Archive for the ‘Psalms’ Category

How Biblical Poetry Works

Dear Reader,

This is a repost with some revision of an earlier post. As I am getting back into the Psalms I wanted return to it. You can find all my posts on the Psalms here

The organizing principle of biblical Hebrew poetry is not rhyme or rhythm but parallelism. This is very different from English poetry so it is understandable that it may cause some problems in translation. How do we take poetry from one language and translate into another which uses a very different style and techniques? (And for those of us who sing psalms, we have to make it singable). It is a tough task and I don’t want to diminish the work of those who work so hard at it. But I also think that if you want to understand biblical poetry, you need to understand how it is organized. The primary principle behind biblical poetry is parallelism.

As  we read through a psalm, we may think it very repetitive. But if our thinking stops there, we may miss a lot of meaning. The inclination for English speakers may be to gloss over these “repetitions,” but if  we do so we lose the structure and also the meaning of the original.

It is time, I think, for some examples.  My goal is to give a taste of how the Hebrew poetry works and how meaning can be found in its structures (and why therefore we should seek to understand and preserve those structures in our renderings).

From the first verses of the first psalm, we find the typical Hebrew parallelism. Psalm 1:1 reads (all translations are my own translations of the Hebrew BHS text unless otherwise noted):

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked

and in the way of sinners does not stand

and in the dwelling of scorners does not sit.”

The parallelism here is, I hope, obvious. There are three clauses to this verse. The initial phrase “blessed is the man who” is not repeated but then what follows “does not X in the Y of Z” is paralleled in the latter two parts by similar phrases only with the order reversed (“in the Y of Z does not X”). There is more than mere repetition going on here though. What changes between the versets is significant. Notice that in the first part the man walks. He is moving (or not) along with the wicked. In second he is standing, and in the final third he sits. His interaction with the sinners becomes more and more intimate as the verse progresses. There is an escalation.

Another example may be found in psalm 28:5. My rendering of the Hebrew is:

“For they did not understand (yabinu)

the works of the Lord

nor the creation of His hands

He will tear them down and will not rebuild them (yibnem).”

The parallelism here is not as clear-cut as the first example. In Hebrew this can all be said with fewer words so that it is something like:




verb verb.

Furthermore, the first and last verbs in the verse sound very similar. Consonants matter more than vowels in Hebrew and the first and last words of this verse both have the consonants ybn. When one hears the second in Hebrew, one hearkens back to the first. This lends emphasis to these two verbs. The meaning of the verse as I read it in Hebrew is summed up by these two words: “If they do not understand, God will not build them.” Now admittedly, all of this is much harder to render into English, but I think we can make an attempt. If we first take the time to understand the Hebrew, we can base our word choices on it and try to convey some of the sound and meaning of the Hebrew. How about this:

 “Because they did not understand

the works of the Lord

nor the creation of His hands

He will tear them down and will not let them stand.”

Another aspect of the comparison and contrast between these verbs is that in the first case humans are the subject and in the second God. God’s action (in not letting them stand) is a consequence of, indeed a fitting reaction to, the action of the people in not understanding.

I hope I have begun to show that the structure and word choice of the Hebrew is not insignificant and that it carries meaning with it. Even if we cannot capture all of this in English, I hope we can at least begin to appreciate it and thereby to better understand God’s word to us.


Psalms 14 and 53

Dear Reader,

Last year my resolution was to blog on reformed Christian education, and, except for some slacking in December, I followed through on that (you can find that series here). While I’m not dropping that project, this year my resolution is to be more regular in working through the Psalms. You can find a recent example including some background on how I approach the Psalms and why here.

I’d like to cover two Psalms today. Looking back I found I have already blogged on Psalms 1 through 13 so I decided to be orderly and pick up with 14. I am including 53 because the two are almost identical.

Textual Issues . . . and Why We’re Ignoring Them

I’ve studied biblical Hebrew at a couple of secular grad schools and I can tell you that these two psalms could provide some good fodder for textual criticism. There are verses which are difficult in the Hebrew. Add to that that we have two almost identical versions and your alarm bells should be ringing — Which is original? Was one corrupted? Or was the other hard so the former was smoothed out to make it make more sense? Why keep two versions? Did they have a common — most likely oral — source?

I am not going to answer all these questions or deal with all the particulars of the difficult words. That is not my goal in this series. I do have to make some judgment calls in order to translate them, but my goal here is not to discuss  or to do textual criticism.

I come to the text with some presuppositions. First and foremost is that it is the inspired Word of God. A corollary is that God has given us what He wants us to have. However these two Psalms came to be, they are what He wants us to have now. And He wants us to have two versions of this particular Psalm. So we may revisit the “why we have two” question at the end but we are not going to dwell on how the text came to be the way it is.


Because we have two psalms to look at and want to be able to compare them — and largely because I don’t know how to make a table in WordPress — I am going to refer you to this Google document for my translation of the Psalms:

My translations of Psalms 14 and 53

Our usual approach is for you to print out the Psalm and spend some time looking over it, colored pencils in hand (again see this post for some background how-to information). This time I’d like you to think about some specific questions as you do:

  • Read one of the Psalms by itself first. This Psalm doesn’t have as clear a structure as usual. There is not a lot of nice parallelism. You can still look for repeated words and ideas and any kind of structure. Are there any sections here? Any movement through the course of the Psalm?
  • What do you think the setting is? What situation is the psalmist (or those he speaks for) in? Does the Psalm itself tell us anything about the historical context? Has anything changed by the end of the Psalm?
  • Now look at the two side by side. What differences are there between them? What is the effect of these differences? Are there different ideas? Tones or emphases?


I ask you to spend some time with the Psalm before you read my comments so that you can have your own relationship with it. God’s Word is living and part of what that means is that we can come to it multiple times in multiple ways and get different things from it each time. I am going to give you my observations but if yours are different, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong. As always, if you did have other conclusions, I’d love to hear them.

I asked what the setting of this Psalm is. The Psalmist and his people are clearly in distress, in need of salvation (line 10). The end of the Psalm seems to give us the specific context — they are in captivity (line 11). This may be the Babylonian captivity which began around 586 BC when the southern kingdom of Judah was destroyed and its elite taken away (cf. Ps. 137). There is also some indication that the enemy have encamped or are encamping around Israel (Ps. 53, line 8). The enemy, whoever they are, do not recognize God; they do no good; they “eat” the people “like bread.” There is little change within the Psalm; it ends with a cry for a deliverance which has not yet come.

Because the resolution of the problem is not seen within this Psalm, there is not a lot of movement, that is, the Psalmist’s situation does not change. But there is some stylistic change within the Psalm. There are two markers of this: the verb tenses and repeated words.

The verb tenses (see footnote #2 in my translation) clue us in to one division within the Psalm. Most of this Psalm is written in the past tense; these are things which have been done. But at the end of the Psalm, there is a future tense: “Who will give salvation” so that Israel and Jacob may rejoice and may be glad (line 10; Psalm 14 also have the future in line 9, but we will examine that further when we compare the two Psalms).

What repeated words and ideas did you notice? I tried to translate it in such a way as to highlight the “there-is-not,” which, as I said in my notes, is one short word in Hebrew. It stands out in the Hebrew in a way that is hard to convey in English. This little word, Hebrew eyn, occurs four times in the Psalm, in lines 1 and 2 and twice in quick succession in line 6. In the middle, we find one occurrence of its opposite, yesh, “there is,” in line 4. This repetition provides a kind of tight coherence to the first half of the Psalm. Not only does a short word predominate, but this section of the Psalm is rather choppy, full of short phrases with short words. In line 7, by way of contrast, we get a mouthful (no pun intended), a long statement that seems to shift the style of the Psalm. This continues through line 9 when there is a shift again, marked by the verb tenses as we have seen, but also by a return to somewhat shorter and definitely easier to translate phrases.

I’d like to look a little more closely now at each of these three parts, noting also the differences between the two versions of the Psalm.

What binds the first 6 lines together is that little word “there is/are not.” In line 1, it is the fool who says “there is no God.” In line 2, the Psalmist intervenes with commentary, telling us there are none who do good. In lines 3 and 4, the tables are turned, God looks down and asks “Are there any?” The Psalmist then comments again, telling us that all are corrupted (line 5). And in line 6, the verdict comes from God “there is none” who does good and repeating the key word: there is none, not even one. We could lay these lines out like this:

The fool says in his heart: “There-is-no God.”

They destroy. They abominate wantonly. There-is-no doer of good.

The LORD from heaven looks-down upon the sons of man:

To see is-there-any who understands, seeking God?

All turn-aside; together they are corrupted;

There-is-no doer of good;

There-is-not even one.

The first part, lines 1 through 6, is almost identical in the two Psalms. The main difference (besides one word difference in line 2, wantonly versus unrighteously; these are very similar words in the Hebrew) is the use of God in Psalm 53 where Psalm 14 has LORD. This difference continues in the latter portions of the Pslam (cf. lines 7, 9 and 11).

Turning to the second section of the Psalm, lines 7 through 9, we find longer clauses and the biggest differences between the two versions. Line 7 is identical in the two (other than the God/LORD difference), but in line 8 for the first time we have a different idea. Both have the clause: “There they [the enemy] dread greatly.” Psalm 14 tells us why “they dread” — because God is among the righteous (i.e. Israel). Psalm 53 tells us instead that their dread is not real: they dread though there is nothing to dread. Psalm 53 also contains a statement with no parallel in Psalm 14: “God scatters the bones of your [Israel’s] encamper” (that is, the one who encamps against him). 

The transition to the second person (which occurs at the end of 8 in Ps. 53 and in line 9 in Ps. 14) is awkward in English. Hebrew is more comfortable with such transitions. Still, this is a rocky part of the Psalm, particularly for Ps. 53.  In Psalm 14, the “you” in line 9 seems to be the enemy who is now addressed — it is he who shames the needy (i.e. God’s people). He does so because they put their trust in God. There is a little bit of tension here: on one hand, the enemy dreads because God is with His people (line 8); on the other, he mocks them for their faith (line 9). I don’t think this is a tension we need to resolve. I don’t know about you but this sounds like human nature to me — the wicked both mocks and fears the faith of the righteous which he does not understand nor share.

The main connection between line 9 in the two Psalms in the word “shame.” Beyond that they have little in common. Psalm 53 reads: “You put (them) to shame for God rejects them.”  This is a bit opaque but my interpretation of it is this: the “you” is the enemy (in contrast to line 8). As in Psalm 14, he puts Israel to shame. But whereas Psalm 14 tells us the enemy mocks Israel for his faith, Psalm 53 provides another kind of reason: the emeny mocks Israel —  that is, he is allowed to mock Israel — because God has rejected him (Israel). [This idea — that the exile happened because God rejected Israel – is common in the prophets (cf. Isa. 5:1ff).]

This interpretation leaves some awkwardness, even by Hebrew standards. “You” in line 8 refers to Israel while the “you” of line 9 refers to the enemy. Because the latter half of line 8 in Psalm 53 breaks the flow of the Psalm and because it has no parallel in Psalm 14, the text critic in me would say that it is an added gloss by a later scribe that has become incorporated into the text. I don’t think that is entirely a wrong inclination. On one hand, it does feel added, but, on the other, it is part of the Scriptures as we have them, as God wants us to have them. The question we should be asking, then, is what this line contributes to the Psalm.  This is, frankly, a pretty discouraging Psalm with a cry for help to come at the end but little concrete consolation in sight. In fact, apart from the clause in question, there is nothing God does here to alleviate the psalmist’s suffering. So the Psalmist breaks in here with a word of encouragement: though things look hopeless, God does scatter the bones of our enemies who are at this very moment (perhaps) encamping around us. 

Moving to the final section, lines 10 and 11, again the main difference is in the divine name, God in Psalm 53 versus LORD in Psalm 14.

There is one more difference I would like to highlight and it is in the superscriptions. If you read footnotes, you may alreays know what I am goign to say. Psalm 53 has a longer superscription than 14 does. It contains a refernce to what may be a tune, saying the Psalm is “according to mahalat,” and it also has that it is not just “of David” but a “maskhil of David.”  This is not at all uncommon in the Psalms but I think it is significant here because the same word, maskhil, occurs in line 4. In the title, a maskhil is usually taken to be a kind of song or poem. The base root has to do with prudence or understanding so scholars often translate it as something like “a contemplative poem.”  In line 4, the exact same word (not just the same root) appears as “understand” in “is there any who understands?” In the Psalm, the answer to that question is no, there is no one who understands which is here equated with seeking God (knowledge and God-fearing being closely related in the Scriptures; cf. Prov. 1:7). But the title hints at something different: David had maskhil; he was a God-seeker. And in truth, though the Psalm starts with a blanket statement: there is no who seeks God, in the course of it, the psalmist seems to be saying not that no one at all seeks God but that among the nations, particularly those oppressing Israel, there is none who seeks God.

What then are we to make of all these differences? What is the net effect of them and why do we have two such similar Psalms? Though there is a lot of overlap between the two, they do seem to have slightly different thrusts. Psalm 14 uses the proper, covenant name of God (LORD) which always calls to mind God’s covenant faithfulness to His people. It also says God is among the righteous (line 8) and is a refuge to the needy (line 9). When God’s people are mocked, it is for their faith. In some ways this is the less depressing version of the Psalm.

In contrast, Psalm 53 never uses the divine name and it places the blame for the current troubles not directly on the enemy but on Israel itself. Their trouble is a punishment for rejecting their God. The line with no parallel, the latter part of line 8, tempers this a bit as, oddly enough, does the added superscription which reminds us that men, like David, have been wise and sought God. Other than just not bringing to mind God’s covenant, the use of the more generic “God” seems to give this Psalm a bit of a universal flair. The nations may not know about the LORD but they should have some awareness of a God yet even this they do not acknowledge.


These are hard Psalms. They are not easy to translate or to understand. Nor are they easy to internalize. Their message is a harsh one and while there is a call for salvation, there is no realization of that hope within the course of the Psalm. Though Psalm 53 tries to temper the message, it is the harsher of the two, blaming Israel for its troubles. Though most people reading this do not live with oppression, I hope they still speak to us in a time when most of the world around us says “there is no God.”


Psalm Study: Psalm 111

Dear Reader,

For an introduction to how and why we do Psalm Study, see this post.

Do you remember being in elementary school and writing the letters of the word “MOTHER” down the side of your page and then thinking of words to describe your own that begin with each of them (“M is for makes me cookies . . . “)? If so, you have written an acrostic poem.

The Book of Psalms also contains acrostic poems. They don’t spell anything out anything but they do follow the Hebrew alphabet, one line for each letter.

Sidebar: The Hebrew alphabet contains 22 letters. Actually, I should say 22 consonants. Hebrew was originally written with just consonants. Vowels were added later as people began to forget the langauge (Aramaic, a close cousin, became the spoken langauge). In order not to change the base text of the Old Testament, the vowels were added as little points and dashes above and below the letters (“jots and tittles”). Hebrew words are based on a tri-literal (three letter) root system which makes it a little easier to use just the consonants, but we could read without vowels too. Give it a try: W wlkd th dg ystrdy. Not too hard, right?

Today we are going to look at one of these acrostic poems, Psalm 111. When you made the MOTHER poem in second grade, it probably wasn’t the finest poetry. The psalms that are acrostics, because they have to adhere to the pattern, also will not display all the features we expect of Hebrew poetry. We are less likely to see parallelism and the poem itself often sounds choppier.

Not surprisingly, word choice is very important in acrostics. Though the lines may seem unconnected at first, there are often common words which reappear through the course of the poem. And, of course, each line must start with a certain letter. Sometimes the word that begins the line is a relatively insignificant one (“in”, “the”), but often the psalmist does what you probably did — he thinks about the subject of his poem (God for him, mother for you) and thinks of what word beginning with the appropriate letter best fits that subject.

Psalm 111

  1. Praise the LORD.

  2. I will laud the LORD with all [my] heart.

  3. In the assembly of [the] upright and [the] congregation,

  4. Great — the deeds of the LORD,

  5. Sought by all who delight in them.

  6. Glorious and splendid — his work.

  7. And his righteousness stands for ages.

  8. [A] remembrance he made for his wondrous things.

  9. Gracious and compassionate — the LORD.

  10. Food he gave to his fearers.

  11. He will remember forever his covenant.

  12. [The] strength of his deeds he told to his people.

  13. To give to them the inheritance of nations.

  14. [The] deeds of his hands — truth and justice.

  15. Faithful — all his precepts,

  16. Established for all ages and forever,

  17. Done in truth and uprightness.

  18. Ransom, he sent to his people.

  19. He commanded forever — his covenant

  20. Holy and feared — his name.

  21. [The] beginning of wisdom — the fear of the LORD.

  22. Recompense of good to all who do them.

  23. His praise stands for ages.

Because this Psalm is a little different, a few translation notes are in order before we begin:

  • First words are important here. Due to the differences between langauges, the word that is first in Hebrew doesn’t always end up first in our English translation. This often happens because Hebrew uses one word where we need a few. For example, “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:1) is one word in Hebrew. In English the boring words like “in” and “the” have to come first. So you will know which word comes first in the Hebrew I put the first word of each line in bold. If mutliple words are in bold, it is because they are one word in Hebrew.
  • Sometimes English requires words that Hebrew doesn’t. I usually put these words in brackets [ ] to show that they are added. You will see that there are a few words in brackets in my translation. Often what comes in brackets is a present tense “to be” verb (is, are) as Hebrew does not require these when English does. There are a number of lines in this poem where I could have added such a verb, and normally would have done so, but chose not to for this psalm. Consider, for exmaple, line 4. In Hebrew it says “Great the deeds of the LORD.” While we would normally add an “are,” I did not here. Remember that in the style of the acrostic it is as if the psalmist is thinking of a word that reminds him of God. In line 4 the word is “great.” After he gives this word, he then explains a little of why it reminds him of God. In this case, it is the deeds of the LORD that are great. It is as if in writing about your mother you the first H word you thought of for her was “hugs” and so you wrote “Hugs — she gives them to me.” That is how this poem sounds to me in Hebrew so it is how I rendered it in English.
  • The first line is not part of the acrostic pattern. Line 2 (as I have it written) begins with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As a reminder, line numbers are not verse numbers but are for discussion purposes.

Your job before you read on is to print out the psalm and to get out your colored pencils. As you read through Psalm 111, notice which words come first in each line. You might even just want to list them all on your paper. Also look for other repeated words and words which are synonymous and express similar ideas.

Hopefully, now you have done your homework. Let’s start by looking at those first words. Focusing on the main words (not the ‘and’s and ‘the’s which are prefixes in Hebrew), here is my list: praise, laud, assembly, great, sought, glorious, righteousness, remembrance, gracious, food, remember, strength, give, deeds, faithful, established, done, ransom, commanded, holy, beginning, recompense, praise.

There are a number of ways we could view this list. If you were working with a class, you could even put them all on slips of paper and sort them (let the class decide how to sort them). The first thing I noticed is that the psalm begins and ends with praise. This sort of bookending is not uncommon.

Not suprisingly, a lot of the words are adjectives describing positive characteristics of God: great, glorious, gracious, faithful, established, and holy. There are a couple of nouns which fit this category too: righteousness and strength. Sought is an interesting one because it might not be a word that comes readily to mind.

A few of the words have to do with God’s actions — give, deeds, and done. I think we can add food and recompense to this list too as they are things God gives us. In fact, throughout the psalm there are lots of words that have to do with doing. Deeds, works and making are mentioned in lines 4, 6, 12, 14, and 17.

Another theme which runs throughout is that of eternity. There are two terms for forever used in this psalm. I have translated one as forever and the other as for ages to keep them distinct but I don’t know that there is much difference in their connotations. They occur in lines 7, 11, 16, 19 and 23. On a not unrelated note, two of our first words have to do with remembering (lines 8 and 11).

Clearly Psalm 111 is a psalm of praise. But there is a little more going on here too. Just as your MOTHER poem would have told something about who mother was, so this acrostic poem tells us who God is.   The Bible frequently uses lists to do just this. Consider God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.” (Exod. 34:5-8; ESV)

This listing of attributes, I dare say is the standard way for us to define or describe God. We can’t sum Him up in one word and even such losts as these could never fully capture who He is, but the more such words and phrases we can give, perhaps the closer to the truth we get.

What can we conclude from Psalm 111 then? Some psalms depict God as a judge who sits on His throne. Others call upon His covenant love. In Psalm 111 there is reference to the law (line 15) and the covenant (line 19) and also to divine justice (line 22) but none of these seems to be the main theme of the psalm.  The two most prominent themes I see in Psalm 111 are doing and eternity. This an active God and an eternal one.

One final note: we mentioned that this is a psalm of praise but we also have a hint of its probably context. Lines 2 and 3 read: “I will laud the LORD with all [my] heart. In the assembly of [the] upright and [the] congregation.” This is communal praise, a psalm for God’s people to sing when they are together, to proclaim to each other the attributes of God.


Psalm Study: Psalm 70

Dear Reader,

I am trying to get back into doing Psalm study regularly. For an introduction to what this is and why and how we are doing it, see this post on Psalm 67. (If you have never read any of these posts, I do highly recommend reading the introductory material first.) As always, I will begin by giving you my translation of the Psalm. I recommend printing it out and taking a few minutes to read through it, preferably with some colored pencils in hand. Notice which lines go together and which elements in those lines parallel each other. Also look for bigger sectional divisions marked by shifts in either the Psalm’s structure or its content and for repeated words.

Psalm 70 (my translation):

To the leader, of David, to cause to remember

  1. God, to deliver me —
  2. LORD [1], to help me — hurry!
  3. Let them be shamed and abashed who seek my life;
  4. Let them turn back and stumble who desire my evil.
  5. Let them return because of their shame who say, “Aha, aha.”
  6. Let them rejoice and be glad in you all who week you;
  7. Let them say always “Great is God” who love your salvation.
  8. But I [am] poor and needy; God hurry to me.
  9. My help and my rescuer [are] you, LORD; do not linger.

One thing that is frequently lost in English is the word order of the original. This is really a translational issue and there is no good way around it. Word order is very important in English; for the most part is tells us what is the subject and what is the complement (“man bites dog” is a different sentence from “dog bites man”). Languages like Greek and Latin which have case endings rely very little on word order. While Hebrew doesn’t have quite the flexibility of Greek, it tends to play around with order more than English does, especially in poetry.

I tried to keep the word order of the Hebrew in my translation of Psalm 70 because I think it adds to the meaning. The way the Psalm reads there is a delay. In lines 1 through 7 you have to wait for key information. Lines 1 and 2 are parallel; they each begin with a name for God and the infinitive form of a verb plus “me” (the infinitive and the “me” together form one word in Hebrew). But we don’t get the main verb till the end of line 2. I used a little editorial license by supplying the exclamation point at the end of line 2. The Hebrew has no punctuation, but I think the exclamation conveys the emotion of what we have here. The short words in these first two lines convey a sense of urgency which the finite verb we finally get enforces — Hurry!!

The pattern of delaying information continues in lines 3 through 7. Each begins with a “let them” [2] and we don’t find out who the “they” is until the end of each line. Lines 3 and 4 are closely parallel. Line 5 seems to go with them; it too is negative and refers to the psalmist’s enemies. But it is not just a third parallel. Line 5 seems to sum up what has come before; it takes the idea of turning from line 4 and the idea of shame from line 3 and combines them. It also adds a new element which looks forward to line 7 (see below) — the enemy now speaks and what he says is a taunt: “aha, aha.”

Lines 6 and 7 are also parallel and have a very similar structure but the subject now is the godly, those who seek for God and love His salvation. Now the verbs are positive: rejoice and be glad. Notice that there is speech again in line 7. In line 5 the enemy spoke; now the godly speak. They don’t taunt; they give glory to God. This element of speech ties the two sets of lines, 3-5 and 6- 7, together.

Lines 8 and 9 change the pattern again. Notice the repeated words from lines 1 and 2: help, God, LORD, and hurry. Though there is a return here to the ideas of the first lines, there is something new too. The final lines of the Psalm don’t have the shortness and urgency of the first lines. These are long lines, almost too long. They take the first two lines but to add to them. What is added? The psalmist gives a reason why he needs help: he is poor and needy. And the he gives a reason to expect help: God is his help and deliverer.

When I step back again and look at the Psalm as a whole, what I see is transformation. Psalm 70 begins with a brief, urgent call for help. I don’t like to talk about rhythm a lot in Hebrew poetry (because I don’t think it is a major structuring device) but there is a pattern to the first 7 lines of this Psalm. In each information is delayed and the effect is as if one is holding one’s breath and then releasing it. There is tension here. It is as if the unusual structure of the sentences clues us in that something is not quite right with the psalmist himself.

But in the last two lines something has changed. There is still a bit of a delayed pattern perhaps but in the long lines it is not so pronounced. The psalmist returns to the words and ideas he began with but something has changed. He has changed. So what has changed between line 2 and line 8? The answer would seem to be lines 3 through 7. In content they are not unusual. This is pretty standard biblical stuff — the wicked are shamed and the godly rejoice– but my sense is that it has helped the psalmist. Nothing has changed in his physical situation, whatever that is, but by taking a moment and focusing on the truths he knows — the downfall of the wicked, the ultimate triumph of the godly — he has changed. He still calls for God to help but this time he does so with more words. He sees himself more clearly and he sees God more clearly.

There is never just one way to read a Psalm. That is the nature of a living book, and none is more living than the Word of God. What I have given you here is my observations and conclusions. While I think some of the details of what parallels what are fairly clear, my conclusions about what they mean is more subjective. You may see different things in this Psalm and come to different conclusions, as long as you can support what you say from the biblical text itself. If you do work through Psalm 70 on your own, I’d love to hear what you see in it.


[1] “LORD” in all capitals letters is used to indicate the covenant name of God which He reveals to Moses in Exodus 3:15.

[2] There is no difference in Hebrew between “let them” and “they will” or “they shall.” I have used my translator’s license again here in translating “let them.”

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 –


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.



[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.


Psalm Study: Psalm 13

Dear Reader,

Our last psalm study for this school year was on Psalm 13. For some background on psalm study and how and why we do it, see this post.

You can find my translation of Psalm 13 here (opens a Google doc).

As usual, you should begin by giving your children the poem and some colored pencils and having them sit down with it for 10 minutes or so to see what they can find.

I like to begin our discussions by just asking them what they have noticed about the psalm. Often they will cover everything on my agenda or will have thought of things I didn’t think to ask.

My youngest observed that it was a lament psalm and gave us her division of the lines. There was some dispute over how the lines match up. We discussed whether lines 1,2 and 3 make one unit or if 3 should go with 4 and 5. Remember that the line divisions you see are my own. You are free to disagree with them.

It was clear to all of us though that lines 1-5 are one section dominated by “how long.” My younger son noted that the “how long” is implied in line 4. This is a good opportunity to point out that parallelism need not be complete. Some elements can be left out in some lines. Often they are balanced by the addition of other elements, maybe something like an added prepositional phrase. Even though the parallelism is pretty obvious in this psalm and not at all obscure, the poet still keeps things interesting by not just repeating everything.

We then turned our attention to the second half of the psalm, lines 6-12. We noted that lines 6-9 talk about bad things happening while lines 10-12 essentially say “I will rejoice.”

Notice that I began line six with “Look!” One of my kids questioned why there was an exclamation point. This is editorial license on my part since the Hebrew has no punctuation (every translation is an interpretation and I say this by way of explanation but stand by my translation). I explained that my understanding of this psalm is that as the psalmist turns to the second half he is calling on the Lord to see his problems. The “look” is not literal in the sense of asking God to see (though of course he wants God to see his distress too) but is a call for attention.

My older daughter talked about who does what in this psalm. We noted that there is a sequence of “Lord, I, enemy” in the first 5 lines and then “Lord, enemy, me” in the second half. It is always good to ask what each character does. The enemies in this psalm rejoice, say and rise. The Lord recognizes, forgets, hides, gives light and answers (or is asked to do so). And I, the psalmist that is, takes pain/grief and will sing and rejoice. Also, and perhaps most importantly, he has trusted. The rejoicing is in the future but trust is past tense.

I also pointed out to them the word “loving-kindness” in line 10. It is a long word in English but translates a short one in Hebrew: hesed. This word refers to God’s covenant love for His people. When the psalmist uses it, he is reminding God of His covenant with His people and giving Him a reason to save.

Because my kids are pros, I didn’t have to ask many questions beyond “what did you see?” But if you’d like some, here you go:

  1. What sets of parallel lines do you see in this psalm?
  2. How does this psalm divide up? Do you see any big sections?
  3. What kind of psalm is this? Is it about troubles (lament), does it give advice (wisdom), is it praising and rejoicing? What’s the mood? How does the psalmist feel?
  4. Who is in this psalm? What characters are there? What does each do?
  5. Are the psalmist’s problems solved by the end?
  6. Why does the psalmist say God should help him? What reasons does he give? This is a good place to insert that bit about “loving-kindness.”

Happy psalming! Let me know what you find if you study this psalm.


Psalm Study: Psalm 12

Dear Reader,

This is the latest in my chronicle of our psalm studies. For an introduction of sorts see this post on Psalm 8.

Click here (opens a Google doc) for my translation and arrangement of Psalm 12.  I have given some questions on the second page but these are mainly for you to use in directly your conversation after you have all had a chance to analyze the psalm on your own.

The first step, as always, is to sit down with your colored pencils and mark up the psalm. Look for repeated words and ideas. Look for contrasts. Look for parallel lines. Really, whatever you notice is fine. This is a “no wrong answers” sort of exercise.

After about 10 minutes, call your kids back together and ask them what they have noticed. My well-practiced kids started with which lines they thought were parallel. We agreed that this psalm has lots of pairs of parallel lines — 3&4, 5&6, etc. There was some dispute about what to do with lines 9 through 11. Notice that there are an odd number of lines here as I have divided up the psalm. We agreed that this is unsettling in an otherwise so orderly psalm. But remember that these line divisions are arbitrary (as are the ones in your Bible). If I had divided line 9 into two parts: “From the plunder of the poor” and “from the cry of the needy” the parallelism would have worked out much better. Lesson 1: don’t be afraid to disagree with how things are laid out. Verse divisions were added later and even then they do not always correspond to where a sentence or thought should end. Feel free to play around with them.

We did have one contrary opinion. My oldest thought that lines 2 and 17 were really parallel to each other. Note that they both end with “sons of men.” They also express similar ideas. I introduced the term “bracketing” to describe what is going on here. Often a psalm will have similar ideas, perhaps even exact repetition near the beginning and end. These verses function as bookends to the psalm. Note that understanding these lines this way need not be in contradiction to the parallelism we saw. Both things can be true.

My younger son noted that there is a lot in this psalm about people saying things and the mouth area. He couldn’t say anything at that time about why he thought that was so but I said we’d get back to it in a bit.

We then proceeded with the questions on page 2. We’d already covered “what did you notice?” so we went on to question #2: “What kind of Psalm is this?” One child said “praise” but her answer was rejected in favor of “a cry for help.” I told them this is usually termed a “psalm of lament” (they really should have known that word though, pros that they are). We noted that the psalm ends with the wicked and that there are “ongoing troubles” (younger son’s words). The tone, they said, is  one of sorrow or lament (now they know the word).

Question 3 asks what the wicked do in this psalm and how they are described. Our answers: worthless, “sons of men.” My oldest supplied the answer his brother couldn’t earlier: “sons of men” shows their connection with Adam (see the footnote; the word is the same: adam). As Adam sinned so they follow in his footsteps. Of course this phrase can be used various ways in the Bible but I think the connection to Adam and his sin is intentional here (see question 7). When asked what specifically the wicked do, what their sons are, they said talking too much, flattering, being vain. We discussed the “walking about” in line 16. Though it sounds Australian a good translation in English might be “prowling.”

What does the Lord do? He speaks, will save and guard the poor and needy, and cuts off lips (they liked the gore this implies though I don’t think it’s literal). We noted again that what the Lord does is in the future — He will save and guard. Salvation has not come yet in this psalm. We also compared the Lord’s speaking and that of the wicked (see question 6). The Lord’s words are pure and firm. God created through speech. The wicked’s words are smooth and deceitful.

Question 5 gets at two Hebrew idioms. It took them a minute to get it but to speak “great things” is to boast, i.e. they speak great thimgs of themselves. Smooth speech is flattering (we have to define that for my youngest). It is smooth because it says what people want to hear.

Now it’s your turn — what do you see in Psalm 12?



Psalm Study: Psalm 11

Dear Reader,

For some background on why and how we do psalm study see this post on Psalm 8.

For this week’s psalm study, I did something a little bit different and gave some specific questions. You can find my translation of Psalm 11 with the study questions here (opens a Google doc).

To begin I gave each of my kids a copy of the psalm and the questions, a pencil and about 10 minutes to see what they could do with it. After that time, we came back together and went through the questions one by one.

Here again are the question with our answers:

-Read through the psalm. What kind of psalm is it? (Some choices include: praise, lament, thanksgiving, royal, wisdom) After some discussion we agreed that the psalmist is not mainly giving praise but is asking for help. Therefore we called this a lament psalm. We noted that help has not come in the psalm; he is only expressing confidence that it will, which is usual for laments.

-How would you divide up this psalm? Look for sets of parallel lines and mark them. There were some obvious sets in this psalm which we all agreed on: lines 4,5, and 6; 9 and 10; 11 and 12. One child thought lines 2 and 3 should be combined making a pair with line 1. They weren’t all convinced but I put 7 and 8 together. There was some dispute over whether 14 went with 13 or 15 and 16. Personally, I like starting the psalm with 2 triads (1,2 and 3; and 4,5, and 6) and then putting all the rest of the lines in pairs. Not all psalms work out so nicely, but this one can.

-Below are lines 4-6. Put boxes around the parts that go together (i.e. “the wicked” in the first line corresponds to “they” in the second line so they would go together in one box).

For behold the wicked bend    a bow;

                                They    fix         their arrow upon the string

                                         To shoot                                 in secret    the upright of heart.

There was a little confusion over what I was asking for here. I am going to add a picture of how I did it below so you can see what I had in mind and hopefully guide your children. You can slide in a little grammar lesson here too. The verbs line up very nicely and go in one box. Lines 4 and 5 have subjects– “the wicked” and “they” — and complements — “a bow” and “their arrow” — which go together. Line 4 has an added bit at the beginning, but lines 5 and 6 both have prepositional phrases after the verb. Finally, line 6, which doesn’t have a subject, has something added at the end which actually has two parts itself — “the upright” and “of heart.”

What do you notice about the length of the lines? Once you have made the boxes, hopefully you will see that each line really has 4 parts. Line 4 has: behold, subject, verb, complement. Line 5 has subject, verb, complement, prepositional phrase. And Line 6 had verb, prepositional phrase and a 2-part added but which is actually a complement and a prepositional phrase describing it.

Do we have an exact parallelism here? Or is there a progression? (Hint: think about the verbs.)

No. If you act out the verbs, you will see that the lines take us through the steps in drawing and shooting a bow. As the wicked bends his bow, fixes the arrow and shoots, the suspense builds . . .

What does the last line add to the meaning? And then in the last line we find that he is not just out hunting, he is hunting in secret! It’s an ambush! And the target is not an animal, but people!!

-Look through the psalm again and mark any repeated words. What do you notice? You may note different things here. Some we found are: wicked, LORD and righteous/righteousness/upright. If you have a child like one of mine, you may need to instruct them that words like “the” and “in” are not worth marking even though they occur frequently.

-Who sees whom in this psalm? God sees man and the upright will see God.

-Look at lines 13-14 again:

“The LORD the righteous examines and the wicked and the lover of violence his soul hates.”

Remember that there is no punctuation in the Hebrew. Are there different way you could divide up these lines?  Which do you think it best? This might be  a little bit trickier. If they have trouble getting started, remind them that lines 4-6 were nicely balanced, each has the same number of elements so they appear the same length. If you look at my translation of the Psalm, what do you notice? Line 13 is much shorter than line 14. How could I have done it differently so that the lines would be more even? Your answer should be that “and the wicked” could go with what comes before. How does this change the meaning? If the wicked goes in line 14, then the LORD is examining the righteous but hating the wicked. If we put it with line 13, then He examines both righteous and wicked and hated the wicked (aka the lover of violence). Go on to the next question, to see why this might be important . . .

What do you think this psalm is about? There seem to be two parts: the problem in lines 1-8 and the solution in lines 9-18. Describe the scene in the latter half. How do you see it?

If your kids can’t picture it, ask them what God is doing in this psalm. Is He fighting? Standing? Sitting? He is sitting on His throne. His throne is the place of judgment. If we take the wicked with line 13, as discussed above, then He is judging the righteous and the wicked. He looks at both of them and then passes judgment on the wicked. What about the righteous? What happens to them? They see the face of God. This might be a good time to point out that faces seem prominent in this psalm. Earlier we had eyes and eyelids, now we have faces. A good question to ask whenever you read the Bible is: What other passages does this remind me of? For me this one is the parable of the sheep and the goats when God judges and puts the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. One goes off to eternal punishment and the other lives with God forever.


Here you can see how I did the boxes around parallel the sections of lines 4-6.

Next time: Psalm 12


Psalm Study: Psalms 9 and 10

Dear Reader,

This week we studied Psalms 9 and 10 in our homeschool (see my post on Psalm 8 for more background info on how and why we do Psalm study). In the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 9 and 10 form an acrostic poem — every other line begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 10 also have no heading as Psalms 8, 9 and 11 do. For these two reasons, I chose to study the two together as one unit. You can find my own translation of the psalms which we used as the text for out study here (opens a Google document). The line divisions are my own to try and highlight the parallelism of the psalms; they are not verse numbers nor do they show the acrostic pattern (though that might not have been a bad idea in this case).

I introduced these Psalms by explaining why we were studying them together (see above) and by saying that since what we have before us is a very long passage, they should not hope to deal with it all but should focus in on a few things to look for. One suggestion is to try to divide the psalms into logical sections. Another would be to look for common themes, even within these sections, or throughout the poem.

I then set my kids to work with pencils (having a selection of colored ones is best) and their own copy of the text. After ten minutes or so, when I could see most of them were slowing down, I called them back together to discuss.

I opened the discussion by asking them if there was anything that they noticed about the psalms. We came up with the following list:

  •  Judgment is mentioned a lot; the Lord will judge.
  • It tells what people say a lot.
  • There are a lot of “I will”s. I asked who the “I” is for these and the answer was the psalmist.
  • The Lord will help the poor, afflicted, etc. is a theme.
  • They are mostly pairs of parallel lines.
  • It uses the proper name of God (“LORD”) a lot.

After letting them share their observations, we moved on to some more specific questions:

  • What sections would you divide these psalms into? Three children had marked parallel lines, but only one looked at the larger sections though his were roughly the same as mine.
  • What themes do you see? One child mentioned praise but upon further inspection we decided praise comes mainly at the beginning of the text.
  • How is God described? It is always a good idea to look at what names for God or what descriptions of him a psalm uses. At this point I drew particular attention to line  23 and asked them who the “Seeker of Blood” is. The first response was Satan, but then another child noticed that this line is parallel to line 24 so that the Seeker of Blood who remembers is the same as the “He” that does not forget the cry of the afflicted. This latter seems to refer to God since He is often described thus so we can work backwards and say that God is also the Seeker of Blood. We then discussed how this is not a common designation for God or way that we think of Him. I asked them if they could think of other passages which seem to speak the same way. It took some prompting to make a connection with Genesis 4 in which Abel’s blood calls out to God from the ground. In this sense God is a Seeker in that He seeks out the innocent blood and executes justice.
  • Who is the wicked in this text and how is he described? A closer reading shows that the nations are wicked in the first half of the poem, through line 40, but after that point it seems to be speaking of individuals, at least until the end when nations are mentioned in line 75. We then listed ways the wicked are described and things he does, especially in the second half of the poem. I observed that a main contrast between God and the wicked seems to be in how they treat the poor and afflicted.
  • How do you picture God in these psalms? We talked about how He is a judge seated on a throne (see footnote 6). He is not inactive but He is the sort of powerful ruler who can sit on His throne and have His will be done.

Remember that there can be many right answers or right ways to look at a text, as long as you can support what you see with the text itself. Your conclusions don’t have to be the same as ours.



Psalm Study Returns: Psalm 8

Dear Reader,

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.