KD Old Testament Lesson 25: Psalms
Posted by Karl D. on June 28, 2010
1 Teaching Background
These notes are the result of my prep when I taught lesson 25 in youth Sunday school. I ended up teaching over 20 youth with ages ranging 12-17. My goal for the lesson was to hopeful to increase the size of their toolbox. The notes focus on how to read Hebrew poetry. This is not to suggest that I am well qualified to really do this but I do think it is important to try. I thought the class generally responded quite well to the lesson. As much as possible I tried to get the students to come up to the board and split lines into their parallel halves so we could discuss things.
- Which books in the Old Testament are primarily poetry?
- Which books in the Old Testament contain some poetry?
- Why might it be important to understand poetry in the Old Testament (even if you are not a lover of poetry)?
- How do you recognize whether you are reading poetry in the Old Testament?
- Does the design in terms of the format of our Bible make it difficult to spot poetry?
3 English Poetry
- What are the essential or most important features of English poetry?
4 Hebrew Poetry
Let’s take a look at an example of a (translated “verse” from a Hebrew Poem: Psalm 6:1 (write the verse on the board):
O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.
- Does this “verse” look or sound like the poetry you have seen in other places? Why or why not?
- Do you notice any patterns between the first and second lines?
- In what ways are the first and second lines similar?
- How is the first line related to the second in meaning? What about the structure?
Robert Alter suggests the following about Hebrew poetry versus English poetry:1
- There is no requirement of rhyme (very occasionally one encounters an ad hoc rhyme)
- and no regular meter of the kind manifested in Greek and Latin poetry
The fundamental feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Robert Alter2 describes parallelism as the following:
- A parallelism of meaning between two halves of the line (or, in the minority of lines that are triadic, among the three parts of the line).
- An equivalent number of stressed syllables
- A parallelism of syntax
- Some lines may manifest a neat parallelism in all three categories, but this is not obligatory.
Of three categories which do you think are unlikely to survive the translation process?
6 Example #1
Have a student write Psalm 93:1 on the board trying to split it in half appropriately: The Lord reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the Lord is clothed with strength, wherewith he hath girded himself:
The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. (NRSV)
- What is the parallelism in this example?
Sometimes this is called “synonymous” parallelism
- Does the second half simply restate the first in different words?
7 Example #2
Write Psalm 6:2 on the board:
Have mercy upon me, O Lord; for I am weak: O Lord, heal me; for my bones are vexed.
The language may be a little obscure here. Let’s use a modern translation:3
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am wicked Heal me, for my limbs are stricken
- Is the parallelism synonymous here again?
- An important feature of Hebrew parallelism is called intensification.4 Can you think of ways in which the second half intensifies relative to the first?
- Stronger words
- More unusual words
- More concrete or specific
- More vivid
8 Example #3
Have a student come to the board and write the Proverbs 10:11 in the “parallel style”:
The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.
- How is the parallelism different here?
Sometimes this is called antithetical parallelism.
- Does this example use intensification?
9 Example #4
Read Psalms 69:2-3:
I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.
On the board write the second to last line using Robert Alter’s translation:
I am exhausted from my calling out my throat is hoarse
- How this the parallelism different in this case?
- How is the second line related to the first?
- Can you come up for with a name for this form of parallelism?
10 Example #5
Have all the students look up Psalms 14 and 53, and tell them they need to figure out what the two psalms have in common (they are the same).
- What are some potential explanations for having two psalms that are the same?
- Does this give us any clues about how the book of Psalms came to be?
- Does it tell us anything about the nature of scripture?
11 Example #6
Hebrew poetry, not surprisingly, isn’t entirely unique. For example, there is evidence that Canaanite poetry was similar. First though, who were the Canaanites? What do you know about them? What do you know about their religion? Is it surprising that their poetry follows similar conventions?
let’s take a look at a line from an probably older (than the psalms) Canaanite poem:5
Look, your enemies, O Baal look, your enemies you will smash, Look, you will destroy your foes
Note, this line has a triadic structure which is also used in Hebrew poetry.
- How is this poem fragment similar to the poetry we have read in Psalms?
- How is this poem fragment different than the poetry we have read in Psalms? To what do you attribute these differences?
Now let’s take a look at Psalm 92:9:
For, lo, thine enemies, O Lord, for, lo, thine enemies shall perish; all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.
- Are the two lines similar?
- Feel free to make wild inferences about why the two are similar?
- What does this tell us about the nature of Psalms? About ancient writers? About scripture?
1 Alter, Robert, 2007, Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Co, XX-XXI.
2 Alter, Robert, 2007, Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Co, XX-XXI.
3 Alter, Robert, 2007, Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Co, 15.
4 Harper Collins Bible Commentary, 2000, Harper & Row,
5 Obermann, Julian, 1947, “How Baal Destroyed a Rival: A Mythological Incantation Scene”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 67, 195-208. Note, the following is Alter’s (Alter, Robert, 2007, Psalms: A Translation with Commentary , W.W. Norton and Co, XIV) translation of the poem and not Obermann’s.