There was a time when Gideons International distributed Bibles to public schools. Usually these were pocket New Testaments. In addition, they often included two books from the Old Testament: Psalms and Proverbs. The thinking, perhaps, was that these two books of Wisdom Literature would have a much wider appeal than the prophets or the histories. In any case, this was often the schoolchild’s introduction to the world of the Psalms. The book contains 150, more or less, songs used in the Jewish Temple worship. (Some of the psalms are combined in the Hebrew Bible, or divided at different places, but are generally considered to consist of 150.)
Some of those songs appear in other books of the Bible, particularly in the writings of Moses or the history of King David. For instance, Psalm 18 can also be found in 2 Samuel 22. While some psalms can be found in two places, there are several psalms in the Bible that wereHebrew poetry does not rhyme. Instead it uses a variety of literary techniques. probably, or definitely, written after the Book of Psalms was compiled. Four psalms come to mind.
The format of psalms
Psalms are songs, and therefore poetry. They can be divided into several types. The number of these types vary by commentator, but there are at least four types: royal, lament, imprecation, and praise.
Royal psalms praise the deeds of the king, usually David. Some of them may also be interpreted to refer to the Messiah (i.e. Psalm 22).
Laments are songs of sorrow. Many of them were written after the fall of Jerusalem and desire the return to former glory.
Imprecations are the psalms, usually by David, asking God to revenge himself on his enemies. On the surface they sound like David is asking that his own enemies be punished, but usually end with the idea that David’s enemies are so because they are God’s enemies.
Praise psalms give God the glory directly. Unlike the royal psalms, they don’t involve the king as a middle man between the psalmist and God.
There may be other types, and are often mixtures of types. Some are historical, others are prophetic. Some tell of God’s goodness and ask that he punish evildoers.
The third chapter of the book of Habakkuk is one of those songs of mixed type. It is primarily a praise of God’s power. “His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. And his brightness was as the light. (Verse 3, 4) But it is also a prophecy of God’s revenge against the nations that opposed Judah.
Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet. He stood, and measured the earth: he beheld, and drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow: his ways are everlasting. I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction: and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. (Verses 5-7)
The psalm contains language typical of many songs. It personifies God’s anger as being against nature. “Was the LORD displeased against the rivers? was thine anger against the rivers? was thy wrath against the sea?” (Verse 8) Compare that with Psalm 114:3-4. “The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.”
In addition, it contains one of the finest examples of Hebrew parallelism. Hebrew poetry does not rhyme. Instead it uses a variety of literary techniques, including saying something in one way, and then repeating it in different words. In the following passage note the parallels of fig/fruit/olive, flock/herd, joy/rejoice, or Lord/God.
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. (Hab 3:17-18)
If there is any doubt that this was intended as a psalm, look at the first and last verses of the chapter. The first verse specifies the type of psalm, a Shigionoth. Psalm 7 is also of the same type. Then the prophet concludes with “To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.” (Verse 19) This has its parallel in the introduction to many of the psalms.
Many of David’s psalms express his emotion in times of extreme duress. Few people were in such distress as Jonah in the belly of the fish. When we hear the story of Jonah, usually we hear of his flight from God, the storm and the fish, being vomited up, his preaching to Nineveh, and maybe his argument with God because the city was not destroyed as he had prophesied. Most of the time, we tend to ignore chapter 2, Jonah’s prayer, and yet it is one of the finest psalms in scripture.
This is a psalm of extreme emotion. Although Jonah never directly mentions his sin, he does admit his repentance. “Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.” (Verse 4) “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD.” (Verse 7)
Like David’s prayer in Psalm 51, after his sin with the daughter of Sheba, Jonah’s prayer stands as an example to us of how we should approach God when we have sinned. In this psalm Jonah acknowledges that God is the one who brought punishment on him. He uses a picture of nature being against him. “The weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever.” (Verses 5-6) Then he promises the Lord that he will correct his actions. “But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed.” (Verse 9)
Jonah’s sincerity and his prayer had the desired effect. The fish vomited Jonah out on the dry land. Some commentators even say that this happened on the coast nearest to Nineveh, and the reports of a man coming out of a great fish to preach to the city may have helped them listen to his prophecy.
The first chapter of Luke contains two psalms: one of praise by Mary, and one of prophecy by Zechariah. Many people don’t think of them as psalms, but the format, language, and emotion all characterize them as such.
The psalm we know as the Magnificat is Mary’s response to Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, telling her that even in the womb John recognized the Messiah. It is generally a psalm about the good God does to his followers and the punishment he brings on unbelievers.
In a time when prayers often consist mainly of requests to God, we might find it different that Mary asks for nothing. She has already been blessed with being the mother of the promised Messiah; what more could she ask for. Instead she magnifies (declares to be great) the God who blessed her.
She starts by acknowledging that God has done great things for her. Then she expands her praise. This is also a typical Hebrew literary method. State something, then enlarges upon it. “For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.” (Lk 1:49-50)
Next she uses the opposite technique, contrasting one thing with another. “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” (Lk 1:52)
Finally (verse 55), she invokes the name of Abraham, the great patriarch. A couple of the psalms invoke Abraham’s name, most notably Psalm 105.
We can identify these characteristics of psalms in what Mary said, but we must never reduce it to mere literary technique. Mary was not merely trying to write a psalm. She was using a familiar literary form to express her inmost feelings. Anybody can use tricks to create a psalm, but it is meaningless without great emotion. At this point Mary was overcome with emotion.
The other psalm in this chapter can be found in verses 67-69. Zechariah has been allowed to speak for the first time in nine months. Like Ezekiel, who was struck dumb except when God wanted him to deliver a specificJonah’s prayer stands as an example to us of how we should approach God when we have sinned. message, the first thing out of his mouth was a prophecy about his child John.
Zechariah begins by stating a reminder of God’s promises through Abraham and all the prophets since. “As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us.” (Lk 1:70-71) Perhaps this reminder of the prophets of old was intended to add credence to the prophecy he was about to utter himself. He reminds them of the promises of the covenant with Abraham.
Then comes the prophecy about John. In it he uses concepts from Malachi (prepare the way) and Isaiah (those who sit in darkness).
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Lk 1:76-79)
God uses Zechariah’s psalm to confirm that John is to be the promised forerunner. This psalm doesn’t express the emotion of the Magnificat, but it expresses the will of God in a specific manner.
There are psalms outside of the book of Psalms. It is even possible for us in this day to create psalms of praise or imprecation. The thing to remember is that psalms are more than just a bag of tricks. They must speak our inmost feelings to God.