What a Psalm Is and How to Write One

I thought I'd take a break to explain what a psalm is, specifically, how it is different from English poetry, and to also give people direction on how they can write their own psalms. The neat thing is that writing psalms is fairly easy. I encourage people to pick up their pens and write psalms to God. You'd be amazed how having to think through a psalm draws you closer to God!

First, a psalm is a song that is written according to Hebrew poetry (you don't have to put your psalms to music, though some people like to do this). This means it is different from English poetry. English poetry uses rhyme and meter. Hebrew poetry does not (No, the poems in Psalms really don't rhyme, even in Hebrew, if you ever wondered :-D). Hebrew poetry uses parallelism, rhythm and sometimes, structure. The good news is, if you want to write psalms, you only really need to understand parallelism. Rhythm all depends on how you want the psalm to sound to the ear. The ear likes repetitive syllables.

So, to parallelism we go. Hebrew poetry is mainly written in couplets, two lines that have some kind of relation with each other. Below are the kinds of couplets:

1. Synonymous Identical: The idea in the couplet is the same, although it uses different words. Here's an example: "Pay attention, my people, to my teaching,/Be attentive to the words of my mouth" (Psalm 78:1). The idea is exactly the same: pay attention to what I am going to teach you.

2. Synonymous Similar: The idea in the couplet is similar, but not identical. Example: "When the Almighty was yet with me,/And my children were around me" (Job 29:5). In the first line, the Almighty is with Job and in the second, his children are. Same idea, different people.

3. Antithetical: The idea in the lines of the couplets are opposites. Example: "A wise son heeds his father's instruction,/but a mocker does not listen to rebuke" (Proverbs 13:1). The first line presents a wise son that listens and the second presents a mocker who refuses to listen. This kind of parallelism you'll find mainly in Proverbs in the Bible, which makes sense since it is a book that teaches how you should live versus how you should not live.

4. Climactic: This is a couplet where one part of the first line is repeated in the second and finishes the thought of the first line. Example: "Accredit to Yahweh, O Heavenly Ones,/
Accredit to Yahweh glory and strength" (Psalm 29:1). Accredit to Yahweh is repeated and the second line tells us what to accredit to Yahweh.

5. Emblematic: The first line illustrates the second line. Example: "As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout,/So is a beautiful woman who lacks discretion" (Proverbs 11:22). The first line uses the illustration of a ring in a pig snout to describe a beautiful woman without discretion.

6. Synthetic Reason: The second line gives a reason for the first line. Example: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly,/Lest you also be like him" (Proverbs 26:4). I always say synthetic reason answers a why question: Why don't you answer a fool in the same way he approaches you? Because you'll be a fool just like him.

7. Synthetic Completion: This is a parallelism you find in rhythm alone, thus the two lines may not have a relation between their ideas.

Hebrew poetry also uses several literary devices: metaphor (comparison not using like or as), simile (comparison using like or as), metonymy (substituting one noun for another noun, i.e. "dogs have surrounded me, a band of evil men has encircled me"), personification (representing an object or concept as if it were a person, i.e. Wisdom in Proverbs is described as a woman calling out to people) to name some common ones.

The most fun thing about writing psalms is that you can write almost anything you want. For the rhyme challenged, you don't have to rhyme! All you need is a thought of praise and you can compose a psalm. Think of a concept, write it down, then write another line that relates to your first line in some way like the parallelism above. And yes, lines can stand on their own as well. If you want to give it a try, take the above parallelisms and try each out in a psalm. Here's one I've composed below to give you an example (of course, you don't need to identify the parallelism. I only did that as a help):

O Lord, you never leave me;
you do not forsake me. (Synonymous Identical)
You lavish on me your mercy;
You pour forth your peace. (Synonymous Similar)
Children of God hear your voice;
the lost refuse to listen. (Antithetical)
O hear the Lord, O Man,
O hear what the Lord has to say. (Climactic)
As fragrant oil poured over your head
are the Lord's spoken words. (Emblematic)
Hearken to the Lord's words,
by them will you be saved. (Synthetic Reason)
Yes, the Lord seeks you,
Yes, the Lord wants you. (Synthetic Completion)
Be a solid rock;
stand strong for the Lord. (Metaphor)
Like a mighty tower
is the one who trusts in God. (Simile)
Blessed are those who hold to the Lord,
the sparrows who rest in His hand. (Metonymy)
O, love is calling out to you,
imploring you, "Hear and trust the Lord!" (Personification)

Of course, you don't have to use all forms of parallelism or literary devices in a psalm. You can play around with the different parallelisms. Use what you want. Have fun; choose a theme, then go for it and write a psalm. I hope you enjoy writing psalms as much as I do and that they bring you closer to your God!


Thanks for posting this, it was really helpful!


Post a Comment