Volume 10, No. 10 (October 2015)
HOW GOD IS REPRESENTED IN THE PSALMS
God’s Powerful Protection
Kenneth E. Bailey (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament, 35-36) has observed that Psalm 18:1-3 piles up a number of attributes and metaphors that are common throughout the Psalms, all of them what he calls “homeland security” images. Hence:
I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.
In an often hostile and barren environment where bandits and invading armies were a regular threat, the Jewish people’s dependence upon God’s promised watchcare was an important part of their walk of worship.
God’s Gentle Care
Bailey points out, though, that perhaps to balance this perspective and avoid a sort of “siege mentality,” the people of God are presented in the Psalms also with “three countercultural options for understanding the nature of God.” These are the images of God being like a shepherd (Psalm 23; 28:9; 78:71-72; 80:1; see also the people of God represented as “sheep” in 74:1; 78:52; 79:13; 95:7; 100:3); God being like a father (68:5; 89:26; 103:13; see also 27:10); and God being like a mother (131:2; see also 27:10; Isaiah 66:12-13). God is a God of compassion and care. (Bailey, 36-37. He adds: “It is no accident that the trilogy of parables in Luke 15:1-31 centers on a good shepherd, a good woman, and a good father.”)
God’s Loyal Love
The people of Israel were the blessed beneficiaries (though not always tuned into it) of God’s hesed, a Hebrew word that gives a beautiful and many-faceted description of God’s character in relationship to this people. The word refers to His “loyal love,” to His faithfulness towards those who are bound to Him (and He to them) in covenant; and is variously translated in English “lovingkindness,” “mercy,” “steadfast love.” The term is used of God 249 times in the Old Testament, and 127 times in Psalms alone. God is a covenant-keeping God!
26 of the occurences in Psalms are in Psalm 136, where every verse ends with the same refrain. Obviously this Psalm was used in the public worship of Israel, where the priest would recite the first line of every verse, such as in verse 1:
“Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good,”
and the congregation would respond, in each instance:
“for His steadfast love endures forever!”
In the first of each pair of lines the priest gives a beginning doxology (verses 1-3), then traces God’s work in creation (4-9), recounts His mighty redeeming acts in the Exodus from Egypt (10- 16), rehearses His continuing faithfulness to His chosen people through their history (17-25), then gives a concluding doxology (26)—after each line the people responding with the refrain about God’s never-ending hesed. This participatory act allowed the people to participate in declaring God’s praise in the corporate assembly; and for the young as well as the old, the formative nature of this practice for young and old alike was the unmistakable reminder that the Lord’s “steadfast love endures forever”!
THE POETRY OF THE PSALMS
It is often pointed out that in Hebrew poetry the lines are not arranged in strict metrical patterns, such as is the case in most Western poetic expressions; much less are there regular rhyme schemes. Rather the stylistic distinctive of the Psalms is the use of parallelism between pairs of lines: the second line offering an idea similar to the first (called “synonymous parallelism”; or a contrasting idea (“antithetical parallelism”); or a development and extension of the idea (“synthetic parallelism”).
The most remarkable thing about this poetic structure of the Psalms is that it lends itself to translation into other languages in way that rhyming or line meter would never allow for. C. S. Lewis wrote:
It is (according to one’s point of view) either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.” (Reflections on the Psalms, 12)
And Kidner similarly points out:
This type of poetry loses less than perhaps any other in the process of translation. In many literatures the appeal of a poem lies chiefly in verbal felicities and associations, or in metrical language. But the poetry of the Psalms has a broad simplicity of rhythm and imagery which survives transplanting into almost any soil. Above all, the fact that its parallelisms are those of sense rather than of sound allows it to reproduce its chief effects with very little loss of either force or beauty. It is well fitted by God’s providence to invite all the earth to sing the glory of his name. (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 [Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries], 4)
God intended these psalms to be set and sung in our vernacular, that we might sing them to His praise!
THE CLIMACTIC DOXOLOGY
The last Psalms, 146-150, all begin and end with the same familiar Hebrew phrase, which has found its way into the Christian vocabulary of every language: Hallelu-jah. It is comprised of two words, a plural command to “praise,” and its direct object Jah, short for Jahweh, the covenant name for God in the Old Testament. It is important to note that Hallelujah is not an interjection of praise, but rather a corporate command or invitation to praise.
Psalm 150 not only begins and ends with that phrase, but the same verb is used at least twice in each of its 6 verses, 13 times in all. As such, the Psalm’s resounding call serves as a concluding Doxology to the entire book of Psalms, summarizing the book’s overarching call to praise the Lord. God’s praise is to be declared with instruments (trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, cymbals) and with dance, as well as by “everything that has breath.”
It is often pointed out that, unlike some contemporary songs of praise which just string together unsupported emotive cries of praise, the Psalmists almost always give reasoned grounds to giving praise to God: because of His works of creation, His attributes, His acts in history (especially the history of the nation of Israel). So too in Psalm 150, Israel (and we) are instructed to “praise Him according to His excellent greatness” (v. 2b)—God has revealed and demonstrated His excellent greatness, and we are to praise Him accordingly. “Great is the Lord, and [therefore] greatly to be praised” (Psalm 96:4). There is an inescapable connection between God’s self-revelation, and the appropriate response of worship. Hence the utter appropriateness of reciting God’s Word in balance with singing in our corporate services.
The Psalms are a precious gift from God to his people; each of them gives us a little different angle from which to view God and worship him. There can never be too many ways to do that!
From an essay written for the first volume of Songs from the Psalter (Psalms 135-150), published by Cardiphonia. Used by permission.
Also on the Psalms: see Worship Notes for October 2012, February 2013, October 2014, December 2014, January 2015, February 2015, April 2015, September 2015