How To Write A Personal Psalm
Many people have called the Book of Psalms the “prayer book of the Bible” and the “songbook of the Bible.” The psalms cover the full range of human emotion through prayers, cries, questions, laments and praises to God – in stark contrast to the limited range of expression in many church worship services today. WARNING: don’t turn to the psalms if you think being a follower of God means putting on your happy-face mask and singing about being carefree.
Yet in the psalms we find encouragement in the midst of anger, hurt, fear and confusion, as well as joy, faith and hope. So, many people have written their own “psalms” to structure their prayer and to declare their testimony.
Here at My Song In The Night we’ll learn many songwriting lessons from the Book of Psalms, although you don’t have to be a talented, dedicated songwriter or hymnodist to write your personal psalm. Yet, in a few paragraphs from now I’ll show you three elements of ancient Hebrew poetry that you can use with ease.
FIRST, A COUPLE OF PSALM RESOURCE RECOMMENDATIONS:
- Download the free audio Enduring Hardship With The Psalmist by David Powlinson at sovereigngracestore.com.
- Buy Redemption by Mike Wilkerson, a pastor of Mars Hill Church (Seattle).
Wilkerson leads Mars Hill’s “Redemption Groups,” short-term, gospel-focused groups where people learn to work out struggles, sin and hardship together in light of the gospel. Each Redemption Group participant writes his or her personal psalm. Wilkerson’s book contains an appendix with his instructions on writing your own psalm, urging readers to “write about whatever is most pressing on your heart. It may include themes of suffering, sin, repentance or praise. Aim to be specific, giving voice to your life in your situation.”
Wilkerson advises participants to let four particular psalms train you, before you write your own:
- Psalm 55 – about being betrayed by someone close to you.
- Psalm 56 – about feeling trapped, pinned down or captured.
- Psalm 57 – about feeling threatened by a powerful enemy.
- Psalm 51 – about repentance. Hear our friend and fellow Sojourn Music songwriter Rebecca Dennison’s song based on Psalm 51 here.
At our church, Sojourn, Pastor Robert Cheong leads our Redemption Group ministry. Read my interview with Wilkerson and Cheong in Sojourn’s official blog. Also there, you can read the “How I Wrote My Personal Psalm” account of Josh Thomas, one Sojourn member who participated in a Redemption Group.
THREE HEBREW POETRY ELEMENTS YOU CAN USE FOR YOUR PSALM
Old Testament poetry doesn’t use rhyme and meter but does use poetry devices like imagery, and forms of wordplay. The three main types of ancient Hebrew poems are Synonymous poetry, antithetical poetry and synthetic poetry. Don’t let those names intimidate you – you can do this.
Synonymous poetry features two lines that say nearly the same thing, in order to drive a point across. Check out Psalm 3:1 –
Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
So let’s say you’re a parent, writing a psalm about a child who is addicted to drugs. You might say:
Listen, you mothers.
Hear me, you fathers.
Pay attention, all of you with children in your care.
Get it? All three lines cry for the attention of those who are raising kids.
Antithetical poetry is the opposite – it uses successive lines to say two different things, each relative to the same theme. You’ll not only find this in Psalms, but all over the Book of Proverbs, such as Proverbs 17:22 –
A cheerful heart is good like medicine,
But a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
Synthetic poetry uses successive lines to build to a point, systematically showing or convincing the reader. Some of these passages can be long, like Psalm 139:1-6. Joel uses it several times in Joel 1:1-20.
Here is a strong, short example from “You Have Redeemed My Soul” written by Don and Lori Shaffer, recorded on Enter The Worship Circle by 100 Portraits and Waterdeep:
I was a hungry child
A dried up river
I was a burned out forest
And no one could do anything for me
There you have it – three Old Testament poetic forms you can use for your personal psalms, or for any kind of songwriting, as well as sermons, lectures or other types of persuasive speech: Synonymous, Synthetic and Antithetical poems.
Remember the point of writing a personal psalm isn’t to compose a masterpiece for your church to sing, but to give voice to your joy and pain. It is your testimony, and its validity doesn’t depend on how skillfully you write.
For more in-depth discussion of songwriting technique, visit our Modern Hymns page and read our continuing posts under our Songwriting/Hymns Workshop category.
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