Posts Tagged ‘Psalms’

The Mix Tape and How We Sing the Psalms

Dear Reader,

I read recently that the humble cassette tape is making a resurgence (see “Why Cassette Tapes are Making a Comeback” by Nathan Olivarez-Giles from The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2017). It’s very inflexibility is one of the draws of this antiquated medium. With a cassette, one has to be patient. Because you can’t easily skip tracks, you have to wait for your music, and you have to listen to it in the order it comes.

To its aficionados, the ability to make a mix-tape is also a draw of the cassette. Of course, one can make a playlist with almost any digital device these days. But the mix tape, because of its limitations, forces one to think about the placement of songs. As Olivarez-Giles puts it:

Mixmaster’s quote: ‘When you buy a tape or an album and the songs are, like, the band’s put ’em in some [expletive] order like they want you to listen to it in that order? . . . ‘”

And again:

“‘But you put [the songs] next to each other, and they start to elevate each other.'”

It struck me as I read this, that these same words could apply to the Book of Psalms. For those of us who sing the Psalms in worship, we often tackle them one at a time, taking a single Psalm or even a portion of a Psalm. But the One who gave us the Psalms did not give them in isolation. They are in a sense, His mix-tape for us. There are some groupings we can easily discern – the Psalms of Ascent, for example. But other connections are more subtle. Like two songs on a mix-tape, the Psalms at times interact with one another; they speak to each other and also to us if we have the ears to hear. I have written on how Psalms 80 and 81 seem to do this; they present two dies of a story, man’s and God’s and the juxtaposition adds to the meaning of both.

What does this mean for us? Simply this: that we should make an effort to occasionally read and sing the Psalms in their larger context. This is often not possible in weekly worship but the congregational Psalm-sing would seem the perfect opportunity to not just sing through whole Psalms but even through sections of the Psalter itself.

Nebby

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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.

Nebby

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?

Nebby

 

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.

FullSizeRender

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

Next time: Psalm 12

Nebby

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.

Nebby

 

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.

Nebby

How Biblical Poetry Works

Dear Reader,

I would like to get back to the topic of the Psalms. As you will know if you read here frequently, our church sings the psalms a cappella. We have a book called the psalter that sets them to music. We have a new psalter this year, the first in about 30 years. And it is one of the few things that got us RPs very agitated (as evidenced by the number of letters to our denominational magazine, the RP Witness). It is hard to give up familiar songs and accept new ones. For my own part, I went through the new psalter selection by selection and compared it to the Hebrew text. I wrote about my results here. The upshot is I am not overly pleased with the new psalter. I wish we had higher standards for the enterprise overall.

As I read through the new psalter, I often (but not always) think that the translators don’t have a good feel for the Hebrew poetry itself. So I would like to spend some time talking about biblical poetry. This first post is meant to be an introduction. I hope to talk about specific psalms in future posts.

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 to top it off we have to make it singable. It is a tough task and I don’t want to diminish the work of those who made our current psalter. But I also think that if you want to understand biblical poetry, you need to understand how it is organized. And that 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. One problem I have with our psalter (and this applies to the old as well as the new) is that it repeats where the Hebrew does not and does not repeat where the Hebrew does. When we make these kinds of changes, we lose the structure and also the meaning of the original.

It is time, I think, for some examples. I hope in the future to go through the psalms one-by-one and to discuss their structure and meaning, both in their own right and as they are rendered by the psalter. At present, my goal is only 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 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, I hope, is 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.

How does the psalter render this verse? I think it obscures the parallelism and therefore misses the beauty and some of the meaning of the Hebrew. Psalm 1A (1B is not identical but is similar in its approach to this verse) in the new psalter (the Book of Psalms for Worship) reads:

“That man is blessed who does not walk as wicked men advise, nor stand where sinners meet, nor sit where scorners pose as wise.”

The formula of “does not X in the Y of Z” (or in the second two-thirds “in the Y of Z does not X”) has been lost. The man is not longer the primary actor and the focus is not on his action. Instead the wicked or scorners or sinners are all active. This may be subjective and perhaps others will not see it, but to me the Hebrew puts the focus on the man: will he walk, stand, even sit with the wicked? The Psalter loses this when it turns nouns into verbs. It is not that what the Psalter says is wrong or theologically incorrect. It may well reflect truths stated elsewhere in the Bible. But it does not to me reflect the spirit of this psalm.

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

“For they did not understand (Hebrew: yabinu)

the works of the Lord nor the creation of His hands

He will tear them down and will not rebuild them (Hebrew: 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

noun-of-noun noun-of-noun

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 also think we can do better than we have done. 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.” 

[There is a verse very similar to this. Maybe in Isaiah? It is beautiful in Hebrew. It reads essentially, “If you do not stand (meaning with or for God), you will not stand (i.e. endure)”. But in Hebrew that is all said in a few words. Does anyone know where that is?]

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. This is missed by the psalter which reads for Psalm 28A:

“They the Lord’s works disregarded! He destroys them; they’ll not stand.”

We can see here that one whole phrase ” the creation of His hands” is omitted. The auditory similarity between the verbs has been lost by the use of “disregarded” instead of “understand.” And finally, the people have again become the subject of the final verb “stand.” But to me the whole point of this verse is that God will act and not allow to stand those who don’t understand. The focus at the end should not be again on the people’s action but on God’s.

There are many, many more examples and I hope in coming weeks to go through a number of them. Honestly, I am not a musician (not at all; ask my husband). I don’t know to what degree we can render the structure and meaning of the Hebrew in English and still have singable psalms. I do think we can do better than we have done. And I do think we need to begin by understanding the psalms, their structure, their beauty, and their meaning. 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 singable English, I hope we can at least begin to appreciate it and thereby to better understand God’s word to us.

Nebby

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