What Is a Psalm?
Jim Dunham, from the Flying W Ranch, tells a story which illustrates the need for this lesson. Jim is a Christian gunslinger and fast-draw artist who has taught many western movie stars to handle a gun. When he got married he decided to teach his wife to handle a gun. To his delight she became amazingly accurate. One day he took her deer hunting. He positioned her in a good spot, told her he would be nearby, and instructed her to shoot her rifle twice into the air if she got into any trouble. A little later, he heard one shot fired from his wife’s direction. Assuming she had either shot a deer or gotten into trouble and forgotten to fire a second shot, Jim went to look for her. When he came upon her, she was holding a man at gun point. Jim said he overheard the man saying, “All right lady, the deer is yours, but first let me get my saddle off him.”
It is important for a deer hunter not only to be able to shoot straight but to know the difference between a deer and a horse. It is also crucial for a student of the Scriptures to know the difference between poetry and prose. When we read in the early chapters of Genesis that God created Adam and Eve, we read it as history, and we believe this man and woman to be historical persons, just as the New Testament indicates our Lord and the apostles did (cf. Matt. 19:4-6; 1 Cor. 15:45). However, when we read in the Psalms that David made his bed swim and he dissolved his couch with his tears (Ps. 6:6) we do not take his words literally; but we should accept the truth behind the figurative expression, that he was so overcome with sorrow he cried constantly. When we read in Psalms that the rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing for joy (Ps. 98:8), we interpret these words in light of the fact that we are dealing with poetry and not prose.
In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis emphasized the importance of studying the Psalms as poetry, with its unique forms and characteristics. He wrote:
What must be said … is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. … Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.24
This is not only true with biblical literature; it is true of all literature. When a literary work begins, “Once upon a time …” and ends, “and they lived happily ever after,” we don’t expect to take anything literally. Every literary work must be interpreted in view of its literary form.
The Old Testament Psalms are not just poetry; they are Hebrew poetry. It has a unique style and structure of its own, very different from the poetry of our time. While there are various types of Psalms in the Psalter and great diversity among the Psalms, all have several characteristics in common. The purpose of this message is to consider these common characteristics in order to prepare us for a more detailed study of particular Psalms in future lessons.
The Characteristics of the Psalms
A Psalm Is a Poem
Poetry is not particularly popular these days. Consequently, for many of us the fact that the Psalms are poems may be something we need to overcome, rather than an incentive to study. How many of you, for example, have penned or pondered a poem in the last month?
As a college student I had a literature course in which I was supposed to read certain works of T. S. Eliot. I found the particular selections that were assigned to be obnoxious and offensive. In addition, they just didn’t seem to make any sense (I now realize that probably says much more about me than about T. S. Eliot). Naturally, when final exam time came the teacher would have the major essay question on Eliot. The question was, “Evaluate the works of T. S. Eliot.” My answer was quite to the point: “He is terrible. I wouldn’t waste the time to read him.” As you may have guessed, I didn’t set the academic world on fire in that class!
Until recently one would hardly have realized that the Psalms are poems. This is due in part to the fact that the translators of the King James Version of the Bible overlooked the poetic structure of the Psalms (as well as other poetic portions of the Old Testament). If you have a copy of the King James Version handy, look for a moment at the Psalms. Do you see that the printing format is virtually identical to that of the Book of Genesis? Who would have thought that he was reading poetry in Psalms from the form in which they were printed in this most revered version of the Bible?
We should not be too hard on the translators of the KJV, however, for Hebrew poetry is much different than the poetry we know today. When I think of poetry I think of such lofty works as,
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.
Ron Allen25 reminds us of another work of art:
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned so what could they do?
Said the flea, “Let us fly!”
Said the fly, “Let us flee!”
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
The poetry with which we are most familiar is based on rhyme and rhythm. Hebrew poetry is very different—so different that the translators of the King James Version possibly did not recognize it as such.
More than one hundred years after the KJV was published Bishop Robert Lowth rediscovered the genius of Hebrew poetry.26 In Hebrew poetry it is not the rhyming nor the rhythm of the words, but the relationship of two lines (most often) of poetry which is the heart of the poetic style. This relationship is most frequently referred to as parallelism, although stereo vision and stereo sound have been used as illustrative analogies.27 By the use of various types of parallelism the first line of poetry is expanded upon in the second, either by clarification, completion, or contrast. (See Addendum at the end of this lesson for a summarization of the major types of parallelism.)
Since the Psalms are poetry, we should not approach them in the same way we would prose. We must expect figures of speech, for example, and interpret expressions in the Psalms in the light of their literary use. In Psalm 1 the godly are likened (a simile) to a tree planted by streams of water, while the wicked are described as chaff (vv. 3-4). In Psalm 23 the Lord is portrayed as a shepherd, caring for us as His sheep (a metaphor). These poetic images and devices stimulate meditation and encourage the reader to probe the meaning of the passage.
At this point I do not wish to dwell on the details of Hebrew poetic style as much as I desire to describe the blessing the Psalms can be to us as poetry. In the first place, poetry is much more vivid, catching our attention and stimulating our thought. It is somewhat like listening to “The Shadow” on the radio. Enough is said to stimulate the imagination, but much is left for us to fill in. The excitement is often experienced by what the reader himself supplies, what he or she brings to the passage and takes from it. Poetry is therefore a more intense form of communication.
Poetry is a special use of language. Perrine remarks that “poetry might be defined as a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language.” Poetry is not designed basically to communicate information. … Poetry is the language of experience. It is powerful in its communicative ability.28
It is not just the style of poetry which makes it more meaningful to the reader; it is also the sacrifice which poetry demands of the author. Good poetry, like anything else of quality, does not come easily. Any who have tried their hand at poetry know how true this is. Poetry should mean more to the reader, knowing that the writer has spent considerable effort in the expression of his thoughts.
In recent years my father began writing a poem to each member of our family on their birthdays. Now I know that the Hallmark people have merchandised their cards with the slogan: “For those who care enough to send the very best.” All such a card really indicates is that we cared enough to go to a corner drug store and spend a dollar, but a poem from my father shows that he cared enough to spend hours of his time to express his love. Since the Psalms are poems addressed primarily to God, He, I believe, delights in the sacrifice involved in the composition and expression of our adoration and praise. As David said in another (but not unrelated) context: “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing” (1 Chron. 21:24 NIV).
The Hebrew psalm is especially significant because, in the providence of God, it is the most universal form of poetry. Can you imagine trying to translate a poem like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into another language and thought patterns of another culture thousands of years removed? A word-for-word translation is virtually impossible, let alone to find words which would rhyme. In French, for example, a “headache” is to “have a bad head.” To “look good” in French, as I remember it (high school was a long time ago), is translated “to carry yourself well.” Yet in spite of the great difficulties translators would find putting our modern poems into another language, translation has almost no adverse effect on Hebrew poetry because rhyme and rhythm are not prominent features. As Derek Kidner has observed:
It is the striking fact that this type of poetry loses less than perhaps any other in the process of translation. In many literatures the appeal of a poem lies chiefly in verbal felicities and associations, or in metrical subtleties, which tend to fail of their effect even in a related language. … But the poetry of the Psalms has a broad simplicity of rhythm and imagery which survives transplanting into almost any soil. Above all, the fact that its parallelisms are those of sense rather than of sound allows it to reproduce its chief effects with very little loss of either force or beauty. It is well fitted by God’s providence to invite ‘all the earth’ to ‘sing the glory of his name.’29
A Psalm Is a Song
If a Psalm is a poem, it is also a song. The Book of Psalms, while it is many things, is a hymnal. The various titles of the Book of Psalms are one indication of the role of the book as a hymnal. In the Hebrew Bible the title of the Psalms is Tehillim, which means “songs of praise.”30 In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, the term Psalmoi is employed. The verb form of this Greek word originally referred to the plucking of strings with the fingers. Eventually, Psalmoi came to mean “sacred songs sung to musical accompaniment.”31
In addition to the titles used for the Book of Psalms there are numerous musical terms in the book which indicate that the Psalms were written to be sung. The words “psalm” (Heb. mizmor, used 57 times) and “song” (Heb. sir, found in the heading of 30 Psalms, frequently with mizmor) are both musical terms.32 In 55 Psalms there is a reference to the “choir director.”33 Various musical instruments are mentioned in the Psalms, both stringed (e.g. Pss. 4,6,54,55), wind instruments, such as the flute (Ps. 5), and perhaps the harp (Pss. 8,81,84).34 Some of the musical terms in the superscriptions are difficult to interpret. These terms may be instructions to the various sections of the choir, such as the sopranos and the basses.35 In Psalms 45 and 69 it is possible, if not probable, that the reference to “the Lilies” is the name of a well-known tune, to which the words of the song were to be sung (cf. the superscription in the NIV).
The New Testament confirms what we have already observed from the Old in that the references to “psalms” in 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16 are each time found in the immediate context of music. We must, therefore, conclude with Bernhard Anderson that the Psalms are songs:
Yet in a larger sense it is appropriate that the title “songs of praise” [tehillim] was finally applied to the Psalter as a whole, which includes a variety of types of psalms: hymns, laments, thanksgivings, songs of trust, wisdom meditations, and others. For the truth is that every psalm, whatever its literary type and whatever its relation to the cult, is actually a song which extols and glorifies God.36
The fact that the Psalms are songs should serve as proof of the important role which music has to play in our spiritual lives and particularly in our worship. This was very clear to Martin Luther, who is quoted as saying: “He who despises music … does not please me. Music is a gift of God, not a gift of men. … After theology I accord to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”37
I personally believe that many of us in Protestant, evangelical churches have failed to grasp the significant contribution of music to our worship, something which is not only inconsistent with the Psalms, but which flies in the face both of the Old and New Testament Scriptures.
It is obvious to anyone that while the words of the Psalms remain, the notes do not. I disagree with Ronald Allen, however, in what he seems to conclude from this: “The fact that the Psalms are music without the notes, however, means that for practical purposes the Psalms are poems. The tunes are lost to us, but the lyrics are what God has preserved.”38
Why has God preserved so many indications of the musical character of the Psalms if this has no relevance to us today? And why have the saints down through the ages composed music by which the Psalms have been sung? I believe that God’s providential hand is once again to be seen. You see, music is woven into the culture of our times. Have you ever listened to a foreign student playing a tape recording of his native music? Have you really enjoyed or appreciated it as much as he? Even in our own culture and within our own church there are cultural differences which are expressed by different musical preferences and tastes. Some like “high church” music while others are into “folk” music. I believe that God kept men from preserving the original musical notes of the Psalms because this would enable, indeed, it would cause, each culture down through the ages to compose its own music. In the composition of musical accompaniment to the Psalms, many have come to know them much more intimately than they would have, had the musical score been preserved.
We can see the hand of God in the preservation of the Psalms as a universal form of poetry, and in the providential “loss” of the musical score. The words have been given us, but the music is ours to compose. Each generation and each culture must come to the Psalms and compose afresh the musical forms which best facilitate worship and praise. If poetical form engages our creativity and meditation in the interpretation of the Psalms, the musical character of the Psalms (yet without the notes) excites and enhances our creativity in the expression of our worship through the Psalms as music.
A Psalm Is an Expression of Worship
Perhaps no one word better summarizes what the Psalms are about than the word “worship.” Even though the term “worship” is not frequently employed in Psalms, there are a number of Hebrew words in the Psalms which point in that direction.39 Let us consider some of the facets of worship contained in the Psalms.
The Psalms are man’s response to God. I am indebted to Ronald Allen for a very helpful three-fold distinction he has made in the Old Testament Scriptures, one which he warns us not to carry too far.40 Nevertheless, Allen suggests three words which help us classify the Old Testament Scriptures: revelation, reflection, and response. The historical books (such as the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) and the prophets are best characterized by the word “revelation,” not that all of the Bible isn’t revelation, but that the primary function of these books is revelation. The wisdom books, and especially Proverbs, would best be characterized as “reflection,” for the contribution of these books has to do with the reflection of the writers on what has been revealed. The Book of Psalms, Allen, says, is best described as “response.”
Bernhard Anderson stresses this element of response: “For the Bible as a whole is not only the story of God’s dealings with his people but also the witness of his people’s response in thanksgiving and adoration, in lament and petition along the way of its pilgrimage through history.”41
Since the saints respond differently to God’s activity (or perceived inactivity), the whole spectrum of man’s response can be found in the Psalms.42 “In the Psalter, one finds psalms expressive of the gamut of human emotions. Some ring with the exuberant thrill of praise; others reverberate with the throes of human desperation. The heights and the depths of human life resound through its poetry.”43
Some of the responses of the psalmists do not seem to be a model for us, even if they mirror our own inclinations and actions. Allen helps us see that while the Book of Psalms reflects the full range of responses man may have toward God in the light of his circumstances, not all of these are necessarily based on an accurate estimation of the situation, especially when the psalmist complains to God.
We would be greatly mistaken if we regarded these statements as revelation in the strictest sense of that term. For in these Psalms the initial complaint is proven to be wrong. … Nevertheless, these complaints are inspired by God, for in the language of response they truly reflect the troubles of God’s people living in a difficult world. These are expressions of how they—and we!—sometimes feel. These are real to them, and they may be real to us as well. God uses these expressions of doubt and despair to magnify His name as He leads the troubled believer to a new sense of confidence in His matchless character.44
The Worship Which the Psalms Facilitate Is More Public Than Private
While many maintain that they wish to worship God privately and in their own way, the Psalms were compiled primarily for use in public worship, not private. To use a modern illustration, one may take home a hymnal (which also contains responsive readings) to use in their private devotions, but the principal purpose of that hymnal is for corporate singing and responsive reading by the congregation. The experience which prompted the composition of a Psalm may have been personal and private, but the Psalm was included in the Psalter for corporate praise and worship. Worship in the Psalms should always be meaningful to the individual, but it is assumed to be public in nature.
The Psalms of the Bible are not individualistic poems such as a modern person might compose to express his own thoughts and feelings. Of course, according to the Bible the individual is infinitely important in God’s sight. A psalmist, looking up at the starry skies, marvels that the God who holds the cosmos within his creative grasp actually visits and cares for man and, moreover, invests him with the noble responsibility of being his representative who exercises dominion over the earth (Ps. 8:3-8). Yet the individual finds himself in the community which God has called into being. Within that community he has access to God in worship; he joins with the community in responding in praise to God’s actions; and he participates in the great historical pilgrimage of the People of God.45
All of the Hebrew terms for praise … have about them a public and vocal nature. In contrast then, thanksgiving may be silent and private; praise is vocal and public. But both must be intense and genuine.46
Because praise in the Psalms is public and corporate, the author becomes almost anonymous:
[The psalmist] is not concerned to tell us about the details of his life or to disclose his own inner experiences. As an individual he recedes into anonymity. … Language is used poetically in order to portray experiences which are typical of all men, despite the variations which are as many as there are human beings.47
Here is an area where many of us could use some instruction. Our intentions may be good when we stand to lead the congregation in worship, but all too often we find the spotlight shifting to us and our experience, and not on God and His goodness and grace. We need to become much less conscious of ourselves, and even of others, and more conscious of God, who is the object and the audience of our worship.
The Psalms Are Prayers
The doxology of Book II of the Psalms concludes with these words: “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended” (Ps. 72:20). This indicates that the author of this verse (who was likely the compiler of this book of the Psalms) viewed the Psalms as prayers. When the author of each Psalm composed his work he did so as to God. When the congregation of the Israelites sang, repeated, or prayed the Psalms, they did so to God, and, in the broadest sense, they prayed. If prayer is more than petition (which it should be), then it is not difficult to see how the Psalms could be regarded as prayers. Westermann says of the Psalms:
They are prayers (words directed to God in petition or praise), poetry (poetically formulated language), and song (they go beyond the mere speaking or even recital of a poem and become music).48
Some Christians make a habit of praying the Psalms as a part of their devotional life. This was a common practice of the early Christians; it could be a beneficial spiritual exercise for all of us as well.
The Psalms Are Praise
Westermann draws our attention to this significant fact: “In our modern languages there are whole lists of words for which there is, in Hebrew for example, no single corresponding word (for example, “modest”). And among these is ‘to thank.’”49 Westermann feels that the significance of this fact has never been properly evaluated.50 He goes on to show that there is a great deal of difference between “thanks” and “praise,” which I have summarized below:
- Praise elevates the one praised, while thanks does not.
- The one who praises is preoccupied with the one praised; the one who thanks is not.
- Praise involves freedom and spontaneity; thanks, obligation.
- Praise always occurs in public; thanks is private.
- Praise is joyfully done; thanks, dutifully.
- Thanks is merely a word: “Thanks.” Praise cannot be done so simply.51
Ron Allen surveys the various Hebrew words that refer to the activity of praise in the Old Testament.52 These words perhaps best summarize what, to him, is the primary activity which occurs in the Psalms—praise.
This is the wonder of praise. True praise elevates God, not the speaker. True praise magnifies God in the community, not just in the thoughts of the one speaking. Praise is constructive worship. It should be a part of everyday living. Praise is a matter of life and breath. As long as the believer has life and breath, praise is due from his lips to our incomparable God.53
Praise is not merely the predominant theme of the Psalms, it is the keynote of the Scriptures. In the introduction to his book, Old Testament Theology, L. Kohler says: “The deeper one descends through the centuries into the breadth of the Old Testament writings, the louder the praise and laud of God can be heard. But they are not lacking even in the oldest pages, and each act of praise is a confession of the ever-present sentence—that God is.”54
As we conclude this message I would like to focus our attention on three critical areas of deficiency in our worship which the Book of Psalms challenges us to correct.
(1) Experience. We tend to minimize our experience. We say, for example, “Don’t base your theology on your experience.” This, of course, is good advice, but we take it too far. We often fail to see God in our experience. When things are going well, we are inclined to believe that it is because of our diligence, skills, and superior intelligence. When things go badly, we feel it is because we have done something wrong. In either case, we do not see God in our everyday experiences.
One of the things which set Israel’s worship apart from the heathen of their time was that they were very much aware of God’s hand in history.
Accordingly, the faith of the psalmists does not rest upon glittering generalities about the nature of God or upon a numinous awareness of his majesty in the remote reaches of the universe; rather, it is founded upon the good news that God makes himself present in the midst of history to help his people.55
This also helps explain the laments of the Psalms, for the psalmist is confident of God’s hand in history, yet perplexed at His apparent absence, or at least His failure to act.
I would suggest that we need to have a renewed awareness of God’s intimate involvement in the affairs of men, not only in times of blessing, but also in adversity. No wonder some theologians of recent days have concluded that God is dead. For all practical purposes our worship (or its absence) would seem to betray our acknowledgment that He has passed from the scene of our history.
(2) Expression. Not only have we failed to appreciate God’s activity in our lives, we have done a pathetic job of expressing our praise and worship. The more I study the Psalms the more I recognize the skill and effort the psalmists put into expressing their worship. Today, our adoration of God is cheap and unbecoming. We use trite phrases, which require no thought and almost no effort to utter. I have been in audiences where we show our adoration by “giving God a big round of applause.” How cheap! Is the God of glory not due a great effort on our part? Our expressions of worship fall far short of the standard which is set before us in the Psalms. If we can do no better, let us at least worship Him in the words of the Psalms. But better still, let us compose our own hymns and music to glorify the Almighty God.
(3) Emotion. Ponder the fact that Israel’s worship in the Psalms took the form of poetry and music. What contribution is made by these two forms? May I suggest that both poetry and music touch the heart. Much of Christianity, in my opinion, has become so intellectualized that our emotions have all but been placed on the shelf. Perhaps we have arrived at this out of overreaction to the emotional excesses of some of our brethren, but what are we to say about the worship we witness in the Psalms? If we are to worship the Lord our God with our whole being, as the Scriptures command (Deut. 6:5; Mark 12:30), then perhaps it is time for us to employ our emotions in worship, as well as our intellect.
While those of us who are truly saved may find ourselves deficient in these three areas, others might find themselves virtually dead if their spiritual life was to be measured by their response to God in these terms. You may profess some kind of relationship with God, but do you find Him consistently active in the world and especially in your life? Could your “god” actually be dead, without you knowing it? Then perhaps it is you, and not God, who is dead.
Then again, you may say that you know God and serve Him, but in what ways have you expressed this? Do you regularly read His Word, the Bible? Do you pray in any words which come genuinely from your own heart, or do you merely rattle off the forms which you have learned. Do you really communicate with God or just recite words? If God were your spouse, would He be content with the quality of your communication?
Finally, how has your profession of faith touched your heart? Does the presence of sin in the world cause you grief? Do you shed tears when you pray? What real emotion is conveyed in your religious activities?
If you see no reality or vitality in these three areas, my friend—your experience with God, your expressions to Him, or your heart toward Him—I must suggest to you that your “faith” may be dead and not living, a profession but not a possession. If such is the case, I urge you to come into a personal, vital relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. All you must do is acknowledge that you are a sinner, spiritually dead and deserving of God’s wrath. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s sinless Son who died on the cross to bear your punishment and to give you eternal life. It is then that you will have a personal faith and worship God in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:24).
Below I have summarized the major types of parallelism, following the description of Ron Allen:
Synonymous parallelism: the first line is echoed in the second, with only a slight change of terms:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain? (Ps. 2:1; cf. also 3:1).
Antithetical parallelism: the words of the first line are affirmed in the second, not by repetition, but by contrast:
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish (Ps. 1:6; cf. 40:4).
Climactic parallelism: the second line refines, develops and completes the thought of the first:
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength (Ps. 96:7).
Synthetic parallelism: the second line develops the thought of the first, but without quoting words from the first line (as does climactic parallelism):
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker (Ps. 95:6).
Emblematic parallelism: the first line introduces a figure of speech which is explained in the second:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God (Ps. 42:1).
Formal relationship (parallelism): the first and second lines have only a formal, structural relationship—more a relationship of proximity (neighbors, so to speak), than of logic or sequence of thought:
O God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent (Ps. 109:1).56
53 Ibid., p. 63. Leupold, an excellent and renouned scholar, seems to miss the point badly when he writes, “Praise is an incidental feature in psalms.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969 [reprint]), p. 1.
56 The Scripture quotations used here have been from the NIV. Cf. Allen, pp. 51-54. For additional study of Hebrew parallelism, cf. Derek Kidner, Psalms (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), I, pp. 2-4; A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), I, pp. 40-42; R. K. Harrison, “Hebrew Poetry,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), III, pp. 76-87.
Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines