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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.
The Song of Solomon is a series of lyrical poems organized
as a lengthy dialogue between a young woman and her lover. A third party,
or chorus, occasionally addresses the lovers. The first poem is spoken
by the young maiden, who longs to be near her lover and enjoy his
kisses. She explains that she has a dark complexion because her
family sends her to work in the vineyards. She searches for her
lover, comparing him to a wandering shepherd, and the chorus encourages
her to follow the flocks to his tent.
The lovers lie on a couch together. The man praises the
beauty of his beloved, comparing her to a young mare and comparing
her eyes to doves’ eyes. He describes verdant and fertile surroundings.
The maiden calls herself a rose and a lily, covered by the shade
of her beloved, a fruit tree. She compares her beloved to a lively
gazelle that arrives to take her away during spring when the plants
are budding. The maiden boasts that the man now pastures his flocks
of sheep among her lilies. She warns other women, “the daughters
of Jerusalem,” not to fall in love too early (2:7).
While in bed, the maiden dreams that she is
searching the city streets for her lover and that she finds him
and takes him home. She envisions a lavish wedding procession, in
which her happy bridegroom appears as King Solomon. The man speaks,
comparing each part of the maiden’s body to animals and precious
objects. He calls for her to come down from the mountain peaks to
be with him. With intense yearning, he characterizes her as an enclosed
“garden” full of ripe foliage and a flowing fountain (4:12–15).
The maiden bids the wind to blow on her garden and invites the man
into the garden. The man dines in the garden and calls for their
friends to celebrate with the lovers.
In another dream, the maiden hears her lover knocking
at her door late one night, but he disappears. Again, she roams
the streets, but this time the city guards accost the maiden. She
asks the “daughters of Jerusalem” to help her find her lover. The
chorus asks her to describe the young man, and she compares each
part of his body to precious metals, jewels, and animals.
The two find each other in the garden. The man
continues to praise each part of the maiden’s body. He bids her
to dance and likens her to a palm tree with breasts like fruit.
The maiden invites her lover to the fields and villages, promising
to give him her love among the blossoming vineyards. She wishes
that he were her brother so that people would not comment about
their open displays of affection. She urges him to “seal” his heart
with her love, for love is strong. The maiden thinks back on her
earlier chastity but is glad she has lost it peacefully “in his eyes”
(8:10). The man says
that, while King Solomon may have many vineyards, he is happy with
his one vineyard, the maiden.
The Song of Solomon is also called “The Song
of Songs,” suggesting that it is the greatest of all songs. The
first title implies that King Solomon composed the collection of
love poems, but Solomon’s name was probably added at a later date
by the song’s editors, perhaps because of references within the
text to the wise and prolific king. This attribution to Solomon
led to the book’s inclusion in the Hebrew Bible and later, Christian
versions of the Old Testament. Early Hebrew and Christian
scholars long maintained that the love story is an allegory of God’s
love for humankind, or of the intensity of divine love within the human
heart. However, it is undeniable that the song celebrates not only human
love but also the sensuous and mystical quality of erotic desire.
Modern scholars see similarities between The
Song of Solomon and other ancient Near-Eastern stories in which
the fertility of the earth depends upon the sexual encounter of
a male and female deity. Although the biblical maiden and her lover
themselves do not affect the fertility of the land, there are numerous
parallels between the fertile vegetation of their surroundings and
the success of their romance. The lovers recline on a green couch,
whose color suggests a connection with nature. The song also explicitly
compares the man and woman to vegetation: the woman is a flower
and the man is a fruit tree. Images of plants and frolicking animals
are symbols of life, and as such they are metaphors for the procreative
act of human sexual relations. The song’s references to spring and
the budding of plants further emphasize the budding of romantic
arousal. The couple always celebrates their love in such verdant
environments—in the wilderness, the vineyard, or the garden. It
is in the city, where plants do not grow and the city guards are
brutal, that the maiden searches for her lover but cannot find him.
The man’s comparison of the maiden to a “garden
locked” and “fountain sealed” establishes the relationship between
chastity and femininity (4:12).
The image of an enclosed garden is a metaphor for female virginity
that is frequently repeated in later medieval and Renaissance literature.
In the Song of Solomon, the closed garden suggests that the girl
is chaste and unsullied. The man’s dining in the garden implies
that the two have consummated their relationship, and his invitation
to the chorus to celebrate this event with feasting further indicates
the completion of this rite of passage. Later, the two
walk in a vineyard, and the girl remembers her earlier virginity
when she was cursed to labor in the vineyard instead of enjoying
it. Her memory while in the vineyard suggests the bittersweet nature
of the loss of innocence.
The garden motif is reminiscent of the Garden
of Eden in Genesis, where Adam and Eve enjoy God’s creation prior
to the emergence of human wickedness. The parallels to Eden in The
Song of Solomon suggest that the celebration of human sensuality
is, itself, a good and not a wicked thing. The maiden and her lover,
however, must enjoy their love within the boundaries and confines
of gardens and fields. This limitation on the enjoyment of their
sexual behavior is in keeping with the ongoing biblical theme that
there are ethical requirements for enjoying God’s promises—for Adam
and Eve to remain in the garden of Eden and for the Israelites to
dwell in the promised land.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bible: The Old Testament!