April 16, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Acrostic psalms and praise for God’s laws

John F. Fink(Tenth in a series of columns)

Eight of the 150 psalms in the Psalter are known as acrostic poems. That is, every line, or every verse, or every section begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, of which there are 22 letters. Perhaps Psalm 37 and Psalm 119 in your Bible show the letters of the alphabet above each of the sections but not all Bibles do.

Unfortunately, when they are translated into English, this literary device is unnoticeable.

Psalm 37 is one of the wisdom poems that I wrote about last week. Psalm 112 is another wisdom poem, but the acrostics begin with Psalm 111, which is a hymn, and continue in Psalm 112. Other acrostics are Psalm 145, a hymn; Psalm 25, a lament; and Psalms 9-10 and Psalm 34, thanksgivings.

Then there is Psalm 119, by far the longest psalm. Its 176 verses are divided into 22 sections or stanzas of eight verses each. Not only does each stanza begin with the successive letter of the alphabet, but every verse within each stanza begins with the same letter. Imagine how difficult it was to compose that psalm.

But that’s not all. Psalm 119 praises God for giving his laws and instructions on how we are to live. Each of the 176 verses includes a synonym for the word “instruction.” Our translation uses nine words for “instruction”—law, edict, command, precept, word, utterance, way, decree and teaching. Eight of those words are used in each of the 22 stanzas.

With all this attention to technique, it is remarkable that the poem still makes sense. But it does. It glorifies God for giving the Israelites the Torah, prays for protection from those who become angered at people’s fidelity to the law, and prays for wisdom to understand the various precepts.

One of the things missing, though, that you would expect to be there, is any reference specifically to the Ten Commandments.

Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, by the way, pray all 22 stanzas over the course of four weeks, but only one stanza at a time, during daytime prayer on weekdays.

One might wonder why the psalmists put so much emphasis on God’s laws. Don’t we usually think that following laws is onerous? Yet not only Psalm 119 but others also praise the laws. Psalm 19, for example, says that the law of the Lord “refreshes the soul,” “rejoices the heart,” is “more desirable than gold,” and “sweeter also than honey.” Do we really feel like that?

Perhaps the psalmists didn’t necessarily delight in obeying the law so much as in studying it, much as someone might say that he loved history, or math or English literature. This is what is meant, for example, in Psalm 119 under the Hebrew letter Mem (the 13th letter in the Hebrew alphabet): “How I love your teaching, Lord! I study it all day long. Your command makes me wiser than my foes, for it is always with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, because I ponder your decrees” (Ps 119: 97-99). †

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