Interpreting the Psalms

Interpreting the Psalms
Principles to Interpreting the Psalms
Interpretation of the Book of Psalms is strongly influenced by the social, historical, theological and literary context by which it was written. These factors determine the biblical motivation and meaning behind each Psalms even though Psalms are often considered as personal expressions of faith of the authors.

Social – Cultural Principle : When interpreting the book of psalms (or any other book of the bible), the interpreter must lose all cultural baggage that he carries and understand the cultural elements in the scripture at the point of writing. We need to place ourselves in the writer’s shoes and appreciate his cultural background.

The revelation of God in Scripture was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek by writers who represented a variety of cultures that were very different from those of the languages it has been translated into today. Literal translations can produce misleading connotations in another culture. Eg. The Zanaki of Tanganyika regarded Jesus’ knocking at the door as strange (Rev 3:20), since in their culture men stand at the door and call out if they wish admittance; only thieves knock to see if anyone is home before they rob the house.

Here are 3 practical guidelines* for Cultural Interpretation:
( *Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., An introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, Pg 183-4)

1. We may retain both the theology taught (the principle affirmed in the text or contextually implied) along with the cultural-historical expression of that principal.

  • eg. Principle of husband-wife, parent-child, sovereign-citizen relationship continues to hold both in principle and in custom.

2. We may retain the theology of a passage (the principle) but replace the behavioral expression with some more recent, but equally meaningful expression.

  • eg. Biblical precedents for such replacements can be seen from 1 Cor 5. The principle of the sanctity of marriage and human sexuality remained, even though the sanction of stoning to death had been changed to excommunication from the body of believers.

3. Some may even replace both the principal (eg. The so called principle of economic subordination) and the practice.

  • eg. The practice of wearing veils and or certain hairstyles for women have been replaced with more modern concepts. Such practices were expressions of the culture the author was in.

Historical Principle : By the historical sense we designate that meaning of the author’s words which is required by historical considerations. It demands that we consider carefully the time of the author and the circumstances under which he wrote. The whole book or epistle should be viewed under the author’s historical standpoint. When a practice or command has its basis in the unchanging nature of God, then the practice or command will have permanent relevance for all in all times.

Grammatico Principle : The grammatical sense is the same as the literal sense, the one expression being derived from the Greek, the other from the Latin. But in English usage, the word grammatical is applied rather to the arrangement and construction of words and sentences. One fundamental principle is that the words and sentences can have but one signification in one and the same connection.

Literary Devices
The richness of Psalms is strongly attributed by its unique literary style. Written in the though and form of Hebrew poetry, the highly figurative language conveys God’s message in potent expressions that are colorful, emotional, vivid, picturesque and concise. It is also lyrical, originally accompanied by music on the lyre. Unlike English poems which is based upon rhyming and meter, Hebrew poetry is based upon rhythm and parallelism. Thus, a good understanding of parallelism and figures of speech is integral for the accurate interpretation of Psalms.
It is well-said that “lyric poetry concerns itself with the thoughts and emotions of the composer’s own mind and outward things are regarded chiefly as they affect him in any way”. Hence, it is subjective rather than objective. When interpreting religious lyrical poetry like the psalms, it must be remembered that it expresses the poet’s emotions as they are stirred by the thoughts of God and directed towards God.

The use of figures of speech in poems is the most common and powerful instrument of the author’s imagination, giving vivification and impression to the appeal, which he makes to human feelings. This form of writing conveys truth in a vivid fashion, stirs emotions and attracts the attention of readers. Among the figures of speech most widely used in Psalms are described as follows.

Hebrews Poetical Structure
1. Synonymous parallelism – The same thing is repeated in different words; in which the second member enforces the thought of the first:

Ps 24:1-2
The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;

for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.

2. Antithetic parallelism – The thought of the first line is emphasized by a contrasting thought in the second:

Ps 1:6
For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Ps 37:9
For evil men will be cut off,
but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.

3. Synthetic parallelism – The second member explains or adds something to the first:

Ps 19:7-9
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.

4. Introverted parallelism – Members are placed in inversed order:

Ps 5:7
A But I, by your great mercy,
B will come into your house;
B in reverence will I bow down
A toward your holy temple.

5. Iterative Parallelism – Thought is simply repeated:

Ps 93:3
The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their waves.

6. Responsory parallelism – Members are antiphonal, appeal and answer alternatively:

Ps 115:9-11
O Israel, trust thou in the LORD:
he is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD:
he is their help and their shield.
Ye that fear the LORD, trust in the LORD:
he is their help and their shield.

7. Climactic parallelism – Second line completes the first:

Ps 29:1
Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty,
give unto the LORD glory and strength.

8. Alternate parallelism – Members follow one another by turns, the first line being parallel to the third, and the second to the fourth:

Ps 103:11-12
For as the heaven is high above the earth,
so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.

Historical Information – Provides background information about authorship, historical occasion, or personal dedication.

Musical Instruction – instruction for worship director, and indicated what kind of song it was and how it was to be sung.

Special Notation – indicate pauses Selah has been added 71 times to the Psalms, serving as a later editorial addition that signaled a brief interlude in the psalm, either for a change of musical accompaniment, a brief interlude with stringed instruments, a call to pause and reflect upon the truth just stated, or a notice to begin a new section.

Psalms without inscriptions
Psalms with simple inscriptions
Psalms with historical inscriptions
Psalms with inscriptions denoting purpose
Psalms with special-word inscriptions
(less 8 which also bear historical inscriptions and included with the 14 have)

These inscriptions were existence when the Septuagint translation was made in the third century BC, and must have been so for a good while before that, since the meaning of “special-word” inscriptions had already by that time become lost, as evidence by the fact that the Septuagint translators did not attempt to translate these words, but simply let them stand untranslated in the inscriptions.

Significance of these inscriptions – In ancient Hebrew manuscripts, there is no breaks or spaces separating the psalms from each other such as there are in out modern Bible. The only mark of division between them is the number in the margin. The inscriptions which have always been more or less assumed to be the titles of the psalms following them, might just as truly be footnotes to the psalms preceding them.

Example 1: Habakkuk 3

1. Superscription: A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. (v1)
2. The Prayer: v2-19
3. Subscription: For the director of music. On my stringed instruments. (v19)

Since there was nothing to tell the Septuagint translators whether the inscriptions between some of them belonged to what went before or what came after; and, because some of them were almost certainly titles to what followed, the Septuagint translators erroneously assumed that all of them were.

An alphabetical arrangement is sometimes adopted for the purpose of connecting clauses or sentences. Thus in the following the initial words of the respective verses begin with the letters of the alphabet in regular succession: Prov. 31:10-31; Lam. 1, 2, 3, 4; Ps. 25, 34, 37, 145. Ps. 119 has a letter of the alphabet in regular order beginning every eighth verse

There are nine examples of Acrostics in the Book of Psalms, while eleven other Acrostic Scriptures are found in the Old Testament (see *1 below):

(i) Psalms 9 and 10 are linked together by an Acrostic which, like “the times of trouble” (the great tribulation), of which the two Psalms treat, is purposely broken, and is irregular and out of joint. This Acrostic tells us that the subject of the two Psalms is one, and that they are to be connected together. See notes there on the many expressions common to both.

(ii) Psalm 25. Here, again, the Acrostic is designedly incomplete, a proof of its genuineness instead of its “corruption”. No writer would or could omit a letter from carelessness. The Psalm has the same phenomena as Psalm 34, where the same letter w (Vau = V) is omitted, and the same letter p (Pe = P) is duplicated, in the word Padah, “redeem:. The last verse is thus, in each case, made to stand out prominently by itself.

(iii) Psalm 34. See under (ii), above.

(iv) Psalm 37. In this Psalm the series is perfect and complete. Every letter has two verses of two lines each, except three : vv. 7 (d, Daleth = D), 20 (k, Kaph = K), and 34 (q, Koph = K).

(v) Psalm 111. In this Psalm the series is complete. The Psalm has twenty-two lines, each line commencing with the successive letters of the alphabet.

(vi) Psalm 112 is formed on the model of Psalm 111, the two Psalms forming a pair (see *2 below); Psalm 111 being occupied with Jehovah, and Psalm 112 with the man that revereth Jehovah. See the notes there.

(vii) Psalm 119. This Psalm consists of twenty-two groups, consisting of eight verses each. The eight verses in each group begin with the same letter. For example : the first eight verses begin with a (Aleph = A, the eight verses of the second group with b (Beth = B), and so through the whole Psalm of 176 verses.

It is impossible to reproduce this (or any of the other alphabetical Acrostics), seeing that the Hebrew and English alphabets do not correspond, either in equivalents, order, or number of the letters. It so happens that in the group beginning with T (vv. 65-72), each verse in the A.V. does begin with T, except vv. 67 and 71. These can be readily conformed by changing “Before” to “Till” in v. 67; and “It is” to “Tis” in v. 71.
The first two letters being the same in both alphabets can be thus presented :

Ah! the happinesses of the perfect in the way,
Such as walk by the Law of Jehovah.
Ah! the happinesses of the keepers of His testimonies,
Who seek Him with their whole heart.
Assuredly they have not worked iniquity :
In His ways they have ever walked.
As to Thy commandments — Thou hast commanded us,
That we should diligently keep them.
Ah Lord, that my ways were prepared
To keep Thy statutes;
Ashamed, then, should I never be,
While I have respect unto all Thy commandments.
All my heart shall praise Thee in uprightness,
While I learn the judgments of Thy righteousness.
All Thy statutes also I will keep:
Leave me not utterly.
By what means shall a young man cleanse his way?
By taking heed thereto according to Thy word.
By every means my heart hath sought Thee:
Let me not err from Thy commandments.
Besides, I have laid up Thy Word in my heart,
That I might not sin against Thee.
Blessed are Thou, O Jehovah:
Teach me Thy statutes.
By my lips have I recounted
All the judgments of Thy mouth.
By walking in Thy mandates’ way,
I found joy beyond all wealth.
By Thy precepts shall I guide my musings,
And shall pore over Thy paths.
By Thy statutes shall I be delighted:
Thy Word I shall not forget.

(viii) Psalm 145. In this Psalm the Acrostic is perfect, with the exception of the letter n (Nun = N), which should come between vv. 13 and 14. See note there. Through the infirmity of some transcriber, the verse was probably omitted by him. It must have been in the more ancient manuscripts, because it is preserved in the ancient Versions: viz. the Sept., Syr., Arabic, Ethiopic, and Vulgate. One Heb. Codex is known with contains it, as follows:

“The LORD is faithful in all His words,
And holy in all His works.”

Moreover, the Structure of the Psalm shows that it originally had its proper place in the Psalm. See the notes on Ps. 145:13, 14.

(ix) For the other Acrostic in the Psalms, see the note on Ps. 96:11.

(*1) There are five in the Book of Esther, each giving the Divine names in the form of an Acrostic. (See Ap. 60.)
One other Divine name in Ps. 96:11. See note there.
One perfect Acrostic in Prov. 31:10-31. See note there.

In the Book of Lamentations, each of the first four chapters is characterized by an Acrostic. See notes there.
(*2) With the further peculiarity that the first three verses in each Psalm consist of two portions: the last two, of three portions.

Another poetic form found in the Old Testament is the alphabetical acrostic, a form used often in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 9; 10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145). In the alphabetical psalms the first line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next with the second, and so on, until all the letters of the alphabet have been used. Thus, Psalm 119 consists of 22 groups of eight verses each. The number of groups equals the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The first letter of each verse in a group is (in the original Hebrew text) that letter of the alphabet which corresponds numerically to the group.

Many of the subtleties of Hebrew poetry, such as puns and various play-on-word allusions are virtually untranslatable into English and may be fully appreciated only by an accomplished Hebrew scholar. Fortunately, many good commentaries are available to explain to the lay-person these riches of Hebrew thought.

The Bible is full of numerous figures of speech, such as metaphors and similes. For example, the psalmist metaphorically described GOD by saying, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My GOD, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18:2).

Moses gave this remarkable simile describing GOD’s care of Israel in the wilderness: “As an eagle stirs up its nest, / Hovers over its young, / Spreading out its wing, taking them up, / Carrying them on its wings, / So the LORD alone led him” (Deut. 32:11-12).

Such figures of speech are not to be interpreted literally but as poetic symbolism for GOD. He is the firm ground of life and a solid defense against evil. The worshiper sings for joy because of His protecting presence and the soaring power of His loving care.

Figure of Speech
Simile Comparison by resemblance. The likening of two things, which, however different in some respects, have some strong points or points of resemblances. Use of the word like or as. Ps 1.3: “The godly man is like a fruitful tree” A godly man bears fruits of love and labor for the Lord.
Ps 5.12: “For You, O Lord, will bless the righteous; With favor You will surround him as with a shield.” The Lord protects the righteous from harm.
Metaphor Comparison by representation. A word is transformed from one object, to which it properly belongs, to another in such that a manner that a comparison is implied, though not expressed using like or as. Ps 84.11: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good things does He withhold from those whose walk is blameless” The Lord is His people’s illumination and protection.
Allegory A description of one thing under the image of another. Ps 80.8-11: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it. You prepared room for it, and caused it to take deep root and filled the land. The hills were covered with its shadow; and mighty cedars with its boughs. She sent out her bough to the Sea and branches to the River.” Israel is described as a “vine” “planted” that “took deep root”. God builds up Israel personally.
Mectonymy One figure is substituted for another as the two are closely related. Ps 73.9: “They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walks through the earth.” “mouth” is replaced with “tongue” to mean speaking ill against God.
Synecdoche The whole of a matter is put for a part, or a part for the whole. Ps 52.4: “You love all devouring words, You deceitful tongue.” “words” is replaced with “tongue” to mean lies.
Hyperbole An exclamation of truth in an exaggerated manner intended for dramatic effect. Ps 6.6: “I am weary with my groaning; all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with tears.” “make my bed swim” and “drench my couch” are used to describe flooding with tears.”
Personification Assigns humanlike qualities, like emotions and intelligence, to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. Ps 35.10: “All my bones shall say, “Lord, who is like You, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him, the poor and needy from him who plunders him?”” “All my bones” is used to refer to my whole being.
Apostrophe Addresses lifeless objects as though they were a living person, heightening the intensity of the communication. Ps 114.5: “What ails you, O sea, that you fled? O Jordan, that you turn back? “O sea” is used to refer to the sea as if it was a person that can make up its mind.
Anthropopathisms Speaking of God as having a human body in order to convey an important truth about his character in familiar, humanlike ways that can be easily understood. Ps 10.12: “Arise, O Lord! O God, lift up Your hand! Do not forget the humble.” Implying that Your hand can do everything shows God’s omnipotency here.
Symbolism The use of images, emblems or resemblances to represent something else. Ps 17.8: “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.” “apple of Your eye” is the tenderest and most carefully guarded object.
Repetition of words A rhetorical device to arrest attention and emphasise what is being said. The same verse can appear many times in the psalm. Ps 126.2-3: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them“. The Lord has done great things for us, whereof we are glad.” “The Lord has done great things for them” and “The Lord has done great things for us” emphasise the blessing God bestows on the nation of Israel.
Anabasis Meaning going up. It refers to the climax of thought by gradual ascent. Ps 18.37-38: “I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them; Neither did I turn back until they were destroyed. I have wounded them, so that they were not able to rise; They have fallen under my feet.” These words describe the process by which David’s enemies were destroyed by him.
Omission A word or phrase is omitted from the sentence but its presence is implied. Words in italics were not present in the original text but have been supplied to complete the thought. Ps 103.9: “He will not always strive with us. Nor will He keeps His anger forever.” “strive with us” and “His anger” are supplied to show God’s benevolence as he will not chide nor rebuke us forever.

In Psalms, the importance of regarding the figurative language is felt most in the matter of interpretation. To interpret literally the language of imagination, wherever found in Scripture, is not to make it appear grotesque or ridiculous, but to make due allowance for poetic license is to reach the truth by one of the greatest faculties God has entrusted to us.