We looked at the book of Psalms last month and noticed that they’re are not just individual poems.
Recent research into the Psalms reveals the psalm before and after a psalm often have relevance we should explore.
Through the years, I thought individual psalms were isolated. This new way of reading the Psalms has opened the Psalms to being read in a way that breathes more life into them.
Let’s explore clues that help us see how we can read the Psalms in light of other Psalms in the area.
Admittedly, some of the clues we need to see them connected require some knowledge of Hebrew language. Some translations attempt to bring out the language clues while others do not. I encourage all readers of the Bible to learn Hebrew, because the language will open numerous doors to deeper insights into the text.
The first way to read the Psalms in unison is to notice the repetition of key words. When rare words are used in one Psalm and then repeated in the following Psalm, we have a strong indicator they are meant to be read in unison.
Let’s take a look at Psalms 1 and 2 to illustrate our point.
Psalm 1 begins with the word “blessed,” and Psalm 2 ends the last verse with the same word. Psalm 1 speaks of “meditating” on the Torah, while Psalm 2 says the wicked “plot” using the same Hebrew word for meditating.
The echo and resonance the author of the Hebrew text intended is often lost in translation. There are numerous Hebrew words that are used in Psalm 1 and repeated in Psalm 2, demonstrating the psalms were intended to be read in unison.
The second way to read them in unison will come easier if you know Hebrew, but many translations offer some help.
Within the Hebrew Scripture, and especially in the Psalms, we have poetry known as “alphabetic acrostics.” An acrostic poem begins a line with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and then every line that follows begins with the next sequential letter.
In Psalm 9, we have the beginning of an acrostic that jumps to Psalm 10 for its completion. The completion of the acrostic in Psalm 10 tells us that Psalms 9 and 10 were meant to be read in unison. The other clue that Psalm 10 goes with 9 is the absence of a superscription (heading) on Psalm 10.
The longest “alphabetic acrostic” in the Hebrew Scripture is Psalm 119, where each letter of the alphabet is used eight times at the beginning of each verse.
The third way of knowing the Psalms are meant to be read in unison is the repetition of a refrain.
In Psalm 42:5, the text reads, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.”
This same refrain is quoted again in the last verse of Psalm 42 (v. 11).
What lets me know that Psalms 42 and 43 are to be read in unison is the same refrain appears in Psalm 43:5. If you just read Psalm 42, you haven’t read the rest of the story the Psalmist wanted you to read.
The fourth way of knowing Psalms were meant to be read in unison comes with doublets. The prime example is Psalm 14, which should be read alongside Psalm 53.
The two are almost identical with minor exceptions, where curious students will want to explore.
When the Psalms were compiled, there existed two versions of the same Psalm, and the compiler of the Psalter thought that both Psalms deserved to be in the Psalter.
There are other Psalms where large sections of the Psalm come from other Psalms. When that phenom occurs, we should compare the Psalms to investigate similarities and differences.
A fifth way to know Psalms were meant to be read in unison is the use of a key theme that unites the Psalms. Psalm 93 opens with the phrase “the Lord reigns.”
The Kingship of God is the theme of Psalms 93-99. Psalm 94 speaks of God as a judge, and that idea is closely allied with kingship.
Psalm 95:3 speaks of God as King, and it’s followed by Psalm 96:10, saying, “the Lord reigns.”
Psalm 97 opens with the phrase “the Lord reigns,” while Psalm 98:6 says the Lord is King. Psalm 99 opens with the phrase “the Lord reigns.”
The seven Psalms of 93-99 revolve around the theme of God’s kingship. The common theme tips the informed reader to read these psalms as a unit.
The Psalms were intended to be read in groupings or paired with other Psalms in the contextual neighborhood. To read them in isolation without considering the surrounding Psalms potentially does the Psalms injustice.
A good resource for a short introduction to each Psalm is Brian Webster’s book, “The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms.”On Faith columnist Brent Emery can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.