August 15 – Psalms as poetic expression

August 15, 2020 Randy Bushey

~by Randy Bushey

The heavens declare the glory of God;
     the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
     night after night they display knowledge.
(Psalm 22:1,2).

If you were asked to name an Old Testament (OT) book of poetry, chances are you’d select the Psalms.

And yet, Hebrew scholars contend that almost one-third of the OT is written in an identified form of poetic expression.

All of the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Lamentations is composed in poetry, as is most of Job and Ecclesiastes. That may be more obvious as you look at the layout of the text in your Bible.

However, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, poetry was the communication genre employed in many prophetic books, too. Several minor prophets and large portions of major prophets including the well-beloved 2nd section of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) are written in poetry.

In fact, only a handful of OT books contains no poetry, including Leviticus as the only book of Pentateuch/Torah to contain none.

But, when it comes to thinking of Hebrew poetry, we naturally think of the Psalms, a collection of 150 independent poems – prayers and praises for public worship, expressing private meditation.

The Book of Psalms is assembled for some reason that’s hard to decipher, into 5 books. Some Hebrew experts see the 5 subdivided again into a total of 10 literary units.

In response to the resulting questions of purpose and structure, one theory suggests that the final Psalm in each of the 5 books signifies a point of transition and provides a concluding individual theme.

Analysts of the Psalms speak of authors – 90 of the 150 are attributed to a specific author (or recipient?) – but a different, more elusive puzzle is to speculate who selected, edited and compiled the Psalter?

And yet the mystery of how or why units are assembled as they are remains.

As readers, we generally cannot use historical context as an interpretive tool as is done in other OT books, although some Psalms give us a historical clue in the introductory notes:
– Psalm 3: A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
– Psalm 59: A Miktam of David, when Saul sent men to watch his house in order to kill him.

One of the most familiar in terms of historical backdrop is Psalm 51. It is introduced with this blunt summation exposing forever in poetic form, David’s sin and repentance: A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba

Clearly, Hebrew poetry is not what conventionally passes for poetry in English. Our poems and song lyrics employ rhyming, rhythm, and meter.

Bible scholars Hill & Walton comment: “…little is known about the exact nature of biblical Hebrew poetry. Unlike its classical and modern counterparts, ancient Hebrew poetry has no distinctive scheme of accentuation, meter, or rhythm to differentiate it from prose.” *

Hebrew poetry expert Allen P. Ross explains further: “The fact that the psalms are artistic means that they display in fuller measure and with greater frequency the components of artistic form, including patterns, design, unity, balance, harmony and variation. The psalmist were imaginative and creative; they regarded their artistry as crucial to the meaning of its content.”**

Psalms are intended to be read aloud.

But rather than a rhythm of sound or words, Hebrew poetry frequently uses a rhythm of thought.

This is seen best in parallelism, a common feature of Hebrew poetic writing. The author formulates an imaginative and creative awareness, evoking an emotional and theological response by laying phrases side-by-side.

In the most elementary form of synonymous parallelism, the author simply states much the same sentiment or image by saying it twice, but using different language and imagery to do so.

It structures a counterbalancing of ideas.

Psalm 22 provides a clear example, expressing how the Lord has broadcast His existence and something of His character to all mankind through His creation:

v.1 – The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Really no significant additional content is revealed in the 2nd phrase; the imagery is similar although the wording is changed. Rather the creative and memorable point is made by this unique form of repetitive emphasis.

The next verse illustrates the point:

v.2 – Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

Takeaway: The Psalms pose many riddles – authorial, contextual and interpretive.

Yet for comfort, reassurance, and encouragement, God’s people in every era have turned to the spiritual riches of the Psalter, Israel’s poetic book of prayer, praise and worship.

In our current preaching series, may we at Bethel learn to more deeply value and love the Psalms!

*A Survey of the Old Testament, Andrew E. Hill & John H. Walton; Zondervan,
Grand Rapids, 2000.

**The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, John Walvoord &
Roy Zuck, editors; Victor Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1985.

~graphic by Marcos Santos, freeimages.com