A Reflection on the Psalms

Excursus 2: Hebrew Poetry
The Psalms are poetry with a purpose. Like songs today, they are the discourse of the heart. The soul’s means of communication. Robert Alter says, “We cannot all be poets, but what some are privileged to grasp through an act of imaginative penetration others may accomplish more prosaically, step by step through patient analysis.” Essentially, we are all able to appreciate and examine the art of biblical poetry in our own study of the Psalms. But we must first understand the characteristics of Hebrew poetry.
Hebrew poetry may not sound like “normal” poetry because it does not follow English poetry in predictable end rhyme or meter. These English poetic features can be found in Hebrew poetry, but they are extremely infrequent and do not function for structuring the poem. “The basic characteristic of Hebrew poetry is known as parallelism, the juxtaposition of two or more balanced grammatical elements.” An example of this parallelism can be seen in Psalm 96:
“Sing to the LORD a new song;
Sing to the LORD, all the earth.” (96.1)
These two phrases are parallel to each other because of the relationship between them – the imperative to “sing to the LORD.” But there is also a slight difference between the phrases that actually help qualify each other. The first phrase describes what the song should be (i.e., “a new song”), while the second phrase prescribes who should sing (i.e., “all the earth”). It is through this parallelism that the poet can pair literary ideas together because “the delight for the poet is in expressing something eloquently” and “the delight for the audience is in discovering the eloquence of the expression.” This eloquence of expression does not make something truer, rather it is a technique that allows the truth to ring with more quality in the ear of the listener – painting truth rather than saying it.
Another defining characteristic of Hebrew poetry is evocative language – powerfully descriptive language. Evocative language employs metaphor, simile, hyperbole, imagery, drama, intensity, repetition, and so on. The psalmist’s deployment of the above techniques enables the personal language of pathos to be felt and appreciated by readers of every generation. The theological truth found in this language has more of a purpose than to relay information – it aims to deeply move the reader.
As you continue on through this devotional of the Psalms pay close attention to the poetic techniques mentioned above. It is through the means of poetry that the Psalms touch our very souls. Keep in mind that “the psalms are poetry of faith,” therefore “faithful interpretation must attend both to their theological nature and also to their poetic nature.” The power of the language is inseparable from the meaning. The meaning of the Psalms exists in, with, and under the poetic language.

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