Psalm 119

Oh, How I Love Thy Law!

Commentaries by Anders Bergquist

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Cosmati family

Detail of a Cosmati floor, 11th century, Marble, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome; Saverio Maria Gallotti / Alamy Stock Photo

A Complex Scheme

Commentary by Anders Bergquist

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In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a number of churches in and around Rome were provided with new and richly decorated floors, fashioned out of pieces of marble cut from the many ancient columns and marble facings to be found among the city’s ruins. There were at least three main families of marble workers responsible for this work; they are known collectively as the ‘Cosmati’, and the style of flooring as ‘cosmatesque’. 

The eighth-century church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin was given a new floor as part of an extensive rebuilding. It was dedicated in 1123, which makes it one of the best-dated of cosmatesque floors. 

The intricate marble geometry of these floor designs calls to mind the intricate formal construction of Psalm 119. The floor is divided into panels, within which pieces of coloured marble are set in patterns in which various rhythms and correspondences can be traced, all subordinated to the total impression of the design. Usually, only four marble types are used: porphyry, serpentine, giallo antico, and white. The individual pieces of marble are cut into a restricted range of geometrical shapes, and the smaller shapes are used to build larger ones. These patterns are not absolutely regular or symmetrical, but they create a powerful impression of order and design. 

Psalm 119 is divided into eight-verse panels, within which eight synonyms for Torah are distributed across each panel like patterned selections of stone, but without an absolutely regular distribution of words. Yet there is a strong sense of order and design, held within the psalm’s acrostic frame. 

It is a striking coincidence that Santa Maria in Cosmedin lies on the edge of Rome’s medieval Jewish quarter. As the craftsmen were setting the patterns of marble into a new floor for the church, Jewish students were studying Torah and reciting psalmody almost literally next door. 



Glass, Dorothy F. 1980. Studies on Cosmatesque pavements, British Archaeological Reports, International Series 82 (Oxford: Oxbow Books)

Alfred Bernheim

Torah studies, Undated, before 1974, Gelatin silver print, 9 x 12.8 cm, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Alfred Bernheim Collection, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, acquired through the generosity of Warner Communications, New York, B99.0921(pEv072); Photo: Alfred Bernheim. © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

On the Lips and in the Heart

Commentary by Anders Bergquist

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Three adolescent boys sit at three desks, memorizing Torah. The light falls from the right, illuminating the concentration of their faces. Eyes are on the text; one head is steadied on a hand in concentration. The low camera angle, and the quality of the light, give their heads a sculptural quality. The diagonal plane of the books and desktops structures the space, as though architecturally. 

The work is by Alfred Bernheim (1885–1974), who made his name in Berlin as a photographer of architecture and interiors, until he was forced in 1934 to emigrate to what was then Mandate Palestine. He went on to become a leading teacher and practitioner of photography in the new State of Israel, specializing in portraits and architectural studies. 

This image was captured in the Mandate years, but it is timeless. Here are direct descendants of the ‘young men’ of Psalm 119:9, as one might encounter them at any time in Jewish history. They appropriate and internalize the words of the Law through quiet repetitive vocalization: what the psalter calls ‘meditation’, a term which does not imply a silent activity—the lips of all three boys are open in movement. The discipline of their learning is to be mirrored in the discipline of their lives, ordered by the precepts, the statutes, the ordinances, and the commandments of the Lord. 

There is more than a hint of the Three Young Men of the Book of Daniel, whose fidelity to God’s Law saved them from the burning fiery furnace, and caused them to be set in high office in the kingdom of Babylon (Daniel 3). High office or not, Bernheim has captured an image of legal study for the sake of blessing. This is ‘scribal wisdom’, a tradition as self-sufficient as the three boys in their simple space. 

Fra Angelico

The Mocking of Christ, Cell 7, 1440–42, Fresco, 181 x 151 cm, Museo di San Marco, Florence; Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Beyond Reading

Commentary by Anders Bergquist

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Psalm 119 has an important place in Christian monastic use. When St Benedict (c.480–c.550) instructed his monks how to recite the whole psalter across the course of each week, he distributed Psalm 119 across the Lesser Hours of Terce, Sext and None: his monks had to meditate on the theme of God’s Law in the middle of each day. The fact itself that the Daily Office has seven episodes of prayer across the day is explicitly connected in Benedict’s Rule to Psalm 119:164 (‘seven times a day I praise you’). Daily meditation, both on this psalm and on a whole range of scriptural texts, developed the visual imagination, and allowed familiar texts to be ‘seen’ in new ways. 

In 1436, Cosimo de’ Medici (by then the de facto ruler of Florence) persuaded the Pope to transfer the existing convent of San Marco into the control of Observant Dominicans. The architect Michelozzo was asked to reconstruct the buildings, and Fra Angelico—himself a Dominican, for he had entered the novitiate at Fiesole between 1420 and 1422—was commissioned to fresco the cells and the communal spaces. Each friar was provided with a fresco in his cell, to provide a focus for his own meditation.  

The centre of the fresco in Cell 7 represents the mocking of Christ. The spitting and the blows are not shown as an observer might have seen and drawn them, but rather as the blindfolded victim experienced them—the work of disconnected hands and instruments. So too the friar might have felt himself experiencing them, as he entered into the scriptural story through an act of imaginative reconstruction. 

The Virgin Mary and Saint Dominic are seated outside the Passion scene. Dominic is deep in meditation over a book. His chin rests gently on the tips of the fingers of his right hand, while the curve of his body under the black and white habit expresses his absorption in the text open before him. His tonsured head is bowed slightly over the book. This, clearly, is an inward and spiritual activity that goes beyond simple reading. It has even been suggested that Fra Angelico specifically intended to represent ‘meditative reading’, the eighth mode of prayer in De modo orandi, a thirteenth-century account of Dominic’s own life of prayer.  

Assuming so, the fresco perfectly captures a kind of meditative beyond-reading that has been part of the life of Psalm 119 in both Jewish and Christian tradition, ever since it was written. 



Hood, William. 1993. Fra Angelico at San Marco (New Haven: Yale University Press) 

Cosmati family :

Detail of a Cosmati floor, 11th century , Marble

Alfred Bernheim :

Torah studies, Undated, before 1974 , Gelatin silver print

Fra Angelico :

The Mocking of Christ, Cell 7, 1440–42 , Fresco

Taking It All In

Comparative commentary by Anders Bergquist

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Psalm 119 is by far the longest psalm in the biblical psalter. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two sections of eight verses each, arranged acrostically: the first eight verses all begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph), the second eight begin with the second letter (beth), and so on down to the last eight verses which begin with the twenty-second letter (tau). This scheme, which is fundamental to the structure of the psalm, is invisible in almost all English translations (Ronald Knox bravely followed it in his 1949 translation of the Old Testament: because the English alphabet has twenty-six letters to Hebrew’s twenty-two, Knox could discard Q, X, Y, and Z).  

The acrostic alone is enough to connect this psalm with the ‘wisdom’ tradition of the Old Testament, and specifically with that strand of it often called ‘scribal wisdom’: a style marked by reflection on lived experience, by love of God’s Law (the Torah) as the criterion of both devotion and action, and by encouragement to young men to study. The ‘young man’ (na‘ar) of verse 9—often pluralized as ‘the young’ or ‘young people’ in recent English versions for the sake of gender-inclusivity, but undoubtedly a young male individual student of Torah in the original setting of Psalm 119—is the assumed reciter and student of the psalm. Blessings will come to him if he continues faithfully in the study and practice of the Law.  

‘Blessings’ (NRSV: ‘Happy is’) is itself a wisdom keyword, and has the advantage of beginning in Hebrew with the letter aleph ( אַשְׁרֵי asherē)It is the opening word of Psalm 119, and of the psalter as a whole (Psalm 1:1).  

The use of an acrostic need not imply a late date. Psalm 119 can have been composed at any time in which the Torah was the object of study and meditation—from the restoration of the Law under Ezra at the very end of the sixth century BCE (or even the ‘reform’ of Josiah in the late seventh century) to the time of the Maccabees in the second century. 

The oldest of this exhibition’s three images, a detail of cosmatesque pavement from the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, functions almost like an illustration in floor mosaic of the structure of the psalm. Within each eight-verse section, the psalmist declares his commitment to God’s Law as a guide for conduct, as the object of meditation, and as a source of delight. He meditates on this Law day and night. Almost every verse of the psalm deploys one or more of eight words from within a closely related word-group, always with the possessive ‘your’, i.e. God’s: way(s), law, decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances, word(s). To these eight Torah-related keywords can be added promise, meditation, and judgement(s). As one section of the psalm follows another, tile after tile is added to the mosaic of the heart’s fidelity and submission to God’s Law. The psalmist is convinced of his own rightness: contrasted, in a way characteristic of scribal wisdom, with the insolentthe wicked, and the arrogant, who neglect God’s Law, and scheme against the psalmist. But God will surely deliver those who are faithful to his Law. Torah is not only direction and delight, but a security against enemies.  

The acrostic is an aid to memory. This is a psalm to be learned in steady recitation, and has a long history of use in meditation and prayer—in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Alfred Bernheim’s Torah students speak their words aloud. Fra Angelico’s St Dominic prays through his text in silence. Both are engaged in an immemorial practice of a reading that goes beyond words. 



Dell, Katharine. 2000. ‘Get wisdom, get insight’: An introduction to Israel’s wisdom literature (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd) 

Romald A. Knox. 1949. The Old Testament, Volume II, Job-Machabees (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd)

Next exhibition: Psalms 121

Psalm 119

Revised Standard Version

119Blessed are those whose way is blameless,

who walk in the law of the Lord!

2Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,

who seek him with their whole heart,

3who also do no wrong,

but walk in his ways!

4Thou hast commanded thy precepts

to be kept diligently.

5O that my ways may be steadfast

in keeping thy statutes!

6Then I shall not be put to shame,

having my eyes fixed on all thy commandments.

7I will praise thee with an upright heart,

when I learn thy righteous ordinances.

8I will observe thy statutes;

O forsake me not utterly!

9How can a young man keep his way pure?

By guarding it according to thy word.

10With my whole heart I seek thee;

let me not wander from thy commandments!

11I have laid up thy word in my heart,

that I might not sin against thee.

12Blessed be thou, O Lord;

teach me thy statutes!

13With my lips I declare

all the ordinances of thy mouth.

14In the way of thy testimonies I delight

as much as in all riches.

15I will meditate on thy precepts,

and fix my eyes on thy ways.

16I will delight in thy statutes;

I will not forget thy word.

17Deal bountifully with thy servant,

that I may live and observe thy word.

18Open my eyes, that I may behold

wondrous things out of thy law.

19I am a sojourner on earth;

hide not thy commandments from me!

20My soul is consumed with longing

for thy ordinances at all times.

21Thou dost rebuke the insolent, accursed ones,

who wander from thy commandments;

22take away from me their scorn and contempt,

for I have kept thy testimonies.

23Even though princes sit plotting against me,

thy servant will meditate on thy statutes.

24Thy testimonies are my delight,

they are my counselors.

25My soul cleaves to the dust;

revive me according to thy word!

26When I told of my ways, thou didst answer me;

teach me thy statutes!

27Make me understand the way of thy precepts,

and I will meditate on thy wondrous works.

28My soul melts away for sorrow;

strengthen me according to thy word!

29Put false ways far from me;

and graciously teach me thy law!

30I have chosen the way of faithfulness,

I set thy ordinances before me.

31I cleave to thy testimonies, O Lord;

let me not be put to shame!

32I will run in the way of thy commandments

when thou enlargest my understanding!

33Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes;

and I will keep it to the end.

34Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law

and observe it with my whole heart.

35Lead me in the path of thy commandments,

for I delight in it.

36Incline my heart to thy testimonies,

and not to gain!

37Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;

and give me life in thy ways.

38Confirm to thy servant thy promise,

which is for those who fear thee.

39Turn away the reproach which I dread;

for thy ordinances are good.

40Behold, I long for thy precepts;

in thy righteousness give me life!

41Let thy steadfast love come to me, O Lord,

thy salvation according to thy promise;

42then shall I have an answer for those who taunt me,

for I trust in thy word.

43And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth,

for my hope is in thy ordinances.

44I will keep thy law continually,

for ever and ever;

45and I shall walk at liberty,

for I have sought thy precepts.

46I will also speak of thy testimonies before kings,

and shall not be put to shame;

47for I find my delight in thy commandments,

which I love.

48I revere thy commandments, which I love,

and I will meditate on thy statutes.

49Remember thy word to thy servant,

in which thou hast made me hope.

50This is my comfort in my affliction

that thy promise gives me life.

51Godless men utterly deride me,

but I do not turn away from thy law.

52When I think of thy ordinances from of old,

I take comfort, O Lord.

53Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked,

who forsake thy law.

54Thy statutes have been my songs

in the house of my pilgrimage.

55I remember thy name in the night, O Lord,

and keep thy law.

56This blessing has fallen to me,

that I have kept thy precepts.

57The Lord is my portion;

I promise to keep thy words.

58I entreat thy favor with all my heart;

be gracious to me according to thy promise.

59When I think of thy ways,

I turn my feet to thy testimonies;

60I hasten and do not delay

to keep thy commandments.

61Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me,

I do not forget thy law.

62At midnight I rise to praise thee,

because of thy righteous ordinances.

63I am a companion of all who fear thee,

of those who keep thy precepts.

64The earth, O Lord, is full of thy steadfast love;

teach me thy statutes!

65Thou hast dealt well with thy servant,

Lord, according to thy word.

66Teach me good judgment and knowledge,

for I believe in thy commandments.

67Before I was afflicted I went astray;

but now I keep thy word.

68Thou art good and doest good;

teach me thy statutes.

69The godless besmear me with lies,

but with my whole heart I keep thy precepts;

70their heart is gross like fat,

but I delight in thy law.

71It is good for me that I was afflicted,

that I might learn thy statutes.

72The law of thy mouth is better to me

than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

73Thy hands have made and fashioned me;

give me understanding that I may learn thy commandments.

74Those who fear thee shall see me and rejoice,

because I have hoped in thy word.

75I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right,

and that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me.

76Let thy steadfast love be ready to comfort me

according to thy promise to thy servant.

77Let thy mercy come to me, that I may live;

for thy law is my delight.

78Let the godless be put to shame,

because they have subverted me with guile;

as for me, I will meditate on thy precepts.

79Let those who fear thee turn to me,

that they may know thy testimonies.

80May my heart be blameless in thy statutes,

that I may not be put to shame!

81My soul languishes for thy salvation;

I hope in thy word.

82My eyes fail with watching for thy promise;

I ask, “When wilt thou comfort me?”

83For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke,

yet I have not forgotten thy statutes.

84How long must thy servant endure?

When wilt thou judge those who persecute me?

85Godless men have dug pitfalls for me,

men who do not conform to thy law.

86All thy commandments are sure;

they persecute me with falsehood; help me!

87They have almost made an end of me on earth;

but I have not forsaken thy precepts.

88In thy steadfast love spare my life,

that I may keep the testimonies of thy mouth.

89For ever, O Lord, thy word

is firmly fixed in the heavens.

90Thy faithfulness endures to all generations;

thou hast established the earth, and it stands fast.

91By thy appointment they stand this day;

for all things are thy servants.

92If thy law had not been my delight,

I should have perished in my affliction.

93I will never forget thy precepts;

for by them thou hast given me life.

94I am thine, save me;

for I have sought thy precepts.

95The wicked lie in wait to destroy me;

but I consider thy testimonies.

96I have seen a limit to all perfection,

but thy commandment is exceedingly broad.

97Oh, how I love thy law!

It is my meditation all the day.

98Thy commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,

for it is ever with me.

99I have more understanding than all my teachers,

for thy testimonies are my meditation.

100I understand more than the aged,

for I keep thy precepts.

101I hold back my feet from every evil way,

in order to keep thy word.

102I do not turn aside from thy ordinances,

for thou hast taught me.

103How sweet are thy words to my taste,

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

104Through thy precepts I get understanding;

therefore I hate every false way.

105Thy word is a lamp to my feet

and a light to my path.

106I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,

to observe thy righteous ordinances.

107I am sorely afflicted;

give me life, O Lord, according to thy word!

108Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord,

and teach me thy ordinances.

109I hold my life in my hand continually,

but I do not forget thy law.

110The wicked have laid a snare for me,

but I do not stray from thy precepts.

111Thy testimonies are my heritage for ever;

yea, they are the joy of my heart.

112I incline my heart to perform thy statutes

for ever, to the end.

113I hate double-minded men,

but I love thy law.

114Thou art my hiding place and my shield;

I hope in thy word.

115Depart from me, you evildoers,

that I may keep the commandments of my God.

116Uphold me according to thy promise, that I may live,

and let me not be put to shame in my hope!

117Hold me up, that I may be safe

and have regard for thy statutes continually!

118Thou dost spurn all who go astray from thy statutes;

yea, their cunning is in vain.

119All the wicked of the earth thou dost count as dross;

therefore I love thy testimonies.

120My flesh trembles for fear of thee,

and I am afraid of thy judgments.

121I have done what is just and right;

do not leave me to my oppressors.

122Be surety for thy servant for good;

let not the godless oppress me.

123My eyes fail with watching for thy salvation,

and for the fulfilment of thy righteous promise.

124Deal with thy servant according to thy steadfast love,

and teach me thy statutes.

125I am thy servant; give me understanding,

that I may know thy testimonies!

126It is time for the Lord to act,

for thy law has been broken.

127Therefore I love thy commandments

above gold, above fine gold.

128Therefore I direct my steps by all thy precepts;

I hate every false way.

129Thy testimonies are wonderful;

therefore my soul keeps them.

130The unfolding of thy words gives light;

it imparts understanding to the simple.

131With open mouth I pant,

because I long for thy commandments.

132Turn to me and be gracious to me,

as is thy wont toward those who love thy name.

133Keep steady my steps according to thy promise,

and let no iniquity get dominion over me.

134Redeem me from man’s oppression,

that I may keep thy precepts.

135Make thy face shine upon thy servant,

and teach me thy statutes.

136My eyes shed streams of tears,

because men do not keep thy law.

137Righteous art thou, O Lord,

and right are thy judgments.

138Thou hast appointed thy testimonies in righteousness

and in all faithfulness.

139My zeal consumes me,

because my foes forget thy words.

140Thy promise is well tried,

and thy servant loves it.

141I am small and despised,

yet I do not forget thy precepts.

142Thy righteousness is righteous for ever,

and thy law is true.

143Trouble and anguish have come upon me,

but thy commandments are my delight.

144Thy testimonies are righteous for ever;

give me understanding that I may live.

145With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord!

I will keep thy statutes.

146I cry to thee; save me,

that I may observe thy testimonies.

147I rise before dawn and cry for help;

I hope in thy words.

148My eyes are awake before the watches of the night,

that I may meditate upon thy promise.

149Hear my voice in thy steadfast love;

Lord, in thy justice preserve my life.

150They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose;

they are far from thy law.

151But thou art near, O Lord,

and all thy commandments are true.

152Long have I known from thy testimonies

that thou hast founded them for ever.

153Look on my affliction and deliver me,

for I do not forget thy law.

154Plead my cause and redeem me;

give me life according to thy promise!

155Salvation is far from the wicked,

for they do not seek thy statutes.

156Great is thy mercy, O Lord;

give me life according to thy justice.

157Many are my persecutors and my adversaries,

but I do not swerve from thy testimonies.

158I look at the faithless with disgust,

because they do not keep thy commands.

159Consider how I love thy precepts!

Preserve my life according to thy steadfast love.

160The sum of thy word is truth;

and every one of thy righteous ordinances endures for ever.

161Princes persecute me without cause,

but my heart stands in awe of thy words.

162I rejoice at thy word

like one who finds great spoil.

163I hate and abhor falsehood,

but I love thy law.

164Seven times a day I praise thee

for thy righteous ordinances.

165Great peace have those who love thy law;

nothing can make them stumble.

166I hope for thy salvation, O Lord,

and I do thy commandments.

167My soul keeps thy testimonies;

I love them exceedingly.

168I keep thy precepts and testimonies,

for all my ways are before thee.

169Let my cry come before thee, O Lord;

give me understanding according to thy word!

170Let my supplication come before thee;

deliver me according to thy word.

171My lips will pour forth praise

that thou dost teach me thy statutes.

172My tongue will sing of thy word,

for all thy commandments are right.

173Let thy hand be ready to help me,

for I have chosen thy precepts.

174I long for thy salvation, O Lord,

and thy law is my delight.

175Let me live, that I may praise thee,

and let thy ordinances help me.

176I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant,

for I do not forget thy commandments.