The Psalm of Nephi and Biblical Poetry


Steven Barton

2 Nephi 4:16-35 has often been referred to as "The Psalm of Nephi."
This essay outlines some basic characteristics of biblical poetry
and how the passage from the Book of Mormon compares.



Characteristics of biblical poetry

General characteristics

Hebrew and Ugaritic poetry, as the poetry of other languages, employs rich imagery, majestic language and a soaring spirit. It utilizes literary devices common to all poetry except rhyme. Syllabic meter is rare; instead there is a 'rhythm of thought' or a 'rhythm of ideas.'

Bi-colon format

In his ground-breaking work, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, James Kugel sums up the essence of biblical poetry, concluding that ". . . the basic feature of biblical songs . . .is the recurrent use of a relatively short sentence-form that consists of two brief clauses" (James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981, p.1).

For example:

Happy the man who fears the Lord,
who greatly delights in his commandments.
(Psalm 112:1)


This same basic bi-colon formula can be found running throughout 2 Nephi 4:16-35. As an example, note verses 28 and 29:

Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.
Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.

Do not anger again because of mine enemies.
Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.


Parallelism

Kugel further explains that "Often the clauses have some element in common, so that the second half seems to echo, answer, or otherwise correspond to the first. The common element is sometimes a word or phrase that occurs in both halves, or the same syntactic structure, or commonly paired concepts ('by day . . ./by night . . .//'), or some similarity in the ideas expressed" (ibid., p. 1-2).

The tendency for the clauses to have some "element in common" has for the last two centuries been referred to by the term "parallelism" (Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, 1787). The name has been somewhat misleading, implying that the two clauses must always parallel each other in meaning or have matching words. But Kugel maintains that "such complete correspondence is relatively rare" (ibid., p.2).

On the one hand, many clauses have such a close relationship to each other as to appear to be merely a restatement in the second part as that of the first.

While I live will I praise the LORD,
While I have any being I will sing praises unto my God.
(Psalm 146:2)

But at the same time, there are an equal number of verses that seem to have little or no correspondence between the parts at all.

Blessed be the LORD,
who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.
(Psalm 124:6)

O taste and see that the LORD is good,
Blessed is the man that trusteth in him.
(Psalm 34:8)

The majority of parallelisms in the bible fall between such extremes. Most frequently, the clauses tend to be synonymous in their paralleled elements, but can also be antithetic (Isa. 54:7, Prov. 10:1), complimentary and expansive (Ps. 19:7-9), or climactic (Ps. 121:5,7-8), and many variations in between.

A good example of synonymous parallelism is in Psalm 114:1-8

When Israel went out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;

Judah was his sanctuary,
and Israel his dominion.

The sea saw it, and fled,
Jordan was driven back.

The mountains skipped like rams,
and the little hills like lambs.


What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest?
thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back?

Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams;
and ye little hills, like lambs?

Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob;

Which turned the rock into a standing water,
the flint into a fountain of waters.


Note this similar parallelism in the Psalm of Nephi:


Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh;
My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
(2 Ne. 4:17b)

Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted;
My God hath been my support.


He hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness;
And he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.
(2 Ne. 4:19b-20)

Do not anger again because of mine enemies;
Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
(2 Ne. 4:29)


Stylistic Units

Hebrew poetry is typically organized into stylistic units (stanzas and strophes), each developing a central idea. Since there will generally be a shift of thought from strophe to strophe, identifying the structure of the poem will provide important clues to its interpretation.

"The most common device used to mark divisions within biblical poetry is to open the section with an imperative or vocative such as Behold!, How long?, Praise, Hear, Bless, O Lord. Frequently the unit will close with the same imperative or vocative. Or it may end with a summary line." (Encyclopaedia Judaica, V.13, p.676)

It is easy to spot the individual units of Isaiah 52, for example, simply by scanning the text for the use of vocatives and imperatives:

vs.1 Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion . . .
vs.7 How beautiful upon the mountains are . . .
vs.9 Break forth into joy . . .
vs.11 Depart ye, depart ye . . .
vs.13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently . . .

Similarly, in the Psalm of Nephi the shifts in thought are likewise marked by vocatives, imperatives and exclamatives:

2 Ne. 4:
vs.16 Behold, my soul delighteth . . .
vs.23 Behold, he hath heard heard my cry . . .
vs.26 O then, if I have seen . . .
vs.28 Awake my soul! No longer . . .
vs.31 O Lord wilt thou redeem . . .
vs.34 O Lord, I have trusted in thee . . .

It is worth noting that the major turning point and shift in thought dividing the psalm into its two distinct stanzas, is marked by a strong imperative:

Awake, my soul, no longer droop in sin. (vs.28)

Another common poetic device employed to set off portions of text is the use of inclusions. An inclusion can be as simple as repeating the same line at the beginning and the end of a unit. Or it can be combined with other poetic devices for greater interest and complexity. In Psalm 101:3,7, for example, two chiastically similar verses act as inclusionary statements (cf. Dahood, Anchor Bible, vol.17a, p.1-6). The Psalm of Nephi has a similar construction, where the final strophe is linked as an inclusion to the chiastically arranged strophe in verses 28-30, thereby, "enclosing" the final stanza of the psalm.

Although chiastic word arrangement is normally used within verses, a chiasm can extend beyond a single verse and often combine with other poetic devices. In the Psalm of Nephi each of the two major stanzas open with strophes organized in chiastic form. The first is as follows:

A. Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord;
B. And my heart pondereth continually upon the things
which I have seen and heard.

C. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord,
in showing me his great and marvelous works,

c. My heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am!
b. Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh;
a. My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.

This chiasm is a good example of the tendency to contrast antithetical ideas when using chiastic form. Typically, the center point of a chiasm will be the point at which an opposite idea is introduced. The center is always the turning point. (cf. Nils W. Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament, 1942)

Hence,

A. soul delighteth
B. heart pondereth
C. goodness of the Lord

is contrasted with:

c. wretched man
b. heart sorroweth
a. soul grieveth

The second stanza also opens with a strophe in chiastic form:

A. Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.
B. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more
for the enemy of my soul.

C. Do not anger again because of mine enemies.
c. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
b. Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say . . .
a. Yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the
rock of my salvation.


Hebraisms

Much has been written elsewhere about various Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon, many of which appear here in the Psalm of Nephi. John Tvedtnes has pointed out a number of words that "seem to reflect a Hebrew, rather than an English, usage in the original . . . . Witness the use of 'anger' as a verb in 2 Nephi 4:29. While one Hebrew word (k-'-s) can mean 'to anger,' in English we must use 'be angry, become angry,' etc."

Verse 22 of 2 Nephi 4 reads:

He hath confounded mine enemies, unto the causing of them to quake before me.

"The English text is lengthy for such a simple statement. But, in Hebrew, all of the italicized portion can be handled. by one verb and its affixes. This is no doubt why the rendering in English is awkward." (John A. Tvedtnes, BYU Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, Autumn 1970, p.58)

Other, more obvious, Hebraisms found in the Psalm of Nephi include:

Commonly paired words
day / night
heart / soul


Frequent use of "and"
why should my heart weep
and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow,
and my flesh waste away,
and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
(vs.26)

Construct state
vs.20 waters of the great deep
vs.25 wings of his spirit
vs.26 valley of sorrow
vs.30 rock of my salvation
vs.32 gates of hell
vs.32 path of the low valley
vs.33 robe of thy righteousness
vs.33 ways of mine enemy
vs.34 arm of flesh


Conclusion

In conclusion, the Psalm of Nephi resembles Hebrew poetry in its:
- basic bi-colon structure,
- frequent use of parallelism,
- use of inclusions, chiasms, vocatives, imperatives and exclamations to
mark poetic divisions,
- frequent "Hebraisms,"
- its language, imagery and spirit.