|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:
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.
2. We may retain the theology of a passage (the principle) but replace the behavioral expression with some more recent, but equally meaningful expression.
3. Some may even replace both the principal (eg. The so called principle of economic subordination) and the practice.
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.
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
2. Antithetic parallelism – The thought of the first line is emphasized by a contrasting thought in the second:
3. Synthetic parallelism – The second member explains or adds something to the first:
4. Introverted parallelism – Members are placed in inversed order:
5. Iterative Parallelism – Thought is simply repeated:
6. Responsory parallelism – Members are antiphonal, appeal and answer alternatively:
7. Climactic parallelism – Second line completes the first:
8. Alternate parallelism – Members follow one another by turns, the first line being parallel to the third, and the second to the fourth:
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.
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)
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.
(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:
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.)
In the Book of Lamentations, each of the first four chapters is characterized by an Acrostic. See notes there.
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.
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.