Oh… for the love of Psalms

Please note that all Scripture references, for their ease of linguistic flow, in texts, prefaces, introductions, footnotes and cross references linked in this article, are taken from the New American Bible (Revised Edition) NABRE, © 2010 on the Biblegateway internet site.

Psalm 126 in the Parma Psalter
Psalm 126 – the Parma Psalter – When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with… shouts of joy’.

The Psalms are a magnificent book of poems which you can turn to for wisdom, strength and healing words. You don’t even need to consider yourself as religious to appreciate the beauty of the Psalms, after all how many of you out there don’t at least know the first two lines of Psalm 23: “the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”? There are time now, as in my younger years, when I occasionally heard a song pop into my head, the one that repeats over and over in your mind and which, have now been replaced by random Psalms with the occasional song thrown in for good measure now and again. I call it my Psalm App.

If we open the Bible somewhere right in the middle, it’s very likely that you’ll open it at the book of Psalms. This is not intentional, but what is auspicious about its location is that it gives us a most intense explanation of God, and of us in relation to Him. The authors of the Psalms paint a vivid picture in words, that the Lord is Mystical, He is Spiritual, He is Divine, — without equal and beyond reach — because He is the almighty and all-knowing, the all-present one who is Sovereign of all Creation and of the kingdom of heaven. Yet, He is still the one who is at hand — never too far away — who welcomes all with open arms, who is passionately concerned and participates with us, His people; He is the one who listens earnestly to all of our pleas, the one who is considerate toward us when we are lacking. The Psalms, as no other book within the Bible, acquaints us with God. In forty-three of the Psalms the Hebrew personal name of God is used, and in about one hundred psalms the general word אֱלֹהִים Elohim’ is used for God.

All of us — making no distinction between our circumstance, our triumphs and defeats, our joys and sorrows, our spiritual steadfastness and deficiencies (consider this as the Bibles’ “equal opportunities” statement) — should be able to self-identify within the pages of this collection of the Israelites hundred and fifty poetic Psalms. Every single feeling we experience within life today has previously been experienced by the Psalm’s composers. Note how they expressed their love for God, their anger and frustrations toward Him. Through their words we perceive the vigour of their faith combined with their indecisions, disbelief and weaknesses. We begin to take part in their amazement as they gaze upon God’s splendour. We become conscious as they tell Him of their distress and suffering and of the consolation they receive in reply from Him. We pray with them in laud the Lord our God. They teach how people endured their own adversities; how they commemorated their triumphs; we witness how they express their bone of contention at God for His presumed non-intervention and apathy, later realising with a big “Oops” their misguided error and penitently having to petition Him for pardon, mea culpa. In the Psalms their experiences begin to show their own signs of life, projecting an evocative picture within our minds, particularly when we read about battles, injustice, opposition and difficulties impacting the very lives of the Psalms wordsmith, which in turn are a projection of our own lives today.

My favourite thing about Psalms: beside their poetic content, is that the Psalms give us the precedents of how we should communicate with God. Like a clerical manual. This is because the Psalms are addressed to God. I occasionally rejoice in a most delightful verse at the end of Psalm 3:8 where we have God “slapping the face” of all of  David’s “foes” and  breaking “the teeth of the wicked.” It makes me smile when I read it. Just imagine yourself being slapped in the face by God.  It would be mind blowing, shattering, I think it would make your soul jump a beat. It’s a slap that would have you plummeting toward the surface of a distant planet in another galaxy far… far…  away. One of  God’s hand-prints on your cheek. To be honest I cannot imagine anything as more restorative, than a slap from God. Booyah! As my nephew Jason generally coins his phrase to express his utter and sublime joy, which seems to be quite often.

A word of warning though, and this is important, the Psalms have to be read as poems; as lyrics, with all of the liberties and all of the decorum, its exaggerations and with passion, rather than a well reasoned interrelatedness that are the norm and accepted by lyrical poetry wordsmiths. There are rules within poetry, because a poem exists entirely to serve the reader. Psalms have be read as poems if you want to understand them, that is; secondly, we have to read them with all the wonder, emotions and love for God that the writer would have had. Remember the very first Psalm writer would have been Moses of Exodus as protagonist, Seti I (Sety Merenptah) as an oppressive pharaoh the antagonist, (I use the names of these two pharaohs as they are currently the most likely candidates; just look at Exodus 1:222:23). After Seti’s death his son and successor Ramses (Usermaatre Setepenre) the Great became the Israelites co-antagonistic pharaoh during the events of the actual Exodus, Pharaoh’s army giving chase to Moses and his people across the Red Sea before being engulfed by the Sea. In short, the first Psalm was probably written in late 14 BC. So they have to be read not with today’s way of thinking but with the way of thinking of someone in 14BC. If we fail to do this there is a huge risk that we would completely miss what is contained within them, the actual point of the poem, or even worse, believe that we understand something within them which isn’t actually there. Albeit, I do not mean to imply that everyone has to begin reading or reciting the Psalms in the original Hebrew, in which alone they possess their genuine and intrinsic artistic form. I envision that every contemplative would, at some time or other, wished that they could chant the Psalms in the same language that Jesus used on this earth, the language He used in quoting them, and when He was dying on the Cross! This is a yearning that very few of us will ever be able to appease. But it is purely accidental. In truth, the straightforwardness and all-inclusivity of the Psalms as poetry makes them accessible to every intellect, in every period and in any language and I suspect that a person’s poetic perception must be uncommonly numb and insensitive if someone has never and at any time been able to understand the Psalms without at least having been in some way affected by their profound and widespread religious quality.

 

 

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I once met a wealthy evangelical Christian who completely misunderstood Psalm 37:4 you know the one that states “Find your delight in the Lord who will give you your heart’s desire.”  He assured me that by donating thousands to the church, specifically when their preacher made special appeals for them, and by singing louder than anyone and waving his arms more profusely than his fellow worshippers, that by joining every church committee (which is nice of him but done for the wrong reasons) that God would automatically shower him with money, security, health, comfort, promotions, in fact everything that he had ever wanted, like some kind of dispensing ATM at the bank of God. Being a multi-millionaire and getting richer, he argued, was his unquestionable proof, his very foundation. “Don’t you see it?” he asked me. Sadly this is, perhaps, why catholicism and some other faiths are so dissimilar at times. Well the proof is in the pudding so to speak. Then in July 1981 the recession gripped the United States, he lost almost everything and had to sleep in the back of his van for a couple of years.  This unfortunately destroyed his faith and he never went to church again. My limited and humble interpretation, if I were asked to give an opinion of the verse, is that — “if your delight is in the Lord, then the Lord is the desire of your heart.” To underscore this, I like to use Psalm 37:27-28 where we read “The valiant one whose steps are guided by the Lord, who will delight in his way, may stumble, but he will never fall, for the Lord holds his hand.”

A Psalm inspirits its readers to praise God for whom He is, and what He has accomplished. The Psalms reveal His pre-eminence, declare His true-heartedness and commitment to us in times of tribulation, reminding us of the pure centrality of His Word. As the Psalms present a clear picture of a loving God who guides His people, the responses of praise and worship to God are never far from the psalmists’ writing implements. The depiction of veneration in the Psalms allow us a brief look at the hearts devoted to God, individuals who are remorseful and apologetic, conscience-stricken, ashamed and guilt-ridden before Him; These lives then changed after their encounters with Him.

Let me try to describe them to you.  The Psalms, are a collection of melodious poems, it is one of only two books of the Old Testament that distinguishes itself as an amalgamated compositions containing numerous wordsmiths, the book of Proverbs being the other. We can ascertain some of the writer poets, by their identifying themselves within the first few lines of the poem.. For example, topping the list is of course David who is “skilful in playing, a man of valour, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him”, he is God’s anointed third king of the United Monarchy of Israel and Judah, and as such, he had a lot to say, his Psalm count stands at 73 (possibly 12 more) out of a total 150. Followed closely by the familial undertaking of Amos & Sons who wrote 12, Korah and Sons — a prominent Levite family — wrote 11; 50 Psalms are considered as Orphan, which do not contain any information about their authors and are probably from tradition, or from the wordsmiths who wrote the Psalms.  Then we have the Minor Contributors: Solomon who wrote 2, Moses  wrote Psalm 90; Ethan the Ezrahite wrote 1 and Heman the Ezrahite who nearly wrote 1(ish.) 

The book of Psalms was originally entitled תְּהִלִּים Tehillim, which means “praises” in Hebrew. The title is derived from the Greek translation, ψαλμοί, psalmoi, meaning “songs sung to a harp” and, by extension, “the words accompanying the music”

The book of Psalms is broadly considered as one of the most popular books of poetry within the Bible. The main topic and focal point of the Psalms is on God’s sovereignty and benevolence. The scribe uses poetry to impart notions of hope for what lies ahead, and exaltations for God as the infinite Creator of totality, of our reliance upon God, and of God’s unrelenting steadfastness to us. As you read through the Psalms, take some time to thank Him for His goodness and through the Holy Spirit allow yourself to be roused to proceed in faith regardless of the obstacles you’re facing.

Poems have meaning — although the poet has absolutely no moral imperative to make his message instantly clear to us — who would not want to make an effort to discover the meaning? Yet, to say that poems have meaning is not to say that they must necessarily impart any useful information nor make point that seems straightforward.

The men who wrote the Psalms were carried away in an ecstasy of joy when they saw God in the cosmic symbolism of His created universe:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands. Day unto day pours forth speech; night unto night whispers knowledge. There is no speech, no words; their voice is not heard; A report goes forth through all the earth, their messages, to the ends of the world. He has pitched in them a tent for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom from his canopy, and like a hero joyfully runs its course. From one end of the heavens it comes forth; its course runs through to the other; nothing escapes its heat. The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The decree of the Lord is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The statutes of the Lord are true, all of them just; More desirable than gold, than a hoard of purest gold, Sweeter also than honey or drippings from the comb. By them your servant is warned; obeying them brings much reward. Who can detect trespasses? Cleanse me from my inadvertent sins. Also from arrogant ones restrain your servant; let them never control me. Then shall I be blameless, innocent of grave sin. Let the words of my mouth be acceptable, the thoughts of my heart before you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Psalm 19 by King David God’s Glory in the Heavens and in the Law.

It is extremely important for those who read and chant the Psalms either in communal prayer for the faithful of the Church, to grasp, if they can, the poetic content of these great songs. The poetic gift is not one that has been bestowed on all men with equal lavishness and that gift is unfortunately necessary not only for the writers of poems but also, to some extent, for those who read them. This does not mean that the recitation of the Divine Office is an aesthetic recreation whose full possibilities can only be realised by initiates endowed with refined taste and embellished by a certain artistic cultivation. But it does mean that the type of reader whose poetic appetites are fully satisfied by the Burma Shave rhymes along our American highways may find it rather hard to get anything out of the Psalms. I believe, however, that the reason why so many fail to understand the Psalms—beyond the fact that they are never quite at home even with Church Latin—is that latent poetic faculties have never been awakened in their spirits by someone capable of pointing out to them that the Psalms really are poems.

If we desire God more than anything else in the world, seeking him in the manner that He has taught, through humility, confession, and a wholehearted supplication for his clemency and absolution … well that’s exactly what we’ll get. We were created to be in close kinship with God – that’s how we become contented in this life and in the next, it therefore makes sense that desiring God more than anything or anyone else that it would be the most delightful and rewarding way to live one’s life.

If we get this right, then inexplicably, but not surprisingly, we’ll find that all the other elements of our lives begin to have purpose. “… seek first the kingdom [of God] and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” Jesus said. (Matthew 6:33) Well not everything we might want, but everything that we would need in order to continue our lives meaningfully and full of joy — which means that as long as we want God more than anything else — He will never leave our side. And if God never leaves our side, we will never be unsatisfied. This begins to make sense when you look at how heaven and the eternal reward are described within the Bible: it is the dwelling place of God and the eternal joyful abode of the blessed dead, a spiritual state of everlasting communion with God, a place or condition of utmost happiness, the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3), the great reward (Matthew 5:12), life (Matthew 7:14), the kingdom of their Father (Matthew13:43), the master’s joy (Matthew 25:21), eternal life (Matthew 25:46), the kingdom of God (Mark 9:47) the kingdom of Christ (Luke 22:30) the house of the Father (John14:2) 

In the Old Testament, the name of the heavenly city in prophecy is ‘the house of the Father’. The great promise Jesus makes to his disciples is that he will never leave them. The afterlife for Christians is described as God’s house. The greatest longings of the psalmist were for the presence of God; For example “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God”; (Psalm 42:1). God’s greatest punishment upon humanity was when He told His people that He no longer was their God — the assaults from the Philistine Armies were not the worst punishment sent   by Him — these were forewarnings from God of more intensified punishments to follow: His complete and absolute absence. A great void — an emptiness!

The Qumran Community is where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been hidden, this community also produced many original Psalms of their own composition.  One of the scrolls found contains a collection of hymns, and also the Manual of Discipline scroll which concludes with a lengthy hymn such as this:

I will meditate on His might, and lean on His mercies every day.

I know that in His hand is judgement of all living, and that all His works are truth.

I will praise Him when distress is unleashed,and will shout for joy for his salvation.

THE PSALMS HAVE IT ALL.

History, poetry, prayer, song, chant, prophecy—Psalms range like a colourful spectrum when it comes to the kind of genres covered within the Bible. The Psalms address just about every important Old Testament occurrence: Creation, God’s covenant with Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, the conquest of the promised land, God’s covenant with David, the temple in Jerusalem, the Babylonian captivity and the return of the Tribes of Israel to Jerusalem.

 

Seven times a day I praise You

Psalms takes us through the variety of human experience, and shows us that no matter what we go through, there is a God who listens to those who call upon Him. He walks beside us, goes before us, encamps around us, reigns above us, and dwells among us. After all… He is God! and therefore we should praise Him “Seven times a day I praise You because Your judgments are righteous.” Psalm 119:164.  There is also humour in the Psalms and we read that God shall laugh in Psalm 2:4; 37:13; 59:9. By His laughter we know that God is a happy God and has a sense of humour. God’s act of humour toward mankind evokes a contemplative and humorous response when He asks us to collaborate with His act of our own creation. Can anything be more incongruous than this? Only our faith can make sense of this paradox, which should leave us with an inner peace and joy that words alone cannot fully express. Of Course God’s humour is of the prophetic type. His humour is always concentrated on eliciting a reaction from us, which is participatory and based on justice and love.

As lifetime succeeded lifetime the memory of this primitive revelation of God seems to have become marcescent, but its foliage is still green within the Psalter. David is drunk with the love of God and filled with the primitive sense that man is the λειτουργός Leitourgos a minister, a servant, the high priest of all creation, born with the sole function of vocalising in “Liturgy” the whole testimony of praise which mute creation cannot by itself offer to God.

In our community of St. Mary’s Hermitage we seek and ask the Lord our God this:

One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek:  to dwell in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,

To gaze on the Lord’s beauty, to visit his temple. For God will hide me in his shelter in time of trouble,

He will conceal me in the cover of his tent; and set me high upon a rock. Even now my head is held high above my enemies on every side!

I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and chant praise to the Lord.

Psalm 27:4-6

I wanted to return to an earlier statement regarding the Psalms; that they introduce us to God, we become acquainted with Him.  Having been asked by Ben, my 7 year old nephew, he always taps my hand gently with two tiny little fingers before he speaks, he says’ it so that he won’t interrupt me at prayer, but here we go, he asks “uncle Hugh…? So, you work with God, full-time, right?” I said “well yes, I like to think I do, He’s always at my side”, “uncle Hugh? You said to papa earlier that you speak with Him every day?” I replied “Yes without fail I pray or speak with Him every hour, and every day.” My rejoinder is a protracted “mmmmm” oh dear… “So…, do you think He’s alway at your side because you’re new at it, and He’s still keeping an eye on you until you get it right… is He, like your boss?” Well, I suppose he’s got that one right, I smiled and dwelled for a moment on what he had asked when I feel another gentle tap on my hand, thinking the worst had been over he again asks “So if you speak to Him every day and he never leaves your side… then what colour are his eyes and does he still have a beard or does he sometimes shave it off?” Well, a valid question from a 7 year old. But we do have a picture of God, of sorts, and what He brings to us within the Psalms:

a shield around me — 3:3, my glory — 3:3, the one who lifts up my head — 3:3, righteous God — 7:9, a righteous judge — 7:11, stronghold in times of trouble — 9:9, my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot — 16:5, my strength — 18:1, The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer — 18:2, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold — 18:2, my support — 18:18, My shepherd — 23:1, my light and my salvation — 27:1, the stronghold of my life — 27:1, the saving refuge of his anointed — 28:8, My helper — 30:10, rock of refuge — 31:2, a hiding place for me — 32:7, my help and deliverance  — 40:18, the God of my life — 42:9, my joy, my delight — 43:4, an ever-present help in distress — 46:1, He will lead us until death — 48:15, my fortress — 59:10,  my loving God — 59:11,  for you are my refuge, a tower of strength against the foe 61:4, Father of the fatherless, defender of widows  — 68:6, my flesh and my heart fail, God is the rock of my heart, my portion forever 73:26, for the Lord is the great God and the great King over all gods — 95:3, the guardian of Israel never slumbers nor sleeps. 121:4, Your shade at your right hand — 121:5, my portion in the land of the living — 142:6.

For a lay person the experience of the Psalms in worship is limited to the Divine Liturgy, and their experience of the Bible to only what is heard in church. We only begin to touch the tip of an iceberg as far as the beauty and depth of the Bible are concerned.  We don’t often hear The Old Testament  within the Divine Liturgy, save perhaps, for a few hymns.  Other services, such as Vespers, compline and the night office, have Psalms and other Old Testament readings.  During Lent, the services of the Mass of the Pre-sanctified and Compline have multiple readings from the book of Psalms.

There are diverse characteristic in the Psalms which are especially beautiful to me and draw me to them time and time again. Firstly, the elegant use of language, its poetic articulation of the truths of faith. Contemplate for example this straightforward expression, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). How much comfort do you think, this simple expression has brought to so many people, all those souls in distress since the beginning of time. Or think of the covenant of God’s redemption and divine goodness (Psalm 103). “Bless the Lord, my soul; all my being… so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (vv. 2–5). Or perhaps we should reflect upon the sorrowful illustration of God’s recollection of our suffering: “are my tears not stored in your flask, recorded in your book?” (Psalm 56:9).  The second thing that draws me to the Psalms is that no matter which part you read, you will always find something new. Like any great poetry the Psalms are like a gargantuan cavern with hidden unexplored depths containing even more treasures yet to be discovered.  The more you explore the more you will be rewarded with understanding of what is contained in them. Thirdly, is that the Psalms seem to cover almost every situation or occasion in life. Perhaps not specifically but it will address most situations, the Psalms mark all the important spiritual point in time and sentiments in the lives of the people of God. The Psalms also instil within us how to convey our emotions toward God in all circumstances of our lives. 

Fourthly, is that the Psalms are overflowing with Christ’s essence. The message of the Psalms always pulls one’s soul toward Christ and His salvific exertions. The Psalms give us nothing less than the prayer of Christ to the Father, uttered in the grace and sweetness of the Holy Ghost. The Psalms become as one might say, a holy communion with all the sentiments, desires, sufferings, joys, and glories of the Heart of Jesus. An old monastic adage says: Jaceret, staret, ambularet, sederet, semper in ore psalmus, semper in corde Christus. The person who, at every moment, has a psalm verse on their lips will, at every moment, have Christ, and the very prayer of Christ, in their heart.

What one discovers within the Psalms has been common knowledge in the history of the church to those who study them. In history, the book of Psalms has always been cherish by Christians worldwide. During earliest times and the medieval periods, the Psalms were deliberated upon and chanted routinely, specifically in monasteries. Athanasius the Great (c. 298 — 373) said, “I believe that a man can find nothing more glorious than these Psalms; for they embrace the whole life of man, the affections of his mind, and the motions of his soul. To praise and glorify God, he can select a psalm suited to every occasion, and thus will find that they were written for him.” Athanasius also wrote several works of Biblical exegesis, primarily on Old Testament materials. The most important of these the Epistle to Marcellinus (Migne’s Patrologiae Graeca 27:12–45) on how to incorporate Psalm verses into one’s daily spiritual practices. (On the Epistle to Marcellinus see pervious article:  Athanasius to Marcellinus Aug 19, 2017) Some excerpts of his discussions concerning the Book of Genesis remain, such as the Song of Solomon, and the Psalms.

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