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In Our Ward: Lesson 25: “Let Every Thing that Hath Breath Praise the Lord”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 06, 2014

Lesson 25: “Let Every Thing that Hath Breath Praise the Lord”

Psalms

Purpose: to help class members show their gratitude for the Savior and for the many blessings that he and our Heavenly Father have given us.

Lesson Development

1. Prophecies of the life and mission of Jesus Christ.
2. “The Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee”
3. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?”

Introduction

In a discussion of the Old Testament, a friend recently pointed out that parts of the Old Testament were used by the ancient Israelites in somewhat the same way that we use certain books in the modern Church:

The book of Deuteronomy, and some parts of Numbers and Leviticus, are somewhat like our Handbook: They record procedures and policies, and give the rules for handling a lot of the sticky problems that come up in Church life.

Books like Samuel and Kings and Chronicles are somewhat like our History of the Church, telling the stories of the great men and women of the Church, and recording how the Church developed over time.

Thinking about it that way, what modern Church book could be easily compared to the Book of Psalms?

Why do we sing hymns today? [Draw out several reasons: to express devotion, to prepare our minds for ordinances, to rejoice, to feel united as a people, to teach and remember doctrine, etc.]

No doubt a great deal of the power of our hymns comes from the melodies we sing them to. Even without the tunes, though, as simple poetry, the hymns have the power to move and inspire us. [Display replica 1835 hymnal.] The first hymn books of the Church did not contain printed music, just words, yet they speak to us in a way that plain prose does not do.

No. 6 – Redeemer of Israel, our only delight
On whom for a blessing we call;
Our shadow by day, our pillar by night,
Our king, our companion, our all.

No. 27 – Through all the world below,
God we see all around;
Search hills and valleys through,
There he’s found;
The growing of the corn,
The lily and the thorn,
The pleasant and forlorn,
All declare, God is there,
In meadows dress’d in green,
There he’s seen.

The New Testament writers quote or allude to the Psalms more over than any other Old Testament book. Why do you suppose that might be?

And yet – except perhaps for singing a modern hymn that is based on an ancient Psalm – when is the last time you read a Psalm? [If anyone claims to have read Psalms recently, ask why, and what value was in it. If no one claims to have read Psalms, ask why these poems are so often neglected by Church members.]

Perhaps one reason most of us don’t read psalms often is because they are poetry. We tend to read the scriptures, I think, for practical reasons: What have the prophets taught about repentance? What is the history of the Christ’s visit to the New World? We treat the scriptures like an encyclopedia or a dictionary, looking up information, or to fulfil an obligation to read for so many minutes every day, but seldom, I think, to be inspired. Poetry doesn’t tend to fill the need for providing hard-headed information about any given topic. [Allow discussion and disagreement with this statement – but then ask again when was the last time the objector read from Psalms, and ask why that is the case.]

When you read English poetry – or at least when you read it long ago in school – how did you recognize that a piece of writing was a poem and not, say, an essay?

Page layout: The King James Version hides the fact that something is poetry by printing it all in paragraphs just like it does the Law of Moses or the “begats” in many of the other books. [Display 4-translation Bible, showing page layout.] Most other English translations of the Old Testament lay out the poetic books – Psalms, Job, Isaiah, and others – in the same way they would lay out English poetry.

How might reading the Psalms with a page layout like that help you appreciate them as poetry? [It would, for example, help you identify complete thought units.]

Language: Most traditional English poetry, if not modern poetry, tends to rhyme, or repeat sounds at the ends of lines. We’ve been trained to recognize that as poetry, and to take pleasure in the patterns of repeated sounds.

Hebrew poetry, like the Psalms, does not rhyme, however – it doesn’t rhyme in Hebrew, and it certainly doesn’t rhyme once it’s been translated into English. There are patterns of repetition, though, that give pleasure to the reader once you learn to recognize them – but they are patterns that don’t have anything to do with the repetition of sounds.

Let’s take a look at Psalm 27 to see how this works.

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

What repetition do you see there?

Glance through the entire Psalm. What other repetitions do you see?

Psalm 27

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

2 When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.

3 Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.

4 One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

5 For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock.

6 And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord.

7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me.

8 When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.

9 Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.

10 When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.

11 Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies.

12 Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty.

13 I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

14 Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.

Verses 3 and 5 are good examples of the same kind of repetition seen in verse 1.

Verses 5-6 show another kind of parallel construction, only instead of repeating the same thought in different words, the psalmist contrasts ways in which the Lord blesses him

5 For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion
6 And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies

(The Lord hides and protects the psalmist in times of trouble, but in times of victory the Lord puts the psalmist on display)

5 in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me
6. therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy

(The tabernacle – or temple – is a place of refuge in hard times, and a place of rejoicing in good times)

5 he shall set me up upon a rock
6 I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord

(In hard times, the Lord puts the psalmist where his enemies can’t see him; in good times, it’s easy to imagine the psalmist standing on that same rock, singing out to be heard by everybody.)

Although the words are very different, the thoughts expressed in Psalm 27 are very much the same thoughts expressed in one of our hymns; Psalm 27 is believed to be the text the poet had in mind when he wrote this hymn.

The Lord Is My Light (No. 89)

1. The Lord is my light; then why should I fear?
By day and by night his presence is near.
He is my salvation from sorrow and sin;
This blessed assurance the Spirit doth bring.

(Chorus)
The Lord is my light;
He is my joy and my song.
By day and by night he leads,
He leads me along.

2. The Lord is my light; tho clouds may arise,
Faith, stronger than sight, looks up thru the skies
Where Jesus forever in glory doth reign.
Then how can I ever in darkness remain?

3. The Lord is my light; the Lord is my strength.
I know in his might I’ll conquer at length.
My weakness in mercy he covers with pow’r,
And, walking by faith, I am blest ev’ry hour.

4. The Lord is my light, my all and in all.
There is in his sight no darkness at all.
He is my Redeemer, my Savior, and King.
With Saints and with angels his praises I’ll sing.

In what way do the thoughts of this hymn echo the thoughts of Psalm 27? [The Lord will protect in times of trouble, and the singer will praise God when the darkness and trouble is past.]

With all that in mind – the sense of the English hymn, and the recognition of repetition, let’s read through Psalm 27 again, noticing the poetry.

Let’s look at a few other kinds of parallel lines that help to create the poetry of the Psalms.

Psalm 69 is called a “messianic psalm” because we can read it as looking forward to the mission of the Savior. It opens with the image of the psalmist as a drowning man:

1 Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.

Why is drowning an effective metaphor for the troubles of life? [Being overwhelmed by spiritual trouble – sorrow, sin. doubt – can be likened to being overwhelmed by physical elements – and don’t we use the same metaphor in other cases, like “drowning in debt” or “drowning his sorrows in drink”?]

But the psalmist doesn’t just say “I’m drowning.” he uses the pattern of repetition to show the progression of terror: first his feet are caught in mud, then the waters rise around him, then he shouts for help until he is hoarse.

2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.

3 I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.

The psalmist goes on to list the ways he is in trouble: he’s been foolish, he has sinned, and even when he does try to follow the Lord, his companions hate him for it. Then in verses 14 and 15, he returns to the same metaphors of drowning, and asks the Lord to rescue him from each step:

14 Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters.

15 Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.

Then the psalmist goes on asking for blessings for himself, and curses for his enemies, and the Psalm ends up the opposite of how it begins: Instead of the psalmist drowning in his troubles, he trusts the Messiah not only to lift him out of his watery grave and put him on dry land, but to exalt him “on high.”

29 But I am poor and sorrowful: let thy salvation, O God, set me up on high.

30 I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving.

31 This also shall please the Lord better than an ox or bullock that hath horns and hoofs.

32 The humble shall see this, and be glad: and your heart shall live that seek God.

33 For the Lord heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.

34 Let the heaven and earth praise him, the seas, and every thing that moveth therein.

35 For God will save Zion, and will build the cities of Judah: that they may dwell there, and have it in possession.

36 The seed also of his servants shall inherit it: and they that love his name shall dwell therein.

We have been talking about the poetry of the Psalms, but the fact that something is poetic doesn’t mean, of course, that it can’t also be doctrinal. I mentioned a few minutes ago that this Psalm is considered a “messianic psalm,” or a poem looking forward to the mission of the Messiah. What in these verses that we’ve read teaches us about the role of the Messiah, or Jesus Christ?

Undoubtedly one of the most well-known Psalms, one that we could all probably recite together, is the 23rd Psalm. We recognize it as poetry without any difficulty, because it is so familiar, and has been set to music. Still, let’s look at some of the parallel elements of the 23rd Psalm, to show that it works in much the same way as the other Hebrew poetry – if we can love this poem, we can love others by becoming more familiar with them.

Psalm 23

1 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.

What parallel forms, or other poetic elements, do you find in this psalm? [Among other things, note that “maketh me to lie down,” a phrase used in bedding domestic animals, carries on the theme of shepherd and sheep; note the parallel structures of the middle verses; note the progression in verse 6, where “dwelling in the house of the Lord” is even greater than being “followed by goodness and mercy,” and where the first line speaks of mortality and the second line speaks of eternity.]

We may be so used to speaking of the 23rd Psalm as a poem that we take for granted that the psalmist is singing about the Messiah. What doctrinal ideas do you find implanted in the poetic images? That is, what do the images of sheep and shepherd have to do with the Savior? What other elements speak of the Savior?

Keep looking at the 23rd Psalm. I’m going to read the Lord’s Prayer, from Matthew. What elements do you see in common between the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm?

Matthew 6

9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

[What blessings does the Prayer ask for that echo blessings requested by the psalmist? What do the last verse of each say about eternity?]

Conclusion

Psalms is one of the few books of scripture that you can pick up and jump into at any point. If you only have a few minutes to give to it, you can read a few verses and note how the repetition of a verse or two emphasizes a given point. If you have more time, you might use the footnotes of the LDS edition of the bible to see how Old Testament Psalms are referred to in New Testament teachings. President Benson once said that “the psalms in the Old Testament have a special food for the soul of one in distress.” (“Do Not Despair,” October 1974). Perhaps we turn to the scriptures most often when we do need solace in hard times – but many of the Psalms, like many of our modern-day hymns, can also give us the words to express gratitude and rejoicing in good times.

[Thanks again to Benjamin the Scribe for some ideas on framing the lesson that were more interesting/devotional than the non-poetic framing of the manual. I also used Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms.]



1 Comment »

  1. I enjoyed every single line of this. Wonderful lesson. I loved how you went from Psalm 23 to the Lord’s Prayer. Oh,and this line: “We have been talking about the poetry of the Psalms, but the fact that something is poetic doesn’t mean, of course, that it can’t also be doctrinal.”

    Comment by David Y. — July 6, 2014 @ 10:20 pm

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