Friday, July 11, 2014

Lecture One: Wisdom and Poetry - The Psalms

Hebrew Poetry in the Old Testament

There are passages of Hebrew poetry in the prose Pentateuch and Historical Books (Moses’ song, Hannah’s song, etc.), but Hebrew poetry abounds in Psalms, Wisdom Literature (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) and the Prophets.

Hebrew poetry is complex and still not completely understood. Although most of us cannot read biblical Hebrew, we can all still appreciate the artistry of the genre.

Ugaritic texts show close similarities to Hebrew poetry and have helped (1) make sense of rare Hebrew words, (2) better understand parallelism as an ANE art form, and (3) know what people believed Baal and Asherah were like.

Common Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry

Hebrew poetry sometimes makes use of meter and rhyme, but it more commonly makes use of parallelism and imagery.

Synonymous Parallelism

First line makes a statement.
Second line repeats the thought.

Show me your ways, O LORD,
  Teach me your paths.
  Psalm 25:4

Come near, you nations, and listen;
    pay attention, you peoples!
  Let the earth hear, and all that is in it,
    the world, and all that comes out of it.
  Isaiah 34:1

Yet how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out?
  How often does calamity come upon them?
  Job 21:17

Antithetical Parallelism

First line makes a statement.
Second line stands in contrast to it.

The sluggard craves and gets nothing,
  but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.
  Proverbs 13:4

For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.
  Psalm 1:6

Better to lie on a corner of the roof
    than to share a house with a quarrelsome wife.
  Proverbs 21:9

Formal or Synthetic Parallelism

First line makes a statement.
Second line carries or expands the thought.

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit
    for anger resides in the lap of fools.
  Ecclesiastes 7:9

A besieging army is coming from a distant land,
    raising a war cry against the cities of Judah.
  Jeremiah 4:16

Look on my suffering and deliver me,
    for I have not forgotten your law.
  Psalm 119:153

Secondary Forms of Parallelism

Emblematic Parallelism:
Explicitly makes an analogy with like or as. Closely related to poetic imagery.

As the deer pants for streams of water
  so my soul pants for you, O God.”
  Psalm 42:1

Repetitive, Stepladder, or Climactic Parallelism:
Begins with a statement but repeats and carries it further than simply synonymous parallelism.

Ascribe to the LORD, O might ones,
  ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
  worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.
  Psalm 29:1


A chiasm occurs when successive lines reverse the order in
which the parallel themes appear. The name comes from the
Greek letter chi, which looks like an X.
  O Lord, forgive me;
  Blot out my sin, O God of my salvation.
  Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
  And in the way of sinners he does not stand.
  Psalm 1:1

Inclusios and Acrostics

Hebrew poetry is often highly structured and ought to be analyzed at the level of individual lines as well as at the level of whole poems. Inclusios and acrostics are examples of large-scale poetic structuring.

An inclusio occurs when the first line of a poem corresponds to the last line of the poem. For example, Psalm 8:1a, 9: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

An acrostic is an alphabetic poem that works through the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The most famous example in the Bible is Psalm 119.


Hebrew poetry is rich with images. Think of all the ways Psalms describes God: rock, sword, shield, fortress, storm cloud, shepherd, warrior, archer, chariot rider, king, etc.

Types of Imagery:

Attributes human characteristics to something nonhuman. God can also be personified.

A comparison made explicit using like or as.

An implicit comparison that does not use like or as.

The Psalms

Israel’s book of worship

A collections of songs written over several hundred years.

The book of Psalms was not completed until well after the exilic period.

150 psalms total

Five books within the Book of Psalms:

Book I: Psalms 1-41

Book II: Psalms 42-72

Book III: Psalms 73-89

Book IV: Psalms 90-106

Book V: Psalms 107-150

The psalms are attributed to many different people, including:

King David
King Solomon
The Sons of Korah
Heman the Ezrahite
Ethan the Ezrahite

Psalms of David

Many of the psalms are attributed to David.

It is understood that they were written by David, written in remembrance of David, or written by the descendants of David.

Popular psalms attributed to David include, but are not limited to:

Psalm 23
“The LORD is my shepherd…”

Psalm 51
“Have mercy on me, O God…”

Psalm 69
“The flood surrounds me.”

Psalm 110
“I will make your enemies footstools.”

Psalm 139
“Where can I flee from your presence?”

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.     He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
     he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.
 Even though I walk
    through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the 

Dr. Ray Vander Laan on Green Pastures...

God does not promise to give us everything we want or even need all at once. But he does promise to walk with us and guide us one step at a time, giving us just enough for each moment.

We are the sheep and God is the shepherd leading us through the desert. The "green pastures" that God leads us to are not fields of "belly deep alfalfa" as we often imagine as westerners, but rather little tufts of grass scattered here and there, teaching us that we need to rely on God at all times for everything. Because God is the only one who can lead us safely though the desert.

Psalm 51

“When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
 Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.
 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
 Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
 Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
 Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.
 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me…

Cleanse me with hyssop...

When David cries out to God in repentance after his sin with Bathsheba, he says, "Cleanse me with hyssop."

This is not an insignificant request. Hyssop was used as a healing ointment for wounds. It cleansed the wound so that healing could begin, but this wasn't a comfortable process by any means. It hurt! It burned! David isn't saying "take my sin away from me," he is saying "burn this sin right out of me!" It'd be like saying, "God, pour battery acid on me until all the evil in me has been burned up!"

Also, healing doesn't always come quickly. David never fully recovered from the consequences of his sin, however, his "wound" would never have been healed at all had it not first been "cleansed."

Psalm 69
Save me, O God,
    for the waters have come up to my neck.
 I sink in the miry depths,
    where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
    the floods engulf me.

 I am worn out calling for help;
    my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
    looking for my God.
 Those who hate me without reason
    outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
    those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore
    what I did not steal.
 You, God, know my folly;
    my guilt is not hidden from you.
 Lord, the Lord Almighty,
    may those who hope in you
    not be disgraced because of me;
God of Israel,
    may those who seek you
    not be put to shame because of me.
 For I endure scorn for your sake,
    and shame covers my face.
 I am a foreigner to my own family,
    a stranger to my own mother’s children;
 for zeal for your house consumes me,
    and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.
 When I weep and fast,
    I must endure scorn;
 when I put on sackcloth,
    people make sport of me.
 Those who sit at the gate mock me,
    and I am the song of the drunkards.
A Wadi
 But I pray to you, Lord,
    in the time of your favor;
in your great love, O God,
    answer me with your sure salvation.
 Rescue me from the mire,
    do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me,
    from the deep waters.

 Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
    or the depths swallow me up
    or the pit close its mouth over me.
 Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love;
    in your great mercy turn to me.
 Do not hide your face from your servant;
    answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.
 Come near and rescue me;
    deliver me because of my foes…

As a shepherd, David would have spent much time in the wilderness and would have had experience with something called "wadis."

In the desert, it doesn't ran very much at all, so you might think that flooding wouldn't be an issue. However, fifty miles to the north of the desert it will rain quite a bit at times in the mountains. The ground in the mountains won't absorb all that water, so the water comes down the mountains and forms canyons in the desert called wadis.

It may be a beautiful sunny day in the desert, but if it's raining in the distant mountains and you're standing in a wadi, you only have minutes before the water will show up and overtake you.

More people die from flash flooding in the deserts of Israel every year than from heat, snakes, and scorpions combined.

David was familiar with the dangers of wadis and as a good shepherd he wouldn't have led his sheep to drink from the waters in the wadis.

It is this fearsome picture of being trapped in a wadi surrounded by flood waters with no way out that David compares with how he has been surrounded by his enemies on every side, and he cannot see a way of escape. In other words, he is absolutely scared to death, and the only hope he has left in the world is intervention from God himself.

Psalm 110

Throughout the New Testament, the writers of the Bible compared many things about Jesus to different passages in the Psalms. Psalm 110 is just one of many examples of this. Jesus is shown to be the true son of David, but not only as an earthly king, but as a heavenly king as well - as a king like Melchizedek, a king with no recorded beginning or end, an eternal king.

The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”
 The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
    “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
 Your troops will be willing
    on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
    your young men will come to you
    like dew from the morning’s womb.
 The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”
 The Lord is at your right hand;
    he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.
 He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
    and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.
 He will drink from a brook along the way,
    and so he will lift his head high.

Psalm 139

This psalm is in my opinion one of the most beautiful of all the psalms. It portrays a God beyond escape, a God who is everywhere at all times and who sees and knows everything.

God is in heaven, but he is also in the earth, in all of its farthest corners and hidden places - even in death itself, God is there.

No matter where we end up, God will always be there with us. Nothing is hidden from his sight. He knows the past, the present, and the future, and he knows our very thoughts before we even know them ourselves. But more than that, He chooses to make His own thoughts known to His people. He chooses to be intimate with us. And he leads us out of our own decay and inclination toward evil, and into his own everlasting and healing nature.

You have searched me, Lord,
you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
 You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
 Before a word is on my tongue
Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.
 Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
 all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.

 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.
 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
    Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
 They speak of you with evil intent;
    your adversaries misuse your name.
 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
    and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
 I have nothing but hatred for them;
    I count them my enemies.
 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 72

Of Solomon…

Connecting the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant…

Psalm 72 falls at the end of the section of Psalms attributed to David, yet this psalm is also attributed to Solomon, so this may mean that the writer is recalling the Davidic covenant and how Solomon started out faithful to the covenant but ended up being unfaithful.

If this is the case, then the writer of the Psalm may in fact be hoping for a future anointed one to rise up from David’s line in order to completely fulfill the requirements of the Davidic promise, which would include the link to the Abrahamic promise in which the Davidic ruler is understood as being the one from the line of Abraham who would cause all nations on earth to be blessed.

This desire for the ideal king who would come and reign as portrayed in the psalms is a significant contributor to the messianism that would later develop in Judaism. This desire arose from a consistent lack of faithful leadership by the Davidic rulers over time.

Endow the king with your justice, O God,
    the royal son with your righteousness.

 May he judge your people in righteousness,
    your afflicted ones with justice.
 May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
    the hills the fruit of righteousness.
 May he defend the afflicted among the people
    and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
 May he endure as long as the sun,
    as long as the moon, through all generations.
 May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
    like showers watering the earth.
 In his days may the righteous flourish
    and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.
 May he rule from sea to sea
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.
 May the desert tribes bow before him
    and his enemies lick the dust.

 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
    bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and 
    present him gifts.
 May all kings bow down to him
    and all nations serve him.
 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
    the afflicted who have no one to help.
 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
    and save the needy from death.
 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
    for precious is their blood in his sight.
 Long may he live!
May gold from Sheba be given him.
May people ever pray for him
    and bless him all day long.
 May grain abound throughout the land;
    on the tops of the hills may it sway.
May the crops flourish like Lebanon
    and thrive like the grass of the field.
 May his name endure forever;
    may it continue as long as the sun.
Then all nations will be blessed through him,
    and they will call him blessed.
 Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel,
    who alone does marvelous deeds.
 Praise be to his glorious name forever;
    may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
Amen and Amen.

Psalm 91

God has feathers?

This psalm says that God will cover you with his feathers. So I guess this means that God is a bird. ... oh wait, this is poetry, isn't it? And we're not supposed to take poetry too literally, are we?

However, this doesn't mean that there's no truth behind the bird-like God. Just as a bird covers her chicks with her feathery wings for protection, so too will God protect His own children. ...or should I say Her children? ...Or maybe I should just say God's children... since God is genderless... anyway...

The devil’s favorite psalm…maybe…

When the devil is tempting Jesus in the wilderness, he quotes to him from this psalm, saying, "Throw your self down from the temple, because, 'He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."

However, this was actually a really stupid thing for the devil to say, because if he had gone on to read the rest of that verse he was quoting, he would have read, "You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent." The devil is often described as a lion and a serpent, so he was actually quoting from a psalm that was speaking of his own destruction by the Messiah.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”
 Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.
 He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
 You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
 A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
 You will only observe with your eyes
    and see the punishment of the wicked.
 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
 no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
 they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
 “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
    I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
 He will call on me, and I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble,
    I will deliver him and honor him.
 With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

Psalm 119

The longest psalm in the Book of Psalms.

Also, the longest chapter in the entire Bible.

Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem divided into sections based on the Hebrew alphabet.

Each section begins with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with the letter “Aleph” and ending with the letter “Taw.”


א   Aleph
 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
    who walk according to the law of the Lord.
 Blessed are those who keep his statutes
    and seek him with all their heart—
 they do no wrong
    but follow his ways.
 You have laid down precepts
    that are to be fully obeyed.
 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
    in obeying your decrees!
 Then I would not be put to shame
    when I consider all your commands.
 I will praise you with an upright heart
    as I learn your righteous laws.
 I will obey your decrees;
    do not utterly forsake me.
ב   Beth
 How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
    By living according to your word.
 I seek you with all my heart;
    do not let me stray from your commands.
 I have hidden your word in my heart
    that I might not sin against you.
 Praise be to you, Lord;
    teach me your decrees.
 With my lips I recount
    all the laws that come from your mouth.
 I rejoice in following your statutes
    as one rejoices in great riches.
 I meditate on your precepts
    and consider your ways.
 I delight in your decrees;
    I will not neglect your word.

Psalm 137

This psalm is one of more violent psalms and speaks of how the Jews were destroyed by the Babylonians and carried away as captives. This psalm ends with a call for vengeance against those who had done them violence.

The Jews wanted the Babylonians to pay for what they had done to their people, saying, "If only we could do to you what you did to us! How would you like it if we smashed in the heads of your babies like the way you did to ours?"

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
 There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
 for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?

 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.
 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

The Sons of Korah

Several songs are attributed to a group of people who referred to themselves as “The Sons of Korah.”

Many of their psalms deal with some of the darker issues of human existence, such as dealing with death and depression.

Many of these psalms hint at the theme of resurrection from Sheol.

As the first Korah fell into Sheol alive, so “The Sons of Korah” sing of being raised up out of Sheol alive.

Popular psalms by The Sons of Korah include, but are not limited to:

Psalms 42-43
“Why so downcast, O my soul?”

Psalm 49
“God will redeem me from the realm of the dead.”

Psalms 42-43

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.

 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
 My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
 These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.
 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.
 My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of 
Hermon—from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.
 By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.
 I say to God my Rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?

Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?”
 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.
Vindicate me, my God,
    and plead my cause
    against an unfaithful nation.
Rescue me from those who are
    deceitful and wicked.
 You are God my stronghold.
    Why have you rejected me?

Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?
 Send me your light and your faithful care,
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
    to the place where you dwell.
 Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.
 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God

Psalm 49

Hear this, all you peoples;
    listen, all who live in this world,
 both low and high,
    rich and poor alike:
 My mouth will speak words of wisdom;
    the meditation of my heart will give you understanding.
 I will turn my ear to a proverb;
    with the harp I will expound my riddle:
 Why should I fear when evil days come,
    when wicked deceivers surround me—
 those who trust in their wealth
    and boast of their great riches?
 No one can redeem the life of another
    or give to God a ransom for them—
 the ransom for a life is costly,
    no payment is ever enough—
 so that they should live on forever
    and not see decay.

 For all can see that the wise die,
    that the foolish and the senseless also perish,
    leaving their wealth to others.
 Their tombs will remain their houses forever,
    their dwellings for endless generations,
    though they 
had named lands after themselves.
 People, despite their wealth, do not endure;
    they are like the beasts that perish.
 This is the fate of those who trust in themselves,
    and of their followers, who approve their sayings
 They are like sheep and are destined to die;
death will be their shepherd
    (but the upright will prevail over them in the morning).
Their forms will decay in the grave,
    far from their princely mansions.
 But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
    he will surely take me to himself
. Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
    when the splendor of their houses increases;
 for they will take nothing with them when they die,
    their splendor will not descend with them.
 Though while they live they count themselves blessed—
    and people praise you when you prosper—
 they will join those who have gone before them,
    who will never again see the light of life.
 People who have wealth but lack understanding
    are like the beasts that perish.

No comments:

Post a Comment