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Monday, November 8, 2010

Carefully Constructed

I know I've been blogging over and over about Psalms lately... but they're just so cool!

So I was reading Psalms 111 and 112, and I thought I would share what I learned from the notes in the two study Bibles I'm reading. These two psalms are "twins," almost certainly composed together by the same author, and intended to be read as a pair. Each of them is an acrostic; after the first line ("Hallelujah" in Hebrew), each half-line starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. They each have ten verses, and in Hebrew they have the same number of syllables. Each has one opening verse, one closing verse, and two four-verse segments with opening and closing thoughts. Check out these parallel structures:

Psalm 111 (ESV)Psalm 112 (ESV)
[1]  Praise the LORD!
I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart,
    in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
[1]  Praise the LORD!
Blessed is the man who fears the LORD,
    who greatly delights in his commandments!
[2] Great are the works of the LORD,
    studied by all who delight in them.
[2] His offspring will be mighty in the land;
    the generation of the upright will be blessed.
[3] Full of splendor and majesty is his work,
    and his righteousness endures forever.
[3] Wealth and riches are in his house,
    and his righteousness endures forever.
[4] He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; 
    the LORD is gracious and merciful.
[4] Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
    he is gracious, merciful, and righteous.
[5] He provides food for those who fear him;
    he remembers his covenant forever.
[5] It is well with the man who deals generously and lends;
    who conducts his affairs with justice.
[6] He has shown his people the power of his works,
    in giving them the inheritance of the nations.
[6] For the righteous will never be moved;
    he will be remembered forever.
[7] The works of his hands are faithful and just;
    all his precepts are trustworthy;
[7] He is not afraid of bad news;
    his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
[8] they are established forever and ever,
    to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
[8] His heart is steady; he will not be afraid,
    until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.
[9] He sent redemption to his people;
    he has commanded his covenant forever.
    Holy and awesome is his name!
[9] He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor;
    his righteousness endures forever;
    his horn is exalted in honor.
[10] The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
        all those who practice it have a good understanding.
        His praise endures forever!
[10] The wicked man sees it and is angry;
    he gnashes his teeth and melts away;
    the desire of the wicked will perish!

Parallels between the two psalms: "Praise the LORD" in verses 1, "his righteousness endures forever" in verses 3, "gracious+merciful" in verses 4, "trustworthy" and "trusting" in verses 7, "established" and "steady" in verses 8, and the references to "fear of the LORD" in 111:10 and 112:1 tying the two chapters together.

The four-verse sections are marked off by "works" and "covenant" in Psalm 111, and by references to the righteous man's legacy and generosity in Psalm 112.

"So that's clever and all," you're thinking, "and your highlighting is very [ahem] 'attractive'... but what difference does it make?" Well, there's a quote from the 60s that "the medium is the message," meaning that the form that communication takes is part of the communication itself. The parallelism of these two psalms is part of the message. Psalm 111 is about God, and Psalm 112 is about a righteous man. Because they match, part of the message is that a righteous man starts to look like the God he serves (in fact, since the parallels don't come into focus until you spend time reading and re-reading, the message may be that the closer you look at the life of a righteous man, the more similarities to God you begin to notice!) But not everything is the same... for example, God is "trustworthy," but the righteous man is "trusting in the LORD." The righteous man does not become God, but he relies on God to such an extent that he comes to resemble Him. In the end, the biggest difference of all between man and God becomes obvious: the Lord's "praise endures forever," but "the desire of the wicked will perish!"

Why is this kind of thing useful to know? Well, I think it's easy to blow through the Psalms thinking that they're just some lines somebody dashed off. They seem so similar sometimes. As the "God" character in the Monty Python movie says, "It's just like those miserable psalms, always so depressing." The problem is that sometimes the artistry and craftsmanship present in the Psalms is masked by the change in language from the original Hebrew text. But when we begin to notice how deliberately these things were thought out by the people who composed them, we begin to look much more closely at what they were trying to communicate. If the very structure of the psalm was that important to the composer, imagine how much more important the underlying message must have been. The Psalms are amazing! And I'm not just talking about numbers 23 and 91. Take some time with them and see what the Holy Spirit teaches you!

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