Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Torah, Torah, Rah Rah Rah! (Psalm 119)

How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to your word.
With all my heart I have sought you; do not let me wander from your commandments.
In my heart I have treasured your word, that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.
With my lips I have told of all the ordinances of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I have rejoiced, as much as in all riches.
On your precepts I will meditate and regard your ways.
In your statutes I will delight; I shall not forget your word.
-Psalm 119:9-16 (NASB, modified)

I recently asked my undergraduate Bible interpretation class to write out a title or subject of this stanza of Psalm 119. Seventeen out of 18 students said something like, "How to live a pure lifestyle."

That would be a good title, if this stanza were written the way we teach high schoolers to write today. The first line of a paragraph is supposed to be the topic sentence, so many English readers reason that "How shall a young man keep his way pure?" is the topic of the rest of the stanza. (Actually, stanzas of a psalm are usually called strophes, and it makes you feel so much smarter if you call them that).

But of course, Psalm 119 is not a modern American high school essay, but an ancient Hebrew poem extolling the virtues of God's instruction (or Torah). The meaning of these eight lines is not governed by the first line, but by the poetic structure of the entire psalm.

The author of Psalm 119 took on an impressive poetic challenge. To express his delight with the Torah, he decided to write 22 strophes of eight lines each describing how good God's word is. (Let's see... eight times two, carry the six... that adds up to... A LOT.) Why 22? Because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Every line in the first strophe begins with aleph, every line in the second strophe begins with beth, and so on up through tav. This kind of poem, as you may remember from an English class in your youth, is called an acrostic.

The strophe in vv. 9-16 is the "beth" section, so every line begins with a beth. In the version above, I rearranged the word order to more closely match the Hebrew and highlighted the first word in blue, so you can see the poetry. (The words "how" "with" "in" and "on" are different ways of translating the same Hebrew word, which is a b- prefix added to the next word. In line 4, the Hebrew for "blessed" is brk)

(Nerd note: the translator of the Psalms in the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek Old Testament) managed to partially translate the acrostic in this strophe. Every line begins with an epsilon in the Greek. In the vav strophe, every line begins with a kappa in the Greek. The rest of the Greek translation does not preserve the acrostic.)

What does all this mean? Psalm 119:9-16 is not about how to be pure. It is one of 22 strophes describing how good God's word is. In these lines, the psalmist says that he keeps, seeks, treasures, learns, talks about, rejoices in, meditates on, and delights in God's words. What are the consequences of this attitude towards God's word? Purity. An unstraying heart.

This is what we need - not a mere snacking on God's word, already digested by someone else for us, not merely the keeping of a discipline or the checking off of a box that tells us we are holy - but an absorption of Torah, God's instruction, that encompasses our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

The picture: David the Psalmist, in Geystliche Lieder (a hymn book) by Martin Luther and Valentin Babst, published 1567. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.


  1. Really drives home the value of God's word and reminds us to appreciate the accessability of God's word today. I think the Bible is an underused tool in Christianity today.

  2. Thanks! I should also have mentioned in the original post that the title of this post was inspired by Richard Rigsby, OT professor at Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Rigsby teaches his students a chant that helps them learn a Hebrew verb paradigm, and the chant ends with "Hebrew, Hebrew, Rah Rah Rah!"


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