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We have two major topics for this article.  The first is imagery and the second is the sub-genres of the Psalms.  One might argue that the second topic should have been the first thing that one discusses when approaching Biblical poetry.  However, I have done it last because I wanted us to first look at the details and then take a step back and look at the big picture.  The commentary on the Psalms themselves that we will begin next month will also do both — look at some of the details with a few key psalms but also step back and look at the whole book.  Under these two topics of imagery and sub-genres you will discover that there are several subtopics of interest including for imagery the nature of similes, metaphors, hypocatastasis, merism, synecdoche, metonymy, hyperbole, personification, and mythological allusions.


The Psalms are filled with statements that cannot mean what they say “literally.”  Fred Putnam calls “any statement that cannot be interpreted as intending to say what its words literally mean” an “image.”  It is easy for anyone to see that an image does not mean what the plain “literal” meaning of the image suggests.  Imagery is a poetic device that you will find throughout the Scriptures but they are found with great frequency in its poetry.  Putnam gives the following reasons for using images rather than plain language: they are more efficient, more vivid, and can be just as precise when interpreted correctly.

Imagery is more efficient than plain language because you can pack a lot of meaning into one word-picture.  Efficiency is very important in Biblical poetry because terseness is a major element of Biblical poetry.

Imagery is also more vivid than plain language because it is a word-picture – because it paints a picture from life.  Images, Putnam says, “draw together words from different realms of reality, and invite the reader to contemplate the underlying similarity that allowed the poet to use the metaphor.”

Speaking of metaphor, Putnam also notes: “The poetic gift, said Aristotle, is this—the ability to think in metaphor (Aristotle, Ars Poetica).  Once the poet presents a metaphor (whether created or discovered), the metaphor takes on a life of its own as it is adopted for use in ever-wider contexts until, at last, it becomes a “dead” metaphor, unrecognized as figurative in its normal, everyday use.  In biblical poetry, the frequency of the terms “way” and “step” as metonymies for life suggest that this figure may have had this status.”

The key to imagery is understanding the relationship between the image and the entity being compared.  Putnam says, “The basic premise of imagery is that two things are alike, often in a less-than-obvious way.”  The reader then must infer the meaning of the image.  He distinguishes comparing images and substituting images.  Comparing images liken two or more entities on the basis of some common trait or quality.  If there is more than one thing in common then the question is what is the most important commonality for the passage in question.

Remember with “comparing images” that even if the entities are alike in more than one way the poet almost always means to highlight one similar trait or quality.  If that is true almost always for poets, it is even more often for Biblical poets.  They usually are making the comparison on something fundamental to it.

Comparisons are sometimes a simile (using like or as) or a metaphor (without using like or as).  Be aware that our translations will often make metaphors into similes.

Putnam notes another comparison that you may be less familiar with – the hypocatastasis.  It will be easiest simply to quote him including the examples that he gives of these things.  He defines this as, “Implicit comparison created by predicating something about a subject or object that is not literally true.  The verb is borrowed from another lexical sphere (semantic field; cf. Pr 10:7), or an object is combined with a verb from another semantic field (Pr 20:8, 26).  Hypocatastases in general ‘work’ by combining a topic and a comment (a subject and predicate) from two different realms of existence.

“The ‘discontinuity’ is therefore between either the subject and predicate or the subject and object.”

The memory of the righteous is blessed,
But the name of the wicked rots (Pr 10:7).

Names cannot rot, since they are non-organic.  The inevitable fate of organic entities is that they decay, dissolve, and disappear.  The reputation of the wicked [eventually] does the same.

“Whoever-winnows the-wicked is a-wise king
And-whoever-drives overthem the-wheel
(Pr 20:26).

[he added the word eventually in brackets, emphasis is his]

Kings could winnow grain (although they probably did not), but not evil, since it is non-physical.  Nor would they thresh [drive the wheel over] the participants in a lawsuit in order to separate the guilty from the innocent.  As chaff is discarded after being separated from the grain, so the king distinguishes the guilty from the innocent, condemning the former while sparing the latter.”

The other type of imagery involves substituting images.  I have given before as an example of a poetic device the merism.  This is one kind of a substituting image.  This is an example where the parts refer to the whole.  Day and night refer, for example to the whole day or all the time (kind), and heaven and earth refer to all of creation (invisible and visible).

Another kind of substituting image is called a synecdoche.  This is where the image is a part referring to the whole.

Psalm 121 includes four merisms, which Putnam explains as follows:

“heaven and earth    =        the universe (Ps 121.2)
by day…by night    =     all of time (kind) (Ps 121.5)
going out and coming in    =    the activities of life (Ps 121.8a)
now and for ever     =    all of time (extent) (Ps 121.8b)”

A third kind of substituting image is called metonymy.  A metonymy is when we mention one entity but we are really talking about something else.  The classic example is “the White House.”  The White House does not speak, the President and his administration do, but often reporters will say that the White House released a statement or the White House says and what they really mean is that the President or his administration did this.

Just as a simile is a kind of metaphor, synecdoche is a kind of metonymy.  I defined it before together with the merism because of the obvious similarities between referring to (a) part(s) to the whole.  But it is a kind of metonymy because part of something has come to refer to the whole.  This may be because it is an important part or because it simply frequently has been used that way such that it is part of the poetic language.  

Putnam gives the following example of a synecdoche:

“YHWH has rewarded me according to my righteousness;
According to the cleanness of my hands he has repaid me (Ps 18.20)”

Here the clean hands refer to the psalmist’s person and Putnam also adds that they also refer to “the entire range of David’s activities” because they are a “working” part of the body.

Two other types of images that Putnam notes are hyperbole and personification.

Hyperbole exaggerates for effect.  Putnam gives the example of Psalm 91:7 as a verse that shows hyperbole for the purpose of encouraging the reader.  “A thousand shall fall at your side, [/] and ten thousand on your right.”

Personification gives non-humans human traits.  A common example of this is Psalm 91:12 where the trees sing, it is also common in Scripture to ascribe to God human traits or body parts.

Tremper Longman III in his book How to Read the Psalms notes another specific type of image worth noting.  This is the kind of image that he calls a mythological allusion.  These images allude to the myths of the surrounding nations.  Mentioning Leviathan the great sea-monster would be an example.  These myths are alluded to not because they are true but to demonstrate that the true God is victorious over all false gods and idolatry.

One of the challenges for us is that many images have become dead metaphors to us through extensive usage in hymns and other spiritual songs.  The example I mentioned before (in our Bible class) is that God is a rock.  Unfortunately, it has become dead to us not only because of our distance from the culture and terrain of the ANE but because we do not stop and ask what it means.  So the first step for us to interpret an image is to see the image, which we might not do if it is very familiar.

As you might expect given what we have said the second step would simply be to figure out what aspect of that image is the one we are intended to see.  Staying with the God is “a rock” example we who are orthodox know better than to think that David is picturing God as a lifeless stone idol to worship – he is not advocating litholatry; that is, the worship of rocks.  Instead, if we know something of the terrain of the ANE we discover that rocks were a place to run for safety.  The third step is to think through how the image works today – or how it does not work.

I have presented imagery following Putnam’s class handout so closely because Putnam, a professor at Biblical Theological Seminary, uses the terminology and examples that I heard in classes at Westminster Theological Seminary.  Chances are that a Biblical poetry class in any seminary would almost always use these same examples and terminology.

Psalm Genres

The other major issue that we want to cover today is the various “genres” of the psalms.  A psalm is a genre, but what we mean here is to say that there are different kinds of psalms.  So it may be better to refer to these as sub-genres.

Putnam says that most basically we can classify all psalms as “psalms of praise, complaint, or instruction/contemplation.”

He notes that they are usually divided into the following categories: hymn (a sub-category would be kingship hymns), thanksgiving, laments, remembrance, confidence, and wisdom.

Tremper Longman III in How to Read the Psalms gives the same list, though he suggests that kingship psalms can and probably should be considered a separate category from the hymn.

The sub-genre of the hymn usually has three main movements.  It begins and ends with a call to worship or praise and in the middle are recounted the reasons (Ps 8, 29, 33, 104-105, 111, 113-114, 117, 135-136, 145-150).  Note how many of these come at the end of the Psalter.  Kingship or royal psalms often praise God as King (Ps 93, 95-99).  This is why many consider it a sub-category of the hymn.  Some kingship psalms focus on the human king of Israel (Ps 2, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89).  When a royal psalm celebrates a military victory they are often called divine warrior hymns (i.e., Ps 98).

The sub-genre of the thanksgiving psalm begins with an intent to praise, continues with a call to praise, and ends with a lament answered.  Examples include Ps 18, 30, 32, 34.

The sub-genre of laments include Ps 3, 5, 7, 13, 17, 25, 27, 38, 39, 56, 62, 69, and 109.  A lament usually begins with an address and a plea for help, followed by the complaints, then an assertion of innocence, then motives as to why God should answer the lament, a curse on enemies, then move to confidence, hymn or blessing and a vow to praise.  Laments that include the curse on enemies are called Imprecatory Psalms.  Not every lament has all of these features, nor are they always quite in this order.  

Lament psalms almost always move from lament to praise.  The only exception to the rule is Psalm 88 because it never moves off of the complaint.

The sub-genre of remembrance psalms is characterized by content rather than seeing any common outline.  Sometimes these are called redemptive-historical psalms.  The idea is that they retell how YHWH had saved them before (cf. Ps 78, 105, 106, 135-136).  

There are at least nine or ten psalms that we call psalms of confidence (Ps 11, 16, 23, 27, (46), 62, 91, 121, 125, 131).  They are not distinguished so much by following an outline like the hymns, thanksgiving psalms, and laments.  These reflect the content and mood of trust in God.  Psalm 23 is probably the best known example of this, followed secondly by Psalm 121.  In such psalms the psalmist knows that God is with him – caring for him and protecting him – often while being in troubled circumstances.

The last sub-genre of note is a very important one especially since Psalms 1 and 119 (the longest) are both in this category.  Wisdom psalms include (Ps 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, 119, 127-128, 133).  Putnam defines these as follows: “Psalms that address the same basic concerns as Job, Proverbs, or Qohelet, especially those that contrast two ways of life (e.g., Ps 1) or focus on creation and the Word of God (ΨΨ 19, 119).”

Peter Enns says, “Wisdom is concerned with mastery of life.”  To master life is “to live according to the divine pattern, the order of the universe, that God has laid down.”  Wisdom aims to bring your own “actions, experiences, and perceptions into harmony with the pattern.”  This explains why psalms that contrast two ways of life or that focus on creation and the Word of God are all one genre.  Wisdom has to do with everyday living.  We will revisit this important theme later.

In conclusion, unlike the writer of an English sonnet, these sub-genres that we have identified are very flexible.  For this reason some psalms will exhibit features of more than one of these categories.  Yet the categories are helpful because you can reflect, for example, on what normally would appear in that kind of psalm and does not in the one that you are studying.  This will help you to understand the meaning of the one you are studying.  It also has the advantage of encouraging you to study a whole psalm rather than just the bits and pieces of it.

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