What do those characters before parts of Psalm 119 mean?
Topic(s): Old Testament
The characters before sections of Psalm 119 in some Bibles are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, from a <or aleph, the equivalent of the letter a, to x or tau, the equivalent of our letter t. Sections of Psalm 119 are marked off by these Hebrew letters to make us aware of a feature of the psalm found in the original text, but not expressed in our English translations.
Each of the twenty-two sections of Psalm 119 contains eight verses. In each of the individual sections, each of the eight verses in that section begins with the Hebrew letter designated for that section. Thus verses 1-8 begin with the Hebrew letter aleph; verses 9-16 begin with the second letter, beth; and verses 17-24 begin with the third letter, gimel. This pattern continues throughout the psalm. Poets and songwriters today still use this acrostic method sometimes. Our English translations do not reflect this directly because the translators have chosen to make a smoother translation rather than trying to match the acrostic feature of the original manuscript. Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem, where each of the twenty-two verses describing the virtuous woman begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from aleph to tau. There are twelve other acrostic poems in the Old Testament. The poems were written in acrostic form to be more easily memorized. There are no acrostics in the New Testament, but early Christians used the fish as a symbol because the Greek letters of the word formed an acrostic, Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior.
The book of psalms is a collection of Hebrew lyric poetry, or poems designed to be sung. The Hebrew title for the book is Praises, and most of the psalms deal with praise for God. Psalm 119 especially deals with praise for the torah, or law of God, His written will for His people. The psalmist remembered and praised the many benefits of the law and will of God. Scripture records no individual author for Psalm 119.
The psalm begins, Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD. Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart. They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways (Psalm 119:1-3). The love the psalmist has for the law is expressed in verses 97-104: O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day. Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts. I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word. I have not departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me. How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way. We should strive for the same love for God's Word today. It is through the scriptures that we learn of Christ and His love for us, God's plan for redemption, and our need to obey the Lord.