In my last article I talked about how we read the Psalms by reading them in context but just like with any other book of the Bible, we also have to step in to the detailed exegesis. Here are some further hints to help us with our Psalm reading.
First, if you want to read a Psalm, there is one more bit of context to consider. Each Psalm begins with a little bit of information telling us the tune because Psalms were meant for singing, the author (often but not always King David) and their situation. For example, David pens Psalm 3 when on the run from Absalom, whilst Psalm 51 was written after Nathan had rebuked him following his sin with and against Bathsheba.
Then, we will want to look at how the language works, we’ll want to look at vocabulary and syntax just as with other books of the Bible. Notice for example, how words and vocabulary concerning wickedness dominate Psalm 1, the blessed person is righteous in contrast to the wicked. Notice too how the language of walking, standing, sitting progresses to suggest how someone can be drawn into sinful company.
The Psalms are poetry and so use a lot of literary devices. Notice the use of metaphor and simile. God is a shepherd and death is like a shadowy valley (Psalm 23) whilst righteous people are like sturdy, fruitful trees in contrast to chaff that gets blown about (Psalm 1).
Although it is poetry, it is Hebraic poetry and so whilst it uses rhetorical devices those may not be the same as we would expect in Western poetry. For example, we do not expect to see rhymes, although things like alliteration may be used in Hebrew. The good news is that we are much more able to see the poetic devices than we would be if we relied on them carrying across translation.
The primary type of technique we find in the Psalms is known as parallelism. A line is written and then following lines are set in parallel with it. Sometimes, this may involve a single pair of lines, a and b, whilst sometimes it may build over multiple lines; a, b and c. A parallel may act to repeat and emphasise the initial thought, to develop it by offering new information of even to emphasise it by setting it in contrast to another statement.
So for example Psalm 1 gives us the following set of parallels that build upon a theme:
Blessed is the man
- Who does not walk …
- Nor stand …
- Nor sit …
Then we have a parallel pair because the happy/righteous person
- Delights in the Law
- Meditates on it day and night.
We also find a contrast between:
- The blessed man who is like a strong fruitful tree
- The wicked are like chaff, blown away
A final contrast concludes the Psalm:
- The Lord knows the way of the righteous
- The wicked will perish
See how that final parallel helps us to get to the heart of what it means for God to know us. This is not some mere intellectual knowledge of or about us. When God knows us, it means that he knows our whole life intimately because he is the one who has predestined it. He holds all of my days in his hand. Notice too that we also now see what it means to “perish”, it means that the wicked are not known to God in the same way.