Parallelism in Psalm 96
Last week we looked at several aspects of how various poetic devices were used in Psalm 96 to shape the content and form the singer and listener. Many of these poetic devices are still used in poetry and hymnody today.
The most common poetic device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism, which has been captured in our English translation rather well. Someone once said that with Hebrew poetry, words don’t rhyme, lines rhyme.
In this psalm, the parallel lines are mostly grouped in pairs of two—we call these bicolons, and usually Bible editors will show this by indenting the second line in each pair. These lines are parallel in that the second line restates the idea of the first line, but the restatement further develops the idea of the first line.
Sing to the Lord a new song; … Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; … tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations, … his marvelous works among all the peoples.
And so forth.
So you can see that this is actually a fairly complex poem. David employs groupings of three verbs to develop his ideas as well as parallel lines in pairs.
And the whole psalm progresses in this manner with bicolons—parallel lines in pairs.
Until we arrive at verse 10, which until now we have not examined. Verse 10 is not a bicolon like all the other parallel lines in the psalm; verse 10 is a tricolon—a group of three lines in parallel in which the second and third line further develop and expand the ideas of the first line.
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
The second and third lines further describe and expand the reality of what this reign is.
Now why would David do this? Why would he compose a poem entirely comprised of bicolons, only to toss in a tricolon in verse 10? Was this by accident?
Hardly. David, like all of the authors of the psalms, was an accomplished poet. He knew what he was doing. He composed these lines as a tricolon intentionally. Why? Because it sets apart these three lines from the rest of the poem. This is David’s poetic way to highlight, bold, underline, and draw stars around these lines. These are the central, key lines of the whole poem. These lines, really, are the only lines of the psalm that explicitly present the content of our song—the Lord reigns!
Remember, Psalm 96 was included in a collection of Enthronement Psalms, which celebrate the kingly reign of the Lord, and that is the focus of this central tricolon—Say among the nations, the Lord reigns!
As I mentioned earlier, David originally wrote this psalm to dedicate the new tabernacle once the Ark had been successfully recovered from its captivity in pagan territory, where the Philistines had put the Ark in their temple to Dagon; remember what happened? They got up the next morning, and the Dagon idol was flat on his face—all the gods of the people are worthless idols! The Lord reigns.
The Hebrews later used this psalm at the dedication of the Second Temple after they had returned from exile in Babylon, saving them from captivity and once again demonstrating his superiority over the gods of the pagans—tell of his salvation from day to day. The Lord reigns.
The whole context and purpose of this psalm is encapsulated in that central tricolon of verse 10, and David masterfully uses poetry to ensure that we will not miss his point.
The Lord reigns!
But again, is this a present reality? Certainly God reigns sovereignly and providentially over all things. But is he reigning in such a way that all the nations of the earth are praising him? Certainly God reigns over his believing people, but do even we who believe submit perfectly to that reign and ascribe to him the glory due his name?
No, these are future realities yet to come. This reign of the Lord in this psalm is not his sovereign reign or even his rule over those who believe in him; this reign is his future, perfect reign after he comes to judge the earth; when the world will be established and never moved, in other words, all things perfectly obeying the Law of the Lord and God’s will done perfectly on earth as it is in heaven; when God will judge the people with equity.
This is a song about a future time when the Lord’s reign will be complete, when all peoples will bow before him, when justice will flow like a mighty river.
And even though these things have not yet come to pass, David sang this song, and the Hebrews sang this song after their exile, and we sing this song today as if this is a present reality. Why? So that it shapes and forms us into people who live in light of this reality. So that it shapes our hearts. So that it causes us to sing. So that it causes us to sing a new song.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.