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!


Serendipity said...

So, based on your line-by-line analysis, it looks, essentially, like a rhetorically savvy request from a lobbyist: first, you seriously butter up the one you're going to be hitting up ("Have I told you how awesome you are lately?"), and then, after sucking up for awhile, you casually mention, "Me? Oh, I'm fine. Well, not really fine. I've got this little problem with an invading army, actually. You know, you're so awesome, you could probably even do something about it if you wanted to. . . "

I had always thought of the complaining psalms as being more begging right from the start, but this one is obviously different.

Nichim said...

Okay, just a couple more quotes from the Jewish English translations of the Psalms in question. It's like a war of re-interpretation. You'll see

Psalms 22:16 "My strength has baked like clay and my tongue is glued to my pallet and You shall place me near the tombstone."

Psalms 23:6 "May only good and kindness pursue me, throughout my lifetime and may I merit sitting in the Torah study halls forever."

Nichim said...

You'll see...reference to the bit in verse 19 about casting lots for clothing later on in the New Testament (this was in order to fulfill the Scripture, it says, I guess arguing that this Psalm was about the Jewish messiah and that Jesus was him). Undoubtedly Jesus knew this text, at any rate.