Hebrew Poetry and Psalms
A Meditation of the Psalms
“The prophets teach one thing, historians another, the Law something else, and the form of advice found in the Proverbs something different still. But the Book of Psalms has taken over what is profitable from all….It is the common treasury of good doctrine, carefully finding what is suitable for each one….On the whole it effaces, as far as is possible, the passions, which subtly exercise dominion over souls during the lifetime of man, and it does this with a certain orderly persuasion and sweetness which produces sound thoughts.”
St Basil of Caesarea, Homily 10 (on Psalm 1), vol. 46, pp.151f. CUA Fathers of the Church, Washington DC, 1963.
Though the Psalms are poetic they are also to some extent prophetic, and they presuppose the prophetic movement and work in tandem with it to propose a religion for Israel that embraces both worship and social action. The themes of prophecy show up but transmuted from imperatives to the declarative and the indicative, from the language of intent and purpose to that of prayer and praise.
One finds the prophetic theme already sounded in Psalm 1, but in a personal rather than a collective sense: “Blessed is the man,” not the nation. The good and evil contrast sound throughout the opening kathisma, and remind us of the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “I discovered that the line between good and evil runs through each human heart.”
Psalm 2 brings in the theme of foolishness, which is in clear contrast to wisdom (chokmah), the prized value and sought attribute of these writings (see also Psalms 14 and 63). Indeed, the heaviest concentration of words for fools and foolishness is found in the wisdom literature. There are several terms with nabal being chief. The fool is not only stupid; stupidity is a lesser meaning. The primary idea of foolishness is immorality. Psalm 14 underscores the idea that foolishness is the obstinate refusal to recognize God. In the biblical perspective, this equates with unreasonableness.
Another note that comes through clearly in the early Psalms is that of God’s ability to turn (shuv > t’shuvah = “repentance”) in the face of the judgments made against the nations and, especially, Israel (Ps. 9, 17). This is governed by Israel’s adherence to Torah (19), the mark of the covenant (25).
But Israel must also turn to God. Psalms 105,106, and 114 rehearse the history of the covenant in such a way as to urge Israel’s remembrance of God – one of the great themes of the Old Testament, and one that comes over into the New Testament with particular reference to the remembrance” (anamnesis) of the mighty deeds of God in Christ at the anaphora of the eucharist. God has shown his “steadfast love” (chesed) to Israel in so many ways: in Ps. 98 chesed is defined by faithfulness; in 101 by justice, and in all cases it is “forever”(106:1, 107:1). In the face of Israel’s apostasy and religious syncretism, God remains faithful and will reach out to Israel in times of distress. 107:7, 14, 20, 29); those who recognize the tender mercies of God possess wisdom (chokmah), and they “bless the Lord” both individually and collectively – a berakah for a berakah (Ps. 103:1, 104:1). The idea of blessing God became the basic formula for Hebrew prayers, and comes over into Christian prayer as well.
So Israel – and individual Israelites – must learn to “wait” on the Holy One (Ps. 27:14, 62, and elsewhere) and to seek refuge (31) in God who is the rock and fortress (46). Israel waits upon God with words like “O Lord save your people and bless your inheritance” (28). The phrase, by the way, used in Psalm 27:14 is formulaic; it occurs at Joshua 1:8 and it has the force of a commission.
This waiting involves the vows we offer. These include the intent to live according to the commandments (mitzvoth) of the covenant (b’rith) (see Ps. 56:12, 50:14), and they may be expressed by sacrifices in the Temple.
In all the Psalms we see an attitude that God is involved in history. If things go well, then so be it: this shows that God blesses Israel. If things go awry, as they frequently do, this is sign that Israel has strayed from the covenant. Even so Israel experiences grace in victory, judgment in loss. But at no time is God ever dissociated from his people. They are wed throughout time and eternity and their histories are intertwined: this is the meaning of election.
The Psalms are ordinarily bounded by petition and thanksgiving, but these borders can be exceeded. Lament is the extreme that occurs on the nether side of simple petition, especially when one feels that the petition has not been heard. Praise is the joyous and ecstatic outburst that exceeds basic thanksgiving. Indeed, numerous Psalms have been known throughout history as Hallel-Psalms because their content is ecstatic praise. Psalms 113-118 usually count as Hallel, but the category includes also 136 (called the “great hallel”) and sometimes 145-150. Psalms 113-118 are recited the first night of Passover; Psalm 136 at the Seder.
The psalms are grounded in memory and hope. Memory is the human faculty at the core of organizing what’s important to individual and community. Hope is the forward thrust of the organized memory. To some extent we can also say that we remember the future and hope in the past.
The Psalms grew out of the life of a people and nation whose organizing principle is worship of the God who “brought us out of the house of bondage into a land flowing with milk and honey.” The life of Israel was governed by God’s centrality to their history and covenant. He is the God who does wonders (77) – “signs and wonders” – who knows the number of the birds (50), who cares for the poor (41), who enables the meek to inherit the earth (37). He is the God who does wonders; his magnalia are all about us but they are centered in Israel’s salvation (44, 104, 136); his tender mercies endure forever. “As wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God” (68:2)
Hebrew poetry is based on rhyming meter, not on rhyming sound. The meter exhibits anacrusis, a literary term that indicates the stress falls after the opening syllable(s). Rhythm is central to the lyrics of the poetry and, in concert with parallelism, is a tool for word definition. Meter and parallelism are the two chief characteristics of Hebrew poetry.
Meter is based on sound and involves counting accented syllables. There are two main types of Hebrew meter:
- 3:3 (Psalm 26, Job) – dada dada dada: dada dada dada – varied occasionally by 2:2:2 (in prophets) and 3:3:3 (e.g. Psalm 24:7-10) –
- 3:2 (called qinah, meaning lament – e.g. Lamentations 3:19-21) – dada dada dada: dada dada – varied occasionally by 2:2, 2:3, and even 4:3.
Other sound qualities in Hebrew poetry include onomatopoeia, alliteration, and paranomasia (word plays, e.g. Amos 8:2, Genesis 49:8). Some Hebrew poetry is acrostic, i.e. the first word of each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Lamentations 3 is a premier example; every three lines begin with the same letter, then the next three proceed to the next alphabetic letter.
Stanzas are found in Hebrew metrical poetry but there is no set length.
Parallelism is the major characteristic of Hebrew poetry besides metric rhythm. Parallelism means that one sense unit or verse follows another to amplify, expand, or sometimes to contrast the meaning of the first sense unit. Every verse in Hebrew poetry has at least two units, the second of which, more or less completely, satisfies the expectation raised by the first unit either rhythmically or syntactically. The principal forms of parallelism are:
- synonymous, in which the second verse expands and intensifies the first (see e.g., Psalm 19:1-2; 102:1-3; 104:32-33); this involves a move from general to specific references, also; and
- antithetic, in which the second half states the truth of the first by negation (see e.g. Psalm 73:26; 1:6; Proverbs 11:1, 8, 10, 20); and
- synthetic, in which the second half completes the thought of the first (e.g. Psalm 24:3-4; 29:1-2, 37:3, and 94:1,3); and
- climactic, or staircase, in which the lines successively build toward a climax or summation (Habakkuk 1:2 is a good example).
External parallelism refers to the continuation of the same sense across several verses or thought units (e.g. Isaiah 1:27-28). Internal parallelism refers to the individual line of poetry.
Despite these efforts, James Luther Mays, in the Interpretation commentary on Psalms, says that parallelism is so dominant a characteristic that “the ways in which the parallels work cannot be reduced to a few categories” (p. 5).
Literary devices characterize Hebrew poetry. The psalms and other Hebrew poems aim to create and evoke imagery in reader/hearer’s mind. Metaphor and simile are major poetic tools. Hyperbole abounds in Hebrew poetry. The abundance of literary devices throughout Hebrew poetry tells us that the Psalms may and ought not be taken literally. We are dealing in the Psalms with the connotative dimensions of language, not simple denotation.
Types of O. T. Poetry include
- tribal and local songs (e.g. the Song of Deborah at Judges 5)
- spells (curses and blessings, as at Deuteronomy 28)
- meshalim (proverbs and others; “mashal” means likeness, parable)
- paeans, or songs of triumph (e.g. the Song of Miriam at Exodus 15)
- dirges (e.g. Jeremiah 9:17ff)
Types of Psalms
The simple hymn, or song of praise, which arises from the community’s desire to show thanksgiving to God – German scholar Hermann Gunkel (who was one of the major Psalm scholars at the turn of the 20th century) believed that the hymn arose from the shouting or chanting of the word Hallelujah! – examples are Psalms 40, 89, 90. Often the hymns were composed for specific purposes, as in the entrance psalms, of which 24 is a classic example.
The community lament, which usually arose from national tragedies like war, pestilence, and famine. The community lament seeks to discern the hand of God in the midst of such tragedies – examples are Pss. 44, 74, 79, 80, and 83.
The individual lament, which is an outgrowth of community worship. This type is concerned with evil which has befallen the individual worshiper. A lament will often be mixed with thanksgiving, as is the case with Psalm 22 (well-known from the cross of Christ), which begins with a funereal dirge and ends with a tremendous affirmation of faith in God’s power to uphold the faithful – examples are Pss. 3, 5, 6, 7, 13, 17, and 22. Penitential psalms are a form of individual lament of which the best known is Psalm 51.
The individual thanksgiving is related to hymns of praise – examples are Pss. 30, 32, 41, 66 116, and 118. Jeremiah 33:11 contains a short song in this verse: Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good and his steadfast love endures forever! This verse is also found in Ps. 100:4f; 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, and 136:1.
The royal psalms (2, 20, 21, 45, 72,101, 110, 128, 132, and 144:1-11) are a type unto themselves. These psalms are connected with the coronation of the king, but their form and language indicate that, even though the king is perceived as God’s regent on earth, the king is pledged to constant obedience in order that the covenant with God may be kept sacrosanct. This king is, in essence, an embodiment of the whole people’s relationship to God in these Psalms, which is in keeping with the construct of Hebrew man (see Ludwig Koehler’s classic) as corporate personality (H. Wheeler Robinson). According to Mowinckel, the enthronement hymns (2, 21, 72, and 110) are a major type of royal psalm.
The community thanksgiving is related to the individual thanksgiving, but demonstrates the liturgical basis of thanksgiving rendered by all the people. Examples are Psalms 66:8-12, 67, 124, and possibly 129.
Besides these principal categories, there are a handful of minor types as well. These include wisdom psalms (1, 37, 49, 83, 112, and 128), torah- or entrance-liturgies (15, 24), pilgrim songs (84, 122), blessings and curses (32, 412, 112, 137), and prophetic psalms (47, 93, 97, and 98). Psalms 111 and 112 are acrostics.
Numbering of the Psalms and Proverbs
There is a difference between the Psalms as enumerated according to the Greek (called the Septuagint, symbol LXX) and the Hebrew Bible (called the Masoretic Text, symbol MT). The LXX is divided into kathismata, and each kathisma is further sub-divided into three Stases, which conclude with a doxology
The Enumeration of Psalms Between the Churches
- LXX MT
- 1 – 8 1 – 8
- 9 9 – 10
- 10 – 112 11 – 113
- 113 114 – 115
- 114 116:1-9
- 115 116:10-19
- 116 – 145 117 – 146
- 146 147:1 – 11
- 147 147:12 – 20
- 148 – 150 148 – 150
The Book of Psalms Divided in the Western Church
- Book I – psalms 1-41
- Book II – psalms 42-72 II & III originally considered 1 book
- Book III – psalms 73-89
- Book IV – psalms 90-106 IV & V originally considered 1 book
- Book V – psalms 107-150
Stasis 1 Psalm numbers
Stasis 2 Psalm numbers
Stasis 3 Psalm numbers
Division of the Book of Proverbs
Book Chapters Attribution
- I. 1 – 9 Proverbs of Solomon
- II. 10 – 22.16 Proverbs of Solomon
- III. 22.17-24.22 Words of the Wise (close to “Teaching of Amenemope”)
- IV. 24.23-34 Additional Words of the Wise
- V. 25 – 29 Proverbs of Solomon gathered by the men of Hezekiah
- VI. 30 Words of Agur, son of Yakeh the Massaite
- VII. 31:1-9 Words of Lemuel, King of Massa, that his mother taught
- VIII. 31:10-31 The Virtuous woman