Poetry In The Old Testament
The book of Psalms is one of five books in the OT known as the books of poetry: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. These books are written completely (or nearly so) in poetic stanzas. However, most OT prophecy (like the prophecies of Isaiah) are also written in poetry.
God did a wonderful thing in preparation for the book of Psalms and other biblical poetry. Foreknowing that His word would be translated into all the languages of the world, God prompted the Middle Eastern peoples to use “thought rhyme” instead of untranslatable “sound rhyme” in their poetry. Thus, the “rhyme” of biblical poetry carries over, even into our English translations.
A large percentage of biblical poetry is written in couplets (two-line pairs of thought). Many couplets are synonymous. That means that the thought of the second line “rhymes” with (echoes) the thought of the first line. In other words, the second line says the same thing as the first line in different words. Understanding this helps us a great deal in interpreting the poetic metaphors of the Psalms. For example, in the famous Psalm 23, David said,
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
What does it mean that “the LORD is my shepherd”? Because this is a synonymous couplet, we know that the aspect of shepherding that David is emphasizing in this verse is provision. What David meant by saying that the LORD was his shepherd was that the LORD was his faithful provider.
There are many other kinds of stanzas in biblical poetry; not all are couplets. Along with the synonymous couplets, however, some of the most familiar are the antithetical couplets of Proverbs. In these couplets, the second line provides a contrast with the first, and these kinds of couplets appear in the Psalms as well. For example, Psalm 1.6 says,
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
Antithetical couplets like this one often present us with a moral choice, like, “Do I really think I can get ahead by doing something wicked, or should I pursue righteousness and trust that the LORD will take care of me?”
Psalms And Songs
In the heading of Psalm 30, this psalm is called both a psalm and a song. What’s the difference? Well, all psalms are songs, but not all songs are psalms! In other words, psalms are songs that are specifically composed for use in worship. Israelites of ancient times undoubtedly composed more “secular” songs too, but those songs would not have been considered psalms.
The Israelites were a very musical people. Just at arctic peoples have many different words for snow, the Israelites had at least 13 different words for song:
Chedoh - An enigma or riddle
Dinah - Dirge, song of mourning
Mescal - Lyric demanding special skill
Mahal - Proverb-song or parable
Melissa - Satire or taunt song
Michtom - Mysterious or precious song
Mister - Song accompanied by music
Neginoh - Melody for strings
Shiggayon - Dithyrambic song or ballad
Shir - General word for song
Shir-yediduth - A love lyric
Tehillah - Psalm or praise song
Tephilah - Prayer song