Of all the books of the Bible in which poetry plays a role, Psalms is the one set of texts whose poetic status has been most strongly felt throughout the generations—regardless of the vagaries of translation, typographical arrangement of verses or notions about biblical literary form.
This unwavering perception that the psalms are formal poems—even in ages, for example, when most readers imagined that the prophets spoke nothing but emphatic figurative prose—was no doubt reinforced by the musical indications in the texts themselves. Many of the psalms are explicitly presented, in introductory notes, as liturgical songs to be intoned to the accompaniment of the lyre, the ten-stringed instrument, cymbals, drums or whatever else was once used to fill the temple courts with melody and rhythm.
The name of the book in Western languages, from the Greek psalmos, a song sung to a plucked instrument, stresses this musical character, as does the full Hebrew title mizmorei tehillim, “songs of praise.”
It is symptomatic of the general response to these poems that so many poets in Renaissance England, though ignorant both of Hebrew and of an understanding of biblical poetic structure, tried their hand at producing metrical English versions of Psalms. In whatever way biblical versification was thought to work, it was almost universally assumed that the psalms exhibited the rhythmic regularity, the symmetries, the cadenced repetitions, of artful poems.
A countervailing assumption, however, has also enjoyed a great deal of currency down to our own times: that if the Book of Psalms is poetry, it is quintessentially a “poetry of the heart,” a spontaneous outpouring of feeling expressed with directness and simplicity, almost without the intervention of artifice, its poignancy and universal appeal deriving from this very lack of conscious artifice. An extreme but by no means uncharacteristic instance of this view is expressed by the Israeli litterateur, Yeshurun Keshet: “In the Book of Psalms everything is said in a primary fashion, without any ‘literariness.’ What characterizes the poetic expression of Psalms is that the poet allows objects and nature to 030speak for themselves without explaining them to us as modern poets do….”1
This statement strikes me as fundamentally misconceived in imagining that any kind of literary expression can really escape “literariness,” but one of course sees the features of Psalms that the writer has in mind. Whereas in Job, for example, one encounters daring leaps of invention in the imagery or, in the prophets, intricate elaborations of rhetorical figures, the psalms do generally stick to something more “primary”—which does not mean something less literary but, on the contrary, a greater reliance on the conventional the familiar in imagery, in the sequence of ideas, in the structure of the poem. Such a reliance on the conventional is perfectly understandable: A text that is to be chanted by pilgrims in procession on their way up to the Temple Mount, or recited by a supplicant at the altar, or by someone recovered from grave illness offering a thanksgiving sacrifice, does not want or need a lot of fancy footwork in the imagery and syntax; more appropriate, in fact, is an eloquent rehearsal of traditional materials and even traditional ways of ordering those materials in a certain sequence.
The conventionality of the psalms may be conceded; literary convention gives writers to construct their own discourse. But good writers always exert a subtle pressure on convention, in certain ways remaking it as they build within it. So it is with the psalms.
Our modern emphasis on originality in literature may lead to a certain perplexity about how to think of a collection where, in any given psalmic genre—thanksgiving psalms or cultic hymns, for example—a dozen or more poems seem to be saying the same thing, often with more or less the same metaphors and sometimes even with some of the same phrasing. What we, as modern readers, need is to be more attuned to the nuanced individual character—“originality,” in fact, may not be the relevant concept—of different poems reflecting the same genre and even many of the same formulaic devices. There are abundant instances in later poetic tradition, as in Arabic and Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain or Petrarchan love poetry, where the power of the individual poem is meant to be felt precisely in such a fine recasting of the conventional, and that is what we ought to be able to discern more minutely in the psalms.
Let me state the question about the form of Psalms in the most basic fashion: What difference does it make to the content of the psalms that they are poems? Simply this: That poetry, working through a system of complex linkages of sound, image, word, rhythm, syntax, theme, idea, is an instrument for conveying densely patterned meanings, and sometimes contradictory meanings, that are not readily conveyable through other kinds of discourse. On the evidence of countless poems, ancient and modern, we may say that poetry is a way of using language strongly oriented toward the creation of minute, multiple, heterogeneous and semantically fruitful interconnections in the text.
The psalms are of course poems written out of deep and often passionate faith. What I am proposing is that the poetic medium made it possible to articulate the emotional freight, the moral consequences, the altered perception of the world that flowed from this monotheistic belief, in compact verbal structures that can, in some instances, seem simplicity itself.
Psalms, at least in the guise of cultic hymns, were a common poetic genre throughout the ancient Near East, but as the form was adapted by Hebrew poets, it often became an instrument for expressing in a 031collective voice (whether first person plural or singular) a distinctive, sometimes radically new, sense of time, space, history, creation and the character of individual destiny. In keeping with this complex expressive purpose, many psalms, on scrutiny, prove to have a finely tensile semantic weave that one would not expect from the seeming conventionality of the language.
An instructive case in point is the very first psalm in the traditional collection (see first sidebar to this article). The ancient editors must have felt, with considerable justice, that this was a characteristic psalm and thus fitting to set at the beginning of the collection, perhaps as a kind of introduction to the rest.
The opening formula, “Happy is the man,” occurs in a whole series of psalms, as does its praise of God’s teaching (torah) and its assured sense that the wicked will be requited with evil, the righteous with success. There is in fact not much that seems “poetic” about Psalm 1 and certainly nothing that appears original. It contains very little figurative language, and its agricultural similes could scarcely be more conventional—fruit-bearing trees over against wind-driven chaff. In what, then, does the poem’s power reside, and in what way might it be, for all its simplicity and conventionality, more than the versification of an ancient monotheistic moral cliché?
The poet insists on a neat contrast between the wicked and the righteous. Structurally the poem is fashioned with a tight logical antithesis. The psalmist takes pains to place explicit indicators of logical transition from the righteous to the wicked or vice versa at the beginning of four different verses: “Rather” (verse 2a), “Not so” (verse 5a), “Rather” (verse 5b), “Thus” (verse 6a). Reality is thus made to yield an exact moral calculus: There are things the just man will not do; indeed, there is something antithetical he does instead; the fate of the wicked the contrary of the fate of the just.
The poetic formulation of this idea of neatly retributive justice derives its force from the fact that the language of the poem makes it seem built into the very structure of reality. As a result the didactic movement from “not so” to “thus” is in the poem something more than preaching insistence.
Note that the righteous man stands still—indeed, his righteousness may depend on his ability to stand still and reflect upon true things. In the first verse—the only triadic one in the poem—we are told what the righteous man does not do. He does not walk…stand…or sit. If he actually performed these actions, he would be on the constant move. When, in Line 2a, the righteous man is characterized by what he actually does do, he initially is given no verb, then, in Line 2b he meditates, a verb of contemplative activity or conning a text. Next he is described not with an active verb but with a past participle that denotes the opposite of movement—he has been “planted” (Line 3a). From this firmly anchored location, the tree—not the man— can put forth fruit and grow unwithering leaves. (Thus, the verb is applied to the simile’s referrent, the tree, rather than to the man.)
The wicked, by contrast, are in constant motion, restless, without direction, carried hither and thither by forces over which they exert no control. Psychologically, to be wicked is to give oneself over to conflicting and insatiable desires, hence to a condition of rudderlessness; in terms of moral consequences, it is to make oneself absolutely vulnerable to retribution.
The last two lines of the poem close it with what scholars call an envelope structure of which biblical writers are particularly fond: The end formally echoes the beginning. The poem began with sinners and the wicked; it ends with dose same agents of wrongdoing, into whose midst, however, the righteous—mentioned explicitly as such for the first time—are now introduced. The poem began by invoking evil councils and assemblies; it concludes by mentioning proper councils and legal sessions, in which the wicked cannot hope to prevail, or cannot presume to join.
The syntax of the final line articulates the contrast between the just and the unjust with a further complication of meaning. Line 7a is the only place in the poem in which God appears as a grammatical subject: God “knows” (a verb implying special intimacy, as in its frequent sexual sense; hence my translation, “embraces”) the way of the righteous. Line 7b then pointedly swerves from syntactic parallelism while it pursues an antithesis: and the way of the wicked is lost (or perishes). The very “way” of evildoers on which, at the beginning of the poem, the happy man did not stand is here at the end seen to be a way that leads nowhere, or to perdition. The wicked themselves are not even accorded the dignity of being a proper grammatical subject of an active verb: windblown like chaff, whatever way they go on is trackless, directionless, doomed.
The effectiveness of the whole poem surely has a good deal to do, as many readers have recognized, with the archetypal simplicity of the contrasted images of tree and chaff. But the study in movement and stillness that underlies the poem provides with an added dimension that helps explain the poem’s power. We may even wonder whether this evocation of impotent kinetic movement in contrast to fruitful stasis may be conceived in terms of moral psychology, and not merely as a matter of reward 032and punishment. That is, the essence of wrongdoing is to miss the mark (that is etymologically what the Hebrew word for “sinners” means), to pursue foolish or unattainable objects of desire that will lead only to frustration, while the man whose delight is in the Lord’s teaching knows the art of sitting still in the right place, of finding fulfillment within the limits of law and of his own human condition.
The psalms contain no real nature poetry because there is in the psalmist’s view no independent realm of nature. But there is creation poetry, or evocations of the natural world as the embodiment of the Creator’s ordering power and quickening presence. The justly celebrated Psalm 8 (see third sidebar to this article) is a luminous instance of how poetic structure was made to yield a picture of the world that eloquently integrates underlying elements of Israelite belief. The poem might be described as a kind of summarizing paraphrase of 033the account of creation in Genesis 1, more or less following the same order of things created and stressing, as does Genesis 1, man’s God-given dominion over the created world. The difference in form, however, between the two texts is crucial and instructive.
Genesis 1, being narrative, reports creation as a sequence of acts—indeed, as a kind of regulated procession moving from the dividing of light and darkness and the making of heaven, earth and sea to God’s rest on the seventh day after the creation of the animal kingdom and of man. It is all forward movement, from origins through time to a fulfillment.
Psalm 8 (see third sidebar to this article) assumes this narrative process as a background. The psalm takes up after the completion of creation. Like many lyric poems it is the complex realization of one moment of perception: 034The speaker looking around at the created world and marveling at it, and at man’s place in it.
All literary texts are of course serial, unrolling in time like the scrolls on which they were once written. A narrative may, to a limited extent, qualify this temporal thrust by suggesting, through repetition and analogy that the reader shuttle, mentally, back and forth along the text continuum as he reads. In the short, lyric poem, however, there is the greatest potential for neutralizing the temporal movement inherent in verbal texts. Within a small compass, through the use of intricate and closely 035clustered devices of linkage and repetition, the lyric poem can create the illusion of actual simultaneity, offering to the mind’s eye a single panorama with multiple elements held closely together. Psalm 8 provides us with an excellent example of this, although Lines 2 and 3 are not very intelligible in the Hebrew text that has been passed down to us.
Psalm 8 gives us the extreme instance of envelope structure—in the last line is the repeated refrain of the first line. That, of course, is a common ending device in many bodies of poetry, but it is used only occasionally in biblical verse. The appropriateness of a refrain for our poem is clear enough. A perfect circle is closed: The majesty of God, affirmed at the beginning, is restated verbatim at the end, but with the sense accrued through the intervening eight lines of what concretely it means for His name to be majestic throughout the earth. The Hebrew says specifically “all” the earth, thus framing the whole poem with two symmetrical “all”s. His dominion is over all, heaven and earth, angels and men and creatures of the field and air and sea, and He places “all” (Line 7b) at the feet of men.
After this resounding formula of introduction and address to God in Line 1, we may be able, tentatively, to rescue a few fragments from the enigma of Lines 2–3. The heavens tell God’s glory; that is intelligible enough; this leads directly to the assertion in Line 4 about the awe-inspiring sight of heaven and the moon and stars. “Heaven” in Line 2a also links up with “earth” at the end of Line 2, thus recalling the creation story and reinforcing the idea of “allness.” Heaven and earth is a good biblical idiom for all of creation.
I have made a hesitant guess that “out of the mouths of babes…” is a parallel verse to the one in which the heavens tell God’s splendor, because it would also seem to be an indication of praise—that is, God’s magnificence is borne witness to by the whole range of creation, from the beauty of the heavens to the prattle of infants.
Any interpretation of Line 3 is bound to be conjectural. I would propose that the notion of laying low enemies and “founding” something strong, in the context of a creation story, looks like an allusion to the mythic imagery borrowed from the Canaanite tradition, in which God, like Baal, is said to have subdued a primordial sea beast in order to secure the world on dry land.2 If my guess is right, this would also introduce the sea at the beginning of the poem, forming a cosmological triptych of heaven, earth and sea. At any rate, “founded” at the beginning of Line 3 would seem to be linked with “established” at the end of Line 4, both pointing to the completed work of solid creation, whose perfection the speaker now beholds.
In Line 4, the speaker introduces himself explicitly into the frame of the poem: “I see.” We are invited to stand with him, an individual human being looking up at the splendor of the night sky and marveling over man’s place in the intricate scheme of things. These next six lines leading to the final refrain constitute a special kind of “focusing,” a common feature of biblical verse. That is, while the 036two halves of a line of biblical verse are often more or less parallel in meaning, the second half of the line typically intensifies the initial utterance (for example, from “break” to “smash”); or concretizes it (from “wrath” to “flaming fury”), or, in the case of spatial and geographical images, adopts a kind of zoom-lens effect (from “the cities of Judea” to “the courtyards of Jerusalem”). In this poem, we see a focusing that governs the whole structure. First, the speaker, the “I” beholds the heavens; then, he sees, according to a common pattern, what is contained within the heavens—the moon and the stars. The heavens are “the work of Your fingers”—an elegant variant of the standard phrase, “the work of Your hands,” which we find in Line 7. This variant, however, appears only here in the whole Bible, so we may well expect to find in it the indication of especially delicate work, as the speaker scans the exquisite tracery of the night sky.
Next, in Line 4, the speaker moves from heaven to man, who is but little lower than the heavens and the celestial beings (’elohim). Below man is the rest of God’s handiwork; “all” that is “at his feet” (The Hebrew says literally “under his feet,” thus reinforcing the downward vertical movement in the picture of the cosmic hierarchy.)
Next comes the famous cry of amazement over God’s singling out of man (Line 5). It is a particularly striking instance of the intuitive counterpoint that often guides biblical poets. In every other line of the poem, except this one, there is dynamic movement between the two halves of the line. The second half of the line specifies what is general in the first half of the line. Or it focuses or heightens what is referred to in the first half of the line. Or the second half of the line forms a miniature narrative sequence following the first half of the line. But not in Line 5. Here, by contrast, at the exact thematic center, in the fifth of the poem’s ten lines, semantic movement is slowed to allow for the strong, stately emphasis of virtual synonymity, noun for noun and verb for verb, in the same syntactical order: “What is man that You are mindful of him, / / humankind, that You pay him heed?”
In the lines that follow, the poet takes this static fact and makes it the basis for dynamic movement—as in the first section of the poem (Lines 1–4), creating a parallelism of specification and sequentiality in the second half of the lines.
God has set this human creature only a little lower than the divine, crowning him with honor and glory (Line 6), quite like the attributes He Himself possesses (parallel to Lines 1–2).
Line 7 then specifies the meaning of this coronation as man’s having been given dominion over earthly things. This line thus makes a transition in the vertical scheme from heaven through man to the world below.
Lines 8–9, just before the refrain, reiterate the inventory of living creatures, loosely recalling Genesis 1 (though the terms are different from those in Genesis), then specifying what is contained within the “all…work of Your hands,” referred to in Line 7. These two lines (8–9) concisely invoke both domestic and wild animals and all three spheres of terrestrial life—field and air and sea.
The second half of Line 8 focuses the first half: “fish of the sea” becomes in the second half of the line—“whatever passes along the paths of the sea.” Interestingly, “passes” is the only active verb in the poem attached to a created thing. Otherwise God acts on all realms of creation; man beholds the various realms; but until now the created things themselves have been merely listed as objects of God’s attention and that of his surrogate, man. Now, in the final detail of the catalogue of creation, we see an image of movement, a nice intimation in this panoramic view of that teeming vitality, surging through the most inaccessible reaches of the created world, over which man has been appointed to rule.
The God of biblical faith is not only a God of the cosmos, but also a God of history. Many psalms—including those referring explicitly to the Judean king, classified as “royal psalms”—are responses to the most urgent pressures of the historical moment, whether as pleas to God to save His king and people at a time of national danger or as celebrations of some recent or remembered military victory.
Poems of this sort also abound in the pre-monotheistic world, where every nation was presumed to have its own particular god of battles whose intercession was solicited in time of military need. Even in monotheistic guise, this may seem one of the less edifying forms of worship. Remember Voltaire’s bitter mockery at the beginning of Candide, when he has both sides simultaneously celebrate Te Deum over the smoking battlefield for having been vouchsafed the grace to slaughter thousands of the enemy.
But the best of what we may call the political psalms are neither as narrow nor as crudely pragmatic as modern preconceptions might lead us to expect. The composers of the political psalms were confronted with expressing in poetic form a paradox at the heart of biblical religion: The universalistic belief in a single God of all the earth Who had chosen as the medium of His relations with humanity the particularism of a compact with one people.
This paradox had a major geographical corollary. The psalms having been made for use in and around the temple cult in Jerusalem, how was the Israelite to imagine this capital city of a nation-state, 037first conquered by David for strategic and political reasons, as the “city of our God,” the God who was master of all the nations of the world? The poetic medium, I would suggest, with its extraordinary capacity for interlocking disparate elements and establishing intricate progressions of images and ideas, provided a uniquely apt instrument for the expression of such meanings held in high tension.
Here is Psalm 48, which would seem to be a song sung by—or perhaps to—pilgrims as they made their way up the steep ascent to the ramparts of Jerusalem.
The first two lines of the poem lock together the particularist and universalist poles of the psalmist’s vision. God’s greatness is acclaimed in the one city in the world that is uniquely His, but the high-bastioned city itself, viewed from below as the celebrants climb up to it, is a “joy to all the earth” (Line 2). This sense of Jerusalem’s looming importance is enhanced by its designation as the mythological “peak of Zaphon.” In Canaanite tradition, Mount Zaphon was the abode of the gods; so Mount Zion is imagined here. If we may mix mythologies, Mt. Zion is viewed as a kind of Mt. Olympus. If I am right in assuming that each of the triadic parts of Line 2 builds on a heightening movement, the reference to the “great King” at the end of Line 2 would be to God, not to the reigning Davidic monarch, thus culminating a rising pitch of assertion in the following fashion: (a) lofty Jerusalem is a joy to all the world; (b) Mt. Zion is a veritable dwelling-place of the gods; (c) in fact, it is the chosen capital of the world’s King.
Line 3 nicely summarizes what has preceded and leads into the narrative of Lines 4–11: One has only to look up at the impregnable citadels of Jerusalem to realize concretely how in historical fact God has become a stronghold for His people.
The speaker now launches into the story of a spectacular defeat inflicted on an alliance that at some point in the near or distant past had set out to invade Israel by sea (Lines 4–7). The precise historical reference is probably unrecoverable, but the language used to describe the naval victory vividly shows how the poet locates Jerusalem in historical time and space.
Clearly, there is a pointed antithesis between the “great King” of Line 2, who becomes “known” 038in Line 3, and the conspiring kings of Line 5 who assemble or join forces. The antithesis is heightened in Hebrew by use of nod‘a in Line 3 (the great King becomes “known”) and no’adu in Line 4 (the kings “join forces” or “assemble”).
Perhaps, as some scholars have proposed, the “ships of Tarshish” in Line 7 refers not to the port of embarkation but to a particular kind of low-keeled, oar-propelled warship. Be that as it may, the invasion fleet would have had to come somewhere from the west, on the Mediterranean, and Tarshish is a far-off port (it is the destination of the fleeing Jonah). In other words, as our gaze now swivels around from the ramparts of Jerusalem to look down over the coastal plain and to the Great Sea beyond it, and as we move at the same time from present to past, we are invited to imagine hostile forces assembling from the ends of the earth to attack the Land of Israel.
The link between Mt. Zion and an attempted invasion by sea may at first seem a little tenuous, depending merely on the implicit notion that the capital city would have been the invaders’ ultimate goal. The juxtaposition, however, of Mt. Zion and the sea makes perfect sense as soon as one realizes that the whole description of the overturning of the enemy fleet by an easterly gale is a phrase-for-phrase allusion to the Song of the Sea in Exodus. Compare Line 6–7 of our psalm with Exodus 15:14–16:
“The peoples hear, they tremble;
Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia.
Now are the clans of Edom dismayed;
The tribes of Moab—trembling grips them;
All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast.”
Moses’ victory song in Exodus concludes in a stanza that contrasts the firm-founded sanctuary God will build in Israel’s future Land with the engulfing sea that destroys Israel’s enemies. Our psalm here starts from the other end of the geographical perspective, that is, from what constitutes the concluding verses of the poem in Exodus 15—the solid mountain sanctuary established for Israel, from whose rocky heights one can see God’s enemies perishing in unstable water.
As we move back, in Lines 8–9, from the story of the defeat of God’s enemies by storm to “the city of God,” the allusion to Exodus 15 is continued, for the poet’s prayer for the city is that it be forever “firm-founded” (konen, the very verb that dominated the concluding lines of the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15).6 Thus we appreciate the poetic perception of a particular sea-borne foe as a reenactment of the triumph at the Red (or Reed) Sea. This earlier geographical setting, superimposed on the later—the mountainous eminence of Jerusalem over against the watery expanses of the Mediterranean—makes a symbolic pairing that concretely depicts God’s dominion over all the earth and the power of His presence in history. As the spatial imagery of the poem takes us from Jerusalem to the far reaches of the known world, the temporal indications unite the present with the relatively recent past (the sea victory of the psalm) and the distant past (Moses’ victory) as well as with the indefinite future. Jerusalem, God’s city, will continue “for ever and ever” to the last [or, a future] generation,” “evermore” (Lines 15–16). Thus the towering ramparts of the fortress-city become a nexus for all imagined time and space.
Beginning with Line 10, the psalm comes back to city and temple, at which point the paradox of the God of all the earth Who has chosen a local place and habitation is flaunted: God’s “steadfastness,” or “loving kindness” (hesed), can be discerned within “the midst of [His] temple,” while His praise reaches “to the ends of the earth.” The four concluding lines of the poem then revert, in a loose envelope structure, to the perspective with which the poem began: the spiritual tourist approaching the city from below. Those who come to the city are invited to take in its entire imposing circumference, to “count” its towers deployed in space so that they may “recount” God’s greatness for all future time (the pun is there in the Hebrew also).
All this adroit juggling of time and space around the idea of Jerusalem will hardly allay the doubts of the modern reader who may be nervous about such mixtures of politics and faith, but with even a grudging suspension of disbelief we can see how the poem’s finely regulated sequencing of images and actions is a strong translation of the monotheistic belief in a world-embracing God Who chooses a place, and takes sides, in the large sweep of history.
The personal and penitential psalms are the ones that continue to speak most unambiguously to a wide range of readers, even with all the transformations that the faiths of Jews and Christians have undergone since biblical times. In these religious poems without a strong national context, one does not generally see a poetic redefinition of space, because geography and geopolitics are not at issue. Some of these psalms do, however, strikingly refashion time, as the imagination stretches to gauge the abyss between man’s creaturely temporality and the eternality of the Creator. The fleeting nature of human life is of course a perception by no means limited to monotheistic or religious poetry, but the biblical poets deepened this recurrent human perception in a distinctive way by rendering the ephemerality and incompleteness of the life of man against the background of God’s eternity. Since poetry—especially biblical poetry—often works out meanings through an interplay of polarities, the brevity of human existence also provides a certain imaginative access through contrast to the inconceivable timelessness of God.
Perhaps the most remarkable expression of these juxtaposed times—man’s and God’s—is Psalm 90 (see last sidebar to this article). The poem is composed of four segments, which are successive stages in a pronounced rhetorical structure. The segments may be described as follows: (1) poem, addressing God and invoking His eternality (Lines 1–3); (2) characterization of human transience, referring to man in the third person (Lines 4–7); (3) confession of ephemeral man’s sinfulness, in the first person plural (we) (Lines 8–13); (4) ephemeral man’s prayer for wisdom and for God’s grace (Lines 14–19).
This poem is a collective penitential supplication. The community has apparently been suffering some unspecified ill or ills for a considerable length of time. God’s “wrath” is reiterated. More concretely, affliction and years of evil are referred to in Line 17. Whether through famine or plague or military defeat or a combination of disasters, we do not know. The recurrent formula of the psalms of supplication, “O Lord! How long?” is introduced in Line 15, at the beginning of the plea to God for a change of heart (hinahem, rendered here as “take pity”).
Most supplication poems use structure to intensify the unbearableness of the speaker’s anguish, but here the poet transforms the supplication into a haunting meditation on human transience.
The poem, framed by “Lord, You …” (Line 1a) and “You are God” (Line 3b), invokes the beginnings of the world through conventional birth 040imagery (Line 2, literally the line says the mountains “were born”). Such conventional imagery has a special point here, however, because the language of biological reproduction, focused on the world itself, simultaneously points forward to ephemeral man born of woman, and underscores the contrast with the Creator, Whose existence is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Line 3).
After the poem, the penitential note is struck when the poet has God urging men to “turn back,” that is, to repent. The actual agency of this urging, however, is a deed as well as an utterance. In Line 4a God has turned man back (the same verb) to dust through suffering. (Some translations have God bringing back man to contrition, rather than dust.) Whatever the nature of this suffering, it has served to remind the poet of the painful mortality of humankind—and that is the burden of the rest of the poem. The “turning back” God has urged is thus already embodied in the chastened self-knowledge of the poetic discourse.
Line 5 is triadic to emphasize its function as the beginning of the meditation on human transience: We glide swiftly from a thousand years in God’s sight, to yesterday that has just passed, to a brief watch in the night—an exquisite example of focusing within a single verse. This is time viewed from God’s end of the telescope; but the last term—like a watch in the night—takes us down into the world of human existence. In a beautiful overlap, “watch in the night” carries us on, in the next line (Line 6) to man engulfed by sleep. That is, a thousand years for God are a fleeting moment of wakefulness in the dark of eternity, while man’s whole existence is little more than fluid fitful sleep. God’s time is indicated by the poetic device of focusing. By contrast, man’s 041time is represented through a narrative movement, strictly limited to a 24-hour framework that, by implication, recurs cyclically for each new individual: from night (Line 6a) to morning (6b–7a) to evening (7b).
In Part III, the poet switches to the first person plural (we) and proceeds to the confession proper (Lines 8–13). The whole confession is bracketed by an internal envelope structure: God’s “wrath” and “anger” in Line 8 become God’s “wrath” and “fury” in Line 13.
Part III is defined by an underlying image of insubstantial, combustible humanity being burned up in the hot blast of God’s wrath. This effect is reinforced by the likening of man’s life to a “sigh” (Line 10), an ineffectual breath of sound in contrast to God’s consuming blast.
After the units of time linked to God in Line 5, the units of man’s time move progressively, advancing from “days” (Line 10a), to “years” (10b), to a compound, “days of our years” (11a), but never getting beyond seventy or eighty, not even as far as the thousand that is a brief passing interval for God.
The final prayer (part IV) carries the accumulated weight of the entire poem. It begins with a petition for the wisdom to “number our days.” God, who urged man to turn back, is now implored to respond by Himself turning back to man. The temporal terminology is taken up once more, but in keeping with the upbeat of hopeful prayer the poet envisions that God will “Sate us in the morning with Your kindness, / that we may sing and rejoice all our days. / / Give us gladness as the days You have afflicted us, / the years we saw evil.”
The narrative progression from morning to days and from days to years looks beyond the futile cycle of transience to imagine life as a forward movement from smaller to greater in joy. Significantly, the sole temporal terms from the previous parts of the poem that are not repeated here are the ones symbolically associated with fitful sleep and death—“evening” and “night.”
The final line of the poem, concluding the prayer for divine favor, is once again a triad in order to repeat the final climactic clause; “Let…the work of our hands [be] firmly founded for us, / the work of our hands firmly found.” The verb, “firmly found,” characterizes solid foundations, like houses or temples. The special force of its reiteration at the end of Psalm 90 provides a contrast to the imagery of withering grass, sighs, things burnt up by God’s wrath, and humanity engulfed by sleep. With God’s blessing, there is something solid lasting well-founded in human endeavor.
Each of our lives is fleeting—and the greatness of the poem is that it never loses hold of this painful truth, even in the hopeful piety of the conclusion—but the works we perform, out of a proper awareness of our vulnerable mortality, can have substance, are our human means of continuity and renewal from one generation to the next.
The multifaceted sense of time’s permutations that is made possible through the structure of the poem is altogether remarkable. By a subtle sequence of fairly simple conventional images and by use of basic units of time, backward and forward and forward again, the poet is able to realize imaginatively in rapid succession three very different perceptions of time—from the divine perspective of eternity, from man’s vanishing vantage point of the moment, and, reversing that view, from the perspective of a community that can see in the uses it makes of its moments, a prospect of happy persistence.
God manifests Himself to man in part through language, and necessarily His deeds are made known by any one man to others, and perhaps also by any one man to himself, chiefly through the mediation of language. Psalms, more than any other group of biblical poems, brings to the fore this consciousness of the linguistic medium of religious experience.
These ancient makers of devotional and celebratory poems were keenly aware that poetry is the most complex ordering of language, and perhaps also the most demanding. Within the formal limits of a poem the poet can take advantage of the emphatic repetitions dictated by the particular prosodic system, the symmetries and antitheses and internal echoes intensified by a closed verbal structure, the fine intertwinings of sound and image and reported act, to give coherence and authority to his perceptions of the world. The psalmist’s delight in the suppleness and serendipities of poetic form is not a distraction from the spiritual seriousness of the poems but his chief means of realizing his spiritual vision, and it is one source of the power these poems continue to have not only to excite our imaginations but also to engage our lives.
(Adapted from The Art of Biblical Poetry, Chapter V [New York: Basic Books, 1985].)
Of all the books of the Bible in which poetry plays a role, Psalms is the one set of texts whose poetic status has been most strongly felt throughout the generations—regardless of the vagaries of translation, typographical arrangement of verses or notions about biblical literary form. This unwavering perception that the psalms are formal poems—even in ages, for example, when most readers imagined that the prophets spoke nothing but emphatic figurative prose—was no doubt reinforced by the musical indications in the texts themselves. Many of the psalms are explicitly presented, in introductory notes, as liturgical songs to be intoned […]