Psalm 119

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Psalm 119
"Blessed are the undefiled in the way"
Hymn psalm
Giovannino de' grassi, Psalm 118-81, Biblioteca Nazionale, Florence.jpg
Manuscript of verse 81 by Giovannino de' grassi, Biblioteca Nazionale, Florence
Other name
  • Psalm 118 (Vulgate)
  • "Beati inmaculati in via"
LanguageHebrew (original)

Psalm 119 is the 119th psalm of the Book of Psalms, beginning in English in the King James Version: "Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord". The Book of Psalms is in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Khetuvim, and a book of the Christian Old Testament. The psalm is referred to in Hebrew by its opening words, "Ashrei temimei derech" ("happy are those whose way is perfect"). In the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible, and in its Latin translation Vulgate, this psalm is Psalm 118 in a slightly different numbering system. In Latin, it is known as "Beati inmaculati in via qui ambulant in lege Domini."[1] The psalm is a hymn psalm.

With 176 verses, the psalm is the longest psalm as well as the longest chapter in the Bible. It is an acrostic poem, in which each set of eight verses begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The theme of the verses is the prayer of one who delights in and lives by the Torah, the sacred law. Unlike most other psalms, the author did not include his name in the text. The psalm is a regular part of Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and other Protestant liturgies. It has been set to music often. British Politician William Wilberforce would recite the entire Psalm, while walking back from Parliament, through Hyde Park, to his home.[2]

Background and themes[edit]

In Judaism Psalm 119 has the monikers Alpha-Beta and Temanya Apin (Aramaic: "eight faces").[3]


King James Version[edit]

The English version in the King James Bible can be seen at Psalm 119.


A Haredi Jew reciting Psalm 119 at the Western Wall

Psalm 119 is one of several acrostic poems found in the Bible. Its 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas, one for each of the 22 characters that make up the Hebrew alphabet. In the Hebrew text, each of the eight verses of each stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter. This feature was not maintained in the Septuagint, except that many manuscripts have placed at the beginning of each stanza the name of the corresponding Hebrew letter (for example, ʾalef the first stanza, the last is taw).[4]

Because of this structure, the Psalm was one of the main occurrences of the Hebrew alphabet in the texts of the medieval and modern West.[5]

Each of the 22 sections of 8 verses is subheaded with the name of a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. These subheadings are spelled very differently amongst the various Bible text versions, even amongst the translations into different foreign languages. Their antiquated spellings shown in the Authorized King James Version of 1611 were written with influences of Latin and German medieval theological scholarship—forms which greatly differ from the standard modern-day renditions.

Most printed editions also show the actual Hebrew letters along with these subheadings.

Section Hebrew


Hebrew Letter Name Verses
KJV (1611) Modern
I א Aleph ʾAlef 1–8
II ב Beth Beth 9–16
III ג Gimel Gimel 17–24
IV ד Daleth Daleth 25–32
V ה He Heʾ 33–40
VI ו Vau (Vav) Waw 41–48
VII ז Za(j)in Zayin 49–56
VIII ח Cheth Ḫeth 57–64
IX ט Teth Ṭeth 65–72
X י Jod Yudh 73–80
XI כ C(h)aph Kaf 81–88
XII ל Lamed Lamedh 89–96
XIII מ Mem Mem 97–104
XIV נ Nun Nun 105–12
XV ס Samech Samekh 113–20
XVI ע A(j)in ʿAyin 121–28
XVII פ Pe Peʾ 129–36
XVIII צ Tzaddi(k) Ṣadheh 137–44
XIX ק Koph Quf 145–52
XX ר Res(c)h Resh 153–60
XXI ש S(ch)in Śin / Shin 161–68
XXII ת Tau (Tav) Taw 169–76

Literary features[edit]

This psalm is one of about a dozen alphabetic acrostic poems in the Bible. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two stanzas, one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet; within each stanza, each of the eight verses begins (in Hebrew) with that letter.[6] The name of God (Yahweh/Jehovah) appears twenty-four times.

Employed in almost every verse of the psalm is a synonym for the Torah, such as dabar ("word, promise"), mishpatim ("rulings"), etc.[6]

The acrostic form and the use of the Torah words constitute the framework for an elaborate prayer. The grounds for the prayer are established in the first two stanzas (alef and beth): the Torah is held up as a source of blessing and right conduct, and the psalmist pledges to dedicate himself to the law. The prayer proper begins in the third stanza (gimel, v. 17). Like many other psalms, this prayer includes dramatic lament (e.g. verses 81–88), joyous praise (e.g. verses 45–48) and prayers for life, deliverance and vindication (e.g. verses 132–34). What makes Psalm 119 unique is the way that these requests are continually and explicitly grounded in the gift of the Torah and the psalmist's loyalty to it.

The first and fifth verses in a stanza often state the same theme followed by a statement of opposition, affliction or conflict, and the final (eighth) verse tends to be a transition introducing the next stanza. Several dozen prayers are incorporated into the Psalm, e.g. "Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law." Themes include opposition by man, affliction, delight in the law and the goodness of God, which sometimes run into each other: "I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me" (v. 75), or "If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction" (v. 92). The Psalmist at times seems to appeal to God's sovereignty, "inclining his heart to the law" in contrast to the Psalmist saying "I incline my heart."[clarification needed] Thus, God as sovereign is invoked in v.36 "Incline my heart to your testimonies", while the Psalmist also takes personal responsibility in v. 112, "I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever." It ends with an appeal to God to seek his servant who strayed.



  • Verse 66 is recited prior to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah.[7]
  • Verse 72 is quoted in Pirkei Avot, Chapter 6, no. 9.[8]
  • Verses 89–91 are recited during the blessings before the Shema on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.[9]
  • Verse 99 is quoted in Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4, no. 1.[10]
  • Verse 108 is recited prior to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah.[7]
  • Verse 122 is recited prior to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah.[7]
  • Verse 142 is part of Uva Letzion[11] and Tzidkatcha.[12]
  • Parts of verses 153–54 comprise the blessing Re'eh of the weekday Amidah.[13]
  • Verse 160 is recited prior to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah.[7]
  • Verse 162 is recited prior to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah.[7]
  • Verse 165 is part of Talmud Berachos 64a.[14]
  • Verses 166, 162, and 165 are recited in that order by the mohel at a brit milah.[15]

Eastern Orthodox[edit]

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 49r - David Releases Prisoners the Musée Condé, Chantilly

The psalm (118 in the Septuagint) figures prominently in the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is a tradition that King David used this psalm to teach his young son Solomon the alphabet—but not just the alphabet for writing letters: the alphabet of the spiritual life.

The psalm comprises an entire Kathisma (division of the Psalter) in Orthodox liturgical practice. In Orthodox monasteries it is read daily at the Midnight Office: "At midnight I arose to give thanks unto Thee for the judgments of Thy righteousness" (v. 62). It is read at Matins on Saturdays and is also chanted on many Sundays throughout the year. A major portion of Matins on Holy Saturday comprises chanting the entire psalm as a threnody, divided into three parts (stases) with Praises (Greek: Enkomia) interspersed between each verse. This chanting is done as all stand holding candles around a catafalque over which has been placed the Epitaphion (a shroud embroidered with the figure of Christ laid out for burial).

The psalm is also chanted with special solemnity at Orthodox funeral services and on the various All-Souls Days occurring throughout the year, with "Alleluia" chanted between each verse. Its use here is a reflection of the chanting done on Holy Saturday. "Alleluia" is chanted between the verses to signify the victory over death accomplished by Christ's death and Resurrection, and the eternal reward promised to the faithful.

The Psalm contains several dozen prayers and several themes run through it. God's goodness in the midst of affliction and delight in God's law. God is seen sovereignly "inclining ones heart" and the Psalmist "inclines his heart" to the statutes.

Latin Church liturgy[edit]

Reverse glass painting of a woman praying Psalm 119 (118):22, Aufer a me opprobrium et contemptum ("Take away from me scorn and contempt")

The Rule of Saint Benedict assigned this psalm to four minor canonical hours on Sundays and three on Mondays. The sections corresponding to the first four letters of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet are used at Prime, the following sets of three sections at Terce, Sext and None on Sundays. The remaining sections corresponding to the last nine letters of the Hebrew alphabet, are assigned to Terce, Sext and None on Mondays.[16]

The 1568 Roman Breviary of Pope Pius V has Psalm 119 recited in its entirety every day: the sections corresponding to the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet at Prime, and the others in sets of six sections each at Terce, Sext and None respectively.[17][18]

In the 1910 reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope Pius X, Psalm 119 is recited only on Sundays, divided as in the arrangement of Pius V.[18][19]

Since the reform of the Roman Rite liturgy in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Liturgy of the Hours has a section of Psalm 119, corresponding to a single letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in the midday canonical hour on each day of the four-week cycle except on Monday of the first week (when the second half of Psalm 19 (18), which is similar in theme, is used instead) and on Friday of the third week (when the Passion Psalm 22 (21) is used). In addition, a section of Psalm 119 is used at Saturday Lauds in weeks 1 and 3, and another section at Vespers of Saturday of week 1.

In the Roman Rite Mass portions of Psalm 119 are used a responsorial psalm on Sundays 6 and 17 of Year A of the three-year cycle of Sunday readings, on Saturday of the first week in Lent and on the third Monday in Eastertide. It is also used on five days of Year I of the two-year cycle of Ordinary Time weekday readings[a] and fifteen days of Year II.[b] A portion is also used on the feast of a Doctor of the Church.[20]

Musical settings[edit]

"O God, My Strength and Fortitude" in the 16th-century Scottish Psalter

A complete English version of Psalm 119 from the King James Bible was completed by Frederick Steinruck, Michael Misiaszek, and Michael Owens.

In Protestant Christianity, various metrical settings of Psalm 119 have been published, including "O God, My Strength and Fortitude" by Thomas Sternhold, which appeared in the Scottish Psalter of 1564.[22][23] The Psalm is put to music in The Book of Psalms for Worship, published by Crown and Covenant Publications.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wednesday and Friday of week 7, Tuesday of week 10, Thursday of week 32, Monday of week 33.
  2. ^ Saturday of week 4, Monday of week 6, Friday of week 9, Wednesday of week 12, Friday of week 13, Monday of week 18, Tuesday of week 19, Monday of week 22, Tuesday and Wednesday of week 25, Saturday of week 26, Tuesday of week 28, Friday of week 29, Friday of week 32, Friday of week 33.


  1. ^ "Psalmus 118 (119)", Parallel Latin/English Psalter, Medievalist, archived from the original on 2017-05-07
  2. ^ "Reminders from God". Classical Conversations. Retrieved 2019-04-28.
  3. ^ Psalm 119 is referred to as temanya apin in Berachot 4b:אִילֵּימָא מִשּׁוּם דְּאָתְיָא בְּאָלֶף בֵּית, נֵימָא ״אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי דָרֶךְ״ דְּאָתְיָא בִּתְמָנְיָא אַפִּין It is referred to as alfa beta by R. Shlomo Alkabetz (quoted by Shelah here) where he lists the texts that were recited as part of tikkun leil shavuot:אח"כ (תהילים י״ט:ב׳) מזמור השמים מספרים, ומזמור יקום אלקים (שם סח). אח"כ האלפא ביתא (שם קיט) בלא השירות "Refs for Ps. 119 being called “Alfa-Bita” and “Temanaya Apei”?", retrieved 2021-01-14
  4. ^ Harl, Marguerite (1972), La Chaîne palestinienne sur le Psaume 118, introduction, texte grec critique et traduction (in French), 1, Paris: Cerf, p. 106.
  5. ^ Schwarzfuchs, Lyse (2004), Le livre hébreu à Paris au XVIe siècle : inventaire chronologique (in French), Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France.
  6. ^ a b Murphy, Roland E. (2000). The Gift of the Psalms. Hendrickson. ISBN 1-56563-474-8.
  7. ^ a b c d e The Complete Artscroll Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, p. 435.
  8. ^ The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 587
  9. ^ The Complete Artscroll Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, p. 269.
  10. ^ The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 565.
  11. ^ The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 157.
  12. ^ The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 525.
  13. ^ The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 102.
  14. ^ The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 479.
  15. ^ The Complete Artscroll Siddur, p. 209.
  16. ^ "Monastic". Gregorian books.
  17. ^ "Pre-Pius X Psalter (up to 1911)". Gregorian books.
  18. ^ a b "Arrangement of the Psalms". Gregorian books.
  19. ^ "Pius X Psalter (1911-1971)". Gregorian books.
  20. ^ Ordo Lectionum Missae (PDF) (in Latin), Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1981.
  21. ^ Donovan, Richard Niell (2007). "Hymn Story: Open My Eyes". Lectionary.
  22. ^ Stevenson, William Fleming (1873). Hymns for the church and home, selected and ed. by W.F. Stevenson. Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  23. ^ "O God, My Strength and Fortitude". Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  24. ^ "The Book of Psalms for Worship, Psalter, Book of Psalms". Crown and covenant.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bridges, Charles (1974) [1827]. An Exposition of Psalm 119. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust. ISBN 0-85151-176-7.
  • Scott N. Callaham: "An Evaluation of Psalm 119 as Constrained Writing," Hebrew Studies 50 (2009): 121–35.

External links[edit]