The Poetry of Introits
The Psalms are poetry, but not the kind we’re used to in English. There’s no iambic pentameter, and certainly no rhyming. And this is not just because we’re reading a translation. Hebrew poetry is different. While there can be patterns of rhythm, the defining characteristic of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism. This means that the thought of one line is matched, echoed, or expanded in the next line. Rather than rhyming the words, the Psalms rhyme the thoughts. A simple example of this can be seen in Psalm 74:1 (part of the Introit for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity):
O God, why hast Thou cast us off forever?
Why doth Thine anger smoke against the sheep of Thy pasture?
The thoughts rhyme, they complement each other. The second line builds and expands upon the first. This is not useless or boring repetition, but rather a richness of expression. Further it keeps us from hurrying on to the next thought. We are bidden to meditate and allow the thought to unfold itself through the parallel lines. In this way, Hebrew poetry is content driven, which should come as no surprise to those who know the Bible to be a message and revelation from God.
Yet, this form of poetry can be altered when cut up into smaller pieces. Some could claim (uncharitably) that the Introits are merely cobbled together from snippets of psalms, sometimes mixing verses from different psalms, even from different books of the Bible. There is some truth to this. Let’s take up the Introit for Trinity 13 once more (Psalm 74). The antiphon is a compilation of four half-verses, specifically the first halves of the last four verses of the Psalm (the bold lines below make up the antiphon).
20. Have respect unto the covenant:
For the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.
21. O let not the oppressed return ashamed:
Let the poor and needy praise Thy name.
22. Arise, O God, plead Thine own cause:
Remember how the foolish man reproacheth Thee daily.
23. Forget not the voice of Thine enemies:
The tumult of those that rise up against Thee increaseth continually.
So, the second parallel line of each verse is left out of the Introit. The claim could be made that this breaks the original poetry. Instead of following the gradual steps, slowly expanding the thought, the Introit leaps forward quickly, taking the stairs two at a time. However, there’s another way to look at it. In this case, the antiphon recognizes larger parallels than those contained within each verse. Asking God to recall and uphold His covenant (v.20a) is matched with the result of God’s faithfulness: the oppressed are not brought to shame (v.21a). Calling on God to defend Himself and His Word (v.22a) is put into the broader context of God’s enemies raging against Him (v.23a). The Introit distills the Psalm, not in the sense that the Church has purified it; but the Introit brings out the full thought of the Psalm in a compact form, suitable for its place and function in the Divine Service. In this way, the Introit is not only an “entrance” into the Service, but an entrance into the Psalm itself. We are just on the threshold. At this point we don’t drink deeply, but only get a taste.
After all, this is how great poetry is often used. A perfect line or stanza of poetry can add just the right touch to a great speech. When someone quotes a line, people say, “Oh, I love that poem!” They don’t complain, “You’ve taken that out of context! You’ve ruined it!” At least, they shouldn’t. A speech is not the occasion for long recitations. There’s a point to be made, and a little poetry can do wonders to illustrate that point. Likewise, the Divine Service is not the time for a poetry reading, or worse, a poetry class. The focus of the Divine Service is the Gospel and the Lord’s Supper. The selections of psalm verses orbit these two greater lights and fill the space between with prayer. They also force us not to move on too quickly to the next big thing. But we don’t need to spend a lot of time on the Introit or Gradual. That’s not what we came to church for, and that’s as it should be.
Then what happens to the Psalms as whole, complete works of art in themselves? When do we fully enjoy the Holy Spirit-inspired poetry of David, Asaph, and the sons of Korah? That’s for a time when you have the time. In the Church’s wisdom, the Psalms are the centerpiece of the daily prayer offices. That is the time to meditate. Most psalms, like most poems, are introspective. They work their way into our hearts and minds, reshaping and enlightening how we think and feel. Singing whole psalms together in a group is a great way to slow down and take that time. The Psalms are also well-suited for the individual Christian’s private devotion. So, go to church on Sunday and sing the Introit with the whole assembly as you enter God’s presence to receive His gifts. And then carry your Psalter with you throughout the week, letting God’s poetry form and fill your daily life.