaning of the longest poem in the Hebrew book of Praises (tehillim), namely Psalm 119. I do so cautiously and prayerfully, trusting that the skill I bring, honed in the formal study of textual criticism and literary manuscript revision, can bring some valid new insight here.

another WY mtn (1 of 1)It is precisely because I have never before encountered, in Biblical commentary or scholarship, what I have observed personally and am preparing to present that I have held to so long and deliberate a silence. I forewarn you of that before you continue to read this, if you choose to do so. And if you do, I ask you to remember that I do not approach Psalm 119 presuming to be any kind of theologian or Biblical or Hebrew scholar. I come solely as a lover of the psalms and, more important, of the God to Whom they are addressed and about Whom they speak; as an admirer of David not only as the man after God’s heart (although that is certainly enough) but also, in my opinion, as the greatest poet in the history of the world; and last, as a poet myself and one who has also studied with diligence to attain a rudimentary enough knowledge of Biblical Hebrew just to read those magnificent poems in the holy tongue in which they were originally composed.

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I also spent four years painstakingly and gloriously “living with” the 119th psalm in Hebrew – first transliterating it, then translating it and finally adapting its 22 sections into 22 poems or canticles in English that followed, as closely as I believed any cross-language endeavor could, the acrostic pattern of the original Hebrew poem while remaining as faithful as possible to the seminal text. That work ultimately culminated in a book entitled This Holy Alphabet (Paraclete Press, 2009).

In my introduction to This Holy Alphabet I briefly discussed the intricate architecture of the psalm, giving particular attention not only to its acrostic structure but also to the elaborate repetition of what have come to be known as the “nine key words” on which scores of scholars have centered their instruction and commentary about Psalm 119. They do so with good reason. At least one of those nine words appears in 174 of the 176 verses of the psalm. All nine turn the reader’s attention to the importance of God’s “word,” as each one focuses on a particular aspect of it or to what we might more precisely term the whole law of God.

Those nine words are: word (dabar-26), law (torah-25), judgment/justice (mishpat – 23), testimony (ehdot-23), commandment (mitzvah-22), statutes (qoque-21), precepts (pikudim-21), saying/promise (amrah-19) and way (derek-14).

I have arrayed the nine words above not in the order in which they first appear in the psalm but by their frequency of use. The numeral in the parenthetical after each Hebrew word signifies the number of times each term appears. In two cases in particular it is important to note that the Hebrew words are polyvalent and can be and are translated as two different terms in English. The word choice that a translator makes, as we will see again later, makes a profound difference.

As one might expect, the great poet chose to employ nine different terms instead of one or a handful because none are synonyms and each nuances, explicates, enriches and enlarges the meaning and understanding of what that God-given word/law — both “natural” and “supernatural” – is. That word/law is changeless, immutable, perfect, reliable, unassailable, complete and fulfilled. Thus, it is distinct from and stands in contrast to human law, which even in the greatest of political systems can be and is frequently amended and is therefore by nature always incomplete and constantly evolving.Sunday's purple dusk (1 of 1)

The well-known nineteenth century preacher Charles H. Spurgeon, author of the massive three volume commentary The Treasury of David, describes Psalm 119 succinctly: “This sacred ode is a little Bible, the Scriptures condensed, a mass of Bibline, Holy Writ rewritten in holy emotions and actions.” While his expression is arcane, especially to us 21st century readers, there remains much to commend his insightful synopsis. Or so I believe.

Following the notion that the psalm is in fact “the Scriptures condensed,” I was drawn to ask myself, and to repeat in prayer, this one simple, fundamental and perhaps disruptive question. If that is so, if that psalm truly reflects the essence of all scripture, why would the primary and almost intense emphasis – as memorialized in the nine words – be on law alone? What about those “holy emotions” that are essential to faith, that enduring passion that drives the believer to seek and follow God’s will? Surely the man after God’s own heart was no advocate of this kind of legalism. And even more certainly the Son of David — of whom the psalms prophesy and who himself knew and loved and quoted the psalms and who railed against those who took a Pharisaical approach to faith — was not either. What about heart, I asked agonizingly and again and again? What about that?

And so finally I did what any good student of scripture and trained textual examiner and poet would do. I went back to the writer’s very own words, to the Hebrew text itself, and I began to look more carefully at every single one of them. That is when I discovered what I have come to call “the other three words.” Those words are: servant (eved-15), heart (lev-14) and righteous/ness (tzedek/ah-13).

Those words change everything. And if we need some metric to justify their inclusion in our study and consideration, I offer this. The first two appear with equal or greater frequency as one of the nine (derek). The third is just one mention behind. But the impact of considering them is monumental.

So here, after years of trepidation at challenging the scholarly status quo and roughly the same amount of time trusting in the psalmist/poet’s word choice and sacred wisdom I come to this conclusion, or more precisely to this soulful resting place: I believe that the only way to plumb the heart of this psalm and to grasp the full measure of its meaning is to examine and seek to understand the significance, relevance and interplay of all twelve key words taken together.

That is what I hope to do – deliberately, attentively, humbly (for the ground on which we stand is holy) and reverently – in several subsequent blog posts. Whether or not you choose to follow along with me, this I hope … that you will take the time to read Psalm 119 again with diligence and care, savoring and meditating on every word. If you do, I know you will be blessed.

And then I hope you will join me on the sacred journey to dive deeply and anew into “the little Bible, the Scriptures condensed.” Amen and amen.


The Heart of Joy

Swallowtail with Broken Wing

In response to my June post on the Heart of Happiness, a thoughtful reader commented “I have frequently used joy instead of happy” and inquired whether or not I thought that substitution would “work.” I responded that I did not know, but I certainly would take a look at the Hebrew text and search out an answer.  Although I could easily recite from memory several verses in the psalms that speak of joy, I had never really spent much time contemplating the psalmist’s focus on joy or examining the nature of  joy in the psalms. [Read more…]

The Heart of Happiness

Light Breaks over Montana

Both regular and casual readers of the psalms might legitimately question my supposition that the heart of “the man after God’s own heart” was one primarily characterized by and possessed of happiness. In light of the fact that the psalter is heavily laden with poems of complaint and lament, many of which were composed by David, I realize that mine is a bold statement. But I believe that it is supported both by the text and the life of David. So I will attempt now not so much to defend my assertion as to lead others along the path that led me to that conclusion. [Read more…]

The Silence of the Heart

Footprints in New Snow

Although it was centuries after King David’s death that Habakkuk wrote “But the Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him,”(Hab 2:20), it is certainly reasonable to expect the great psalmist might have uttered Habakkuk’s words on more than one occasion. We do not have any Biblical record of his doing so exactly, but he does begin Psalm 62 with the straightforward declaration, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1). So the central position that silence holds in David’s spiritual sojourns is clear. For him, it seems, such silent waiting was essential to opening the way to hear clearly from his Lord.  [Read more…]

The Heart of Blessing (Part Four)

Small Blaze of Fall

The final section of Psalm 103 is the shortest of the four, containing only three verses. But the all of verses 20 through 22 is the most expansive including in one small word the whole creation, animate and inanimate, earthly and celestial. And the entirety of this all is called upon by the psalmist to “Bless the Lord” in what I imagine as a glorious cosmic symphony.  In addition, the last line of the poem– Bless, O my being, the Lord! –repeats the opening line using a literary device known as envelope structure, which is characteristic of many of the psalms and other ancient Hebrew poetry. In a handful of words, it neatly envelops the entire psalm by repeating the primary theme around which it is constructed. In this case, the poet also uses it to bring the universal tribute back to his own intensely personal outpouring of reverence, homage and joy. [Read more…]

The Heart of Blessing (Part Three)

Just South of Inverness

In my initial post on Psalm 103, I designated this third of the four alls, or sections, that comprise the poem as the “contextual” one. While that may be accurate in terms of the literary purpose it serves, the terminology falls extraordinarily short of capturing the essence of verses 6 through 19. This portion of the psalm truly centers on the heart of blessing — that is, on the manner in which God interacts in unique covenant relationship with David and with all of His people. [Read more…]

The Heart of Blessing (Part Two)

What I Find, What I Keep

In this Part Two of the Heart of Blessing we begin looking at the second of the alls Psalm 103 presents, namely the all of the character and nature of the God of Israel. Surely David understood as well as any man that no language can fully convey what the human mind can only partially perceive. He also seemed to realize that the various formal aspects of poetry could provide him the best tool through which to intertwine verbal expression with nonverbal or spiritual thought, so he drew on that skill in the intricate crafting of this psalm. Within that framework, we now begin to look for the heart of this praise song by mining the mother lode of verses two through five. [Read more…]

The Heart of Blessing (Part One)

Psalm 103 is surely one of the most familiar of all the psalms and its opening line often quoted or adapted in prayer, sermon and song. The majority of the standard English texts over the centuries– from the King James to the recent English Standard Version and numerous others as well– render its opening line with exactly the same words:  “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and everything that is within me, bless His Holy name.”  I have loved that verse (Ps 103:1a) for as long as I can remember knowing it. But my study of the holy poem in its original Hebrew has opened my appreciation to scholar Robert Alter’s translation of those critical first words: “Bless, O my being, the Lord, and everything in me, His holy name.” [Read more…]

The Ascending Heart

Light Bathes the Outer Banks

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning,” (Ps 130:5-6) wrote the unidentified psalmist of the eleventh Psalm of Ascent. The lack of ascription of this psalm to a particular poet seems to enhance the universality of its application. It removes the necessity or temptation to confine it to a particular place, time, set of circumstances or person. The speaker could be you, or me, or even David. The anonymity gives the poem and this verse of it a power and possession that each of us can take as our own hope and petition. [Read more…]