Hebrew poetry

The prayerful purpose of the poetic parallels in the Psalms

Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity

When Israel came out of Egypt:
the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,
Judah became his sanctuary: Israel his dominion.
The sea saw it and fled: the Jordan turned back;
the mountains skipped like rams, the little hills like lambs.

Psalm 114 (Greek and Latin: 113a): From the perspective of style, this psalm is a perfect illustration of Hebraic parallelism, a feature found in so much of the Bibles poetry and the aphorisms of its sapiential literature. The references to Egypt/barbarous people, mountains/hills, stone/flint, rams/ lambs, sanctuary/domain, are synonymous parallels, in that they are roughly repetitious. These parallels serve the function of slowing down our prayer, making us pray at a calmer, more contemplative pace.

Slowing us down

Others of the parallelisms here, Red Sea/Jordan and Judah/ Israel, are merismatic, the merismus being a device of dividing a whole into representative components and addressing them separately. This serves the function of making our prayer more discursive and analytical. Our psalm combines both techniques very effectively

In all such cases, the intent of the literary construction is to slow down our reading of the poem, making us go over everything twice, forcing the mind to a second and more serious look at the line, prolonging our prayer, obliging us not to go rushing off somewhere. Such poetry is deeply meditative, and the reader who resists its impulse will find himself with acid indigestion of the mind, serious 'heartburn in a most radical and theological sense.

There are two events described in this psalm, the turning back of the Red Sea at the Exodus, and the identical phenomenon of the Jordan River at Israel's entrance into Canaan. Both of these occasions are associated with Passover, thus making this a psalm a focus of promise and liberation.

These two biblical occasions, which are also juxtaposed in Joshua 4.23, form the psalms twin poles, Israels departure from Egypt and her entrance into the Promised Land. Between these two events lie the giving of the Law and the forty years' wandering of God's people in the wilderness. Whereas the two poles of this crucial period, the Red Sea and the Jordan, are marked by God's removal of the waters from their native settings, the time in between them is marked by God's miraculously given water for his people wandering through the dry sands of the desert.

The power of God

God, in short, reverses the expected course of things. He makes wet places dry, and the dry places wet. As for mountains and hills, what could be better symbols of stability, standards of the normal and expected? Mountains and hills, it would seem, are not easily moved. Nonetheless, God moves them, as was demonstrated in the earthquake shaking Mount Sinai when the Law was given.

Because of the face of the Lord, the face that Moses prayed to behold on Sinai, the mountains and the hills jumped around like sheep, as it were; the normal and expected state of things becoming unstrung before the awesome face of God. Hills go skipping about!

Everything is set on its head. It is this complete dominion of the Lord that is manifested in his great acts of redemption: the Exodus, the giving of the Law, the desert wandering, Israel's crossing the Jordan's rocky bed into the land flowing with milk and honey. These events were all prophecies of the events associated with the resurrection and victory of Our Lord.

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