Sometimes ancient literature is the deepest and richest literature available to us for the
simple reason that time has tested it and proven its worth. This is certainly the case with the
poetry of the Hebrew Bible, much of it in the order of three thousand years old. On the
other hand, age can be an obstacle, whether because we imagine, in principle, that we know
better than the ancients or, more practically, because the poetic forms are unfamiliar, the
circumstances of composition distant and obscure, the language if not incomprehensible,
then certainly difficult to grasp. To all such conditions we must add, in the case of Hebrew
poetry, what may be a false sense of familiarity. Certain lines of Hebrew poetry seem so
familiar as to form part of the common cultural heritage of the West —
I. Poetry and Poetics, English and Hebrew
For purposes of comparison, it might be best to begin with a more familiar poetic form, in this case George Herbert’s “A True Hymne,” published in 1633, which, conveniently enough, addresses a number of concerns relevant to our study of Hebrew verse: poetic composition,
“hymns” and “psalms,” and religious experience in relation to all three.
So much for the more familiar contours of classic English poetry. To these we may compare Psalm 131, in the Jewish Publication Society translation:
What about metre? The ancient historian Josephus, who lived at the time of the first revolt against Rome, and the destruction of the Second Temple, proposed that Exodus 15:1-18, the "Song at the Sea” (Antiquities 2.346) and Deut 32:1-43, the “Song of Moses” (Antiquities 4.303) were written in hexameter, and that David wrote “songs and hymns” in trimeter and pentameter (Antiquities 7.305). Others (Augustine of Hippo, for example, and medieval Jewish commentators) proposed that metre was indeed present, but with the original scheme no longer evident. Similarly in the modern era, attempts at discerning word-stress and syllabic duration have largely failed (with the significant exception of 3:2, or Qinah, “Lament” metre). In this sense, then, the Scottish Psalter’s versification of Psalm 23, cited at the outset, makes the psalm into something it is clearly not in the original, perhaps even misrepresents the original for the sake of creating a form that suits our own poetic sensibilities:
Yet this is not to say that such compositions are altogether lacking in structure, because they
are typically characterized by a series of significant repetitions or parallels:
Parallelism, it turns out, is the single most characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry. The most
basic structure entails two elements in parallel (a distich or dicola, as in the case of the three
examples from Psalm 131), but three elements (a tristich or tricola) also occur, as in the
opening lines of Psalm 1:
Historically, three types of parallelism have been identified (although modern scholars have come up with at least two additional, less prominent types). The three main types are listed here, together with an example of each:
What do these forms have in common, and what is the purpose of such repetition or parallelism? Where English poetry is interested in structural patterning (metre and scansion), Hebrew poetry entails semantic intensification, relying on semantic interplay (including reversal) between paired elements. Jewish scholar James Kugel (The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and its History [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981]) calls this feature “seconding.” That is, the parallelism of Hebrew poetry conveys both thematic intensification and sequential progression: heightened effect, elaboration of detail, and thus progress of idea or action. The purpose of such repetition is to declare, in Kugel’s words, “A is so, and what’s more, B.” King Saul would hardly have missed the meaning of the popular proverb recorded 2 Samuel 18:7, though it is doubtful he appreciated its typically poetic form: “Saul has killed his thousands; David his ten thousands.”
For the most part, then, the “poetic” conventions of Hebrew poetry focus on meaning more than form, on world view and content rather than structure for its own sake. What kind of meaning, more precisely? How does it function and what does it take for granted?
To begin with, the identity and relevance of God are assumed, rather than explained. This may or may not coincide with our own convictions, but as intentionally religious verse, Hebrew poetry is hardly apologetic — in either the technical or conventional senses of the word. It is, in fact, altogether unapologetic in the sense that it boldly asserts its convictions for all to hear. Second, we may have noted that this composition (Ps. 131) is a “Song,” one of a number of different forms that are named in the course of the book of Psalms, the distinctive features of which are no longer obvious to us in our day. Among them are the following:
Indeed, the Hebrew title for the book in which all these work occur is Tehillim, “Praises” (and the same verb, meaning “to praise,” underlies the more familiar term, “Hallelujah”). Our English word “psalm” comes — via the Latin term psalmus — from a Greek word, psalmos, “strumming,” or “harp song,” which in turn derives from psallein, to strum a harp, or to sing to harp music. Thus the ancient Greek title of the Book of Psalms is PSALMOI. The implied connection between Hebrew poetry and instrumental music is thus an ancient one. Accordingly, the introductory notes to particular psalms (also known as “superscripts”) include a number of what seem to be musical notations or song titles (although we can no longer be certain which):
Even more interesting is the fact that Psalm 131 is not just any “song,” but “A Song of Ascents,” said to have been composed by King David. The “Songs of Ascent” — Psalms 120-134 — are fifteen compositions traditionally associated with, and recited in the course of, pilgrimage to Jerusalem:
Accordingly, each of these psalms invites the reader to assume the outlook and attitude of a pilgrim. This may or may not in fact be our experience or disposition. Yet the poems exemplify for us certain attitudes and understandings that may have originated with David
and other authors, possibly even with particular situations in their respective lives, but apply well beyond those original circumstances to the experience of Israel as a whole, and even of pilgrims in general. This, at least is the opinion of the tenth-century rabbinic commentary on the psalter, Midrash Tehillim (to Psalm18): “R. Yudan taught in the name of R. Judah: all that David said in his book of Psalms applies to himself, to all Israel, and to all the ages.” One of the most striking features of the Book of Psalms, then, is its explicit invitation and generalization of experience, a naming and characterization of religious experience in terms that are even broader than those of George Herbert.
II. On Singing from Someone Else’s Songbook
Although there are poetic portions throughout the entire corpus of Hebrew Scripture, the
magnum opus of the genre, is of course, the text we know in English as the Psalter, or Book of Psalms. The book as a whole provides the present setting for understanding each particular composition, even as Herbert’s “A True Hymne” needs to be appreciated within the context of The Temple, the posthumous collection of some 180 poems within which it first appeared. The first thing we may notice is that (in most English translations, as in Hebrew) the Psalter is divided into five books, with the order of individual compositions largely arranged by author. Here, for instance, are some of the authorship attributions from the first three books:
Indeed, the attribution to different authors provides us with a clue to the fact that this collection has been compiled over time, because evidence remains that the collection once ended much earlier. One such earlier ending is at 72:20, which declares, “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.” Yet the subsequent Psalm 86 is “A Prayer of David”; likewise attributed to King David are Psalm 101, 103, 108-110; 138-145, etc. No less intriguing are the names of some of the other writers:
A number of these other authors are mentioned elsewhere in the biblical text, specifically in connection with the “tent of meeting,” suggesting that from the earliest time, the poetic compositions that we find in the Book of Psalms have been associated with, and perhaps were even composed for, the liturgical worship of the people of Israel (as was certainly the case with the liturgy of the Second Temple). Specifically, First Chronicles 6:32-48 mentions Heman, Asaph, and Ethan as contemporaries of David, and singers in the tent of meeting; while Second Chronicles 5:12 refers to Heman, Asaph, and Jeduthun in the temple of Solomon, specifically singing a psalm. Similarly, First Chronicles 16:41-42 records Heman and Jeduthun as trumpeters, and according to First Chronicles 25:1, the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun continue as singers and musicians “who...prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.” Not only, then, are these individuals apparently responsible for composing certain psalms or collections of psalms; they are also singers, liturgists, instrumentalists, and even prophets!
So the major collection of Hebrew poems is divided into five books, which serve (effectively) as the hymn book of ancient Israel. Are these two facts connected in any way? The number five is not accidental, as, once more, Midrash Tehillim makes clear by declaring, “Moses gave Israel the five books, and David gave Israel the five books of the Psalms.” The five books of David mirror the five of Moses. Indeed the entire collection begins with a reference to “Torah” — the conventional name designating the first five books of Moses:
But there is something else going on here as well, and that is a description of human “happiness” or “blessedness.” As it turns out, this emphasis on “blessing” and “blessedness” — both human and divine — reappears at the conclusion of each of the five books:
In Book Five, the notes of blessing occur around Psalms 119 (perhaps an earlier conclusion to the Psalter), 127-128, and 144, the last of which provides a transition to the final outburst of praise: Psalms 146 to 150 each begin and end with a simple imperative — “Hallelujah,”
“Praise the LORD!” Book Five, and the Psalter as a whole, thus concludes with five psalms of praise, perhaps reflecting the five-fold structure of the book as a whole. As such, says James Luther Mays, “The five books of the Psalter are a torah of praise” (The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994], 63), moving the people of God in the direction of worship. The pairing of such phrases as “Blessed be the LORD,” “Happy the one,” or “Happy are those,” etc., suggests that the linked concepts of divine and human blessedness offer an organizing principle behind the final structure of the Psalter. That is to say, the shape of the book as a whole indicates the “shape” of religious experience in Hebrew tradition, as God’s people “bless” God, and themselves find “blessing” or “happiness” by walking in God’s ways. To put it differently, the shape of the Psalter proposes that, for Israel, praising God is itself a kind of mitzvah, a commandment; that worship of God is a kind of obedience parallel or equivalent to the fulfillment of Torah and commandment. Thus it is that this great collection of Hebrew religious poetry concludes with what is, in effect, a repeated series of commands: “Praise the Lord!”
III. Religious Experience in Hebrew Poetry
If it is the case that the Book of Psalms moves inexorably in the direction of praise, encouraging worship on the part of the reader, pointing insistently toward liturgy, Temple, and the reality of God, it is no less important to note its points of departure, and what the psalms include along the way. Although there are a number of additional, less prominent themes (among them royal psalms and psalms of enthronement), scholars concur that the two main motifs are those of “praise” and — perhaps surprisingly — lament. In fact, what seems most striking about Hebrew religious poetry is that it encompasses the entire range of human emotion and experience.
A core feature of the Psalms is their unabashed expression of the full range of human experience — not for its own sake, however: rather, human experience, in all its various dimensions, is viewed from the perspective of spirituality. The poetry of Israel intends to bring every aspect of its experience into the presence of God, and to relate it to the reality of God. Here, in canonical order, is a random — and by no means exhaustive — sample:
• Terror: Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror... I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping (6:2-3, 6).
• Consolation: In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears (18:6).
• Despair: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest (22:1-2).
• Joy: Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright (33:1).
• Trust: Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you (33:21-22).
• Physical illness and affliction: There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin (38:3).
• Longing for God: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (42:1-3).
• Blaming and accusation: Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O LORD? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (44:22-24).
• Conviction of sin: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me (51:2-3).
• Yearning for vengeance: O God, smash their teeth in their mouth; shatter the fangs of lions, O LORD! Let them melt, let them vanish like water; let Him aim his arrows that they be cut down; Like the snail that melts away as it moves; like a woman’s stillbirth, may they never see the sun... The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked (58:6-8, 11 [JPS]).
• Attentive obedience: To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORDour God, until he has mercy upon us (123:1-2).
• Thanksgiving: O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever... (136:1-3).
• Murderous hatred: Fair Babylon, you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us; a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks! (137:8-9 [JPS]).
• Humility: O LORD, what is man that You should care about him, mortal man, that You should think of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow (144:3-4).
There is no question that some of this language is shocking, seemingly the very opposite of what we would consider piety of outlook and conduct. No matter what our own faith convictions, we are right to ask how such an unexpected range of human conduct came to be expressed in what passes for religious poetry; we are right to wonder in what sense some of this could even be considered “religious.” But we need to remember the direction in which the collection is headed: this poetry is able to encompass and incorporate the full range of human expression not because it is all considered valid in its own right, but because human experience is qualified and theologically contextualized as a journey towards the worship of Israel’s God. Or to state the matter differently, this poetry takes seriously the conviction that nothing whatsoever is hidden from God, and that everything in life without exception must be brought into the light of who and what God is:
But the resolution to these conflicting emotions and experiences lies not only in the over all direction of the book as a whole. That principle, to be sure, indicates that such expressions are never static. But the same is true even within the individual poems themselves. Two examples — Psalms 23 and 130 — will suffice to demonstrate this point.
The twenty-third psalm is surely one of the most popular and familiar in the entire collection, perhaps in part because of its frequent use in funeral liturgies, perhaps also because it evokes for urban dwellers a pleasantly pastoral image of rolling hills, still waters, and green grass. But upon closer examination, the psalm’s imagery is neither gentle nor (in the romantic sense of the word) pastoral: it has more to do with evil, enemies, and the threat of death. Yet despite appearances to the contrary, the theological centre of the psalm is neither the needs and concerns of the psalmist, nor the dangers that evidently confront him. Rather, the psalm declares, “YHWH is my shepherd, I shall not want... He leads me in right paths on account of, for the sake of his name” (vv. 1, 3). In other words, God’s primary concern is for his own reputation, a point that is easy to overlook given the psalm’s recurrent images of consolation, rescue, and generous provision, all of which cause readers to consider their own situations of need. This is a frequent motif in Hebrew Scripture, recalling for Christian readers the initial petition of the Lord’s prayer, “May your name be sanctified.”
Read in this light, we realize that the familiar opening lines of the psalm are statements of
trust in the face of grave danger:
This is a remarkable response to danger. Many other psalms seem more true to human nature, with embattled sinners or sufferers crying out to God in desperation and fear. Yet here the psalmist seems content to wait quietly, secure in the conviction that it is God who pursues him in his time of need, rather than the other way around. On what is this conviction based? On the knowledge that God jealously guards his own name, and does so by demonstrating hesed, “steadfast love,” on behalf of those who put their trust in him. The same concept is equally central to Psalm 130. Indeed, the term hesed occurs more than 250 times in Hebrew Scripture; in fifty of 150 psalms. When it applies to human relations, this word describes a particular kind of gesture or action performed on behalf of someone who cannot help themselves, without which they would be lost, but which the recipient has no right or power to requisition. It describes a way of acting, without constraint, on behalf of someone who cannot in any way earn or obtain or deserve this generous gift. And in situations of ultimate human need, the same term repeatedly describes God’s way of acting on behalf of those who cry out for help — God’s covenant faithfulness and love.
The same concept is equally central to Psalm 130. Indeed, the term hesed occurs more than 250 times in Hebrew Scripture; in fifty of 150 psalms. When it applies to human relations, this word describes a particular kind of gesture or action performed on behalf of someone who cannot help themselves, without which they would be lost, but which the recipient has no right or power to requisition. It describes a way of acting, without constraint, on behalf of someone who cannot in any way earn or obtain or deserve this generous gift. And in situations of ultimate human need, the same term repeatedly describes God’s way of acting on behalf of those who cry out for help — God’s covenant faithfulness and love.
Psalm 130 opens on a well-known note of desperation:
This is typical of Hebrew poetry, and the religious experience it so often relates. Time and again such poetry is characterized by a lively appropriation of the past history of God’s people, on the assumption that a steadfastly faithful and inalterable God will intervene as surely in the present has been the case in the past. Because the God of the psalms and the psalmists is God of history, past and present are theologically one. Such a conviction fosters a spirituality is at once intense, personal, and concrete, a spirituality that assumes not only the reality but also the presence and saving action of God in the immediate circumstances of life.
With this observation, we have come full circle. Just as Herbert claims that it is not his own love for God, or even his own failure to love God adequately, that makes for good poetry, but rather God’s love of him, so Hebrew poetry presents a constant turn of the subject towards divine love — not always, perhaps, the petitioner’s love for God, but rather God’s own faithful, saving love on behalf of those who would be lost without it. Only on this basis — because they claim to reflect something far greater than merely human “art” or artifice — can both individual psalms and the five-fold book as a whole both incorporate the heights and depths of human experience and at the same time lead in the direction of worship, of praise. This, surely, is what constitutes the enduring appeal of Hebrew verse, as subsequent readers of many and varying faith convictions find in it echoes and reflections of their own encounter with God. As Herbert, in turn, declares,
more PROSE about Poetry . . .