We are still exploring our Literary Lunchbox for tips, tools, and resources to draw the maximum spiritual nutrition out of our Bible study time.
As a college freshman, the idea of reading the Bible as literature at first confused me. Why would we need to do anything more than read it as the words of God direct to my ear?
During the course of my education I discovered that literary analysis of the Bible offers greater appreciation and understanding of the themes, cultures, and intent of the original writings. My Bible study matured greatly upon learning the simple fact that different types of literature comprise the book as a whole. Because different literature expresses thoughts differently, an understanding of the literature aids in understanding of the original intent.
A brief study of the Psalms as literature provides an example of how much information lies packed between the lines of God’s Word.
The Book of Psalms probably originated as multiple songbooks used in houses of worship. The Psalms are unique in Scripture because while they are part of God’s message to us, many of them are written as thoughts we would say to God. The Psalms speak to us because they offer expression for whatever we currently feel. For this, I love the Psalms: my prosaic soul appreciates the opportunity to lyrically express joy, thanksgiving, grief, oppression, and anticipation to God.
The Psalms are to be read both as poetry and as literature. Not only do they fit certain rhyme, musical and analogy parameters, but each one can be classified as a certain type of address, fitting a prescribed form.*
Psalms as Poetry
- Psalms represent Hebrew poetry, which is directed at the heart. This is accomplished by using words with strong emotional connections; and by parallel expression, in which the second line of a couplet restates and repeats the first. As such, they are often not to be interpreted too literally, keeping in mind that good poetry looks for the most elegant way to express a thought.
- Psalms are songs. The words used in the original language were not only trying to fit with meter and cadence, but they were meant to be sung. Word choice probably bears more influence from this than from the writer’s desire to use that exact word to best express the meaning.
- Psalms are metaphorical. They are not meant to express plain language. They sometimes paint word pictures that would seem strange if taken too literally.
Psalms as Literature
- Each Psalm is a certain type of address used during corporate worship. Psalms could be used for Lament, Thanksgiving, Praise, Historical Reminder, Celebration, Wisdom, or Trust. The original audience was familiar with these types. As we read today, it helps us to identify the type of Psalm as we read it, and to search out one of a type specific to what we want to pray to God about.
- Each of the above types of Psalm follows a certain form. Again, knowing this helps provide clarity in reading the Psalm.
- Each form had a function when it was used in worship by the people of Israel. Not every Psalm can be made applicable to every situation.
- Poetic patterns within each Psalm mean that each one is to be taken as a whole, not piecemeal. An individual verse is best understood in light of the whole.
Benefits of the Psalms
- The Psalms provide words to help us pray in different situations. They give us a guide to worship.
- The Psalms provide example of how we can relate to God.
- The Psalms show us how important God sees it that we take time to reflect and meditate on him.
SamplePsalm 19, our example text this week, is a Psalm of Praise. It contains three basic parts:
- 1-6 Nature praises God by its beauty
- 7-11 God’s law praises him by its perfection
- 12-14 The Psalmist praises God by inviting God to keep him blameless and pure
This understanding does not carry profound revelation, nor take anything away from any inspirational passages I have ever found in Psalms. Rather, it gives depth to my search for deeper meaning. The very idea that each Psalm represents a specific kind of expression to God, helps me begin to see the book of Psalms as a tool to be pulled out especially in those moments when I want to talk to God but need help to get going, or to find the words when I’m fresh out.
*Factual information in this post represents a summary of a chapter from How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, called “The Psalms: Israel’s Prayers and Ours.” I highly recommend this book as a resource for anyone wishing to maximize their understanding of God’s Word.