Nowhere else in the Bible is there found such a varied and extensive collection of poetry than in the Psalter: 150 psalms in Hebrew, 151 in Greek. This corpus comprises a diverse array of literary forms including prayers, hymns, thanksgiving songs, and didactic poems, not to mention a royal wedding song and a judgment drama. Together, these psalms cover the span of Israel's national life (from monarchy to Second Temple), the breadth of Israel's religious practices (from centralized temple worship to local and family practices), and the gamut of human experience (from death and distress to life and jubilation). The Psalms, moreover, are noted for their introspective outlook as much as for their theological profundity. God and self are tightly interwoven in the book of Psalms.
Given the Psalter's diversity, it is no surprise that the Psalms have been studied from a variety of angles, from the fine poetic line to the Psalter's overall shape. This chapter explores some of these foci and notes how each highlights a significant aspect of the Psalter's common yet variegated character. We begin by examining the Psalms as poetry, proceed to exploring how they have been classified and organized, and conclude with broad questions of theological and anthropological interest.
PSALMS AS POETRY
The common denominator of all psalms is poetry. Whether ancient or modern, poetry is verbal art cast in condensed form. Like poetry in general, biblical poetry reflects a compact style of discourse, employs figurative language, and powerfully evokes emotion and thought. Although many poems exhibit rigidly set patterns of sonority and rhythm (e.g., rhyme and meter), poetry plays with language in creative ways. Innovative use of metaphor and imagery, for example, typically distinguishes poetry from prose. Structurally, poetry also sets itself apart from prose by its use of the poetic “line,” the basic formal unit in poetry. A line is signaled by a pause or stop in the act of recitation, either completing a thought or running into the next line. The study of psalmist poetry thus can be divided into two domains: prosody and metaphor.