Personification in the Psalms
If you’ve ever watched the waves coming in on the shores of Lake Michigan on a windy day, or on ocean beaches, you know what the psalmist was talking about when he proclaimed, “Let the floods clap their hands!” (Psalm 98:8) The waves truly appear to clap when they crest and approach the shore. Just one of the many examples of personification in the Psalms.
What is the difference between Personification and Anthropomorphism?
Personification, in short, is giving human attributes to inanimate objects or abstract concepts. For example, justice, an abstract concept, is called blind. Clearly justice does not have eyes to see but the image is a powerful way of explaining how the law applies equally to all people. Someone who is fortunate may say that the sun is smiling on them. The sun doesn’t literally smile but it feels like someone/thing above is smiling at us when we are lucky.
Anthropomorphism is similar to personification and so is often confused. In anthropomorphism, an animal or object acts like a human, rather than doing something like a human. The classic example is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the animals acted like humans, rebelling against their owners. Or cartoons where animals are frequently featured as talking like their human counterparts.
Personification in the Psalms
What hooked me on Biblical poetry years ago, was the many references to nature, especially in the form of personification. I love the image of rivers and trees clapping their hands, mountains running like goats, the sea fleeing before the majesty of our God (Ps. 114:3).
When the writer of Psalm 114 talks about mountains skipping like rams, what image comes to mind? “The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like the lambs of the flock.” (4) I’ve never seen a flock of goats running down the hillside, but it was a common sight for those living in Biblical times. I imagine the movement of the herd over the mountains created the sense that the mountain was moving. Such is the awesomeness of our God that even immovable mountains tremble before him. “Before the face of the Lord, tremble, O earth.” (7) (Another example of personification.)
In Psalm 19, day talks to day, night to night. God pitches a tent for the sun to inhabit. The sun then crosses the sky like a bridegroom and a giant.
- “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day pours out the word to day and night to night imparts knowledge. Not a word nor a discourse whose voice is not heard; through all the earth their voice resounds and to the ends of the world, their message.” (19:1-5)
- “He has pitched a tent there for the sun, which comes forth like the groom from his bridal chamber and, like a giant joyfully runs its course. At one end of the heavens it comes forth, and its course is to their other end; nothing escapes its heat.” (19:6-7)
I love the image of one day conversing with the next, sharing the events that have passed; night telling secrets, spreading knowledge. And then the sun joyfully crossing the sky.
Nature Praises God!
In Psalms 96-100 we see multiple examples of nature praising God by human ways.
- “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them? Then shall all the trees of the forest exult before the Lord, for he comes.” (96:11-13a)
- “The Lord is king; let the earth rejoice; let the many isles be glad.” (97:1)
- “The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his justice, and all peoples see his glory.” (97:5-6)
- “Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice because of your judgments, O Lord.” (97:8)
- “Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands; break into song; sing praise.” (98:4)
- “Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful song.” (100:1-2)
In Psalm 148, all creation praises God, the heavens, the earth, all creatures, living and not living.
- “Praise the Lord from the heavens, give praise in the heights; praise him, sun and moon; give praise, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens.” (148:1-4)
- “Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all depths; fire and hail, snow and mist, storm winds that fulfill his word; you mountains and all you hills, you fruit trees and all you cedars; you wild beasts and all tame animals, you creeping things and you winged fowl.” 148:7-10
Jerusalem, the city, praises God in Psalm 147. “Glorify the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion.” (147:12)
Other Examples of Personification in Scripture
When I first read Isaiah 55 where trees clapped their hands, I was transported to a windy day amid the woods and forests of my home state, Michigan. I saw trees blowing in the wind, their branches banging against each other in a quiet clap, and I wanted to clap too.
In my back yard there is a maple tree my husband and I planted eight years ago. It has since grown four times its size and is well on its way to giving shade to our backyard, shelter for birds and squirrels, and branches for grandchildren to climb. I’ve marveled at how the leaves turn up at times, as if forming cups to accept rain, or like cupped hands raised in prayer. The trees are not silent or implacable as they move and change with the wind. They have much to say as they look to the sky and raise their branches in praise.
“The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)
Abstract Concepts with Human Features
In Psalm 85 we hear the beautiful passage how justice and peace, two abstract concepts, shall kiss. “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth and justice shall look down from heaven.” (85:11-12)
Genesis pictures sin as an animal, crouching at Cain’s door. “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’” (Gen. 4:6-7)
Wisdom is personified repeatedly in Proverbs. She cries out in the streets: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the open squares she raises her voice; down the crowded ways she calls out at the city gates she utters her words.” (1:20-21); and builds a house and entertains guests: “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns; she has dressed her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table.” (9:1-2)
Purpose of Personification in the Psalms
Personification and other poetic devices, serve to enrich the beauty and power of the poetry we find in the Psalms. Long before the great poets of old, before Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Frost, and Dickinson, King David and the other writers of the Psalms inspired the people with images and words that captured their imagination and spoke to them in their daily context. The Psalms truly are the first among the poems of their age, and our own. Images of trees and rivers clapping and the sun crossing the sky, continue to capture our imagination and lead us to praise and wonder before our God!
What has been your experience of personification in poetry? Which images speak to you?
This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of Still Dancing, the second book in my Dancing through Life Series. click here to sign up
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