Monday, June 29, 2009

Psalms 48-54: The "Colorado Psalms"

Michael Reads the Bible comes to you this week from sunny Colorado! The official Michael Reads the Bible Bible – which is an “NIV,” a New International Version translation – got left behind in Oregon, because how hard is it to find a Bible when you’re traveling? As it happens, though, the only Bible at hand at the moment is a RSV, a Revised Standard Version. That doesn’t bug me any, but I think I’ll hold off from my attempt at quantitative analysis until we’re back on the home court. So to speak. In the meantime, we’ll cover Psalms 48-54, more or less on the fly.

Psalm 48

It’s a song about Mt. Zion, encouraging the faithful to consider God’s presence there and to praise God there.

Psalm 49

This is a longish Psalm, 20 verses, on a single theme: you can’t take it with you. More specifically, it encourages you not to worry if your neighbors are smarter or richer or happier than you, because everybody ends up dead in the end anyway. Cheerful stuff! Paradoxically, however, this is also one of those Psalms that seems to flirt with the idea of life after death:

God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. (15)

Psalm 50

Psalm 50 is about judgment, the separation of the righteous from the wicked. Its imagery of God is rather severe:

Our God comes, he does not keep silence,
Before him is a devouring fire,
Round about him a mighty tempest.
In Verses 8-15, God is said to speak well of those who honor Him with sacrifices, and promises to deliver them in times of trouble. In Verses 16-20, though, he castigates the wicked. Here, again, we learn a little of what this group “the wicked” that we hear so much about in the Psalms are like: they hate discipline, ignore the Laws of Moses, and befriend thieves and adulterers. They also lie a lot – wickedness and lying are often equated in Psalms – and in particular they are prone to lying about their own brothers.

It is interesting that righteousness here is defined only as adherence to sacrifice laws and, presumably, in the negative – in other words, righteous people should embrace discipline, obey the laws of Moses, stay away from thieves, and tell the truth. So there, perhaps, is some news we can use.

Psalm 51

It’s a Psalm of contrition. The author speaks at great length about his sins, begs for forgiveness, absolution, and cleansing, and promises to go out and tell other sinners about God as well. Two interesting points here – One, there is a hint of the “original sin” concept, which as I understand it holds that since babies are made through the filthy filthy horrible sin of sex, we are all tainted from the get-go:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (5)
Probably, this is not an especially popular Bible verse these days, unless you go to a particularly hard-core church. But what do I know?

Second, Psalm 51 carries on a theme that I didn’t really mention in Psalm 50, the idea that the physical act of sacrifice is less important than conducting one’s relationship with God with the right attitude:

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (17)
These passages do not say that sacrifice is irrelevant. Sacrifices are still supposed to be offered; however, they are spoken of less as fundamental to religious conduct and more as the cherry on top, so to speak, of one’s religious practice. Even this, though, is a pretty big departure from the laws of sacrifice as laid out back in the books of Moses, which had a ton to say about the mechanics of sacrifice, and nothing much at all about attitude.

Psalm 52

The author, identified as David, chews out an evil powerful man (it’s implied that he might be thinking specifically of poor King Saul). God, he says, will destroy and kill an evil person, and all of the righteous people will get to make fun of him as he gets his comeuppance. But none of these bad things, the author says, will happen to HIM – I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. It is, I’m afraid, a bit of a smug Psalm.

Psalm 53

Psalm 53:1 has another famous line: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” Beyond foolishness, this Chapter has a lot else to say about atheists; they are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none that does good. (1) …They are all alike depraved; there is none that does good, no, not one. (3)

This equation of atheism with evil has always created a bit of a Biblical credibility gap for me. It simply does not jibe with my personal experience, in which I seem to have seen the devout do both good and evil, the atheistic do both good and evil, and the many who are in between do both good and evil, with the degree of morality and religiosity being in no way related.

Psalm 53, predictably enough, sees it differently, and forecasts dire punishments for the ungodly/evil. They will be in great terror and their bones will be scattered.

Psalm 54

It’s not unusual for the verses of a song to represent different moments in time, and this may be what we have here in Psalm 54. In Verses 1-3, the author is afraid of enemies, and cries out to God for help. In Verses 4 and 5, he confidently predicts God’s vanquishing of his enemies. In Verses 6 and 7, he thanks God for deliverance and promises to make sacrifice. Apparently, God did indeed save the day between Verse 5 and Verse 6, and we are now looking back on the event.


In the comments for the last entry, Chuckdaddy asked if Psalm 47 was the last of the bunch. Ha! Ha! No. There are 150 Psalms. We are barely 1/3 of the way through them. Then comes Proverbs. So yeah, we’re a long way still from picking back up any kind of narrative thread. But if you think that these posts are a little repetitive, think how I feel, OK?

Oh – best wishes from Colorado!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Psalms 43 - 47: Five More Psalms!

Psalm 43

This is another one in which David complains of an absent God -- "why have you rejected me?" -- but resolves to be faithful and hopeful regardless. In retrospect, I wish I had kept track of the content of the Psalms since the beginning. The "why have you forsaken me" theme is really quite pervasive. I think this is interesting, because I don't believe I've ever heard or seen it cited in the various settings where we see or hear Psalms cited.

Psalm 44

Take Psalm 44, for instance! The first eight verses are a confident soldier's prayer, three verses extolling God's role in victories of the past, and five saying things along the lines of my sword does not bring me victory; but you give us victory over our enemies. (6-7) This is followed, though, by 18 verses of dispair and abandonment: You gave us up to be devoured like sheep.... You sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from the sale. (11-12) It goes on to specify that All this happen to us, though we had not forgotten you or be false to your convenant. (17)

...For your sake we face death all day long; it continues, we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. (22) After a few lines of pleading for God to awake and not to reject his people forever, the Psalm ends with an affirmation of faith that seems almost ironic in context: Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love. (26)

Again, you don't hear much about this in church, and I am finding a conspicuous shortage of inspirational images based on this particular Psalm. This makes perfect sense, of course, since most churches and religious people are more interested in messages of joy, hope, and redemption, and less excited about contemplating abandonment, despair, and divine capriciousness. But that's one of the ways that the Bible is so deeply problematic -- it does not, at least as far as I've read to date, offer an exclusively positive message about the relationship between God and His humans. The most that could be said is that God is often kind to those people that he has selected for his special regard, and although we see occasional references to His enormous compassion and mercy, little of this is actually seen in the acts attributed to Him. Psalm 44, then, is not especially out of place here in the Old Testament. It's just out of sync with the modern Christian conception of God.

Psalm 45

Psalm 45 is a wedding song fit, literally, for a king, praising his deeds, wishing him success in future endeavors, and offering some of the complements to him and his bride. It notes at one point that the person to whom the song is addressed love[s] righteousness and hate[s] wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy. (7) Wait, don't most people hate wickedness? And love righteousness? Whatever "righteousness" is? Well, that's Psalmic logic for you.

Best thing about Psalm 45? It's supposed to be sung to the tune of "Lilies." You can't make this stuff up.

Psalm 46

This one is a three-parter. The first three verses affirm that God is an "ever-present help" and that with his assistance one fear nothing, not even the proverbial mountains falling into the sea. Except we're in Psalms, not Proverbs. How come we say things are "proverbial" but never "psalmic"?

The second part is something of a mystical vision, which I find lovely and trippy enough that I'm just going to repeat it without comment:
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.

5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

7 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
The third part speaks of God's ability to end war: he makes wars cease to the end of the earth. (9) I will guess that religious of an anti-war persuasion will have appropriated this snippit with some enthusiasm, but this is really not lion-lying-down-with-lamb stuff. In context, it's talking about ending war the hard way, with violence and fire.

Psalm 47

Nine verses of pure religious celebration, the concept of "praising the Lord" in a compact and ecstatic form. The first two verses seem tailor-made for those hippyish Christian youth groups that were popular in the 1970s:
1 Clap your hands, all you nations;
shout to God with cries of joy.

2 How awesome is the LORD Most High,
the great King over all the earth!
As is true of most songs of simple celebration, the content is not exactly what you would call deep thinkin':
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.

7 For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.
Here's an idea! Let's stop on an upbeat note for a change!

NEXT TIME: I've got the idea of trying a little quantitative analysis of Psalmic themes! I bet you're on the edge of your seat!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Psalm 42 Illustrated

I've complained before that the Psalms seem more coherent and more significant in sound-bite form that they are in their totality. It is significant, I think, that we almost never hear a Psalm in its entirety. Readings at public events or worship services tend to pick out three or for consecutive verses that are relatively unified in content, so we are rarely confronted with the radical subject changes, mood shifts, and/or allusions to malicious enemies that likely lie before and after.

Another place you are likely to run into Psalms is in religious inspirational images. These are a commonplace; now that you are thinking about them you will likely start noticing them taped to your coworkers' monitors, in little frames in your relatives' homes, in the waiting rooms of businesses owned by religious entrepreneurs, and so on. Or, if you are a churchgoer, you can probably count a half-dozen of 'em between the foyer and the pastor's office. They're ubiquitous.

The inherent problem with using Psalms in religious art is, I think, quite similar to the inherent problem with television news programs. The problem with television news programs is that important things that affect people's lives (policy, laws, diplomatic efforts, economics, social trends, technological change, scientific development) aren't very photogenic, and things that are exciting to watch (police chases, fires, crowds, weather, baby ducks) aren't really important. The very nature of the medium pretty much guarantees that television news will be trivial, as is in fact the case.

In the case of Psalms, what happens is that passages that can be matched with attractive photography get immediate preference in the inspiration business. Let's take a look at the first three verses of Psalm 42.

1 For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.

2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?

3 My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
"Where is your God?"

We have three verses here that, read together, are a lament of the perceived absence of God. This is a regular theme in the Psalms, something that initially surprised me but which I have become used to at this juncture. Verse one compares the longing for God to the thirst of a deer (probably a more potent image in the deserts of the Middle East than here in verdent Oregon). Verse two states the point directly, and verse three contains an interesting image of tears as food and complains of the mockery of unbelievers. And we are not, of course, given any guidance as to any one of these verses being more significant or important than the others.

So: Would you care to guess which of the three verses is more likely to show up in inspirational art?

The opportunity to match a Psalm with an attractive image of a deer wins the day, of course. I was in fact unable to find a single image of Psalm 42:3 as an inspirational image. It would be easy enough to create an appropriate photograph -- a desolate man weeping while passers-by mock him -- yet no one seems to have gone to the trouble.
Well, duh. Obviously, people who are going to decorate with scriptural quotations want to do it in a pleasant and tasteful way. It's more than understandable, it's perfectly obvious -- at yet, it significantly distorts which Psalms we are paying attention to. The nature of the medium highlights Psalms about, say, bunnies, flowers, and sunrises and buries those about wounds, grief, and being attacked by beasts.
But it goes deeper than that, too. Looking at the images above, you see that they all cite verse 1 or verses 1 and 2. Only one goes on to verse 3, and it does so in extremely fine print. This effectively changes the meaning of the passage, changing it from a complaint of God's absence into an affirmation of zeal for God. So the inspiring wisdom of these images is perhaps all fine and good, but it is not really the wisdom of Psalm 42. In its entirety, Psalm 42 is about resolving to remain faithful to God even though he may completely abandon you and there's nothing you can do about it. Putting verses 1 and 2 with a picture of a deer creates an image that is about being totally into God, and liking that deer are pretty. There's a difference.


Here's a gallery of the other Psalm 42 images I found in my carefully unscientific search. And the full text of Psalm 42, if you need that.