As we finish the book of Psalms, we’ve encountered this week one of my favorites – Psalm 119. It’s my favorite for several reasons. First, it has some passages which I’ve known and quoted for many years, including “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (vs. 105) and “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (vs. 11). Second, it’s fascinating in its structural elements, some of which are only apparent in the original language (Hebrew). Each verse identifies some facet of God’s word and the author’s response to it. It has 176 verses in it, written in 8-verse stanzas. Each stanza corresponds to one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
In the picture below, you can see the last four verses of the first stanza (verses 5-8) and the first four verses of the second stanza (verses 9-12). The first stanza corresponds to the first Hebrew letter (Aleph) and each verse begins with the letter aleph. The second stanza goes with the second Hebrew letter (Bet) and each verse begins with it, and so on. Hebrew is read from right to left, and I’ve outlined these letters with the red boxes below.
Knowing this pattern is interesting, but it does not translate into English in any particularly similar form. For example, here are the complete first two stanzas.
1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!
2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!
4 You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.
5 Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
6 Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules.
8 I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!
9 How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
10 With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!
11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!
13 With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.
14 In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.
15 I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.
16 I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.
Most likely the writer was using the alliterative device in the psalm to aid the reader/hearer in memorization of the Psalm. This and other types of linguistic styles are common throughout the Psalms as ways of remembering them.
By way of further example, I’ve paraphrased each of the above verses in illustration of how it might be rendered in English using this alliterative approach.
1 Always happy will they be who live blameless lives, they who follow the word of the Lord!
2 Always blessed are those who keep His decrees and seek Him with all their heart.
3 Above suspicion of wrongdoing are they who follow His ways.
4 Attentiveness to Your precepts is Your command for Your people.
5 Alas, if only my ways were truly committed to keeping Your statutes!
6 As all your commands come to mind, I would not be ashamed because of them.
7 As I learn your righteous judgments, I will praise you with a sincere heart.
8 Abandon me not; I will keep Your statutes.
9 By keeping your word, a young man can successfully keep his way pure!
10 Because I have sought You with all my heart, don’t let me wander from Your commands.
11 Behold! I treasure Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against You.
12 Blessings and praises are Yours! Teach me Your statutes.
13 Boldly I will proclaim all the judgments from Your mouth.
14 Better is a life lived according to your decrees than all the riches of the world.
15 By deliberate intent I will meditate on Your precepts and think about Your ways.
16 Because I do not want to forget your word I will take delight in your statutes.
I hope you can see how this could help in the memorization of passages. The writer of this Psalm had a deep love for the word of God and purposefully wanted to commit it to memory and encourage others to do the same.