A Question for Dr. Duguid on Psalm 119

Discussion in 'OT Wisdom Literature' started by bookslover, Sep 25, 2019.

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  1. bookslover

    bookslover Puritan Board Doctor

    It occurs to me that the repetitive nature of Psalm 119 (the 8 terms regarding the law, repeated very often, for example, along with other terms there) might be explained by what I could call biblical Hebrew's "low vocabulary ceiling" - that is, the language just does not have a large vocabulary compared to other languages (perhaps even Middle Eastern ones from Old Testament times). English, for example, has a vocabulary of about 900,000 words (excluding scientific and technical terms), I understand. Biblical Hebrew comes nowhere close to this, of course.

    Would you agree with this? Is this a possible explanation for the repetitiveness of Psalm 119 (along with other parts of the Old Testament)?
  2. Bill The Baptist

    Bill The Baptist Puritan Board Graduate

    I’m certainly not an expert like Dr. Duguid, but I would say that the eight different names goes along with the general structure of the Psalm. It is in an acrostic format with 22 stanzas of 8 lines each, 8 bring a significant number in Hebrew thought.
  3. iainduguid

    iainduguid Puritan Board Sophomore

    Well since you asked me by name, I suppose I should respond, even though I'm not sure I have special wisdom on this, so I would invite others to share their insights also.

    Biblical Hebrew does not have a huge vocabulary (though students still complain about the memorization necessary, even to master all the words that occur 25 times or more in the OT, and there are a lot of one time occurrences. But then most English speakers don't know anywhere near 900,000 words. I'm sure I don't. What is more, I'm not sure that English has 8 different words for law, since vocabulary is context specific.

    I think the repetition comes from the desire to create a mega acrostic: 8 verses for each of the 22 letters of the alphabet. Once you have decided to do that and focus it on torah, repetition is inevitable. But isn't that part of the artistry, not an obstacle to the artistry? The author want to show us the beauty of torah from every different direction, as if he is taking a diamond and slowly rotating it so we see every single facet flash with fire. Instead of giving us a lengthy poem about many things, he has given us a lengthy poem about one thing - the main thing - God's beautiful law. (actually, perhaps we should say one of the two main things, since torah psalms are regularly paired with messianic psalms in the psalter: Psalms 1 and 2; 18/19 and 118/119). God's law is majestic and awe-inspiring in all of its detail and intricacy (compare Ps 19, which says the same in rather less words), delightful to the heart of those who know God through the messiah he has sent to keep that law for us, in our place. He could have said that more briefly by repeating himself less often, but isn't the repetition part of the message - much as young people in love delight to enumerate their beloved's charms more expansively than their friends necessarily desire to hear?
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  4. Poimen

    Poimen Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    Precisely. "I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad." Psalm 119:96
  5. bookslover

    bookslover Puritan Board Doctor

    Thanks, Dr. Duguid, for that lovely answer. Yes, the artistry is magnificent. It's interesting that the same 8 words turn up in Psalm 19. That sameness in both psalms is what got me thinking about the restrictiveness of Hebrew vocabulary. We Westerners tend to find Psalm 119 to be very tedious (at least at first). But, as you say, the gem-like artistry is fascinating.
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