Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Discovering God in the Psalms: Secret Codes

I have always loved the Psalms, but learning how to read them was like discovering a secret code.

The Psalms are some of the most beloved of all the Scriptures, for good reasons --
  • There is a Psalm for every situation: whether you are rejoicing, grieving, in trouble, searching for meaning, or marveling at God's creation, the Psalms cover the entire range of human emotion.
  • The Psalms is the largest book in the Bible.
  • The writers of the New Testament quote Psalms more than any other source in Scripture.
Over the next few weeks, we're going to be looking at the character of God, using the Psalms as our tool. But before we can begin to do that, we need to learn a bit about how the Psalms are written.  They're poetry, right?  Well, yes -- but Hebrew poetry doesn't always match our Western way of thinking of poetry.  The commentator sheds some light on the subject:
How the Psalms Communicate Their Meaning
Although the psalms are poetry, they do not deliver their message through rhyming words. They get their point across by laying out a thought one way and then immediately following it with a parallel thought that takes the first thought a step further. It is this interplay between parallel thoughts that forms the individual bricks that add up to the meaning of each psalm. In order to understand the psalms, the reader must avoid seeing the sentences of each psalm as independent wholes and recognize the relationships between parallel lines and sentences.[1]
Looking for parallel lines can unlock our understanding of the Psalms and reveal their beauty.  Whenever you see a line that repeats, that should be a red flag that that's important; ask, what is being emphasized here?
In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait in expectation.
In Psalm 5:3, by repeating that he goes to the Lord in the morning, David emphasizes that he is putting his time with God as first priority, before anything else in his day.  In the first line, we know that that he is taking time to talk to God; the second line takes this thought further by telling us what he is saying (requests), and especially that he expects to get a response, and that response often requires us to wait and listen for it. It's not enough to blurt out what we want and then "hang up" on God -- it's supposed to be a two-way conversation!

But looking at one or two lines is not enough to understand a Psalm's meaning; you have to look for structure and parallelism throughout the entire poem.

Psalm 5, like many other Psalms, is structured as something called chiastic parallelism, a symmetrical pattern which can be diagrammed like this:
A - first point or idea
    B - next point
       C - center point (usually the most important)
    B - reflects second point
A - returns to, or answers, the first point

The Chaistic structure is something that can be found in a LOT (but not all) of the Psalms, and in fact a lot of other places in the Bible. Even the New Testament has examples of chiasm -- some scholar's even believe the the entire Gospel of Matthew is arranaged in this pattern!

Returning to our example in Psalm 5, we can find this structure:
A1 ( vs 1–3) Confidence in the Lord
   B1 ( vs 4–6) The Lord’s rejection of the wicked
      C ( vs 7–8) Commitment to the Lord’s righteous way
   B2 ( vs 9–10) The Lord’s banishment of rebels
A2 ( vs 11–12) Joy in the Lord

Thus, this psalm is framed by David's confidence in the Lord (remember how he expects an answer in v.3?), expresses his need for protection from evil, and its central focus is his request to come into God's house, and to have the Lord lead.

The fantastic thing is that not only can you see this parallel structure in many Psalms, not only in other passages of the Old and New Testaments, but you can actually see it in the organization of the entire collection of the book of PsalmsJoin us as we continue to explore the Psalms, and what they tell us about the character of God!

View and print the handout for this lesson! (Opens with Internet Explorer.)

1 Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary (, The Tyndale reference libraryWheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 200.

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