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A psalm is a religious poem or song set to music. Some of the psalms in the Book of Psalms are hymns to be sung by a congregation, and “Songs of Ascent” to be sung by pilgrims approaching the Temple. Some are private prayers, and some are lyrical devices for recalling historical events in Israel’s history. In its current form, the Book of Psalms contains one hundred and fifty individual psalms, although this number may vary in different biblical translations.
Traditionally, the psalms are separated into five books, and many poems are further distinguished by brief titles attributing the given work to a specific author, though these titles were probably added at a later date by an editor or group of editors of the psalms; the authorship of the psalms is uncertain at best. Because the subject matter of the psalms ranges from the events of King David’s dynasty to the exile of the Israelites in Babylon, the poems may have been composed anywhere from the tenth century b.c. to the sixth century b.c. or later.
Many of the psalms rehearse episodes of Israel’s history, especially the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and its arrival in the promised land. Psalm 137 is a beautiful lament of the early days of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. The poem opens with the image of the Israelites weeping by the banks of the Babylonian rivers, longing for Jerusalem, or Zion. When their captors ask the Israelites to sing for them, the Israelites refuse, hanging their harps on the branches of the willow trees. The poet asks, “How could we sing the Lord’s / song / in a foreign land?” (137:4). The poem ends with a call for vengeance on the Babylonians. It acts as an earnest reminder both to the exiled Israelites and to later biblical readers of the importance of the promised land for the celebration of the Jewish faith.
A majority of the biblical psalms are devoted to expressing praise or thanksgiving to God. Psalm 8, for instance, is a communal or public declaration of praise to God for his relationship with creation. The poet praises God for his command over each level of creation, beginning with the cosmos, then descending gradually to humankind, the animals, and, lastly, the sea. The speaker expresses amazement that God, who is above the heavens, not only concerns himself with the welfare of humans but places humans directly beneath himself in importance, granting them authority over the rest of creation, which is “under their feet” (8:6). Poems such as Psalm 46 praise “the city of God” or “Zion” for being God’s home, and many of the psalms suggest a grand entrance to Jerusalem, such as Psalm 100: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, / and his courts with praise” (100:4). Similarly, when the speaker says in Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes to the hills,” the poem conveys the expectation and longing of the Jewish worshipper as he approaches the Temple in Jerusalem (121:1).
Another category of psalms includes laments or supplications, poems in which the author requests relief from his physical suffering and his enemies. These enemies may be actual, such as opposing nations or public accusers, or they may be figurative depictions of an encroaching spiritual evil. In Psalm 22, the speaker characterizes the band of nondescript evildoers that trouble the poet as a series of approaching ravenous animals—first bulls, then roaring lions, and then dogs. The evildoers surround the speaker, staring at and gloating over his now shriveled and emaciated body, finally stripping him of his clothes. In verse nineteen, the speaker cries for God’s relief, and God proceeds to deliver him from each of the three beasts in reverse order—first from the dog, then from the lion, and finally from the wild oxen. God’s sudden rescue complete, the psalm of lament becomes a psalm of thanksgiving as the speaker vows to announce God’s praises to all of Israel.
Supplication and lament are integral parts of another type of psalm, in which the poet moves from despair over his own wrongdoing to a profession of deeper faith in God. These are some of the most beloved psalms, for they are deeply personal poems that offer hope of redemption for the individual. The poet decries his spiritual despair using metaphors similar to the psalms of lament. In Psalm 40, the poet is stuck in a “desolate / pit” and a “miry bog” until God sets him “upon a rock” (40:2). The poet walks through dark valleys in Psalm 23, his body wastes away in Psalm 32, and his bones are crushed in Psalm 51. God relieves the poet by acting as a “refuge,” a “strong fortress,” and a “hiding place” (31:2, 32:7).
Psalms devoted to wisdom use proverbs or catchy rhetorical devices to give moral instructions to the reader. For example, Psalm 127 opens with a quaint proverb to encourage the listener’s devotion to God: “Unless the Lord builds the house, / those who build it labor in vain” (127:1). Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the Bible with 176 verses, is a meditation on God’s law using an acrostic—a poem in which each segment begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
The poet of Psalms consistently uses parallelism to enhance his meaning. Unlike Roman poetry, in which rhythm and meter are structured around a pattern of stressed syllables, biblical poetry is largely based on pairings of “versets”—segments or halves of verses and lines, usually only a handful of words long. These versets “parallel” each other, the second verset reiterating or expanding upon the ideas of the first verset. Sometimes, parallel versets repeat the same words:
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. (29:5)
More often, however, parallel versets repeat meaning. In Psalm 40:8, the speaker says,
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart. (40:8)
Here, the poet restates that obedience to God is very important to him. The second line, however, offers the reader new and more specific information, affirming, in figurative language, that God’s commandments are so precious to the speaker that they reside in his heart. In this way, the parallelism of meaning in biblical poetry is not just a system of redundant lines. Rather, parallelism of meaning helps develop the imagery and ideas within each psalm by creating the occasion for analogies, greater detail, and showing how one event or idea follows from another.
Despite the sheer number and variety of the psalms, the metaphors throughout the one hundred and fifty poems are consistent. The poet’s enemies are typically described as listless or transient creatures, usually wild animals or approaching natural catastrophes. Psalm 91 characterizes the speaker’s enemies as “deadly pestilence,” as well as lions and serpents, and Psalm 1 compares the wicked to chaff blowing in the wind. The poet or protagonist, on the other hand, is typically one who is lost or displaced. In Psalm 42, the poet refers to himself as a deer searching for flowing streams, and in other poems, the speaker is wandering on a dangerous path or stuck in a ditch or a bog. God, however, is frequently spoken of in geological or geographical terms. He is a rock, a refuge, and a fortress; he resides in the hills and, more importantly, in Zion, the city of Jerusalem. In a sense, God is himself a location, a “hiding place” in Psalm 32 and someone who draws “boundary lines” for the poet (16:6). Even as a shepherd in Psalm 23, God directs the wandering poet to “green pastures” and welcomes him to a table—a centralized location. These images of God as a place of protection that is somehow united with the land elaborate the promised land of the Old Testament as a symbol of Israel’s religious well-being.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bible: The Old Testament!