Appreciating the Psalms’ Poetic Artistry
Today is our third and final day of reading psalms. Many of the observations we have made for the previous two days still holds true here: viewing individual psalms as stand-alone compositions, identifying a psalm’s type, using psalms to commune with the Lord, and hunting down a psalm’s uniqueness. As we conclude our reading of the psalms, I would like to call our attention to the poetic artistry of the biblical psalmists and make some other remarks specific to Psalms 101-150.
Rhyme of meaning
Biblical poetry employs a rhyme of meaning (called semantic parallelism) that is best noticed or felt when you read it as lines. A Bible version with poetic layout is a great help in this regard. Take Psalm 115:3, with its two lines, as an example:
“But our God is in the heavens;
All He desires He does.”
Typically a verse will have two and maybe three lines. Read each verse and ask yourself: what is the relationship of the line below to the line above it? The relationship is typically one of three options:
Psalm 123:1 is an example of “developing parallelism,” where the second line explains who “you” is in the first line. In Psalm 115:2, the second line gives the content of what the nations say. Psalm 115:3, our example above, is also “developing”: the result of God’s living in the heavens is that He is unfettered by earthly limitations.
On occasion, a psalmist’s semantic rhyming will resemble stair steps, in the sense that he will “climb” toward his point by repeating a word. Psalm 118:10-12 stair steps toward its thesis by interchanging the words “surrounded” and “destroyed.” The triple repetition of “right hand” in verses 15-16 accomplishes something similar. Psalm 123:1-2 (“eyes”) and Psalm 124:1-2 (“If the Lord had not been on our side . . .”) provide further examples.
Sometimes, a psalm is an acrostic. Because the acrostic uses the Hebrew alphabet, it is invisible to the English reader. Psalm 145 is an acrostic (minus only one letter) but the outstanding example of an acrostic is Psalm 119, the longest of all the psalms. One reason it is so long is that it has 22 sections, reflecting the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section has eight verses and each of the eight verses in that section begins with the same Hebrew letter. By means of this extended artistry, the psalmist has skillfully expressed his heart for the words of God.
Another tool in the poet’s toolbox is imagery. Biblical poetry more pictures truth than states it. Psalms (and not just those in today’s reading) are full of figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor, allusion, personification, apostrophe, metonymy, hyperbole, and more. Psalm 52 (from yesterday’s reading) employs at least six different figures of speech. In today’s reading, Psalm 114 personifies the sea as being afraid and the mountains as skipping (vv. 3-4). “The net is broken and we have escaped” (124:7) dramatically pictures Israel’s harrowing escape from her enemies. Children are not just declared a blessing; they are likened to arrows (Ps. 127:4).
Brevity of expression and the word chesed
Psalm 136 is unique in the way it employs the same refrain through the entirety of the psalm: “for His enduring loyalty is forever.” In Hebrew, this refrain is three words with a total of six syllables--ki le‘olam chasdo—creating a short, staccato-like response to everything the psalm says about God. Brevity of expression is common in poetry. Psalm 23:1 is only four words in Hebrew; Psalm 91:1, only six.
Perhaps this is the best place to bring up the word chesed, translated as “enduring loyalty” in our discussion above of Psalm 136’s refrain. This word occurs more in Psalms than in all the other Old Testament books combined (and more times in Psalms 101-150 than in Psalms 1-100). Chesed is an important term for God’s unfailing, loyal love, especially as seen in His dealings with Israel. However, all the earth should celebrate God’s forever-enduring chesed because while Israel may be the special showcase of God’s chesed, God never intended them to be His only trophy. God’s dealings with Israel are the lens through which the world can see that Yahweh is a God of chesed. This should offer hope to all people that if they too will enter into a relationship with Yahweh, they will experience this same chesed.
New Testament and Messianic Psalms
Another help in appreciating and understanding psalms is recognizing how the New Testament often quotes from various psalms in order to bring to light their messianic implications. Psalm 110 is the psalm most quoted in the New Testament and possibly the most purely messianic of all the psalms. Hebrews 1:10-12 attributes to Jesus Psalm 102:25-27! Psalm 118:22 contains an important messianic prophecy to which Jesus (Matt. 21:42) and Peter (Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:4, 7) both allude. So many psalms have messianic implications that there is a whole category of psalms called royal or messianic psalms, which anticipate the “Greater than David” who will someday reign on earth.
Psalms 101-150 contain a number of important collections. The first is Psalms 113-118, sometimes referred to as the “Egyptian Hallel” or as simply “The Hallel.” Hallel is the Hebrew word for “praise.” These psalms praise God for His deliverance of Israel and are read at various Jewish yearly festivals. Psalms 120-134 are all titled “songs of ascent” and were sung by pilgrims as they ascended to Jerusalem for worship. (This is one reason why references to Jerusalem and Zion abound in Psalms 101-150.) Psalms 146-150 all begin and end with the words Hallelu-Yah or “Praise Yahweh,” creating a crescendo of praise that brings the book of Psalms to a dramatic close: “let everything with breath praise Yahweh” (150:6).
Two themes in Psalm 101-150
Psalm 101-150 reiterate a couple of important themes. One is God’s willingness to bless not just Israel but all those who fear Him. Fearing God becomes a term for a genuine follower or worshiper of God (115:11; 118:4; 119:74, 79; 128:1, 4; 135:20; 145:19; 147:11). Another phrase unique (at least in the Hebrew formulation of it) to Psalm 101-150 is God as “Maker of heaven and earth” (115:15; 121:2; 124:8; 134:3; 146:6). Only the One who makes heaven and earth is God. His name is Yahweh, and the help He offers His people is invaluable and impenetrable.
Review & Application:
About the Author
Timothy W. Berrey is the author of Planning Your Life God's Way and From Eden to Patmos: An Overview of Biblical History. He is the director of Graduate Studies at Bob Jones Memorial Bible College in Metro Manila, where he has lived with his wife Laura and six children since 2005.