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!

1 comment:

Elaine said...

Glad to think of you, bravely soldiering on, climbing the mountain of Psalms (rocky, steep, repetitive) and thirsting for water.... (faint theme from "Marseillaise") ... Hang in, Brave M5000!