Unless otherwise noted, the information in this post is based on the book The Testimony of Poets and Sages by Dr. W.H. Bellinger (Macon: Smyth & Helwys,1998). It is a very helpful book for readers at the college level. He explores the Psalms, Proverbs and Job much more clearly and in more depth than I can go into the Psalms in this overview.
In his chapter on the Psalms he notes that there are many ways to study the Psalms. One way is to study how the entire book is put together – what he calls a “canonical” approach. The title given to this collection of books by the editors is Sepher Tehillim, a Hebrew title that means “Book of Praises.” We will explore what this means for our study of the Psalms in a later post.
The book itself is made up of 150 discrete Psalms rather than chapters. They were edited together into five books:
Book I: Psalms 1-41
Book II: Psalms 42-72
Book III: Psalms 73-89
Book IV: Psalms 90-106
Book V: Psalms 107-150
The choice of a five-fold division books suggests a parallel with the five books of the Law: Torah. The idea seems to be that the psalms are deeply rooted in the Torah or covenant of God. The praise of God occurs within a covenant framework that He established with His people. In other words, you pray to and praise the one and only God with whom you have a real relationship. How this works out in the Psalms will also be explored in a later post in this series.
The arrangement of the books within the canon has significance as well. For instance, Psalm 1 functions as an introduction to the entire book by discussing the end result of either obedience or disobedience to God’s will. This furthers the idea of the Psalms being rooted within the covenant. In like manner, Psalm 150 functions as a fitting conclusion to the entire collection with its crescendo of pure praise and its invitation for all that breathes to praise the Lord.
There also seems to be a significance to the placement of the Psalms within each of the five books. For instance, Dr. Bellinger notes that each of the five books ends with a Psalm that finishes with a benediction or blessing, with thanksgiving to God. See Ps. 41:3; Ps. 72:18-20; Ps. 89:52 and Ps. 106:48.
Another aspect of the Psalms that Dr. Bellinger describes is how the Psalms function as poetry. Because of this, Psalms need to read differently than narrative. Poems are about imagery and word-pictures rather than matter-of-fact descriptions of reality.
Hebrew poetry does not rhyme the way English poetry does. It may have had a rhythmic pattern, but that rhythm seems to have become lost to us now. What it does have is a pattern of parallelism of thought. The parallels can be words, phrases or entire sections. Fortunately, parallelism of thought translates pretty well into other languages.
While the ways in which parallels work is nuanced and can be very complex, there are three basic ways the parallels work in Hebrew poetry.
- 1. Synonymous Parallels, where the first line is a repetition of the same idea, but usually in different words. He offers Ps. 2:1 as an example.
2. Antithetic Parallels, in which the second line contrasts with the first. This is often contrasting ways of life or contrasts of end results. Ps. 37:17 is offered as an example.
3. Stair-step Parallels, in which the second line takes a step that moves the line of thought further or develops the idea more. Ps. 107:1 is an example.
These three basic types of parallels can be combined in different ways for dramatically different effects. It is good to have a basic grasp of these three types as you read the Psalms in order to appreciate the literary artistry involved in these poems.
Psalm 1 is an example of the fusion of these types of parallelism. The New International Version translation shows the progression well. It starts a contrast with a stair-step:
“Blessed is the man
- who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers
But their delight is in the law of the Lord,
- And on His law they meditate day and night.”
The ones who are happy are NOT the ones who follow the advice of the wicked, etc. Instead, they are the ones who loves God’s law and meditate on God’s law day and night. Notice the stair-step development in following the advice of the wicked. They go from following to standing to sitting. This is followed by what seems to be a stair-step parallel between loving God’s law and meditating on it day and night.
Verse 3 describes the righteous in one of the most memorable similes in the Bible: a tree planted by a river, which grows unhindered and fruitful. Here is a feature that English and Hebrew poetry do have in common, using simile to paint a word-picture that is much more powerful than mere narrative description.
Verses 4 and 5 are in antithetical parallel with verses 1-3, and show the contrast between the blessed condition and the unhappy end result of the wicked, who are “like chaff that the wind drives away.”
A synonymous parallel follows in verse 5 about the wicked. Not only will they “not stand” in the judgment,” they are sinners who will “not stand” “in the congregation of the righteous.” The entire synonymous parallel is also the next step in the thought introduced in verse 4.
Verse 6 is an antithetic parallelism that sums up the entire Psalm:
- for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous
But the way of the wicked will perish.
As you can see, this Psalm is actually a complex, yet beautifully memorable piece of poetic art that graphically contrasts two ways of life in an accessible way. With a little work and some understanding we can begin to appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of this book of the praises dedicated to our God.
Next time, we will explore different kinds of psalms to find out how the Israelites used the Psalms devotionally.