Psalm 119:89-92 – Literary Analysis


Another paper for Hebrew Exegesis from last semester – speaks to the literary elements of Psalm 119:89-92

Introduction

This paper will analyze the literary elements of Psalm 119:89-92 such as genre, device, argument, and theme in order to provide vital information to the process of exegesis in preparation for preaching this text. The focus will not be on exposition, but rather on observing literary facets and a discussion of their exegetical significance.

The Genre of Psalm 119

In order to rightly classify Psalm 119:89-93 it is helpful to first make general observations from the whole chapter of Psalm 119. There are some unique aspects of Psalm 119 in that it is the longest poetic alphabet acrostic in Scripture as well as the longest of the psalms.[1] No one debates the poetic nature of Psalm 119, for it is patently obvious. But the agreement just about ends there. The main reason for the debate is because of the acrostic nature of the psalm. Many scholars devalue the acrostic as lacking the essential literary qualities of spontaneity and originality.[2] Others refer to the psalm as being without any “well-defined thought sequence.”[3] It is also because of the acrostic nature of the psalm that some knee-jerk and assume that this psalm is of the proverbial wisdom genre.[4] But a closer examination of the psalm reveals its form to be that of prayer.[5] The main polemic against Psalm 119 being classified in the wisdom genre is because the psalm has many instances of direct address to the LORD.[6] In addition, Ninety verses (over half of the total in this psalm) contain some sort of petition, or lament or both.[7] Some question this assertion and use the massive amounts of confessions of truth and proverbial statements in the psalm as proof that it either is some sort of hymn of praise or rather a psalm of mixed genre.[8] But, if the statements of truth about God and claims of personal faithfulness are viewed in context, they are seen rather to show the psalm to fall perfectly into the genre of individual lament.[9] Because the psalmist uses statements of truth intertwined with his claim to personal fidelity with God as the motive or the basis for his appeal to the Lord for help.

The exegetical significance of personal lament seen in this psalm cannot be overlooked, for it conveys an intensely personal nature to the psalm as a whole as well as a feeling of burning need and reliance on God. Also, the acrostic nature of the psalm shows that the psalmist desired to communicate his subject in a balanced and somewhat complete way,[10] and yet it provided him a place to stop, for, as seen profoundly in this psalm, his subject is inexhaustible.[11] Specifically in Psalm 119:89 it is important exegetically to note that this section of the alphabet acrostic serves as the middle of the whole psalm, being that lamed is the middle letter of the alphabet. This is clearly seen in the context by the major shift in thought at this point. The previous section, kaph focuses on extreme grief and sorrow and starting in verse 89 the psalmist shifts, moving from his own hardship into the heavens and the beginning of time where God is.[12] This shift shows the mind of the psalmist and his key to consolation, mainly the “godness” of God, the fact that he is, among other things, sovereign.

Literary Devices Employed

The first literary device that is clearly seen in Psalm 119:89-93 is complex parallelism between the first two lines and the third which specifies the preceding general statement. There are two general examples of God’s power shown through the longevity of his word as well as his faithfulness (vv. 89-90), and then a specific example of his authority in the fact that the earth is still in existence (end of v. 90).

In verse 91 there is simple parallelism stating a simple fact, and then that fact is explained by the second line, giving the reader the reason why all things stand. Verse 91 also functions in a complex parallelism relationship with verses 89-90, reiterating the general truth that God is all-powerful and sovereign.

Verse 92 uses explanatory parallelism where the second line explains what would occur if the first line was not true. Verse 93 also uses explanatory parallelism for the second line explains the reason for the actions in the first.

One idea that is repeated throughout this passage is “standing,” which is brought out by the two Hebrew words, עמד and נצב. It seems that the author is trying to display the characteristic of what God does, mainly that it is strong, that it lasts, that it stands.

Another repetition throughout this passage are words relating to the “law.” The whole of Psalm 119 uses eight “Torah” words throughout, and in this specific section דָּבָר,sמִשְׁפָּט, תּוֹרָה and פִּקּוּדִים are used.[13]

The pronoun “your” is repeated multiple times throughout the passage showing that the majority of these verses are directed personally towards the LORD in prayer.

Literary Argument

Some feel that there is really no argument within Psalm 119 and that you can read it in any order and there would really be no difference, but if the psalm is looked at holistically, it is possible to discern a clear argument, in that the psalmist holds the “law” as the basis for all his requests to the LORD. So in the beginning of the psalm, the psalmist shows his relationship to the law (vv 1-16), then moves on to lament his current condition (vv 17-48), followed by a reflection on his condition as well as reflection on past affliction (vv 49-80). The psalmist continues now coming to the central thought of his argument, going from the deepest despair (vv 81-88), to the highest and most firm realities of the beginning and that the LORD is from the beginning and therefore will triumph in the end, enabling the psalmist to rejoice in the midst of his intense trials (vv 89-120). The psalmist then goes on to develop his already elaborated thoughts seeing his affliction through the lens of the character of the LORD (vv 121-44). Proceeding in the last section (vv 145-176), the psalmist entrusts himself into the hands of the LORD, and waits to be found by the LORD.[14]

Now, after over viewing the argument of the whole of Psalm 119, the argument used in verses 89-92 is seen clearly. The psalmist basis his preservation on his delight in the law of the LORD which is from eternity, or more personally, he basis his preservation not on himself, but on God and therefore he finds strength and great hope in the midst of affliction.

Lexical Analysis

There are two words that are essential to understand in this passage. The first is תּוֹרָה and the second is עמד.

Word Study of תּוֹרָה

The first entry in the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament has this word as meaning “direction, instruction.”[15] While a more common translation is “law”[16] Koehler and Baumgartner assert that this word came to mean “law” after the “instruction” of God was established and this is reflected in the translation of the word in the Septuagint. Holladay also makes the assertion that “law” is the traditional translation.[17] The word is used 25 times in Psalm 119 and is used almost interchangeably with eight other terms (two of which are found in this passage, as stated previously), but this word is the first used as well as the most used of all.[18] It is possible to argue for a non-traditional translation of the term because of the “legalism” that many feel is correlated with the term, but because the psalmist, in his own context, would have been referring directly to the sum of obligations given to Israel through Moses by the LORD. This assertion is strengthened by the fact that תּוֹרָה is often used with two other words[19] כֹּל (meaning “all”)[20] and סֵפֶר (meaning “scroll”).[21] There is no indication that the poetic genre of this psalm alters the meaning of this word in any way.

Word Study of עמד

Both times this word is used in this passage it is in the qal which Koehler asserts as having a general meaning of “to stand in position.”[22] This definition is confirmed by Holladay[23] and Allen.[24] It only occurs twice in Psalm 119 (verses 90 and 91), but occurs 32 times in Psalms, the first being in verse one where it is used to refer to “standing in the path of sinners.” It is seen to be used as literally “standing” but also it is used in a figurative sense with abstract objects such as “’the fear of the LORD” (Psalm 19:9) in which case the New American Standard translates it as “enduring.” [25] In the psalms, an antonym is attributed to man, especially the wicked (נפל meaning “to fall”[26] is used 29 times). Therefore, while it is possible to translate עמד as “enduring” it seems that the word picture would be lost as well as the contrast – especially in this context because the text already asserted the eternal nature of the LORD’s word, and therefore it is not necessary to make the translation any more specific than it already is.


[1] Will Soll, Psalm 119: Matrix, Form, and Setting (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1991), 16.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Konrad Schaefer, Psalms, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 292.

[4] Ted A. Hildebrandt, “Proverb,” in Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament, ed. by D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 245.

[5] Soll, Psalm 119, 59.

[6] Ibid., 117.

[7] Ibid., 70.

[8] Ibid., 64.

[9] Ibid., 59.

[10] Hildebrandt, “Proverb,” 245.

[11] Soll, Psalm 119, 27.

[12] Ibid., 30-31.

[13] Ibid., 35-41.

[14] Ibid., 90-108.

[15] Koehler and Baumgartner, Lexicon, 1711.

[16] John E. Hartley, “תּוֹרָה,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols., electronic ed., ed. by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980), 1:403.

[17] Holladay, Lexicon, 388.

[18] Soll, Psalm 119, 35.

[19] Ibid., 37.

[20] Koehler and Baumgartner, Lexicon, 474.

[21] Ibid., 766.

[22] Ibid., 841.

[23] Holladay, Lexicon, 275.

[24] Ronald B. Allen, “עמד,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols., electronic ed., ed. by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980), 2:673.

[25] New American Standard Bible (La Habra: Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[26] Koehler and Baumgartner, Lexicon, 709.

Bibliography

Aland, Kurt et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, 4th rev. ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005.

Allen, Ronald B. “עמד,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:673. Electronic ed., ed. by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.

Barnes, Albert. Notes on the Old Testament; Explanatory and Practical. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1955.

Bowling, Andrew. “לוּלֵא.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 470. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.

Bridges, Charles. Psalm 119: An Exposition. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974.

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Elliger, Karl, and W. Rudolph, eds. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 5th ed. New York: American Bible Society, 1997.

Garrett, Duane A. A Modern Grammar for Classical Hebrew. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2002.

Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.

Hartley, John E. “תּוֹרָה,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:403. Electronic ed., ed. by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.

Hildebrandt, Ted A. “Proverb,” in Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament. 245. ed. by Sandy, D. Brent, and Ronald L. Giese, Jr. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995.

Holladay, William L. A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.

Keel, Othmar. The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997.

Kevin Cawley. “Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid.” University of Notre Dame Archives, http://archives.nd.edu/latgramm.htm [accessed on September 21, 2007]

Koehler, Ludwig, and Walter Baumgartner, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 4 vols. in 1. Electronic ed. Rev. by Walter Baumgartner and Johann Jakob Stamm. Trans. and ed. by M. E. J Richardson. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999, c1994-1996.

Lange, Johann Peter. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960.

Long, Gary A. Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Hebrew: Learning Biblical Hebrew Grammatical Concepts through English Grammar. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.

New American Standard Bible : 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.

Oswalt, N. John. “כָלַל.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 441. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.

Payne, J. Barton. “הָוָה.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 210. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.

Putnam, Frederic Clarke. Hebrew Bible Insert : A Student’s Guide to the Syntax of Biblical Hebrew. Quakertown, PA: Stylus Publishing, 2002

Sandy, D. Brent, and Ronald L. Giese, Jr., eds. Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995.

Schaefer, Konrad. Psalms. Berit Olam. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001.

Scott, William R. A Simplified Guide to BHS: Critical Apparatus, Masora, Accents, Unusual Letters & Other Markings. N. Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 1995.

Scroggie, W. Graham. The Psalms: Psalms I to CL. Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1965.

Soll, Will. Psalm 119: Matrix, Form, and Setting. Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1991.

Spurgeon, C. H. The Golden Alphabet of the Praises of Holy Scripture: Setting Forth the Believer’s Delight in the Word of the Lord ; Being a Devotional Commentary Upon the One Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm. London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1898.

Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). Electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Weber, Carl Philip. “וָ.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 227. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.

Zemek, George J. The Word of God in the Child of God: Exegetical, Theological and Homiletical Reflections from the 119th Psalm. Mango, FL: 1998.

4 Responses to Psalm 119:89-92 – Literary Analysis

  1. Simon says:

    Hi Nathan,

    I appreciate your analysis of Ps 119. I like Ps119 alot and I have been reading some resources on them. One of them is the excellent essay by Marcus Nodder in the link below. He gives detail analysis of Ps 119 that shows that there is alot of structural order, and the psalm as a whole is connected. You can check it out.

    http://www.churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_119_4_Nodder.pdf

  2. nathanwells says:

    Hi Simon,

    Glad it was helpful :) Thanks for the link – I’ll take a look for sure.

    Because He lives,
    Nathan

  3. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Psalm 119 back in 1994. It is entitled “Psalm 119: A Thematic and Literary Analysis.” I still love this psalm. You might enjoy taking a look at it. It is available for purchase from TREN (Theological Research Exchange Network) or by interlibrary loan from my alma mater.

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