The Prayers of the Psalter


Dom Henry Wansbrough

Excerpts from

'The Psalter - an Open-ended Collection'

The prayers and hymns which constitute our Hebrew psalter must be seen as a collection of poems and prayers from among the treasury of poems and prayers in the biblical tradition. The biblical tradition contains many other similar prayers, some of which are contained in the canonical books of the Bible, and some of which have been adopted into the Christian liturgy. There are, however, yet others, such as the Psalms of Solomon and the Hodayoth of Qumran. This in turn poses the intriguing question of how and by whom the Psalter itself came to be built up.

Singing the Psalms

Singing the Psalms
by Artists at Turvey

What is a Psalm

A first attempt at definition of a psalm might be ‘a prayerful poem’ or ‘a poetic prayer’. It is obvious enough to us that the psalms are poems, though the characteristics of Hebrew poetry need to be analysed. The Hebrew Book of Psalms is entitled mylht, which means ‘praises’. The Greek title is yalmoi,, or ‘hymns’, a title which over a third of the psalms bears individually. Another title for them is twlpt, or ‘prayers’, which occurs in the headings of seven psalms and at the end of Psalm 72, ‘the twlpt of David are ended’. However it must always be considered that the collection of 150 psalms may be to some extent a historical accident, and the genre of ‘psalms’ is not in itself clearly delineated, since many similar poetic prayers appear in the Bible outside our psalter of 150 psalms, and many more within the Hebrew religious tradition also outside the Bible. The New Testament further contains canticles, such as Luke’s canticles of the Benedictus, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, not to mention the hymns of the Pauline corpus (Philippians 2.6-11; Colossians 1.15-20; 1 Timothy 3.16) and the hymns of the Book of Revelation (7.12; 15.4-5), all of which are impregnated with language, sentiments and rhythms familiar from the Book of Psalms.

What, then, is a Hebrew poem, and what makes the psalms poems? What constitutes a poem is no less difficult to determine for Hebrew than for English poetry. Much of classic English poetry was discernible by rhymes in various patterns at the end of rhythmical lines. This is, however, much less frequent in modern compositions which are nevertheless clearly poetry. The classic saying of Wordsworth, ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (Preface to Lyrical Ballads) is more adapted to the Victorian poetic sentiment than to the powerful and often aggressive poetry of the Hebrew Bible.

Parallelism, or binary rhythm, perhaps takes in Hebrew poetry the place held in European poetry by rhyme. But it is a feature of much Hebrew and semitic writing. It should be accounted a feature not so much of poetry as of all elevated Hebrew writing, so that it hardly suffices as a criterion of what is poetry and what is not. Without rhyme and a set metre it is often difficult to determine whether a passage should be set out in continuous form or broken into lines, according to the conventions of European poetry. So the solemn promise of Genesis 22.17 may plausibly be set out as poetry, just as Genesis 12.3, although in many Bibles only Genesis 12.3 is so set out:

Genesis 12

I shall bless those who bless you
and shall curse those who curse you
and all clans on earth
will bless themselves by you.

Genesis 22

I will shower blessings on you
and make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven
and the grains of sand on the seashore.
Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies
all nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants
because you have obeyed my commands.

So, for that matter, may the story of the birth of Moses in Exodus 2.1-7 be set out as poetry. The same rhythm and parallelism would justify the same judgement of the ancient Canaanite victory inscription of King Mesha known as the Moabite Stone (ANET, p. 320). In some passages of Jeremiah (e.g. chapters 20-23) the writing slides imperceptibly between prose and poetic forms. The merging of the two forms is notable also in such writings as John 3-4. Indeed, Kugel rejects the whole distinction between prose and poetry. He points out that there is no Hebrew word corresponding to ‘poetry’, which suggests that there is no such concept. It is preferable, therefore, he maintains, to speak of ‘common speech on its best behaviour’ (p. 87).

The distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’ is, as noted, not native to the texts; it is a Hellenistic imposition based, at least originally, on the faulty notion that parts of the Bible were metrical... To see biblical style through the split lens of prose or poetry is to distort the view (p. 85). 1