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.
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.
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.