The Psalms are poetry. They are rhythmic and expressive. They walk around a thought, say it one way here, another there. They create climaxes in a very few lines. All of these things are things a poem does. Horace, in his Art of Poetry, declared that the aim of a poet is either to instruct or to delight a reader, or preferably to do both. There is a long critical discussion, reaching all the way back to Aristotle at least and continuing down to the present in varying degrees of intensity, about whether or not one of those purposes should have priority over the other or whether one of them is in fact invalid or of little importance. Babette Deutsch has defined poetry as “the art which uses words as both speech and song to reveal the realities that the senses record, the feelings salute, the mind perceives, and the shaping imagination orders.”1 All of that points the reader to three basic qualities of poetry: (a) a particular content, (b) a particular form, and (c) a particular effect. The last is what Horace had in mind; that is, the result of a poem. But that result is achieved by content, and in a poem the content involves emotion, imagination, and meaning, and is marked by power and beauty. It is conveyed in a form—for example, verse, rhyme, strophe, meter, and the like.
Those of us who read, hear, say, or interpret the psalms in the context of the church probably sense and resonate to poetic dimensions but in a way that remains for the most part at a surface level. Or, to put it differently, we tend to come down on one side of the possible aims that
1. C. Hugh, A Handbook to Literature (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972), 405.