Writing New Psalms

By Kahunapule Michael Johnson

Don't be drunken with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; singing, and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always concerning all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God, even the Father; subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ. -- Ephesians 5:18-21

There is a little bit about ministering to the Lord in Psalms in the Bible that is direct, but the vast majority of the content of the Bible on this subject is by way of example rather than precept. Writing, reciting, and singing psalms isn't the direct fulfillment of any command, but rather a way to communicate with and about our loving Father God.

Psalms may be (and often are) prophetic. They may also be prayers, complaints, praises, giving of thanks, and/or exhortations to God's people. Psalms may be the work of a prolific and anointed psalmist, or a one-time work. It may be written, recorded orally, or just uttered one time with no recording made (other than the Lord's memory). Normally, the main audience is the Lord Himself, but others may or may not be included. Sometimes the person being addressed shifts within a psalm. Psalms are about as flexible as the underlying prayer and prophecy they convey, but constrained to a poetic form.

Psalm Structure

There is something poetic about psalms. Somehow, in the act of constraining a message to a poetic form of some sort, it seems that it gets easier to write or say more. Maybe it is because there is so much to say, we need some sort of clue which thing to say next, and the poetic format does that.

There are many forms of poetry in this world, and some are more common than others within specific language and culture groups. The one that fascinates me the most, and the one I write in the most, is the Hebrew poetry structure used in the Biblical Psalms. (I write Psalms with a capital “P” to indicate that I'm writing about the 150 poems in the Bible Book of Psalms and some of the other Psalms scattered through the Scriptures, and with a lower case “p” to indicate other psalms, including other psalms that were inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is just one way to acknowledge the supremacy of the Holy Bible, for me.) Anyway, the really cool thing about Hebrew style poetry is that most of the poetic nature of the poems actually translate properly into other languages. The structure of “line” couplets translate quite nicely. In these couplets, the second “line” restates, compares, contrasts, or completes the thought of the first “line.” I put “line” in quotes, because the line structure of this style of poetry is more of an English convention than a Hebrew convention, since the original Psalms were written in such a way as to conserve the amount of skin used to write on, not to make for nice, easy reading. Some translations, like the NIV, arrange this kind of poetry in lines and stanzas, thus making it more readable as poetry. What doesn't translate is the extensive use of acrostics on top of that structure. Still, the acrostic nature of the poems in Hebrew often carry no additional information, but just increase the fun in writing the poems.

The first psalm I remember writing was actually something I created in the process of explaining the structure of Hebrew poetry to someone:

Michael's First Psalm

Friday, January 17, 1997

Hear my prayer, Yahweh.
    Listen to my plea, oh God.
Save me from the lies of the enemy,
    And deliver me from the devil's deceit.
For you, O God, are the God of Truth.
    No lies come from Yahweh's mouth.
Yahweh saves the righteous ones who seek him,
    But punishes those who reject his salvation.
Therefore, I trust you with my life,
    And entrust my soul to your care.
I will glorify you with my lips,
    And raise my voice in praise to you.
Your glory and majesty reach to the Heavens!
    Your splendor and authority fill the Universe!
I will serve the Lord with joy all my days.
    With gladness will I do God's bidding forever.
Because of Yahweh's mercy and persistent love,
    I will dwell in peace with him for eternity.

As soon as I had written the above psalm, something resonated in my spirit, saying “This is good!” and I've written psalms ever since. Notice the structure of the couplets. Sometimes the second line echoes the first line by saying essentially the same thing in a different way. Sometimes, as in the last couplet, the second line completes the thought begun on the first line of the couplet.

I soon experimented with alphabetic acrostic psalms, but the letter distribution in English doesn't lend itself well to doing that, so I switched to word or phrase acrostics. (Just how many words begin with X, anyway?) In a word or phrase acrostic, the beginning of each first line starts with the next letter in the word or phrase; and likewise for each beginning of a second line.

Hebrew poetry structure can be mixed with rhyme and/or meter associated with most English poetry, too, although the more structural elements of poetry you mix in, the harder it is to find the words to say what you want to say.

Psalms don't have to be in Hebrew poetry. They can be composed in any poetic form in any language that the writer knows. I like the style of Hebrew poetry for its simple beauty, translatability, and power.

There is a good reason that psalm-writing is more modeled than taught in the Holy Bible. It is more easily caught than taught. You learn it best by reading the Psalms, meditating and studying them, and then writing some yourself. Of course, you can look at what others have written, too. You can see some at http://kahunapule.org/newpsalm.htm, if you like.

Psalm Inspiration

When I think of inspiration by the Holy Spirit in the context of anything written or spoken, I normally think of prophecy. However, we know that in the Holy Bible, Psalms contain not only prophecy, but prayers of thanksgiving and worship, requests, records of God's mighty works, and petitions for relief from oppression and trouble. All of these demonstrate a degree of inspiration by the Holy Spirit in the Bible Psalms. Because the Holy Spirit helps us in praying, we also may write and/or utter inspired psalms of all of those sorts, too. Just ask Him for help, believe that He does, and start writing. (To really believe, you may need to spend some time meditating on related Scriptures.)

Writing prophetic psalms is much like other prophecy. You earnestly desire it (1 Cor. 14), and listen to the Lord's voice (John 10). You say what He prompts you to say. You let Him be in charge of the message, but you stir up the gift that is within you and make it clear that you are ready to serve the Lord in this way. You also beware of anti-Christ spirits (1 Cor. 12:3; 1 John 4:1-6) and resist those. Wield your sword and quote Scripture, like our Lord Jesus did, when appropriate.

There are several Scriptural ways to improve your hearing as you listen to the Lord:

The first and third points are related. If you really love Jesus, you will obey Him.

Note that the Holy Spirit won't contradict Himself or go contrary to Scripture, but He isn't afraid to repeat Himself. We often need the repetition and reminders that He offers. If you look through psalms that I have written, for example, you will probably find lots of stuff that looks like paraphrases of Scripture references. That is OK. In fact, it is more than OK, because in those parts, you know that I haven't gone off the deep end and missed the Lord altogether. You might possibly find other places where I might have missed God. Prophetic psalms, like any other prophetic utterance, are subject to being evaluated by other prophets.

Be like the Bereans: search the Scriptures and see if I'm telling you the truth.

Walking in love and obeying the Lord seem like a pretty simple way to improve your hearing. Really, that is the way it is, but it does take some training of our flesh to get it right. I have too often heard someone tell me that the Lord directed them to do some thing, then watched them not do it. Worse, yet, there have been times in my own life that I have been too slow to obey the Lord. It takes time to retrain our flesh, but it is well worth it. Our loving Father in Heaven is merciful, and doesn't want to heap up on us more than we can handle. He usually won't tell us something new until we have acted appropriately on the last thing he revealed to us. If that is the case with you, right now, just do it. If you aren't sure, ask Him about it. He wants you to be successful.

Copyright Issues

Anyone who knows me very well knows that I don't like the idea of putting a copyright on anything inspired by God, including the Holy Bible, any prophecy, and any God-breathed teaching or preaching. At the time the 66 books of the Holy Bible were written, there was no such thing as a copyright law. Intellectual property laws appeared later in history, although they have been around since before the United States of America became a nation. The authority for Congress to make copyright and patent laws is written into the U. S. constitution. The goal of a copyright law is to encourage creative work by providing that authors or owners of a creative work have a way to profit from their work by being the only ones authorized to make copies of that work for sale. If you spend a year writing the best novel ever or ten years making an awesome movie, and everyone wants to enjoy it, you have a right under copyright law to demand a payment in return for permission to make copies, and you have a right to deny permission to make copies to anyone you please. This is supposed to make sure that you get paid for your time creating this work. As a result, many people have gotten creative. Our bookstore shelves overflow with selections. People invest massive amounts of money into creating movies, and make a handsome profit at it. In general, copyright is good for commerce. I believe that it has even encouraged the proliferation of some Christian music and an abundance of Bible translations into languages with large numbers of Christians, especially English. This is not all bad, of course.

On the other hand, copyright law and profit motive has done some things that I consider to be very bad. Many preachers, Bible teachers, Christian songwriters, Bible translators, and Christian poets and psalmists have gone with this philosophy, and compromised their prophet motive for a profit motive. It is not for me to condemn anyone for this, but I really don't want to join them in this respect. Consequently, I either use a “copyleft” sort of license from creativecommons.org. (This is one way to constructively use the copyright law to promote information freedom instead of information bondage for profit.) I have also placed some things that the Lord has helped me write in the Public Domain. Either way, this means that I can't coerce people to pay me to make copies of those things under threat of lawsuit. I must simply trust God to provide a way for me to get the money and other resources that I need to care for my family and do what He has called me to do. So far, He has never let me down. I like Paul's attitude in 1 Corinthans 9:18. I don't charge royalties for my Bible translation work or for psalms that I write. I like it that way. I do use copyright law to extract payment for some secular works, but it just doesn't seem right to collect money for myself for the right to make copies of God's property. Therefore this document is copyrighted and licensed under the Creative Commons attribution and share alike license that you can read at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/. (If for some reason this license is not suitable for your use, then feel free to contact me (at https://cryptography.org/cgi-bin/contact.cgi) for other terms, as long as they don't involve exclusive use.)