The Psalms as Poetry
When I mention that the Psalms are poetry, some may question the choice of words. They don’t look like the poetry we know. The lines don’t even rhyme. So what makes the Psalms poetry? Much of the poetic character is hidden or even lost in the translation from Hebrew into other languages, but consider the following features of Hebrew poetry.
Parallelism is the principle of balance. This is likely the dominant characteristic of Hebrew poetry. It is the essential feature of the poetic form of the Psalms. By the use of symmetrical synonymous, antithetic, or step-like parallelism, thought is balanced with thought, line with line, strophe with antistrophe forming the balance that is key to Hebrew poetry.
For some time many scholars denied that there was any metre to the Psalms. However more moderate views have recently returned to favor. Scholars explain Hebrew metre by quantity, by the number of syllables, by accent, or by both quantity and accent. Is there metre in the Psalms? Those of earlier centuries thought so.
- Flavius Josephus spoke of the hexameters of Moses (Antiq., II, xvi, 4; IV, viii, 44) and the trimeters and tetrameters and manifold meters of the hymns of David (Antiq., VII, xii, 3).
- Philo said that Moses had learned the “theory of rhythm and harmony” (De vita Mosis, I, 5).
- Origin (ca. 185- 254) said the Psalms are in trimeters and tetrameters (In Psalm 118; cf. Card. Pitra, Analecta Sacra, II, 341).
- Eusebius (ca. 260-340), in his De Praeparatione Evangelica, XI, 5 (P.G., XXI, 852), spoke of the same metres of David.
- Jerome (ca. 345-419), in Praef. ad Eusebii Chronicon (P.L., XXVII, 36), found iambics, Alcaics, and Sapphics in the Psalter.
- Jerome writing to Paula (P.L., XXII, 442) explained that the acrostic Psalms 111 and 112 were made up of iambic trimeters.
- He also said the acrostic Psalm 119 was iambic tetrameters.
Acrostic or alphabetic alliteration
Acrostic or alphabetic psalms are psalms in which the letters of the alphabet begin successive lines, strophes, or couplets. Again, this is only discernible in the original language.
- Examples of alphabetic psalms are: Psalms 9-10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 129,145.
- In Psalm 119 the same letter begins eight successive lines in each of the twenty-two alphabetic strophes.
- In Psalms 13, 23, 62, 148 and 150 the same word or words are repeated multiple times making for balance.
- Rhymes, by repetition of the same suffix, are found in Psalms 2, 13, 27, 30, 54, 55,142, etc. These rhymes always are found at the ends of lines.
- The word “Selah” often makes the end of a strophe.