I have been neglecting the finer things in (our homeschool) life but am determined to return to them. Among these is Psalm study. Charlotte Mason recommends hymn study but since we do not sing hymns, this never made much sense for our family. We do, however, sing the Psalms and so I have in the past attempted Psalm studies with my kids. My goal is to get back into doing them every or perhaps every other week and to post both how we went about it and the results here. Looking back over my previous posts, I found we had been through a number of psalms already, including numbers 1-7, so I thought Psalm 8 would be a good place for us to resume.
For 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 biblical Hebrew in grad school, I use my own translations of the Psalms so that I can have them laid out as I like and also stay as close to the structure and meaning of the Hebrew original. You can find my translation of Psalm 8 and my notes on it here (opens a google doc). My recommendation is to print out a copy for yourself and each child, then grab a stack of colored pencils and get ready to begin.
Since we hadn’t done a Psalm study in a while, I began by asking my kids if they remembered what sorts of things they should be looking for. The first suggestion was synonyms (okay, they said “words that mean the same thing”). I explained that this is partially true — Hebrew poetry is based on a parallelism, that is sets (usually couplets) of parallel lines which seem to us to pretty much say the same thing over again. If we think that Hebrew poetry is just repetitive, however, we will miss the whole point. You should always look at the parallel lines to see what it repeated, what is left out, what is changed. There is actually a fairly thin line between biblical Hebrew poetry and prose. Even those psalms that aren’t obviously so can have a narrative aspect and those little changes help to move the action forward. Other things to look for are repeated words, what people do or have done to them, how they are named or described (especially true of God), and any images or ideas which ring a bell for you or call to mind other biblical passages (this last is a great way to think about any biblical text you are reading; God loves repetition — I think it is because we are so dense).
So as you sit down for psalm-study with your kids, this is how I would begin:
- Teacher preparation — read this post and read my notes on Psalm 8. Prepare copies of the psalm for all students and get some nice, sharp colored pencils.
- When you get to “class,” hand everyone their copy of the psalm. Explain what we are going to do using the points in the above paragraph about what to look for; for younger kids you might want to give them one or two tasks only. Even the earliest readers can look for repeated words.
- Read the psalm aloud to everyone. I wouldn’t bother reading them the notes but if they ask relevant questions, you can point them to the notes.
- Give everyone their colored pencils and get to work. You should do this part too. You are using the pencils to mark up your copy. For example, if the word “God” occurs five times, you can color it green each time. Or you can color each pair of parallel lines a different color. Everyone will see different things and that is the point. The fun comes when we put it all together.
I find that with a short psalm like Psalm 8, my kids only need 5 or 10 minutes to mark what they see. When everyone seems to be slowing down, call them all back together and discuss what you have found. Your discussion will likely begin by looking at technical details, like how many times a word occurs, but the point of psalm study is to see how the form contributes to the meaning and to appreciate the beauty of the language so you should always insert questions like “Why do you think the psalmist did it that way?” and “What do you think that adds to the meaning of this Psalm?” You should fee free to ask your own questions and to follow whatever course your discussion takes, but I’ll share with you the questions I asked and what conclusions we came to. When you are newer to this, you may want/need to be more leading and to prod your kids in certain directions, but hopefully over time you will find that you all are starting to respond to and find cool things in the psalms on your own.
Here then is how our discussion went:
- My first question is always “What did you mark in this psalm?” This alone may be enough to start a discussion going.
- My oldest answered the above question by telling us what lines he thought were parallel in this psalm which brings me to a second possible question if you all need some help: “What sets of parallel lines do you see in this psalm?” I could see both my daughters shaking their heads as he talked so this generated quite a discussion for us this time. The three of them had three different ways of dividing up the psalm. Of course, everyone could see that lines 1 and 16 are identical. There was disagreement over whether line 2 went with 1 or whether 1 just went with 16. Some other pairs were also easy to see in this psalm — 8 and 9, for instance, and 14 and 15. There was the most disagreement on what to do with 3, 4, and 5. We debated but didn’t come to any consensus. This is a good place to note that the line divisions are mine; it is my one big bit of editorial license in these translations, though I firmly believe that every translation is an interpretation. I do it so that we can all see the parallelism more clearly. The line numbers, as I say in my notes, are to aid in discussion and are not verse numbers.
- My next question was “What do you think the main idea in this psalm is?” My younger son suggested that it was “God will subdue our foes and we should praise Him.” While the psalm does mention foes, I suggested that this seem to be a minor part of it and asked for other suggestions. My older son proposed ” We praise Him because God has been good to man.”
- This led naturally to another good question: “What does God do for man in this psalm?” We listed glorify him, remember him, make him just less than God, crown him, and make him rule over the animals.
- “Ah!” I said. “What does ruling over the animals remind you of?” The answer I got was “Adam” whom I then pointed out is actually mentioned in line 9. My oldest read my notes and told me that Adam is only mentioned because I, as the translator, made the choice to translate the word thus. He clearly thought I went too far with this (don’t you hate it when they get too smart?). I agreed that it was an editorial decision and that, having two basic words for “man,” that the author might have found himself with no other choice than to use “adam” for one of them (since he needed two for the parallel). But I still maintain that in Hebrew it would have been hard to ignore the Genesis connection here since it really is the same word as the name. Whether you were thinking “man” or “first person,” you would have heard “adam.”
- Next leading questions: “Is there anything else in this psalm that reminds you of the first chapters of Genesis?” Our answers were: heavens and earth (lines 1 and 2), moon and stars (line 7), Adam (line 9, disputed), all the kinds of animals listed (lines 14 and 15), and the idea of ruling over and having dominion (lines 12 and 13).
- Here’s where we began to wonder how it all fits together. We had noticed that lines 3, 4, and 5 don’t fit the parallelism well. There are also no words which seem inherently to relate to Creation in these lines. So the next question to ask was “How do lines 3, 4 and 5 fit in? How do they relate to the rest of the psalm?“My oldest (again!) noted that one could arrange things differently here. As I said the line divisions are my own (as those in your Bible are the decision of its editors, by the way). Lines 4 and 5 could be combined. The does make some sense since 4 is very short. It would also allow 3 and 4/5 to be a pair, making all the lines in the psalm have a parallel partner except 16 which takes us back to 1 and provides closure anyway. But we are still left with the problem of meaning — how do 3 and 4/5 fit it with the rest of the psalm? And 4/5 begins “because of . . .” which seems to connect it to 3, but what is their connection with each other? All we really managed to say at this point is that God will destroy the enemy and that 4 and 5 are a concession to the fact that the world is fallen (my words, not theirs). Most of this psalm is positive, it is a picture of a Genesis 2 Creation, not a Genesis 3 world. But then there are lines 4 and 5.
- We then turned more specifically to line 3. I asked them to say line 3 in their own words. We weren’t quite sure what “ordaining” strength meant but said that either babies are giving strength or else God is putting strength in their mouths. I asked, “What are babies like?” A particularly harsh child said that they are whiny, little, annoying and fat. What they are not is strong or well-spoken. I was particularly pleased with the observation that babies can’t talk yet here they are presumably speaking (because of the reference to moiuths). I had noticed that strength didn’t seem to go with babes but hadn’t thought about their abilty (or lack thereof) to speak. I connected this to God using the weak to shame the strong — He always does the opposite of what we expect. Here He uses those most unfit for the task to speak and to be strong.
- We then returned to the connection between line 3 and 4/5. I asked, “Are the foes connected to the babies?” and “Who are the foes?” They concluded pretty quickly that if we have the early chapters of Genesis in mind, the foes are Satan and his minions. They also then made the connections that it will be the son of man (or perhaps I should say “Son of Man”) that will crush the head of the serpent; that is, the babies, particularly one, Jesus, will ultimately defeat the enemy. Kind of a big idea for what you thought was a simple praise psalm, huh? My own observation, though we didn’t get into it specifically, would be that the Fall and the time of Satan’s dominion interrupt God’s good Creation just as lines 3 and 4/5 seem to interrupt this psalm. The form reflects the meaning.
- I ended by asking, as I always do, “Does anyone have anything else they noticed about this psalm that they want to share?” My oldest (he was quite the know-it-all this day) did. He had noticed that all the lines but 4, 14 and 15 have either “you” or “your” referring to God. If we combine 4 and 5, we further limit this to just 14 and 15. What is the significance of this? Our answer was that it emphasizes that Creation is God’s.
And that’s where our discussion ended. If you attempt a psalm study, please comment and tell me what you found. Next time: Psalms 9 and 10.