The Book of Psalms is first and foremost a shining example of Biblical poetry. This genre conveys the word of God in a different medium than narrative; it focuses not on what one reads or hears but rather on what one feels and intuits. The Bible integrates poetry throughout its 24 books, reminding the reader of the infinite nature of God and the multivalent dimensions of His Word. The addition of poetry to the biblical landscape teaches the reader to gauge the cadence, rhythm, rhyme and meter in the divine expressions. If modern poets taught that form complements content, they predicated their sentiments on ancient Biblical sources.
Moses himself calls the Torah poetry: “Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). Based on this declaration, the receiver of Torah must not only ‘learn’ the divine words, but also ‘sing’ the heavenly song.
Jewish tradition says that the Five Books of Moses (the ‘Torah’), prose and poetry, are the actual word of God, while the Prophetic Works (the ‘Nevi’im’) consist of the prophets’ own formulations as well as quotations from God Himself. The Writings (the ‘Ketuvim’), though, present us with a third dimension in divine transmission; that of speaking in divine inspiration.
It is this third category into which the Book of Psalms falls. Written, according to the Talmud, by King David and ten elders, each poem exposes the raw emotion of the Israelites attempting to feel God’s presence, while at the same time contending with external and internal foes. The medium of poetry, with its wordplays and metaphors, acrostics and flowery language, offers a universal subjective aspect to the written word. Each generation finds inspiration, spirit and solace in David’s song. Each psalm, according to tradition, while authored by human beings, nevertheless possesses a divine spark, a spiritual note.
While the Talmud refers to additional ‘elder’ authors, general Jewish tradition considers the Psalms to be the work of King David. He authored the overwhelming majority. He is described in the Bible as one who fashioned psalms (II Chronicles 29:25,30), he was “a skilful player on the harp” (I Samuel 16:16), and through his poems we find an entire system of worship of God in the Temple as well as throughout Israel.
Where did David find the tools to craft this profound, yet eclectic, book of praise to God? The answer is that the poets’ quiver is filled with his sights, senses and experiences. And specifically in the Land of Israel, where almost all of the psalms were penned, the flora, fauna, rivers, mountains, cities, caves, kings and nations were his muse.
In the Book of Psalms, God, the Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel are inextricably linked. When David speaks of the Judean desert, we know to which he refers; when David runs to the mountains, we can access that geographical context and be doubly enriched. Thus, every psalm is also a semi-history lesson of the Children of Israel and their deep relationship with the Land of Israel, the God of Israel, with their enemies and with each other.
We present to you the Book of Psalms and their connection to the Land of Israel, perhaps the most authentic context in which to view these precious words. Your job is to be attuned to the magic of Israel, God’s chosen land, and to peruse each chapter in Hebrew or in English, with an eye on the poetry, history, spirit and divine spark. Then, as with every other book of the Bible, you are challenged to apply these eternal messages to your own life.