Psalm Study: Psalm 67

Dear Reader,

[I apologize again this week for the weird fonts; WordPress seems to be holding a grudge against me.]

Since it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on the Psalms, a bit of an introduction is probably in order –

Background

Who I am and why I’m doing this — Mostly just your average Christian in the pew, but I did study biblical Hebrew in college and grad school [1]. I also belong to a psalm-singing church and homeschool my kids. I have more often than not followed the Charlotte Mason approach to education which calls for hymn study. This made no sense for us so we began to do “Psalm Study” instead.

The theory behind Psalm Study — My thesis is this: The structure of the Psalms contributes to their meaning and beauty. This sounds pretty basic but it actually rather controversial in academic circles. Whereas English poetry relies on rhyme and meter as its primary structural devices, Hebrew poetry is usually said to rely on parallelism. But there is no agreement as to whether parallelism as such actually exists and, if it does, how and why it operates [2].

Things I believe

  • I do not believe that my way of reading the Psalms is the only way.  God’s Word is a living Word and part of what that means is that we can come to it time and again and get different things from it each time. I am offering one way to approach the Psalms, but it is by no means the only way. 
  • I do believe that the Psalms are God’s inspired Word. The words they contain are deliberate and significant and their structure is as well [3]. The more we delve into the Word of God, the greater is our appreciation of its beauty and intricacy. I hope that as you come along with me in these Psalm Studies that you too will be in awe of just how much God has to tell us and of how sophisticated  — and yet how simple — is the language of the Psalms. 
  • I do not believe every person in the pew needs to learn Hebrew to appreciate the Psalms. It would be nice, of course, but it is not and should not be necessary. You can learn to appreciate the structure of the Psalms and to understand them better without learning Hebrew. My goal is to help you to do so. 
  • I believe that our worship will be more meaningful the better we understand and appreciate the Psalms. Even if you don’t regularly sing Psalms in worship (though you should; see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), you will be delving deeper into the Word of God and that is always good.

Psalm 67 and Analysis

All of which is a long introduction to a short Psalm. Here, without further ado, is my translation of Psalm 67 [4]:

 

To the leader, upon neginot, a psalm, a song [5]

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us.

2 May he shine his face upon us,  Selah.

3 To know in the earth your way,

4 In all nations your salvation.

5 May the peoples praise you, God;

6 May the people praise you, all of them.

7 May the nations rejoice and be glad

8 For you will judge peoples rightly.

9 And nations in the earth you will lead them, Selah.

10 May the peoples praise you, God;

11 May the peoples praise you, all of them.

12 Earth gives its harvest.

13 May God, our God, bless us.

14 May God bless us,

15 And may they fear him, all the ends of the earth [6]

This relatively short Psalm is a wonderful introduction to parallelism. Simply put, Hebrew poetry repeats concepts. It rarely uses exact repetition (though this Psalm has some) but repeats ideas. Before you read any further, I want you to ask yourself two questions:

  1. What one word or idea stands out to you from this Psalm?
  2. Can you find and mark pairs of adjacent lines that seem to express the same idea? (Seriously, print out this page and get out your pencil and actually mark them.)

I hope you saw pretty easily that lines 1 and 2 go together and then lines 3 and 4. “May God be gracious to us and bless us” expresses a very similar idea to “May God shine his face upon us.” Likewise, “to know in the earth your way” parallels “in all nations your salvation.” We can see one of the basic principles of parallelism here: not every element need be repeated. The verb from line 3 is omitted but assumed in line 4.

Continuing on, lines 5 and 6 go together as do lines 10 and 11. These two pairs are actually identical which is unusual in Hebrew poetry. It likes parallelism but exact repetition is not the norm. We have at this point identified a structural device, but we are never done until we ask why? Why does the psalmist use this device and what does it contribute to the meaning of the Psalm?

The psalmist draws our attention to lines 7 through 9 in not one but two ways: those lines break the structure which up until this point has consisted of pairs of very closely parallel lines, and they are outlined in some sense by the repeated lines on either side of them. We might say lines 5/6 and 10/11 function like bookends, or perhaps even like spotlights to shine attention on what is in between them. As I have structured it, these three lines come exactly in the middle of the Psalm with 3 pairs of parallel lines on either side of them. (Lines 12/13 and 14/15 also form pairs though their meaning is not so closely parallel.)

Let’s pause for a second and return to the first question I asked you – What words or ideas stood out to you in this Psalm? There are two big ones that occurred to me: blessing and praising. “God” and “peoples/nations” also occur frequently. God blesses and the peoples praise. Those lines in the middle, the triad that breaks the pattern, tell us how God blesses us and why He is to be praised. God judges rightly and guides nations. There are a lot of reasons for people to praise God but this is not a generic praise Psalm (if there is such a thing). Psalm 67 is a psalm in praise of God’s just rule of the nations.

Wrapping it up

Psalm 67 is a short psalm and perhaps, on the surface, not a very interesting one. It repeats the same words – bless, God, praise, nations – and doesn’t give us many exciting details about enemies taunting and festering wounds and the like. But I hope you have seen that a close examination of the Psalm adds to its meaning. When we focus in on how a Psalm is structured, we see the artistry of how the psalmist puts it together and we come to a greater appreciation of its beauty and a deeper understanding of its meaning. Even a little Psalm like this one has secrets to reveal when we take the time to sit with it and let it speak to us.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] I left grad school ABD – “all but dissertation” – to raise my kids. That was a long time ago.

[2] When I was in grad school, the two big thinkers on the Psalms were Robert Alter and James Kugel (for full disclosure: Kugel was my advisor in grad school). Wilfred G.E. Watson offers a more technical book on Hebrew poetry.

In Classical Hebrew Poetry (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1986), Watson names parallelism as the chief structural device (p. 114). He gives extensive examples and discusses the uses of parallelism in terms of composition and presentation. He does not tie parallelism to meaning. I do not know what his individual beliefs were, but as an academic writer, he does not discuss Hebrew poetry from the point of view of faith. This is one way in which I hope my own approach will be different from what has come before.

Kugel is often accused of rejecting the idea of biblical poetry altogether. This is perhaps an extreme take on his position, but he does ultimately argue that parallelism as such has been imposed by scholars on the biblical text. He prefers to talk of “seconding” [The Idea of Biblical Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) p. 51]. This seconding he identifies not just in biblical poetry but in passages we usually label as prose as well, thus the accusation that he denies the existence of poetry.

Alter counters Kugel’s argument and makes the case for poetry [The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books, 1985)]. Like Watson, he covers a number of the forms parallelism can take. He also acknowledges that biblical poetry is part of a religious tradition (p. 205) and that it is through language that we communicate with God (p. 135). Still, with sentences like these, his book stops short of providing a clear understanding of the structure of biblical poetry and its importance for people of faith:

“There is a certain affinity, let me suggest, between the formal properties of a given prosodic system or poetic genre and the kinds of meaning most readily expressed through that system or genre.” (p. 62)

“In the case of biblical poetry, the two basic operations of specification and heightening within the parallelistic line lead to an incipiently narrative structure of minute concatenations, on the one hand, and to a climactic structure of thematic intensifications, on the other hand.” (p. 63; I am a Hebrew scholar, albeit a lapsed one, and I had to look up “concatenations.”)

[3] The Old Testament comes down to us through the centuries in a number of different manuscripts. Volumes could, and have been, written on which particular texts or readings are the “original” ones. Such a discussion is one I am happy to have but is beyond the scope of my present enterprise. I have a high degree of confidence that what we have today is what God wants us to have and that is ultimately enough for me. Unless I say otherwise, I always rely on the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) version of the Hebrew text.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, I use my own translations of the Hebrew text for Psalm Study. I do so because I want the translation that as nearly as possible approximates the Hebrew while still making sense in English. My two biggest goals in translating are to (1) preserve the structure of the Hebrew so you can see it and (2) to be consistent in my word choice. If the Hebrew always uses one word for “salvation” (as an example), I always translate that word the same way. If the Hebrew varies the words it uses, I aim to do likewise. Line numbers are not verse numbers but are given for the purposes of discussion. Every translation is to some degree and interpretation. I try to stay as close to the text as possible and to insert my own ideas as little as possible but you are allowed to disagree with my translations and with my division of lines. That’s part of the fun.

[5] A superscription. The neginot are probably some musical instrument. The Hebrew word is plural.

[6] Notes on the translation: Hebrew does not use different verbal forms for “may he” and “he will.” I made an executive decision to use “may” in this Psalm and tried to stick with it throughout the Psalm for consistency. “Selah” is probably some sort of musical term or direction; its meaning is unknown. The switch from third to second person (as from line 2 to line 3)  no doubt would bother your English teacher; it did not bother the Hebrew writers or audiences. They do that sort of thing a lot.

 

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