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Israel’s Worship in the Psalms

Hebrew Poetry

  • Half of the Hebrew Bible is poetry.
  • Hebrew poetry is not rhymes or a regular metre, but parallelism. It also features terse expressions, heightened style, figures of speech, and varying word order.
  • A psalm (Greek psalmos) is a translation of the Hebrew word for “song.” The Hebrew Tehillim means “praises.”
  • 117 of 150 of the superscriptions containing notes about the alleged author, the genre, the liturgical use, or the situation reflected in the Psalm.

Robert Lowth’s (1732) Three Categories of Hebrew Parallelism

  • Synonymous (A=B): the parallel line repeats or restates the idea of the first line (Psalm 2:1-3, 8-9)
  • Antithetic (A≠B): the parallel line contrasts with the first line (Psalm 1:6; 7:9)
  • Synthetic/Formal (A→B): the parallel line adds or continues the idea of the first line (Psalm 25:8)
  • Further study of Hebrew poetry shows that Lowth overemphasized similarities between the lines at the expense of differences, for rarely is the  parallel line entirely synonymous with the preceding line without building on it. “Synthetic Parallelism” is too loose a category and other types of parallelism have been identified (e.g. climatic or staircase parallelism, emblematic parallelism).

Herman Gunkel and Form Criticism

  • The “form” of a Psalm and the “situation in life” (Sitz im Leben) the ancient Israelites would have been in when they sang a particular type of Psalm. These are ideal types and not every Psalm includes all of these elements.
  • Hymns of Praise (sub-types include enthronement Psalms and Songs of Zion): an introduction or call to praise, praise of God’s attributes or deeds, and a conclusion. They may be sung on holy days, festivals, or royal coronations. Example: Psalm 8.
  • Thanksgiving Psalm: an introduction, complaint, deliverance, and conclusion or thanksgiving. They may be sung out of worship, gratitude, or feelings of groundedness. Example: Psalm 30.
  • Laments (subtypes include Penitential Psalms): an address, a plea for help, a complaint, an admission of guilt or innocence, a curse of enemies, and a reassertion of God’s faithfulness. They may be sung in times of repentance, fear of natural or human threats, suffering, or social upheaval. Example: Psalms 89 and 137.
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