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?


The Calico Cat said...

great post...

Michael5000 said...

@Calico: Thanks dude. I was kind of proud of this one.

Nichim said...

The Jews, predictably enough, don't capitalize the word son in their English translation of Psalms 2:7.

It's interesting to see that the capital letter manages to appear even in the sidebar translation accompanying the interlinear version here:

I'm so confused by the time-traveling aspect of the Bible, or prophecy, or retroactive prophecy, or whatever it is. And the parent-child relationship theme is a whole other thing.

Elaine said...

Why are we so gung-ho for Psalms? Um, because they are beautiful, expressive, and apt? And, after all, one speaks of Judeo-Christian concepts, ethics, etc. We are not so very far apart, given that the latter branched from the former. (Keep in mind: at one point, Paul argued that a Christian must first convert to Judaism--and be circumcised. This badly cut into the appeal of becoming a follower of Jesus.)
When you get to #139, read "The Runaway Bunny."

Marie said...

Just wanted you to know I am following along with your project and enjoying it more than I thought I would. However, I am going at my own pace because I just started my own read-the-bible project in January. I am starting Joshua this week and following each bible reading session with a look at your thoughts to compare notes. It has been so refreshing to see other peoples ideas online. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

Michael5000 said...

@Nichim: Oh, well done, Nichim! I didn't even NOTICE the capilization. So interesting!

@Elaine: Yes -- Christians tend to find Psalms beautiful, expressive, and apt. I continue to find the question of WHY Christians find them beautiful, expressive, and apt a very interesting one, given that they are written from the worldview of the religion from which Christianity departed, not from the worldview of Christianity themselves. It is perhaps worth noting that Muslims, practicing the third of the happy Abrahamic family of religions, accept but do not seem particularly concerned with the Psalms, and I have never heard that they have been adapted in any great way in the non-Abrahamic religions. So, the aptness and beauty of them isn't inherent and univeral, but seemingly just in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

@Marie: I am flattered and delighted to have you reading. One of my great surprises after starting this project is that there DON'T seem to be many other people reading and blogging the Bible in any systematic sort of way. If you know of any people who are more or less on the same road I am, I'd be delighted to hear about it.

DrSchnell said...

Some of the ancient Jewish leaders were all about fun things like acrostics and numerology - that stuff shows up a lot in Jewish writing, which makes it inherently intriguing for a former Games Magazine subscriber.