Friday, April 24, 2009

Psalms 21-30: Psalt3r

Ten more Psalms! Why, I have been asked, am I going through them ten at a time? Well, one of the project ground rules is that I have to write a post at least every ten chapters. There have been a lot of books where I averaged four or five chapters per post, but the Psalms, by their nature as songs of praise, lack much in the way of a narrative flow. And yet, for reasons I'll explain below, they are not an easy read for me.

Themes Revisited

Glimmers of Afterlife

As we've seen in the two previous sets, there are more Psalms in this group that seem to flirt with the idea of an afterlife. Psalm 21:4 & 6, for instance, would be a perfectly appropriate reading for a Christian funeral:

4 He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—
length of days, for ever and ever.
6 Surely you have granted him eternal blessings
and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
It sounds like an affirmation of the idea of Heaven, right? Except, the first seven verses of Psalm 21 are autobiographical, King David explicitly talking about himself in the first person. He is grateful that God has, at the time of this writing, granted him a long life and many blessings, and he speaks about them with the same giddy hyperbole that informs so much of Psalms.

A few verses later, he reveals what will happen to the "enemies" of God:

9 At the time of your appearing
you will make them like a fiery furnace.
In his wrath the LORD will swallow them up,
and his fire will consume them.
It sounds like hell, right? But it isn't. David (or his ghostwriters, if you're a skeptic on this point) is talking about fiery death for God's foes in this world. The next verse makes it clear:

10 You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
their posterity from mankind.
Also, just as you are starting to wonder whether the Psalms might imply eternal life after all, you occasionally bump into passages that reaffirm the concept I've called "total death." In Psalm 30, David cries out for God's help in a crisis and offers an argument why he should be spared to live another day:

9 "What gain is there in my destruction,
in my going down into the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
Death, here, is firmly conceptualized as the end of the line. David does not expect to go to a close communion with God after death. He thinks the relationship will be ended, because he himself will no longer exist.

Speaking of Phrases that Resonate in Christianity

How does the opening of Psalm 22 strike you: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Now, Psalm 22 in its entirety is another one that begins with a lamentation of the distance or absence of God. There's a lot of lamentation -- 18 verses worth -- before the text modulates back into an affirmation of faith. Along the way, the chapter bristles with phrases that resonate in interesting ways with the imagery of Christianity. In addition to the famous question that would be later asked by Christ during his execution, there are lines like you brought me out of the womb (9) and even a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. (16) But remember: we're talking about David here. The birth of Christ is still centuries in the future.

Two great details from Psalm 22, by the way. One is just a passage conveying sorrow in an especially lovely way:

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.
The other is a direction to the music director. Psalm 22, it says, is to be sung to the tune of "The Doe of the Morning." Awesome.

Psalms, Psalms, Psalms!

And so they go. Psalm 23 is a very famous one, the one that starts The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want (actually, in this translation, I shall not be in want). It celebrates God as the provider of first bounty, then peace, than moral law, than might, before concluding:

6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
Once again, the Christian ear is tuned to hear a promise of eternal life here, whereas the two halves of the sentence were very likely originally intended to mean the exact same thing.

Psalm 29 is a celebration of the might and power of God, and includes the quirky phrase He makes Lebanon skip like a calf. (6) Psalm 26 is a celebration, by David, of his own allegedly morally upright life: Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have led a blameless life.... (1) (As we saw earlier, the Biblical record of David's life shows it to be chockablock with blame. But I guess if you are the king, you can talk about your blameless life and everyone has to keep a straight face.)

For a lot of the Psalms, though, it is hard to say succinctly what they are "about." Many of them have no particular central focus. The Psalms are not intended to inform, after all, but to celebrate, and so it's not surprising that they consist in large part of loosely connected statements in praise of God. There may well be a deep logic that governs the flow of one statement to the next, but for a first-time reader at this remove of culture, time, and translation, they might as well be random. I suspect that if several Psalms were taken apart verse by verse, shuffled, and reassembled, and put next to the originals, it would take some time to tell which were the real ones.

As an experiment, I picked a Psalm (#25) and made a kind of conceptual map of it, looking at the sentence-level meaning of each line. It is a goofy thing, but working it out made me a little more comfortable in thinking that, for all of their resonance, there is a certain arbitrary feel to the Psalms that makes them a bit hard to penetrate.

1 Affirmation of devotion to God
2 Affirmation of trust in God
Request of favor from God
3 Prediction of reward for believers
Prediction of punishment for the evil
4 Request to God for guidance
5 Request to God for guidance
Affirmation of devotion to God
Affirmation of trust in God
6 Request for God to recall and continue his past kindnesses
7 Request for God to disregard personal sins
Request for God’s favor
Affirmation of God’s goodness
8 Assertion of God’s goodness
Conclusion that God’s goodness is instructional to sinners
9 Assertion that God is a teacher
10 Assertion: God cares for those who obey his laws
11 Request for God to disregard personal sins
12 Rhetorical question
Assertion that God is a teacher to his followers
13 Assertion that God’s followers and their will be prosperous
14 Assertion that God communicates with his followers
15 Affirmation of devotion to God
Acknowledgement of God’s unique power
16 Request for God’s favor
Complaint of personal unhappiness
17 Complaint of personal unhappiness
Request for God’s help
18 Request for God’s help
19 Complaint of numerous, aggressive enemies
20 Request for God’s protection
Request for God’s protection
Affirmation of trust in God
21 Wish that God behavior will be beneficial
Affirmation of trust in God
22 Request of God’s favor for all of Israel
Sometimes I wonder if the Psalms are too rich to read ten at time, and ought to be savored one by one. Sometimes, I admit, I wonder if they are just a collection of sanctimonious old sound bites, made to seem significant only through their use and repetition. They are, so far, difficult going. And there are 13 more sets! Heavens.

NEXT: Ten more Psalms!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Psalms 11-20: "Psalms II: Davidic Bugaloo"

Overall, Psalms 11-20 are not radically different from Psalms 1-10. Instead of looking at overall themes this time around, I'll break 'em down for a closer look.

Psalms 11-12

These two really drive home a world view in which there are two kinds of people: good people that God likes, and bad people that he doesn't. In 15 verses, there are four references to "the wicked" against two to "the righteous" and one apiece to "the upright in heart," "upright men," and "the faithful." We learn some of the characteristics of the bad folks: they "love violence," lie to their neighbors, flatter, speak with decision, boast, oppress the weak, honor what is vile, and make the needy groan. God is against these things, but rather loves justice.

These kind of Psalms trouble me for two reasons. One is that they don't jibe with my (admittedly limited) experience of human nature. In my daily rounds, I seem to see a lot of goodish people and a few baddish people and, as far as I can tell, plenty of in-between people. More importantly, the message of these prayers can be condensed to "it's a mean old world, but God is a just sheriff." The obvious question -- I'm hardly the first to pose it -- is: If God's role is to be the sheriff, than why is it still a mean old world?

Psalm 13

Six verses long, #13 has three complementary section. The first two verses cry out at the perceived absence of God: How long will you hide your face from me? (1) The second two verses make the claim that, if God persists in absence, the speaker will die. The final two verses are a happy ending to this short crisis of faith, and consist of a profession of belief, celebration, and praise.

Psalm 14

Seven verses long, #14 begins by ripping into people for falling into corruption and not believing in God. ...there is no one who does good, the text complains, not even one. (3) From this emotional low point, the song builds back up to a triumphal pitch about how the poor and the righteous will triumph over the wicked and the "evildoers." It is a good poetic structure -- the negative state of things is laid out, and then the impending triumph of good explained -- but the sudden reappearance of righteous people is a little confusing, since we were just told that there wasn't even one.

Psalm 15

Psalm 15 is a list of good behaviors: speaking truth, doing what is righteous, avoiding slander, keeping oaths, eschewing bribes, and refusing to charge interest on a loan. People who do all of these things will, we are told, be rewarded. And here, again, we can see right away why the rhetoric of these pre-Christian writings can be so persuasive to Christians. The Psalm begins:

Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
I would wager that nine out of ten Christians asked in the street what these questions meant would reply that of course they refer to Heaven. Good people go to Heaven. But from what we've seen previously, that's very unlikely. If #15 is, as it is labelled, "a Psalm of David," the most logical interpretation is that it is defining appropriate behavior for people who live on the literal holy hill: Jerusalem.

Psalm 16

Here again, David uses language that seems puzzlingly Christian if you, like my, come at it with a Christian background. will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
This passage really does seem to flirt with a promise of a blissful afterlife. But as a sort of thought experiment, I tried to read it as if I didn't already "know" about Heaven. And, when looked at this way, the passage remains coherent. In fact, it is consistent to the language all over the Psalms describing God as a protector against earthly enemies. God will not, in this reading, let David die or decay at present, before his time. David expects to be filled with joy in God's presence in this life, with eternal pleasures -- ie., pleasures until he dies -- at God's right hand.

To look at the passage in this way requires a certain leap of imagination for me. Yet it is the only way of reading it that does not contradict David's blunt denial of the possibility of life after death only a few chapters earlier.

Psalm 17

Another two part Psalm, labelled "A prayer of David." In the first five verses, David vigorously asserts his own righteousness and adherence to God's will. In the final ten, he then calls out to God for protection from his enemies. Verses 8 through 13 form a splendid rhetorical crescendo, with each verse ratcheting up the level of crisis and conflict:

8 Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings
9 from the wicked who assail me,
from my mortal enemies who surround me.
10 They close up their callous hearts,
and their mouths speak with arrogance.
11 They have tracked me down, they now surround me,
with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion hungry for prey,
like a great lion crouching in cover.
13 Rise up, O LORD, confront them, bring them down;
rescue me from the wicked by your sword.
Psalm 18

An extremely long chapter at 50 verses, the bulk of this Psalm is devoted to praise OF God (He trains my hands for battle (34)) and praise TO God (You give me your shield of battle (35)), intermixed together and put forth with a wide variety of military, natural, and legal imagery.

Near the beginning of the chapter is a narrative passage that is a kind of short story of God's personal intervention in David's affairs. Read literally, it recounts a vague but powerfully-rendered physical manifestation of God to get David out of a jam.

4 The cords of death entangled me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
5 The cords of the grave [b] coiled around me;
the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called to the LORD;
I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
my cry came before him, into his ears.
7 The earth trembled and quaked,
and the foundations of the mountains shook;
they trembled because he was angry.
8 Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth,
burning coals blazed out of it.
9 He parted the heavens and came down;
dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The LORD thundered from heaven;
the voice of the Most High resounded. [c]
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies ,
great bolts of lightning and routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, O LORD,
at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
but the LORD was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me.
These verses seem completely contrary to the common modern notion that God is everywhere and nowhere; certainly, it is surprising to see God depicted as literally riding a cherub into battle. The language reminds me of the great Rennaisance religious paintings, where God is portrayed as a massive man, huge, muscular, and radiant but unmistakably human in form.

Psalm 19

If the Trancendentalists had a favorite passage in Psalms, it might well be the first six verses of #19. The heavens declare the glory of God; it begins, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (1) It continues in this vein, advancing the general idea that you can tell that God is great just by looking at how terrific the natural world is. The second half of the chapter changes course, and speaks to the greatness of God's law (The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. (9)).

Psalm 20

The twentieth Psalm reads as a sort of greeting card, a well-wishing from one person to another. May the LORD answer you when you are in distress, it begins, and continues on to predict future victory and celebration for the person addressed.

Are We Going to Go Through Every Single Psalm Like This?


Next Time: Ten More Psalms!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Psalms 1-10: Setting Sail on the Sea of Psalms

The Psalms are, as far as I can tell, the hymnbook of Second Temple Judaism. That's probably a brutal oversimplification, but I gather that they are a set of lyrics that developed over several centuries between, say, 800 and 200 BC. At least some of them, maybe all of them, are ascribed to King David. They are written in poetic form, although in English translation -- or at least in THIS translation -- they have no apparent rhyme or meter. (There may have been some attempt at alliteration, but I can't tell for sure.)

Another thing about the Psalms: there are 150 of them. That's a lot! Psalms is easily the longest book in the Bible, whupping Isaiah in number of chapters (150 vs. 66) and Genesis in number of verses (2461 v. 1533). That means I'll be living with Psalms for at least the next ten posts. I've got plenty to talk about today; hopefully the next nine posts won't just say "more of the same."

God as Shield

One theme that jumps out from these first ten Psalms is their conception of God as a protector and ally in conflict. "Enemies" or "foes" are mentioned or at least implied in almost all of them. Indeed, a quick survey could make David sound a little paranoid:

O LORD, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!

Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness
because of my enemies....

My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

O LORD, see how my enemies persecute me! (9,13)
Well, David had a lot of enemies. In addition to the usual allotment due him as a head of state, he would have to add wronged husbands, victims of his career as a bandit warlord, and almost anybody involved in the debacle of Absalom's rebellion. Yet David is nothing if not pious, and he trusts in God's protection against his many opponents. Indeed, many lines from his Psalms seem to be a kind of calling in of a metaphysical air strike:

Deliver me, O my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.

Arise, O LORD, in your anger;
rise up against the rage of my enemies.

Break the arm of the wicked and evil man;
call him to account for his wickedness....
Elsewhere, he confidently states the way of things:

My shield is God Most High,
who saves the upright in heart.

My enemies turn back;
they stumble and perish before you.
For you have upheld my right and my cause;
you have sat on your throne, judging righteously.
You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked;
you have blotted out their name for ever and ever.
Endless ruin has overtaken the enemy,
you have uprooted their cities;
even the memory of them has perished.
Clearly, the Psalms are about a God who takes an active hand in the earthly struggles of his chosen people.

Suffering and Divine Judgment

To place these ten Psalms against the blur of ideas that was argued over in the Book of Job, they assume that God is rewarding obedience and punishing evil here, in this world. David alternatively celebrates that this is so (You destroy all those who tell lies (5,6); God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day. (7,11)) and acts as God's cheering section in the rewarding and especially the punishing process (Declare them guilty, O God! Let their intrigues be their downfall. Banish them for their many sins, for they have rebelled against you. (5,10)).

Interestingly, David does not ever seem to stop and wonder if his own sufferings might be punishment for his own misbehavior. When he destroys his enemies, it is because they are being punished for their wickedness. When his enemies afflict him, though, it is because they are wicked. It is an immaculate theory of how the world works, in that it covers all possible exigencies. The only problem is its utterly inconsistent and arbitrary nature.

One thing is for sure, though -- David doesn't expect to be rewarded for virtue after his death in this world:

Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
No one remembers you when he is dead.
Who praises you from the grave?
The lack of any concept of an afterlife has been a conspicuous absence in the first third of the Bible, but here we have an explicit statement denying the possibility of life after death. “You need to help me now,” David tells God, “in order to maximize my grateful worship while I’m still alive and able to worship you.” Death terminates the relationship with God, which can only mean that it is what you might call “real death” or “total death” – no afterlife allowed.

Psalms for Christians

The Book of Psalms, along with the Book of Proverbs, is probably the most popular part of the Old Testament for Christians. Indeed, there are many cheap Bibles that are really just the New Testament plus those two books. Psalms are all over the place, read at almost any service, wedding, or funeral that you might show up for in the, uh, Christian community. This raises an interesting question: Why are Christians so gung-ho for a Jewish hymnal that predates all of the central events of their religion?

Well, part of the answer is probably just the comfort afforded by talking in first person to a God who is going to protect you and smite your oppressors. I mean, come on: are a shield around me, O LORD;
you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
To the LORD I cry aloud,
and he answers me from his holy hill.
I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
I will not fear the tens of thousands
drawn up against me on every side.
When you read that out loud, you don't think of it as a prayer attributed to David, king of the ancient Hebrews. You think of it as a personal affirmation and, whether you strictly believe it or not, it is still a soothing sort of thing to profess.

There is also some more specific language in these Psalms, though, that might carry special resonance for Christians. Check out this passage:

[The Lord] rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
"I have installed my King
on Zion, my holy hill."
I will proclaim the decree of the LORD:
He said to me, "You are my Son;
today I have become your Father."
In Christianity, the language of Father and Son is intimately tied to the relationship between God and Christ, so this passage lends itself very easily to being misinterpreted, or at least interpreted out of context. David is referring himself literally as the King of Zion and figuratively as a person enjoying a close relationship with God. A Christian listener, steeped in the rhetoric of the New Testament, would have a hard time reading this passage without thinking of Christ declaring himself the figurative King of Zion and the literal son of God.

A third and more subtle way that the Psalms appeal to Christianity involves the logical problem with David's theory of divine judgment. To help me make this point, let's look Psalm 1 in its entirety.

1 Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.
4 Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Now, since there's no evidence that David believes in life after death, he means all of this to apply quite literally to this world. Good people will prosper in this life; the wicked will be punished in this life. The problem with this way of thinking, though, is that it is radically repudiated by reality. No one with a glancing knowledge of history or current events could believe it in anything other than a highly abstracted sort of way.

Add a belief in the afterlife, though – stipulate, as Christians do, a heaven and a hell – and the passage becomes entirely plausible. Everything that David asserts becomes possible when the rewards and the punishments happen offstage, someplace where we can't see them. It becomes irrelevant that war criminals die in old age, wealthy and comfortable, or that children are killed by diphtheria and malnutrition; their punishments and rewards will come afterwards, in the great hereafter. To read Psalms this way is a taking out of context, a radically alternative reading inconsistent with the original meaning of the text. But it is rereading that is both resonant and consistent within the context of Christian belief.

Detail of the Week

From the footnotes: "Psalms 9 and 10 may have been originally a single acrostic poem, the stanzas of which begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet." How cool is that?