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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
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
More often, however, parallel versets repeat meaning.
In Psalm 40:8, the
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!