Literary Study of The Bible
June 4, 2012
Diamonds Among Dirt: The Work of Psalm 18
The Bible’s 18th Psalm is a heartbroken and hope-filled lyric poem constructed of
assurance, praise, ascent, and messianic anticipation. Because of Psalm 18’s direct connection with 2 Samuel 22 (ESV 958), the rich literary verse can be digested as communal praise meant for a God who enjoys resting and celebrating his own gracious mercies. Its poetry begins with pieces of enthusiastic worship to the Hebrew God, then dives into a memory of pain and death. It narrates God’s terrible wrath against the author’s enemies and evil, continues into Yahweh’s rescue, and displays the benefits of righteousness. It reiterates God’s attributes, and finally points
to the inheritance of King David’s descendants. Formal devices are used to build an upward emotional spiral, and the work is strategically placed between a plea for deliverance (Psalm 17) and a song for adoration (Psalm 18). This fallen poet, assumed to be David, tells the Lord and the nations about hardship and holy power. Simile, metaphor, anthropomorphism, and symbol are used to show a passionate song with thanksgiving, wisdom for Israel, and beautiful poetry for a modern audience. Literary critics J. Kenneth Kuntz and Harold Bloom tackle this work also, studying its structure and ability to touch readers. They find the same patterns, as well as
distinct parts of speech and imaginative voice to draw the audience into David’s kingdom and Yahweh’s gracious aid.
Psalm 18’s initial statement introduces the concept of assurance: repeated momentum in believing the work’s truth. The idea seen here is a God with remarkable, universal ownership and delightful love for his creatures. The theme of this love is peppered throughout its entirety. Blending in with this assurance, synonymous and synthetic parallelism also appear. Both occur most memorably in the detailed scenes of battle, verses 18 through 45. Examples of the repetitive parallelism include “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;/ according to the
cleanness of my hands/ He has recompensed me” (20); “I was also blameless before Him,/ and I kept myself from my iniquity” (23); and “For You will light My lamp;/ The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness” (28). A few examples of progressive parallelism are “They confronted me in the day of my calamity,/ but the Lord was my support” (18); “They cried out, but there was none to save;/ even to the Lord, but He did not answer them” (41); and “The foreigners fade away,/ and come frightened from their hideouts” (45).
Continual praise and ascent are found in the passage, ironically when the author describes the awful fire-breathing and hailstone storms (7-15). There is a constant tone of awe and disbelief, but the author remains worshipful. He is proud of this great power crushing his enemy. The ascent moves through various frightening images, but it reaches hope in salvation and rule over the kingdoms near the end. David sings, “You have delivered me from the strivings of the people;/ You have made me the head of the nations;/ A people who I have not known shall serve me” (43). He is incredulous, but experiencing pleasure at this turn of events. The reader also sees messianic anticipation in the final verse, appropriately placed at the psalm’s end to give structural significance to the future: “Great deliverance He gives to His king,/ and shows mercy to His anointed,/ to David and his descendants forevermore” (50).
In 2 Samuel 22, David speaks the very same song to the Hebrew God, and now the audience can understand that this song was adapted for public worship in the Psalms. Deliverance from one’s enemy was surely a hot topic in the ancient Biblical times of war, so this was most likely a refreshing repetition to the Jewish community. And looking further into Hebrew culture, repeating these words would heighten the senses and illuminate their truth. David is speaking of all the enemies that pursued him throughout his life (ESV 578). His song recalls the poetry of Miriam and the Israelite slaves saved from Egypt. There is intense, sharply described wording that would remind readers of how it feels to be rescued from terrible calamity.
The striking poem builds up images of protection, help, and comfort in the beginning. The Lord is the “rock” and “fortress,” advising readers that nothing can penetrate his might. He not only creates the narrator’s strength, but sustains it. Due to these amazing shows of power, this author offers his praise and receives good fortune from God. Then abruptly the setting changes, and death and misery is seen everywhere. Worship turns into vivid fear, “pangs of death” (4), and snares that trap the poet. He is in such dire need that he does not call, yet cries out like an infant for Yahweh to save him. Still, Yahweh hears and plans a divine rescue mission.
The verses that follow present something more terrible.
God does not merely clap his hands and whisk the enemy away. He comes down from heaven like a volcano, quaking fire, hail, and extreme anger. The idea of a jolly, eternally happy Santa-Claus Yahweh is smashed away by this fierce being. The next eight verses write a story of superhuman vengeance and destruction upon the earth. What is accomplished by such a shift? The author assures his readers that this God is equipped to defeat his opponents, and that he is incredibly jealous for those that follow and obey him.
In the midst of fiery wrath readers notice in the following stanza: “He sent from above, He took me;/ He drew me out of many waters” (16). Great poetry usually speaks of dynamic characters, people or creatures that are good and bad. What’s interesting about how God is viewed here is that he, too, is viewed and negative and positive light. What’s important, though, is that the ends do justify the means. Yahweh reaching down with his wrath to some humans means his gracious forgiveness and restoration of others, particularly those that are approved of by him. That the poet is speaking to God, himself, a community of Jewish believers and possibly what the Bible calls Gentiles (the non-believers) reminds the audience that this song
is encouragement and a warning. If David ever falls into desperate circumstances again, he will remember these words. If God saves him from further destruction, David will sing these words to him. If people ask why he’s dancing naked, he will share these words with vigor. David is touched by his own poetry, another aspect that makes the writing highly satisfying in the literary sense.
A little reminiscent of Proverbs, verses 20 through 28 really touch on rewards for righteousness. David was righteous and had clean hands, therefore he was “recompensed.” The modern definition of this word according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is “to be given something by way of compensation” or “to have paid for.” In effect, God is completing a transaction with the narrator, saving and caring for his life in exchange for obedience to his commands. Yahweh turned a blind eye on David’s sin, because he tried so hard to live without it. He gives out goodness for goodness, and rewards evil with its own demise. An interesting note is that more than half of Psalm 18 is directed at this goodwill, despite the severity of the anger in previous verses. Whether the author meant it or not, more is dedicated to God’s sociable nature.
God’s many highlighted attributes in this poem are, again, full of irony. The same Creator who breathes hail and death to David’s enemies can also reward righteousness? It’s mysterious and difficult to a present-day audience, yet ancient Hebrews viewed this as more reason to worship God. He can lord over goodness and evil because it’s his right as an omnipotent ruler; therefore they would seek to please him and receive blessing. The ending verse speaks to David’s blessing for being a righteous follower of Yahweh, the foreshadowing of Jesus or The Messiah (part of David’s descendants), and the future generations of believers in God and Christ
who will also inherit this blessing. Readers can read between the lines of that verse, seeing the apparent prophecy behind it when they are confronted with the Bible’s New Testament. In the timeframe for this particular passage, it illuminates the heavy protection and gifting to David from Yahweh.
Simile, metaphor, anthropomorphism, and symbol all join forces to heighten the sensory experience of Psalm 18. Simile is found in these verses: “He makes my feet like the feet of deer,/ and sets me on my high places” (33), and “Then I beat them as fine as the dust before the wind;/I cast them out like dirt in the streets” (42). Although these are the only two precise examples of this formal devise in the passage, they are potent enough to demand close reading. What are deer’s feet like? All would agree that they are rapid, graceful, and careful to avoid those who
hunt them. Such light, well-crafted feet can bring the animal to high cliffs with water and vegetation, safe from harm and shrouded in peace. They can tramp throughout the forest without regard to danger, moving softly among trees. God turns David’s path into an easy, elegant chore and feeds him. This is the message behind the simile. Likewise, dust pounded by wind is minuscule and dirt has no chance against whatever is throwing it out into the streets. So it is with his enemies: they are powerless.
Metaphor is the most extensive formal device in Psalm 18, and perhaps the entire Book of Psalms. Readers notice “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer…My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold…” (2); “…pangs of death…floods of ungodliness” (4); “…sorrows of Sheol…snares of death…” (5); “He made darkness His secret place; His canopy around Him was dark waters” (11); and “He is a shield to all who trust in Him” (30). Each of these fascinating images conjures a mighty, but almost nightmarish atmosphere. Even in the dark of everything, Yahweh makes his creatures light and free.
The metaphor in verse 2 shapes ultimate strength in ancient Hebrew’s God. A rock does not bend, is not swept away by the wind, and strikes with horrible force when lifted. It is a great hiding place and shelter for those who are less adaptable. David claims that the Lord demonstrates all of these characteristics. Similarly, a fortress keeps enemies at bay and gives rest and protection to those inside its walls. Inspiring and creative, this metaphor promises that God can’t be outmaneuvered or overpowered by enemies. The author finds deep, bountiful solace in that.
The images of a shield and stronghold invoke added protection, especially from someone who is striking at an enemy. Soldiers who carry shields rarely lack a sword, and the fact that a soldier is who one thinks of carrying a shield shows that David’s war metaphor is well-crafted. Yahweh is now painted as completely protective and courageous, willing to endure battle for his loved ones. The “stronghold” metaphor suggests a place that can be gripped during danger. A “horn of salvation” illustrates a loud, excited call to anyone in the vicinity that a person has been
removed from all of the radical, horrifying and deadly obstacles in their wake. They make an obnoxious but prideful noise, thrilled that life starts anew. One of David’s themes in the Psalms is to promote God’s loving glory for his people, and to do so in the presence of everyone around him. The character in this piece acknowledges that his fortune comes from Yahweh, and that his duty as a grateful soul is to sing of these miracles to all people. This builds confidence in the reader that the Hebrew God was viewed as an endearing, fatherly figure. Rescue and redemption is the work of a dad.
Moving into darker waters, “pangs of death” and “floods of ungodliness” focus on the weakness and evil designs of humans. The poet is ruined enough to be knocking on death’s door, and the mass of chaos that surrounds him has intentions of not only killing him but denouncing his beloved God in the process. The word “pangs” drums up scenes of labor in childbirth, uncanny moments of intense pain, and a full surrender of the mind and soul to the body’s horrible suffering. Following with the word “death,” the reader feels an immediate concern that David will not live much longer. Adding direct insult, the immoral mobs won’t let him die in peace with the idea that God is sovereign and cares for him. They have stolen his purpose, which is far greater than life according to the Book of Psalms.
Sheol is not hell as the New Testament Bible portrays it, but “a place of the dead” (ESV 578). The narrator is expounding on the fact that he is acutely aware of his looming death. There should not be a question in the reader’s mind that he is at the last, ripping thread of his existence. He is sorrowful, in other words, filled with sorrow to be going down this path. While the pang of death is hurtful and known, the “snare of death” catches the poet off-guard. He is surprised by this kind of death, falling into a pre-determined trap. A grave dream is being unraveled
throughout all of these dark metaphors and the author sends the audience on a spinning, spiral-like motion of good and evil.
Somehow the good of God comes through his ability to take control of darkness, displayed in verse 11. He makes the darkness a “secret place,” almost like a plaything. He also sleeps on the dark waters, so unafraid of its power. It’s here that readers see the nightmare turn into something hopeful and happy. Someone has power over it all, and he also cares enough to save creatures much less superior. In the doubled metaphor of “shield”, the audience is comforted by Yahweh’s omniscience.
Another interesting formal device in Psalm 18 is anthropomorphism. Few writers have allowed the human traits of non-human Yahweh to be so interesting in the ancient Near East. In “…And my cry came before Him,/even to his ears…” (6), God has infallible ears. He uses this body part to make sense of the auditory cries of humans. Yet, per David, he does not do this because he needs to. He uses an ear to explain to human readers how he responds to the author’s plea. Further explanation would be too great for feeble minds to comprehend. And the short adverb “even” implies that God condescended to listen to David. The eighth verse showcases a different kind of sense, rather than hearing. God has nostrils, and they are emitting
enough smoke to cause comparison to a volcano. This image means anger, frustration, and retribution. Basically, God is snorting his wrath. Readers may have had yet to see a divine god-character snort.
Corresponding to the idea of God in control of darkness, the poet says in Verse 9 that He was “…With darkness under His feet.” Readers continue to feel that strong, controlling presence. It’s a little different in “…He flew upon the wings of the wind…” (10). This seems to be a blissful, happy, benevolent characteristic of God. He is the ultimate Angel, and uses strong and lovely wind to rush quietly to his loved ones’ defense. David tells us “…And the Most High uttered his voice…” (13) next. God chooses to utter, a verb concerned with soft emotion and not rampage. Yahweh is becoming more and more dimensional with the upward spiral of Psalm
18. Shepherd-like and affectionate in this verse, “…He drew me out of many waters…” (16) the Lord again explodes kindness over fury.
A few symbols closely examine David’s need to use war and kingdom imagery as a trademark of his work: “You have also given me the shield of Your salvation…” (35) and “…You have made me head of the nations…” (43). Symbols work to explore representation of one thing for another. The shield was created as a metaphor, and a symbol. It represents ultimate victory in that the owner is untouchable. It breaks the enemy’s weapon quite nicely, and in some cases can be used as a weapon itself. A head of a nation is a leader that people look to for guidance, values, and justice among other traits. He is an example to the members of a nation, forsaking his life to take care of theirs. Yahweh makes David this leader, and in turn he continues to be the head of him. This is the ranking of ancient Hebrew culture: God, Jewish patriarchs, community. The statement also reminds readers that the Lord is blessing his obedient follower, by giving him the gift of being a nation’s head. This role contains great power and responsibility.
Under the influence of all of these formal devices, David has raised up a literary banner of war song and praise. He utilizes heavy war imagery, appealing to many ancient and modern readers, to describe Yahweh. He does it in a way that maximizes God’s creative powers and mindset, relating him to humans and supernatural forces. Especially for the ancient Near East, this way of fully fleshing out a deity would be incredibly memorable and quite exciting. As a poet, he achieves symmetry in the language and projects the shape of a spiral moving upward. He circles around good and evil with both synonymous and synthetic parallelism, but ends in hope, messianic anticipation, and ascent. As fatal as the narrator’s circumstances are, God
intervenes passionately and restores his child. This theme, tied in with various scenes of imagination, guides Psalm 18 as the transition song between desperation and adoration.
The artistry of Psalm 18 has many layers, as noticed by J. Kenneth Kuntz in his article “Psalm 18: A Rhetorical-Critical Analysis” (1983). Verb usage is one of the ways in which the poet impresses his audience. A notable passage is found in verse 5-7:
“The waves of death encompassed me,
the floods of Belial assailed me;
The cords of Sheol entangled me,
the snares of death confronted me.”
Using brief, memorable nouns like “waves”, “floods”, “cords” and “snares” David captures the reader’s attention. He combines those nouns with longer, visually compelling verbs such as “encompassed”, “assailed”, “entangled”, and “confronted”. Each of these parts of speech reminds the audience of the dire, war-like environment that they are in. The reader also notes that the poem has changed from lyric praise in the previous four verses to narrative, illustrating the bottom of David’s emotional spiral.
In comparison with this spiral, Kuntz observes the circular structure when arriving at the final verses of the poem: “An intense personal feeling is deftly communicated by the attachment of the first-person singular suffix to four nouns (vv. 47ab, 49ab), three verbs (v. 49abc),and two prepositions (v. 48ab). Accordingly, the poet successfully recaptures the hymnic mood which had been struck at the outset of the poem in Strophe I. We are led full circle.” (Kuntz 15) Indeed, David’s cries beginning in the fifth verse are a story of deep peril. In the final verses,
praise and understood favor with God shine like a poetic diamond. This character has gone from ultimate despair to incredible happiness and all feels right, by the end of Psalm 18. It’s simple to understand why this poem would be selected for communal worship in the Jewish temple, since the arc is breaking from pain up to peace.
Kuntz goes on to discuss the third-person voice of this psalm. Why is it stronger in that voice, instead of first-person? He points out the “minimal repetition of nouns and verbs” (15) add an element of intensity to David’s description of Yahweh. Instead of employing common parts of speech and then repeating them, he reaches for grand language. Words that appeal this deeply to the senses make for fine poetry, and double as an excellent song for corporate worship. Language, voice, and atmosphere combine to produce a unified, ancient Hebrew masterpiece.
Literary critic Harold Bloom would most likely support Kuntz’s argument, but his own emotional response to Psalm 18 is well-defined and a clue to how readers can view biblical poetry in “The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible.” He makes his first case for the emotional brevity of this psalm here: “Royal thanksgiving for victory has a limited range, however intense.” (170). In other words, if you’re the losing side in this battle thanksgiving is non-existent and useless. This is a fair point, as readers could empathize with a kingdom that’s been completely shattered. Where is the word of praise for the enemy? Certainly, reading more of the psalms would address this. But within Psalm 18 David even makes a case for the enemy in verses 26 to 31. By painting Yahweh as a faithful and just
ruler, showing himself loyal to the loyal and pure to the pure, the enemy had his or her chance to stop being wicked. There was a choice. Bloom downplays this a bit, but still speaks to the questions that readers must ask when engaging with the poem.
A deeper look into Bloom’s words about Psalm 18 reveals more questions:
“The sorrows of history, both universal and Jewish, harden me against these repetitive giving of thanks. Can a world after Hitler and the Holocaust, and the
horrors enacted by Stalin and Mao, allow such profuse praise of what no longer
can be praised? When I read through the Psalms, I struggle to discover whether ancient Hebrew thinking is at all available to us anymore…” (Bloom 171) These thoughts are valid, and invite the audience to investigate David’s rejoicing in his
enemy’s violent demise. However, per Webster’s definition, praise means to express favor and glorify. It’s quite possible to do that while in the midst of losing, as evidenced by Holocaust and African-American slavery survivors. In fact, sometimes that type of expression eases whatever burden people (or characters in literature) are facing. As Bloom requires the audience to search out how they feel about the purpose of psalms, the beauty and unity of Psalm 18 surpass emotional reactions altogether. Its power lies in an unshakable faith lived out by David (not always modern readers), and how that faith delivered him from Sheol.
Through concise formal devices, parts of speech, and voice, Psalm 18 has drawn poetry into the age-old battle of good versus evil. David is a fallen hero who uses beautiful language to convey his gratitude in a God that rescued and nurtured him. He has vanquished his enemies so well through Yahweh, that there is no expectation of their return and the kingdom now belongs to the him. Fifty verses bring us into a circular journey of assurance, despair, ascent, and the anticipation of a perfect savior. David has managed to imagine these conflicting emotions
with intensity, hope, and fervor. Readers can easily envision the warrior-poet standing on top of his fallen enemies, with a bloody bow on his shoulder, and arms raised to the sky toward heaven.