Poetic Embodiment of Praise

Scott Aniol


Psalms like Psalm 96 form us by recounting past, present, and future realities, but they also form us through the use of artistic elements within the psalm. Psalms are not just prose narratives of who God is and what he has done. Psalms are poetic; they use various artistic devices to form and shape our minds and our hearts as we consider God’s nature and works—in particular, his true image of blessedness—and respond rightly toward him. As Robert Alter rightly notes,

Poetry, working through a system of complex linkages of sound, image, word, rhythm, syntax, theme, idea, is an instrument for conveying densely patterned meanings, and sometimes contradictory meanings, that are not readily conveyable through other kinds of discourse.1Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2011), 141.

Let’s look at some of those artistic devices in Psalm 96. First, there are several groupings of threes in parallel to one another. This poetic technique provides structural identifiers that help us to recognize where the progression of thought lies, and it helps to develop and expand our understanding of what it means to sing in worship. But these repetitions of three—particularly Sing . . . Sing . . . Sing, Ascribe . . . Ascribe . . . Ascribe, and Let . . . Let . . . Let—are poetic ways of denoting emphasis; as we sing this psalm, we cannot help but be drawn to those three groupings of three. Poets call this anaphora: repeating the same word in successive lines, but then developing the idea further with each line. In other words, it is not just mindless, undeveloped repetition; it is repetition that progresses an idea.

Sing to the Lord a new song,
        sing to the Lord, all the earth,
         sing to the Lord, bless his name;

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
         ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
         Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.

Let the heavens be glad, and [] the earth rejoice;
         let the sea roar,
         let the field exult.

This is not repetition intended to stimulate a mindless trance, as New Age mantras or charismatic praise choruses intend, this is repetition intended to stimulate deep meditation of the mind and heart.

There are other poetic devices in this psalm that shape and form us. Some would have been more poignant in Hebrew than they are in English. For example, in verse 5, the Hebrew employs a play on words when it says, “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols.” The Hebrew word for gods is Elohim, and the Hebrew word for worthless idols is elihim. The Elohim are elihim.

Others are translated well in English. Verses 11 and 12 contain both a poetic device called apostrophe—directly addressing inanimate objects like the earth, or seas, or fields—and personification—attributing human characteristics to non-humans. The heavens can’t really rejoice, the earth can’t rejoice, the field cannot be joyful, and the trees cannot sing for joy, nor can they hear our commands to do so. But by using these poetic descriptions, this song shapes our hearts in ways that mere prose would not. The same device is used in Psalm 114:

1 When Israel went out from Egypt,
         the house of Jacob from a people
                  of strange language,
2 Judah became his sanctuary,
         Israel his dominion.
3 The sea looked and fled;
         Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
         the hills like lambs.
5 What ails you, O sea, that you flee?
         O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
         O hills, like lambs?
7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
         at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
         the flint into a spring of water.

Although not used much in Psalm 96, metaphors are common poetic devices employed in the psalms. Likely the most well-known appears in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” This metaphor is meant to represent his kingly rule, but of course the image embodies so much more. Metaphors are important for the kind of worldview formation that serves as a central purpose of the psalms. The term metaphor comes from a Greek word that literally means “to carry across, to transfer”—metaphors connect something abstract (like the rule of God) to something concrete in human experience (like a shepherd). In other words, images in the psalms help us to properly conceptualize blessedness under the rule of God by connecting that abstract reality to concrete experiences in real life. This means that these images are not incidental or unimportant—they are a fundamental component of what forms a biblical imagination of God’s truth.

The most common structural poetic device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism, which is often captured in the English translation. 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.

This kind of parallelism appears frequently throughout the Psalter. You can see that Psalm 96 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—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—the Lord reigns! 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!”

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 woke up the next morning, and the Dagon idol was flat on its face (1 Sam 5:1–5)—“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 not. 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 Psalm 96 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 submitting to 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? All of the poetic structure and imagery of the psalms shape and form us into people who live in light of God’s reality.

Poetry contributes to the fundamental purpose of psalms: the psalms shape our heart-conception of true blessedness in submission to God’s rule. And this is what will ultimately form hearts of praise.

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1 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2011), 141.
Author psalms

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.