A HANDY HOW-TO GUIDE FOR BEGINNERS
You say you’ve always wanted to be a psalmist but don’t know where to begin? Fortunately for you writing psalms is easier than you think. Just follow the simple steps in this tutorial and you’ll be writing biblical quality psalms in no time!
Maybe you’ve read an article about the techniques of Hebrew poetry and thought, “I could never do that. It’s too complicated!” But you’re in luck. Most of those difficult techniques don’t translate well anyway. There is really only one technique that you have to master: parallelism.
Parallelism is repeating the same idea
in different words.
Using diverse vocabulary to restate
the same thought--that’s parallelism.
Parallelism is easy and fun.
It is simple and enjoyable.
Do you get the idea?
Do you grasp the concept?
Good! I told you it was easy!
All it takes to master the technique of parallelism is practice and a good thesaurus.
Now you are ready to begin writing your psalm. But what will you write about? Most psalms contain one or more of these four elements: Complaint, Cry for Help, Thanksgiving, and Praise.
We all have things to complain about. Psalmists usually complain about their health and/or their enemies.
If you choose to complain about your health, be graphic. Describe your fevers, chills, sore feet, falling hair, halitosis, poor eyesight, and seeping pustules in detail. If at all possible mention “the Pit” as in, “I am going down to the Pit.”
If you decide to complain about enemies, use animal imagery: bulls, jackals, and dogs are good choices.
You may, if you wish, complain about both your health and your enemies:
I am a mass of boils;
I am covered with seeping sores.
Enemies surround me;
Dogs encircle me
As I go down to the Pit.
Your complaints don’t have to be personal. You may also complain on behalf of your entire community. In this case you will probably focus on enemies rather than illness.
B. Cry for Help
Now it’s time to ask YHWH to help you. Don’t be afraid to grovel. Abject pleading may be called for. Be sure to tell God why he should help you. For example:
You have always helped us before.
I won’t be able to praise you if I go down to the Pit.
I’ve always been a good person.
People will laugh at you if you don’t help us.
Note: If you are writing a Penitential Psalm, ask the Lord to save you from your own bad self.
If God gives you the help you desire, be sure to say thanks. If God hasn’t given you help yet, say thanks in advance. Promise to do something in return. For example:
Offer a sacrifice
Pour out a libation
Give praise in the midst of the assembly
Help the poor
Instruct the foolish
If you aren’t going to offer an animal sacrifice, you may want to mention that God doesn’t really want one anyway:
Bulls and rams you do not desire
You turn up your nose at lambs and goats.
Tell God how wonderful he is. Invite others to join in. For example:
Your friends and neighbors
Plants and animals
Mythological creatures: Leviathan, Behemoth,
Heavenly creatures: Seraphim, Cherubim, Angels
Stars and Planets
After you’ve written a few psalms using the steps outlined above, you’ll be ready to try your hand at more advanced psalms: Wisdom Psalms, Songs of Zion, Royal Psalms, and Songs of Ascents.
Although I wrote this with tongue, I hope obviously, in cheek, there are some serious points to be made. Parallelism is a common and important technique of ancient Hebrew poetry. The elements of Complaint, Cry for Help, Thanksgiving, and Praise are themes of many of the psalms and, according to Walter Bruggemann in his book An Unsettling God, programmatic for much of the Old Testament narrative.