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Posted: 8/17/2015
A Reflection on the Psalms
Twenty Two & Twenty Three Say It All
(Psalms, That Is)
David & harp.
"David Singing and Playing His Harp" (James J. Tissot, French painter, 1896-1902)

Unless otherwise noted, text of quoted Psalms is from The Writings - Kethubim, a Jewish translation to English of the original Hebrew text.The Writings - Kethubim, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982. (The Writings is the third and final major section of this translation-to-English effort. The Torah was published in 1962, and The Prophets in 1978.)

For the last few years, I have been reading the Psalms, usually one in the morning and often one in the evening. I'm probably on my fourth iteration of these 150 texts, many of which go back to the time of King David, with many written by or attributed to David. Reading them never gets old. Don't think I've ever caught myself saying, "Oh, I've read that before." Over the centuries the Psalms have remained alive for all sorts of folk, theologians to those barely literate, youngsters and the elderly, Jews and Christians.

I think one reason the Psalms stay with us is that we can identify with the emotions we hear poured forth by the writers. Often, as I read, I will think, "I know how you feel!" My last loop through, I read psalm 22 in the morning and psalm 23 in the evening. I couldn't believe the differences in the expressed emotions. The first few verses of each:

Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have You abandoned me;
why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring?
My God, I cry by day -- You answer not; by night, and have no respite."

Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water in places of repose;
He renews my life; He guides me in right paths as befits His name."

Isn't that the way it is? We find our cry to God at or somewhere between these emotional poles like a spot on a continuum: Feeling that God has totally abandoned us to feeling surrounded by the shepherd's loving care. We can think it a good day (or week, or year) if our emotional average is nearer the warmer end of the continuum.

Interestingly, even within one psalm we see this range of the psalmist's emotions. Had I quoted further in Psalm 22, we would have seen this quick swing of emotion. From the anguish of feeling forsaken by God, to:

Psalm 22 (continuing): "But You are the Holy One, enthroned, the Praise of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; they trusted, and You rescued them. ...
You drew me from the womb, made me secure at my mother's breast. I became Your charge at birth; from my mother's womb You have been my God."

For me, something else adds to the appeal of the psalms. Many are so full of imagery and figurative language that I seem free just to experience the emotions of the text rather than think I should parse the words to interpret meaning. It's tough to take literally many verses, like these from Psalm 98: "Let the sea and all within it thunder, the world and all it inhabitants; let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together at the presence of the Lord, ..."

Best not to try to figure it out or find some hidden meaning. Just live with the joy of the psalmist! C.S Lewis says this about reading the psalms: "Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not."Reflections on the Psalms, C.S Lewis, page 3; Fount Paperbacks, first printed in 1958.

In addition to the value of the psalms in meditation, they are beloved in corporate worship. Their lyrical nature makes them ideal for reading in unison or as responsive readings. One popular responsive style is simply to alternate verses: A leader reads the odd-numbered verses, others respond with the even-numbered ones. In the Morning Prayer service I lead, I like to use another common responsive style that I call the "star method". In the Book of Common Prayer's Psalter, each verse of a psalm is divided into two parts by an asterisk (*). The leader reads the start of the verse, pausing at the asterisk, and the people respond with the remainder of the verse. (Even when reading alone, I read with this pause as if part of me is responding.)

This latter type of responsive reading is especially appropriate for the psalms since many employ a practice of "parallelism" that has the text saying the same thing twice in different words. A couple verses of selections as found in the Psalter's version of the psalms illustrate this parallelism:We can find this use of parallelism many places in scripture. For example, the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:7: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." The first phrase really says it all. The following two phrases basically say the same thing but give different images, which expand and emphasize the meaning. Lewis says that in this style, Jesus makes the advice almost impossible to forget!

Psalm 2: "1Why are the nations in an uproar?*
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
2Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt, and the princes plot together,*
against the Lord and against his Anointed?
3'Let us break their yoke,' they say;*
'let us cast off their bonds from us.'"

Psalm 37: "6He will make your righteousness as clear as the light*
and your just dealing as the noonday.
7Be still before the Lord*
and wait patiently for him."

(Psalm 136 is an ideal one for this type of responsive reading in a group setting.)

If you are a reader of the psalms, you probably relate to the meaning and beauty I'm describing. If you are not, you might find reading them a meaningful endeavor. As mentioned before, I suggest reading for a sense of the emotion rather than trying to find hidden meaning. Another caution is not to let some of the hatred, curses, and violent pronouncements in many psalms become too disturbing and discouraging. (The beautiful Psalm 137 of lament when the Jews were exiled in Babylon ends with a phrase of cursing their Babylonian captors and saying, "a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!" (v. 9)

In the work cited earlier, C.S. Lewis devotes two chapters to his own difficulty with these negative and unexpected expressions. Space does not permit a full summary, but Lewis suggests that one help can be to realize when we read these, if we are honest, we often have similar thoughts of curse and retribution. We know the feelings all too well. The psalmists, however, did not seem to feel the need to ignore or even disguise their hateful feelings.Lewis, op. cit., chapter 3. In chapter 2, Lewis also discusses ways to look at and understand the many uses of "human righteousness" and God's severe judgment. (I find in reading these raw, negative, emotions, though, some sense of comfort. Even the writer of many of the psalms, David, who is sometimes described as "the apple of God's eye," expressed many of the same negative and judgmental feelings that I often have. I can gain comfort, that while my thoughts may be ones I want to be rid of, like David, they need not separate me from the love of God ... or my desire to be in relationship with God.)

Finally, the psalms can be read for their beauty regardless one's religious nature or even belief in God. I always marvel at the creative and beautiful way with words these ancient people wrote. A few days ago, I read Psalm 133 and marveled at the writing:

"1How good and how pleasant it is
that brothers dwell together.
2It is like fine oil on the head
running down onto the beard,
the beard of Aaron,
that comes down over the collar of his robe;
3like the dew of Hermon
that falls upon the mountains of Zion.
There the Lord ordained blessing,
everlasting life."

The Psalms: For many reasons, enjoy this treasure! And, may any of your days of Twenty-two be followed with many of Twenty-three.

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