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


Nichim said...

I was taught that "fear" of The Lord was to be understood as "awe and wonder at the magnificent power and glory" of The Lord. I think this helped Sunday school teachers integrate these kinds of messages with their overarching God is Love theme.

Elaine said...

I have to agree-- just sitting down and plowing straight through the Psalms is not going to fill you with delight/awe/inspiration. But when you get to Psalm 139, do read Margaret Wise Brown's _The Runaway Bunny_.....

I think you could sort out the Praise, Supplication, Lament, etc., psalms...maybe just seek the apt phrases that speak to your own life. Might float you past the more onerous parts of the task you've set.
Even Ecclesiastes has some pretty dry desert-trip segments...
Chin up!