Thursday, May 28, 2009

No Fear: Psalm 41

For Post #100, something a little different. Yesterday in the Life & Times, I made fun of the No Fear: Shakespeare books, a "study aid" that badly paraphrases the more popular Shakespeare plays into colloquial English. So today, I thought I would try this out on the next Psalm to happen along. Which happens to be Psalm 41:

1 Blessed is he who has regard for the weak;
the LORD delivers him in times of trouble.
2 The LORD will protect him and preserve his life;
he will bless him in the land
and not surrender him to the desire of his foes.

3 The LORD will sustain him on his sickbed
and restore him from his bed of illness.

4 I said, "O LORD, have mercy on me;
heal me, for I have sinned against you."

5 My enemies say of me in malice,
"When will he die and his name perish?"

6 Whenever one comes to see me,
he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander;
then he goes out and spreads it abroad.

7 All my enemies whisper together against me;
they imagine the worst for me, saying,

8 "A vile disease has beset him;
he will never get up from the place where he lies."

9 Even my close friend, whom I trusted,
he who shared my bread,
has lifted up his heel against me.

10 But you, O LORD, have mercy on me;
raise me up, that I may repay them.

11 I know that you are pleased with me,
for my enemy does not triumph over me.

12 In my integrity you uphold me
and set me in your presence forever.

13 Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.

Here's my version:

People who are nice to the unfortunate will always have good fortune themselves. God will take care of them when they have problems, and will look after them and make sure they don't get killed. He will make sure they don't get hurt by either natural forces or their human enemies. If they get sick, God will make sure they pull through.

"God, have mercy on me," I said. "I am sick, and even though I realize that I've sinned, I still ask you to make me well again." My enemies think it's great that I'm sick, and they hope I'll die. They come and see me, but only so they can go out and tell their friends how bad I look. They have fun imagining how bad off I am. Since I've been sick, even my best friend has been trying to turn the situation to his own advantage.

But you, God, are merciful with me. I hope you will make me strong again so I can take revenge. I know you must be happy with me, or I wouldn't have lasted as long as I already have. Because I'm faithful, you take care of me and are always looking after me. Praise the Lord!

Assessment: This was a moderately interesting exercise to complete, but probably not a very interesting one to read about.

Next: Psalm 42 Illustrated

Monday, May 25, 2009

Psalms 32-40: The Beat Goes On

Oh, how I weary of the Psalms!
Their vagueness and their repetition, they lead me unto sleep.
Each verse alone rings out with the sound of wisdom,
Yet the verses in their masses neither inspire nor inform.

In my torpor I cried out, saying
"I know that song lyrics are not made to be read as other texts!"
And yet, this is the way the Psalms have been passed down to me.
This is the Bible, here for me to read.

So give me strength, to endure the same metaphors endlessly,
The endless petitions of David, blatantly self-serving,
Vindictive toward all who do not think at he does,
Disingenuous in all questions of good and evil.

I cry out in fear that all my posts are now the same!
Yet how can it not be so, when the Psalms are all the same?
OK, that was silly and not especially well done, but reading the Psalms really is starting to get to be a little like driving across the desert. There are landmarks here and there, and any given view has a sort of austere beauty to it, but the essentially unchanging scenery quickly becomes mind-numbing.

Now, I chose that comparison carefully, knowing that some people love the desert and love driving across the desert, and couldn't imagine anything more beautiful than a desert landscape. And good for them! And for anyone who finds the Psalms endlessly beautiful and inspirational, good for them too. But we clearly have different tastes.

Psalm 34

In today's slate of Psalms, the 34th was the one that caught my eye the most. I was struck, as I often am when I encounter it, with the notion of fearing God:

8 Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him
9 Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.
This is the kind of exhortation that is everywhere in the Psalms, but as you focus on it you realize that it makes a uniquely complex demand on the emotions of the worshipper. Generally, you take refuge FROM the things you fear, not IN the things you fear. Here and elsewhere, we are told to trust in God, to regard him as an earthly salvation, but also to live in fear of him. My first impulse is to disregard this as an emotional impossibility, but that would be naive of me. It is actually a common complex of emotions that one might feel for a boss or a commander, and which most people feel to some extent for their parents.

I have oserved from time to time in this blog that the capital-B Bible is not really a small-b bible. If you were to buy a book called, I don't know, "The Gardener's Bible," you would expect a how to book that would present all the information you need in order to be a good gardener in a coherent, instructive fashion. Whereas THE Bible, although flecked here and there with religious rules (some considered important, some obsolete) and with potentially instructive stories, can't at this point really be said to lay down much of a game plan for either how to conduct a moral life or how to conduct one's relationship with God. So, I was excited in Psalm 34:11-14 to see a brief catechism taking shape:
11 Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
12 Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days,
13 keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking lies.
14 Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
So. Don't lie, reject this vaguely-defined thing called "evil," and seek peace, and you will live a long time. Really? Does David -- a fine one to recommend seeking peace, incidentally -- think we were born yesterday? It's disappointing how often the ringing wisdom of the Psalms crumbles into mere rhetoric when you attend to it. So much of the Psalms treats the banal and obvious (don't lie! avoid evil!), or the meaninglessly vague (turn from evil and do good!), and the nakedly false promises. I've resisted saying this, but I will now: the Psalms are often simply and unambiguously false. Check it out:
19 A righteous man may have many troubles,
but the LORD delivers him from them all;
20 he protects all his bones,
not one of them will be broken.
Now, it's tempting to me to accept this as absolutely true, because I've never broken a bone. But I don't think this really makes a good acid test for righteousness, do you? Do you think God makes sure that no righteous person ever breaks a bone? Do you, in fact, think that any sensible person has ever really believed such a thing? Of course not! So my question is, what's David putting it in his song for! And more to the point, why is it in the Bible! The presence of stuff like this really makes it hard to make the Bible as a whole seriously.

Psalm 35

David's exhortation to seek peace in Psalm 34 is actually relatively rare in the Psalms, at least relative to more military language. The 35th Psalm is an example of the many songs that employ military themes and metaphors. The third verse is a great encapsulation of David's martial faith; it feels like a radically mixed message to a peacenik like myself, but might resonate nicely with a religious soldier.
3 Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me.
Say to my soul, "I am your salvation."
The military Psalms typically condemns "enemies" in ways that strike me as morally childish. An obvious example of this is in verses 7 and 8:
7 Since they hid their net for me without cause
and without cause dug a pit for me,
8 may ruin overtake them by surprise --
may the net they hid entangle them,
may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.
9 Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD
and delight in his salvation.
This is not a seeking after peace, nor even a basic attempt to recognize the humanity of others and wish them well. It is more the grim world view you find when you study marine biology: the desire to kill instead of to die. And perhaps that is sometimes the choice a person or a people was faced with, back in the iron age, but it's not a worldview that requires a religion to support it, nor a core concept that you want in your system of belief if you hope to have a sustainable civilization.

Psalm 37

Love 'em or hate 'em, the Psalms seem destined to be used as soundbites. Even when read in a religious service, you seldom hear more than three or four verses run together, and of course their use (often accompanied by or superimposed onto photographs of nature scenes) as short inspirational messages. To read through the Psalms, I find, is to continually bounce off of soundbites that sometimes seem very positive, sometimes very negative.

Here in the 37th, for instance, I find myself profoundly annoyed by the shamelessly pandering false promise of verse 4:

Delight yourself in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
and the spookily vindictive image of the Almighty in verse 13:
the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.
But in between, there's a soundbite that seems like a fine piece of wisdom:
7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret -- it leads only to evil.
This is a sound council of patience, endurance, and tolerance, and looks great out of context. In context, unfortunately, its message is that you should have patience because God will soon arrive on the scene like some kind of divine Batman to vanquish evildoers and restore the meek. That obviously doesn't work, though. If it did, we wouldn't have had to invent Batman.

Psalms 38 & 39

These two chapters are interesting in that they are very negative in tone, beseeching an absent God to return and redeem the situation. They describe a speaker in depressed desolation, less rejoicing in God than desperate for God.
39:12 Hear my prayer, O LORD
listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping.
For I dwell with you as an alien, a stranger, as all my fathers were.
13 Look away from me, that I may rejoice again
before I depart and am no more.
This is a more or less recognizable state of mind for most people, and songs like these add a level of emotional wholeness to David's song cycle. It must be said, however, that the tenor of Psalms 38 & 39 is a long way from, and puts the lie to, the happy nonsense of "delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart."

Psalm 40 an old U2 song! Kind of!

1 I waited patiently for the LORD
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out fo the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD.
See ya soon.

NEXT TIME: No Fear Psalm 41

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Psalm 31: Looking Hard at Just One Psalm

I expected to continue my sprinting pace through the next ten Psalms, but it occurred to me that it might be a different experience of I instead slowed down and spent a little more time with one particular Psalm. So I did, and the Psalm I happened to be on was Psalm 31.

What I ended up noticing more at this scale of reading is the language of the text. In what follows, I am going to pick at the language a little bit, but before I do that I also want to suggest that analysing of the language of the Psalms is to a certain extent a futile exercise. It is like trying to judge the merit of Shakespeare's writing; since Shakespeare has had such a profound influence on our conceptions of what constitutes excellence in writing, and even on the evolution of the English language in general, he is to a certain extent untouchable. You can like Shakespeare or not like Shakespeare, but whether Shakespeare is any good or not is pretty much irrelevant.*

In the same sort of way, the Psalms carry a cumulative weight from their centuries of use, and from their use in specific contexts throughout all of our own lifetimes, that makes detached analysis something of a non sequitor. They ring with a certain authority simply because they are scripture, because they are Psalms, and we have almost all heard them spoken with reverence and solemnity at formal and religious occasions since we were children. It almost doesn't matter what the actual words are; the Psalms pack a rhetorical punch because they are Psalms.**

So now that I've argued that you can't really analyize this text, let's get rolling.

Here's the Text:

Psalm 31
For the director of music. A psalm of David.

1 In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Free me from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spirit;
redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth.
6 I hate those who cling to worthless idols;
I trust in the LORD.
7 I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
for you saw my affliction
and knew the anguish of my soul.
8 You have not handed me over to the enemy
but have set my feet in a spacious place.
9 Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and my body with grief.
10 My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction, [a]
and my bones grow weak.
11 Because of all my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of my neighbors;
I am a dread to my friends—
those who see me on the street flee from me.
12 I am forgotten by them as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.
13 For I hear the slander of many;
there is terror on every side;
they conspire against me
and plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, "You are my God."
15 My times are in your hands;
deliver me from my enemies
and from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.
17 Let me not be put to shame, O LORD,
for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
and lie silent in the grave. [b]
18 Let their lying lips be silenced,
for with pride and contempt
they speak arrogantly against the righteous.
19 How great is your goodness,
which you have stored up for those who fear you,
which you bestow in the sight of men
on those who take refuge in you.
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from the intrigues of men;
in your dwelling you keep them safe
from accusing tongues.
21 Praise be to the LORD,
for he showed his wonderful love to me
when I was in a besieged city.
22 In my alarm I said,
"I am cut off from your sight!"
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.
23 Love the LORD, all his saints!
The LORD preserves the faithful,
but the proud he pays back in full.
24 Be strong and take heart,
all you who hope in the LORD.

Psalm 31:10 Or guilt
Psalm 31:17 Hebrew Sheol

Understanding the Words

Even at the level of individual words, I'm struck by how many phrases ring out to me with initial visceral authority, but elude me when I try to consider their meaning. We can start with the first verse: deliver me in your righteousness. I kind of know what that means, but I kind of don't. The word "righteousness" alone is pretty hard for me to wrap my head around; I've only really seen it in religious texts or in imitation of religious texts, so a lot of its "meaning" is just to signify religiousness. The same can be said of the word "deliver" in its sense of "rescue"; it comes so laden with connotation that it could really be said to mean "rescue, in a religious sense."***

Again, in verse 3: "For the sake of your name lead and guide me." Sounds powerful! But what does "for the sake of your name" mean? Does it mean "in order to enhance your reputation?" And should a mere human be giving God that kind of advice, if so?

Verse 4 illustrates a puzzling use of the word "for" that I have noticed throughout Psalms. "Free me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge" is a fine-sounding phrase that is also a mixed metaphor. Furthermore, its internal logic is unconventional. To be a refuge is not to be a freer from traps, let alone to necessitate freeing from traps. Whether this is a problem with translation or just vagueness in the original is obviously way beyond my understanding.

Verse 5 is another one to make those of us raised on the New Testament stand up and salute; "Into your hands I commit my spirit" is, if I remember correctly, the last of the last words of Christ, who was therefore presumably quoting them.

The Moods of David

The Psalms are songs, and songs of course are free to encompass many moods within them. So, it is maybe not surprising that the Psalms are full of sudden mood swings. In Psalm 31, check out the transition from verses 7 and 8 to verses 9 and 10. Immediately, the mood goes from rejoicing in good fortune to near-dispair. At an even smaller scale, you could make a case that there is a remarkable shift of tone at the semicolon back in verse 6.

The despair gets pretty dark in verses 11 - 13, with the same whiff of paranoia I mentioned back when we were looking at the very first set of Psalms. These sorts of passages might be the Psalmy version of the Blues, but they go beyond the human universals here. I've "been so far down I swear I was lookin' up at down," but I've never felt "the utter contempt of my neighbors" and noted people in the street fleeing from me, at least not since junior high.

Taut Prose

When the mood modulates back into the positive, we encounter several statements that are somewhat self-fulfilling. Look at verse 14: I say, 'You are my God.' This would be a startling thing to say to anybody or anything BUT God, but if you assume a monotheistic outlook, it doesn't carry a lot of meaning when said TO God. (I have argued before that the Old Testament often seems to imply a taken-for-granted polytheism, although that seemed to diminish again once we got to King Saul or thereabout. But, it doesn't seem like a ridiculous interpretation to say that David is choosing his God from among Gods.)

Often, David seems to cry out to God to reward good people and, especially, to punish bad people, with a presupposition that the people of the world are divided by personalities of a cartoonish simplicity. Let the wicked be put to shame, he asks, and that's hard to argue with. But who are "the wicked"? Have you ever met a wicked person? He describes them: they have lying lips, pride, and contempt, and they speak arrogantly against the righteous. Well, those all make sense! That's what you'd expect from a wicked person! Except, doesn't everybody lie? Wouldn't you expect the righteous, if you found any, to be proud of their righteousness, and to speak arrogantly of their contempt for the wicked? Much as David himself is doing here? So, much as the Psalm's language rings out beautifully, all it is really doing is asserting that bad people are bad, which seems like a pretty simplistic view of human nature to anyone past the age of 12.

The Question of "Praise"

In verses 19 and 20, the Psalmist speaks rhetorically to God, describing God's own goodness and greatness to him. There are two ways, not necessarily exclusive, that this could be intended. Obviously, the exclamation of God's greatness may be intended for the education of us, the human readers and listeners who experience the Psalm. The other possibility is that David is literally "praising God," which is to say telling him how great he is. Praise be to the LORD, he will say in verse 21, and I have to admit that this common idea -- "praise the Lord" -- has always puzzled me. One praises the accomplishments of children, of friends, and perhaps of heros and leaders; but it would seem to me that God would be utterly and profoundly not in need of human kudos. More, would humanity even be able to grasp enough of the essence of an infinite God so as to render any kind of judgement, even a radically positive judgement? Human understanding being what it is, of what posible use could our pat on the back be to God? But perhaps I digress.

It is interesting, though, the extent to which the Psalms slip back and forth between the second person (addressing God) and the third person (talking about God). This frequent modulation has run throughout most of the first 31 Psalms, I think. For an example, look at verses 21 and 22 here. They form a very compact and satisfying short-short story. Verse 21, in third person, establishes that the story is about divine intervention and establishes the setting. In second-person Verse 22, the hero is physically endangered and experience a crisis of faith; but in the end he is saved by God's mercy. Is the shift between second and third person, here and elsewhere, meaningful at all? I have no idea. None at all.

Next Week: Psalms!

* Which is not likely to stop me from starting the next big michael5000 project on the drawing board, Michael5000 Reads Shakespeare.

** If the text of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was read reverently from the pulpit every Sunday, cited at weddings and funerals, and quoted in religious wall hangings in the home of the pious, would it ring with an inherent authority and majesty? According to my line of argument here, it would, and I suspect that is right. Kids would go to college and have their minds blown when they realized that, dude, if you really look at the words of "Mary had a little lamb," they don't really say anything!!!

*** I am having a hard time getting the phrase "the dude delivered a righteous pizza" out of my head now.