Praying the Psalms

Paying attention to the Parallelism of Hebrew Poetry

Using the Psalms is a great way to pray. These wonderful examples of Hebrew poetry come from worship services, important celebrations and historical events, songs of thanksgiving, deeply felt prayers of petition, and powerfully moving expressions of sorrow and even despair, which end up in professions of hope and trust. They can be a tremendous help to us in our own journey. And, since there are 150 of them, they can be a good "go to" prayer, when we are feeling dry and looking for something with powerful faith and emotion, to get us started. They are intimate with God, full of feelings and concrete reality, which we can easily relate to and adapt to our own situation.

We might want to use the Psalms from our own Bible and bookmark our favorite ones to return to frequently. We may want to go online and find Psalms in our own faith tradition's translation and print out our favorites.

Of course, the Psalms are central to the public prayer of the Church, known as the Liturgy of the Hours, and a Psalm is used in every Mass, after the First Reading. As we start to listen to the Psalms more carefully, we will notice themes and particular Psalms which express emotions and prayers which help us in our growing intimate relationship with God.

We may, at first, be surprised at the emotion, and, at times, we might even be shocked at what the psalmist sings. We must remember that the Psalms are first and foremost songs. And, as songs can do, they carry deeply felt and memorable lines which capture important meaning. At times it is deep joy and moving faith. At other times, it expresses fear or anger or even condemnation. The closer we get to the Psalms, the more we will expreience them as carrying our own prayer and as being very close to the kind of honest expressions we want to make to our God.

It will really help in reading and praying with the Psalms to pay attention to their style of poetry. This poetry is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures - when, as an example, a prophet will quote a song or verse). The same poetic style is used in Wisdom literature, especially in the Book of Proverbs. Instead of using rhyme, which we are often familiar with in many modern languages, Hebrew poetry uses parallelism - where things are placed side by side to enhance the expression and meaning. The result is quite beautiful.

When we start to look for and enjoy the parallelism, the Psalms come alive. They are fun to read and the meaning is deeply enhanced. This is not a course on the Psalms, but just a few highlights will assist an enhanced way of praying with the Psalms.

One example of what this poetry does is to have one thought followed by another which repeats the same idea, with a slightly different image which reinforces the idea. This is verse 2 of Psalm 4:

Answer me when I call, my saving God.

When troubles hem me in, set me free;

take pity on me, hear my prayer.

It involves three lines in a row which repeat the same petition.

Here is verse 12 of Psalm 5:

Then all who trust in you will be glad

and forever shout for joy.

You will protect them and those will rejoice in you

who love your name.

Here, the first line is followed by a line which completes it. Those two lines are followed by another line, repeating the first, followed by a line which completes the idea.

Other examples involve a line followed by another with contrasting language. We see this in verse 11 of Psalm 34:

The rich grow poor and go hungry,

but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.

The beauty of the Psalms is that this pattern is used quite skillfully, in a variety of ways by the psalmists. Once we begin to notice the patterns, the delight begins and our prayer is enhanced.

Psalms - from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' site - the New American Bible translation

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