The average length of a chapter of the Bible is a bit more than 26 verses. Thus, Psalm 119 really stands out with its remarkable length of 176 verses. It is also one of the most quoted books of the Bible, with its compact messages of devotion and trust. But in addition to these distinctions, it also has one of the most interesting structures of any writing in the Bible. When rendered in the original Hebrew, the first eight verses of Psalm 119 appear as follows:
אַשְׁרֵ֥י תְמִֽימֵי־דָ֑רֶךְ הַ֜הֹֽלְכִ֗ים בְּתוֹרַ֥ת יְהֹוָֽה
אַשְׁרֵי נֹֽצְרֵ֥י עֵ֜דֹתָ֗יו בְּכָל־לֵ֥ב יִדְרְשֽׁוּהוּ
אַף לֹא־פָֽעֲל֣וּ עַוְלָ֑ה בִּדְרָכָ֥יו הָלָֽכוּ
אַתָּה צִוִּ֥יתָה פִ֜קֻּדֶ֗יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֥ר מְאֹֽד
אַֽחֲלַי יִכֹּ֥נוּ דְּ֜רָכָ֗י לִשְׁמֹ֥ר חֻקֶּֽיךָ
אָ֥ז לֹֽא־אֵב֑וֹשׁ בְּ֜הַבִּיטִ֗י אֶל־כָּל־מִצְוֹתֶֽיךָ
אֽוֹדְךָ בְּיֹ֣שֶׁר לֵבָ֑ב בְּ֜לָמְדִ֗י מִשְׁפְּטֵ֥י צִדְקֶֽךָ
אֶת־חֻקֶּ֥יךָ אֶשְׁמֹ֑ר אַל־תַּעַזְבֵ֥נִי עַד־מְאֹֽד
Look carefully at the first character on each line. What do you notice?
Nothing? Oh! Did we forgot to mention that Hebrew is written from right to left? So, the first character of the line is on the right. Now do you see it? Yes, each line begins with the exact same character א. That’s aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Similarly, in the Hebrew text, the next eight verses begin with beth, the next letter of the alphabet, then eight verses beginning with gimel, and so forth through all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. That alphabetic subtlety is, of course, lost in translation. So, in most modern English translations each block of eight verses carries the heading: ‘Aleph’, ‘Beth’, ‘Gimel’, ‘Daleth’, etc. (Some translations, such as the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version don’t include that notation.)
This kind of literary device is called an acrostic: a literary work in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, a message, or (in this case) the alphabet. Acrostic writing is sometimes used in modern times to conceal hidden messages (disgruntled authors have been known to use this device to embed insulting messages in otherwise innocuous documents, and a famous physicist once used it to playfully embed the lyrics for On Wisconsin in one of his major papers). It’s also not uncommon for children’s books and poems to employ alphabetical acrostics – a device which combines both entertainment and education for those learning the alphabet. In the case of Psalm 119, the anonymous author probably wished to emphasize the ‘A-Z’ completeness of his devotion and trust in God.
Psalm 119 is not the only acrostic writing in the Bible – there are said to be thirteen examples of acrostic poems, all in the Old Testament. In addition to Psalm 119 there are six other acrostic psalms (25, 34, 37, 111, 112, and 145). Similarly, Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic paean to the ‘excellent wife’ where each verse begins with the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Portions of Lamentations are also written in acrostic style. However, Psalm 119 is the most elegant and elaborate example of acrostic writing with its 22 stanzas of eight verses, each verse beginning with the designated character. For the other instances, there is typically no indication of the acrostic text in our English Bible translations – so you’ll have to learn to read Hebrew if you want the full flavor!
Why should we care about this? The most obvious reason is to satisfy our curiosity about why the verses of Psalm 119 are arranged in eight-verse blocks in many English translations and given those cryptic headings. But it also causes us to think about how God employs the unique talents and circumstances of the Bible’s human authors while inspiring them to convey His Word of Truth to us. You see, the Bible’s authors were not ‘robots’ programmed to write God’s words as they were dictated, but rather thinking human beings whose varying skills and perspectives the Holy Spirit masterfully employed to faithfully convey the truths He put in their hearts. Thus, in the masterpiece of Psalm 119, we can appreciate both the assurance of God’s timeless truths, yet also marvel at the skill and artistry of the human author through whom God chose to teach them. So too, we can draw confidence that even in such limited beings as ourselves, God is also using our unique talents and experiences for His eternal purposes.