Troublesome Topic: Balance

The second key element in Hebrew poetry is balance.

The writers of the Psalms achieved balance in various ways.

Balance in the Number of Lines or Stanzas

 Psalm 51 is a good example of the Hebrews’ desire for perfect balance. It is characterized by a two-verse introduction and a two-verse conclusion, with four stanzas in the middle which in Hebrew consist of five lines, three lines, three lines and five lines.

Psalm 78 is another good example. The NIV Study Bible says. “It is composed of 77 lines and seven stanzas. After the introduction, the structure of the stanzas is symmetrical: 8 lines, 16 lines, 9 lines, 16 lines, 9 lines, 8 lines.”

The need for balance is itself a picture of how God is perfectly balanced. Jesus exemplified the perfect ability to balance the holy standard of God with the love and compassion of God. To us these two things seem to pull against each other. We are either too soft on someone or too hard on them, but for Jesus holiness and love are not opposed or He can hold them in perfect balance.

God wants us to be like Him and display balance in our lives. While studying personality types in a Sunday School I gave the class this axiom: Your greatest weakness may be your strength out of control.

This demonstrates how a lack of balance in our lives can be problematic. And such a lack of balance is often noticeable by others around us, though we may not notice it at all. Far from being clever work on the part of the psalm writer, the balance found in Hebrew psalms is itself a lesson in godly living. God is balanced, His faithful followers live balanced lives, thus the music they wrote also displayed that same emphasis on balance.

Balance in a Psalm with Two Halves and One Hinge

Another way that balance was achieved was through what I call a hinge in the middle of the Psalm. Think of a wild west movie or TV show in which the doors of the saloon were hung on the sides and could swing either direction when someone passed through the middle. In the example I am creating things would be a little bit different. There would be two doors and one great big apparatus in the middle serving as both post and hinge. Those passing by would have to enter or exit on one side of the massive hinge. There are some psalms that are split in half with one great big hinge in the middle. The two haves swing on that one hinge.

Psalm 23 is the best example I know. The phrase “You are with me” is the very center of the psalm. Not only is it the center but it is the hinge on which the psalm turns. Maybe you have noticed that the Psalmist starts out talking about the Shepherd in the third person (he), but in the middle he switches and begins speaking to his Shepherd using “you” (2nd person); he turns it into a prayer. The phrase “You are with me” is the point at which that transition is made; it is the hinge on which the psalm turns. In the Hebrew text (the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 1983) prior to that hinge there are 26 Hebrew words, and after the hinge there are 26 Hebrew words. The Hebrew song writers cared a great deal about balance. They also cared about emphasis; by placing the words “you are with me” in the very center of the psalm, David was making those words the most important words of this psalm.

Balance Demonstrated by Acrostics

If there is an acrostic, the notes in a good study Bible will tell you. The use of acrostics also fits the theme of balance. Part of balance is a thoroughness that does not leave out anything important. Acrostics demonstrated that thoroughness.

Psalm 119 may be the most well-known example of an acrostic. It has 22 stanzas, all of which have 8 lines. Each stanza is named for a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters), and they are arranged in consecutive order. The lines within a stanza all start with the letter which is the same as the letter used as the title of that stanza. For instance, the first stanza is called Aleph, and all eight lines in that stanza begin with the letter Aleph. The next stanza is Beth, and all eight lines of that stanza begin with Beth.

Imagine a poem in English with 26 stanzas and each stanza has 8 lines. The stanzas follow the letters of the English alphabet and the first letter of each line within a stanza starts with the letter of the alphabet that corresponds to that stanza. Because the first letter is capitalized and positioned right under the previous line it would make a stunning visual impression.

To modern readers, separated from the culture and language of the Psalmist, this use of an acrostic may seem artificial and a bit hollow. In reality it lent more power to what was being said. “The author had a theme that filled his soul, a theme as big as life, that ranged the length and breadth and height and depth of a person’s walk with God. Nothing less than the use of the full power of language would suffice, and of that the alphabet was a most apt symbol.” (NIV Study Bible, study notes.)