Reading the Psalms? Follow the Parallel Lines

The psalms we find in the Bible are Hebrew poetry. If we tried to translate a Spanish poem into English, there are some parts of the poem – the rhyme, rhythm, and word play – that we just cannot appreciate. That is also true about this Hebrew poetry, but by learning about a few techniques that these inspired poets used, we will better appreciate the Hebrew poetry in our Bibles. Then we can use these songs and prayers in our speaking to God.

One of these techniques is called Parallelism.

Hebrew poetry uses a writing form called parallelism. This is a deliberate setting out of lines of thought that run along in the same track – one line expresses a thought, the next line expresses the same thought just a bit differently. This technique may be used for two, three, or more lines. The effect is somewhat like adding flavors in a recipe. For instance in mole – one flavor is OK but the right layering of many flavors makes it such a wonderful feast!

At times, the parallelism will structure a thought using an opposite to contrast as in light and darkness or a beast of the field contrasted with a gentle mother makes the beast even more frightening.

EXAMPLE:

A train runs on parallel tracks;

The lanes of a road safely direct cars;

A runner keeps to the path that is marked;

But the lazy man sits on the porch.

In this silly set of lines, the transportation of commercial goods and families are identified to have certain lanes approved and available to accomplish the needs of people. An athlete whose goal is to complete a race runs hard and fast only on the race route, and this diligent one is contrasted with a lazy person who accomplishes nothing and moves nowhere! The train runs and a human runs; the car is safe in its lane and the lazy man is safe on his porch, but only one is advancing to a destination.

As our first example in the Psalms, let us consider Psalm 119:25-32.

Verses 25-27.

My soul clings to the dust;

Give me (Preserve my) life according to your word.

When I told of my ways, you answered me;

Teach me your statutes!

Make me understand the way of your precepts;

And I will meditate on your wondrous works.

So we read what it says here and begin to think about what the lines say and how they relate to the one before and after.

What does it say?

Does it repeat the line before – is it building and explaining?

Is it a contrast to the line before – an opposite?

In our thinking, using our God-given minds, we understand that as we begin to sing this song, we are at a very low point – “My soul clings to the dust.” We might think that the writer is actually rolling around in the dirt, but that is probably not what he means, so we have to figure out what this statement represents. When I consulted other versions, I realized that being laid low is not passive – the writer is not just laying there to rest – the dust is what he is hanging onto! This is what I am drawn to and where I like to stay! What is the dust? The dust represents death.

This is a very personal song, a lament in sorrowful emotion, of extreme distress. The writer is finding words to express what he is feeling. I too sometimes want to cry, “My soul clings to the dust!” The Psalmist helps us to recognize that we too look at death and often cling to death, at fruitlessness, at a place where there is no life. One of the blessings of the psalms is that in them we find a place to honestly express our fears and emotions. This biblical poetry is an outlet to examine our fears, worries, concerns, and identify how we feel. This is even the kind of Bible study that may start by asking, “How does it make you feel?” Do you ever feel as if your very soul is in the dirt? As if your life is dusty and unfruitful? Do you see yourself clinging to the dust?

But this sad song does not leave us in the dust! The Psalmist turns his gaze from that dust to look at something else, to look at Someone else.

The next line confirms that dust does represent death because the prayer becomes “preserve my life.” This line is a prayer that looks to God for help. We use this line to ask God to give us life, new birth life, a growing life. We know what God does with dust. In Genesis 2:7 we read, “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. God made a perfect, living being out of the dust of the earth. A living thing made in the image of God. All life comes from God and God sustains life every moment of every day. But because of sin, the things we naturally cling to are not the things that give us life. Only by turning to God, to God’s word, will these natural attractions be overcome. The Psalmist knows this and we will learn this … from God’s word.

In verse 26, the Psalmist continues in his honesty, “I recounted my ways.” When we say the words of this line, we are confessing that we are sinners, in the dust, clinging to death; we have looked at what we do, where we go, what we sinfully cling to, and we confess that all that has gone on in our lives before God leads to death. But, but, BUT pure beauty comes after such a confession – God answers! I looked at my ways and you, God, answered. The Bible doesn’t let us hide sin and God sees all of it! God will not leave us in our sin when we confess it to Him. Life is according to God’s word and I will ask that He teach me those decrees – those words of life that come out of God’s mouth in God’s breath!

“Teach me your statutes! Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.” These lines are parallel lines that develop the idea of how God gives and preserves our life. God speaks to us when we confess and give up those old dusty ways. He will teach us and increase our understanding. Sometimes this is hard work – like learning parallelism! – but a soul preserved and made alive by God will do that hard work, study, ask for understanding, and meditate on the wonders of God.

Verses 28 and 29.

My soul melts away for sorrow;

Strengthen me according to your word.

Put false ways far from me;

And graciously teach me your law!

These lines repeat – parallel – the verses we have already thought through, but layer a new dimension of sorrow. As long as we are alive and living in this world, sin will still come to our doors to visit us. It will come to the door of our eyes, our ears, our minds, and hearts; it will come from your family, your church family, your neighbors, and ways that I don’t have time to list. Sin should make us feel sorrow. These verses, in fact all of Psalm 119, teaches us the God’s word is the place to turn and God’s character is what we trust to be faithful.

The Apostle John also wrote about The Word. Can you remember what he said? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” “14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Our sorrow is great when we recount our ways and realize that we cannot live perfectly according to God’s law. We know that we need help so where do we turn? God knows what we are like and he knows that we cling to the dust and knows that we need his word – so he sent His Word – His son Jesus. Jesus came to live among men and women who were dusty and pitifully sorrowful. He lived among people just like us but He did not sin. Even at that time, most people rejected him. The authorities killed him because he showed them their sin and told them about God. He was a light shining in their darkness but they did not want to see it. They put Him on a cross and He died there. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that God sent Jesus for us, because of our sins. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus was made sin for me and you. He paid the price of death – the dust and sorrow – but because Jesus perfectly obeyed God, he was greater that death and rose up out of the grave. This is our proof that Jesus’ sacrifice was acceptable to God.

We want to ask that God keep us in His truth. Turn to Jesus and let Him preserve your life, teach you about God, and give you strength. When you confess your ways, God’s grace and mercy comes to you through his Word, Jesus.

Verses 30-32.

These final verses are a prayer, a vow, to declare where you are now looking.

I have chosen the way of faithfulness;

I set your rules before me.

I cling to your testimonies, O LORD;

Let me not be put to shame!

I will run in the way of your commandments,

When you enlarge my heart!

If you sing this vow or pray this prayer, you have left clinging to the dust and “cling” to the testimony of Jesus! You have no shame before God and want to stay there. You know that there is freedom and strength and endurance to run in the way of God’s commands. Cling to the word of Jesus. His life gives you life. Leave behind all deceit and lies and find your strength in the grace and truth of the Savior Jesus Christ.

This is an example of just one song that will remind you of where you come from – dust and sorrow – and what you are made alive to – understanding, wonders, and freedom. “Thanks be to God that He hears our song and our prayers. Thank you for your words of truth and the gift of grace that takes away our sorrow and shame. We ask that you bring us understanding and teach us your ways. Amen.”

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