Psalm 23 scans not as a Hebrew poem // English poetry in my ears is the 23rd Psalm

Some passages unanimously deemed poetry may not be so, in fact. Ps 23 is a case in point…       ––Wilfred G.E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques (1984), p. 45.

 

Leaving aside the strange presumption that only he knows what is right about something deemed otherwise “universal,” I think Watson is onto something here. I may actually agree with him that Psalm 23, despite its beloved status in the Church throughout history, may not be poetry. At least insofar as it bears very few of the hallmarks that make up Hebrew poetry.

On the next page of Watson’s 450 page guide to Hebrew poetry (in which the only reference to the most famous Hebrew poem is that it doesn’t qualify as Hebrew poetry), Watson provides a table of indicators for discerning Hebrew poetry from the biblical era. The table includes: presence of established line-forms; ellipsis; unusual vocabulary; conciseness; unusual word-order; archaisms; use of metre; symmetry; parallelism; word-pairs; chiastic patterns; envelope figure; repetition; sound patterns.

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Watson’s “Table of Indicators”

It’s not that Psalm 23 lacks any or all of these indicators. Rather, those that are there (parallelism, envelope figure?, unusual vocabulary?, word pairs) are loosey goosey and no more heightened than in many examples found in universally deemed prose. One has to look very hard to find semantic parallelism and those examples that exist are absent of any elegant grammatical parallelism. The line translated “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters” is at once, grammatically on the nose, while still seeming incidentally parallel. Even the Masoretes (medieval editors) didn’t bother to arrange that line to make the parallelism work on the page. I guess they thought, why bother?

Any argument for Psalm 23 as poetry based on accepted indicators or hallmarks (use of prefix and suffix conjugations interchangeably, no sign of accusative, no definite article) must still deal with the fact that we have hundreds of other witnesses of poetry in the Bible alone that do have obviously more claim to the poetic. If all Hebrew poems were like Psalm 23 would we even know about parallelism?

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This is not a good use of the word “unanimously” (What we don’t talk about is him inexplicably including Psalm 1 in this category!)

In the end, any analysis of Psalm 23 as poetry should probably conclude that the psalm is either not poetry at all or is a poor example of it.

I’ve actually felt this way about Psalm 23 for a while but excused my concerns because of some poetic turns of phrase, which happen to be some of my favourites in the Bible, particularly the last verb weshavti (וְשַׁבְתִּי), which, without vowels could be translated either as “and I shall return” or “and my dwelling is” so that the first reading points to the pursuit of goodness and mercy in the first part of the verse and the second reading points to the house of the LORD in the second part of the verse. Such wordplay, however, is common in biblical Hebrew prose, so it doesn’t make psalm 23 any more poetry than some passages in the narratives of Jonah or Genesis.

Despite my concerns about the lack of poetic indicators in this “poem” it wasn’t until a conversation I had with a theologian and friend named David Taylor last week that I wondered, if Psalm 23 is not poetry, why is it universally deemed such.

David was teaching a class at Regent College last week on the Arts in Worship while I was teaching Hebrew and he told me that one of the questions he had his class do was finish the sentence “Poetry is…” In previous classes he said his students could not either answer the question or come to a consensus after sharing their answers. In fact, David said, poets themselves cannot agree what poetry is.

Which raises the question as to why I can even claim that Psalm 23 is not poetry. I should clarify: I’m not sure Psalm 23 qualifies as Hebrew Poetry. However, it should be pointed out that in Watson’s table of indicators, very few indicators translate well into English poetry.

For instance, I doubt if any of David’s students have ever claimed that poetry should contain parallelism. If so, they would have taken out of contention a very large swath of English poetry. Rhyme is a type of parallelism, but not one that Hebrew poets use with any regularity and that is absent in even universally deemed and acclaimed English poems (see Paradise Lost). Perhaps metre could be seen as another type of parallelism, but metre utilized or understood in Hebrew poetry is very different than in English poetry.

Such discrepancies between what constitutes Hebrew poetry and the general conventions of English poetry is why, I would guess, Psalm 23 is so beloved as an English poem while seeming somewhat anomalous in the Psalter itself.

Parallelism as often translated into English, can seem clunky and necessarily corrupts the word order, word order being a feature that can accentuate semantic parallelism in Hebrew. In fact, very few of the hallmarks of Hebrew poetry translate at all into English and when they do seem out of character to poetry in general (e.g. chiastic arrangement).

On the other hand, imagery works well in both and Psalm 23 has evocative images of shepherding that are surprising and yet easy to imagine and understand the significance of. More so than, say, images of ancient Near Eastern coronations, which are perhaps too foreign to translate into everyday life. In Psalm 23, the reader identifies with the helplessness and cluelessness of sheep in the wilderness. Such imagery is humbling, yet comforting, and if it seems played out, that is likely due to the ubiquity of the psalm itself in our culture. Psalm 23 is specific enough to imagine, yet vague enough to apply to any stage in one’s life.

“Please stop perpetuating the tired stereotype that sheep are helpless and clueless.”

There is also enough mystery (inconsistency?) in the imagery to bring us back and explore again. How can a rod and staff comfort me? What does it mean to have a table prepared before me in the presence of enemies? How does the table scene fit with the rest of the psalm? Is a sheep eating at the table?

Such ambiguities are important for second, third, and fourth readings of poetry as we understand poetry. I can work hard at understanding the psalm without feeling I need a degree in Assyriology or Ugaritic. Its qualification as English poetry, despite its impoetic* nature in its original language, may be due to accident or perhaps the skill of the translators of the King James Bible. But given the psalm’s ability to comfort people in times of trouble, to remind them of God’s caring and protecting nature, perhaps it was no accident at all. Or, perhaps even the early canonizers of the Psalter read the psalm, knew it didn’t seem to fit, but thought, like many of us, “I don’t really know how to define poetry, but I know it when I see it.”

I’ve printed the psalm from the KJV in full below (as a prose poem) for you to decide if it’s poetry or not.

 

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Ps. 23 KJV)

*I know “impoetic” is not yet a word, but it should be.

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About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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