Psalms Part Two: Deep Dive
INTERPRETING THE PSALMS AND OTHER HEBREW POETRY
| MICHAEL ELS
There are so many ideas that one can explore within the psalms that it would be hard to pin one down in a deep dive and think that it was sufficient. Instead, we are going to look at some tools that will help sharpen our minds when reading the psalms so that we can understand them for all their worth. This post will be dedicated to understanding the Hermeneutics of Hebrew Poetry.
Now, the first time I came across it I thought to myself, what on earth is hermeneutics? What makes it important? And how is this going to help me when I read the Bible?
So, What Is Hermeneutics?
It is the term we use for interpreting any kind of language. The word itself comes from Hermes, who was the Greek god and is believed to be the messenger of the gods to the mortals.
Now, Biblical hermeneutics is a more specific field of study; it is the task of determining what the text of the Bible was meant to convey in its context and then to explain what its meaning is for us today.
Simply put, Hermeneutics is what we do when we translate the Greek or Hebrew texts of the Bible into English. So, when we interpret the Bible, we are applying the study of "hermeneutics."
What Is The Importance Of Hermeneutics?
When it comes to communicating across cultural boundaries, I am no stranger. Ever heard the expression, “Lost in translation?” As a foreigner to this land, this was what my experience felt like in my first year or two in Australia. From experience, I can tell you that the importance of translation, that is hermeneutics, can be quite profound to understanding one another and building relationships.
Given the boundaries to communication across cultures and languages, it would be foolish to assume that we can read the Psalms in English and understand a text which was written:
Between 2500-3500 years ago,
To a different culture &
In a different language
It is important to understand the limitations of the English Language and to see the beauty and elegance that was used in composing these Psalms. It gives us a far greater appreciation for the Text as the Word of God.
How Is It Going To Help Us?
To understand why it is going to help us, we need to look at the subtle complexities of Hebrew poetry and some of the creative devices the authors used to convey their messages, express the cries of their heart and tell the stories of God and the nation of Israel.
Here are some important things that one must take into account when interpreting Hebrew poetry:
What Distinguishes Hebrew Poetry?
The oldest form of written communication is lyrical, that is poetry, and it can be distinguished from other literary forms by:
The emotional and imaginative character of its thoughts. That is, it relies on the emotional impact of its verse to convey its ideas and meaning, rather than just recounting the story in a narrative and factual form.
Poetry uses exalted diction, lofty ideas and noble expressions to convey its message. It’s not just what you say but how you say it. In poetry, the medium is very important to the message.
Poetry is distinguishable by its rhythm. It is packaged in a certain way to convey the right message. It is important to remember that Hebrew poetry has a rhythm of thought rather than the beat of syllables.
Vast amounts of the old testament is written in poetic form, and if we do not take this into consideration when we are trying to understand the Old Testament, we will have a hard time trying to make sense of the text.
Different Styles Of Hebrew Poetry
There are different styles of Hebrew poetry and most of the poetry found in the old testament can be broken down into 2 main categories:
Gnomic - Wisdom poetry which presents thought and reflection, observations on the human condition and society. (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes).
Lyric Poetry – Expressive and written to be sung, so when we read the Psalms, we should picture the original writers singing these words. This may seem strange but the Hebrew language was more adaptable than the English to allow for this. These poems were meant to express praise, lamentation, confession, blessings and curses.
Now it is the latter type of poetry that we will be focusing most of our attention on.
What Types of Lyrical Poetry Are There?
When it comes to Lyric Poetry there are several different forms, each designed to express certain emotions. Here are a few categories:
2. Mourning and Lament
3. Blessing and Curses – calling upon Gods Judgement or Favor, these are often found grouped together.
4. Tribal Songs
5. Mahals – Lessons or Parables
6. Paeans – Songs of Victory in remembrance of what God had done
7. Dirges – Funeral Songs to honor fallen Men.
There are others, but these are the main categories that make up the majority of the lyric poetry in the Old Testament and more specifically the Psalms.
What Are The Main Devices Used In Hebrew Poetry?
There are many devices that Hebrew writers used, namely: Rhythm (of ideas and not syllables), Assonance, Alliteration, Acrostics and Parallelism and more. Each of these could take up a deep dive on its own. For that reason, I will only introduce you to the one which most scholars consider as the most important: Parallelism.
This literary device was discovered by Robert Loath in the 18th Century and it is where there is a repetition of ideas within the poetic unit. There is a common misconception, that parallelism implies the that the second or successive lines merely restate or contrast the idea from the previous line in different words. Rather, parallelism is the “phenomenon whereby two or more successive lines dynamically strengthen, reinforce, and develop each other’s thought.” Successive parallel lines do not simply restate the opening line rather, they add to or expand upon its thought and bring to it more substance, clarity and depth.
Now, as with any other main category, there are many sub-categories; this is no exception as there are many types of parallelism.
Types of Parallelism
Synonymous Parallelism – Where the same idea is communicated using different words in successive lines, this is the most common form of parallelism. See Psalm 3:1; 49:1; 83:14; 103:13; Proverbs 19:5; 20:1.
Antithetic Parallelism – Where the second line is a contrast to the first line. See Psalm 1:6; 90:6; Proverbs 1:29; 10:1,12; 15:1; 19:4.
Synthetic Parallelism – The second line completes or adds information to the idea presented in the first line. See Psalm 19:7-9
Introverted Parallelism – Where the first and fourth lines repeat the same idea and lines two and three repeat a different idea from the one presented in lines one and four. See Psalm 30:8-10a
Climactic Parallelism - This is similar to Synthetic Parallelism, except that the successive lines build the intensity to a climax. See Psalm 19:7-14; 29:1-2; 103:20-22
Emblematic Parallelism – This is where lines make us of the words “like” or “as” to compare ideas and is similar to Synonymous Parallelism. See Psalm 42:1; 103:3
There are many others that can be Identified, but this is where your learning journey begins.
How To Interpret Poetic Language
There are many different devices that could be studied but once you have a firm grasp of the basic devices, specifically Parallelism and Figures of speech, we can make sense of much of the poetic language used by these Hebrew writers and build on our knowledge of the literary devices they used. To help you in your own study, here are some helpful steps to interpreting the poetic language found in the Bible:
Identify the figures of speech that are present in the text (simile, metaphor, personification, etc.), there may be more than one present at any given time.
Interpret the figure of speech by extracting both the figurative and literal meaning within the surrounding context of the poem.
Determine the function of the figure of speech in its context. Try to pinpoint the writers’ intentions and implied meaning by using that figure of speech.
Make use of commentaries, lexicons and other books on Hermeneutics.
Now that we have established that the Hebrew writers weren’t simply from a civilization, stuck in some archaic period with simple educations, we can surely have a greater appreciation for the works that they produced through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Resources to help you study Hebrew poetry