Songs and Poetry of the Book of Psalms
By Don Ruhl
Do we hear and answer wisdom’s call?
Does not wisdom cry out,
And understanding lift up her voice?
She takes her stand on the top of the high hill,
Beside the way, where the paths meet.
She cries out by the gates, at the entry of the city,
At the entrance of the doors:
“To you, O men, I call,
And my voice is to the sons of men.
O you simple ones, understand prudence,
And you fools, be of an understanding heart.
Wisdom calls out to us in the wisdom and poetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, which includes the Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. We shall now look at this section that shows truth displaying her beauty.
The Book of Psalms as Music
Does music play a part in your life? What purpose does music fulfill? We can express the emotions of our hearts through the poetry of music. For example, consider the vivid imagery of fear that David expressed,
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
Where there is no standing;
I have come into deep waters,
Where the floods overflow me.
I am weary with my crying;
My throat is dry;
My eyes fail while I wait for my God.
(Psa 69.1–3; See also verses 13–15)
It is appropriate to take a dangerous situation of the flesh and use it for comparisons of something troubling we experience in the spirit. The Book of Psalms is a book of poetry meant to be sung. Turn to the “Scriptures” index of a song book and you will see how many songs are either influenced by a psalm or are actual psalms.
Of the latter, consider the following:
“Unto thee, O Lord” is Psalm 25.1–3, 7.
“Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” is Psalm 148.
“I Exalt Thee” is Psalm 97.9.
The Book of Psalms as Poetry
The Book of Psalms is Hebrew poetry. Do not expect it to sound like English poetry, which is based upon rhyme and rhythm. Some of Hebrew poetry can only be seen in the original language. Alliterations, wordplays, and acrostics cannot be seen in English.
For example, Psalm 119 uses the acrostic. Every eight verses begins with the successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which emphasizes the content of Psalm 119, a psalm on God’s word. Most Bibles place a heading at the beginning of every eight verses to show the Hebrew letter that begins each of the verses in that section. However, in English we can still see and appreciate two major forms of Hebrew poetry, that of parallelism and figures of speech. Psalm 19.1, 2 shows parallelism easily,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
(Psa 19.1, 2)
“The firmament” in the second line of verse 1, parallels “the heavens” in the first line. “Shows” parallels “declare.” “His Handiwork” parallels “the glory of God.” Can you see the parallelism of verse 2? Parallelism comes in different forms. Without exploring all of them now, consider for the moment inverted parallelism or a chiasm.
So God created man in His own image;
in the image of God He created him;
male and female He created them.
“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.
Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers;
The snare is broken, and we have escaped.
While regular parallelism echoes a thought, inverted parallelism mirrors a thought. The Book of Psalms has influenced the English language.
“Out of the mouth of babes” (Psa 8.2)
“The apple of the eye” (Psa 17.8)
“The valley of the shadow of death” (Psa 23.4)
“My cup runneth over” (Psa 23.5)
Also, English translators coined English words to express the Hebrew of Psalms:
“Bloodthirsty” (Psa 26.9)
“Contradiction (Psa 55.9) (Wycliffe’s Translation)
“Daytime” (Psa 22.2)
“Handmaid” (Psa 123.2)
Understanding how this psalm works, helps to understand how the others work. Three stanzas picture the relationship of God and a person using the imagery of a shepherd and a sheep. David wrote briefly, succinctly, and powerfully. The first stanza shows the Provider. The second stanza shows the Defender. The third stanza shows the Benefactor. Psalm 23 summarizes David’s life, who began as a shepherd, experienced many dangers, and God anointed David as king.
Psalm 46 and Shakespeare
British linguist Anthony Burgess wrote that Shakespeare did the translation of Psalm 46 for the King James Version. Shakespeare often put puns, puzzles, and wordplays into his writings and it appears, that if he translated Psalm 46, that he did it with that psalm also.
The 46th word in Psam 46, counting from the beginning and excluding the introductory line, is “shake.” The 46th word, counting from the end and excluding the exclamation Selah, is “spear.” And William Shakespeare was 46 years old in the year 1610, when the translation of the King James Bible was being completed (The Bible and Its Influence, Teacher’s Edition, page 142).