The last segment of the Hebrew Bible was called the writings;
unlike the earlier two sections, the third and final section seems
to be a catch-all of miscellaneous documents, as if the compiler
of the Bible decided on having a section called "miscellaneous".
Some scholars have tried to argue that the contents of the writings are necessarily later in composition than the works that make up the Law and the Prophets, and to some extent this may be true. Certainly the books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are post-exilic in their origin. However, while the final form of such books as Psalms and Proverbs were probably post- exilic, they contain material which dates to a much earlier time. And the same can be said for Job, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes. Daniel is of course exilic, and although the majority of scholars would argue for a post-exilic date, this Outline will assume an exilic date for the book.
Although most of the Latter Prophets are written in poetry, it
was decided to wait until this point in the Outline to discuss
the nature of Hebrew poetry, since traditionally it is with the
book of Psalms that discussions of poetry generally begin.
However, the earliest examples of Hebrew poetry may be found in Exodus 15, the so-called Song of the Sea, and in Judges 5, the Song of Deborah.
B. The Nature of Hebrew Poetry
1. Lacks Everything
Ordinarily, when a person who speaks English thinks of poetry, the word that most readily comes to mind is "rhyme". The clearest distinguishing characteristic between poetry and prose in English is this single concept. Prose is the nature of this and all the previous sentences; nothing rhymes, except by accident. A secondary characteristic of poetry in English is that it has rhythm. Today, the most common poetry that people here is in music, which combines all aspects of English poetry in a pleasant format.
"Roses are blue,
Violets are red,
If you think it's true
You're touched in the head."
Hebrew poetry, in contrast to the poetry in English, lacks all
these distinguishing characteristics. It rarely, if ever, has
rhythm, and rhyme exists only by accident.
So how does Hebrew poetry differ from Hebrew prose?
Through what is technically called, parallelism. It is responsible for the somewhat repetitious quality most readers of the Psalms (and other poetry in the Bible) have no doubt noticed.
What is parallelism? Perhaps the easiest way to describe it would
be to say that whereas in English, poems rhyme sounds,
in Hebrew, poems rhyme ideas.
For instance, take a look at Psalm 1:1:
"Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers."
Rather than seeing here three separate behaviors or individuals,
the nature of Hebrew poetry instead shows us a single individual
and a single idea, but viewed, as it were, stereoscopically. "Counsel
of the wicked", "way of sinners" and "seat
of mockers" are all parallel or synonymous concepts.
Look at 1:2:
"But his delight is in the law of Yahweh
and on his law he meditates day and night."
Again, the "delighting" and the "meditating day
and night" are synonymous concepts.
Look at Psalm 3:1:
"O Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!"
The "foes" and those who "rise up" are the
same people, the concept simply being expressed in more than one
way. In English, where a writer might pile up adjectives, or use
long description, the Hebrew author would simply give parallel
statements. Therefore, if we were to translate Psalm 1:1 form
poetry into English prose, the concept that the psalmist would
be intending would come across something like: "Blessed is
the man who does not practice wickedness as a life pattern."
Perhaps not as beautiful or memorable as the psalmist's words,
but the thought remains the same.
As an exercise, the reader might examine Judges 4 and 5 and notice the difference in the method of expression used to describe the same incident. Judges 4 recounts in prose Deborah's victory against the enemies of Israel, while Judges 5 recounts the same incidents, only in poetry.
C. Types of Parallelism
The writers made use of parallelistic principles in a number of different ways. Three of the most common sorts that the reader will come across are listed below:
The most common, and "standard" form of parallelism, characterized by the two or three halves of the thought expressing synonymous concepts:
"The heavens declare the glory of God;
The skies proclaim the work of his hands." (Psalm 19:1)
Antithetical parallelism occurs when the writer expresses a concept, and then follows it immediately with its opposite:
"Consider the blameless,
observe the upright;
there is a future for the man of peace.
But all sinners will be destroyed;
the future of the wicked will be cut off. (Psalm 37:37-38
A cheerful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17:22)
Rather than repeating or contrasting a concept, sometimes the writer simply continues the thought, bringing it to its logical, ultimate completion or end.
A wicked man accepts a bribe in secret
to pervert the course of justice. (Proverbs 17:23)
There are, of course, many variations on these basic formats; but this should be enough to give the reader a good basic concept of the principles involved.
The books, and parts of books, of the Bible that are poetic in nature are as follows (some books listed as poetry may have sections that are prose; in modern translations, the poetic sections are clearly differentiated from prose):
Genesis 1:27; 2:23; 3:14-19; 4:23-24; 8:22; 9:25-27; 12:2-3; 14:19-20; 15:1; 16:11-12; 24:60; 25:23; 27:27-29; 27:39-40; 48:15-16; 49:2-27;
Exodus 15:1-21; 32:18;
Numbers 6:24-26; 10:35-36; 11:6-8; 21:14-15; 21:17-18; 21:27-30; 23:7-10; 23:18-24; 24:3-9; 24:15-25
Deuteronomy 7:10; 27:15-26; 28:3-6; 28:16-19; 32:1-44; 33:2-29
Joshua 6:26; 10:12-13
Judges 5; 14:14, 14:18; 15:16; 16:24
1 Samuel 2:1-10; 15:22-23; 15:33; 18:7; 21:11; 29:5
2 Samuel 1:19-27; 3:33-34; 22:2-23:7
1 Kings 12:16
2 Kings 19:21-34
Zechariah 9:1-11:3, 17, 13:7-9
Song of Songs
1 Chronicles 12:18; 16:8-36; 29:10-13
2 Chronicles 6:41-42; 10:16; 20:21
The Book of Psalms
The book is called the Book of Psalms; the English word "psalm" is derived from the Greek word psalmos, which is itself a translation of the Hebrew word mizmor, which refers either to instrumental music or a song. For practical purposes, the English title means "Book of Songs". The traditional Hebrew title is sefer tehilim, which means "Book of Praises".
II. Author and Setting
The book of Psalms is an amalgam of the work of several individuals; the one responsible for editing and arranging the individual psalms in their current framework is unknown. One tradition attributes the job to Ezra. The authorship of the individual psalms, as attributed by their titles, breaks down as follows (of the 150 psalms, 116 are provided with a title):
Moses -- Psalm 90
Heman the Ezrahite -- Psalm 88
Ethan the Ezrahite -- Psalm 89
Solomon -- Psalm 72, 127
David (73 times) -- Psalms 3-9; 11-32; 34-41; 51-65; 68-70; 86; 103; 108- 110; 122; 124; 131; 133; 138-145
Asaph (12 times) -- Psalms 50; 73-83
Sons of Korah (9 times) -- Psalm 42; 44-45; 47-49; 84-85; 87
Author unknown (49 times)
The Septuagint gives additional authorship identifications as follows:
Jeremiah -- Psalm 137
Haggai and Zechariah -- Psalms 146-147
Ezra -- Psalm 119
Hezekiah (15 times) Psalms 120-134
Psalm 14 and 53 (notice 14 uses Yahweh, traditionally "Lord", and 53 uses Elohim "God").
Psalm 40:13-17 and Psalm 70
Psalm 108 and Psalm 57:7-11 plus 60:5-12
The titles prefaced to 116 of the psalms date back to a time before 200 BC (the translations of the Septuagint); they may, however, not be authoritative.
Musical titles and their possible meanings:
1. To the chief musician -- the choir director (55 in all).
2. Aiyelet Hash-shahar -- the doe of the morning (Psalm 22)
3. Alamot -- young woman's choir (Psalm 46)
4. Al tashhet -- do not destroy (Psalm 57-59; 75)
5. Gittit -- winepresses (the autumn feast of Tabernacles)(Psalms 8, 81, 84)
6. Jeduthun -- a choir leader's name (Psalm 39, 62, 77)
7. Yonat elem rehokim -- a dove on distant oaks (Psalm 56)
8. Mahalat -- dancings (Psalms 53, 88)
9. Mut-labben -- death of the champion (Psalm 9)
10. Neginot -- stringed instruments (Psalm 4; 6, 54-55; 61, 67, 76)
11. Nehilot -- inheritances (Psalm 5)
12. Sheminit -- the eighth, referring to a male choir (Psalm 6, 12)
13. Soshannim -- lilies (or perhaps referring to Passover, the Spring Festival; Psalms 45; 69)
14. Shoshannim Eduth -- lilies of testimony (perhaps for the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost; Psalm 60; 80)
15. Shiggaion -- maybe refers to loud crying or praise (Psalm 8)
16. Selah -- lift up, perhaps indicating a lifting up of the voice or the instruments or even the hands (occurs 71 times).
III. Outline of the Book of Psalms
The final editor of the Book of Psalms arranged the various psalms into five sections, perhaps imitating the five divisions of the Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
I. Book 1 -- 1-41 -- Genesis
II. Book 2 -- 42-72 -- Exodus
III. Book 3 -- 73-89 -- Leviticus
IV. Book 4 -- 90-106 -- Numbers
V. Book 5 -- 107-150 -- Deuteronomy
Questions on Psalms
1. Summarize the message of each Psalm.
2. Give the five-fold division of the book of Psalms.
3. List the authors of the Psalms.
4. Which Psalms are messianic in character?
5. Which Psalms refer to God's general revelation?
6. Two Psalms mention atheism. Which are they? How do they differ, how are they similar?
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