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Leading Question: Robert Alter, in his book The Art of Biblical Poetry, argues that “poetry is not just a set of techniques for saying impressively what could be said otherwise. Rather, it is a particular way of imagining the world” (p. 151). What poem, or line from a poem, does this for you? Capturing your imagination, giving you a way to see God, yourself, others, or the world around you?

Scripture Focus: Psalm 25, Psalm 33, Psalm 121

The Big Idea: Knowing some basics about biblical poetry can enrich our engagement with scripture and deepen our connection to people now and in centuries past who have prayed these same words.

For Discussion:

Doubling is a foundational aspect of Hebrew writing, present in most Hebrew poetry, and also found in some prose.

In poetry, the most common form of doubling is parallelism, two (or three) lines or verses that are clearly related in some way—with the second line or verse restating, expanding, narrowing, or contrasting the point made in the first. Here are a few examples from Psalms 25 and 33:

Restating: Psalm 25:4
Show me your ways, LORD, teach me your paths.
Psalm 33:2
Praise the LORD with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Expanding or completing: Psalm 33:5
The LORD loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of his unfailing love.
Psalm 25:8
Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
Narrowing: Psalm 33:16
No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
Contrasting: Psalm 25:3
No one who hopes in you
will ever be put to shame,
but shame will come on those
who are treacherous without cause.


Discussion Question: What do you make of the repetition found throughout the Psalms? How does it function and in what ways does it enrich the text?

Psalm 121 is one of 15 short poems labeled as “songs of ascent,” songs thought to have been sung by people making their way to Jerusalem for worship or to participate in yearly festivals. We will return to this Psalm later in the quarter, but for now, look it over and see what kinds of parallelism you notice.

Psalm 121
A song of ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
  where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
  he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The LORD watches over you—
  the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;

8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

Discussion Question: What examples of parallelism stand out to you in this poem? What would have been especially meaningful about reciting this psalm while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem?

Discussion Question: Psalm 25 is an acrostic, meaning that each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This form is thought to express completeness (22 verses in this case, one for each letter of the alphabet), and could have served as a useful structure for composition (like following the rules for writing a haiku or sonnet) and even as a mnemonic device, assisting people in memorization and recitation. Have you ever written an acrostic? How did that form work for you?

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