The Psalms contain some of the most well-known and well-loved portions of Scripture. We love them because they are comparatively brief, self-contained units that speak to us. The Psalms, written for worship and set to music, are the voice of worship. They speak across the range of human emotions that we all have; sorrow, fear, anger, joy, grief, victory, praise, confidence. We like the Psalms because we can see our own hearts portrayed in them. The Psalms give us the language to pray, to worship, and to grieve. That is one of their many uses to us as a Christian. In addidtion, they show us the character of God.
The Psalms are different from other genres of literature within the bible. What makes them different is the fact that these are hymns and prayers about God, and often directed to God, yet they remain a word from God to us. That is the challenge in interpreting them. How are they a word from God to us?
We must remember that these are inspired poems. They're Hebrew poems, and they're not like English poems. In English, we expect poems to have rhyme and meter; at least we used to. Modern poetry doesn't feel the need for rhyme as much, but we still see patterns in the way words are used and structured. Where Hebrew and English poetry are similar is in the use of metaphorical language. Psalm 1: "And he will be like a tree...." There's a metaphor right in the first Psalm. Metaphors provide concrete ways of expressing biblical truth.
Hebrew poetry uses parallelism. Tremper Longman defines it: "Parallelism refers to the correspondence which occurs between the phrases of a poetic line." Kathleen Nielson, a professor of literature describes parallelism as "the balancing together of units of thoughts, mostly in pairs." An example is Psalm 6:1:
O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discpline me in your wrath
That first line is asking the same thing of God: don't be angry with me. It is stated in two phrases, the second one worded differently.
There are different kinds of parallelism. The three most common are these:
- synonymous parallelism: the two phrases state the same truth, but the second one repeats it in slightly different words. An example of this is Psalm 2:1: Why do the nations rage/and the peoples plot in vain?
- synthetic parallelsim: the two phrases state the same truth, but the second one adds more meaning, and "completes" the thought. My shield is with God/who saves the upright in heart (Psalm 7:10).
- antithetic parallelism: the two phrases state the same truth, but the second phrase states in a contrasting way. Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses/but we trust in the name of the Lord our God (Psalm 20:7).
It's very useful to understand parallelism. We encounter it again in the Proverbs. For an excellent discussion about parallelism, look at Tremper Longman III's book How to Read the Psalms.
As with all Scripture, the context of the Psalms is important. Many of the Psalms have a description about when they were written. For example, Psalm 51 is a Psalm of David, expressing guilt after his sin with Bathsheba. Some of the Psalms were written when David was fleeing from Saul, and afraid for his life. A group of Psalms, called the Song of Ascents, include Psalm 120-Psalm 134. Some scholars believe these were sung on the steps of the temple. When the occasion of the Psalm is not mentioned, the language may dictate what the situation was. We may not know the details of the actual event, but we can look to the category a Psalm belongs to.
Leland Ryken divides the Psalms into three major categories, lament, praise, and worship. Those three divisions can be divided further. The categories are:
Other scholars may use different names. For example, the above list, which is Longman's description, differs in Fee and Stuart's book, which is the same except they employ "salvation-history" and "songs of trust" instead of "remembrance," and "confidence." Robert Plummer's list is almost the same, except that he has two categories, "penitential" and "imprecatory" which I suspect the other scholars would include in the laments rather than have their own categories. I like Longman's list the best, personally. If you can't figure out specifically which category a Psalm belongs to, I think Ryken's broader division is the place to start, and then a student can narrow things further as he reads and sees the similarities and differences.
As we read and interpret the Psalms, it is important to keep in mind what category the Psalm is in, because that will dictate its interpretation. Yes, some of the Psalms are prophetic, but they still exist within a category of literature. Psalm 22 is considered prophetic, but it is a lament, and interpeted as such. The important thing is to remember what, ultimately, we gain from the Psalms. Through the Psalms we are given words for worship. We are given examples of how to deal with our emotional lives. We are encouraged to reflect on God's goodness and character. If you're feeling down, turn to the Psalms, and you will be reminded of God's goodness throughout.
Tomorrow or Wednesday, I hope to continue this post by looking at a few Psalms to see how they are read and opened up.