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‘Reading The Psalms As Poetry’: Alexander Ryrie


An image of Psalm 23 (King James’ Version), frontispiece to the 1880 omnibus printing of The Sunday at Home via Wikimedia

Today’s reading is taken from ‘Deliver Us From Evil: Reading the Psalms as Poetry’ by Alexander Ryrie  published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 2005.

The Psalms as Poetry

The Psalms of the Old Testament have been a spiritual resource for people of different religious traditions for thousands of years. During this time, methods of interpreting them have kept changing…Although it has always been known that the Psalms were written in poetic form, their special character as poetry has in the past often been overlooked. They have been read, and sometimes printed in translation, as if they were simply prose….seeing them as poetry enables us to understand them in a fresh way and to find in them new, and perhaps deeper, forms of truth…Cecil Day Lewis speaks of a poetic truth which ‘is not, like a scientific truth, verifiable’, but which operates upon us to bring about a ‘furtherance of life…The truth is the passion’…

Poetry is not simply a matter of form. To qualify as poetry, a piece of writing must possess not only formal features but also certain qualities which it is less easy to define…These include…loftiness of thought, the expression of sentiments which are not trivial…mundane or banal, but serious, imaginative, potentially inspiring and above the level of our common thoughts. Along with this goes intensity of emotion…Both these qualities are found in large measure in the Psalms… But…there are two other distinctive qualities…which are important for the interpretation of the Psalms. One is a certain ambiguity of meaning which leaves words or phrases open to different interpretations…In these ways the psalmists…leave scope for readers to exercise their own imagination in interpreting it.

The other significant characteristic of the poetry of the Psalms is its use of imagery. The Psalms are particularly rich in…metaphors and similes, some of which have too often been understood in an excessively prosaic and literal fashion. Imagery is not simply a stylistic device, but a means of…pointing to deeper truths than can be stated in non-figurative language.

Addressing God

The very large majority of the psalms are addressed, in whole or in part, to God…the Psalms give powerful expression to a great variety of human feelings and thoughts, and so have provided a vehicle by which people throughout the ages have presented their own thoughts and needs to him. Whereas scripture as a whole is often thought to be a means by which God speaks to us, in the psalms it is human beings who speak to God. Thus, [they]…speak for us rather than to us…They give unique expression to some fundamental aspects of the human relationship with God which could not be expressed in any other way….What cannot be comprehended by human reason can in some measure by pictured by the imagination, described in images, understood by the heart and wrestled with in prayer.

Poetic Truth

Reading the psalms as poetic texts requires a more explicit acknowledgement than is sometimes made that one is offering a subjective interpretation, which brings together the words of the psalms and the viewpoint and life situation of the reader. There is no escape from this, and no apology for it is required….

A Mystery

Psalms use a great variety of images to point to evil as a suprahuman power, hostile towards God and humans, which, in spite of God’s victory and supreme power, continues to act with stealth and seduction to entice people into wicked deeds and thoughts, to separate the world and its people from God and draw them down to the realm of death and God-forsakenness. These images point beyond themselves to something transcendent, to a mystery which cannot be explained by processes of thought, or expounded in rational prose. Confronted by this mystery, the psalmists can do nothing but cry out to God to be present and deliver them. And perhaps it was the very vehemence and urgency of this cry that provides a clue to the question of the proper human response to evil, and to the nature of deliverance….

Securing God’s Protection

The concern of the psalmists, as of most of the other biblical writers, was ‘not to explain [evil] away but to call upon God to blast it away’. Evil was a mysterious, inexplicable and unavoidable reality, finding expression in many forms but describable only through image and myth. The only answer to evil was the presence of God, and the only way to be delivered from evil was to cry out to him, and to seek that presence with their whole heart….

The Individual and the Community

In addressing God in this way, [the psalmists] not only brought themselves into God’s presence, but also engaged with God in a relationship in which both individuals and members of the community could find their true selves as persons, and know themselves to be held and bound and kept by God.

Deliver 001I must apologise to the author of this book, Alexander Ryrie, for this rapid run through his fascinating book. The first extract above is to be found on the first page, and the last extract is on the last page. In between are 135 pages (followed by endnotes etc).  But my justification for doing this is to whet your appetite for a longer read, and to highlight some of Ryrie’s points.

Although I realise that this book was not written in any connection with those who offer public intercessions, I did find much to value in it in this context. To some extent, we are latter-day psalmists, as we pray on behalf of the community but speaking from our own perspective. This book also encourages me in my instinct that these prayers should be ‘not trivial…mundane or banal, but serious, imaginative, potentially inspiring and above the level of our common thoughts‘, as he says. Easy to say, possibly harder to achieve, but a goal to be aimed at nevertheless?

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