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Studying the Psalms with Poetry

The forgotten resource that could be key to your study of Psalms
By Zach Dietrich

Poetry, especially Old Testament poetry with its parallelisms, ancient Near Eastern background, and lack of modern rhyme, can be tricky to interpret and understand. So, one of the tools I’ve found helpful when studying the psalms is – and this might surprise you – poetry.

When I’m studying Psalms, yes, I use commentaries and study Bibles. But, I also like to consult poets. Why? Where we may be tempted to race through a passage, “the poet lingers,” wrote John Piper. Poets wrestle with truth and play with words. Songwriters help put heart thoughts to words that are otherwise out of reach. Poets give us fresh eyes to see.

One forgotten resource for studying and loving the psalms is the poetry of famous hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748). You may know some of his most famous hymns like “Joy to the World” or “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” but did you also know that Watts wrote poetry based upon almost every psalm? In fact, he set several psalms to multiple poems – in different meters!

What makes Watts such a treasure is his meditative paraphrasing of the psalms. Prior to Watts, poets reworked the psalms into metered verse and rhyme so that the original Hebrew songs could be sung by English-speaking congregations. Watts went a step beyond by including his own paraphrases and New Testament fulfillments.

Watts’ poetic eyes help me more clearly understand and feel the truth of Scripture. For example, read our monthly family psalm from April, Psalm 123, and then see how Watts paraphrases, interprets, and expands it.

“I lift my eyes to you, the one enthroned in heaven.” – (Psalm 123:1)

“O thou whose grace and justice reign
Enthroned above the skies,
To thee our hearts would tell their pain,
To thee we lift our eyes.”

“Like a servant’s eyes on his master’s hand, like a servant girl’s eyes on her mistress’s hand, so our eyes are on the LORD our God until he shows us favor.” – (Psalm 123:2)

“As servants watch their master’s hand,
And fear the angry stroke;
Or maids before their mistress stand,
And wait a peaceful look.”

“Show us favor, LORD, show us favor, for we’ve had more than enough contempt. We’ve had more than enough scorn from the arrogant and contempt from the proud.” – (Psalm 123:3-4)

“So for our sins we justly feel
Thy discipline, O God;
Yet wait the gracious moment still,
Till thou remove thy rod.

“Those that in wealth and pleasure live,
Our daily groans deride,
And thy delays of mercy give
Fresh courage to their pride.

“Our foes insult us, but our hope
In thy compassion lies;
This thought shall bear our spirits up,
That God will not despise.”

Poets, new and old, are a gift for enlightening our understanding. I’m thankful for the great hymn writers like Isaac Watts and John Newton. I’m also thankful for new songwriters like Kristin Getty and Bob Kauflin who help us sing God’s word. When you study your Bible and use your commentaries, concordances, and theology books, don’t forget to use your hymnal. Sometimes, the best commentary is poetry.

You can learn more about Watts and Psalms in “Isaac Watts’s Psalms of David Imitated at 300” by David W. Music.

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