27 – Every Kindred, Every Race: Understanding the Psalms as Scripture, as Poetry, and as Lyrics

Psalm 27

Psalms as Scripture

When translating the Psalms as Scripture, there are two major schools of thought: word for word translation or line by line translation. Generally speaking, word for word translation is a better tactic for ensuring what we have is what was intended. Line by line translations tend to misinterpret plays on words or double meanings. Where word for word can fail is in colloquial expressions or culture specific metaphors and imagery. Most Bible translations use a primarily word for word with some phrase by phrase when necessary.

Since the Psalms contain a great deal of metaphor and imagery, translators of the Psalms need to take special care to keep the images intact while also keeping them pertinent. A non-Psalms example is “jot and tittle” to “dot and iota”. The former refers to Hebrew letter characters while the latter refers to Latinate letters.

Psalms as Poetry

When translating poetry, there are a great many things to consider. One of the most important characteristics of poetry is the expression of emotion. The poet uses devices to convey a message that is both engaging to the mind and to the emotions in tandem (prosody). 

Different cultures utilize different techniques and devices to accomplish the goal of engaging the mind and emotions. When translating poetry from one culture to another, it is important to use the devices of the new audience to accomplish the same end that the devices of the original poet used for the intended audience. This requires dedicated study into the original culture in order to understand the intricacies of the original poem. It also requires the dedicated study and craft of modern poetry in order to create a new poem that does justice to the original.

Psalms as Lyrics

Probably the trickiest part about translating the Psalms into modern songs is the wild differences in song structure from ancient Hebrew to modern western music. I am not an ANE Music scholar, but from what I understand, the song structure of ancient Hebrew music was very chant like. Line length did not matter much because there were no sitting melodic lines or exact repetition of verses etc.

Some world music systems still implement this type of style (like the modern Middle East), but Europe and America have a musical style that requires chord structure patterns, timing and meter, as well as repeated melodies and such. Furthermore, these devices in Western music are not merely set decoration, but each has its purpose in prosody to help connect with the mind and emotions. Therefore, you cannot simply take the verbatim ESV Scripture and set it to the tune of Amazing Grace and get the desired result.


Songs that are examples of this approach:

Daniel Snoke, We Live Together in Unity (Psalm 133)

Psalm 18: Psalms project

Psalm 18: Robbie Seay Band

Psalm 1: Poor Bishop Hooper

Psalm 18: James Block

A few additional thoughts

WCF 1.8 is a good basis for thinking on this. It establishes that the Greek and Hebrew are inerrant. 

The Jerusalem Chamber speaks about translations when they covered this paragraph. We should be relying on the English versions we have. They are very good. Sister podcast Lightest Form of Flogging also covered the topic LFOF #68 Alligator Hunter.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 27 discusses the translation of the Psalms and Hebrew poetry generally.

Hebrew prose and poetry are quite similar. It is sometimes difficult to tell them apart. It comes down to many things, but simply stated, prose is everyday language whereas poetry has imagery, it is distanced from everyday language.

Argues that the psalms call for synthesis (bringing together) rather than analysis (taking apart and examining).  

Rhyme, Meter

“The molding of a line (or verse) to fit a preconceived shape made up of recurring sets.” Wilfred G.E. Watson quoted in EBC, p. 27

Efforts to mold Hebrew poetry into meter are controversial and ambiguous. Nonetheless, there are several ways to try. 

1. Stress or accent of the lines

1. Appears in bi-colon or tri-colon (poetic lines, see also stich)

2. Can be symmetrical 2+2, 3+3+3, or 4+4+4

3. Can be asymmetrical 4+4+3

2. Syllable counting

1. Count the syllables regardless of the vowel length, stress, or whether the syllable is open or closed

2. Requires reconstruction of the text (aka changing the text to fit the interpreters’ ideas)

3. Parallelism

1. Pretty much the accepted one these days, first popularized by Robert Lowth in 1753.

2. He had 3 categories

1. Synonymous – same thought, said 2 ways. (Ps. 2)

2. Antithetic – same thought, but stated with an antonym (many Proverbs are this way, think about the contrast between the wise and the foolish, wicked or righteous)

3. Synthetic – second phrase completes the first (Ps. 126:1)

3. Lowth and his followers equated the poetic lines or cola. 

4. Tremper Longman III argues for “A, what’s more B” approach. 

1. Builds on James Kugel and Robert Alter’s work

2. Additional categories to Lowth’s work

5. Additional categories in A, what’s more B approach

1. Emblematic – explicit analogy (Ps. 42:1)

2. Repetitive (stepladder, staircase, climatic) – a statement is repeated and carried forward (Ps. 29:1)

3. Pivot Pattern – a word or clause interrupts and connects two phrases 

1. A The Lord has made his salvation known to the nations

2. B and revealed his righteousness. (Ps 98:2, translation Longman)

4. Chiasm – quite common 

1. May be simple (Ps. 1:1 and 6) Longman, T., III. (1988).  How to Read the Psalms  (p. 101). Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Inter-Varsity Press.

Thanks for listening

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