Language Studies

Hebrew Thoughts

zāmar - זָמַר (Strong's #H2167)
To sing, praise

The verb זָמַר zāmar 'to sing' occurs 45 in the Bible, with 41 of those occurrences in the Psalter. The other 4 instances are in Judges 5:3, 2 Sam 22:50, 1 Chronicles 6:9, and Isaiah 5:6. The word is relegated entirely to poetic compositions (though it appears in Samuel and Chronicles, the sections are poetry embedded in narrative).

Three musical related terms are derived from this root:

  • zimrâ זִמְרָה (H2172) - 'melody, song'
  • zāmîr זָמִיר (H2158) - 'song'
  • mizmôr מִזְמֹור (H4210) - 'melody, psalm'

There is also an unrelated homonym - zāmar (H2168) 'to trim, prune.'

Usages

Sing, Praise, Make Music

Overall, the usages of zāmar are very constrained, always appearing in poetic compositions and nearly always related to praise. Some have postulated that H2167 and H2168 are related from a common idea of 'plucking'. Thus one usage came to mean 'playing an instrument' > 'praise', and the other came to mean 'prune'. While this is possible, it is also possible that they derive from different proto-Semitic roots as the Arabic cognate word carries musical connotations but not related to playing a stringed instrument (زمر 'to pipe, play on a reed').

Exegetical Considerations

These homonyms are never used in the same context, but in one verse, Song of Solomon 2:12, a  related noun, zāmîr, is used as a literary device sometimes called Janus Parallelism. The verse reads:

The flowers have appeared in the land,
The time of singing/pruning (zāmîr) has arrived,
And the voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land

If the first option, ‘singing’, is chosen,then the last two lines of this verse create a couplet with ‘singing’ and‘ the voice of the turtledove’ in parallel, but then the first line is out of place. Conversely, if ‘pruning’ is the preferred choice, then the first two lines create the parallel with the last line out of place. Instead,the author chose to use a word that could potentially carry both meanings so that the second line acts as a hinge between the two.

While we read the Bible as a theological book, we must not forget that it is literature as well.

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