Lecture 22: Rhetorical Approach
Course: Psalms by Dr. Bruce Waltke
Lecture 22: Rhetorical Approach
We have looked at different approaches: one of which is the Spiritual Approach; this is having the right attitude and the right spirit for God and his inspired writer. We have looked at the historical approach and the importance of the king in the interpretation of the Psalms. This historical approach is concerned with acknowledging David as the author of many of the Psalms. We looked at the forms of Psalms and therefore we have grouped the Psalms according to what is typical between different psalms. The Psalms of Praise had the mood of praise, grateful songs has a mood of gratitude. They had the vocabulary of praise and distinct motifs. We look at common motifs so that in the hymns, there was a call to praise and there was cause for praise and then a renewed call to praise. In the laments, they had distinct motifs such as invocation; as soon as you read ‘oh Lord’ or ‘oh God’, you knew that you were dealing with a Lament or a Petition Psalm. They had to motif of confidence and lament and petition and always a motif of praise. We grouped them broadly as they would fit into the different kinds of categories. We also considered the temple setting in which these psalms were recited.
In this lecture we will be looking at how an individual psalm is constructed not according to the form as typical of other psalms but the poetic techniques that makes it such a unique psalm. And how the poet employs the kinds of techniques they used in putting their material together. Phyllis Trible deftly defines this by comparing form criticism as being the typical grouping literature according to its genres compared to rhetorical criticism which studies the particular with the typical. Its guiding rubric declares that proper articulation of form-content yields proper articulation of meaning. So form studies the typical but rhetorical studies the particular within the typical. So we are not only aware of its form and its similarity to other psalms, but we must be aware of how the psalm is put together. What were the techniques that the poet used? We also call this poetics from the Greek word ‘to make’ or ‘to work’. How were they actually composed; what were some of their techniques by which they put their literature together? Note that poetics is used in poetry to give focus and unity to a work. This is motely the same as those used in narratives such as refrain, contrast, comparison, logic, escalation, climax, patterns of all sorts, janus, generalization, preparation, summarization, interrogation, inclusion, intercalation and allusion. Some of these are employed in connecting the versets that comprise the verse. Usually a poem has stanzas, strophes, lines, half-verses or cola and phrases, words, syllables and sound. So we are looking how these stanzas are put together and how the strophes and lines are put together to form a poem.
So this is called poetics. We will be looking at different techniques. When I first studied this, I was given lenses whereby I could identify sources and I could break the material apart into different documents. This was source criticism. It was later that I learned to view things holistically to see how material was put together. James Crugal also presented the idea of the Art of Poetry. So literature since 1980 has been the concern of this holistic way of viewing literature. I have had to learn to put on a new way of looking at my material. Interestingly, it wasn’t until I was fifty-five or so that I learned how to read the Bible and by the age of sixty-five that I felt that I had a little confidence in knowing how to read the poem according to poetics and understanding how it was put together. There are keywords and repetitions of those keywords. The same goes for refrain, there are repetition of refrains of the same phrase or clause. We will use Psalm 49 to illustrate this. Within poetics you also learn to look for contrast and comparisons between the materials. You watch for logic and climax and various kinds of structure.
B. Definition and Techniques
So poetics means how it is put together and it is a literary device that an author uses to construct his composition and to communicate his evaluative point of view. This is called aesthetics. Like the narrator, the poet has a point of view, he has a message and he communicates this message through aesthetics, through artistic forms. We are looking at the art by which he puts the poem together to communicate his message. This message has a moral imperative and demands a response to truth; we will talk about its message rather than just the idea. Len says that it is an inductive science that seeks to abstract the general principles of literature from many different manifestations of those principles as they occur in actual literary texts. Its essential aim is not to elicit meaning from a text but rather to find the building blocks of literature and the rules by which they are assembled. Thus, poetics is to literature as linguistics is to language. That is, poetics describes those basic components of literature and the rules governing their use. Poetics strives to write a grammar, as it were, of literature. We must first know how a text means before we can know what it means. We will look at these building blocks to understand how it means in order to know what it means.
C. Key Words and Refrain
In regards to these techniques, one such technique is a key word that runs through the material and holds that material together. This key word contributes to understanding the message. Martin Buber coined the word, ‘leitwort’ which means the leading word that guides the literature. He defines it as a word or word root that is meaningfully repeated with a text or sequence of texts or complex of texts. Those who attend to these repetitions will find a meaning of the text revealed or clarified, or at any rate made more emphatic. For example, in Psalm 2 the key words are the Lord and king where every stanza talks about the Lord and the king. The rebellion against the Lord and his king and then the Lord sets up his king on Zion and then the king recites ‘I AM’s’ decree. Another technique is referred to as refrain, a repetition of the same phrase or clause. For example in Psalm 42: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. This is said in verse 5, verse 11 and then in Psalm 43:5. Look at Psalm 49.
1 Hear this, all peoples! Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high, rich and poor together!
3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart will give you understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.
5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life,
8 for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice,
9 that he should live on forever and never see the pit.
10 For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names.
12 Man in his pomp will not remain (bal yalin); he is like the beasts that perish.
13 This is the path of those who have foolish confidence; yet after them people approve of their boasts. Selah
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah
16 Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases.
17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him.
18 For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—
19 his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light.
20 Man in his pomp yet without understanding (welo’ yabin)s like the beasts that perish.
This is addressed to all the inhabitants of the world and the author is shown in verses 3 and 4 with the body of the psalm in verses 5 – 12 where all die like animals and also verses 13 – 20 where it says that fools die forever like animals. This is a Wisdom Psalm which illustrates the importance of a refrain. The psalm was of the sons of Korah and was to be sung and accompanied by stringed instruments. The Psalm has three stanzas: the first is in the introduction in verses 1 – 4 which has two strophes in verses 1 and 2 where he introduces us to the addressees and then in verses 3 and 4, he introduces us to himself as the author and we see him clearly as a sage who is teaching the people. He begins by addressing all people, all inhabitants of the world and this is typical of wisdom literature. After this broad statement, it is narrowed down to the low and the high, the rich and the poor. So there is one proverb and one lesson but readers will respond differently. When we read a text, we all hear it differently as according to our own situation. It is the audience who change because of the way they hear the text. The ‘low’ as from verse 2 will be comforted whereas the high that are in an exalted position will be warned. The Rich will be sobered and the poor will be consoled. Everyone will hear the proverb differently and the Spirit will guide each person differently. My responsibility is to teach the truth of the text and then all the Spirit to apply it appropriately to the audience.
D. The Proverb and The Refrain
The substance will be in the form of a proverb which will be somewhat idiomatic, thus forces us to think about its meaning. Having introduced his poem, we see the refrain in verse 12 and verse 20. Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish, then in verse 20: Man in his pomp yet without understanding like the beasts that perish. The Hebrew word for proverb is mashall from nimshall. Since a proverb is a comparison, he is comparing people to beast, but he is going to expound on this idea. This refrain is crucial; it’s repeated twice and divides the Psalm into two halves: so you have eight verses for the first stanza and then you have eight verses for the second stanza which is from verses 13-20. In the first stanza, his point is that everyone dies like an animal, for they all perish. Verse 10 says, for he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. So death is inevitable. The second stanza is limited to the wicked; everyone dies but the wicked die permanently, not the righteous. In the Hebrew text, there is one different between verse 12 and verse 20. The Hebrew word for ‘will not remain’ is bal yalin. This is an ancient form found in the Ugaritic language meaning ‘not’. In verse 20 in the next refrain it changes from yalin to yabin, and it uses a different adverb for ‘not’, welo, however these two words are synonymous. So yalin refers to everybody but those who die permanently are those without understanding, ‘yabin.’ All die but not all die forever. In understanding the word ‘god’; it is that which gives security and significance. Whatever that is in your life that gives you security and significance becomes your god; that is what you live for and trusts in and for most people their god is money. When you are younger, it is sex appeal. Security and significance can be in almost anything. God wants us to be secure and have significance in him. But in verse 7 it says, truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. The wise die! The fool and the stupid die! All leave whatever they have to others. There is no permanence in life; our graves are our homes forever, out dwelling place for all generations. But it is only the fool who dies forever.
In verse 14, they are like sheep who are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Death is their shepherd leading them to corruption, decay and no life. But the upright shall rule, here is the distinction. Note that there is no clear idea of resurrection as of yet; of course that is only through Jesus Christ. Yet, he knows there is a better day coming, when the upright, those who follow the Word of God. And in verse 15 he says, but God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. God can save us out of the realm of the dead. For he will take me; this is the same word used for taking Elijah. During their life time, the rich will get their praise and their glory, but that glory of the rich will not follow those who die. So the refrain here as in Psalm 42 & 43 putting your hope in God; this refrain is the key to understanding the Psalm. We all die but fools die forever.
We also have contrast that associates or juxtaposes things that are dissimilar or opposite. For example, all of this can be illustrated in narrative and prose. One of my favorite illustrations of contrast and comparison is at the end of the Book of Judges, which is followed by 1st Samuel. It is at the time there was the Philistine superiority over Israel. The last judge was Samson. His father was Minoa and his mother is only known as Minoa’s wife. She is being contrasted and compared to Hana of the next generation after Samson. Minoa’s wife has no children and Hana has no children, but note the difference: Minoa’s wife doesn’t pray but Hana prays; Minoa’s wife has the most charismatic judge that Israel knew for single-handedly he could have defeated the Philistine army; on two occasions he did this with a jawbone of an ass and again with destroying the temple. An angel of the Lord appears to Minoa’s wife; And we see that Samson doesn’t deliver Israel. Then we have Hana: no angel of the Lord, no miracle, simply prayer and she wants a son and she prays for a son related to the King. She prays for the Lord’s anointed, for the king and her son is going to installs Israel’s first king. So this is contrast between two mothers in the same situation where one mother has miracles and charisma but she and her husband are failures as parents. And then you have Hana, no miracles but prayer. Samuel is a prophet; he doesn’t have the great strength of Samson. He only has the Word of God. He has moral strength and he saves Israel. This is typical of poetics, you need to put on the lens and look for contrasts. We saw comparison in Psalm 23, three different settings where the Lord is likened to a shepherd and as a shepherd he provides for his sheep. He restores his sheep, protects his sheep and then in the fifth verse he becomes like a Shaik in a tent. He now provides them with a table of food spread out before them. He restores them and pours oil upon their heads and all of this is in the presence of his enemy. From being a sheep in the pasture, it is better yet to be a guest in the tent; the reality is that I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever with eternal life. We should also watch for the logic of how the material develops as in Psalm 2 of how the stanzas hold together. There is also an intensification or climax as in Psalm 23: It moves from pasture to tent then to the temple. You watch for escalation as in Psalm 1, it ends triumphantly where the Lord knows the way of the righteous. Therefore, they are in harmony with the eternal one but the way of the wicked are alienated from God and they perish. So you watch for the climactic moment at the end.
In regards to parallel patterns, they tend to invite comparison of the parallel sequence and of individual parallel elements. Comparison often reveals progression, but not necessarily opposition or contrast between the parallel components. There can be an alternating pattern as we saw in Psalm 110. You have A, B, C and then A’, B’, and C’. This is illustrated more clearly later on. You can have a concentric pattern and that is you have A, B, C and C’, B’ and A’. And you can have a chiastic pattern: A, B, C, X and then C’, B’ and A’. I liken this pattern to water imagery. The alternating pattern is like the waves coming in on the shore; one wave on top of another. We saw this in Psalm 110 where he ends up conquering the entire earth. He is refreshed with water until he completes the job. The concentric pattern is like a tide, it comes in and then it goes out. The Chiastic pattern is like throwing a rock into a lake and it ripples out. The critical moment is where the rock hits; this is called the pivot. In illustrating symmetrical alternating patterns we have the famous story of Elijah on Mount Horeb, and like Moses he is in the cave and he is going to get a revelation from God. The alternating pattern interprets what the vision is. He is at a cave and the Word of the Lord came to him and that is followed by a question: what are you doing here, Elijah? He answers: I have been very zealous for the Lord of host. After the Lord replies, we have a scene where the wind tears the rocks apart, but God was not in the wind. Then there was the earthquake but God was not in the earthquake. It was the same with the fire; God was not in the fire. Then we have an oxymoron of complete silence. So, what does this imagery symbolize? What gets this in the alternating parallelism? We are told that he was at a cave when the voice came. We have the anointing of Hazael, king of Syria, the Arameans. We have the anointed of Jehu, the king of Israel and then we have the anointing of Elisha. These are destructive as we are told that Hazael was going to kill and what he doesn’t kill, Jehu will kill and what Jehu doesn’t kill, Elisha will kill as he killed the forty-two children at Betel. In the parallelism, the wind of destruction is Hazael, the earthquake of destruction is Jehu who brings death and the fire is Elisha. Elisha is characterized by fire. But now we have the complete silence of God, the seven thousand who has never bowed to Baal. We see the silent minority where seven is the divine number of completion. It is the perfect number.
F. Concentric Symmetry
We have the concentric symmetry where it usually emphasizes the central element which contains a turning point in the narrative development. We have the sequences before and after the turning point which is called the pivot. Look at 1 Kings 1-11:
|A||A prophet intervenes in the royal succession: 1:1-2:12|
|B||Solomon eliminates threats to his security: 2:13-46|
|C||The early promise of Solomon's reign: 3:1-15|
|D||Solomon uses his gift for the people: 3:16-4:34|
|E||Preparations for building temple: 5:1-18|
|F||Solomon builds the Temple 6:1-37|
|X - Solomon builds 'rival' buildings 7:1-12|
|F'||Solomon furnishes the temple 7:13-51|
|E'||Solomon dedicates the temple, warned by God 8:1-9:9|
|D'||Solomon uses his gifts for himself 9:10-10:29|
|C'||Tragic failure of Solomon's reign 11:1-13|
|B'||Yahweh raises up threats to Solomon's security: 11:14-25|
|A'||A prophet determines the royal succession 11:26-43|
Nathan intervenes as it is Solomon who is going to be king. At the end of Solomon’s reign a prophet determines the royal succession. Ten tribes will be taken away from Solomon and he is going to appoint the successor to Solomon, Rehoboam. So this was chapter one and then in chapter two we have Solomon who eliminates the threats to his security. The key words, ‘and Solomon’s throne was established.’ He removed the threat of Joab, Labiata and also Adonijah. In B’ Yahweh raised up threats to Solomon’s security. He raised up Jeroboam and the Assyrian king so we see that his throne is being undone. See first C and then C’. In C, we have the early promise of Solomon’s reign and then C’, we have the tragic failure of Solomon’s security when he marries the foreign wives going against Deuteronomy law of not multiplying wives and horses. In D we have Solomon using his gift for the people but in D’ we have Solomon using his gifts for himself, building himself a palace even before building the temple. E we have preparation for the building of the temple and E’ we have the dedication of the temple but he is warned by God. The X or the pivot is 1st Kings 7:1-12 where Solomon stops building the temple and instead builds a palace for the Egyptian Queen and his own palace. The turning point for Solomon is when he stopped putting the temple first and he put his house first. So this is Chiastic structure. We also saw this in Psalm 92 where the pivot was God ruling over all.
G. Other Techniques
So we look for key words and refrains, alternating, concentric or chiastic parallelisms. Another thing you need to look for is the ‘Janus’. This is a literary unit that looks back and forth to unite two units as in Psalm 23:4. It looks back and also looks ahead. Sometimes there is a shift in person where the actual grammatical person changes with hardly any notice. There is a transitioning affect and it is common to have these transitional moments in the Psalms. We also have generalizations which are movements in the text toward explication that becomes either more specific or more comprehensive. Foreshadowing refers to the inclusion of material in one part of the text that serves primarily to prepare the reader for what is still to come, and there is often a synopsis or abridgement of material that is treated more fully elsewhere. We see this foreshadowing in Psalm 51, for example, where he first ask for cleansing and then later he asks again more specifically. Read the Psalm now:
Psalm 52:1 For the director of music. This is a maskil of David.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
We have the main petition in verse 7 where he asks to be cleansed by hyssop. He is asking that God would hide his face from his sins and blot out all his iniquity. So he had an introductory petition in preparation for the main petition. These are techniques that you find in all Biblical literature. You can also have interrogation where you start with a question and then you answer a question. We saw this in Psalm 15. You also have ‘inclusio’s’ that often frames a psalm. It refers to a repetition of features at the beginning and end of a unit, as exemplified by the use of antiphons in liturgical poetry. You also have intercalation where the idea or track completely changes. For example, in the story of Judges you have Samson and then it moves on the next judge, who is Samuel. In between the two there is additional material and the book ends with the problem of the priesthood. You have two stories of the priesthood, the apostate priest who is the grandson of Moses. He establishes a false cult in Dan and then you have the callus wicked priest with his concubine who he murders leading the whole nation into a civil war that almost destroys the tribe of Benjamin. The priesthood was not upholding the Word of God. This intercalation is common in the Psalms.
Look at Psalm 24, a Psalm of David. It says that the earth is the LORD'S and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. We see that he established the world and creation and he founded it on the seas, the symbol of Chaos and he is mightier than the waters. In verse 7 it continues and says, lift you your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in. Now in verse 8, we have a whole new scene where the Lord and his people are entering into the city. So he stops allowing the people to go into the city and then he comes back saying to them to lift up your heads, O gates! This verse particularly (Psalm 24:7) ‘Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the king of glory may come in.’ The circle of gate towers are personified, which like a council of elders stat waiting the return of the army and its Great Warrior gone to battle, and which sat bowed and anxious.’ In the Ugaritic texts we find a picture of the council of the gods assembled in the mound of El which is Mount Zaphon. On the approach of emissaries of Ba’l’s arch foe, Prince Sea, the gods are bowed and fearful, dropping their heads onto the knees, down on their princely throne, sitting in fear and despair. Ba’l, the young king, shouts: ‘lift up, O gods your heads.’ Now during the time of David, they did not have gates that lifted up; gates were on hinges. So the city gates are personified as a council and the king has gone out to battle and they fear that he has gone down in defeat. But now he has been victorious and he says; lift up your heads you gates. Then in Verse 10, it asks, ‘who is this king of glory? It is the LORD of hosts; he is the King of glory!
The same thing happens with Psalm 100, a Psalm for giving thanks. The first verse, ‘make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! But then it changes, ‘Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he, who made us, and we are his, we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.’ This is an intercalation. Then in verse 4, it continues where it left off in Verse 2, ‘enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; ‘bless his name!’ So it is saying before you enter his presence, you need to know the LORD, he is God!
Another technique is inter-textuality which makes allusions to other materials as in Psalm 8 is like Genesis 1 put to music. He says to mankind to rule over the cattle and wild animals. There is also scenic depiction as in 2nd Samuel 15:36 when David flees from Absalom and he meets three different people: Hushai and Ziba and Shimei in 2nd Samuel 15:36. Ziba is mixed, he is loyal to David by being loyal to his master Mephibosheth and he lies about Mephibosheth. Hushai is a loyal friend and he is sent to defeat the council of Absalom and Ahithophel. Ziba comes to David with donkeys packed with bread and raisins and wine and food. David asked him where Mephibosheth was. Shimei is Saul’s descendant and cruses David and throws rocks at him because of what he did to Saul. Hushai is on the top of the mountain and Ziba is down on the slope and Shimei is at the bottom of the mound. This is orchestrated to show who is closer to God and who is further from God. This is a deliberate scenic depiction of these three people. There is nothing here that is just an accident. We see David praying in the morning and the mornings in the ancient near east was the time of judgment, after the night. The god of justice in the ancient near east was Shama the Sun. This gave hope for justice in the light of a new day. Finally, the last technique we mention is naming as in Psalm 91:1-2 he used four names for God: the Most High, the Almighty, the LORD and El, God himself.
Transcribed by BT Ambassador Phil Smith