Reflecting on the Psalms: Repetitions and parallelisms of Hebrew poetry

Originally the Psalms were written in Hebrew poetry which is very different from classical English poetry. While imagery is common to all poetry, elements that stand out more in Hebrew poetry are repetitions, key words and, especially, parallelism.

Jun 12, 2021

By Msgr James  Gnanapiragasam
As you continue reading and praying the  Psalms, you might wonder why there is  a different numbering of the Psalms. When a  Greek translation was made of the Hebrew  Bible, there was a slight change in numbering. The Greek Bible numbering was followed by the Latin version which we use in  our Liturgy. The liturgy will have one figure  lower when there is a difference in number.  See Divine Office (Everyday Prayer) pg.  1337 for a full listing.

Originally the Psalms were written in Hebrew poetry which is very different from  classical English poetry. While imagery is  common to all poetry, elements that stand out  more in Hebrew poetry are repetitions, key  words and, especially, parallelism. These are  important for prayer because as we begin to  repeat, they become imprinted in our memory. We will see these examples in the Psalms  we study. For now, notice that a parallelism  occurs when the second line just makes an  echo of the first: Eg. Ps 19 (18) - The heavens  proclaim the glory of God, And the firmament  shows forth the work of his hands. Or as in Ps  2:4 – He who sits in the heavens laughs; the  Lord is laughing them to scorn.

Songs of Ascent
There is a small collection of fifteen Psalms  (Ps120(119)-Ps134(133) that are called  Songs of Ascent, probably because they were  recited during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem  for the three pilgrimage feasts, (Dt 16:16.)  Ps 120 (119) begins with the announcement  of a pilgrimage and Ps 134 (133) is recited  at the departure from Jerusalem. After looking at some introductory points over the last  few weeks, we will now start systematically  studying different themes or types of Psalms,  beginning with the Songs of Ascent. A few  examples will bring forth their special characteristics. The images from everyday life  will moreover help us in our prayer.

Ps 121 (120) DO (Everyday Prayer) Wk 2  Friday pg 525; Office of Dead pg. 1095. This psalm is recited at the departure of  the pilgrims from their community. They  must be sure of their direction. They look  up to the mountains where Jerusalem itself  is. They need to prepare for their journey as  we all do, preparing for a pilgrimage. They  need God to protect them. The first paragraph  seems to be said by the pilgrims themselves  and the following paragraphs seem to echo  the sentiment of the local community who  pledge their prayers for those leaving on their  journey.

The journey is dangerous and the pilgrims  must be careful not to slip on a rock. At night  the caravan stops and the guard has to warn  them if there is danger. The guard cannot relax or fall sleep. Notice the word ‘guard’ is  repeated six times – a key word showing an  important responsibility. They need shelter  from the blazing sun and the bright moonlight  as they sleep under the open sky. 

The psalmist shows that it is the Lord who  is the guard. Jesus taught his disciples to have  confidence in the Father. Jesus himself felt  the Father’s presence, “I am not alone, the  Father is with me” (Jn 16:32). Jesus prayed  with the confidence that the Father is protecting him always. We are all pilgrims on life’s  journey, a journey that is fraught with danger  on every side. The Lord watches our going  and our coming. We cannot raise our eyes to  the mountains of earthly powers. In God only  do we trust.

Notice that the Church uses this Psalm also  in the Office of the Dead. We pray for those  who have gone before us, knowing with  confidence that they are still under God’s  watchful eye on their journey to the heavenly  Jerusalem, as we pray at Mass, “To our departed brothers and sisters….give kind admittance to your kingdom.”

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