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Praising the Law through the Alphabet

Reading Psalm 119 over the Author’s Shoulder

Stephen Broyles


Psalm 119:1–5. Each of the lines begins with the first letter of the alphabet.


 Look up Psalm 119. In many editions of the Bible, you will find, at the head of every eight verses, one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and perhaps the name of the letter. These headings are not part of the Hebrew text, and many Bibles do not have them. They have been supplied to show that the psalm is a form of poetry called an acrostic.

Acrostic Poetry

Broadly defined, an acrostic is a composition, usually in verse, in which the initial letters of the lines (or last or middle letters or some such arrangement), taken in order, spell a word or phrase or follow the regular order of the alphabet. This last kind may be further described as an abecedarian, or alphabetic, acrostic.

Psalm 119 is an alphabetic acrostic. The first eight lines of the psalm all begin with the letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The next eight lines begin with beth, the second letter. And so on for 176 verses until we reach the end of the matter at the last tav. No wonder the psalm is so long. Each of the letters must have its turn.

The acrostic form is found in other ancient poems besides Psalm 119, both in and out of the Bible. The Akkadian wisdom poem sometimes called the Babylonian Ecclesiastes has a structure similar to Psalm 119. Each of the eleven lines of the twenty-seven stanzas begins with the same cuneiform syllable, and the acrostic spells: “I, Shaggil-kinam-ubbib, the conjurer, bless god and king”—where Shaggil-kinam-ubbib is the name of either the poem’s major character or, more likely, the poet himself.

Elsewhere in the Bible, acrostics which are complete or nearly so are found in seven more psalms,  in the poem in praise of the good wife in the last chapter of Proverbs, and in each of the first four chapters of Lamentations, bemoaning the overthrow of Jerusalem. The Book of Nahum begins as an acrostic, but the plan is not carried out to the end. Some enterprising scholar has even discovered that Psalm 4 contains an acrostic which, when read backwards, spells: “Unto a lamp for Zerubbabel.”

Why Bother?

Now why would a poet construct a poem on the acrostic principle?

It is sometimes suggested that the alphabetic structure was an aid to memory, although I doubt it. Countless ordinary people have memorized “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” or “Blessed Is the Man Who Walks,” or “O Lord, Who Shall Sojourn in Thy Tent,” or “Sing to the Lord a New Song”—none of them acrostics. But I had never heard of anyone who had memorized Psalm 119 until an alert young reader in Alabama informed me that James Clerk Maxwell had done so, by the age of eight, with the help of his mother. But even this proves not so much that Psalm 119 is easy to memorize as that there was little that Maxwell and his mother couldn’t do.

More credible is the suggestion that the alphabet was symbolic of completeness, and so alphabetic acrostics were composed to express one’s complete gratitude or praise, the complete virtue of the good wife, the complete grief of a man who saw Jerusalem overthrown, or, in the case of Psalm 119, complete devotion to the Law of God.

Alternatively the acrostic may be simply a tour de force with little meaning beyond the poet’s decision to construct one and his ingenuity in carrying the decision out. Poets have given us plenty of examples right on into modern times. The Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf (8th century a.d.) signed four solemn religious poems by working his name in Runic characters into the epilogue of each one. (They are St. Juliana, Elene, The Fates of the Apostles, and Part 2 anyway of the Christ.)

Sir John Davies (1569-1626) sang the praises of Queen Elizabeth I in twenty-six “acrosticke” poems on Elisabetha Regina. (Hymns of Astraea (1599).

Edgar Allen Poe, an inveterate cryptologist and puzzler, devised acrostics on the names of sweethearts, although the practice made it harder to reuse a love poem—young poets sometimes do this—by simply changing the dedication. But I have digressed.

In the Poet’s Workshop

The acrostic form is by nature limiting. Once you have committed yourself to it, you must see it through in spite of its difficulties. How would you, for instance, working in your own language, set about composing eight lines of verse on the topic of the Law of Moses, each beginning with the letter x?

That, of course, is the very task the writer has set for himself in Psalm 119. Can he carry it through successfully, with variety and unity, or must he resort to smoke and mirrors? Let us see.

The first stanza is on aleph. The word “happy” begins line one and is instantly repeated in line two. But since parallelism is the genius of Hebrew poetry, we let that pass. The other six words are varied: “also,” “you,” “that!” “then,” “I will praise you,” and the Hebrew direct-object sign, for which we have no English equivalent.

The next stanza, on beth, has the word “blessed” in v. 12, but we note with disappointment that the other seven lines all begin with the preposition b (“in” or “with”). As one scholar remarked, “The author has not sweated unduly over this.” (Luis Alonso Schökel, The Inspired Word, trans. Francis Martin (London: Burns & Oates, 1976)between pp. 177 and 215.)

Stanza three (gimel) has “open” twice and “even” twice; otherwise “deal,” “alien,” “wasted away,” and “rebuke.” This is not too bad.

With daleth we begin to wonder if he could not have thought up more words than three, for he has only used “weep,” “cling” (twice) and “way” (five times).

In the next stanza (on he) the psalmist decides to use a string of verbs which have been turned into causatives by means of the prefix hi-. At first thought this seems to be cheating, as if the author is too lazy to find h’s any better way. But the series of causative verbs does at least set up a kind of swinging rhythm: “cause me to know,” “cause me to understand,” “cause me to walk,” and so forth, until we end with a final flourish with “behold!” in v. 40.

Now in the sixth stanza our author meets an intransigent problem: aside from a handful of proper names, my Hebrew dictionary only has three entries beginning with waw. One is the ordinary prefix meaning “and,” another is a rare word for child, and the third is a specialized word for curtain hooks. The author does all he can do here and begins each verse with “and.”

With zayin he does better, using five different words in the eight lines.

For heth he finds eight different words, a fresh word heading each line: “portion,” “implored,” “thought,” “hurried,” “cords,” “midnight,” “companion,” and “loving-kindness.” We are left breathless and cry, “This is really good egg!”

In the stanza on teth we find the flat and somewhat disappointing word “good” four times. This looks like laziness again until we realize that not many words begin with teth. The author has done all one can do, unless one is prepared to work in references to ritual uncleanness, torn animals, and hemorrhoids.

Yod is another easy letter: lots of words begin with it. But after “hands,” “fear,” and “know,” our author is back on prefixes again. Come now! There are plenty of things yet to be said about the Law with yod-words: the one who despairs might look to the word of God; my soul dries up without God's decrees; praise God for the justice of his ordinances; day to day pours forth speech; able is the word of the Lord to teach!

Stanza eleven gives us eight solid words in kaph. Stanza fourteen gives us eight in nun, and our faith is restored in the author’s vocabulary. The two stanzas in between, however, mostly rely on prefixes again: l-, meaning “to,” and m-, meaning “from” or “than.” Stanza fifteen astonishes us with a clean total of eight sameks, including the technical term for lead oxide (v. 119: the refining and dross metaphor, which comes again in v. 140).

On ayin we have “do” twice and “therefore” in the last two lines of the stanza, but on pe and tsade we are up again to eight different words for each letter.

In the next three stanzas the repeated words stand, with only one exception, at the heads of parallel lines, and they make good poetry.

The final stanza, on tav, makes use of six verbs with the feminine prefix t-. Thus we come to the end of the alphabet and the end of our analysis. We are ready to make observations.

Variety and Unity

With respect to variety—The reliance on words with the same prefix seems at first to be taking the easy way. Further thought, however, shows that this is not so. The author is not simply lacking in vocabulary: he wants to do it like this. The acrostic principle has ruled that variety cannot be sought in the first letter anyway. When the author allows the prefix to stand for his acrostic letter, he opens up his choice of verb or noun to the entire alphabet again. This gives him a net gain in variety, not a loss. Reading the psalm in Hebrew we do not just think, “Oh. A bunch of causatives.” We read and hear the meanings of these causatives and are caught up in their cadence and power.

With respect to unity—The psalm’s unity was never in doubt: almost every verse mentions the “statutes” or “precepts” or “commandments” of God. The psalm does not, however, unfold according to any logical plan. The acrostic pattern has ruled out sequential thinking: who can keep track of logic when he has it as his first order of business to find zayins and yods? But with plodding doggedness (we must admire him for this) the poet toils through the alphabet, weaving an arabesque of words without linear development or train of thought, seeking only to praise the word and law of God.

Additional Notes

The Babylonian Ecclesiastes may date from as early as 1000 b.c., although the oldest copies are no earlier than the seventh century b.c. Part of it is printed as “A Dialogue about Human Misery,” trans. Robert H. Pfeiffer in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James. B. Pritchard, 3d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 438-40. The complete text and translation may be found as “The Babylonian Theodicy,” in W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford, 1960), 63-89.

Besides Psalm 119, other acrostic poems in the Psalter are Psalms 9-10 (a single psalm, wrongly divided), 25 (a lament), 34 (a song of thanksgiving), 111 (a song of praise), 37 and 112 (wisdom psalms), and 145 (a hymn).





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