The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Invitation to the Psalms: A Reader’s Guide for Discovery and Engagement by Rolf and Karl Jacobson.
Introducing Hebrew Poetry
The biblical book of Psalms is, first and foremost, a collection of Hebrew poetry. If a reader sets out to understand the psalms—or even to understand a single one of the psalms—that reader must take into account the central reality that the psalms are Hebrew poetry. Why? Because reading is a “logical” exercise—in the sense that words, phrases, and sentences are put together according to principles that are governed by a logic. You cannot understand what the words, phrases, and sentences are trying to communicate if you do not understand that governing logic. Poetry as a whole is a type of language that has a different governing logic from other types of writing. And Hebrew poetry, in particular, has an even more specifically different set of governing logic.
An example may help. Mathematical equations are basically sentences that use numerical and mathematical symbols rather than words to communicate. Imagine that you are given the task of understanding what the following mathematical equation (sentence) is trying to communicate:
2 + 2 = 4
The meaning is transparently clear, right? Before you answer yes, imagine that you do not understand what numbers are or how they work. Imagine that you do not understand that the symbol “2” represents the numerical concept of two. Or that the symbol “4” represents the numerical concept of four. Furthermore, imagine that you do not understand that the symbols “+” and “=” stand for the concepts of adding and totaling, respectively. A reader who does not understand these things could, of course, not understand even the simplest equation. The reason for this is that the basic building block of mathematical equations is a signification system in which 2 = two, + = addition, and so on. A reader who does not understand that system cannot understand the longer “sentences” that are created when various elements such as 2, 4, +, and = are put together. But a reader who does understand these basic building blocks, and how they work, can understand even complex mathematical sentences, like the quadratic formula: ax² + bx + c = 0 (where a ≠ 0). Now that we’ve exceeded what we know about math, let us return to Hebrew poetry.
Just as numerical and mathematical symbols are the building blocks of mathematical sentences, Hebrew poetry is the basic building block of the biblical psalms. In order to understand the overall message that a psalm is trying to communicate, it is helpful (perhaps even “necessary”) to know some basic elements about the governing logic of Hebrew poetry. When a reader does not understand the basic features of Hebrew poetry and how they work, that reader will find it almost impossible to read and understand even the most simple lines from the psalms, such as: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Ps. 11:4). But a reader who does understand these basic building blocks can read and understand even complex psalms.
©2013 by Rolf A. Jacobson and Karl Jacobson. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.
For more information on Invitation to the Psalms, click here.