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June 16, 2021

Psalm 32: A Surprising Path to Blessing

BY STEPHEN POSEY

Let’s talk about your new favorite topic: How to read ancient Hebrew poetry.

Don’t leave. Seriously, you’ll be good at this and you’ll be happy you kept reading. If you want to skip straight to the funny story, scroll down to “I had just started dating…”

Reading Bible

This is the fourth blog in a series on a few select Psalms we’re spending time with together as a church community. If you missed Blake Zimmerman’s Introduction to the Book of Psalms, he made this helpful observation for our journey: The Psalms teach us how to live by teaching us how to pray.  Because of this truth, Psalms is full of prayer and worship and, as you might have guessed by my introduction, this includes poetry—ancient Hebrew poetry, to be more precise.

Poetry of the Psalms

For the Hebrew people, poetry was not just for the “intellectual folks” who have a certain kind of artsy personality. No, see poetry was a way to put the character of their great God on full display with the most vivid language and most memorable metaphors. Poetry was a way for the people of God to experience Him with their imagination and have the story of their salvation imprinted on their hearts and minds forever.

This week’s Psalm (Psalm 32) begins with a kind of hyperlink back to the first two Psalms we looked at together to start this series (Psalm 1: Becoming a Tree of Life and Psalm 2: Looking for a King), but opening with the word blessed. Psalm 32 maps out the “how to live” storyline by talking about the blessed life and a certain pathway to get it.

When we slow down to understand the poetry of Psalms it has a surprising way of reshaping our thinking on what it means to be blessed. In Psalm 32, David talks about a strange pathway to blessing for a group of people (including himself) who deserve anything but blessing for some of the choices they’ve made and the lives they’ve lived. So to seek to understand the poetry of Psalm 32 is itself a pathway to blessing. Poetry misunderstood and misused, on the other hand, can have dire consequences. Allow me to illustrate.

Misunderstanding Poetry Can Have Consequences

I had just started dating a beautiful, erudite young woman my senior year in college and I was really trying to make a good impression. This was before cell phones and texting were commonplace (I know, I know), so if I wanted to reach her I had to, get this, call her dorm room phone. If she wasn’t there (as often was the case), I’d have to leave a voicemail. After a few back-and-forth voicemail tags one week, I decided to get creative, and maybe quote a little bit of poetry. I didn’t know any poetry, but I wanted her to think I did. All of a sudden, a line I’d heard somewhere in a movie or song hit me. ‘Perfect! I’ll say that,” I decided.

I used the full depth of my voice and slowly (yes, cheesily, don’t judge me) said:

“For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee…”

Hung up. Thought about it for a second and thought… I’m pretty sure I just nailed that. I have no idea what it means, but it sounds smart and playful. Good. That’s what I wanted. When she arrives back in her dorm room and hears the “toll of the bell” (AKA the chime of her voicemail), she’ll hope it’s for her and my message will confirm it was. Brilliant!

Only… it wasn’t. It really wasn’t.

First of all, you probably recognize this line from John Donne’s poem No Man Is an Island, which just happens to be one of the most famous short poems of all time. Second of all the phrase, “for whom the bell tolls” is not at all romantic. In fact, it’s morbid! It’s about someone who has just DIED!

Oh no, what have I done? Not only did I just reveal that I knew absolutely nothing about poetry (the exact opposite outcome I was hoping for), I just left a scary voicemail that could be interpreted as me wanting to kill her! “For whom does the death bell toll??? It tolls for THEE!” She’s going to call the police!

Fortunately, she didn’t. She just laughed it off. We got married and lived happily ever after. But the point still stands—misunderstanding poetry can have consequences. So let’s see what we can learn about ancient Hebrew, shall we?

Hebrew vs Modern Poetry

Poetry makes up 30% of your Bible. And these guys who wrote the poetry of the Psalms were master storytellers and literary geniuses. But ancient Hebrew poetry works differently than modern poetry, as you might suppose. Consider the opening line to William Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day? (Note: This one is actually romantic, so feel free to use it on your loved one’s voicemail).

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

What makes the shape of these words so beautiful to us? Well, it’s not that it uses words like “thee”,  “thou”, and “hath”. The modern poetry we tend to be most drawn to is often defined by a certain rhythm and cadence (Shakespeare was a king jelly bean of iambic pentameter), usually with rhyming words (day/May, temperate/date) and alliterative connections (shall/shake/summer’s/short). You get the picture.

Ancient Hebrews thought very differently about their poetry. Biblical poems don’t operate by the rules of meter, they’re free verse. So when at a concert to hear their favorite Psalms band, some yahoo would always yell, “Free Verse!” in between songs. (Just testing to see if you’re still reading.)

Dimensions of Hebrew Poetry

Hebrew poetry, especially in the Psalms, is based around couplets: two short lines placed next to one another. This is two short, carefully crafted lines placed together to reveal a truth. Line two takes the theme of line one and develops it somehow—either by completing, deepening, or even contrasting it. Each couplet takes one flat statement and adds another dimension to it!

Let’s look at the first few lines of Psalm 32 with this in mind. Verse numbers have been removed. What meaning comes to light when you see the verses related to one another as couplets? (Note: A “maskil” is a song set to music.)

 

Psalm 32: A MASKIL OF DAVID

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,

      whose sin is covered.       

Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,

      and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”

 

Does line two complete, deepen, or contrast line one?

It deepens it, doesn’t it? Keep going.

 

“For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away

      through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

      my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah”

 

Does line two complete, deepen, or contrast line one?

Completes it. Well done. Let’s do more.

 

“Many are the sorrows of the wicked,

      but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD.”

 

Does line two complete, deepen, or contrast line one?

Yes! This one’s a contrast. You did it!

 

Lastly, knowing that this Psalm is ancient Hebrew poetry also helps us look for the use of illustration and metaphor—a favorite tactic of most poets down through the ages.  See if you can find the metaphors and illustrations in two lines we just read from Psalm 32:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

 

 

So there you go! You’re on your way to understanding ancient Hebrew poetry! Just remember, the same Spirit who inspired the Psalms is alive in you right here, right now to make the Scripture come to life for you, to remind you of your great salvation, and vivify your imagination as to just how good God is.

Happy couplet hunting! Grace and peace to you.

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