“Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:1)
Psalms Connecting Heaven & Earth
How wonderful are the Psalms!? The Psalms turn a mirror on our hearts to reflect the full panorama of human emotions. They also explore human reason by taking us on intellectual flights of praise and plunging us into grueling struggles with doubt. This emotional and intellectual journey allows us to see ourselves more clearly.
The Psalms also open a window to heaven to see the vista of God’s character and ability. Every simile and metaphor known is used to illuminate the reality of the invisible God. In addition, the Psalms reveal heaven’s perspective on our personal questions and public concerns.
The Psalms connect our heart’s need to heaven reply. Afterall, the Psalms were temple worship. The temple was the meeting place between heaven and humans. It is where people brought their sins, blood and tears and received heaven’s revised assessment of their condition.
Psalms as Art & Science
As literature, the Psalms are a beautiful art form. Their splendor summons a breathless awe from our hearts. We nudge each other and say, “Wasn’t that wonderfully written!?” Like any good art, the Psalms sends our minds into a meditation that expands our understanding.
The Psalms also have a touch of science. They are governed by laws, the laws of Hebrew poetry. Some Psalmists constrained themselves to rigorous structures, and they all obey the laws of parallelism and rhythm.
The mathematician and artisan meet in the Psalms to make a truly beautiful creation.
A Journey to The Mercy Seat
Some people enjoy working puzzles. I find a similar enjoyment from the Psalms. A new world of beauty opens up when we see the patterns and structure of Hebrew poetry. Join me on a quick trip through Psalm 61.
The Favorite Hymns Quartet introduced me to many songs of faith. One was entitled, “The Rock That is Higher Than I,” by Erastus Johnson. At some point I discover the words of that hymn were plucked out of Psalm 61. What I discovered next thrilled me.
In Psalm 61 David describes his feelings of loneliness as like he was “at the ends of the earth” (:1). He could scream and no one could hear, and no one cared. His isolation went on so long his “heart was faint” (:2).
Yet, he relentlessly continues to pray. In prayer David discovers an intimacy with God that answers his loneliness. He finds a strength from God that resolves his weakness. This happens because in prayer David recounts what he knows about God. Four pictures of intimacy and power emerge.
Since David feels distant, he starts in a remote pasture asking, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (:2). In the field a rocky outcrop provides safety for the sojourner from storms, floods and searing heat. The Lord was David’s safe place in the wilderness, but David is so faint he needs to be led to Him.
The second picture comes from the city. The Lord was like “a strong tower against the enemy” (:3). The tower was the most fortified place in the city wall where the enemy was clearly seen and easily repelled. A mighty fortress is our God.
The third picture comes closer, “Let me dwell in your tent forever!” (:4). David is asking to live with God in his Tabernacle, always in his presence. What need we fear when He is near (Psalm 27:1; Rom. 8:312ff).
David’s journey with God went from the pasture, into the city to live in the Tabernacle. Fourthly, David figuratively steps into the Holy of Holies. He sees the Ark of the Covenant overshadowed by the wings of the cherubim. There God is enthroned on his mercy seat. David asks, “Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!” (:4, see Heb 3-4, esp. 4:16).
Through prayer David is lonely and powerless no more! So, he is ready to endlessly use his voice to “sing praises to your name,” and his actions to “perform my vows” (:8).
David took the harrowing journey of faith from the wilderness to the mercy seat of God. Have we not followed a similar path? When we grow faint along the way remember the journey is fueled by prayer to an intimate and sufficient Lord.
Now, you try it. Find a Psalm and have some fun! See the artistry, follow the science, and most of all know the Lord.
“Let all you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14)
The Favorite Hymns Quartet was comprised of R.J. and Tim Stevens, Don Mullins and Dane Shepherd. Their efforts are a great blessing to my faith. Their songs can be purchased at: rjstevensmusic.com
The Rock that is higher than I (Erastus Johnson)
O sometimes the shadows are deep,
And rough seems the path to the goal;
And sorrows, sometimes how they sweep
Like tempests down over the soul!
O sometimes how long seems the day,
And sometimes how weary my feet;
But toiling in life’s dusty way,
The Rock’s blessed shadow, how sweet!
O near to the Rock let me keep,
If blessings or sorrow prevail;
Or climbing the mountainway steep,
Or walking the shadowy vale.
O then to the Rock let me fly,
To the Rock that is higher than I;
O then to the Rock let me fly,
To the Rock that is higher than I!
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Let’s spend a moment with the science behind the Psalms. In math, when you learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, it opens a whole new world to your understanding. In linguistics, when you understand the role of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, your understanding is deepened.
Similarly, when we understand the “science” behind the Psalms, we will discover a whole new world of understanding God and ourselves. Here are a few tools to help you get started seeing the science of the Psalms.
The Science of the Psalms
Much of our English poetry is rooted in a parallelism of sound (rhyme) or time (rhythm). Hebrew poetry contains these elements also; however, it is characterized by a parallelism of thought. Concepts are repeated and contrasted to accomplish the author’s purpose.
Completive Parallels (Synonymous): For example, in completive parallels (synonymous parallelism), the first line is repeated with some variation in the following lines. For example:
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)
The idea of “heavens” is explained and deepened by the use of the word “sky.” Similarly, “the glory of God,” is clarified by the phrase, “his handiwork.”
Sometimes these parallels can extend over several lines, each building on the previous.
These repeated and expanded ideas heighten our appreciation of a concept in the same way synonyms do in English. If I say, “It is hot,” that is one thing. But if I say, “It is hot, burning, sizzling, like I’m on fire,” then the concept is intensified.
Contrastive Parallels. The Psalms also contain “contrastive parallels” (antithetic parallelism), where the second line of a couplet expresses the opposite idea of the first. For example,
“for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1:6)
The way of the righteous and wicked are contrasted. One is approved by the Lord, the other will perish. This style of writing is prolific in the Proverbs.
Chiastic Parallels. A fun form of Hebrew poetry is called “chiastic parallelism” or inverted parallelism. The name comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like the English letter X. In this form of poetry, the concepts are presented in a cross-cross pattern. This is best seen in illustration.
A Have mercy on me, O God,
B according to your lovingkindness,
B’ according to the multitude of your mercies
A’ Blot out my transgression.” (Psalm 51:1)
Sometimes this inverted structure can be seen over an entire Psalm, like Psalm 4.
1 A Prayer
2 B Enemies
3-5 C Appeal to Trust not Anger
6 B’ Enemies
7-8 A’ Prayer
Sometimes this beautiful criss-cross pattern can be seen within single verses:
A He put
B a new song
C in my mouth
B’ a song of praise
A’ to our God
Recognizing the pattern yields a powerful message. The song God put in my mouth was sent back to Him, collectively, as a song of praise.
Repetition. Another pattern in the Psalm is repetition. Words or concepts can be repeated to mark the beginning and end of a section. Like the praise that begins and ends Psalm 8,
“O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1,9)
Or the repetition can emphasize the message as in Psalm 136, “his steadfast love endures forever,” is used 26 times!
Some people enjoy working puzzles. Others spend hours with “sudoku” and “word search.” Discovering the structure of Psalms, the Psalms stimulates the mind in a similar way, to an even better end. When we learn to look for these patterns, the Psalms open up a whole new world for us to see.