Let’s talk about the remarkable Psalms #BCCSundaySchool2018

The 104th Psalm is an arresting remix of Genesis 1, making it one of the earliest examples of hip-hop on record.1 As the King James Version has it:

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain…

Here we see God appearing with the grandeur of a king, donning his royal robe in preparation for his work of creation—”don” is the term Robert Alter uses in his translation:

LORD, my God, You are very great.
Grandeur and glory you don.
Wrapped in light like a cloak,
stretching out heavens like a tent-cloth.2

This psalm heavily samples from the creation account where God said “Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good…And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night…” (Genesis 1:3–4, 14).

Without Alter’s help, I would’ve missed the remarkable imagery here. Rather than God merely commanding light into being, the psalmist has him wrapping it around himself as royal regalia. Then it’s as if the cloak of light flows down God’s body and stretches out, over, and above in a glorious canvas of radiant stars.

That is beautiful.

I’ve been reading up on the psalms in preparation for the upcoming Gospel Doctrine lesson 25. I regret not having paid much attention to them before because they include some of the most humanly relatable moments in all of scripture. N. T. Wright describes them as “full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul…should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two.”3

It’s true. These ancient psalms include and canonize a huge array of human emotion, thereby sanctifying our joy and grief, our anger and doubt, as well as our hope and faith. As a famous anthropologist of religion has noted, there isn’t a singular religious emotion. Laughter, bitterness, sorrow, joy, exhilaration—all of these and more take on a holy register in the psalms.4 And not a boring sort of metal-chair-holiness, but a real, earthy, pungent and stirring holiness that simultaneously humbles you and makes you feel like you can fly.

The psalms range from the exhilarating and beautiful to the downright disturbing—sometimes both extremes appearing within the same psalm, as in the 137th. I’m interested to know how many of us have spent much time with them. What is your favorite psalm? And why? Did you find it at a time of need? Does it return to your mind like a revelation?

Tell me about your favorite psalm.

 

NOTES

1. Pun unintended, but appreciated after the fact.

2. Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: Norton, 2007), 362. My exegesis here borrows directly from Alter’s introduction, p. xxviii.

3. N. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 2.

4. Robert A. Orsi reminded me of Clifford Geertz’s observations and offered this list of emotions in my recent interview with him on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, “#80—Robert Orsi on History and Presence,” June 13, 2018, transcript and recording available here.

Comments

  1. BHodges says:

    This isn’t a full-blown lesson outline etc. as in other BCCSundaySchool2018 posts, and I hope to do one for lesson 25 when I’ve written it. I also hope other BCC bloggers will try their hand at the lesson, as well. In my ward I’m thinking about spending multiple weeks on the psalms because there’s so much to do with them. I wish we spent more time with these in Sunday school throughout the church.

  2. Kristine says:

    I spent an entire summer on Psalms once. It was glorious.

  3. David Larsen says:

    For those who really love the Psalms in general, choosing your favorite out of 150 is really, really tough. I would be leaving out many that I am passionate about, but if I were to narrow it down to four that I most enjoy reading and working with, I would say:
    Psalm 18 — epic, epic story of God rescuing a soul from hell (or death/despair) after hearing his prayer from His temple — he comes down with fire, thunder, lightning, hailstones, to save his servant — then gives him strength to overcome all his enemies — I think this psalm is much more influential than most people imagine
    Psalm 24 — I love this one mostly because of its association with temple worship — those seeking to worship in the temple need to demonstrate worthiness, but ultimately enter in on the merits of the name of “the King of glory”
    Psalm 89 — combination of so many great themes and elements — Jehovah is praised in the divine council — the exaltation and fall of King David — temple and ascension themes — another psalm that was more influential than people realize
    Psalm 118 — another psalm about procession into the temple, like Psalm 24, but a mixture of more diverse themes — influential for NT concepts about Christ — the Lord helps chosen one overcome all enemies, including death — he enters temple courts through multiple gates — “the stone which the builders refused has become the head stone of the corner” — “blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord”

  4. I got to know the Psalms during the six or seven years I spent singing in the choir at the UCC/nondenominational church where my husband was the organist and choir director. There are many great hymns and anthems based on Psalms, and my favorites tend to be the ones I’ve sung.

    My favorite at this particular moment is Psalm 85, where it says “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” It comes after asking God if he’ll be angry forever. God is presumably angry for good reason, and when he shows mercy, it’s not because the reasons for anger are necessarily all gone. Truth and mercy don’t always go together. Peace and righteous anger don’t always sit well together, but they’re placed intimately together in this Psalm, and reading it makes me contemplate on how to hold the anger and dismay I feel toward my country right now along with the wish to be a peacemaker.

  5. Blair, do you think D&C 85:7, describing the “one mighty and strong” as having “light for a covering” could be a reference to this image of God wearing the light of creation as his garment?

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    My fave is Psalm 24. It starts with creation imagery, then talks about the holy place (presumably the temple), then goes into an antiphonal chorus: the Lord, represented by the ark of the covenant, approaches; the personified doors and gates ask who seeks admission, and it is the King of Glory, the Lord himself, who enters:

    24 The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof;
    the world, and they that dwell therein.
    2 For he hath founded it upon the seas,
    and established it upon the floods.

    3 Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD?
    or who shall stand in his holy place?
    4 He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart;
    who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity,
    nor sworn deceitfully.
    5 He shall receive the blessing from the LORD,
    and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
    6 This is the generation of them that seek him,
    that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.

    7 Lift up your heads, O ye gates;
    and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors;
    and the King of glory shall come in.
    8 Who is this King of glory?
    The LORD strong and mighty,
    the LORD mighty in battle.
    9 Lift up your heads, O ye gates;
    even lift them up, ye everlasting doors;
    and the King of glory shall come in.
    10 Who is this King of glory?
    The LORD of hosts,
    he is the King of glory. Selah.

  7. BHodges says:

    JKC: no clue, really. I think language from some scriptures can appear in other scriptures for a variety of reasons, and not always as deliberate reference to the other scripture.

  8. Sure, and here it’s not even really the same KJV language, just a similar image. It’s just that it’s a pretty striking image, for all the reasons you explain.

  9. Bro. B. says:

    Kevin Barney. I’m with you on Psalm 24. And George Handel is too. David has to go down as one of the best all time song writers. Wish they’d had audio recording back then so we could hear him sing them.

  10. Richelle says:

    Psalm 23. I think part of the reason I love this passage is that I memorized it as a kid and it helped me feel connected to my parents’ religious roots (Mom Lutheran, Dad Catholic). Also, I have sung choral arrangements of at least selected parts of the text, and that always makes something a bit more sacred to me.

    In both of those examples, part of what makes it special is the memorization and recitation with a larger group, which is something I’ve always envied in high church liturgical worship services as compared to Mormon ones.

  11. There are so many Psalms worth reading. One thing I like about them is the range of human motion that is expressed — meaning it must be OK to admit to God (and ourselves) when we’re not happy. One that comes to mind is Psalm 22, the opening line of which Jesus said in his final moments. Such vivid imagery: “My strength is trickling away, / my bones are all disjointed, / my heart has turned to wax, / melting inside me. / My mouth is dry as earthenware, / my tongue sticks to my jaw, / You [my God] lay me down in the dust of death.” (vv. 14-15, NJB) Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? And it’s OK that we do.

  12. Joseph Stanford says:

    The Psalms have been my favorite scripture reading for years. So much real human experience with a thirst for God, found and absent. Trying to cover them in one SS lesson is like trying to sing through the hymn book in one church meeting.

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