«I turned back my feet to your decrees» (Psalm 119, 59)

Torah in the Fifth Book of the Psalter

by Michael Kodzo Mensah (Author)
©2016 Thesis 370 Pages


Scholars have described Psalm 119 as the «crux criticorum» of the Fifth Book of the Psalter (Pss 107-150). While the length of the psalm and its insistence on the question of YHWH’s Torah are basic indices pointing to its importance in the Book, the question of its message, that is, the logical development of its theme has remained an exegetical problem. The author proposes a solution, namely, that Psalm 119 is structurally arranged to show the Psalmist’s own experience of straying and returning to YHWH’s Torah. The resolution of the problem has implications for understanding the organisation of the Fifth Book and for the place of psalms such as 111 and 147, which also reflect on the theme of Torah in the final Book of the Psalter.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter I: The Torah Question at the End of the Psalter
  • General Introduction
  • 1. The Problem, Method, Organisation and Limitations of the Study
  • 1.1 The Problem of Torah in the Fifth Book of the Psalter
  • 1.1.1 Review of Relevant Literature
  • 1.2 Methodology
  • 1.2.1 Torah in the Individual Psalm
  • 1.2.2 Torah, Psalms and the Context of the MT Psalter
  • 1.3 The Organisation of the Study
  • 1.4 Limitations to the Study
  • Chapter II: Psalms 111 and 147 and the Theme of Torah
  • Introduction
  • 1. Part I: The Torah Theme in Ps 111 and in the Sequence Pss 111–112
  • 1.1 Psalm 111: A Torah Psalm?
  • 1.2 A Translation
  • 1.3 The Structure of Ps 111
  • 1.3.1 Stanza I (vv. 1–3)
  • 1.3.2 Stanza II (vv. 4–6)
  • 1.3.3 Stanza III (vv. 7–9)
  • 1.3.4 Stanza IV (v. 10)
  • 1.4 The Theme of Torah in Ps 111
  • 1.4.1 Stanza II (vv. 4–6): Torah and the Remembrance of YHWH’s Gifts in History
  • 1.4.2 Stanza III (vv. 7–9): YHWH’s commands (dwqp)
  • 1.4.3 Summary of Thematic Movement in Strophes IIa – IIIb (vv. 4–9)
  • 1.4.4 The Sapiential Dimension to Torah in Ps 111
  • 1.5 Psalm 111 in its Context in the Fifth Book of the Psalter
  • 1.5.1 The “Twin-Psalms” 111–112
  • 1.5.2 The Torah Theme in Pss 111–112
  • 2. Part II: The Torah Theme in Ps 147 and in the Sequence Pss 146–150
  • 2.1 Structure, Thematic Questions and Torah in Ps 147
  • 2.2 A Translation
  • 2.3 The Structure of Psalm 147
  • 2.3.1 Stanza I (vv. 1–6)
  • 2.3.2 Stanza II (vv. 7–11)
  • 2.3.3 Stanza III (vv. 12–20)
  • 2.4 The Torah Theme in Ps 147
  • 2.4.1 The Sending of the Word into the Cosmos (vv. 15–18)
  • 2.4.2 The Revelation of the Word to Israel (vv. 19–20)
  • 2.5 Ps 147 in the Context of Pss 146–150
  • 2.5.1 Torah in the Context of the Final Hallel (Pss 146–150)
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter III: Psalm 119 and the Theme of Torah
  • Introduction
  • 1. Part I: The Thematic Coherence of Ps 119
  • 1.1 A Translation
  • 1.2 Previous Studies on the Structure of Ps 119
  • 1.2.1 Acrostic Based Structure
  • 1.2.2 Structure Based on Other Considerations
  • 1.3 The Eight Torah Terms and the Question of Structural Unity in Ps 119
  • 1.4 The Thematic Structure of Ps 119
  • 1.4.1 Stanza I (vv. 1–8): The Two Ways
  • 1.4.2 Stanza II (vv. 9–16): The Dilemma of the Young Man’s Way
  • 1.4.3 Summary: Stanzas I–II (vv. 1–16) as the Introduction to Psalm 119
  • 1.4.4 Stanza III (vv. 17–24): YHWH’s Servant and his Adversaries
  • 1.4.5 Stanza IV (vv. 25–32): The Choice of the Way of Torah
  • 1.4.6 Stanza V (vv. 33–40): YHWH’s Instruction and the Psalmist’s Decision
  • 1.4.7 Stanza VI (vv. 41–48): Covenant Faithfulness Despite Adversaries
  • 1.4.8 Summary: The Coherence of Canto 2 (Stanzas III–VI)
  • 1.4.9 Stanza VII (vv. 49–56): Remembrance of YHWH’s Faithfulness
  • 1.4.10 Stanza VIII (vv. 57–64): The Return to YHWH’s Torah
  • 1.4.11 Stanza IX (vv. 65–72): Confession of Error and Chastisement
  • 1.4.12 Stanza X (vv. 73–80): YHWH’s Mercy and Justice
  • 1.4.13 Stanza XI (vv. 81–88): Suffering and YHWH’s Faithfulness
  • 1.4.14 Summary: The Coherence of Canto 3 (Stanzas VII–XI)
  • 1.4.15 Stanza XII (vv. 89–96): The Stability of YHWH’s Torah
  • 1.4.16 Stanza XIII (vv. 97–104): Primacy and Desirability of Torah
  • 1.4.17 Stanza XIV (vv. 105–112): The Oath and the Verbal Sacrifice
  • 1.4.18 Stanza XV (vv. 113–120): Rejection of Evil and Evildoers
  • 1.4.19 Stanza XVI (vv. 121–128): Re-establishing Faithfulness to YHWH’s Covenant
  • 1.4.20 Summary: The Coherence of Canto 4 (Stanzas XII–XVI)
  • 1.4.21 The Relationship between Stanzas IX (vv. 65–72) and XIV (vv. 105–112)
  • 1.4.22 Stanza XVII (vv. 129–136): Torah and YHWH’s Covenant Wonders
  • 1.4.23 Stanza XVIII (vv. 137–144): YHWH’s Righteousness and his Just Torah
  • 1.4.24 Stanza XIX (vv. 145–152): Cry for YHWH’s Deliverance
  • 1.4.25 Stanza XX (vv. 153–160): The Quintessence of Torah
  • 1.4.26 Summary: The Coherence of Canto 5 (Stanzas XVII–XX)
  • 1.4.27 Thematic Correspondences between Cantos 2 and 5
  • 1.4.28 Stanza XXI (vv. 161–168): Peace and Praise for Torah Lovers
  • 1.4.29 Stanza XXII (vv. 169–176): Praise of YHWH and the Straying of his Servant
  • 1.4.30 Summary: The Coherence of Canto 6 (Stanzas XXI–XXII)
  • 1.4.31 Thematic Correspondences between Cantos 1 and 6
  • 1.4.32 A Résumé of the Thematic Movement in Ps 119
  • 1.5 General Conclusory Observations on Ps 119
  • 1.5.1 Wisdom in Psalm 119?
  • 1.5.2 The Identity of the “Praying I” in Ps 119
  • 1.5.3 The Psalmist as ytp in Ps 119
  • 1.5.4 The Adversaries in Ps 119
  • 1.5.5 The Absence of the Term tyrb in Ps 119
  • 2. Part II: Ps 119 in the Context of the Fifth Book of the Psalter
  • 2.1 Ps 119 and the Structure of the Fifth Book
  • 2.1.1 Ps 119 and the Frame of the Fifth Book
  • 2.1.2 Ps 119 and the Davidic Frame (Pss 108–110; 138–145)
  • 2.1.3 Ps 119 and the two “Psalm pairs” (Pss 111–112; 135–136)
  • 2.1.4 The Collocation of Ps 137
  • 2.1.5 Ps 119 and the “Liturgical Psalms” (Pss 113–118; 120–134)
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter IV: Returning to YHWH’s Torah
  • General Conclusion
  • 1. Synthesis of Findings
  • 1.1 Pss 111 and 147 in the Context of the Fifth Book
  • 1.2 The Thematic Coherence of Ps 119 and its Place in the Fifth Book
  • 1.2.1 The Thematic Coherence of Ps 119
  • 1.2.2 Ps 119 in the Fifth Book
  • 1.3 “Converti pedes meos ad testimonia tua” (Ps 119,59)
  • Symbols and Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Authors
  • Subject Index
  • Index of Selected Biblical References

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If you dissect an ant patiently, you will see its entrails1

That the biblical text is a storehouse of treasure, ready to surprise the diligent, prayerful reader is probably a truth that every exegete already knows. Making this experience mine, has however proved to be a most interesting undertaking, a test of faith, of resolve, but above all of patience. It is the reason why I find the above-mentioned Ghanaian wise-saying particularly apt, except in this case, that by seeking to interrogate the question of Torah in the Fifth Book of the Psalter, I attempted not to dissect an ant, but the entire anthill. However modest the results of this study might be, it is with a deep sense of joy and gratitude that they are offered as a scholarly contribution to the continuing research on the Psalter, and to all those who seek in its pages the same inspiration, which inflamed its sacred authors.

It is with deep gratitude then, that I acknowledge the Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra, Most Rev. Charles G. Palmer-Buckle, who not only sent me to undertake the study of Biblical Sciences in Rome, but indeed was my first teacher of Bible Knowledge during my secondary education in Ghana. By extension, I acknowledge my colleague diocesan priests of the Archdiocese of Accra who throughout my stay in Rome have continually supported me with their prayers and encouragement. I must single out for special mention, H. E. Peter Cardinal Appiah Turkson, who, himself an alumnus of the P.I.B. and former professor of scripture, has never ceased to encourage the next generation of Ghanaian exegetes. To His Eminence, I am particularly grateful.

This study was originally presented as a dissertation at the P.I.B, under the title “Converti Pedes Meos Ad Testimonia Tua” (Ps 119,59). Torah in the Fifth Book of the Psalter, and was moderated by Prof. Gianni Barbiero, S.D.B., Emeritus Professor of Old Testament Studies (P.I.B.), to whom I owe many thanks. Beyond his expertise in the subject matter, I have been a huge beneficiary of his excellent pedagogy, unparalleled patience and unyielding rigour. I am grateful, in like manner, to Prof. Donatella Scaiola, the second relator, whose sustained interest in the study and balanced critique, refined and shaped my thoughts into this volume. Profs. Augustinus Gianto, S. J. and Michael Kolarcik, S. J., both of the P.I.B., made important observations to improve this work. I am grateful to them. I equally acknowledge the entire Biblical Faculty and the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the P.I.B., and the personnel of our valued library who have all, in various ways, been instrumental ← 11 | 12 → in the completion of this study. In this respect, I must mention the Secretary-General of the Institute, Sig. Carlo Valentino, whose invaluable service to students I am not alone in acknowledging.

My stay in Rome would not have been possible without the scholarship awarded me by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (Propaganda Fide). In this regard, I wish to thank the rector and staff of the Pontificio Collegio Missionario Internazionale San Paolo Apostolo, where I resided for four years during my licentiate studies, as well as the rector and staff of the Convitto Internazionale San Tommaso d’Aquino who offered me lodging for a year. In much the same way, I am indebted to the Superior-General and members of the Society of African Missions (SMA), not only for the three-year scholarship they awarded me to enable me complete my dissertation, but even more so, for the friendship and moral support I enjoyed while residing at their General House in Rome. It would not be out of place to mention, that I feel particularly grateful, that this would have been the wish of their founder, Servant of God, Msgr. Melchior de Marion Brésillac, whose desire was to form local clergy in the service of the Church in Africa. No less gratitude is due the Franciscan Sisters of the Presentation of Mary to whom I owe many thanks for their support and prayers especially over the last three years. To the Most Rev. Timothy J. Carroll, S.M.A. (Ireland), who graciously offered to proofread and correct this work, I express profound appreciation.

I am indebted to my parents, Boniface and Flora Mensah, to whom I owe the values of honest and hard work and through whose life and coherent example, I have learnt the basic truths of the scriptures. To my brothers and sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, I am grateful for the support and encouragement. I must equally mention several friends and benefactors; Msgr. Robert Sable of the Segnatura Apostolica, Sir Knight and Mrs. Ralph Nwosu, Mrs. Cecilia Kwofie, Mr. Kyei-Manu, Mrs. Aurore Selormey, Mrs. Cecilia Hagan, Mrs. Christine Hobeika, and Mr. and Mrs. Lazzie Ako-Adounvo and family, Fr. John Louis, Fr. Joseph Arthur and Sr. Francisca Sosu, H.D.R., all of Accra. I acknowledge the Pastor and faithful of the Parrocchia San Giorgio Martire, Cornate d’Adda (Milan), and likewise the faithful of the Pfarrei Maria Königin, Niedernhausen, and Sankt Michael, Oberjosbach (Germany). I should equally like to mention Mrs. Ursula Sagolla (Germany), Mrs. Bernadette Unger (Germany), Dr. and Dr. (Mrs.) Ferrol Lee (USA), Mr. and Mrs. Domenico Bosisio (Italy), Mr. and Mrs. Vincenzo Crea (Italy), Mr. and Mrs. Mario Hook (Gibraltar), Ms. Mary Attard (Malta) and Mr. Francis Poku (UK). I remember fondly the late Mrs. Isabella Poku, who, I regret, departed too quickly to see this work brought to a close. To my colleagues of the “Gruppo Africano” at the P.I.B., the Ghana Ecclesiatical Union, the entire Ghanaian Catholic Community in Rome, and particularly to Dr. Kwame Koranteng (F.A.O., Rome) for his unwavering support, I am grateful. ← 12 | 13 →

My colleague doctoral students at the P.I.B. deserve particular acknowledgement. I am grateful to the past and present students of my moderator, who were among the very first to have read varying sections of this work in the form of seminar presentations, and whose critique and observations have shaped the final work. In much the same way, I am indebted to my colleagues of the Aula Periodicorum, Wilma, Giuseppe, Boris, Alan and Rebwar, for the good memories we shall keep, of our years of research at the P.I.B.

Last, but not least, I am deeply indebted to my brother and friend, Fr. Prince Emmanuel Adelaayitar, who in my most challenging moments, always perceived the light at the end of the tunnel, and encouraged me to hope, until I saw it too.

dwbk !t $mvl-yk wnl al hwhy wnl al (Ps 115,1)

1 A wise-saying in the Ewe and Akan languages of Ghana, which teaches the value of patience in accomplishing the most challenging of tasks.

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Chapter I: The Torah Question at the End of the Psalter

General Introduction

Recent interest in the theme of Torah in the Psalter can be traced to Childs, whose attentiveness to the “canonical shape of the Psalter” led the scholar to explain the collocation of Ps 1 at the beginning of the Book, as an introduction to the entire Psalter2. For Childs then, the placing of a Torah Psalm at the opening of the Psalter was “the first hint that the original setting has been subordinated to a new theological function for the future generations of worshipping Israel”3. Following the intuition of Childs, Wilson has been most influential in arguing that the Psalter is the result of “purposeful editorial activity”, such that the psalms collocated at the seams of each, introduce the major themes found in the respective Books4.

To the developing interests in the relationship between the collocation of individual psalms and their impact on the surrounding context, an important contribution was to be made in 1987 by Mays, with an article, “The Place of Torah-Psalms in the Psalter”5. The question to which Mays sought to respond was the vacuum left in previous research as to the role of these Psalms (1; 19; 119), which appeared not to fit any single fixed “form”, by which the Form Critical Approach had sought to categorise various psalms6. Mays argued that even if the three psalms showed differences in form and content, one thing was distinctive about them; they are psalms in which “the instruction of the Lord is the central organizing topic”7. Mays thus insisted that the study of Torah Psalms was not a question of their interpretation as “isolated pieces”, but rather what their presence in the Psalter means for the way the psalms are to be viewed and read8. ← 15 | 16 →

In this regard, Mays made three important observations:

i. That all three psalms are “the work of poets who are bringing together elements of vocabulary, style and theology from various parts of the emerging Hebrew canon of scripture”9.

ii. That the theme of Torah is not reserved to these three Psalms but that “other expressions of this theology can be found scattered throughout the Psalter”10, in which regard Mays identifies fourteen psalms, which develop the same theme (Pss 18; 25; 33; 78; 89; 93; 94; 99; 103; 105; 111; 112; 147; 148).

iii. That Torah Psalms appear to be paired with other psalms, which have an eschatological dimension, presupposing such a context for a piety based on Torah11. By implication, adjoining psalms were to be understood as providing the immediate context for the reading of the individual psalm.

This study, following Mays’ initial intuition, is then dedicated to the theme of Torah in the Fifth Book of the Psalter. If the influence of the Torah at the opening of the Psalter is evident, the question may still validly be posed regarding the closing of the same.

1. The Problem, Method, Organisation and Limitations of the Study

The present chapter will seek to discuss the exegetical problem, the methods to be applied, the organisation and finally the limitations of the study.

1.1 The Problem of Torah in the Fifth Book of the Psalter

While the question posed by Mays, with regard to the role of Torah at the beginning of the Psalter, has attracted a good number of articles and monographs, the same cannot be said, at least proportionately, of the theme of Torah in the Fifth Book of Psalms12. The source of the problem is not too difficult to imagine. Any study that attempts to deal with the subject is faced ← 16 | 17 → unavoidably with the problem of Ps 119 which presents significant difficulties, not simply because of its length, but even more fundamentally, due to the problem of its coherence and hence its message. In this regard, Gunkel was of the opinion that the poet, in a bid to construct a poem to the praise of Torah, only succeeded in filling the acrostic format with any thought or literary form related to this idea, with little or no consideration for the psalm’s coherence13. Thus, the conclusion of Duhm – “jedenfalls ist dieser „Psalm“ das inhaltloseste Produkt, das jemals Papier Schwarz gemacht hat”14 – has almost become axiomatic of the problem of Ps 119.

1.1.1 Review of Relevant Literature

The above question of Torah, in the Fifth Book in general, and in Ps 119 in particular, has yet to be resolved definitely, as may be illustrated by a cursory review of the most important monographs dedicated to the problem15. The first of these was Deissler’s Psalm 119 (118) und seine Theologie (1955), in which the scholar, precisely in reaction to Gunkel’s classification of the psalm as a “Mischgattung”16, sought to explain the psalm’s coherence in terms of an anthological composition. The poet, he argued, had not simply repeated words, motifs and literary forms from other parts of Hebrew literature, but had succeeded in creating a coherence, in as much as the material transposed into Ps 119 now served a new theological purpose17.

Notwithstanding Deissler’s noble intention of demonstrating the coherence of Ps 119 and its supposed new theological perspective, the results, judging ← 17 | 18 → from the evaluation of Soll, have been modest. The latter has questioned whether Deissler’s approach is any less “atomistic” than Gunkel’s, observing, “whereas in Gunkel’s approach each verse is assigned to a different genre, Deissler examines each verse in the light of its vocabulary, and derives each from a different text, which may be found anywhere in Scripture. Rarely are the verses of the psalm used to shed light on each other”18. In a word, Deissler does not do enough to explain the coherence of Ps 119.

A second monograph dedicated to the Psalm was Soll’s Psalm 119: Matrix, Form and Setting (1991). The scholar’s respectable contribution was to argue for a coherent reading of the psalm as a psalm of lament. In this direction, Soll argued that a six-part division of the psalm was able to show a logic, namely, that the “movement of the individual lament from complaint to assurance is recapitulated several times”19. Scholarly assessment of Soll’s thesis has been generally positive. Even if his proposal of Jehoiachin as the Davidic king has been strongly contested20, Freedman and Welch are right in asserting, “Soll has made a significant step in elucidating Psalm 119, simply by rejecting previous scholars’ dismissive verdict on its creativity and form”21.

While the results of Soll’s study were clearly commendable, the scholar still left an important problem unresolved. On the one hand, Soll was convinced that the poet had constructed a logically coherent poem suited to the genre of lament; on the other hand, he asserted, “we cannot, of course, know what led him [the poet] to structure his poem the way he did”22. The curious admission would appear to have reopened an old wound, as to whether the psalm did after all possess a thematic coherence. In any case, Freedman and Welch rightly point out, that while Soll’s “conscientious attempt to trace the thematic logic of the psalm is not exhaustive, it sets a standard for future interpreters”23.

Inspired by Soll’s innovation in treating Ps 119 as a coherent whole, a number of studies subsequently attempted using Structural Analysis to demonstrate the unity of the psalm. One monograph representative of this kind of analysis in Ps 119 was Auffret’s Mais tu élargiras mon cœur. Nouvelle étude structurelle du psaume 119 (2006). The detailed study of the interrelationships between the strophes and the divisions of the psalm finally proposes a structure of two balanced halves24. While the effort on the part of Auffret is ← 18 | 19 → no doubt worthy of acknowledgement, the results especially with regard to the psalm’s thematic coherence are rather modest. Nocquet, in his review of the monograph, pretty much sums up this sentiment when he notes, that those on the quest for the meaning of the psalm should not expect very much from Auffret’s analysis, which sadly over-emphasizes the psalm’s formal elements to the detriment of its theological import25.

Another study dedicated to the subject under discussion has been the González Zugasti’s unpublished doctoral dissertation Trazado del Salmo 119 (2009). The scholar, revisiting the charge that Ps 119 represents a tautological composition26, proposes to demonstrate that the psalm does contain an intrinsic dramatic development built around four characters, namely, God, the Psalmist, the enemies and the friends27. In this respect, González Zugasti rejects the linear framework that the Psalm’s acrostic format suggests28, arguing instead from the poet’s use of varying verbal tenses and the progressive introduction of new terms, which, he argues, are responsible for the changes in the mood of the Psalmist who passes from a great determination to a crippling weakness or vice versa29.

At least two difficulties immediately emerge upon scrutiny of the above thesis. González Zugasti’s rejection of a linear outline to the psalm creates a new problem since he provides no clear alternative structure to its reading30. Moreover, the scholar’s attempt to emphasise the concept of “ ← 19 | 20 →dramatis personae” leads him to the rather unlikely conclusion that Torah is not the primary theme of Ps 11931.

A fifth monograph on the subject has been Reynolds’ Torah as Teacher. The Exemplary Torah Student in Psalm 119 (2010). The scholar, departing from the attempt to establish a coherent reading of Ps 119, returned to Deissler’s concept of an “anthological” poem though he criticised the latter for not having “a precise methodology for establishing the nature of relationship between texts”32. Reynolds’ method thus consisted in identifying in Ps 119, what he described as “traditional religious language”, namely pre-existing material drawn from the Hebrew Bible “regardless of the specific relationship between all of the texts”33. The consequences of the scholars approach are quite predictable. Rather than explaining the difficulties of coherence in the psalm, Reynolds asserts that the Psalmist’s “goal is not to create perfect coherence between figurative language and literary techniques”34. The scholar’s proposal, to understand the Psalmist as a student of Torah, does not lack credibility; neither is there much difficulty in accepting that Ps 119 shows links with pre-existing material in Israel’s religious tradition. However, Reynold’s explanations for the “logical gaps” in Ps 119 as having suasive functions, run a huge risk of circularity35, and remain woefully inadequate in absolving the psalm, or its poet for that matter, of Duhm’s original charge – an empty product!

Another monograph, Meynet’s Les huit psaumes acrostiches alphabétiques (2015), though not entirely dedicated to Ps 119, is another effort worthy of mention. Meynet argues that the key to reading Ps 119 is to be found in vv. 81–96, which focalise on the threat of death by the Psalmist’s adversaries. The psalm, he insists, is to be understood as the supplication of one who has come to the realisation that it is not fidelity to the Law that saves, but rather YHWH’s mercy36. Apart from the objections, which could arise ← 20 | 21 → from the fact that the scholar bases his structural analysis on his French translation of the Hebrew text37, Meynet’s conclusion runs into difficulty on an important issue. He earlier concedes, the interior enemy, namely sin, represents, without doubt, a greater peril to the Psalmist who seeks to observe YHWH’s commandments38. If the scholar agrees, that the question of sin is much more perilous to the Psalmist in Ps 119 than the threat of death posed by the adversaries, then it casts doubt on his proposal of vv. 81–96 as containing the key to reading the psalm, and suggests that the thematic centre of Ps 119 is to be found elsewhere.

A final word should be reserved for a range of studies, which have attempted to situate Ps 119 into the Fifth Book of the Psalter. These efforts, to mention a few, include that of Westermann, who suggested that Ps 119 once concluded the Psalter at some earlier stage of its formation39. While the proposal has received wide attention by scholars, the evidence to support the position remains inconclusive. Wilson subsequently argued for the centrality of Ps 119 in the Fifth Book, while curiously assigning it to the group Pss 118–13440. Another, that of Grant, was to propose that Pss 118 and 119, following the logic of the Royal-Torah theme characteristic of the Deuteronomistic Kingship Law, occupies the centre of the Fifth Book41. The scholar’s attempt has however not escaped the scrutiny of scholars like Gillingham42 and Williamson43 who have challenged Grant’s reading of Ps 118 ← 21 | 22 → as a “Royal Psalm”44. Zenger45 and Ballhorn46 have meanwhile accorded Ps 119 a structurally central place in the Fifth Book. While these latter proposals are perfectly plausible, the question is, to what extent such assertions are reliable, if the basic problem of the message of Ps 119 remains unresolved. In the words of Snearly, Ps 119 represents a “crux criticorum within the macrostructure of Book V”47, an assertion which underlines the importance of resolving the psalm’s thematic unity as a step towards understanding the organization of the Fifth Book.

1.2 Methodology

My discussion of the appropriate methodology to be adopted in this study touches on two major concerns. These are the methods used in the exegesis of the individual psalm and the question of the structural and contextual study of sequences of psalms within the Psalter, which constitute the subject for immediate consideration.

1.2.1 Torah in the Individual Psalm

The discussion of the exegetical problem made it quite evident, that a study of the theme of Torah in the Fifth Book of the Psalter must first address the question of Torah in the individual psalm. The idea of Torah is primarily to be found in the single psalm, which, as Mays observed, is a work of poetry48, and which for that matter, requires a method, which takes seriously its particular language, and poetic style, which are the vehicles for expressing a particular theological view49. ← 22 | 23 →

The question of treating the Psalms as poetry is a question that itself long preceded the observation of Mays. Lowth’s discovery of the phenomenon of parallelismus membrorum might very well have been the birth of the poetic consciousness with regard to Psalm research50. Alonso Schökel should however be credited with the systematic description of the poetic method51, around which an abundance of scholarship has developed52 regarding the analysis of the structure53, syntax54, figures of speech55 and other literary aspects of the poetic text.

a) Analysis of the Structure

One of the above-mentioned methods needs to be singled out for special consideration, namely Structural Analysis56. The method is particularly relevant to the study since two out of the three psalms under study (Pss 111; 119) are alphabetic acrostics. The difficulty of dealing with this poetic form is perhaps best illustrated by Alonso Schökel who argues, “the technique does not help the internal unity and coherence of the poem”57. This general view of the acrostic form has engendered three trends, which are well illustrated in the scholarly discussions on the structure of the alphabetical acrostic psalms.

The first of the above-mentioned trends has been the denial of the existence of any structure besides the acrostic format58. This has often resulted in a verse-by-verse reading of the given psalm with little or no reference to subdivisions into strophes or stanzas, which might unite a certain theme or ← 23 | 24 → thought in a section of the poem59. The second, to the other extreme, is the claim that these psalms possess multiple structures of equal value for the understanding of the poem60. The result is the proposal of a myriad of structures, even sometimes conflicting, with no clear relationship between them. The third is the proposal of a definite structure, which attempts to discern a specific theme or thought movement in the psalm61.

The need for a method of structural analysis, that remedies some of the above-mentioned difficulties, can therefore not be over-emphasized. Alonso Schökel himself admits, in spite of the challenges he envisages, that “it is also possible that this artificial alphabetic composition has a robust poetic structure which gives it a far deeper dimension”62. Ridderbos is even more optimistic when he argues, “the difficulty which many authors envision in the use of this poetic device, is largely overstated63. The possibility of proceeding with a structural examination of these poems arises, as Ridderbos observes, from the very nature of Hebrew Poetry, which might be summarised in the following affirmations:

i. Hebrew poems, particularly the psalms, reveal a way of composition in which “individual sentences are not arbitrarily placed next to each other […] They arrange themselves in units. There is a progression in thought”64.

ii. While a strophe is a unit of poetry that might be determined, based on material or formal elements, Hebrew Poetry, in very many cases, cannot be divided into formal units and must therefore be divided based on content65. ← 24 | 25 →

iii. When the division of a psalm is based on its content, one “will frequently find that between these material units there is also a formal correspondence”66.

The above criteria, which favour the content over formal elements in the determination of the structure, have not gone without critique67. Beaucamp, for instance, has pointed out the huge danger of subjectivity, if the determination of strophes is left entirely to content68. Girard, in the same direction, has proposed six criteria69, which the scholar retains, should restore objectivity to the method. These would include,

i. The use of the text in the original language.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Psalm sequences Psalm Structure Conversion Canonical approach
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 370 pp.

Biographical notes

Michael Kodzo Mensah (Author)

Michael Kodzo Mensah is a diocesan priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Accra, Ghana. He studied Theology at the St. Peter’s Regional Seminary, Pedu, and earned the S.S.L. and S.S.D. from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome.


Title: «I turned back my feet to your decrees» (Psalm 119, 59)
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372 pages