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.
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Features of the Psalms:

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

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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.

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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. . . .”

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.”

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

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Creative Commons License
The King David Project by Cate Russell-Cole is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://cateartios.wixsite.com/kingdavidproject.

Please note that this does NOT apply to any of the images on this site except for the free Psalm images which are marked as free. Most photos are purchased stock photos. It is ILLEGAL for you to take and use them, whether for yourself, commercially or for a non-profit venture such as a church or Bible Study. If you have not bought these photos from the source, the stock photography company has every right to sue you.

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The Deep Ancient Roots the Psalms Sprang From

tltnpmRegardless of what age or nationality you are, the culture around you will affect how you worship. Old Western hymns were set to popular tunes of the day so that people would relate to them, and edifying Christian hip hop and rap music is popular with Christian youth in our current time.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Jesus communicated His message in a form which people understood and could relate to. It makes perfect sense. However, when studying the ancient history of the Near East (pre-Abraham), I was surprised at how much some of the cultic hymns sounded like David’s Psalms.

Compare these two:

“Mighty, majestic, and radiant,
You shine brilliantly in the evening,
You brighten the day at dawn,
You stand in the heavens like the sun and the moon,
Your wonders are known both above and below…”

“The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
where morning dawns, where evening fades,
you call forth songs of joy.”

Who wrote what? The first one is a Sumerian hymn about Inanna (Ishtar,) the pagan ‘Queen of Heaven;’ the second is part of David’s Psalm 65. Did that leave you with an awful feeling in the pit of your stomach? I was startled, then realised that this point of time is so far back, both David and the writer of the hymn had the same roots: they both originally came from the one God, YHWH. Psalms by the Sons of Korah and Ethan the Ezrahite (Psalm 89) have the same features. It’s simply a cultural way of song writing.

The key elements of worship that appear in most religions are instituted in the first few chapters of Genesis. God places Adam and Eve in his sanctuary as priests who serve him and commune with him. After they disobey him, God institutes the idea of substitutionary sacrifice and atonement, establishing a covenant with them. Each of these elements characterises the worship of all religions since they are part of the religious heritage of all children of Adam. As Rodríguez notes, “those religious expressions belong to the common human experience of God” (Rodríguez 2001, 47). Romans 1:19–20 testifies to this when it says that God has revealed himself to all people through “the things that have been made.”  [Source: Worldview Bias and the Origin of Hebrew Worship by Scott Aniol, source link below.]

There is a major difference between the way that David approaches his God and the way the worshippers of the pagan god, Inanna worshipped: David has confidence!

“Be merciful to me, O Lord; for I cry to You daily.
Give joy to the soul of Your servant; for to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For You, Lord, are good and ready to forgive, and rich in mercy to all those who call on You.
Give ear, O Jehovah, to my prayer; and attend to the voice of my prayers.
In the day of my trouble I will call on You; for You will answer me.” Psalm 86:3-7

You don’t find that kind of confidence in hymns for the pagan gods. From the ones I read, some of them don’t even make any kind of sense, but David had two things in his favour: the indwelling Spirit of God which gave him a direct link to the one true God, and a righteous boldness. He knew that God was with him and that YHWH was his source of comfort, deliverance, healing, joy and salvation. David was welcome to “boldly approach the throne of grace,” long before those words appeared in our New Testament. [Ref. Hebrews 4:16 and Ephesians 3:12]

“The LORD passed in front of Moses, calling out,
“Yahweh! The LORD!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.” Exodus 34:6-7a

Inanna had to be appeased, tip toed around. The pagan gods were the scapegoats that man made to explain the mysteries of why bad things happen and how the natural elements of the world functioned. They created jealous, angry gods with human frailties, who you bribed into happiness so nothing went wrong.

2016-12-11_15-55-07_01Looking at hymns which came from a different part of the Near East, Scott Aniol goes on to say: “When comparing the psalms of Israel with those of Ugarit people, important distinctions emerge as well. According to Walton, “the category of declarative praise is unique to Israel”… Biblical history and pagan myth have very different purposes, functions, and literary forms and therefore must not be interpreted in the same manner.”

The same applies to cultic observations about a flood and a baby sent down a river in a basket who was rescued by a princess and bought up in a royal court. The events were written about long after they happened, with the then current pagan interpretations added.

So if you ever come across strange similarities between paganism and the Bible, don’t take them as evidence that your faith isn’t based on a faithful, genuine God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:1-5
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Notes:

https://answersingenesis.org/presuppositions/bias-and-origin-of-hebrew-worship/ This is a great article, please take the time to read it.

“Inanna was associated with the planet Venus, which at that time was regarded as two stars, the “morning star” and the “evening star. The discontinuous movements of Venus relate to both mythology as well as Inanna’s dual nature. Inanna is related like Venus to the principle of connectedness, but this has a dual nature and could seem unpredictable. Yet as both the goddess of love and war, with both masculine and feminine qualities, Inanna is poised to respond, and occasionally to respond with outbursts of temper. Mesopotamian literature takes this one step further, explaining Inanna’s physical movements in mythology as corresponding to the astronomical movements of Venus in the sky.” There are hymns to Inanna as her astral manifestation.”  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna]


kdpcpyrght

Creative Commons License
The King David Project by Cate Russell-Cole is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://cateartios.wixsite.com/kingdavidproject.

Please note that this does NOT apply to any of the images on this site except for the free Psalm images which are marked as free. Most photos are purchased stock photos. It is ILLEGAL for you to take and use them, whether for yourself, commercially or for a non-profit venture such as a church or Bible Study. If you have not bought these photos from the source, the stock photography company has every right to sue you.