Tuesday, November 03, 2020

A Structural Analysis of Psalm 107

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to try to put it inside your own frame of reference.

The book of Psalms is a compilation of poetry written at various times and places by a bare minimum of eight different godly men with diverse personalities and interests. Some were theologians writing poetry, and some were probably poets writing theology. This means, as you would expect, that there are psalms with obvious and ornate structures (Psalm 119 comes to mind, where the letters of the Hebrew alphabet start each section of the psalm), as well as others that appear to be structured very simply (Psalm 15 is a single question and its answer) or have very little noticeable structure at all (Psalm 117, for example, is so brief that any analysis of its structure is near-pointless).

Pattern recognition is more useful in some passages of scripture than in others. Psalm 107 is definitely structured.

Because we are reading an English translation and not the original languages, intentional parallelisms and what we might call “design elements” of Hebrew psalms are sometimes a little more obscure to us than to their original readers, depending on whether the translators noticed them and decided the “information” inherent in the structure was worth passing on to the English reader.

I’m a math guy, and I think in patterns. Observing structure is my first step to understanding anything. If that isn’t you, the following may not be terribly useful. The columns in the tables below read down first, then across. I have tried to leave just enough of the verse references in to make sure the order of the psalm is clear. Bold italics indicate exact parallels.

Introduction

Oh give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.

Comments: In short, God is good and those he has saved ought to talk about it, because there are lots of us.

Four Examples of God’s Steadfast Love in Parallel

1
Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
10  Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
12  So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor; they fell down, with none to help.
17  Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.
23  Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.
25  For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26  They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end.
2
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
13  Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
19  Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
28  Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
3
He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in.
14  He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart.
20  He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction.
29  He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30  Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.
4
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!
15  Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!
21  Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!
22  And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!
31  Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!
32  Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
5
For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.
16  For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.



Comments: The four “case studies” offered by the psalmist are laid out in five (or really 4-1/2) sets of repeating parallels: (1) the specifics of the problem; (2) the cry for help; (3) God’s deliverance; (4) an appeal for each type of delivered individual to respond appropriately to God’s grace; and (5) the reason for responding appropriately, offered in the first two cases but not in the last two. The businessmen or merchants in the final case study do not appear to have done anything particularly sinful beyond their associations — the psalmist’s description makes it sound like they simply got in over their heads. All the same, the storms these men and women encounter in life make them just as needy of God’s mercy as the fools, rebels and sinners in the other cases. We find that God watches over and delivers rebels, wanderers, fools and people out of their depth alike, but that he does not do it unless they ask for it (“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble”). There are lessons which must be learned from the natural consequences of our choices, and God’s steadfast love cannot righteously demonstrate itself in all its glory until the sufferer reaches the place of repentance and humility.

God’s Judgments and Mercies in Summary

Judgments
Mercies
33  He turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground, a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the evil of its inhabitants.
35  He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.
36  And there he lets the hungry dwell, and they establish a city to live in; they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield.
38  By his blessing they multiply greatly, and he does not let their livestock diminish.
39  When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, evil, and sorrow, he pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but he raises up the needy out of affliction and makes their families like flocks.

Comments: God’s judgments are dealt with briefly, but his mercies are disclosed at length. Nevertheless, there is a conscious parallelism being employed here to contrast the situations (“desert”, “water”, “thirsty”) in verses 33 and 35.

The Example Understood

42  The upright see it and are glad, and all wickedness shuts its mouth.

The Lesson for the Reader

43  Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

Your mileage for analyzing structure will vary, obviously. For me, getting deeper into a passage and discussing its more significant spiritual aspects sometimes requires these sorts of observational preliminaries.

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