5 Books of the Psalms
- I Psalms 1-41
- II Psalms 41-72
- III Psalms 73-89
- IV Psalms 90-106
- V Psalms 107-150
David, Solomon, sons of Korah, Asaph, Herman, Ethan, Moses
Purposes of the Psalms
- Relate honestly toward God Evoke an emotion
- Make us participants in the story
- Guide to worship
Types of Psalms
- Thanksgiving or Celebration
- Imprecatory or Vengence
- Salvation History/Messianic
The key to understanding Hebrew poetry (i.e. the psalms) and Wisdom Literature is knowing that the “rhyme” of ideas is more important than the sounds. This “rhyming” of ideas is called parallelism.
The primary elements in Hebrew prosody are the half lines that fall into parallel and that, taken together in pairs (or sometimes in threes), create a single thought or image. (Intepreter’s Dictionary of the Bible) These “primary elements” are called:
|one element||in pairs||in threes|
Types of Parallelism
In parallelism two related lines are juxtaposed to suggest one unified statement. The kinds of relationships between the parallel elements are potentially as many as the ways two things can be related. Some examples:
|Synonymous||The second stich repeats the idea of the first stich,
sometimes by negating its opposite.
|His villainy descends upon his head
And upon his pate his violence descends
— Psalm 7:17
|Antithetic||The two stichs contrast each other||For Yahweh knows the way of the righteous
But the way of the wicked shall perish.
— Psalm 1:6
|Emblematic||One stich serves as an “emblem” (a visual representation) of the other,
i.e. a simile, a metaphor or a specific example.
|As the deer pants for the water
So my soul pants for thee, O God
— Psalm 42:1
|Climactic||The progressive building of ideas through several verses, reaching a climax.
(e.g. each stich may have the same words except for the last term.
The second stich completes the thought of the first stich.)
|Ascribe to Yahweh, O sons of the mighty,
Ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength,
Ascribe to Yahweh the glory of His name;
Worship Yahweh in holy array.
— Psalm 29:1-2
|The second stich further develops the idea of the first stich.
The two stichs can work together to explain a broader image or work together for the same image.
|For Yahweh is a great God
And a great king above all gods.
— Psalm 95:3
|Two parts joined together into a whole. (In a sense this is a catch-all category
for all the verses that don’t fit the above descriptions.)
|I have set my king
On Zion, my holy hill.
— Psalm 2:6
Elements within parallelism
1) A “merism” is when two extremes represent the whole. Each might be an element in the parallelism.
In the morning he devours the prey
And at evening he divides the spoil (Gen. 49:27)
(from morning to evening, i.e. all day)
2) Each element can represent a more general category. For example, the arrow and the sword can represent weapons of war or war in general.
3) Hebrew has an idiom with numbers: x, x+1. The final item of the sequence is often the point of the proverb.
There are three things that will not be satisfied,
Four that will not say, “Enough” ( Prov. 30:18)
4) Repetition is often used for making connections between sections and verses or for emphasizing an idea. Types of repetition: synonyms, catchwords, inclusions (starting & ending with the same thing).
5) Rhetorical questions can be used to clinch an argument by forcing the reader to come up with the right answer.
Can a man take fire in his bosom,
And his clothes not be burned? (Prov. 6:27)
6) Watch for patterns in the whole. Often the verses are arranged in sequence. For example verses 1-4 might follow the pattern ABCD, and verses 5-8 repeat the ABCD. Or you might see ABCD DCBA, AABBCCDD, etc. There are potentially as many patterns as the poets’ imaginations.
- An understanding of the passage which takes parallelism into account is better than one that doesn’t.
- Different words do not necessarily imply different things. They may be a “rhyming of ideas” with a single meaning.
- Parallelism does not override other concerns such as grammar, syntax, context, word meaning. All these items must work together.
- To interpret, ask what is the relationship between the two lines? What do they imply?
- As a “genre”, parallelism is not as restrictive as a sonnet. However, the genre does demand that the main point is in a couplet. Each stanza furthers a specific point and moves in the same direction. Don’t expect tangents.
- The author has some freedom within the patterns. If his audience is aware of the pattern, the author can do something unexpected to create an effect. When the author breaks a the pattern, figure out why.
For further study: How to Read the Psalms, by Tremper Longman III.
For more detail and explanation, please listen to the podcast.
Part of the Series: How to Study Psalms
For more: Bible Study 101
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.