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.

1 comment:

Serendipity said...

What a fun post! I found it so inspirational that I started a new blog just so I could respond in depth.

I'm only kidding a little. You can see what I did here: