The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 119

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 11, 2012


THIS psalm consists of twenty-two stanzas, or strophes, of eight verses each. The stanzas are so constructed that all the verses in each begin with the same  letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the letters follow in the psalm the order of that alphabet. There are, thus, in all twenty-two strophes. That there are eight verses in each strophe is due, probably, to the circumstance that the Law was known familiarly under eight chief designations (many, or according to David Muller, all, of which are used in the remarkable hymn on the Torah in Ps 19:8ff.). These epithets, or designations, were ‘imrah (utterance), dabhar (word), hukkim (precepts), miswoth (commands), mishp’tim (judgments), ‘edhoth, (testimonies), pikkudhim (behests), Torah (Law, instruction). These eight epithets all actually occur in several stanzas of the psalm, and it is possible (and, according to some authorities, even probable) that in the primitive text of our psalm all these eight names of the Law occurred in every stanza.

Though the psalm is so long, its alphabetical arrangement and the grouping of each strophe around standing epithets of the Law made it suitable for learning by heart. Verse 9 has been taken as suggesting that Ps 119 may have been used as a sort of Vade mecum for young Israelites. There are few continuous passages in the psalm, and there is no definite progress of thought either in the poem generally or within the individual stanzas. Though the psalm may have been intended as a sort of brief manual of Hebrew piety and philosophy for young Israelites, it is composed from the point of view of the nation, not from that of the individual. It is obviously not against any private Israelite, but against the nation, that princes rise up in hostility (Ps 119:23, Ps 119:161): only the nation could be spoken of as almost annihilated in the land (Ps 119:87); it is the nation Israel that is poor and despised (Ps 119:141), that wanders in the world like a lost sheep (Ps 119:176). Of Israel, rather than of any individual, was it true that the Law kept it alive (Ps 119:73)—for it was the Law that maintained the separate individuality of Israel during the Exile. In its Law the Hebrew people generally had a deeper and truer philosophy, and theory of life than any that was known to the Gentiles (119:98-99)—and it was the conciousness of possessing the truth on fundamental matters that gave the nation courage to speak without fear before the heathen kings who oppressed it (Ps 119:46).

The psalm represents Israel as having endured much mockery and many other trials (verses 22, 25, 28, 39, 41, 49, 83-86, 92, 107, etc.). While the foes of Israel appear mostly as heathens (Ps 119:95, Ps 119:109-110, etc.), there are among them also renegade Jews (Ps 119:21, Ps 119:53, Ps 119:113, Ps 119:115, Ps 119:118, Ps 119:126, Ps 119:139, etc.). The Jew living in the midst of a Gentile community was of necessity a marked individual. His beliefs and practices cut him off largely from intercourse with his Gentile contemporaries, and earned for him frequently their mockery and contempt. It is well known that in the Hellenistic period, many Jews were induced, partly by the desire to escape the mockery of the Gentiles, and partly by the attractiveness of heathen philosophy, to abandon their national beliefs, and join the Gentiles in mocking the strict followers of the Law. Such backslidings among the Jews did not begin, we may be sure, in the Hellenistic period; they must have been as old as the first extensive contact of Judaism with forms of Western thought. The author of this psalm was fully alive to the dangerous attractiveness of heathen speculation for his Jewish brethren, but he himself has nothing but contempt for heathen teachers (Ps 119:99). For him the Torah of Yahweh is the highest thought—in depth and beauty far beyond all merely human philosophy; and he proudly declares his unwavering allegiance thereto. The vehement and well-informed Hebrew thinker who composed this enthusiastic defence and glorification of the Law was, in all probability, moved to write it by the encroachments of heathen thought among the Jews; and we can well imagine how industriously the psalmist’s associates and the strongly nationalist Jews of later times must have used the words of this poem to arm their young countrymen against the seductions of foreign thought.

3 Responses to “Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 119”

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