Introduction: Psalm 119 is unique in several ways. First of all it stands as the longest Psalm in the Book of Psalms and the longest chapter in our English Bibles, being in length longer than 30 of the 66 books. The second trait that makes Psalm 119 special is in how the Holy Spirit had David utilize the Hebrew Alphabet in the composition and structure of the psalm. In today’s post I want to take a brief look at this Psalm and note some general traits along with how Psalm 119 contributes to our overall understanding of the doctrine of scripture.
1. Why Psalm 119 is divided into 22 sections – It all about the Hebrew A,B,C’s I can recall taking a course in Bible College called English Literature. On the first day of class the Professor walked in and she wrote the entire English alphabet on the board and said to the class that the alphabet represents every letter you will find in every book in the world composed in English. Psalm 119 is divided into 176 verses, representing 22 divisions of eight verses each. The reason for these 22 divisions is due to how David utilized the 22 letter Hebrew Alphabet to structure the Psalm. God’s use of the Hebrew Alphabet in Divine inspiration and Providence bears testimony to the character of scripture itself, as we will see near the end of this post. For now we can take note of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet that under gird Psalm 119:
In some of your English Bibles you may notice how the names of these letters appear every eight verses in Psalm 119. In each of the 22 sections, eight lines compose each section, with each line beginning with a word that starts with a corresponding letter. So for example, the first section (Psalm 119:1-8) has eight lines with the first word of each line (or verse) starting with the letter “aleph” (א), which is the first letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. Such a feature is what makes this Psalm be termed an “acrostic” Psalm to highlight how the author used a commonly used word or device (such as the alphabet) to aid in reading or memorization. The first eight verses as they appear in the Hebrew text are depicted below with a rough translation to demonstrate this feature (which of course exists only in the Hebrew). Note how each line begins with the letter “aleph” (א)
1. 1 אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי־דָרֶךְ הַהֹלְכִים בְּתֹורַת יְהוָה׃ “Happy is the man who walks constantly in the Law of the Lord”
2 אַשְׁרֵי נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו בְּכָל־לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ׃ “Happy is the one who watches carefully his ways with all his heart and seeks Him diligently”
3 אַף לֹא־פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה בִּדְרָכָיו הָלָכוּ׃ “Indeed he will not make a habit of practicing badness in the ways of his walk”
4 אַתָּה צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד׃ “You have commanded your instructions to be kept with diligence”
5 אַחֲלַי יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֶּיךָ׃ Oh! If only my behaviors were in complete conformity with your statutes!”
6 אָז לֹא־אֵבֹושׁ בְּהַבִּיטִי אֶל־כָּל־מִצְוֹתֶיךָ׃ “Then I would never be ashamed! Cause me to pay closer attention to your commands”
7 אֹודְךָ בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב בְּלָמְדִי מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ׃ “For I want to honor you in right living and with a heart that is set to learn the guiding truths of your righteousness”
8 אֶת־חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר אַל־תַּעַזְבֵנִי עַד־מְאֹד׃ “I will keep your statutes, do not forsake me utterly”
The remaining 21 sections of eight verses each begin with their corresponding Hebrew letters, with Psalm 119:9-16 called bayt or beth (ב) because of each line beginning with a word that starts with that letter. In all each section proceeds accordingly through all 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet until the final section of Psalm 119:169-176, which is called the tav (ת) section.
2. The theological significance of David using the alphabet to compose Psalm 119
As we close out today’s post, I want to mention two particular significant theological doctrines that drive to the heart of this Psalm and demonstrate the character of scripture itself.
a. Divine Inspiration of the Bible
Two terms are vital to understanding the Biblical view of Divine inspiration: verbal inspiration and plenary inspiration. Dr. Norman Geisler defines both in his book: “A General Introduction to the Bible”, page 642-643:
Plenary inspiration – The doctrine that the inspiration and divine authority of the Bible are full and complete, meaning that they extend (equally) to every part of the scriptures
Verbal inspiration – The doctrine holding that the very words of the Bible are vested with divine authority and not merely the thoughts or the ideas
Scholars have sometimes taken those two terms and combined them together to form the descriptive statement: verbal plenary inspiration. When you look at Psalm 119, it represent the fullest and most complete statement on the Bible in the Bible (the “plenary part”). When you also take in consideration how the Psalm utilizes the Hebrew Alphabet, and the words of each line in the 22 divisions, that covers the verbalized part of the definition of Divine inspiration.
2. The Canon of Scripture
The 22 divisions of eight verses each structure Psalm 119 due to the use of the Hebrew Alphabet. Interestingly enough the Hebrew Canon of Old Testament Bible books lists 22 individually inspired pieces of literature. God in His providence chose to utilize the languages of Aramaic and Hebrew to divinely inspire the Old Testament that in each of those languages are 22 letter alphabets that would come to correspond to the same amount of books making up the Tanack or Hebrew Bible.
Whenever you think about how an alphabet of any languages functions to represent the full and complete literature of that language, the idea can be used to show how God’s words (the subject of Psalm 119) would had been for the Jews completely and exclusively in and through the boundaries of the Hebrew Canon. Later on of course the Canon of scriptures would come to include the 27 books of the New Testament. Praise be to God for His Word!