Understanding Psalms 71

How to Understand Psalms

I used to dislike the Book of Psalms because the psalms kept repeating themselves instead of proceeding point-by-point to a nice conclusion in the first line of the last stanza. After all, essays put the main point in the first sentence of the last paragraph. That’s why we call it a “conclusion.” The psalms didn’t do that.

The problem was that I didn’t understand Psalms’ genre. Not understanding the genre of a book of the Bible leads to not understanding the book. You see, every kind of writing has a genre. We read a newspaper differently than a love note or a poem or a bank deposit slip. We read Philippians differently than Proverbs.

It wasn’t until I learned a bit about Hebrew poetry that I began to not only appreciate, but love, Psalms. Here’s what I needed to know.

To Understand Psalms, Find & Compare Parallel Elements

The psalms are Hebrew poems. A Hebrew poem’s basic unit is a poetic line. Most lines have two segments, though some have three or four, and a few have only one.

Most line segments in Hebrew poetry use parallelism. They often say something similar in multiple ways, giving us different ways to grasp the poet’s meaning. The best part about parallelism is that it translates well, so we don’t have to know Hebrew to enjoy it. God was planning ahead when he helped the Hebrews develop their poetry!

Here are the parallel elements of Psalm 1:1 lined up:

Understanding Psalms 1:1

Parallel elements in Psalm 1:1 are below each other

What I thought was pointless redundancy was an invitation to compare the parallel elements to see how they relate. In this case, they intensify, which lead me to ponder how to avoid the progression by not taking the first step.

In the verse above, the parallelism is illustrated like this: ABCD/B’C’D’/B’’C’’D’’. Sometimes the parallel elements are placed in a pattern like this: AB/B’A’. This is called a chiasm (KEY-asm; chi is the Greek name for the letter “X”). In the chart below, the lines drawn between the parallel elements of Psalm 1:2 cross in the shape of an X:

Understanding Psalms 1:2

Parallel elements in Psalm 1:2 form an X shape

When I compared the parallel elements in this verse and considered what delight and meditation have to do with each other, I realized that the righteous so delight in the Lord’s instructions that they meditate on it all the time. We naturally think about that which delights us. Delight brings meditation, and meditation increases delight.

By this time I was delighting in parallelism.

To Understand Psalms, Note the Type of Parallelism

Knowing the most common types of parallelism helps us interpret psalms.

In synonymous parallelism, the parallel units use words with similar meanings to express the same idea in a similar way. Both of the above verses use synonymous parallelism, and I showed you how pondering on how the units are similar brings greater understanding of the verse.

In antithetical parallelism, the parallel units use words with opposite meanings to contrast ideas. In Psalm 1:6, “knows” is parallel to “perish”; in the Bible, those whom God knows he watches over and keeps from perishing:

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

In synthetic parallelism, the parallel units do something else, such as complete a thought. In Psalm 1:4, the first line segment tells us the wicked are not like the well-watered fruit trees from the previous verse, and the second line segment tells us what they are like. That invites us to compare the functions, value, and endurance of fruit trees with that of chaff.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away

To Understand Psalms, Find the Theme from Parallelism

It’s not just segments within a poetic line that have parallelism. The entire poem may have parallel elements. Often the first and last words or lines are parallel, in which case they’re the clue to the theme. Psalm 1’s first word is “blessed” and its last word is “perish” (antithetical parallelism); both lines refer to “ways”; therefore, the theme is There is a way that is blessed and a way that perishes.

Sometimes the first and last stanzas are parallel, as are the second and second-to-last stanzas, and so on, forming a chiasm of stanzas in which the center is the psalm’s theme. Psalm 71 is such a chiasm:

Understanding Psalms 71

Parallel stanzas in Psalm 71 form a chiasm

In other words, I’d been looking for the “conclusion” in the physical conclusion. But in Hebrew poetry, the central point is often in the center! Compare all the stanzas equal distance from the center to understand psalms with chiasm, and you’ll find the poet’s thought progressions.

As you can see …

If you want to understand Psalms, parallelism is the key Click To Tweet

Adapted from Discovering Hope in the Psalms (Harvest House, 2017)

Posted in Encouragement, Psalms, Spiritual Practices and tagged , .


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