Bible: The Old Testament

Psalms

Summary Psalms

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.

Poetic Form and Style

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.