Poetry Month: The Poetic Structure of the Psalms

adf592fa-b632-459a-93dd-24b3a13f85aaI’ve recently begun to learn about the structural nature of the Psalms and how complex it can get! David sure didn’t just dash down whatever came to mind, he often used complex poetic structures which were traditional for his part of the world, some of which can also be seen in Ugaritic poetry.

I found a set of articles on Bible Gateway which are helpful and serve as a basic introduction to the structure of the Psalms. More information will be available online. You can read the full articles I refer to here: https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Hebrew-Poetry

This is a technical area which I struggle to get my head around at times, and to be honest, I do wonder if the structure of the Psalms is being over-analysed; but if nothing else, it’s lovely to be able to appreciate how much skill was involved in writing these beautiful poetic songs.

Features of the Psalms:

1. Acrostic: (each verse starts with a letter of the alphabet in order “A to Z,” (aleph to tau.)


2. Parallelism: (various forms) which creates balanced repetition.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters. Psalm 24:1-2

There are several forms of parallelism: synonymous, contrasting, comparative, incomplete (which is why I wonder whether or not we are simply over-analysing, thanks to critical schools of theological thought,) and formal. Please read this excellent article on parallelism which explains it simply.

3. Alliteration: using words which have similar sounds.

From Bible Gateway: “Assonance is the use of a series of words with the same or similar internal sounds (versus the initial sounds). The “r” (resh) line, v. 19, of the acrostic in Psalm 34 ombines these three devices (acrostic, alliteration, assonance): rabbôṯ rā’ôṯ ṩaddîq, “A righteous man may have many troubles. . . .”


4. Chiasm: “arranges elements in an “x” or inverted pattern: abc//c’b’a’.”


5. Inclusio: beginning and ending a section, or whole Psalm, with identical or nearly identical words.


6. Numerical Progression, such as Psalm 62 where numbers used in the text count upwards.


7. Repetition/Refrain: repetition is used to mark out units in the Psalm, e.g. Psalm 42:5, 11 and 43:5. These Psalms appear to be a set in actuality, not two separate Psalms, despite how they are separated in modern Bibles.


istock_000009732076xsmall8. Rhyme can be used, and (in Hebrew) is found in Psalm 23:2.


9. Meter: according to Bible Gateway, “Hebraists (Hebrew scholars) recognise that classical Hebrew poetry probably had some system of meter. What that system was remains hotly contested for lack of clear evidence, with some scholars actually denying that Hebrew poetry contains such a system. Some conclude that line length, perhaps counted in syllables, was the basis of Hebrew “metrics.” Others think Hebrew meter was counted in word or word-group units (“feet”), with some corresponding balance in line length naturally arising as a result. Whether an actual system of accent or stress was involved we do not know.

The law of—the Lord—is perfect, reviving—the soul.    (3 + 2)
The ordinances of—the Lord—are sure and righteous—altogether.   (3 + 2)
They are more precious—than gold, than pure gold—much;   (2 + 2)
they are sweeter—than honey, than honey from—the comb.   (2 + 2)
Your servant—is warned—by them; in keeping them—is reward—great.    (3 + 3)

Whether or not such designations correspond to the ancients’ understandings of their art, they serve well to indicate the relative length of lines whose balance in length (and with it one might surmise some sort of rhythm) and use of length for artistic and rhetorical purposes can scarcely have been accidental.”

For more information on National Poetry Month, visit poets.org




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