Thus poets and musicians played an important part in the life of Israel. The New Testament does not contain any complete books of poetry as the Old Testament does, but it does contain a good deal of poetry all the same.
III. Literary Context
IV. The Poetic Books
I. Types of Old Testament Poetry. The Hebrew language used several different words to refer to the various types of poetry that we find in the Old Testament. The shir was a poem that was accompanied by musical instruments. The word literally means "song". The mizmor was a song or hymn of worship; the qina a funeral eulogy or lament; a tehilla a hymn of praise; and the mashal a proverb or satire.
Each Hebrew poet expressed his own personal feelings in what he wrote, being inspired by the Holy Spirit. Most of the poetical books contained lyric poetry (poetry to be sung). Many biblical books contained gnomic (wisdom) poetry. Prophetic poetry usually described a vision from GOD, while historical poetry told about actual events of the past in epic fashion.
Rhyme is concerned with the sounds of words. Most often rhyming poetry makes the same sound occur at the end of each line or every other line. Rhyme is common in English-language poems, but it was very rare in Hebrew poetry.
Meter is concerned with the measured beat of poetry. The poet uses the accents of his words to set up a rhythm in each line and a pattern of rhythms throughout the poem. Scholars disagree about whether Hebrew poetry really has a meter. If it does, it is a 3.3 meter - i.e., three beats for each line. Biblical poems seldom follow this pattern exactly, and so one cannot be sure whether Hebrew poetry actually had a system of meter in Old Testament times.
The third technique, parallelism, was the one Old Testament poets used most often. The Bible has three basic types of parallelism: complete, incomplete, and "staircase".
My-people doth-not-consider (Isa. 1:3)
In this verse, Israel means the same thing as My-people. (The English words are joined by a hyphen to show the ideas contained in a single Hebrew word.) The word doth-not-know is parallel with doth-not-consider. The poet has used different words in each line to express the same idea.
Sometimes a Hebrew poet would express an idea in one line and the opposite in the next line; this type of complete parallelism is called antithetic parallelism:
A-wise son gladdens a-father
And-a-foolish man despises his-mother (Prov. 15:20)
This kind of parallelism balanced the complete thought of each line. yet another type of complete parallelism repeated the idea of a line in figurative or symbolic terms. Scholars call this emblematic parallelism:
As-coals are to-burning coals, and wood-to-fire;
So-is-a-contentious man to-kindle strife (Prov. 26:21).
The Hebrew poet might also reverse the idea of a line to make introverted or chiastic parallelism:
(1) The-mouth of-a-righteous man
(2) Is a-well of-life
The poet contrasts the ideas in the first half of the first line (No. 1) to the last half of the second line. He contrasts the second half of the first line (No. 2) to the first half of the second line. In other words, he contrasts the ideas in reverse order. Also notice that this poem uses antithetic parallelism.
(1) Therefore-the ungodly
(2) Shall not stand
(3) In the judgment
The three elements of the first line are numbered 1-3. Notice that the second line repeats elements 1 and 3, but not 2. The poet did not try to match the full idea of the first line in the second line, but he did set up a parallel pattern. In the Hebrew language, both lines of this verse have the same number of accented syllables. This is called compensation. Occasionally a Hebrew poet does not use parallel ideas at all, but he does use compensation.
Of course, the Hebrew poet could make a very sophisticated poem by using incomplete parallelism without compensation. In the following verse, the poet uses his accented syllables to set up the pattern of 4:3::4:3. Of course, you can't see this in the English translation. But you can see that it is incomplete parallelism, because he does not try to parallel the full idea of each line:
I-saw the-earth and-lo waste and-void
And-the-heavens and-not their-light
I-saw the-mountains and-lo they-were-trembling (Jer. 4:23-24)
And-all the-hills moved-lightly
Most often this style was used for the qina, or "dirge pattern":
I-am-the-man that-hath-seen affliction
By-the-rod of-his-wrath (Lam. 3:1).
(1) For-lo thine-enemies,
(2) O LORD
(1) For-lo thine-enemies
Here the poet dropped the second element of his first line, which is marked as Number 2. He then carried the idea forward by adding a third element.
D. Other Devices. Hebrew poetry also used several other devices. The poet might begin each line of his poem with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet to make what is called an acrostic. For instance, Psalm 119 is divided into 22 sets of 8 verses each, one set for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse in each set begins with the same letter in Hebrew. The verses in the first set all begin with aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The verses in the second set all begin with beth, the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and so on.
Sometimes Hebrew poetry would repeat the sound of each word to make alliteration, like our English poem, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers..." Or the sound might be repeated at the end of each word, which is called assonance (like "potato-tomato"), but this was very rare in Hebrew.
Hebrew poetry used many figures of speech to help the reader visualize what the poet was talking about. The Hebrew poet often described GOD in human terms, with human emotions and body features - for instance, "It grieved him" (Gen. 6:6) and "His ears" (II Sam. 22:7). Scholars call this technique anthropomorphism. A special kind of anthropomorphism, called personification, describes things as if they had the qualities of a person. For example, the Bible speaks of "the virgin Israel" (Amos 5:2).
Some poems exaggerated the facts to stress an idea. This is called hyperbole. Amos used it when he described an Amorite warrior as one "whose height was like the height of the cedars" (Amos 2:9). English-language poets compare a person with an object - a technique that is called simile. Likewise, the Hebrew poets liked to use this technique as is seen in Hosea 14:8. Sometimes they would imply the comparison (a device called metaphor), as when the Psalmist said, "The LORD is my life" (Psa. 27:1).
At times the Bible poet said the opposite of what is intended, to give us a touch of grim and grotesque humor (Amos 4:4-5). Biblical poetry also used symbols to express much larger ideas. A famous example of this is the verse, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares" (Isa. 2:4). In this case, the sword stands for war and the plowshare stands for peaceful labor. This poetic use of symbols is called metonymy.
Although it only rarely used rhyme and meter (the two features most commonly associated with English poetry), Hebrew poetry was nevertheless rich and creative.
III. Literary Context. A great deal of poetry was composed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan long before the appearance of the biblicl books of poetry. The lyric poem, which comprises most of the poems in the Psalms, corresponds with the extensive lyric poetry of Egypt, Sumer, and Babylon.
The oldest ancient Near Eastern literature stems from the Sumerians (early occupants of the Mesopotamian Valley), whose literature contains many hymns or psalms of praise and prayers in poetic form. In Sumer the art of writing hymns was highly developed before 2000 B.C. Ancient Sumerian poets categorized their works according to subject and manner of performance (i.e., what instrument should be used). Such lyric poems may be as long as 400 lines. Egyptian poems were also of varying lengths and consisted of both prayer and praise. This literature includes love songs from as early as 1300 B.C. Interestingly, the lover in the Egyptian poems was called "brother" (cf. Song of Sol. 5:1-2; 8:1-3). We find extended lamentations among Sumerian and Egyptian literature from before 2000 B.C. Thus all three types of poetry have been found outside the Bible.
The artistic style of biblical poetry closely resembles Ugaritic (from 1700 to 1500 B.C.) and Babylonian poetry. There we see similar themes and imagery. In view of such material, the archaeologist William F. Albright concluded that the poetry of the Old Testament was written very early. In structure (i.e., in the use of parallelism) it was midway between mesopotamian and Ugaritic poetry. The grammar, vocabulary, and imagery of the poetry throughout the Bible have remarkable parallels to Ugaritic poetry. In spite of these similarities, biblical poetry is distinguished by its superior elegance, artistic expression, and moral and religious concepts.
IV> The Poetic Books. Six books of the Old Testament contain lyric and gnomic poetry. The lyric (song poem) books are Psalms, Lamentations, and the Song of Solomon. The gnomic (wisdom poem) books are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
The Book of Psalms stands apart from any other poetic literature of the ancient Near East, lifting praises to GOD and revealing GOD's will to His people. The poems of other Near Eastern people do not and could not do this.
The New Testament quotes the Psalms more often than any other section of the Old Testament except for the Book of Isaiah. The Psalms build upon the theological ideas of the Pentateuch, explaining and applying the laws of Moses. The Psalms also forge a strong link with the books of prophecy, in that they often warn the people of Israel concerning their disobedience to GOD's law. Some of the Psalms themselves contain prophecy (e.g., Psa 2).
a. Classification. The Psalms are divided into five sections, or books. Psalms 1-41 form what is called the "Davidic Section", because King David wrote most of them. The Davidic psalms call GOD by the name Jehovah 272 times and by the name Elohim 15 times. The name Elohim refers to GOD as the Almighty Creator, the ruler of all the nations. The name Jehovah, on the other hand, refers to Him as the GOD of the covenant with Israel. It identifies GOD as the divine King of the Hebrew people.
Psalms 42-72 are called "Hezekiah's Collection" because they seem to have been compiled about the time of King Hezehiah (729-696 B.C.). However, many of them were written long before Hezekiah. Eighteen of them were written by King David. In this section the name Elohim appears 200 times and Jehovah appears 43 times. Some of these Psalms may have been written even before the time of David.
The third section includes Psalms 73-89. It is called "Josiah's Collection" because it was probably compiled during the time of King Josiah (638-608 B.C.).
Psalms 90-106 were designed to be used in the temple worship, and they only use the name Jehovah. Bible scholars believe these Psalms were collected between the time of King Josiah's reign and the fall of Israel.
The last section of the Book of Psalms (Psa. 105-150) was probably collected after the Jews returned to their homeland - after 56 B.C. Nearly all of these Psalms use the name Jehovah to refer to GOD, and 15 of them were written by King David. This section includes Psalms 107-150, and it has two different types of Psalms - the Hallels or "praises" (Psa. 113-118) and the "Songs of Degrees" (Psa. 120-134).
The theme of the Book of Psalms is "My GOD and Me", or "Our GOD and Us". It has been truly said that it is a "book of universal heart-appeal, covering the whole range of religious motions". It is easy to see that the Book of Psalms is a very emotional book; but it also contains a great deal of religious teaching. It shows that every true believer in GOD should be marked by right feeling (experience) as well as right thinking (theology).
The Psalms lift up three important themes: (a) man's desire for rescue from sin and misery, (b) man's celebration of the deliverance GOD gives him, and (c) man's voicing of praise and gratitude toward GOD. Sometimes all three things will appear in a single Psalm (e.g., Psa. 51). But generally, the Book of Psalms leads us gradually through each of these themes. The first section focuses on misery, while the second and third sections stress the theme of deliverance. The fourth and fifth sections express praise and gratitude.
2. Authorship. Many different writers composed the majestic poems that we now find in the Book of Psalms. Often a Psalm tells who wrote it or to whom it was dedicated. Some Psalms mention a person's name at the beginning. but they do not really make it clear whether this person was the writer, the collector, or the person to whom the Psalm was dedicated. Seventy-three Psalms give the name of David; 10 or 11 name the sons of Korah; while 12 Psalms give the name of Asaph. Other Psalms carry the names of Moses, Solomon, Heman, and Ethan. Fifty of the Psalms do not indicate who wrote them.
Many of the Psalms are called messianic Psalms, because they refer to Christ. They foretell the coming of Jesus and His ministry; in fact, they make little sense unless read with Jesus in mind. Jesus said, "All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the...psalms concerning me" (Luke 24:44). Certainly these Psalms explain a great deal about the ministry of the Savior. Nine of the messianic Psalms are called royal Psalms because they exalt Jesus as the King of all nations (Psa. 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 61, 72, 110, and 132). Ten messianic Psalms are called prophetic Psalms because they foretell the coming of Christ (Psa. 8, 16, 22, 40, 45, 68, 72, 97, 110, and 118). Six are called passion Psalms because they describe Jesus' suffering in death on the cross (Psa. 22, 35, 41, 64, 69, and 109).
There are 9 imprecatory Psalms in which the writer asks GOD to destroy his enemies. These Psalms were written by King David. Some Bible critics wonder why these were included in the Bible. They think these Psalms arise from unworthy motives. However, we must realize that King David represented the entire nation of Israel, which was the kingdom of GOD. His enemies were really opposing GOD, and it was altogether fitting for David to summon GOD's help to preserve His kingdom.
Some Psalms celebrate the history of Israel. For example, Psalms 106 and 114 describe the days of Moses. Psalm 106:34-36 describes the time of the Judges. Psalms 3, 7, and others tell about the reign of King David. Psalm 72 paints a colorful picture of Israel under King Solomon. Psalms 74, 79 and others tell how the enemies of Israel carried GOD's people away into captivity during the Exile.
The Psalms also embody many different religious experiences. There are Psalms expressing repentance (Psa. 25), conversion (Psa. 40), consecration to GOD (Psa. 46), trust (Psa. 3), prayer (Psa. 55), praise (Psa. 96), and other uplifting experiences. There are also Psalms about affliction(Psa. 6), the hardships of old age (Psa. 71), vain pride (Psa. 39), and homesickness (Psa. 137).
Many Psalms describe the characteristics of GOD. For example, Psalms 18-20 describe GOD's wisdom, majesty, and power. Psalms 32, 89, and 104 laud His creative power.
4. Language. The language of the Psalms resembles the poetry of the ancient city of Ugarit. The Psalms pick up some of the phrases and expressions that were popular during that time, but this does not mean that the Psalms were copied from the literature of Ugarit.
Psalm 104 is remarkably similar to the Egyptian "Hymn to Aton" in its use of poetic parallelism and in the thoughts of some verses. Although these similarities are too close to be incidental, a close comparison of the two poems shows that the biblical poem is clearly monotheistic (affirming the existence of one GOD) and quite different from the Egyptian piece before him. What the polytheistic poet ascribed to Aton, the monotheistic biblical poet attributed to Yahweh.
When the Israelites were carried away into exile in Babylon, their language began to change. By the time they returned from the Exile, their vocabulary and grammar were quite different from the ancient Hebrew period. Yet the Psalms preserved the old language. This is another proof that the Old Testament had been handed down faithfully. To understand the language of the Psalms, one must study the old Hebrew language and the expressions of the ancient Ugaritic poetry.
5. Literary Qualities. Above all, the Psalms are poems. Specifically, they are lyric poems - poems intended to be sung. They must be read as poems, with an understanding of all the characteristics of poetry, if they are to be properly understood. Their language is emotional, not logical. The use of symbols, imagery, and other poetic devices makes the language concentrated; i.e., a great deal is suggested and said with a few words. Like all lyric poetry, the Psalms display pattern or design, unity, theme (or centrality), balance, harmony, contrast, unified progression, recurrence, and variation.
All of the Psalms are immediately lyrical. Even if they are also gnomic (having to do with wisdom) or historical, they are above all lyrical. The poet expressed wisdom and historical reflection in emotional and spiritual terms. There are many kinds of lyric poems in the Psalter: lament or complaint (10, 35), acrostic (119, cf. above), and encomium (praising someone or something, 1, 15).
Three elements are necessary in analyzing a poem: (1) theme or topic, (2) structure, (3) poetic texture. Structurally, biblical poems may proceed from one thought to another (e.g., Psa. 13), they may contrast one thought with another (e.g., Psa. 1), or they may merely present a series of pictures without any apparent movement (e.g., Psa. 148). Most biblical psalms, however, have a three-part structure. They begin with a statement or theme; that theme is then developed or at least reacted to; then the theme is resolved or repeated.
Poetic texture concerns the minor elements, such as the figures of speech, the connotations or multiple meanings of words, imagery, tone (i.e., the use of vivid or colorful language), and allusion. The texture of the Psalms is amazingly uniform. This is due to the fact that this poetry arises against the background of a highly developed poetic art that had long existed in Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Canaan. By the time the biblical Psalms were written, this art of composing poems was well-known in Israel. And so these Psalms tend to follow the same structural patterns and use similar poetic style. The actual grammar and specific motifs, however, change considerably from Psalm to Psalm. Hence, some scholars speak of Psalms with strong Ugartiic similarities (e.g., Psa. 29, 68, 72, 78) and strong Egyptian similarities (e.g., Psa. 104).
Although the Psalms are collected around certain themes, there is no overall unifying literary plot to the book.
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