A few summers ago, my friends Alice and Cindy and I went on holiday together. We spent a week driving and tramping and hitchhiking through Central Otago and Southland. As a way to record and summarise our adventures we took photos, marking each significant occasion or location with a letter of the alphabet. A for Arrowtown, F for Fiordland, I for Icecream, R for Rain, V for Voltaren. Sometimes we would make the letters using our bodies or other things we found lying around; old newspapers, home grown zucchini, props in shop windows. It was fun and memorable and encouraged us to be both creative and reflective with our time together. Because let’s be honest, holidays are great and it’s good to capture those moments, but holidays aren’t always great all of the time. Someone has to go grocery shopping, and long car rides can get tedious, and it can rain for 6 hours while you are making your way out of the bush with a big pack and a bruised knee. For us, some of these un-great, everyday elements of our holiday began to take on a new meaning as we sought collate them in a way we could remember.
Initially, I thought that an alphabet acrostic was a cheesy way to remember our holiday – even though I was the one who suggested it in the first place. It turns out that it gave us a framework with which to view the time we spent together in the South Island, both, in that present moment, and now, retrospectively. I will remember fondly that particular holiday with those particular girls for many years to come.
As cheesy as it may be, an alphabet acrostic is an effective way to capture an idea and remember it. Teachers and poets and psalmists have known this truth for a long time. An acrostic poem is a language tool, a teaching technique, and an excellent aid to memorisation.
The mother of all acrostics has got to be Psalm 119. At 176 verses it is the longest chapter in the Bible. This psalm has 22 stanzas, one for each consonant of the Hebrew Alphabet. These stanzas consist of 8 verses, each of which begins with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. Not only does the first line of the stanza begin with the letter, but each of the eight lines in the stanza begins with that one letter.And…each verse of the psalm, bar two, includes a synonym for the Hebrew word ‘Torah’. That is, on almost every line of the psalm you will find one of these words: law, word, ordinance, decree, precept, statute, command, promise.
Each is used as belonging to God: God’s law, God’s word, God’s command, God’s promise.
All things considered, Psalm 119 is one very comprehensive acrostic!
If we’re honest, it’s also a little daunting. How could one possibly be expected to memorise such an extensively thorough piece of literature? Albeit an acrostic which is meant to make memorisation easier rather than intimidating.
However, memorisation doesn’t appear to be the primary purpose of Psalm 119. The alphabetic, acrostic pattern is a very clever use of language, and seems to be ‘saying something about the very nature of language and the nature of God’s word.’ (Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher).
Hebrew language is very different from English, both in form and flow. It is not linear or logical in a way that we would expect, but instead follows a different rhythm and pattern. Rather than rhyming words and repeating sounds, a Hebrew poet rhymes and repeats ideas.
For example (taken from Worshipping with Children):
It is a beautiful day.
The sun is bright and there is not a cloud in the sky.
It is wonderfully warm and there is a pleasant breeze.
I wish every day were just like this one.
For the Hebrew poet who wrote Psalm 119 the idea that is being repeated over and over is the poets love for the Torah as a sure sign of the certain hope that God’s presence is with God’s people. He uses the alphabet as framework for creative and reflective expression.
Most scholars agree that this Psalm was written after the Israelites had been in exile. If this Psalm had been written prior to the exile it would have been all about the king or the monarchy or the temple. Before they were captured and carted away, the people of Israel put their hope and their trust in people and places because Kings and Castles were a symbol of God’s presence and provision. However, the King and the Temple became idols. They stopped pointing people to God and instead stood in God’s place. When the King and the Temple were destroyed the Hebrew people were forced to discover a different way of understanding God’s presence with them. They had to go back to the beginning, when God spoke and the heavens and the earth were created. They went back to God’s word, God’s law, God’s Torah.
‘Torah’ is one of those tricksy words which is difficult to define, especially by someone who is not Jewish. Mostly commonly, ‘Torah’ is use to refer to the first five books of, what we call, the Old Testament, that is; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – the writings, the books, the law of Moses. The entire Old Testament can also be Torah, but it known as Tanakh, that is, the written Torah. Torah, can also mean the totality of Jewish teaching, culture and practice – both written and oral. Torah is instruction, offering a way of life to those who wish to follow it.
When the psalmist was writing his poem he would have been referring to the first five books of the bible – the Pentateuch – as the Torah. It may not have included the rest of the Old Testament because it may not have been written then, but for the psalmist, the Torah would have also included the other events of Jewish history and understanding as passed down through the oral tradition and cultural practice. And most definitely, the Torah was a way of life that brings you closer to God.
The psalmist loves God and loves God’s law. He says so over and over and over. This clever and comprehensive poem shows that the psalmist was actively engaged with his faith and these words are a creative expression of that faith. His creative work encourages and challenges us to consider how we engage with our faith, and how we can be diligent in a creative expression of that faith.
C.S Lewis wrote the Narnia stories as an allegory of the story of Scripture.
Michael Angelo painted the masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Handel composed Messiah.
What is our creative expression of our faith?
What is your creative expression of your faith?
For the writer of Psalm 119, his words are an expression of faith and an expression of love. For him the Torah is ‘a sure sign of promises made and love freely given.’ The Torah is like a wedding ring, a sign of a covenant between two parties marked by promise, commitment and love.
The Torah is more than a list of rules and regulations; it is also a way of living in covenant relationship with God. The Torah tells the stories of the Jewish people, their calling by God, their formation as a nation, their trials and tribulations, and their hope of restoration.
In the first five books of the bible we hear the stories of the covenants God made with Noah, Abraham, Moses and the tribe of Israel.
In the covenant with Noah, God promised to never destroy the earth and to protect all living things. In a way, this was a one sided covenant. There was no level of commitment required from Noah and his family. God made a promise, and the people lived in the assurance of that promise.
In the covenant with Abraham, God promised Abraham a large family and a land to live in. In response to God’s promise the commitment required by Abraham was that he would trust God and train up his family to do what right and just.
In the covenant with Moses God made a promise to the whole tribe of Israel, that they would grow into a nation, and would be a people who represented God to the rest of the world. In response, the Israelites were to commit to obeying the law God had given them, to live rightly and justly and honour God.
These three covenants are a part of the Torah which the psalmist so loves.
There is a fourth covenant, the one with King David. As I mentioned earlier, the remainder of what we know as the Old Testament, may or may not have been formalised into text by the time our psalmist was writing. Regardless, he would have known the stories of King David. How God had provided a King to lead his people, as a sign and a symbol of God’s presence among them.
God promised David that one of his descents would be king forever. This King will rule all people with justice and peace. In response, David was to commit to obeying the law, living rightly and justly and honouring God.
The language of covenant survived the destruction of the Israelite kingdom and was reinterpreted and understood as the coming of a messiah.
As we can see, for the psalmist ‘the Torah has become much more than the laws by which Israel should live’ (Nancy deClaisse-Walford), Torah has become a way of living in covenant relationship with God.
Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the bible, tucked away in the middle of the Wisdom writings, following a few history books and preceding the writings of the major prophets, with all its idiosyncrasies as an alphabetic, acrostic, repetitive poem. Here is a psalm which points to a future hope, to a Messiah who will come to rule with justice and peace, to Jesus who came not to abolish the law but to fulfil the law, to the Word of God made flesh who dwelt among us full of grace and truth.
Psalm 119 points us to Jesus. In him we encounter God’s covenantal promises, and the covenant commitments of humanity are fulfilled. In him a new covenant is established. In him, God’s word becomes incarnate, taking on a form that is seen and touched and known in a new way.
The embodied, incarnate Word of God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and as John tells us, there won’t be room in the whole world for all the books that will be written about him. You think 176 verses is long.
In conclusion, the writer of Psalm 119 loves God and loves God’s law – the Torah, which is the written and oral Jewish tradition. The Torah tells the story of the covenants God has made with humanity and gives guidelines on how to live rightly and justly with God and with one another. The Torah points us to Jesus – the one who fulfils the law. He fulfils the covenant promises because he is divine, and he fulfils the covenant commitments because he is human. God’s law is God’s Word, and Jesus is that Word made flesh. In Jesus we see that God keeps his word, God keeps his promises, God keeps his covenant. We are challenged and encouraged to do the same.