Your eternal word, O Lord, stands firm in heaven. Your faithfulness extends to every generation, as enduring as the earth you created. Your regulations remain true to this day, for everything serves your plans. [Psalm 119:89-91 (NLT)]
Because she enjoyed saying the psalms in unison during church, my friend wanted to read the entire book of Psalms. Viewing it as a project, she read at least five psalms a day. But, rather than savoring them individually as she might a Mother’s Day card from her son, she sped through them as she would a novel and what should have been a pleasure was a disappointment.
The unique beauty of a diamond ring isn’t discernible until it’s taken out of the display case, placed on black velvet, and viewed from all angles through a jeweler’s loupe. To truly appreciate the gem, however, it helps to know something about diamonds; it’s the same with the Psalms. Because they’re poetry, they’re best viewed and appreciated one at a time. While we don’t need to know the 4 C’s of gemology, knowing something about the psalms’ poetic structure helps us understand and appreciate these ancient songs of worship.
Written and collected from the time of Moses (1440 BC) to the Israelites’ return from their Babylonian captivity in 450 BC, the psalms express the full range of human emotion from the greatest joy to the deepest despair. Their passion goes from brutal and graphic appeals for an enemy’s destruction to jubilant cries of praise and thanksgiving (sometimes in the same psalm). Like all poetry, the psalms employ a number of literary devices to pack the biggest amount of thought into as few words as possible. Their use of meter, acrostics, metaphor and simile, hyperbole, emotional rather than logical connections, and something called parallelism mean that the reader has to read them thoughtfully to unpack their complete meaning.
To stay true to their original content, poetic aspects like compression and meter are lost in translation. For example, Psalm 23’s “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” is only four words in Hebrew and “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” is only three! Also lost in translation is the beauty of the acrostic psalms in which the initial letter of each line or phrase was in alphabetic order. Psalm 119, for example, is made up of 22 sections, starting with aleph and ending with tav, with the rest of the Hebrew alphabet in-between. The acrostic may have signified that the subject had been covered completely (“from A to Z”) or could have served as a mnemonic device for memorizing the psalm.
One thing we don’t lose in translation is rhyme; even in Hebrew, the psalms never rhymed. Rather than rhyme, they used something called parallelism. Rather than words sounding alike, two or more thoughts sounded alike as the psalmist repeated the same thought or phrase one or more times. In many cases, the identical thought was clearly repeated, as in Psalm 18:4: “The ropes of death entangled me; the floods of destruction swept over me.” Sometimes, the parallel lines contrasted with or opposed one another, as in Psalm 18:27: “You rescue the humble, but you humiliate the proud.” Successive lines often built on and developed the first line, as in Psalm 1:1: “Oh the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join with mockers.” Unlike rhyme or meter, parallelism translates into any language which makes the beauty of the psalms universal. I don’t think that happened by accident. Regardless of who penned them, like the rest of Scripture, the Psalms clearly were God-breathed and meant for all people in all times.
The psalms are more than poetry; they are beautifully written prayers and should be read slowly and reverently. I’ve suggested that my friend start over by reading only one psalm each day and thinking of Psalms as she might a box of deliciously rich gourmet chocolate. Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” By consuming just one psalm (or one chocolate) at a time, the whole complexity and richness of each one will get the attention it deserves.