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!


Serendipity said...

We're not?

Aww, bummer!

(You've got me pretty persuaded about the subtle fallacy of reading pre-Christian psalms as a Christian. I know there's a traditional response to it, but it does seem like a largely-overlooked problem.)

Nichim said...

Again I am reminded that the Bible as we generally have it, Old Testament too, was translated by Christians. Fortunately the Jews are still way into Psalms, so I was able to get a handy free Tehillim (Psalms for Jews) in the mail from It's an interesting counterpoint. Psalm 16 still seems to make reference to some kind of afterlife, but not, certainly, to Christ: "For I believed that He will not abandon my soul to the grave. You will not allow those who seek your lovingkindness to experience death. Teach me the way of life, and swear my soul happiness with an illumination of Your countenance; for the pleasantness derived from Your assistance is everlasting." (Psalms 16:10-11) "Those who seek your lovingkindness" is a far cry from "Your Holy One."