Ten Psalms to Remember

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last week, continuing my slow journey through the Old Testament, I finished the Book of Psalms, aided as always by the work of Robert Alter. It was a strange, often difficult and boring, but sometimes surprising and even inspiring. If reading poetry isn’t something you normally do–and I don’t–then I suspect going straight through the entire Book of Psalms and confronting its mish-mash collection of 150 ancient works of temple liturgy, private devotion, celebratory hymns, and meditative practice isn’t an ideal beginning spot.

And yet, there is value to that strangeness, and rewards as well. As I went through, I couldn’t get out of my head the disconcerting image of an ancient gathering of people, speaking (or chanting, or singing) in a language I do not know, in a time and place I can barely imagine, conveying, to an audience either huge and public or intensely private and personal (or both), sentiments that, occasionally, were pretty much exactly my own. I suppose that’s a tribute to the power of poetry. Jews of twenty-five hundred (or perhaps even as much as three thousand) years ago wrote down the pleadings, the hopes, the fears, the longings, the demands, and the celebrations of their heart, and the spiritual language they lit upon, while often rote and repetitive, sometimes managed to express something that struck me to the very core. I can’t say I learned as much from this book of the Old Testament as I have from the others I’ve read up to this point, but this was the first time I really felt as though the words on the page were, sometimes, through some alchemy of history and memory and providential wisdom, actually speaking to me.

As the end of 2015 approaches, here are a selection of ten psalms that conveyed that speaking most particularly; perhaps they will for you as well. They haunted me throughout the day as I read them in my trusty Revised English Bible, and which stay with me still as I look forward to the next step in my Biblical journey. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

Psalm 13:1-2–“How long, Lord, will you leave me forgotten, / how long hide your face from me? / How long must I suffer anguish in my soul, / grief in my heart day after day? / How long will my enemy lord it over me?” Again and again, through the Psalms, you have this kind of existential language, conveying a sense of inwardness in one’s pleading to God that deepens what might otherwise been simply an expression of bitterness over ill fortune or the actions of one’s opponents. We all know that what’s worst about defeat isn’t the loss, but the feeling of failure and helplessness which so often accompanies it. Thousands of years ago in Palestine, someone knew that as well.

Psalm 23:5-6–“You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies; / you have richly anointed my head with oil, / and my cups brims over. / Goodness and love unfailing will follow me / all the days of my life, / and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord / throughout all the years to come.” Without doubt, the most beautiful and treasured of all the Psalms, an endlessly beautiful evocation of faith and gratitude. There’s no need to say anything more about it, not when we can listen to so many inspired translations and adaptations of it. Here’s a great one.

Psalm 34:18-19–“The Lord is close to those whose courage is broken; / he saves those whose spirit is crushed. / Through the misfortune of the one who is righteous be many, / the Lord delivers him out of them all.” Through the Old Testament so far, I’ve encountered a great range of human emotions–but it was with the Psalms, such as in this one, that I read for the first time real expressions of metaphysical and moral hope: for succor, for relief, and for salvation. The heart of a people capable of conceiving of a godly sacrifice on behalf of personal redemption rather than military victory finds its roots here.

Psalm 38:4–“For my iniquities tower above my head; / they are a heavier load than I can bear.” Many of the Psalms have a tortured textual history, and as a result their translations are open to significant reconstructions. In the REB, this is a powerful psalm which communicates a recognition of our sinfulness, and our need for God’s aid to endure our own weaknesses. But for Alter, it is ultimately about the psalmist struggling with illness, and pleading for healing. I prefer the first reading, but perhaps the two aren’t incompatible.

Psalm 51:10-13–“God, create a pure heart for me, / and give me a new and steadfast spirit. / Do not drive me from your presence / or take your holy spirit from me. / Restore me to the joy of your deliverance / and grant me a willing spirit to uphold me. / I shall teach transgressors your ways, / and sinners will return to you.” Again, here the attempt to get right with God goes beyond temple sacrifice, and God’s presence is more than just one’s proximity to the altar. It is the plea of an ancient believer, wanting to be enlisted in a purifying work that may begin with ritual, but extends far beyond it.

Psalm 69:30-33–“I shall praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving; / that will please the Lord more than the offering of a bull / a young bull with horns and cloven hooves. / When the humble see this let them rejoice. / Take heart, you seekers after God, / for the Lord listens to the poor / and does not despise his captive people.” The Mosaic law provided ways that even the poorest Jews could ritually affirm their place in God’s covenant; here, we read evidence that throughout this ancient population, there were those who realized that the experience of God’s love and promises is more a matter of seeking Him than fulfilling every jot and tittle of his law–a realization that perhaps the Babylonian captivity was essential to the learning of.

Psalm 90:13-15–“Lord, how long? / Turn and show compassion to your servants. / Satisfy us at daybreak with your love, / that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. / Grant us days of gladness for the days you have humbled us, / for the years we have known misfortune.” As another birthday (my 47th) arrives in just a couple of days, this plea, expressed in the context of a recognition of one’s mortality (“Seventy years is the span of our life, eighty if our strength holds; / at their best they are but toil and sorrow, / for they pass quickly and we vanish”–v. 10), is particularly poignant.

Psalm 99:4-5–“The King in his might loves justice. / You have established equity; / you have dealt justly and righteously in Jacob. / Exalt the Lord our God / and bow down at his footstool. / Holy is he.” A short, succinct expression of wonder, faith, and humility in a God who, in His wisdom and omnipotence, will see, in ways that we cannot, that all will be exactly as it should be. This sentiment is, I think, of a piece with Psalm 19:9, the one Lincoln quoted, using the King James Version: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Psalm 137:4–“How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? / If I forget you, Jerusalem, / may my right hand wither away; / let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth / if I do not remember you, / if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy.” A psalm that is both plaintive and harsh, evocative of the general feeling homeless and vicious in its view of those who would deprive another of their home, as well as of those who dare to adapt to the new reality. A frightening as well as aching reminder of the desperate power tied to one’s particular place.

Psalm 139: 7-12, 23-24–“Where can I escape from your spirit, where flee from your presence? / If I climb up to heaven, you are there; / if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. / If I travel to limits of the east, / or dwell at the bounds of the western sea, / even there your hand will be guiding me, / your right hand holding me fast. / If I say ‘Surely darkness will steal over me, / and the day around me turn to night,’ / darkness is not too dark for you and night is as light as day; / to you both dark and light are one….Examine me, God, and know my mind; / test me, and understand my anxious thoughts. / Watch lest I follow any path that grieves you; / lead me in the everlasting way.” My favorite psalm, because of its deep introspection, and its grasp of the idea that God is more than Israel’s YHWH, but is rather universal, before us and behind us, always already and also always waiting. We cannot find the path that is our own…but He can, and will if we let Him. And that, I think, is the kind of hope that saves.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Russell. As Mormons we all too often neglect the power of the psalms, and I’m glad that you caught their spirit, which lies in the breadth of human experience with the divine to which they give voice.

  2. Hey Russell, What is the painting you used? Artist? Thanks.

  3. Thank you for this work and post. That last psalm you post, “If I say ‘Surely darkness will steal over me, / and the day around me turn to night,’ / darkness is not too dark for you and night is as light as day; / to you both dark and light are one….” gives words to a concept I’ve been working through, but had not quite found the right words for.

  4. M. Miles,

    It’s a painting called “The Choristers,” by J.J. Tissot, depicting psalms being sung in the temple in Solomon’s day.

  5. So, where are we and Alter off to next?
    Thanks for this and previous. I also love Tissot’s work.