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MEANS OF UNDERSTANDING THE PSALMS.
In order that the psalms may be understood in the fulness of their meaning, beauty, and spirit, the most important directions to an English reader are these three.
1. Gain some knowledge of Jewish antiquities. Be so familiar with the history, the manners and customs, the climate and scenery, and the modes of thinking and feeling of the Hebrews, that you may receive such impressions from the sacred poetry as would be received by an enlightened inhabitant of ancient Jerusalem. “It is not enough,” says Bishop Lowth, “to be acquainted with the language of this people, their manners, discipline, rites, and ceremonies; we must even investigate their inmost sentiments, the manner and connexion of their thoughts ; in one word, we must see all things with their eyes, estimate all things by their opinions. We must endeavour as much as possible to read Hebrew as the Hebrews would have read it.” For this object they who have less taste for the simple and immethodical narrative of the sacred historians, may be referred to the more elaborate, but popular and interesting history of the Jews by Milman. For consultation, every one, who wishes to understand his Bible, should own Jahn's Biblical Archæology, which has been translated in this country.
2. In addition to a general knowledge of the Jewish history and antiquities, it is of great use to ascertain the subject, the occasion, and the author of the psalm. It is true that these points can rarely be discovered with any considerable degree of certainty. Many of the captions, prefixed to the psalms in this translation, must be regarded in the light of theories, or conjectures. As such, however, they may be regarded as useful. We may be more able to comprehend the sentiment and feel the spirit of a psalm, if we only assign to it an occasion similar to that for which it was composed. At best, however, as has been remarked by Bishop Lowth, “much of the harmony, propriety, and elegance of the sacred poetry, must pass unperceived by us, who can only form distant conjectures of the general design, but are totally ignorant of the particular application.”
The following remarks of Michaelis are also highly deserving of consideration. “ There are some,” says he, “who undertake to explain the Psalms from the historical parts of Scripture, as if every occurrence were known to them, and as if nothing had occurred during the reign of David, which was not committed to writing. This, however, considering the extreme brevity of the sacred history, and the number and magnitude of the facts which it relates, must of course be very far from the truth. The causes and motives of many wars are not at all adverted to, the battles that are related are few, and those the principal. Who can doubt, though ever so inexperienced in military affairs, that many things occurred which are not mentioned between the desertion of Jerusalem by David, and that famous battle which extinguished the rebellion of Absalom ? - They, who will not allow that they are ignorant of a great part of the Jewish history, will be apt to explain more of the psalms upon the same principle, and as relating to the same facts, than they ought; whence the poetry will appear tame and languid, abounding in words, but with little variety of description or sentiment.
“ Others have recourse to mystical interpretations, or convert those historical passages, which they do not understand, into prophecies. Into none of these errors would mankind have fallen, but through the persuasion that the whole history of the Jews was minutely detailed to them; and that there were no circumstances with which they were unacquainted.”
3. It is of the utmost consequence to attend to the characteristics of the language and structure of Hebrew poetry. In order to avoid important errors, the reader of Hebrew poetry must especially keep in mind one of its features, by which it is distinguished from the poetry of the western world, viz. its boldness in the use of figurative and metaphorical language. Many mistakes have arisen from interpreting the language of Eastern hyperbole in too strict a sense. As an instance of the kind of language to which I refer, I may mention the eighteenth psalm, verses 9 - 18. The simple fact, that God aided David and the Israelites in battle, is the foundation of this magnificent description. The Supreme Being is represented as interposing in the midst of a tempest, and the tempest itself is described in language extremely hyperbolical. Compare Hab. iii. 3, &c.
As an instance of error arising from the neglect of this characteristic of Hebrew poetry, it may be mentioned that several learned critics have gravely undertaken to explain what habitation David could provide for Jehovah in a single day; that is, before he literally gave sleep to his eyes, or slumber to his eyelids. From inattention to the same thing, Psalm li. 5. has been made to convey a meaning at war with the attributes of God, with common sense, and with other portions of the sacred volume.
In regard to the construction of Hebrew poetry, so far as quantity is concerned, we are entirely ignorant. It is true, that now and then a scholar has arisen, who thought he could perceive the measures of Greek and Latin verse in the productions of the Hebrew poets. Josephus, too, speaks of the trimeters and pentameters of David. St. Jerome, also, observes, “ If any one doubt that the Hebrews employed similar measures to those of Horace, Pindar, Alcæus, and Sappho, let him read Philo, Josephus, Origen, and Eusebius, and find by their testimony whether my assertion be true.” But the ears of a vast majority of Hebrew scholars have not been able to detect any such measures in Hebrew poetry, nor to distinguish it from prose, so far as mere sound, or quantity, is concerned. That, in the ancient mode of pronouncing the Hebrew language, such measures existed, it is not necessary to deny. But if the ears of ninety-nine in a hundred are to be trusted, it is impossible to discover them.
What is obvious in the sacred poetry is a division into lines of nearly equal length, or containing nearly the same number of syllables, two of which lines generally form a verse, or complete a sentence. In several compositions, the initial letters of the successive lines or stanzas follow the order of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is the case with seven of the psalms, four chapters of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the last chapter of Proverbs, from the tenth verse to the end.
But the most important feature in the construction of Hebrew verse is as obvious in a translation as in the original. It is what may be called a rhythm of sentiment. A period is divided into members, generally two, but sometimes more, which, as it were, balance each other by thought corresponding to thought in repetition, in amplification, in reply, or in contrast.
This feature of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism. The illustration of it constitutes the great merit of Dr. Lowth, ose account I shall nearly transcribe.
This poetical conformation of the sentences consists chiefly in a certain equality, resemblance, or parallelism, between the members of each period; so that in two lines, or members of the same period, things for the most part answer to things, and words to words, as if fitted to each other by a kind of rule or
This parallelism has much variety, and many gradations; it is sometimes more accurate and manifest, sometimes more vague and obscure. It may ho ver, on the whole, be said to consist of three species.
The first species is the synonymous parallelism, when the same sentiment is repeated in different, but equivalent terms; the expression being varied, but the sense entirely or nearly the same; this is the most frequent of all, and is often conducted with the utmost accuracy and neatness. Thus
“ The earth is the Lord's, and all that is therein;
There is great variety in the form of the synonymous parallelism. It is sometimes formed by the repetition of the former member, either in whole or in part: 6 Much have they afflicted me from my youth,
May Israel now say,
Yet have they not prevailed against me.” – Ps. cxxix. 1, 2. “ The waters saw thee, O God,
The waters saw thee, and feared,
There is frequently something wanting in the latter member, which must be repeated from the former, in order to complete the sentence:
“Kings shall see him, and rise up;
Princes, and they shall worship him.” — Isaiah xlix. 7. Sometimes also there are triplet parallelisms. In these the second line is generally synonymous with the first, whilst the third either begins the period, or concludes it, and frequently refers to both the preceding.
“The floods, O Jehovah,
The floods lift up their voice;
Is Jehovah in his lofty habitation.”—Psalm xciii. 3, 4. In stanzas of four lines sometimes the parallel lines answer to one another alternately; the first to the third, and the second to the fourth.
“ As high as are the heavens above the earth,
So great is his mercy to them that revere him;
Ps. ciïi. 11, 12. The second kind of parallelism is called antithetic; that is, when a thing is illustrated by its contrary being opposed to it; or when the members of a period are contrasted with each other with respect to the sense or expression. Thus, “A wise son maketh glad his father;
But a foolish son is the grief of his mother.” — Prov. x. 1. “ Jehovah knoweth the way of the righteous, But the
of the wicked leadeth to ruin." - Ps. i. 6. “ The memory of the just is a blessing ;
But the name of the wicked shall rot." — Prov. x. 7.