The Nature of the Psalms

During his lifetime, David composed sixteen psalms that related to different life situations. He became the poet of Isra’el. Therefore, during the study of the Life of David, several of his poems are included to give the reader the full picture of David’s feelings at that time. For example, after David’s son died, after his affair with Bathsheba, he wrote Psalm 51. Therefore, this is discussed right alongside the biblical account of David’s sin in Second Samuel 11:1-27 to give a much broader picture of his feelings. Other such psalms discussed in this commentary are (Aq) Psalm 59, (Ay) Psalm 56, (Ax) Psalm 34, (Bb) Psalm 142, (Be) Psalm 52, (Bh) Psalm 63, (Bi) Psalm 54, (Bk) Psalm 57, (Cu) Psalm 132, (Cw) Psalm 60, (Df) Psalm 51, (Dq) Psalm 3, (Dt) Psalm 7, (Eh) Psalm 18, (Ei) Psalm 22, and (Em) Psalm 30.

1. Religious lyric poetry: The Psalms are the largest collection of ancient lyrical poetry in existence. Lyric poetry directly expresses the individual emotions of the poet. As part of the TaNaKh, this poetry is also necessarily religious. Religious lyric poetry is the expression of these emotions and feelings as they are stirred by the thought of YHVH and directed by the Ruach HaKodesh.

Many psalms address ADONAI directly with their poetic expressions of petition and praise. They reveal all the religious feelings of the faithful – fears, doubts, and tragedies, as well as triumphs, joys, and hopes. The psalmists frequently drew on their experiences for examples of people’s needs and God’s goodness and mercy. Singing of past deliverances in easily remembered didactic poetry provided support and comfort for believers in their hours of trial, as well as warning them against unbelief and disobedience. In this regard, the psalmists rejoiced over the Torah as their guide for conduct and direction for prosperity.

Because the Psalms formed the “hymnal” of the Temple, they often celebrate the ordinances of the sanctuary and rejoice in the privilege of drawing near to the LORD on His holy mountain. This aspect of the Psalms, combined with their display of personal religious feelings, makes them the most powerful and complete expression of the worship of ancient Isra’el. Set in the form of lyric poetry, they became unforgettable.

The Psalms reveal that the Israelites were an intensely religious people, worshiping God with a strong sense of right and wrong. Regarding themselves as Ha’Shem’s covenant people, they oppose wickedness and unbelief. Their daily activities, the national celebrations, and their military activities were carried out with religious commitment. The fact that the songs reflect this commitment makes them all the more useful for the edification of the entire household of faith, both then and now.

2. Expressive language: Awareness is achieved through the use of images, symbols, figures, emotional vocabulary, and multiple meanings. The imagery used in the Psalms is earthy, for the Israelites were largely a nation of farmers and shepherds living in the countryside close to nature. It was also militaristic, because they were often involved in wars to conquer the Land, and defensive wars against the ravages of empires that at times were part of the discipline of HaShem. Consequently, to fully understand the poetic expressions they used, one must understand the people’s cultural experiences.

This expressive language enabled the psalmists to convey several things at the same time. Because the truth was presented in word pictures, it evoked in the reader the feelings that the poet had when he wrote the lines; it excited in the reader the emotional significance of the words as well as their intellectual meanings. For example, the poet could picture the vitality and stability of a godly person through the image of a tree planted by water, or the fear of the fainthearted through the image of melting wax, or the verbal attacks of the wicked through the imagery of swords and arrows. So a discussion of the Psalms must be sensitive to such images in order to appreciate both the intellectual and the emotional meanings of the poetry. In other words, the Psalms must be treated as religious lyrical poetry.

Several headings are used to designate the types of psalms in the book, Hebrew word mizor, translated psalms, heads 57 psalms. It signifies a song accompanied by stringed instruments. A maskil is probably a soul-searching poem, and 13 psalms are labeled with this heading. The Hebrew word sir, translated song, is used 12 times. The designation miktam, is found with 6 psalms. Its meaning is disputed and undetermined. The Hebrew word palal, meaning prayers, is seen in 5 psalms; and the Hebrew word tehillah, meaning praise, is used once.

3. Meter: The fact that the Psalms are artistic, means that they display in fuller measure and with greater frequency the components of artistic form, including patterns, design, unity, balance, harmony, and variation. The psalmists were imaginative and creative; they regarded their artistry as crucial to the meaning of its content.

Meter is basic to the pattern of poetry. Hebrew poetry certainly has meter and rhythm, but it is not possible as yet to determine that meter with any degree of certainty. Most commentators are satisfied to count the number of accented Hebrew words or word units in a line as the basis of their poetical analysis. Because only a few psalms consistently follow a metrical pattern of accented words, attempts to reconstruct the text according to preconceived or novel ideas of meter are unconvincing.

4. Parallelism: The predominant feature of Hebrew poetic structure is the repetition of meaning in parallel expressions . . . or poetic parallelism. The biblical verse of poetry normally has two or more of these parallel units. The relationship between the parallel units must be studied to determine the emphasis of a verse as a whole. The words are not meant to rhyme, but are parallel in thought. Sometimes the parallelism is synonymous: Then Isra’el entered Egypt; Jacob resided as a foreigner in the land of Ham (Psalm 105:23), sometimes the parallelism is contrasting: In the morning [the grass] springs up new, but in the evening it is dry and withered (Psalm 90:6), and sometimes one of the parallel units is a metaphorical illumination of the other: As a father has compassion on his children, so ADONAI has compassion on those who fear Him (Psalm 103:13).

5. Stylistic arrangements: Apart from a few psalms, the arrangement of lines of poetry into stanza or strophes is not common. Psalm 119 is perhaps the best known for this, for it divided into 22 strophes of eight verses each. A few psalms have a refrain to mark out their strophic arrangements (42:5, 11, 43:5, 57:5 and 11, 80:3, 7 and 19 for example).

Certain psalms are alphabetically arranged as acrostics, that is, each verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet in consecutive order (Psalms 9 and 10 together are one acrostic poem, and Psalms 25, 34, 37 111-112, 145). This style is also used in Psalm 119 where each of the eight verses in each of the 22 sections begins with the same letter. Among other purposes, this would have made it easier to memorize them.

6. Music and melody: In the praises, both Isra’el’s music and musical instruments are mentioned in the Psalms. Cymbals, wind instruments, and string instruments of various types are named, showing that musical accompaniment must have been on a grand scale. Also, many times the headings of the Psalms say for the director of music, occurring 55 times. Many speculate that it probably referred to the chief musician in charge of Temple music. These may have comprised a collection of songs sung at the Temple. The sons of Korah found in Psalms 42, 44 through 49, 84, and 87-88 probably refers to musical performers from this family.15

Other headings serve as musical indicators. The phrase with stringed instruments(harp and lyre) appears in Psalms 4, 6, 54-55, 61, 67 and 76. According to sheminith is in Psalms 6 and 12. Because its form is related to the Hebrew word for eight, it probably means with an eight stringed lyre. To the tune of “The Death of a Son” in Psalm 9 is a variant of according to alamoth in Psalm 46. The word alamoth is related to the Hebrew word for maidens and may signify a female choir, a band of maidens playing tambourines or a musical term for a high musical setting (soprano). The expression for flutes in Psalm 5 is obscure, as is shiggaion in Psalm 7 and according to gittith in Psalms 8, 81 and 84. The word Selah occurs 71 times in the Psalms. Its use particularly in the first three books suggests its antiquity. It was likely a term of direction to the musicians who accompanied the recital of the Psalms, probably an indication that instrumental music was to be introduced at this point. But its precise significance in Isra’el’s worship remains unclear. But it could possibly mean to lift up or exalt.

Several psalms also include melody indicators. To the tune of the lilies is found with Psalms 45, 60, 69, and 80. To the doe of the morning occurs in Psalm 22. To the silent dove of the distances is the heading of Psalm 56. Do not destroy occurs in Psalms 57-59 and 75. Since the word al-mahalath in Psalm 53 is related to the Hebrew word for sick or sickness it has been suggested that what is in view is a prayer for a sick person. The meaning of al-mahalath leannoth in Psalm 88 is disputed and uncertain.16


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