The psalms are poetry, and understanding poetry often happens in stages as we grapple with its language, images, forms, and rhythms. If a poem expresses paradox, or communicates the reality of living with ambivalence, or traces the hazy outline of mystery—we are likely to be put off, confused, or terrified. This may be especially true of biblical poetry. We know that:
Everything in the Scriptures is God’s Word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live (2 Timothy 3:16).
But how can we use a poem for teaching if we can’t understand it, or if it seems to mean many things at once?
Our desire to reduce difficult emotions, complex thinking, and the chaos of life into understandable, definitive, and stable terms we can grasp conflicts with an intricate poem’s design and articulations. It is very difficult to flatten such a poem. Psalm 42 is a good example.
In the middle of Psalm 42, we find a curious pair of verses:
Your vicious waves
have swept over me
like an angry ocean
or a roaring waterfall.
Every day, you are kind,
and at night
you give me a song
as my prayer to you,
the God of my life. (Psalm 42:7-8)
What are we to make of the psalmist’s words? It is clear that the speaker is crying out to God from a place of discouragement, sorrow, and even despair (verses 1-6). Then we arrive at verse 7 and hear that God’s “vicious waves / have swept over me” for reasons we are not given to understand. Immediately following this is praise of God’s kindness, causing us to wonder what happened between verses 7 and 8. How can the speaker feel contrasting emotions, seemingly at the same time? Why must meaning be shrouded in mysterious images and metaphorical language?
Pausing to Ask Questions
The breaks between lines and stanzas in poetry are not random. They are often a good place for lingering, and for asking questions. Notice the little white space this translation includes between verses 7 and 8—it is an especially good place to pause.
Is verse 8 a resolution of the pain or conflict described in verse 7? Do these verses remind you of the ways your own feelings can overlap, or change very quickly? Have you experienced being overwhelmed by God and then relieved by God?
The kinds of questions and answers that might present themselves between the verses will be different from one reader to another. Even the same reader will have different questions with repeated readings. Poems create a space for making meaning, they don’t just hand us information.
Taking Cues from the Structure
Most poems have a structure or organizational pattern of some kind, and the breaks between stanzas are one of the ways the writer helps the reader to see that structure. The same is true for Psalm 42.
The first stanza is about someone’s longing for God, expressed through the metaphor of extreme hunger and thirst. It is all about the absence and emptiness the person feels.
The second stanza tells of the individual’s sorrow and the haunting memories of joyful times. Deep and troubling questions, faith in God, and a desire to praise the one who has been a help are all expressed. The break between the stanzas helps the alert reader see the shift in the speaker’s focus.
The third stanza plunges the reader back into the speaker’s feelings of discouragement. The end of the previous stanza is a strong expression of determination to praise God, knowing that God is there to help. Isn’t this just how anxiety and hunger and longing feel? These emotions surge and come upon us in waves.
The structure of the poem recreates—in a condensed form—the cyclical experience of the ways these thoughts and feelings swell and surge within us. In this sense, the stanza breaks are like the little spaces between those waves. Those spaces could last minutes or months, but they can expand or contract to accommodate whatever each reader is facing.
Savoring Each Line
Poems can overwhelm us because they say so much so quickly, and because they point to, or lead us to, vistas of thought and feelings that are expansive. The breaks between the stanzas give us a good place to pause, imagine, and reflect. Even the breaks between lines are meaningful.
Each line of Psalm 42 is a unit of thought or feeling that we can savor, internalize, and engage deeply. Read Psalm 42 and pick a line that stands out to you. Pour over that line repeatedly, noticing what thoughts, feelings, or questions come to mind. With a little practice doing this with individual lines, read a shorter psalm straight through. Then go back, and spend time savoring each line. When you read that way, you will see how both the text and the spaces between lines and stanzas become more meaningful.
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