The Poetry of Psalm 119

Monday, January 11, 2016

This month my daily devotions include readings from Psalm 119. Aside from its spiritual value, which is uppermost, it is a fascinating piece of poetry. And since this is a writing blog, it’s the poetic symmetry that I’m going to address here.

Did you know that Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two sections of eight verses each? But that’s only the beginning of the psalm’s grace and balance. Each of the sections is labeled with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, arranged in alphabetical order. And even though the English translations don’t work out this way, apparently each verse within the section begins with the Hebrew letter that identifies it.

Another part of the symmetry is the word choice. Almost every verse contains at least one reference to God’s own words, and each section varies the synonyms used within it. Verses 145-152 are a good example. Here they are from the New International Version, with my emphasis.

145I call with all my heart; answer me, O Lord,

    and I will obey your decrees.


146I call out to you; save me

    and I will keep your statutes.


147I rise before dawn and cry for help;

    I have put my hope in your word.


148My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,

    that I may meditate on your promises.


149Hear my voice in accordance with your love,

    preserve my life, O Lord, according to your laws.


150Those who devise wicked schemes are near,

    but they are far from your law.


151Yet you are near, O Lord,

    and all your commands are true.

152Long ago I learned from your statutes

    that you established them to last forever.


This list shows the synonyms used in the NIV.

·         law/laws

·         statutes

·         ways

·         precepts

·         decrees

·         commands

·         word/word of truth

·         promise/promises

I can’t read Hebrew, and translations are always tricky because they can’t pick up all the nuances in the original. We also don’t know whether the Psalm was written by one person or by a group of collaborators working under similar instructions. God inspired every word in the Bible, but unless He dictated it, Psalm 119 could not have been easy to write.

It’s a masterpiece in English, but think how magnificent it must be in Hebrew.

If only I could read it that way.


The Hebrew letters on the scroll spell Psalm 119. At least I hope they do, since I copied them from the untrustworthy Internet. I used the symbol feature on Word to type the letters from left to right as they appeared to this reader of English, but they came out backwards. Obviously, Word knows Hebrew a lot better than I do. It typed the letters from right to left, as Hebrews is written, and I had to put my mind in reverse to get them to come out correctly.


Peter said...

True indeed! Another really interesting thing about Hebrew poetry is its common statement-restatement or statement-antithetical statement characteristics.

Thanks for a helpful piece!

Lucy said...

Kathryn... you can translate any language to any language at the following website:

Post a Comment