Psalm 119: “Acrostic declaration of commitment; prayer of longing; petition against enemies”


I. Outline:
1-8. Aleph: beatitude, humble prayer for religious resolve
2-16. Bet: account of commitment
17-24. Gimel: prayer for religious resolve, account of commitment
25-32. Dalet: prayer for religious resolve
33-40. He: prayer for religious resolve
41-48. Waw: prayer for religious resolve, anticipated commitment
49-56. Zayin: account of commitment
57-64. Het: account of commitment, prayer for religious resolve
65-72. Tet: account of defeat and reinvigoration, prayer for religious resolve
73-80. Yod: prayer for religious resolve
81-88. Kaf: complaint/petition against enemies
89-96. Lamed: hymnic praise, account of commitment
97-104. Mem: account of commitment
105-112. Nun: account of commitment, prayer for religious resolve
113-120. Samek: account of commitment, prayer for religious resolve, awe
121-128. Ayin: petition to be saved from enemies, account of commitment
129-136. Pe: hymnic torah praise, prayer for religious resolve, account of commitment, confession
137-144. Tsade: hymnic torah praise, account of commitment, prayer for religious resolve
145-152. Qof: prayer for religious resolve
153-160. Resh: prayer for life, account of commitment
161-168. Sin/Shin: complaint, account of commitment, beatitude
169-176. Taw: prayer for religious resolve and life, account of commitment, confession

II. Comment:

Ps. 119 is the longest psalm in the Psalter and its form is governed by two rules: (1) it is an acrostic in which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is given 8 verses, and (2) every verse contains one of the 8 “torah synonyms.” The eight “torah synonyms” are most probably the reason for each letter having eight verses.

The eight torah synonyms are:

1. torah – “law(s)” (occurs 25x)
2. davar – “word(s)” (occurs 24x)
3. ‘edut – “covenant term(s)” (occurs 23x)
4. mishpat – “ruling(s)” (occurs 22x)
5. hoq – “statute(s)” (occurs 22x)
6. mitzwa – “commands” (occurs 21x)
7. ‘imra – “saying(s)” (occurs 20x)
8. piqud – “charge(s)” (occurs 20x)

Some verses contain two of the synonyms (vv. 16,48,160,168,172), and only three are lacking synonyms altogether (vv. 37,90,122). Related words such as derekh (“way”) and ‘orach (“path”) are used, but not as one of the eight synonyms. Other words such as chayah (“to live”) and ‘olam (“forever”) are also used many times.

The psalm is a medley of different literary genres. But, at its core, Ps. 119 is an Individual Declaration of Commitment. Phrases such as “I take delight in Your laws; I will not neglect Your word” (v. 16) and “I will never neglect Your precepts, for You have preserved my life through them” (v. 93) are pervasive.

There are two basic types of Complaints/Petitions:
(A) The first are those that express a yearning to understand God’s teachings, or to receive His acceptance. This category contains phrases like “I am Your servant; give me understanding, that I might know Your decrees” (v. 125) and “My eyes pine away for Your promise; I say, “When will You comfort me?” (v. 82).
(B) The second are those that express contempt for the godless. This category contains phrases like “The wicked hope to destroy me, but I ponder Your decrees” (v. 95) and “Let the insolent be dismayed, for they have wronged me without cause; I will study Your precepts” (v. 78).

Ps. 119 also contains Hymnic Praise, often related to the torah synonyms themselves. For example, vv. 89-91 say, “The LORD exists forever; Your word stands firm in heaven.
Your faithfulness is for all generations; You have established the earth, and it stands. They stand this day to [carry out] Your rulings, for all are Your servants.”

While Ps. 119 is written in the first person, it’s formal structure indicates a liturgical use. Yet, it is not clear if it was recited by one person or the entire community. In regards to the dating of Ps. 119, certain aramaisms (e.g. ya’aveti in v. 131 and ke’al in v. 14) point to a postexilic composition.