PSALMS: Poetic Forms Of The Psalms by W. Robert Godfrey

Poetic Forms Of The Psalms by W. Robert Godfrey

From Learning to Love the Psalms

The meaning of any kind of poetry is tied to the form of the poem.  The essence of poetry is the artful variation of words and images in forms different from ordinary prose communication.  Think of Shakespeare’s brief poetic lines in Richard II:

I wasted time,
and now doth time waste me.

In these poetic lines, Shakespeare’s reversal of word order is both memorable and arresting.  The form draws us into reflecting on the meaning of the words.  The same is true with the meaning of the psalms.

To understand the psalms, we need to understand something of the literary forms of Hebrew poetry.  The forms of Hebrew poetry, however, are different from those of English poetry and therefore require some special introduction for us.  The psalms do not depend on rhyme or easily scanned rhythms.  They depend more on repetition and complex patterns that are often varied or broken in the course of the poem.  We cannot look at Hebrew poetic forms in great detail, but we can look at a few prominent features of Hebrew poetry that will help us grasp its meaning better.

The Center

One important form of Hebrew poetry is that a poem often has the critical verse or message in the middle of the poem rather than at the end.  By contrast, the dramatic force and meaning of poetry in English often depends very much on the closing words of the poem.  For the English reader accustomed to the conclusion’s being the critical moment of an argument of piece of writing, the real meaning of a given psalm can be easily missed.

Psalm 23 illustrates the importance of the center (or, we might say, “heart”) of the poem in Hebrew poetry.  Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the best known of all the psalms.  We most often think of it in relation to its opening words as the shepherd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.”  The first four verses carry the shepherd theme, but verse 5 presents God not as a shepherd but as a host at a victory feast.  And what unifies these elements of Psalm 23?  Clearly not the final thought of the psalm: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Sheep will not dwell in the house of the Lord.  No, what unifies the psalm are the words at the very center of the psalm: “For you are with me,” (v. 4)  The themes of shepherding, celebrating victory, and living in God’s house are all drawn together by these words.  Indeed, those words could be repeated after every part of the psalm to illustrate the way in which their central importance opens the meaning of the psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd
for you are with me

I shall not want
for you are with me

He makes me lie down in green pastures
for you are with me

He leads me beside still waters
for you are with me

He restores my soul
for you are with me

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake
for you are with me

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil
for you are with me

Your rod and your staff, they comfort me
for you are with me

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
for you are with me

You anoint my head with oil
for you are with me

My cup overflows
for you are with me

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life
for you are with me

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever
for you are with me

In Psalm 23, the middle of the psalm is the heart of its meaning.  If we miss that form, we miss a critical indicator of the meaning of the psalm.

Another way to think about the importance of the center in many Hebrew poems is to think of these poems as a pyramid (although that may not be an image that would have appealed to ancient Israel!).  The poem in this image builds up to the center or top point and then descends on the other side.  The center or high point is the crucial focus of the meaning of such a poem.

Often, where the center is the heart of the psalm, the whole psalm is written as a chiasm.  A chiasm is a common literary form in ancient literature.  The word is derived from the Greek letter chi, which has the shape of an X and is pronounced with a k sound.  The X shape is the key to the meaning of the chiasm.  Like an X, a chiasm has a center with elements before and after the center that relate to the center and to each other.  We might also think of a chiasm as a pyramid shape, the two sides of which rise at the same angle to an apex.  We will see this chiastic structure clealry in our analysis of Psalm 21.

Complex Forms and Artful Variations

Let us continue our reflection on the importance of the form of psalms by looking again at Psalm 25.  Here, we find a rather complex form that reminds us that this poetry has been very carefully constructed and that we will need to study it carefully to appreciate it fully.  Psalm 25 is an acrostic, which means that the lines (or sometimes verses or sections) of the psalm begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145 all use this form.  This complexity reminds us that the psalms were not dashed off but were very carefully constructed with great attention to detail.

This alphabetical complexity is underscored by surprise variations in the form.  Just at the time we think we have spotted a predictable pattern in the form of many psalms, the psalmist will alter the form, just to provide a delightful surprise and to keep us on our toes.  So, in Psalm 25: 1-21, for example, two letters of the alphabet are not used.  Also, the last verse of the psalm seems to stand outside the acrostic structure, calling attention to itself and the urgency of its prayer, “Redeem Israel, O God, from all his troubles.”

Pronouns and Divisions

Psalm 25 illustrates for us another element that we find in Hebrew poetry.  The use of pronouns in the text can help us see the various divisions or stanzas in the psalm.  We can see that Psalm 25 divides itself into several sections.  The first (vv. 1-7), third (v. 11), and fifths (vv. 16-22) sections address God as “you.”  They are written in the form of a prayer to God.  The second (vv. 8-10) and fourth (vv. 12-15) sections are primarily a series of statements about God and speak of God as “he.”  Far from being a source of difficulty or confusion, such changes in pronouns help us discover the meaning and structure of the psalms.

Interwoven Ideas

As we look more closely at the sections of Psalm 25, we can see how intricately the psalmist has constructed his poem.  We see that the first, third, and last sections give eloquent expression of the distress of the psalmist.  They are a “cry for help.”  The major emphasis of this cry is a sense of need, generalized as trouble or anguish (vv. 17, 22).  Then, that general need is specified: the need for protection from enemies (vv. 2-3), 16, 18-20).  Other needs also emerge: the psalmist’s recognition of his ignorance of the way of God (vv. 4-5) and his recognition of his sin (vv. 7, 18).

We find running alongside this major emphasis on need a minor emphasis on the character of God.  God is the One who protects (vv. 3, 20).  God is also full of mercy, love, and goodness (vv. 6-7, 16).  The psalmist wants to say that while his troubles are strongly on his mind, he never forgets that God is for him.

In the second and fourth sections, which we can call the “confessions of faith in the Helper,” we see that the major theme is the character of God.  Out of his love, he makes covenant with (vv. 10, 14), protects (vv. 13, 15), and forgives (v. 8) his people.  Out of his goodness, he teaches his people (vv. 8-9, 12).  The psalmist confesses his faith in the God whom he knows will be his Helper.

In these sections, there is also a minor theme.  In the midst of praising God for who he is and what he does, the psalmist still remembers his own needs.  He thinks of forgiveness (v. 8) and looks forward with hope to days of prosperity (v. 13).

So, we see that in the various sections of Psalm 25, the themes of the psalmist’s need and God’s provision intertwine.  A confident confession of the Helper is central to the psalm.  But a realistic statement of continuing need brackets that confession.  Future hope does not eliminate that present need or the need for present prayer.  The form of the poem reinforces and and clarifies the message.  Again, we see that careful meditation and study will help us enter ever more deeply into the meaning and beauty of the psalms.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • How does understanding the literary forms of Hebrew poetry help in understanding the psalms?  What significance does a psalm’s center have for the overall meaning?
  • What psalms are constructed as an acrostic?  What is the significance of using such complex forms?  What is the significance of using artful variations of such forms?
  • What are some examples of interwoven ideas in Psalm 25?  What are some examples of when your own need in a specific situation intertwined with God’s provision?

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