XXXIX HEBREW POETRY
When Solomon died in 931 B.C., the eighty year monarchy of he
and his father David ended, and the two primary contributors to the
poetry and wisdom literature of Israel passed from the scene. Therefore, before beginning the reign of Rehoboam at the division of the kingdom, we will consider this body of literature. The poetic books
include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastics, and Song of Solomon.
David was the primary contributor to the Psalms, and Solomon
wrote many Proverbs, as well as being the author of Ecclesiastes and
Song of Solomon. In ancient times, the wise men wrestled with two
basic questions: 1. The basic problems of life; namely, pain, suffering,
and why evil seems to prosper, (or why those individuals involved in
evil-doing seem to prosper). 2. The concept of how to live out a life
with skill. It may be said that the problems people face today have not
changed since 1000 B.C. If you ask individuals on the street today what they are concerned with, they say: “What is the purpose of life? Why is there pain and suffering? Why is it that I see evil people prospering while I live right and never seem to succeed?” In this regard, nothing has changed for three thousand years.
In the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, these questions
can be satisfied. In the book of Psalms, and in the Song of Solomon, we find expressions of poetry in its highest form following the ancient Hebrew motif.
Character of the Psalms In the book of Psalms, we become aware of God as a Person, not just an abstract idea. As we study the Psalms, we will see God in His glory. We will see Him as a divine Person, intensely interested in every single individual.
The book of Psalms, as we have it in our Old Testament
consists of one hundred fifty individual psalms. As we examine the one hundred fifty psalms which make up the Psalter, we will see that they are divided into five separate books, and each book ends with a similar benediction.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and amen. “ (Psalm 41:13)
“And blessed be his glorious name forever. And let the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and amen. “ (Psalm 72:19) :
“Blessed be the Lord for evermore. Amen and Amen.“ (Psalm 89:52)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting. and let all the People say, Amen, Praise ye the Lord..“ (Psalm 106:48)
Praise the Lord” in Hebrew is the word Hallelujah. Literally, it is “praise Yahweh” which equals “praise the Lord. “ Each time the congregation uses the word “hallelujah, “ they are using the Hebrew word for “Praise the Lord”. Psalm 150 is the final benediction to the fifth book of Psalms, and as such is a total benediction for the Psalter. “Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power” (vs. 1). Verses 2 through 5 all begin with the word “praise, “ then verse 6 concludes, “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord”.
Authorship and Dating We know that at least seventy-three psalms were written by David. He was the primary contributor to the Psalter. But, as we look at the Psalter, we can see that it extends over quite a long period of time. As a collection, it was put together by priests after the return from Exile, so the total Psalter as we now have it, was organized after 536 B.C. The collection itself is actually more recent than the dates of the individual psalms that make up the collection.
For example, turn to Psalm 90 which carries the superscription.” A prayer of Moses the man of God. ” Most scholars believe that the superscriptions are part of the inspired text. They are contained in the oldest manuscripts we have. We know, also, that in the Hebrew text, what we have as verse 1 in our English book of Psalms, is actually verse 2 in the Hebrew Psalms, while the superscriptions on the individual psalms in our text are verse 1 in the Hebrew. In the case of Psalm 90, “A prayer of Moses the man of God,” is verse 1 in the Hebrew text. We know then that Psalm 90 was written prior to 1406 B.C., the date of Moses’ death. So, we have at least one psalm dating back into the fifteenth century B. C.
For a further grasp on the time span of the Psalter, look at
Psalm 126. The superscription is “A song of degrees,” so
that does not help with the date. However, when we read the psalm,
we see when the historical event was celebrated.
When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion we were like
them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with singing... Turn again our captivity,
0 Lord, as the streams in the south. They that sow in tears
shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, beating
precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
bringing his sheaves with him.
The historical setting is the return from Babylonian captivity in
536 B.C., when the children of Israel re-entered the land under the
leadership of Zerubbabel.
I believe we should always attempt to give an exposition
of a psalm or any other Old Testament passage in harmony
with its historical significance. Unfortunately, Psalm 126
has been taken from its context and historical setting and
made only to apply to the church. Many use it as a soul-winning psalm, saying that if one sows in tears he will reap in joy, and if one goes forth bearing precious seed, he will come again with the souls that he has won. I grant that this is a beautiful spiritual application, but it is not the primary meaning of the psalm.
The primary meaning is in its historical significance. Imagine the joy of the man whose ancestors lived in Judah returning to the land after seventy years of Babylonian captivity. He begins to plow and sow that land, happy to be where he belongs, free from the oppression of Babylon. They all cry as they scatter their seed with the assurance that they will be there after the early and latter rains to reap the harvest. They sow in tears and anticipate reaping in joy because of their happiness at being back home. It is absolutely vital that we emphasize the significance of the historical setting in the Old Testament before making an application for the present day. In this way, we enhance the Word of God and cement the meaning of the passage in the mind of the believer. By looking at the dates of Psalm 90 and Psalm 126, we can conclude that the book of Psalms spans at least nine hundred years.
Hebrew Poetic Style If we read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew, we would discover that about fifty per cent of it is written in poetic form. Many translations available today have the poetic sections indented so that they may be more easily recognized. In the King James and the dual column Bibles, it is almost impossible to see the sections that are poetic in nature. Poetry in Hebrew is not the same as poetry in English. God used poetry when he spoke to man, and man often used poetry when he responded to God. Man’s deepest emotions can be stirred and brought out poetically. God’s deepest emotions and God’s revelation can be brought out most effectively in poetic form.
We usually think of poetry as rhyme involving sounds. Although
Hebrew poetry often has rhyme, it is more often a play on words which is not distinguishable in the English translation. It is a rhyming of ideas called parallelism. The type of poetry which rhymes sounds, is termed assonance. Assonance, or pleasant rhyming of sounds, is the type of poetry most familiar to us. The Hebrew poets matched ideas rather than sounds. They would write a line, then shadow it with another line.
Have you ever looked across a calm lake at houses and woods, and
observed a perfect reflection in the water upside down? Hebrew poetry is like that. Wordsworth said it like this:
The swan upon St. Maty’s lake
(Swan and reflection; swan and shadow.)
That is how Hebrew poetry floats. Idea and shadow. Idea and
reflection. It is exciting to go through Psalms and discover the various
kinds of parallelism. Many books are available which deal with poetry
in the Psalms and the Old Testament text in general. For this study, we will limit our examination to four basic types of parallelism, three of which are found primarily in Psalms.
The first type is synonymous parallelism; that is, two lines
or two ideas which say the same thing. Look at Psalm 2:1-4.
There we will see line and shadow, a very normal type.
The poet will make a statement and then repeat it in almost
the same way.
Verse 1: Why do the heathen rage, (saying it one way)
and the people imagine a vain thing? (saying it another way)
Verse 2: The kings of the earth set themselves, (one way)
and the rulers take counsel together, (another way)
Verse 3: Let us break their bands asunder, (one way)
and cast away their cords from us. (another way)
Verse 4: He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: (one way)
the Lord shall have them in derision. (another way)
So it goes throughout the Psalm. You will also find this type of parallelism many of the major and minor prophets. They will say a thing and then repeat it exactly in another way. This motif is synonymous Parallelism.
A second type is emblematic parallelism. The poet will make
a point and then picture it, or vice versa. See Psalm 23.
Verse 1 : The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. (the point)
2a: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; (the picture)
Verse 2b: He leadeth me beside the still waters. (the picture)
3a: He restoreth my soul: (the point) This is the pattern in every psalm where emblematic parallelism is used: point, picture; picture, point. Psalm 42:1 is a perfect example: As the halt panteth after the water brooks, (the picture) so panteth my soul after thee, 0 God. (the point)
It is a beautiful system of illustration. Discover other examples of emblematic parallelism for yourself as you study the other psalms.
The next type is synthetic parallelism. This is where the
poet takes an idea and expands upon it. It is as if we took
a collapsed telescope, or antenna, and pulled out one
section, then another, and another, so that it just keeps on
expanding. This type is a little more difficult to discover, but Psalm 1 is an excellent example. Look at verses 1 and 2.
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
(That’s the collapsed telescope. Let’s pull it)
nor standeth in the way of sinners.
(Pull it again)
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
(Pull it again)
But his delight is in the law of the Lord.
(Now let’s really stretch it:)
and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
The poet can keep puffing an idea until he has stretched it as far as he can. This is synthetic parallelism.
The fourth type of parallelism is not common in the book
of Psalm but is used frequently in Proverbs from chapter
1 through chapter 31. It is called antithetical parallelism. In
it the writer states a thesis, then gives an antithesis. Look at
A wise son maketh a glad father. (thesis)
but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother. (antithesis)
And so this form, which uses but as a pivot, continues through Proverbs.
Subject Matter of Psalms When David had the Ark of the Covenant returned to Jerusalem, he also developed a formal worship service around it. First Chronicles 16:4 outlines the system he developed: “And he appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord.“ He had Levites made into a Levitical choir using psalms and musical instruments as a full complement to worship. Then, he divided the choir into three groups, one “to record,“ another “to thank, “ and a third “to praise.“ We can do the same today with choirs, and the psalms, if we see how David utilized them. Let us examine more closely the three words he used to describe the three types of subject matter in his psalms.
He instructed the first group of Levites “to record.“ A better
rendering of this word is “to remind.“ David was using certain
psalms to remind God. Psalm 70 has this word in the superscription. “To the chief musician. A psalm of David to bring to remembrance.“ Such psalms are usually a petition or a lament.
There are two categories of lament psalms. First, the communal lament, where the entire nation petitions and laments (Psalms 44, 74, 79, 80 and 83 are examples). Then there are individual, personal, lament psalms. These are found frequently throughout the Psalter.
The key to the lament Psalm is usually in the opening line. It will
begin, “O God, “ or “O Shepherd of Israel.“ It identifies the psalm just as
the opening line identifies most writing. or example, “Dear Tom” identifies a personal letter. “Whereas the party of the first part” tells us we have a legal document. “Once upon a time, “ as we all know, is the opening phrase to a fairy tale.
To a second group of Levites , David said :”Your job is to thank
God. ”That second group was to sing psalms of thanksgiving. To
the third group David said: “Your job is to praise God.” The
word literally means to rave about God. When God specifically meets a need, people are to praise Him. The Levites were to praise God for His attributes and for what He had done. Throughout the book of Psalms, you will see the various ways that God is praised in the different forms of Hebrew poetry.
These are the three basic subject matters as David designed them
to be used in worship. To invoke, (or remind God) to thank God, to praise God. As the Levites and the congregation gathered around the Ark, David would raise his hand and one group would sing reminders. He would raise it to another group and they would sing thanksgiving. Again he would raise it to the third and they would sing praises. In this unique way, God was honored and worshiped publicly.
When we master the Psalter, we can implement the Psalms in our
personal lives. We can remind God, thank God, and praise God, with the inspired Psalms contained in His Word. As we do, our prayer life will take on a dramatic new dimension. We can also implement the psalms in the public worship service to remind and thank and praise God. The congregation will be lifted to new heights of worship as we give back to God His own inspired Word from our hearts.
Psalm Construction The Greek word poema means “to do, “ or “to make” and is the word from which we derive our word poem or poetry. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the psalmist would create beautiful masterpieces. It was Spurgeon who said, “The Holy Spirit thus deigned to speak to men in forms which were attractive to the attention and helpful to the memory. He is often plain or elegant in his manner, but He does not disdain to be quaint or formal if thereby his Design of instruction can be more surely reached.”
Acrostic One type of construction is the acrostic. Psalm 119 is an
example of this format. It was written alphabetically, and each of the
eight stanzas begins with the next letter of the alphabet. The first eight verses begin with aleph which is the Hebrew equivalent of our letter A. It is a difficult concept to see since our English Bibles are not translated this way. What follows shows how the first eight verses would appear in the original. Compare it with your English translation.
A blessing is on them that are undefiled in the way, and walk in the
law of Jehovah. A blessing is on them that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart. Also on them that do no wickedness; but walk in his ways. A law hast thou given unto us that we should keep thy precepts diligently. Ah, Lord, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep thy statutes And then shall I not be confounded for I have respect unto all thy
commandments. As for me, I will thank thee with an unfeigned heart when I shall have learned thy righteous judgments. An eye will I have unto thy ceremonies. 0 forsake me not utterly.
And so it goes throughout the Hebrew alphabet. Many Bibles head up
each stanza with its beginning letter in the Hebrew alphabet, so this
concept can be seen by the reader. We can see from this that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the writers created beautiful pieces of writing like a weaver would create fine embroidery, full of balance and symmetry.
Psalm 44 is an example of a different structure. In the
original, it consists of twenty-six lines and looks like an
inverted ziggurat. The Babylonian ziggurats were graduated
stepped pyramids in design. The lower platform might be 200 x 200
feet, the next 160 x 160, the third 120 x 120, the next 80 x 80. Psalm 44 is the stepped effect turned upside down. In the original, verses 1-8 comprise a ten line confidence section. Verses 9-16 are an eight line lament. Verses 17-22 are a six fine protest. Finally, verses 23-26 comprise a four line petition.
Psalm 44 is also a perfect example of a reminder or lament psalm
because it contains all four of the sections that comprise the perfect
lament: a confidence section, a lament section, a protest section and a petition section. I encourage you to study this psalm so you can recognize these sections when you see them in other psalms. You will not find another psalm which is such a perfect example of the lament psalm, consisting of all four sections. However, you will find, throughout the Psalter, many that contain two or three of the sections, and possibly others with four, but in a different sequence.
Another interesting fact about psalm 44 is that it shows us how
people in that time drew encouragement from the past. Internal evidence indicates that it was written prior to 600 B.C. because the dates of Nebuchadnezzar’s three invasions were 605, 597, and 586 B.C. Psalm 44 was written when Judah still had a standing army. When they needed encouragement for their battles, they remembered the exploits of Joshua, looking to God’s victories through him and calling on God to give them the same kind of triumph. They used the Word of God in much the same way as we do today.
XL TWO SPECIAL CATEGORIES
Our study of Psalms would not be complete without consideration of
the Messianic Psalms. These are psalms concerned with the Messiah.
They were given to the psalmist by the Lord Jesus Christ in His pre-incarnate eternal state. As the Lord Jesus looked down throughout the corridors of time from eternity past, He poured out His heart in anticipation of the sufferings and sorrows that He knew He would endure a thousand years later. In these psalms, we have a glimpse of what He knowingly faced for us. Many Messianic Psalms were written by David between 1010 and 970 B.C., one thousand years before the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Typical There are three types of Messianic Psalms. The first can be
identified as Typical. In a Typical Messianic Psalm there is some feature in the life of the psalmist that is intended by the Holy Spirit to be a picture or type of the coming Messiah. Some particular feature or aspect of his life, or some characteristic of the individual, or something he does or experiences, is a type of Messiah. In the Typical Messianic Psalm, we do not say that all the psalmist’s life, activities, or circumstances mentioned, are Messianic. Otherwise, in many instances we would end up with heresy. Only some particular feature of the psalm is the type. Psalm 69 is an ideal example.
Psalm 69 is a lament, or reminder, psalm. Verse 5 demonstrates
that the entire psalm is not Messianic. It reads, “O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee.“ We know this cannot refer to the Messiah because He was sinless. But then in verse 7 we read, “Because for thy sake I have borne reproach; shame hath covered my face.“ With that, David’s experience becomes a type of the Messiah. He continues in verse 8, “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children.“ Notice the synonymous parallelism in these two verses. Again, David’s experience made him a type of Christ, who in His lifetime became a stranger and an alien because His relatives believed He was “beside himself.”
Continuing in Psalm 69, verse 9 says, “For the zeal of thine house
hath eaten me up.” As a theocentric individual, David was so consumed with the worship of Jehovah, that he spent hours and days in worship at the Ark in Jerusalem and at the tabernacle and brazen altar in Gibeon. In this psalm he said, “I am just consumed with God, I am consumed with worshiping God.“ A thousand years later, when the Apostle John saw the Lord Jesus in His zeal for the temple, he recorded in John 2:17, “And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.“ In that respect, they immediately likened the Lord Jesus to His ancestor David and linked Him with this psalm. Again, in verse 12, David’s experience is a type of Christ: “They that sit in the gate speak against me; and I was the song of the drunkards.” Look at verses 19 and 20:
Thou has know my reproach, and my shame, and my
dishonour... Reproach hath broken my heart,- and I am
full of heaviness; and I looked for some to take pity, but
there was none; and for comforters, but I Found none.
As the Lord Jesus Christ was on the cross one thousand years
later, looking at the faces staring up at Him, He saw them shooting out the lip, wagging their heads, mocking Him and saying, “Thou Son of God come down from the cross and save Thyself,“ As the psalmist said, He found no pity in any of the eyes or faces looking up at Him in sullen pride and arrogance.
Typical prophetic Finally, in verse 21, the psalmist says, “They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.“ We have no evidence that this ever happened to David. Therefore, when he uses this kind of vocabulary, he steps beyond the category of a Typical Messianic Psalm, and moves into the category of a typical-Prophetic Messianic Psalm.
Up to this point, history has been in play in David’s life. He
experienced the rebuke of his friends when he fled from Saul, and was abused by Shimei when he fled from Absalom. When he was across the Jordan after Absalom had invaded Jerusalem, I am certain he was the song of the drunkards, and even later on during the rebellion of Sheba. So, in those portions of the psalm, David was experiencing in his own life those things that the Lord Jesus would later experience. I do not believe that David ever experienced the gall and the vinegar. So, we find that in a Typical-Prophetic Messianic Psalm, that history is not the only force in play. In the Typical-Prophetic Messianic Psalm, the psalmist’s vocabulary goes beyond his personal experiences and he begins to express ideas and occurrences which he never encountered or experienced himself. I do not know what the psalmist thought as he wrote such words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He may have believed it was figurative language. But the figurative language, and what may sometimes have even appeared to be hyperbole was literally fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ. So the definition for a Typical-Prophetic Messianic Psalm is history plus inspired foresight, with the psalmist going beyond himself and his own experience.