Monday, January 10, 2011

Learning How to Interpret a Biblical Psalm

A few years ago, I developed the following lesson plan for a unit on the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament course that I teach at Amarillo College. I want to give credit where credit is due: I based my observations and the student exercises on a presentation by Professor David J. A. Clines of the University of Sheffield, in the U.K. Dr. Clines was speaking at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2000. I attended the session and got the following ideas from what he said:

Exercise 1: Describe the relationship between the two halves (or several parts) of these verses in the Book of Psalms. How does the second (and third, fourth) part of the line relate to the first part?







As you have seen, the most basic feature of Hebrew poetry is couplet composition. This feature is more commonly called parallelism because the two or more parts of a psalm verse are in some way parallel to each other. Each verse consists of A and then B (and occasionally C, and even D). In order to understand it, each verse requires the reader to identify how B relates to A.

A second feature of Hebrew poetry is the strophe. What's that? Think of it this way: a strophe is to poetry what a paragraph is to prose. A strophe is a distinct block within poetic material. It's clear that the biblical poets thought and composed in strophes. However, the Hebrew text of the Psalms contains no markers for strophes. So it’s up to us to locate and identify them. What is the point of doing that? It reveals the major sections, the basic structure, and the progression of a psalm.

Exercise 2: Close your Bible. What follows is Psalm 2 in the New International Version translation. However, here the verses come one after the other, with no breaks to identify the strophes. (You may have never noticed it before, but the actual text of the NIV does mark off strophes with a blank line in between them). Now, identify the strophes by marking where you think the main divisions of this psalm occur. Be prepared to explain your “division decisions.”

Psalm 2 (NIV)

1 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.
3 "Let us break their chains," they say, "and throw off their fetters."
4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
5 Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
6 "I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill."
7 I will proclaim the decree of the LORD : He said to me, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery."
10 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

What kinds of signals or indicators led you to mark the divisions as you did? Once you have answered that question for each strophe, compare your results with your copy of the Bible. (Most modern translations of the Psalms indicate strophes by a blank line between them).

Now that you have identified the four strophes of Psalm 2, we can theorize about strophe identification:

1. Here are some clues that one strophe has ended and another is beginning:

change of speaker
change of location, setting
change of mood
change of topic

2. Here are some clues that a strophe is concluding:

a line repeats (word-for-word or in ideas) the line that opened the strophe
words like “forever,” “always,” or “death” may suggest an ending
a line summarizes the thought of the strophe as a whole
a refrain (a line that appears at the end of several strophes)

3. Here are some are clues that a new strophe is beginning:

change of addressee
words like “therefore” and “now.”

Exercise 3: Now it’s time to sharpen your ability to visualize what’s happening in a psalm. Imagine that you are a screenplay writer. You have been assigned the task of preparing a script for a short film depicting Psalm 2. For each strophe, you will need to identify things like:

· The location. Where does the action take place?
· Who is present?
· The speaker(s)
· The lighting, atmosphere, colors, mood, camera angles, etc.
· Since you are incredibly talented, go ahead and compose the soundtrack too. Does each scene include a musical score? What does it sound like? What specific recordings would you select for each scene?


Anonymous said...

great stuff, and glad it's here, I will prob wait till I need it, search through Wade Tannehill's blog then finally find it here.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Brian, I've used this material a number of times and it works well. People have fun with it and wind up learning a good bit.

Anonymous said...

Mr Bellizzi, best straightforward explaination of the 'parts' of a Psalms. I plan to use this lesson with my ESL high school students. Thanks.

Frank Bellizzi said...


You're welcome. I'm glad you find this helpful. Again, the lesson plan and overview here come moreless directly from Professor Clines.