A Riddle will be Solved, Psalm 49:4 by Jack Kettler
Psalm 49: To the Chief Musician, a Psalm for the sons of Korah.
“Hear this, all peoples; Give ear, all inhabitants of the world, Both low and high, Rich and poor together. My mouth shall speak wisdom, And the meditation of my heart shall give understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will disclose my dark saying on the harp.” (Psalm 49:1-4)
“I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp.” (Psalm 49:4 KJV)
“I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.” (Psalm 49:4 ESV)
“But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the LORD came upon him.” (2 Kings 3:15)
“After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines: and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy.” (1 Samuel 10:5)
“And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” (1 Samuel 16:23)
“And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps.” (Revelation 14:2)
The Bible uses many literary forms. For example, the Bible uses genera’s such as; law, historical narrative, wisdom, poetical, gospel, didactic letters, or epistles, predictive, and apocalyptic literature.
To illustrate potential problems in interpretation:
When Jesus said “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” (John 10:9) Does He mean that He is a door and that we are going to live in a pasture?
When God says: “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.” (Psalm 91:4) Does this mean God is a bird?
Our general approach is to take the Bible literally, and not fall into the error of hyper-literalism as could happen with the above passages. These introductory comments and questions along with the following section on hermeneutical guidelines will help when we get to the biblical text under consideration.
Interpretive hermeneutical guidelines for the book of Psalms:
Poetry in the Old Testament. At a very early date poetry became part of the written literature of the Hebrew people. Many scholars believe the song of Moses and the song of Miriam (Ex. 15: 1– 21), celebrating the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the sea, is the oldest existing Hebrew hymn or poetic work, dating perhaps from the twelfth century B.C. Three of the greatest poetic masterpieces of the Old Testament are the Song of Deborah (Judges 5); the Song of the Bow— David’s lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1: 17– 27) — and the Burden of Nineveh (Nah. 1: 10— 3: 19).
Approximately 40 percent of the Old Testament is written in poetry. This includes entire books (except for short prose sections) such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and Lamentations. Large portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Minor Prophets are also poetic in form and content. Many scholars consider the Book of Job to be not only the greatest poem in the Old Testament but also one of the greatest poems in all literature.
The three main divisions of the Old Testament— the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings— contain poetry in successively greater amounts. Only seven Old Testament books— Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, and Malachi— appear to have no poetic lines.
Poetic elements such as assonance, alliteration, meter, and rhyme— so common to poetry as we know it today— occur rarely in Hebrew poetry; these are not essential ingredients of Old Testament poetry. Instead, the essential formal characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. This is a construction in which the content of one line is repeated, contrasted, or advanced by the content of the next— a type of sense rhythm characterized by thought arrangement rather than by word arrangement or rhyme. The three main types of parallelism in biblical poetry are synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.
Synonymous parallelism— A parallel segment repeats an idea found in the previous segment. With this technique a kind of paraphrase is involved; line two restates the same thought found in line one, by using equivalent expressions. Examples of synonymous parallelism are found in Genesis 4: 23: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; / Wives of Lamech, listen to my speech!/ For I have killed a man for wounding me/ Even a young man for hurting me.” Another example is found in Psalm 2: 4: “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; / The Lord shall hold them in derision.” Yet a third example is Psalm 51: 2– 3: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin. / For I acknowledge my transgressions, / And my sin is always before me.” (Also see Ps. 24: 1– 3; 103: 3, 7– 10; Jer. 17: 10; Zech. 9: 9.)
Antithetic parallelism— By means of this poetic construction, the thought of the first line is made clearer by contrast— by the opposition expressed in the second line. Examples of antithetic parallelism may be found in Psalm 1: 6: “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, / But the way of the ungodly shall perish”; in Psalm 34: 10: “The young lions lack and suffer hunger; / But those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing”; and in Proverbs 14: 20: “The poor man is hated even by his own neighbor,/ But the rich has many friends.”
Synthetic parallelism— Also referred to as climactic or cumulative parallelism, this poetic construction expands the idea in line one by the idea in line two. In synthetic parallelism, therefore, there is an ascending (or descending) progression, a building up of thought, with each succeeding line adding to the first.
Here is one good example of this poetic technique: “He shall be like a tree/ Planted by the rivers of water, / That brings forth its fruit in its season, / Whose leaf also shall not wither; / And whatever he does shall prosper” (Ps. 1: 3).
Another poetic form found in the Old Testament is the alphabetical acrostic, a form used often in the Book of Psalms (Psalms 9– 10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145). In the alphabetical psalms the first line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next with the second, and so on, until all the letters of the alphabet have been used. Thus, Psalm 119 consists of twenty-two groups of eight verses each. The number of groups equals the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The first letter of each verse in a group is (in the original Hebrew text) that letter of the alphabet that corresponds to its position in the group.
Many of the subtleties of Hebrew poetry, such as puns and various plays on words, are virtually untranslatable into English and may be fully appreciated only by an accomplished Hebrew scholar. Fortunately, many good commentaries are available to explain to the layperson these riches of Hebrew thought.
The Bible is full of numerous figures of speech, such as metaphors and similes. For example, the psalmist metaphorically described God by saying, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18: 2).
Moses gave this remarkable simile describing God’s care of Israel in the wilderness: “As an eagle stirs up its nest, / Hovers over its young, / Spreading out its wings, taking them up, / Carrying them on its wings,/ So the Lord alone led him” (Deut. 32: 11– 12).
Such figures of speech are not to be interpreted literally but as poetic symbolism for God. He is the firm ground of life and a solid defense against evil. The worshiper sings for joy because of His protecting presence and the soaring power of His loving care. (1)
This passage is somewhat mysterious. Is a riddle or dark saying literally solved by a Harp? Or is the Harp played while prophesying, counseling, preaching or teaching of parables, praise or when supplications are made? Or is there a type of poetic symbolism being used that connects the instrument to an opening and understanding of God’s Word? The Psalmist in verse three says: “My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall give understanding.” The hearers are to grasp and understand something, wisdom.
What do the commentators say?
From Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible:
I will incline mine ear to a parable… In which way of speaking the doctrines of the Gospel were delivered out by Christ, Matthew 13:3. Wherefore the prophet, representing his apostles and disciples, signifies that he would listen thereunto, that he might attain to the knowledge thereof, and communicate it to others;
I will open my dark saying upon the harp; the enigmas, riddles, and mysteries of the Gospel, being understood by the ministers of it, are opened and explained in a very pleasant and delightful manner; they are made clear and evident, and are as a lovely song upon a harp; see Ezekiel 33:32. (2)
Gill draws a comparison between the parable and prophet: “Wherefore the prophet, representing his apostles and disciples, signifies that he would listen thereunto, that he might attain to the knowledge thereof, and communicate it to others.”
From the Treasury of David:
Verse 4. I will incline mine ear to a parable. He who would have others hear, begins by hearing himself. As the minstrel leans his ear to his harp, so must the preacher give his whole soul to his ministry. The truth came to the psalmist as a parable, and he endeavoured to unriddle it for popular use; he would not leave the truth in obscurity, but he listened to its voice till he so well understood it as to be able to interpret and translate it into the common language of the multitude. Still of necessity it would remain a problem, and a dark saying to the unenlightened many, but this would not be the songster’s fault, for, saith he, I will open my dark saying upon the harp. The writer was no mystic, delighting in deep and cloudy things, yet he was not afraid of the most profound topics; he tried to open the treasures of darkness, and to uplift pearls from the deep. To win attention he cast his proverbial philosophy into the form of song, and tuned his harp to the solemn tone of his subject. Let us gather round the minstrel of the King of kings, and hear the Psalm which first was led by the chief musician, as the chorus of the sons of Korah lifted up their voices in the temple. (3)
As Spurgeon notes: “As the minstrel leans his ear to his harp, so must the preacher give his whole soul to his ministry. The truth came to the psalmist as a parable, and he endeavored to unriddle it for popular use; he would not leave the truth in obscurity, but he listened to its voice till he so well understood it as to be able to interpret and translate it into the common language of the multitude.” It was the Psalmist’s job to unriddle the parable, not the Harp.
From the Pulpit Commentary:
Verse 4. – I will incline mine ear to a parable. The psalmist is “like a minstrel who has to play a piece of music put into his hands. The strain is none of his own devising; and as he proceeds, each note awakes in him a mysterious echo, which he would fain catch and retain in memory” (Kay). A “parable” in the Old Testament means any enigmatical or dark saying, into which much metaphor or imagery is introduced, so that it is only φωνᾶν συνετοῖσι. I will open my dark saying upon the harp; i.e. with a harp accompaniment. Music was a help to inspired persons in the delivery of messages which they were commissioned to deliver (see 1 Samuel 10:5; 2 Kings 3:15). (4)
It is good to note the connection between parable and dark saying.
From Barnes’ Notes on the Bible:
I will incline mine ear to a parable – The phrase “I will incline mine ear” means that he would listen or attend to – as we incline our ear toward those whom we are anxious to hear, or in the direction from which a sound seems to come. Compare Psalm 5:1; Psalm 17:1; Psalm 39:12; Isaiah 1:2. On the word rendered “parable” here משׁל mâshâl – see the notes at Isaiah 14:4. Compare Job 13:12, note; Job 27:1, note. The word properly means similitude; then, a sentence, sententious saying, apophthegm; then, a proverb; then, a song or poem. There is usually found in the word some idea of “comparison,” and hence, usually something that is to be illustrated “by” a comparison or a story. The reference here would seem to be to some dark or obscure subject which needed to be illustrated; which it was not easy to understand; which had given the writer, as well as others, perplexity and difficulty. He proposed now, with a view to understand and explain it, to place his ear, as it were, “close to the matter,” that he might clearly comprehend it. The matter was difficult, but he felt assured he could explain it – as when one unfolds the meaning of an enigma. The “problem” – the “parable” – the difficult point – related to the right use, or the proper value, of wealth, or the estimate in which it should be held by those who possessed it, and by those who did not. It was very evident to the author of the psalm that the views of people were not right on the subject; he therefore proposed to examine the matter carefully, and to state the exact truth.
I will open – I will explain; I will communicate the result of my careful inquiries.
My dark saying – The word used here – חידה chı̂ydâh – is rendered “dark speeches” in Numbers 12:8; “riddle,” in Judges 14:12-19; Ezekiel 17:2; “hard questions” in 1 Kings 10:1; 2 Chronicles 9:1; “dark saying” (as here) in Psalm 78:2; Proverbs 1:6; “dark sentences,” in Daniel 8:23; and “proverb” in Habakkuk 2:6. It does not elsewhere occur. It means properly “something entangled, intricate;” then, a trick or stratagem; then art intricate speech, a riddle; then, a sententious saying, a maxim; then a parable, a poem, a song, a proverb. The idea here is, that the point was intricate or obscure; it was not well understood, and he purposed “to lay it open,” and to make it plain.
Upon the harp – On the meaning of the word used here, see the notes at Isaiah 5:12. The idea here is, that he would accompany the explanation with music, or would so express it that it might be accompanied with music; that is, he would give it a poetic form – a form such that the sentiment might be used in public worship, and might be impressed upon the mind by all the force and power which music would impart. Sentiments of purity and truth, and sentiments of pollution and falsehood also, are always most deeply imbedded in the minds of people, and are made most enduring and effective, when they are connected with music. Thus the sentiments of patriotism are perpetuated and impressed in song; and thus sentiments of sensuality and pollution owe much of their permanence and power to the fact that they are expressed in corrupt verse, and that they are perpetuated in exquisite poetry, and are accompanied with song. Scenes of revelry, as well as acts of devotion, are kept up by song. Religion proposes to take advantage of this principle in our nature by connecting the sentiments of piety with the sweetness of verse, and by impressing and perpetuating those sentiments through associating them with all that is tender, pure, and inspiriting in music. Hence, music, both vocal and that which is produced by instruments, has always been found to be an invaluable auxiliary in securing the proper impression of truth on the minds of people, as well as in giving utterance to the sentiments of piety in devotion. (5)
Barnes seems to have a similar view as Spurgeon when he says: “It was very evident to the author of the psalm that the views of people were not right on the subject; he, therefore, proposed to examine the matter carefully and to state the exact truth. I will open – I will explain; I will communicate the result of my careful inquiries.”
Clarke’s Commentary on Psalms 49:4:
I will incline mine ear to a parable – This was the general method of conveying instruction among the Asiatics. They used much figure and metaphor to induce the reader to study deeply in order to find out the meaning. This had its use; it obliged men to think and reflect deeply; and thus in some measure taught them the use, government, and management of their minds. (6)
These commentators see a connection between explaining “dark sayings” sometimes known as “parables” with the prophet or preacher’s ability to explain God’s revelation. So there seems to be a type of poetic symbolism being used that connects the instrument with the opening of the mind and the understanding of God’s Word as expounded by the prophet, preacher teachers ordained by God to deliver and make known His Word.
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Herbert Lockyer, Sr. General Editor, Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson Publishers), pp. 858-859.
2. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Psalms, 9 Volumes, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 539.
3. C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. I, (Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson), p. 370.
4. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Psalms, Vol. 8, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 378.
5. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Psalms, Vol. 5 p.861.
6. Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, Vol. 4, (Nashville: Abingdom Press, 1956), p. 651.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
And at: https://carm.org/