Saturday, July 04, 2009

Psalms 55 - 64: The "Second Batch of Colorado Psalms"

Psalm 55

We begin a second set of Colorado Psalms – using the Revised Standard Version I have here at hand in the Centennial State – with Psalm 55, a fine example of a Psalm that doesn’t make any kind of conventional narrative sense. It starts off as a fairly typical riff on the “enemies” theme, asking God for protection from “the enemy” and “the wicked.” The Psalmist says he wishes he had “wings like a dove” so that he could fly away into the wilderness, and just get away from his troubles; then, that not being an option, he asks God to just destroy his opponents for him instead.

Then, there is a rapid mood swing, and instead of addressing God the Psalm addresses some former buddy of the Psalmist:

It is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it;
It is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—then I could hide from him.
But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,
We used to hold sweet converse together;
Within God’s house we walked in fellowship.

This is an abrupt and confusing shift not only because we don’t know what the hell he is talking about – it’s possible that this is all about the Saul/David rivalries, but it sure isn’t spelled out – but because the Chapter up to now has clearly been talking about a large group of enemies, not just one guy.

Speaking of rapid mood swings, the text continues immediately into:

Let death come upon them;
let them go down to Sheol alive;
let them go away in terror into their graves.

We have whiplashed back into addressing God and talking about a host of enemies. And after this single bizarrely vindictive verse, our mood changes again:

But I call upon God;
and the Lord will save me.

See what you miss when you get just a few lines of Psalms in quotation? Everything seems so much more inspirational and level-headed after a good cherry-picking. And behold! We are only 2/3 of the way into Psalm 55. It continues through seven more verses of self-pity, confident affirmation of God’s protection, more accusations against the “companion,” a call to trust in God’s support, and a confident statement to God of trust that he will humiliate and kill the bad guys. It’s a twisty road, Psalm 55.

Psalm 56

Psalm 56 is far more straightforward, and follows what seems to be a fairly common pattern: seven Verses describing the downtrodden state of the Psalmist, followed by six Verses of ecstatic affirmation of faith in God. It is to be sung to the tune of “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths,” which is cool, and here in the NRV contains the startling claim that Thou hast kept count of my tossings. (8) I must remember to cross reference this with another translation.

Psalm 57

Here again we have an easily understood song. It has abrupt changes of mood and content, but they are in the regular rhythm of chorus and refrains. A few Verses describing the Psalmists suffering and despair are followed by a few Verses celebrating the intervention and power of God, and this pattern is repeated three or four times. It is sung to the tune of “Do Not Destroy,” which must have been a big hit as it is also the music for Psalm 58.

Psalm 58

Despite its tune, this is a text about destroying. The first five verses are about how very bad bad people are, and how some people are just born bad. It also, in this translation, mentions the amorality of other gods aside from God, which is the first really noteworthy example of Old Testament polytheism we’ve seen in awhile; a footnote, however, gives an alternate translation of “mighty lords.”

The next four Verses call on God to punish the bad guys in creative ways: having their teeth broken and torn out, vanishing like evaporating water, being trampled like grass, dissolving into slime like a snail, etc. There is, here as elsewhere, no suggestion that “the righteous” should care much about the fate of “the wicked.” Indeed,

The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
He will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.

This is followed immediately by:

Men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

Hypothesis: I am guessing that Psalm 55:11 is fairly popular in quotation, but almost invariably de-linked from the context of the proceeding verse. I am guessing that Psalm 55:10 is invoked not at all, save in the most marginal and extreme of churches.

Results: Quick internet search reveals little to confirm or disprove the hypothesis.

Psalm 59

A mildly disturbing Psalm in its naked xenophobia, characterizing “all the nations” as snarling, lying, plotting packs of dogs, and calling on God to punish them, but to draw it out a bit so their suffering provides a good object lesson.

Psalm 60

Another downbeat, military Psalm, the 60th begins with a complaint of the troubles God has inflicted on people, and then shifts into a ambiguous series of passages that seem to both gloat of the military victories that will be achieved with the help of God and to accuse God of having abandoned the military effort.

Psalm 61

A straightforward example of what I am starting to think of as the “Sanctuary Psalms” – those that request and/or celebrate the physical protection that God provides to the faithful.

Psalm 62

Perhaps there is a category of the “Jumble Psalms.” Number 62 has two Verses of devotion; two of ranting about enemies (one in second person, one in third); four mystical Verses on the “sanctuary” theme; two Verses admonishing against the desire for worldly things; and two Verses that are hard just to get your head around, let alone to categorize:

Once God has spoken;
Twice have I heard this:
That power belongs to God;
And that to thee, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.
For thou dost requite a man according to his work.

Psalm 63

Mostly what you might call one of the “Celebratory Psalms,” this one is an ecstatic professing of faith and devotion. It moves through a comparison of God to water in the dessert, something thirsted for which sustains life – a powerful metaphor in the Middle East, then as now – to a comparison of God to a rich and sumptuous feast. Here as in so many Psalms, though, the mystical vision of a just, loving, affirmative God is complicated by an intrusion of fear and vengeance:

But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.

Psalm 64

Psalm 64 is a plot point in the book I read last night! Jar City is an enjoyable and engrossing detective novel by the Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason. He uses this Psalm, a complaint against the malice and aggression of an unnamed enemy, to good effect. I have been thinking of these as the “Psalms of Paranoia” but that seems a bit loaded; “Psalms of Despair” isn’t quite right either. “Psalms of Complaint Against the Malice and Aggression of an Unnamed Enemy” is just too cumbersome. I’ll have to think on this.


Anonymous said...

Other translations of Psalm 56:8 (courtesy of
NIV: Record my lament;
list my tears on your scroll
are they not in your record? (note: or 'put my tears in your wineskin' which is freaking awesome imho)

Most translations (besides ESV) seem to use "wanderings" or "sorrows," but The Message goes so far as to say: 'You've kept track of my every toss and turn
through the sleepless nights,
Each tear entered in your ledger,
each ache written in your book.'

There does seem to be a split between interpretations urging God to note the psalmist's suffering, and interpretations that recognize that God has been watching the psalmist's 'wandering,' whether that be actual wandering about the middle east, or wandering from the path of right action, and questioning whether God's accounts are, in fact, correct.

Michael5000 said...

@nichim: Well, ~that's~ a relief. Thanks for doing the textual heavy lifting, here.

Interesting, too, that in at least this case the difference between exhortation and reporting seems to be ambiguous in the source texts. I have been chronically interested in the way that the Psalms flip back and forth between talking TO God and talking ABOUT God; it looks like this phenomenon might be complicated by some problems of translation.

I COMPLETELY concur that the image of God's wineskin being filled with human tears is, as you say, freaking awesome.