Psalms – An Introduction 1

POETRY

The way in which YHWH communicated to his people is important, and spoken or sung Hebrew poetry would communicate differently from spoken Hebrew prose. Likewise, spoken and sung poetry will communicate differently to a people for whom that is their normal way of communicating with each other, while many people are used to reading in order to learn. Hebrew is a spoken and sung language – not a written and reading language.

The Psalms are sung poetry, and need to be approached as such. Poems plus music equals songs, and songs appeal to the imagination and reach in to touch the will, the emotions, and to draw people into a closer and more intimate relationship with YHWH.

The Psalms are the Tehillim – the praise book – of Israel, and they are meant to be sung. The Hebrew root of the word Tehillim means to ‘jump’ or ‘dance’ in the way that light jumps and dances, and therefore in the way that it can ‘shed light on’ something. The Psalms shed light on life, and that light is the light of God’s purpose in life.

Poetry is often difficult to define as there are language and cultural differences in poetry at any given time, and the passage of time certainly alters the form and use of poetry. This is especially true of Old Testament Hebrew poetry where form and content are both important, and where figurative language is also used, especially metaphors, and where different kinds of rhythm are employed.

In the Old Testament, YHWH always spoke to his people through poetry, and that was sophisticated Hebrew poetry – and not what we in the West know as poetry with rhyme and metre. Poetic devices used in the Hebrew Scriptures include: Parallelism, Repetition, Ellipsis, Chiastic Structures, Inclusio, Acrostic, Imagery, Simile, and Metaphor.

Examples of Acrostic psalms are: 9:1-20, 10:1-18, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145. Repetition is used extensively in the Psalms (as well as in the rest of the Old Testament) and is a way of reinforcing a point in the way that parents will do with their children. YHWH often reinforced what he said to his children through repetition.

Hebrew poetry has sense rhythm – not sound rhythm – and this is translatable into other languages. Hebrew, Akkadian and Ugaritic poetry employ sense rhythm, though the relationship between the lines is not always the same.

IDENTICAL or SYNONYMOUS PARALLELISM

This is where two (or more) lines have similar meaning (34:1,3,5,13).

ANTITHETICAL PARALLELISM

This is where two lines provide a contrast (34:10)

SYNTHETIC PARALLELISM

This is where the second (or subsequent) line supplements or complements the first line (34:2,4,6,7,9). This type is difficult to maintain and it has differences and similarities to other parallelism, and has been discredited by some scholars.

For example, what kind of parallelism is found in Psalm 103:7? Sense rhythm encourages us to think, and the second line of a couplet is often more precise or specific than the first line. The second line drives us back to line one again to get the fullness of the idea being expressed. The meaning of the couplet is found in the interpretation of each line in the light of the other. So Psalm 34:1 leads from blessing to the specific of speaking, while Psalm 34:13 leads from evil to the stress of deceit. There is also a lot of word play in Hebrew poetry, and Psalm 93 uses the theme of immovability.

Many figures of speech and metaphors are very evocative and convey far more meaning than mere abstract statements about God. (Consider ‘God loves you’ compared to the descriptions of his love throughout the Psalms. See also Psalm 23:1). Nevertheless, the figure of speech should not be stretched further than the author intended. Psalm 23:1 says that God is a shepherd, but the Old Testament shepherd led the sheep to slaughter! Don’t make Scripture teach your own ideas!

How do we decide what is literal and what is figurative? Consider Psalms 18:4,5,16 and 22:6,12,13,16,20,21. Where imagery changes to convey some thought or meaning, then it would suggest metaphorical use. A series of metaphors may suggest progression. Is Psalm 64:2–4 and the rock, refuge, tower, tent and refuge an intimate progression, or separate pictures?

Psalm 103:11–13 speak of the heavens, the east and the father; this suggests an intimate progression. Figurative language in the Psalms can also be enriched from other Old Testament Scriptures. Psalm 61 speaks of a rock, and so do Deuteronomy 32:4, 15, 18, 30, 31 which are five instances that speak of God as a rock. See Genesis 49:24. Consider Psalm 18:2,31,46 and also Psalm 16:5,6 where the portion of verse five becomes the cup of verse six. The thought of spiritual (rather than land) inheritance is found in Deuteronomy 10:9 and Psalm 16:5, 6.

The literary features of a psalm must be the servant of its meaning. The expression itself is not just an experience of appreciation, but must help to convey the intended meaning. Beauty serves truth through meaning. See Psalm 68:15-18, Psalms 84, and 110.

SCHOLARS AND THE PSALMS

Scholars have seen the Psalms in different ways. Here are some of the ways that some scholars approached the largest book in the Scriptures:

  • Wellhausen saw the Psalms as devotional material for use in personal piety and didn’t classify them.
  • Duhm was more concerned with dating the Psalms rather than classifying them, and saw them as late and not Davidic.
  • Gunkel saw each Psalm in its life context and was a great classifier of the Psalms.
  • Mowinckel held the Psalms as used in Israel’s worship and he built on the work of Gunkel. He also saw the Psalms as dating from much earlier than Duhm did.
  • Wieser was similar views to Mowinckel, but saw the Psalms as having festival use.

 Kraus saw the Psalms as coming from the festivals recalling the capture and establishment of Jerusalem – including some Jebusite traditions.

 Seybold thought that the Psalms were composed with fasts in mind, and came from the exile and post-exilic period.

Westermann related the Psalms to people’s joy and God’s intervention in the affairs of the nation and the individual. Some Psalms thank God for his intervention, while laments arose at concern over God’s apparent non-intervention.

Gerstenberger moved away from the influence of the Psalms at the temple and saw them as related to domestic home rituals. He was interested in the pastoral function of small communities and the use to which they put the Psalms.

Brueggemann identified Psalms of orientation (1), disorientation (44) and reorientation (73).

 The biggest current interest is to see the book of Psalms a whole unit. There is also a renewed interest in the return to using them for personal piety. Psalms of lament have generated a great deal of interest since the mid-eighties. However, the interest in the Psalms is not in trying to criticise and source the text, but rather in the text itself.

Each Psalm should be read as a complete text in itself, set in the wider context of the five books of Psalms, then in the even wider context of the Book of Psalms as a whole before seeing the Book of Psalms in the context of the whole Old Testament.

SCHOLARS AND THE TYPES OF PSALMS

THANKSGIVING

There are generally seen to be two kinds of thanksgiving Psalms: Declarative and Descriptive. Declarative psalms tend to be individual (30, 40) and thank God for something specific that he has done. Descriptive psalms focus in on God himself and are concerned with who and what he is.

 LAMENTS

Some are communal, some are individual. Some of the saddest Psalms are communal (44, 74) and there are different types of lament. Some deal with sickness (6, 31, 38), some of the psalmists are accused (7, 17, 26, 27), some are about the oppressed (3, 10, 13, 35), and some are psalms of the penitent (38, 39, 41).

ROYAL

Some Psalms deal with royal enthronement (2, 72, 101), marriage (45), impending battle (21), post-battle (18, 144), and royal laments (89).

 WISDOM

The recognised core wisdom Psalms are 1, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127 and 128. There are three types of wisdom Psalms. Question Psalms ask ‘why’ and search for meaning and other quests. Blessing Psalms extol the virtue of living a life after God (1, 32–34, 40). Teaching Psalms are designed to convey a message, and especially through the overall view of the five books of Psalms.

PROPHETIC WORD

These are oracles similar to those of the prophets (36, 45, 49), they refer to previous prophecies (132:11-18, 2 Samuel 7), and they deal with the word of God and the law (1, 19, 119).

COMBINATION

Quite a lot of Psalms start as laments and end with thanksgiving (77). These Psalms are true to spiritual experience (22).  A few start with praise and end as laments (89).

THREEFOLD

Tournay (among others) introduced a useful threefold classification of Psalms – Prayer, Praise, Teaching. Nevertheless, Psalms do cross categories and we should be careful not to try to straitjacket them into one type.