Hearing Psalm 119 as an English Acrostic

Psalm 119 is famous as the longest chapter in the Bible. Not many of us really read it right through in one single sitting as we usually do the rest of the Psalms. And if we are honest we are less than familiar with most of its content too. Verse 105 is the best known: ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path’.  After all, Psalm 119 is also pretty repetitive ⁠– stuck in a single groove as people used to say in the days of gramophone records. It is an extended meditation hammering away its celebration of the value of God’s way for his people which God has set out in his commandments (laws/statutes/promises/words/precepts/rules/testimonies etc.). 

Psalm 119 is organised in twenty-two sections of eight verses each made up of a pair of lines ⁠– 176 two-line verses in all. Twenty-two ‘stanzas’ because there are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the eight verses in each stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This one form of what is called an acrostic poem ⁠– a poem where the opening letters make up a word which is the subject of the poem. In Psalm 119 it’s not a word that is spelt out but the whole alphabet ⁠– running from Aleph to Tav, the first to the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is equivalent to A to Z in English and Alpha to Omega in Greek. Psalm 119 is not the only acrostic in the Bible: for example, there are twenty-two verses on the virtuous wife in Proverbs 31.10-31, also beginning Aleph to Tav, as well as acrostics in Lamentations and a number of other Psalms.

Before we had SatNav the best selling street maps of British towns were the A-Z series. Part of the message was: you can find every street with any name beginning with any letter in this street atlas. If the street exists you will find it in here. Now we use Google Maps. Psalm 119 has exactly the same message: God’s word covers the whole of life in every way. The experience of reading the Psalm all the way through in one gives you that sense of comprehensiveness: God’s ways are uniquely and comprehensively valuable in the life of faith. But the acrostic form that hammers this home is usually lost in English translation. Many modern bibles now indicate the alphabetic acrostic form by leaving gaps between each eight verse block and sometimes by putting a Hebrew letter heading above each of the twenty-two eight-verse sections. What does your version of the Bible do? These headings highlight the original form (tick) but they don’t reproduce the reading experience (cross).

In our weekly team prayers our devotional reading was a different Psalm each week through the autumn of 2020. For the week on Psalm 119 each person took one stanza of eight verses each and turned it into a English A-Z acrostic (cropping our alphabet down to twenty-two letters by leaving out letters like X). So Psalm 119.1-8 were to begin with letter A; verses 9-16 with B; 17-24 C and so on. We’ve reproduced the combined results here. It’s long. It took us well over ten minutes to read out to one another at the end of our prayers together. The result is an attempt to get across a little of the reading experience of the original and to hammer home the comprehensiveness of the wisdom of God’s ways in his word. Try it out. If you can, at one sitting. Try to forget the awkwardness of some renderings (and the impressive slickness of some others!) and hear in it the word of the Lord.

1All those whose way is blameless are blessed,
    who walk in the law of lord!
2Approved are those who keep his testimonies,
    who seek him with their whole heart;
3Anyone who does no wrong,
    but walks in his ways,
4And you command your precepts
    to be kept carefully.
5Ah, that my ways may be steadfast
    in keeping your statutes!
6Among my detractors I will stand,
    having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
7Acclaiming you with an upright heart,
    I learn your righteous ordinances.
8As I keep your statutes,
    do not utterly forsake me.

9By what means can a young man keep his way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.
10Being wholehearted in my seeking,
    I still need your help to stick to your commandments!
11Building a store of your word in my heart
    helps ensure that I do not sin against you.
12Blessed are you, O LORD;
    teach me your statutes!
13Boldly my lips declare
    all the ordinances of your mouth.
14Before all the world’s riches,
    I value the way of your testimonies.
15Brooding on your precepts,
    I fix my eyes on your ways.
16Because I delight in your statutes,
    I will not forget your word.

17Cover me, your servant, with your abundant grace,
    so I can walk the way of your word.
18Clear my sight,
    let me see the beauty of your law.
19Caverns have been my resting place on earth;
    let me discover in them your commandments!
20Consumed with desire is my soul
    for your divine order every hour.
21Chastise the insolent and abominable
    who turn a blind eye to your decrees;
22Cease their scorn and contempt
    for me who keep them.
23Conniving swirls all around me from princes,
    but your servant will meditate on your statutes.
24Counsel and delight
    I find in your testimonies.

25Dust is the home of my soul;
    revive me according to your word!
26Divulging my ways to you meant that you answered me;
    teach me your statutes!
27Disclose to me the way of your precepts,
    and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
28Downheartedness makes my soul melt;
    strengthen me according to your word!
29Dispose of my false ways,
    and graciously teach me your law!
30Determined to take the way of faithfulness,
    I set your ordinances before me.
31Don’t let me be put to shame, O LORD;
    I cling to your statues!
32Deepen my understanding
    so that I can run in the way of your commandments.

33Every law you must teach me, O LORD,
    so that I can keep it all my life.
34Even my whole heart will observe your law,
    so give me understanding to keep it.
35Escort me on the path of your commandments,
    because I delight in it.
36Encourage my heart to look to your statutes,
    and not towards selfish gain.
37Encourage my eyes away from selfish things,
    and give me life in your ways.
38Everyone who fears you are your servants,
    fulfill your promises to them.
39Evade me from the disgrace I dread,
    because your laws are good.
40Every one of your precepts I long for!
    In your righteousness preserve my life.

41Fast your love is holding me,
    for you have saved me.
42Fiends have taunted me but I will answer,
    for I trust your word
43From my mouth take not the word of truth,
    for my hope is in your decrees.
44Forever I will keep your law,
    for ever and always
45Free I will walk,
    for I have sought your precepts
46From my mouth I will proclaim you before kings,
    I will not be put to shame,
47for I find my delight in your commandments,
    which I love.
    I will meditate on your statutes.

49God, I remember your word to your servant,
    in which you made me hope.
50Grief stricken, I find comfort in your word,
    that your promise gives life to me.
51God, I keep my face toward you and your law,
    though the arrogant deride me.
52Gladly I dwell on your ordinances of old;
    I take comfort in them, O LORD.
53Great resentment seizes me because of the wicked,
    those who forsake your law.
54God, your statutes have been my songs
    wherever I make my home.
55Gripping to your name and your law,
    I remember you in the night.
56Grace and blessing has fallen to me,
    for I have kept your precepts.

57Happy am I because you are all I need LORD;
    I have vowed to obey your laws.
58Have mercy on me because of your promise,
    because I am seeking after you.
59Humbly, I have reflected on my ways;
    in repentance I am turning to follow your ways.
60Hurrying, I am not holding back 
    from obeying your commands.
61However the wicked entangle me in their snare,
    I will not forget your law.
62Hymns of thanks I will sing to you at midnight,
    because of your wonderful laws.
63How I have befriended all those who fear you
    and follow your ways!
64Heaven and earth are full of your love;
    teach me your decrees.

65I consider your justice and goodness to me,
    according to your word.
66Instruct me in good judgement and wisdom,
    for I trust your commands. 
67I once was afflicted and went astray,
    but now I walk in step with your word. 
68In you and from you is all that is good;
    teach me your ways. 
69I keep your precepts with all my heart,
    though the godless spread lies about me.
70Insensitive and cold are their hearts,
    but I delight in your law. 
71It was good for me to be afflicted,
    so that I might learn your decrees. 
72It is better for me to depend on the law of your mouth
    than on all the deceptive riches of this world.  

73Judiciously have you made me;
    give me understanding also that I may learn your commandments.
74Joy will come to those who fear you and see me,
    because I have hoped in your word.
75Judgments from you, O LORD, are true,
    and I know that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
76Just as you have promised to your servant,
    let your steadfast love be ready to comfort me.
77Judge me not as I deserve, that I may live;
    for your law is my delight.
78Jeering is the reward for the godless, because they have subverted me with trickery;
    as for me, I will meditate on your commandments.
79Jointly, may those who fear you turn to me,
    that they may know your testimonies.
80Justify my heart, O LORD, in your statutes,
    that I may not be put to shame!

81Longing for your salvation,
    my soul hopes in your word.
82Looking for your promise with my eyes,
    I ask, “When will you comfort me?”
83Like a wineskin in the smoke I have become,
    yet I have not forgotten your statutes.
84Lengthening days question me: how long must I endure?
    When will you judge those who persecute me?
85Lawless, godless men have dug pitfalls for me,
    men who do not conform.
86LORD, your commandments are sure;
    they persecute me with falsehood; help me!
87Light is nearly extinguished; they have sought to end me,
    but I have not forsaken your precepts.
88Let your steadfast love spare my life,
    that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth.

89Maker of all, your word
    is firmly fixed in the heavens.
90Measureless bounty flows from you to all generations;
    the earth you established stands fast.
91Marching at your command,
    all things are your servants.
92Meditating on your law with joy
    sustains me in my affliction.
93Mindful of your precepts, I know
    that through them you have given me life.
94My God save me;
    for I have pursued your precepts.
95Mockers wait to destroy me;
    but I meditate on your testimonies.
96Measuring the limits of human perfection is easy,
    but your commandment is exceedingly broad.

97Never have I loved your laws more
    as I think on them through the day!
98Nefarious people lose out
    because your words are always in my mind.
99None of my tutors understand as much as me
    because I know your deeds.
100Nor can the elderly match my insights
    because I am obedient to you.
101Nimble are my steps to avoid eviL,
    and keep up with you.
102Nothing and no-one can tempt me
    from living out your instructions.
103Nectar is sweet to the bee,
    but your words are sweeter even than treacle tart!
104Numinous is the truth I receive from you;
    nauseous to me are the falsehoods of men.

105Only your word lights my feet
    and illuminates my path.
106Oaths I have sworn and confirmed,
    to keep your righteous rules.
107O LORD, I am severely afflicted,
    give me life according to your word!
108Offerings of praise I freely give you, O LORD;
    teach me your rules.
109Obstinately I hold onto your law,
    though I hold my life in my hands.
110Only your precepts keep me safe
    from the snares laid for me by the wicked.
111Overjoyed is my heart at your testimonies;
    they are my heritage.
112Ordered is my heart to perform your statutes,
    forever, to the end.

113People who are double-minded, I hate;
    but your law, I love.
114Protect me, LORD, my hiding place and shield;
    in your word, I hope.
115Prevent me not, you evildoers,
    from keeping the commandments of my God – be gone!
116Persist in your promise to me, that I may live,
    and let me not be put to shame in my hope!
117Protect me Lord and ensure
    that I love your commandments, by holding me up.
118Pretending won’t do – you despise those who reject your law,
    their clever schemes are futile.
119People who are wicked you count as rubbish;
    therefore I love your commandments.
120Perpetually trembling I come before you in fear,
    and I am afraid of your judgements.

121Quiet my fears, LORD, for I've tried my best to do the right thing, 
    so please don't leave me alone with those who put me down.
122Quickly come, for with you I know I'll be alright, 
    but with the arrogant I'll be squashed and trampled.
123Quench my thirst, I'm looking so hard for you because you've promised to be with me and you always keep your promises, 
    but I can't see you.
124Qualify your laws to me, teach me how to follow you and glorify your name, 
    show me by your love. 
125Questions haunt me, I want to serve you but there is so much I don't understand and so much I still get wrong, 
    give me discernment so I can understand. 
126Quick, LORD, now is the time to act, for you are holy and just and good, 
    and your laws are being broken. 
127Quantity loses meaning, 
    when your word in my life is more precious than anything else could be, so
128Quitting the darkness, I will follow where you lead, 
    and in you, I will find my life.

129Reading your statutes
    renews my obedience.
130Researching your word
    enriches the simple.
131Ravenous for truth,
    I long for your regulations.
132Regard me with grace,
    as you do for the righteous.
133Reinforce my resolve
    to resist all temptations.
134Remove all restrictions
    from keeping your rules.
135Reveal to me your radiance
    and teach me your requirements.
136Remorse overwhelms me
    when your laws are rejected.

137So righteous and pure are you, God,
    you always say what is right.  
138Statutes and decrees that are yours
    are righteous and steadfast.  
139Such is my passion for you,
    but others turn against you.  
140Stable and steadfast is your promise,
    it brings me deep joy.  
141Slight, small and insignificant am I,
    but I cling onto your Word.  
142Surely your righteousness will endure forever;
    Your Word will never fail.  
143Suffering and trouble are mine,
    but I find joy in your Word .
144Stories of you are always right,
    they give me wisdom and life itself.  

145Together with my whole heart I cry; answer me, O LORD!
    I will keep your statutes.
146To you I cry, save me,
    that I may observe your decrees.
147The day begins and I have already risen to cry for help;
    I put my hope in your words.
148To meditate on your promise,
    I am awake before each watch of the night.
149Take in what I say in your steadfast love;
    O LORD, in justice preserve my life.
150Tormenters with evil purpose are drawing near;
    they are far from your law.
151Though you are near, O LORD,
    and all your commandments are true.
152That you established your decrees forever,
    I learned a long time ago.

153View my affliction and deliver me,
    for I do not vacate your law.
154Vouch for me and vindicate me;
    give me vitality according to your promise.
155Villains venture far from salvation,
    for they do not value your statutes.
156Vast is your mercy, O LORD,
    give me vitality according to your justice.
157Vengeful adversaries of mine are many,
    but I do not veer from youR testimonies.
158Visualising the faithless is vile,
    because they violate your commands.
159Verify my love of your precepts!
    Preserve my vitality according to your steadfast love.
160Vitally, the verity of your voice is invariable,
    and every one of your virtuous ordinances endures forever.

161Without cause powerful people persecute me,
    but my attention is still captivated by your words.
162Wealth and treasure found by chance
    would give as much joy to me as your words.
163Wicked lies I hate,
    but your law I love
164When could I ever stop praising you
    for your righteous ways?
165Wretched worries will not weigh me down, because wonderful peace is possessed by those who love your law;
    nothing can make them stumble.
166Waiting faithfully for your salvation is my only hope, O LORD,
    while I keep your commandments.
167With my inmost being I keep your testimonies,
    I love them very much.
168Wholly I obey your precepts and testimonies,
    for all my ways are before you. 

169Yelling from me will pummel your ears, O LORD;
    give me understanding according to your word!
170Yearning from me will enter your ears;
    deliver me according to your word.
171You teach me your statutes,
    so my lips will pour forth praise.
172Your commandments are right, every one of them,
    so my tongue will sing of your word.
173Your hand is ready to help me,
    for I have chosen your precepts.
174Your salvation is what I long for, O LORD,
    and your law is my delight.
175Your praise is what my soul lives for,
    with the help of your ordinances.
176Your servant has gone astray like a lost sheep;
    seek me, for I do not forget your commandments.