Teaching Kids to Read Psalms

Dear Reader,

We took a step back in our study of the Psalms last week. I felt that the kids needed a little more basic practice on how to look at the Psalms.

If we were studying English poetry, of course we could just read a lot of poems and that would no doubt be of some value. But at some point we might also take time to learn certain poetic devices such as rhyme schemes, meter, and alliteration. So too with Hebrew poetry it is helpful to spend some time on the devices that are used. Perhaps it is even more important because these poems are not originally in our native language and, sad to say, their devices do not always come across well when translated into our langauge.

Hebrew uses some devices we are familiar with. It has acrostic poems. It used repeated words and repetition of sounds. It does not use rhyme which is perhaps the first thing we learn as children studying English poetry. What it uses instead is parallelism. We sometimes get this in English but it is not nearly so pervasive as in Hebrew poetry where it is the main structuring technique.  So to understand Hebrew poetry, we have to learn to see the parallels when they occur and then to ask what meaning they add to the Psalm.

In last week’s lesson, I presented the kids with sets of parallel lines excerpted from the Bible (not all from the Book of Psalms) and we went through them one by one together and asked what words were parallel. We noted that there are different kinds of words which can make word pairs in the parallel lines.

For example, in Isaiah 49:22b (I am indebted for the examples in this post to Classical Hebrew Poetry by Wilfred G.E. Watson) we read:

“And they shall bring your sons in their arms,

and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.” [All translations are ESV in this post.]

Here we find a word pair which would also go together for us in English: sons and daughters. Similarly in Proverbs 26:1 we find:

“Like snow in summer

or rain in harvest,

so honor is not fitting for a fool.”

The pairs snow/rain and summer/harvest also make sense to us. Sometimes, however, there are word pairs which are used frequently  in Hebrew which may not be so obvious to us non-Hebrew speakers. The Psalms often speak of “widows and orphans” and “the poor and the needy.” If you think of phrases we have in English such as “down and out” or even “meat and potatoes” you may see that while they may translate into another langauge some of the meaning might be lost if the reader is not familiar with the English phrase. This is especially true if the phrase is broken up over two parallel lines.

Sometimes the pairs in parallel lines are opposites as in Psalm 107:26a:

“They mounted up to heaven;

they went down to the depths”

“Mounted up” contrasts “went down” while “heaven” is the opposite of “the depths.”

Sometimes one parallel term, usually the second, is more specific than the first as in Psalm 7:16:

“His mischief returns upon his own head,

and on his own skull his violence descends.”

Skull is more specific than head. Similarly in Psalm 29:8

“The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;

the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.”

“The wilderness of Kadesh” further narrows down the more general “wilderness.”

When people are the subject (or object) the second occurrence is often some sort of epithet or patronymic as in Judges 5:12:

“Arise, Barak;

Lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam.”

Numbers present a special case. Hebrew tends to be less exact about numbers than we are comfortable with. usually the pair is x followed by x+1 as in Micah 5:5b (see also Judg 5:30,Deut 32:30, Hos 6:2, Amos 1:3, Job 5:19 on this):

“Then we will raise against him seven shepherds

and eight princes of men.”

If we read for instance in Proverbs that there are five things God hates and six He abhors and wonder  which one he abhors but does not hate, we are being led astray by our own expectations and missing the point of the verse. When the numbers get larger, one common paring is thousands/ten thousands as in Micah 6:7a (cf Deut 32:30, Ps 91:7, Gen 24:60, Ps 68:18):

“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

Saul himself seems to have missed the point of this parallel when he heard the people praising him for killing thousands but David for slaying ten thousands.

The whole point of this exercise was to help us to recognize parallels and to think of what sorts of word pairs make good parallels. We concluded by coming up with a few sets of parallel lines of our own in English. For instance:

Solomon eats a lot;

The little brother munches meatballs.

All this is only the beginning of the story. We still need to address different parallel structures and get into the meaning of it all. But it is a start.


5 responses to this post.

  1. […] of weeks ago but I never got around to posting on it. I used it as a follow-up to our discussion of Hebrew poetry in general.  Of course, Isaiah 40 is not a psalm but it is a piece of biblical poetry and is very nice as an […]


  2. […] particularly something that makes use of the psalms (I discuss our psalm studies in many posts; here is an example). I would agree with them for probably at least 90% of their theology, including what […]


  3. […] It has been a while since we have tackled a psalm or since I have posted about it here. But the other week we studied Psalm 16. We don’t sing hymns, so we don’t do hymn study; we do psalms instead. For a little refresher on how we approach the psalms see this post or this one. […]


  4. […] an introduction to how we do Psalm study see this post and this one. You can also find all our earlier studies here (link coming soon). Having studied […]


  5. […] of weeks ago but I never got around to posting on it. I used it as a follow-up to our discussion of Hebrew poetry in general.  Of course, Isaiah 40 is not a psalm but it is a piece of biblical poetry and is very nice as an […]


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