As is well known Psalm 119 is written as an alphabetic acrostic in Hebrew with every line of each section beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in turn.
When Ronald Knox produced his (rather wonderful) translation of the Bible he translated Psalm 119 as an acrostic in English.
His version is in ‘traditional language’ but I have created a contemporary language version of his work which you can find on a webpage I’ve set up to provide resources for the Daily Office: Company of Voices Documents (scroll to the very bottom of the page for the folder labelled Psalm 119).
It has to be said that Knox’s version and even more so my modernised form of it, is not great poetry but you may find it of interest.
PSALM 119 – an essay
Which is your favourite psalm?
A group of writers contributing to a collection of essays on psalms scholarship in 2005 chose: 104, 91, 1, 63, 73, 85, 113, 103, 90, 131,98, 57, 113 (again), 103 (again), and 73 (again). (Johnston and Firth, 2005, opening pages). No one chose Psalm 119.
For centuries Psalm 119 nurtured the prayer of those who prayed the Divine Office, providing in its daily recitation (at Prime, Terce, Sext and None) a fixed anchor, a place of safety, a true refuge to return to from the rigours of daily ministry in whatever situation Christians found themselves. In Common Worship: Daily Prayer, there is encouragement to ‘break the day’ with pauses for ‘Prayer During the Day’ and perhaps even to experiment with punctuating the day more often with moments of prayer.
Psalm 119 is, I believe, a prayer of contemplation and obedience. It will develop in those who pray it a simple dependence on God in every moment of life. Unlike other, more popular psalms this Psalm does not catch our emotions or grab our enthusiasm. It is familiarity that will develop fondness and recognition of depth. A depth which Saint Augustine of Hippo writing about this psalm described as a “profundity, which few can fathom” (Boulding 2003, p.342).
Describing the effect of plainsong hymns the editors of a collection of hymns for the Daily Office write, “The contents are unlikely to transform minds and ears on first acquaintance. They are intended to grow in strength and meaning through regular use.” (Harper, 1996 p. x). The same might equally be said of Psalm 119. It is my hope that this essay will encourage the reader not simply to make the acquaintance of this, the longest palm, but to make of it a deep and dear friend, a companion for every day.
Psalm 119 uses eight synonyms for tora, this table shows the Hebrew in the left hand column and the translation of these in Eaton and in the modernised version by Ronald Knox:
tora – law – Teaching
dabar – word – Word
imra – promise – Promise
mispatim – judgements – Judgements
chuqqim – statutes – Statutes
mishvot – commandments – Commandments
‘edot – testimonies – Stipulations
piqqudim – precepts – Precepts
Every verse of the psalm except v. 122 contains one of these. Although this verse contains the word, tov, good, which itself encompasses tora for the pious (see Davis, 2001 p.336 in footnote). Some scholars believe that an original version of the psalm had these synonyms circulating in an ordered pattern within the alphabetical sections. Accordingly they make the (22) changes to the text necessary to re-construct this. It may certainly be the case that scribal error has led to the loss of such a pattern. It is also true that such a pattern would add to the sense of order and the contemplative, rhythmic pattern of the psalm. However, in this version the received order has been maintained as that which takes the ‘canon’ of the psalms seriously. It is also the case that poetry very often breaks the ‘form’ which has been adopted, although this is normally done purposefully and it is not immediately obvious what the disrupted pattern tells us.
It seems to be futile to try and identify a forensic distinction of meaning in the eight tora synonyms. Rather, they suggest, like the acrostic nature of the poem a sense of wholeness in God’s tora; all law, all teaching comes from God. It is particularly important as Christians reading this psalm to escape a stereotyped view of tora as a set of laws or regulations. Tora here, and generally, has a far richer meaning. In many ways this can be reached by identifying Jesus as the divinely revealed tora, the living Word or logos. Brueggemann describes the Psalter’s commitment to tora as: “the acceptance of Yahweh as the horizon of life … a matter of joy, comfort, and well-being.” (Brueggemann 1997 p.445).
Eaton is even more explicit in this:
“the remarkable fact remains that none of these psalms (1, 19 and 119) gives a specification or an example of such Scripture [Deuteronomy or the Pentateuch] . No document is mentioned, no command is cited. The centre of interest thus remains the Lord himself, and the relation to him. The warm devotion centres in the fact that he teaches, guides, commands and promises, and thereby in mercy and faithfulness bestows life. The form of the revelation remains open, ‘exceeding broad’ (119:96).” (Eaton, 1995, p.52).
The Place of Psalm 119 in the Book of Psalms
Psalm 119 can, then be characterised as a psalm of ‘Tora Piety’ (Bruegemann 1997). It is this focus on tora that is the key to understanding the location of the psalm in the Book of Psalms and provides a key to two further themes of Tora.
Whereas at the beginning of the twentieth century scholarship was engaged in the process of identifying the form and genre of individual psalms, the end of that century and the beginning of this has resulted in scholarship that takes seriously the shape of the biblical book as a whole (sometimes called ‘canonical criticism, see for instance the essay by David M. Howard in Johnson and Firth, 2005). The work of James L. Mays (1987) and Gerald H. Wilson (1985) has been particularly important in this area. What they have attempted to show is that the final putting together of the Psalter included the careful placing of the tora psalms, 1, 19 and 119. Psalm 1, in particular, sets the tone for the whole Psalter. Its reference to the ‘way’ is significant in a reading of Psalm 119 and its first and final verses.
Canonical scholarship has drawn attention to the relation between tora psalms and the royal or kingly psalms. Psalm 2 (which may originally have begun the Psalter or at least one version of it) establishes the role of the king. By placing Psalm 1 before it, the king is not totally eclipsed but is set in relation to tora, a relation that firmly puts divine tora above anointed kingship. Psalm 19 stands in similar relation to the psalms around it (18, 20 and 21) and Psalm 119 follows the ‘Individual thanksgiving’ (probably of the king) of Psalm 118. With its majestic length Psalm 119 also dominates this last section of the Psalter standing as it does at its centre (Creach, 1996p.102). It shows tora providing the lead into the songs of ascent and the doxological conclusion of the book. Creach describes tora-piety as “the view of tora as a kind of refuge directs a way of depending on Yahweh.” (1996 p.102) and he draws attention to the relationship to Psalm 94: 12-13 in seeing tora as ‘a source of comfort, protection and security’ and to Psalm 147: 19-20 at the end of the Psalter.
Psalm 119 as a Prayer of Christians
Jesus said, “I am the Way, the truth and the life.” (Jn 14:6). No one familiar with the psalms could fail to notice that Jesus is declaring himself to be the living Torah. Jim Cotter in his ‘unfolding’ of the Palms uses the phrase “Follow the way, the truth, the life.” as the refrain for the first section of Psalm 119 (Cotter, 2006 p.352).
The following table shows the verses in the psalm where these three self-descriptions of Jesus are used:
WAY 1, 3, 14, 26, 33, 35, 37, 59, 102
TRUTH 43, 63, 96, 140, 142, 151, 160
LIFE 27, 40, 50, 64, 93, 107, 113, 144, 149, 154, 156, 159
Even more significantly the psalm begins and ends with a reference to the ‘way’ in a form of rhetorical inclusio. For Christians, the final verse reminds us of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep.
Very obvious to anyone familiar with the Greek version of this Psalm who read or heard the opening of John’s Gospel would be the resonance of Jesus as Logos, the eternal Word. Linked no doubt to the Hebrew dabar, the word of God, and found in our psalm in the following verses:
9 But how can a youth remain unstained?
by guarding his path according to your Word.
16 Basking with delight in your Statutes,
I never forget your Word.
17 Come make repayment for your servant,
that I may live according to your Word.
25 Deep lies my soul in the dust,
restore life to me, according to your Word.
28 Despairing my frame sags;
according to your Word build me up.
42 Fit answer for those who taunt me,
that I rely on your Word.
43 From my mouth do not remove the true Word
in your Judgements lies my hope.
49 Go not back on the Word you have pledged to your servant;
there lies all my hope.
50 Good news in my affliction,
your Word has brought me life.
65 In fulfilment of your Word,
Lord, do good to your servant!
67 l went astray before I had answered,
but now I keep your Word.
74 Joy be theirs, who fear you,
to see the confidence I have in your Word.
81 Keeping watch for your aid, my soul languishes,
yet I trust in your Word.
82 Keeping watch for the fulfilment of your Word,
my eyes languish for comfort still delayed.
89 Lord, the Word you have spoken
stands ever unchanged as heaven.
101 Mindfull of your Word,
I guide my steps clear of every evil path.
103 More appetizing is your Word;
than sweetness to my taste.
105 No lamp like your Word to guide my feet,
a light on my path.
107 Nothing, Lord, but affliction;
preserve my life according to your Word.
114 Other defence, other stronghold, have I none;
in your Word I trust.
130 Revelation and light your Word
discloses to the simple.
133 Rule my path by your Word;
never let wrongdoing be my master.
140 Servant of yours, I love your Word,
tested and found true.
147 Toward you at dawn I looked and cried for help;
for your Word I waited.
160 Unchanging truth is your Word’s fountain-head,
your Judgment is just.
161 Vexed by the causeless persecution of the corrupt,
my heart fears only your Word.
162 Victors rejoice not more over rich spoils,
than I in your Word.
Over the centuries Christians have found many ways to Christianise the psalms. Antiphons or refrains are one way of doing this, as are psalm-prayers prayed at the end of whole psalms or sections of psalms – both of these are provided in Common Worship: Daily Prayer. A way of praying this psalm as a Christian is to substitute the name Jesus for each of the synonyms for tora that are found in the psalm.
Here is section 20 amended in this way:
153 Under affliction see me and rescue me,
for I have not forgotten Jesus.
154 Uphold my cause, and deliver me;
true to Jesus, grant me life.
155 Unknown your mercy to the sinner
who do not study Jesus.
156 Unnumbered, Lord, are your blessings;
according to Jesus grant me life.
157 Under all the assaults of my oppressors,
I keep true to Jesus.
158 Unhappy I looked at the faithless
because they did not keep Jesus.
159 Up, Lord, and witness the love I bear Jesus;
in your kindness preserve my life.
160 Unchanging truth is your Word’s fountain-head,
Jesus is just.
This is a suggestion made by Patrick Henry Reardon in his commentary on the psalms. R.M. Benson (Father Benson of Cowley) in his masterful commentary on this psalm makes the same point:
“One may pray Psalm 119 as a psalm about Jesus Himself, each of the psalm’s testimonials to the law, the precepts, the commandments etc., referring to Him of whom the Law itself prophecies, and in whom it is fulfilled. Thus every line speaks of Jesus.” (Benson 1901, p. 238).
Psalm 119 in Christian Liturgy
In the western , Latin Church, Psalm 119 was used daily at the ‘little hours’, Terce, Sext and None and the first hour Prime. (The Rule of St Benedict set out a slightly different pattern of psalms for these hours and 119 was used only on Sundays and Mondays.) Thus for many centuries this psalm was the daytime psalm of Christians. Known, surely, by heart. Its use for this purpose perhaps suggested by the phrase in v. 164 ‘seven times a day’ and perhaps partly inspiring the seven hours of the Divine Office (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline – with the night vigil an eighth Office).
In 1911 the Romans Catholic Church revised its worship and issued a new Office Book (Breviary) with a radically different arrangement, leaving Anglican Christians to maintain the tradition of using this psalm during the day. Anglican religious communities (apart from those adopting the Benedictine pattern) did maintain this. Many used the book Hours of Prayer, edited by the Cowley Father E.J Trentholme. Other clergy used the Little Hours, and therefore, this psalm to supplement the Offices of Matins and Evensong in the Prayer Book. Fr Trentholme wrote of Psalm 119:
“Superficially this psalm may appear monotonous, owing to its constant repetition of the same thoughts in the simplest words, bare of all imagery. But many earnest hearts find it, on the contrary, an absorbingly satisfying utterance. Repeated daily for years, and known by heart throughout, it loses nothing of its freshness and reality.” (in an essay in Lowther Clarke, 1959 p.680).
The Greek and Russian Orthodox liturgies and those derived from them use the whole of Psalm 119 at the midnight vigil (suggested perhaps by the references to night in verses 55, 62 and 141).
In his study of the liturgy of Spain (the Mozarabic rite) before the Roman rite gained dominance, Graham Woolfenden shows how the Psalm was used almost daily at Vespers, especially in the late part of Lent. He surmises that “it was originally intended to accompany or reinforce an ancient catechetical instruction.” (Woolfenden 2000, p.24). With its emphasis on teaching and the ‘way’ to be followed it would, of course, be an excellent meditation for anyone preparing for baptism.
Ronald Knox (1888 – 1957)
Eton and Oxford-educated, was in many ways the quintessential Anglican clergyman. He was unusual in that after converting to Roman Catholicism in 1917 he became Roman Catholic Chaplain to the university having been earlier Anglican chaplain at Trinity College. One of four brothers he was the subject of a joint biography with them by his niece Penelope Fitzgerald. He wrote an autobiography and was the subject of a biography by Evelyn Waugh.
A writer of detective stories and radio plays (including one, a mock revolution in England that sparked a panic and may have inspired Orson Welles’ famous War of the World’s broadcast six years afterwards in 1936). Knox is credited with translations (Dalby, 1998 p.23) in the influential Anglo-Catholic Anglican Missal still used in its traditionalist parishes in the United States. His deep familiarity with the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible are apparent in his translations of the Vulgate Bible. The New Testament was produced in 1945 and the Old Testament in 1950. It is a remarkable achievement for one person. Sadly these translations were quickly superseded by the many modern translations and are today rarely used. The exceptions are the book of Wisdom, the letter to the Galatians and parts of the letter to the Romans; Knox’s versions of these are used in the Roman Catholic Daily Office in the edition authorised in England and Wales and elsewhere. Knox gives a full account of his work on the Bible in his book On Englishing the Bible (1949), describing the task as nine years ‘hard labour’.
An acrostic psalm is one which uses the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order. Acrostics occur as follows:
Psalm 9 2 verses for each of the 22 Hebrew consonants
Psalm 10 2 verses each
Psalm 25 1 verse each
Psalm 34 1 verse each
Psalm 37 2 verses each
Psalm 111 # verse each
Psalm 112 # verse each
Psalm 119 8 verses each
Psalm 145 1 verse each
Additional acrostics can be found in Lamentations and Proverbs.
It can be seen at once that Psalm 119 is the most ambitious of the acrostic psalms in the Psalter with its eight line sections. Ronald Knox prefers to use the word abecedarian (Knox 1949 introductory page) and this has a pleasing Anglo-Saxon quality to it.
Few attempts have been made to capture the acrostic patterns in the psalms. Knox’s version is the only one I know in English that has attempted to do this consistently. Eaton provides an example of one section of Psalm 119 (Eaton, 1984 p.16). And he writes that the nineteenth-century German scholar, Delitzsch, did so in his German translation (Eaton, 1995 p.17).
Obviously using an acrostic pattern imposes limitations on the writer. This is probably what has put off translators from adopting it. In the translation provided here, clumsy sentence constructions have had to be adopted at times. Occasionally the two halves of a verse have been reversed (e.g. v. 54) in order to provide an alphabetically appropriate word. Another technique that Knox used was to turn a statement into a question (see vv. 59 and 169). However, it should not be thought that the Hebrew author of Psalm 119 was immune to such tactics. In his translation and notes on Psalm 111 Dahood points out (and reproduces in his English translation) that “Such a pattern naturally requires some inversion of word order.” (Dahood 1970, p.122).
An additional problem for the Hebrew writer was that the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, vav, is never the first letter of a word. It does, however, when added to the beginning of a word mean ‘and-‘. Thus the seventh section in Hebrew has every verse beginning with ‘and’. In Eaton’s view “This gives a rather flowing sequence of thought, from God’s faithfulness to the disciple’s trust, and so to spaciousness, delight and thankfulness.” (Eaton 1995, p.417).
It is sometimes suggested that acrostic patterns are adopted to aid memorisation, if that is the case with shorter psalms it can hardly be so with this psalm and its 176 verses. In fact, it is more likely, and more in keeping with the theme of the psalm that it is intended to show the completeness of God’s Torah. A sort of A-Z of living.
In this adapted version of Knox’s translation it is the English alphabet rather than a phonetic version of the Hebrew that Knox utilises. As an indication of the skill and ability he brought to the task it is worth pointing out that in my modernising of his work of the 176 verses only 24 are unchanged and of the 176 initial words 139 of Knox’s remain.
The foundation text for this translation is that made by Ronald Knox. Firstly, this text was modernised to remove ‘thee/thou’ forms and the accompanying verb endings. This was then compared with the translation by Mitchell Dahood (Psalms III, 1970). Where changes were made based on the work of Dahood the decision to make a change was established by consulting his extensive notes and the Hebrew text (British and Foreign Bible Society, 1982; Tehillim, Schottenstein edition , 2001 and Hebrew-English Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, 1999)
Dahood’s translation and commentary, in three volumes, is based on close linguistic study of the text. He bases much of his work on the Ugartitic language based in north-western Canaan in the period 1500-1000 B.C.E.. It was rediscovered on stone tablets in the 1940s and found to be of the same family as Biblical Hebrew. Study of it has given many insights into the meaning and etymology of Hebrew words, it also gives insight into the syllabic and stress structures of Hebrew poetry.
Dahood is sometimes criticized as too radical a re-working of the Hebrew text and he himself admitted that over the years he was working on the three volumes of the palms his view changed, although he asked that the third volume (in which our psalm is situated) be taken as the most authoritative (Dahood 1970, p.xvii).
Not all of Dahood’s changes have been incorporated into this version, when they seemed to make sense I used them, sometimes I did not. For example, Dahood locates unfamiliar divine titles in the text which have not been used in this version that is designed for Christian prayer.
Psalm 119 as Prayer of Contemplation
C.S. Lewis in describing Psalm 119 writes,
“ It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.” (Lewis 1961, p.119).
This psalm is not one for searching out in moments of intense devotion, joy or desperation; it is a psalm for every day, a psalm of ordinary daily life – one of the reasons why it is so suitable for praying during the day.
John Eaton sums up the contemplative quality of the psalm in a magnificent manner rarely found in the dry world of biblical scholarship:
“Apart from the introductory vv.1-3 and from v.115 the rest of the 176 verses directly address God. Meditation, involving recitation of sacred words and the name of God is mentioned frequently (vv. 15, 27, 48, 55, 9 and 108). It is a pervasive orientation, a way of life, day and night (5,62, 97, 147-148 and 164). the rapturous delight it brings (14, 16 and 24) is the mystical awe and delight of contact with the Lord (120 and 131-132). It is the Lord himself who is the worshipper’s shelter and shield (114), and it is the Lord he would praise (175) and the Lord he asks to seek and save him (176). As in psalm 19, the closing words are especially significant. Brought near in the holy presence through the long meditation, the psalmist must speak of his frailty and forlornness: may the Lord seek and bring home his wandering sheep.
The alphabetic scheme and the rotation of synonyms take on more meaning from the contemplative purpose. The aid to memory, the sense of order and completeness, the dedicated skill here are valid appreciations of the acrostic. But there is more. From the letters which are the primal element of all utterance unfolds a yet richer alphabet of communion – from each letter in turn eight sayings that draw to God. It is precisely the ‘disjointed’ nature of the saying that is their strength, intentionally so. Each has its own completeness as a link to God, spokes in a wheel of communion. The various names for God’s healing word are told over and over again like beads on a rosary. They reveal new facets, like stones ever moved to new settings.” (Eaton 1997, p.51-52) .
Contemplation and meditation are much sought after in our time of endless busy-ness. The Jesus Prayer, mantras, breathing techniques are all used by Christians as means of prayer. And here at the heart of the Bible is already a way of contemplation hallowed by tradition for drawing near to God, “A rosary of love” (Foster 1947, p. 25).