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Lecture 2B -- Psalms Lecture

Study the Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry and Chiasm.

Chiasm is a pattern of

It's called chiasm because its parts can be arranged into the shape of the Greek letter Chi, which looks like the English 'X'.


Psalm 1

  1. Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
  2. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
  3. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
  4. The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
  5. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
  6. For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Psalm 23: 1-6

  1. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
  3. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
  4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
  5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
  6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Hebrew makes another contribution to English language in the way it uses nouns adjectivally.  English commonly changes the form of words when they turn from nouns into adjectives.  For example, the noun "adjective" becomes the adjective "adjectival."  Hebrew simply puts the main noun first, then connects it to the noun used as an adjective with a kind of high hyphen, the maqaf.

צֶדֶק ־ בְמַעְגְּלֵי

righteousness   of   In the paths

Hebrew poetry makes significant contributions to English literature.  It makes some contributions to English poetry, but perhaps makes even more to English prose.  Because the rules of Hebrew poetry were poorly understood, the poetry in the King James Version made its biggest impact through prose, starting with sermons and spreading from there. 

Try this experiment: compare the KJV translation of Psalm 8 to Milton's translation of the same text.

Psalm VIII:1-5

  1. O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.
  2. Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
  3. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
  4. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
  5. For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Psalm VIII, Milton translation

O Jehovah, our Lord, how wondrous great
And glorious is thy name through all the earth!
So as above the Heavens thy praise to set
Out of the tender mouths of latest bearth,

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou [ 5 ]
Hast founded strength because of all thy foes,
To stint th' enemy, and slack th' avengers brow
That bends his rage thy providence to oppose.

When I behold thy Heavens, thy Fingers art,
The Moon and Starrs which thou so bright hast set [ 10 ]
In the pure firmament, then saith my heart,
O what is man that thou remembrest yet,

And think'st upon him? or of man begot
That him thou visit'st and of him art found?

Scarce to be less then Gods, thou mad'st his lot, [ 15 ]
With honour and with state thou hast him crown'd.

Which version do YOU like best?  Most readers, including myself, like the KJV better.  Consider that for a moment.  Milton was indisputably one of the greatest poets in the English language; the KJV was a product of a committee appointed by King James I.  Normally we don't expect much from committees.  Someone defined a camel as "a horse designed by a committee."  Yet somehow the KJV committee's camel beat out the genius' horse.  How does that happen?  I believe that it's because the KJV committee stuck closely to the original Hebrew.  Milton changed the Hebrew around in his translation to create a hymn with an eights and sixes meter structure and an ABAB rhyme structure.  Somewhere in the process of cramming the Psalm into English poetic structure, the Hebrew poetry gets lost.  Because Hebrew poetry centers on content rather than rhyme or rhythm, its is much more translatable into other languages than many poetic traditions, including Latin, Greek, and English.  Much of the greatest English rhetoric is so great not only because of the influence of King James English on the speaker, but also because of the Hebrew poetry behind it.  Analyze Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" address as Hebrew poetry.

Song of Songs

In addition to being the sexiest book in the Bible, the Song of Songs gives us a staple of love poetry, especially during the English Renaissance: the blazon.  The blazon lists and describes the beauty and character traits of the beloved, usually with a series of metaphors and/or similies.  Check this passage from Song of Songs 4:

  1. Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead.
  2. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them.
  3. Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.
  4. Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.
  5. Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.
  6. Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.

Two things to note about the blazon:

  1. The metaphors are culturally determined and can seem bizarre in different cultures. In what way are teeth like a flock of sheep, for example?  We might think "wooly," but the meaning seems to be more that the lovers teeth are white and none are missing.  A high compliment in the ancient world!
  2. It gets old quickly if overused, so much so that it can quickly become a parody.

Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare is a famous, ironic blazon:
My mistressí eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lipsí red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.

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