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 psalm.
First, and most fundamental, is the fact that the psalmist-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 be what we today would term a formalist and that he 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.
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, it was structured on and by the alphabet. The first letter of each line of the verse in the successive sections — for the sake of clarity, let’s take the liberty of calling them “stanzas “– follows in sequence the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Unlike many other simple 22 verse acrostic psalms, the unique pattern of the 119th 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 psalm’s 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 as worship leader and 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 mnemonics 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, scribes and others in distinguishing the poetic sections of Holy Writ from the narrative passages once they were recorded. 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 capitalization nor any punctuation — none at all. It simply was recorded letter by letter from right to left, all running together with no obvious line, 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, the first two letters — 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 of His utterances, 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, the individual 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 that book, namely “in the beginning” and “created.” (In Hebrew, verbs precede rather than follow the subject or actor as they 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 there 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 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 as 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.
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.
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