Sunday, November 25, 2007

I is for Interpretation

III. Poetical Analysis of Psalm 118

Psalm 118: If the Shoe Fits, Wear It

Genre provides several key pieces of information for biblical psalms. Genre helps to narrow the function of the psalm down from a more general function in a worshipful setting to a specific function that addresses the needs of a specific worship event. Worship, that act of connecting people to God through expressive songs, serves several purposes, and the many purposes of worship help define common psalm genres. When dealing with a specific psalm, the first step towards interpretation is picking which function of worship is most appropriate. What are the various genres of the Psalms? The genre types for the Psalms include the lament, thanksgiving, hymns of praise, salvation history, celebration/affirmation, wisdom, and songs of trust. Analyzing Psalm 118, for example, through the lens of genre will demonstrate the usefulness and necessity of using genre to create a deeper understanding of the original historical event that inspired the psalm.

The reader can often identify the genre of a psalm by reading through the first couple of lines. The intent of the psalm is often placed right at the beginning. Psalm 118 begins with “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” (HCSB), and from this explicit beginning, the psalm speak immediately about thanksgiving. Fee and Stuart identify a general form that all thanksgiving psalms follow; the form has five parts: introduction, distress, appeal, deliverance, and testimony (218). The form progresses from general praise of God to the specific details of how God moved in mercy back to a general praise for God’s steadfast character. The beginning refrain of Psalm 118 that helps identify it as a thanksgiving psalm also serves as part of the introduction, where the audience learns a “testimony” (218) of God. The thanksgiving within the psalm is based upon the theme that God’s “faithful loves endures forever.” God’s faithfulness is then demonstrated by the account of distress, appeal, and deliverance that follow. Psalm 118:5 explains how the speaker “called to the Lord in distress,” and this marks the beginning of the account of distress all the way through verse nine. Following the distress call, the speaker describes the type of battle s/he fought in. The enemies of the speaker are said to have “surrounded” (vv 10-12) and “pushed” (13), and this language helps to identify these verses as an opportunity for appeal. The speaker makes a poetic appeal “in the name of the Lord” (vv 10-12). This appeal is meant to move the Lord to action in favor of the speaker. The appeal flows naturally into an account of deliverance. The speaker in the poem hears “shouts of joy and victory” as the Lord’s “right hand strikes with power!” (v 15). The Lord mercifully disciplines the speaker but ultimately saves the speaker, and the s/he declares, “I will not die, but I will live and proclaim what the Lord has done” (v 17). The next stanza is a proclamation of deliverance where the speaker is brought into a safe place, “gates of righteousness” (v 19), and once inside, the speaker says, “I will give thanks to You/ because You have answered me/ and have become my salvation” (v 21). The deliverance is so complete that the psalmist calls God “my salvation,” and the use of the possessive pronoun shows how personally the writer views God. Psalm 118 ends appropriately with a renewal of the original testimony offered in the first lines of the psalm: “Give thanks to the Lord,/ for He is good;/ His faithful love endures forever” (v 29).

Identifying the genre of a psalm has several implications. The genre type distinguishes the form of the psalm from other types of psalms, preserving the idea that psalms are individually independent and can stand alone as statements of worship that address a specific need. The specific need expressed in Psalm 118 is one of thanksgiving. As a thanksgiving psalm, Psalm 118 ascribes to a typical thanksgiving form in five parts. Once all five parts of the thanksgiving psalm are identified, the next step for interpretation is to take a closer look at the types of figurative language being used. The figurative language in use should be linked somehow to the idea of thanksgiving, and most specifically, the five parts of the thanksgiving psalm help the reader understand the use of repeated phrases and words throughout single sections of the entire psalm.

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