Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — The Art and Force of Ps 119:1-8: Part 3
The first two parts of this series focused on the first two verses of the first stanza of Ps 119. In this blog we will look at the rest of the stanza with respect to person, repeated words, and conjunctions.
“Person” is the term for the actors in a communication: first person (1) is the speaker; second person (2) is the one(s) spoken to, and third (3) is the one(s) spoken about. Paying attention to these does not require knowledge of Hebrew (provided that your translation preserves the persons of the original), but it is important to track these. The chart below gives the ESV and identifies persons in a side column.
(Can't see the table? Click here)
In the poetry, the speaker is by default the psalmist. This may change when there is an embedded quotation (see Ps 2:3, 6, 7-9). Occasionally, though, there is an unmarked change in speaker (e.g., Isa 5:2b-6, perhaps with another shift at v. 7). Most of the time, the identity of the speaker is not in doubt. In our passage we see a shift at v. 4 in the one addressed: from the reader, who is not directly addressed, to the Lord, who is. At v. 4 the reader becomes a bystander listening in on the psalmist’s conversation with the Lord.
We observed in the two previous blogs that the first three lines, vv. 1-2a, are exclamations and the last three, vv. 2b-3, are indicative statements describing the actions of the blessed. The shift in addressee at v. 4 marks vv. 1-3 as a unit.
Furthermore, verses 1-3 speak about the “blessed ones,” plural. This is generic, in which the plural is speaking of the class. It keeps the people who obey the Lord in the abstract in the mind of the reader. The shift to first person in v. 4 is also a shift to singular. This personalizes the message. The implicit exhortation of the author to the reader in the exclamations of vv. 1-2a is made much stronger by the psalmist’s public commitment in v. 5.
Repeated words are an important feature to notice. Whereas a translation usually works fine for identifying person, reading Hebrew is a definite advantage for identifying repeated words. It is common knowledge that each word in each language has a range of meanings and that the near corresponding words between languages overlap, but only rarely have identical ranges (I don’t know of any examples where the range of meaning is exactly identical, but I suppose it is theoretically possible). Therefore, translators must commonly render a single word in a source language using a variety of words in the target language, depending on the meaning in any given context. Consequently, repeated Hebrew words, even in the same context may need to be translated differently, even in more formal translations. On such occasions the author’s repetition will be lost. This is the case in the first stanza of Ps 119.
(Can't see the table? Click here)
Notice that the last two words of v. 4 are each repeated but the repetition is lost in the ESV. לִשְׁמֹר is the next to last word in vv. 4 and 5, but the ESV renders them “to be kept” and “in keeping” respectively. These are close, but the differing English grammar obscures the parallelism present in the two identical Hebrew forms. Likewise מְאֹד is the last word in vv. 4 and 8, but is rendered with different words, “diligently” and “utterly,” respectively.
I think these two pairs are part of the art of the psalm that help mark structure. There is more than one way to understand them. For example, we noted that vv. 4-8 are grouped by the shift in addressee to the Lord. The word מְאֹד may form bookends to this unit. What about לִשְׁמֹר? Perhaps it marks a vv. 5-8 as the body elaborating on v. 4. Another way to view מְאֹד is as dividing the eight verses into two halves; not based on logical flow, but on number of verses.
There is another feature to consider.
One characteristic of poetry is the reduced number of conjunctions. Conjunctions make explicit the logical connections between clauses and phrases. Poetry tends to leave it to the reader to figure out these relations. (See Ernst Wendland, Analyzing the Psalms [2nd ed.; Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 2002], for a helpful method on identifying these relationships.) So, when a conjunction does appear, especially here, where it is the letter of the acrostic of the poem, it gets our attention.
The temporal conjunction, אָז marks a logical shift from vv. 4-5 on the one hand to vv. 6-8 on the other. Verse 4 expresses the expectation of the Lord that his precepts be kept and v. 5 the sincere commitment of the psalmist to keep them. The logical shift at אָז collects vv. 6-8 into the consequence of the success of that commitment.
It may be better, then, to see לִשְׁמֹר as linking vv. 4-5 to form a center unit. Seen in this way, the stanza has three parts: vv. 1-3 linked by the shift of addressee at v. 4, vv. 4-5 linked by the repetition of לִשְׁמֹר, and vv. 6-8 linked by the logical shift at v. 6.
We can use these breaks to outline the stanza:
- Blessings and obedience 1-3
- Expectations and enthusiasm 4-5
- Confidence and a clear heart 6-8
How much of this is essential for exegetical accuracy? Nothing earthshaking hangs in the balance. But if poetry is art, and if part of interpretation is appreciating the beauty the author puts into a literary piece, then noticing the art enhances our appreciation of the author’s work. Beyond that, though, if I have correctly viewed the structure of the psalm, then the preacher/teacher gets a three-point sermon/lesson (I’m sure you can produce a better one!) that more accurately thinks the thoughts of the author after him, the goal of interpretation.
We have not exhausted all there is to see in this stanza, but next month we will look at something else.
Lee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.
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