Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Psalm 135-143: Psenultimate Psalms!

Psalm 135: A "Praise the Lord" Psalm, using that phrase three times along with a "Praise the name of the Lord," a "sing praise to his name," and a "Praise be to the Lord." The Psalm includes brief peregrinations on the power of God, his historic assistance to the Israelites, and the inadequacy and unreality of other gods.

Psalm 136: What must be a call-and-response kind of Psalm, consisting of 26 short phrases, each immediately answered with the words "His love endures forever." Psalm 136:17-22 is essentially Psalm 135:10-12 with the response phrase inserted six times.

Psalm 137: Wow! Check out Psalm 137:1!

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

OK, that is TOTALLY ripping off an old reggae song.

Verses 5-6 are also familiar: If I forget you, O Jerusalme, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if if do not remember you....

It ends on a bit of a bummer, though, both viscerally and philosophically:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us --
he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 138: This song, ascribed to David, begins:
I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart;
before the "gods" I will sing your praise.
This passage raises an interesting question: do our ancient Hebrew or Greek sources really have an equivalent for ironic quotation marks? I certainly don't think we've seen such leading punctuation employed employed up to this point in the Bible, although we have often seen references to the other gods besides God. Is there something in the source materials that lead the NIV translators to indicate that by saying "gods," David didn't really mean to suggest that he believed in other gods? Is it a surmise based on David's abundantly demonstrated piety? Or are they -- strange as this might sound -- trying to protect David from the taint of polytheism? Because the latter is actually kind of what it looks like.

After this interesting beginning, the 138th is a fairly straightforward Psalm of praise.

Psalm 139: The 139th, on the other hand, is an interesting, distinctive, and nuanced Psalm about being thoroughly known by a creator:
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
There is a lovely passage here that has a bit of a Shakespearean ring to it:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Oh, what a piece of work is man!

Psalm 139 veers away from its main thrust only for four of its twenty-four verses, for one of the fairly alarming rants so common in the Psalms ascribed to David (as this one is). The mood swing is swift: When I awake, I am still with you. If only you would slay the wicked, O God! (18-19)

Psalm 140 is a more extended version of the angry rant that snuck into #139, with inspirational, uplifting thoughts like:
Let the heads of those who surround me be covered with the trouble their lips have caused.
Let burning coals fall upon them; may they be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, never to rise.

Psalm 141: Begins as a prayer not to be drawn into evil deeds, but then morphs into the now-familiar if less interesting contrast of self versus the "evildoers": their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs (6) and so on.

Psalm 142: Much like Psalm 141, it is largely a prayer of humility and supplication before God, interwoven with requests for God to destroy sinister, vaguely-defined enemies.

Psalm 143: And much like Psalm 142, it is largely a prayer of humility and supplication before God, interwoven with requests for God to destroy sinister, vaguely-defined enemies.

NEXT TIME: The End of the Psalms!!!

Today's Text: Psalms 135-143.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Psalms 130-134: The End of the Ascents

These five Psalms are the last of the “songs of ascents,” Psalms 120-134, which are supposed to be a cycle of songs sung on the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Except for Psalm 132, they are all quite short.

Psalm 130: Throughout the Old Testament, there has been a decided emphasis on salvation through obedience. One is supposed to obey the Law to the letter, and in exchange for this God will not bring you sufferings or just snuff you out altogether. But here in Psalm 130, we have another of the occasional glimpses of a different sort of theology, in this case a theology of forgiveness.

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.
Fearing someone for their power of forgiveness seems off-kilter at first blush, but consider the context: EVERYONE is guilty, and their only hope is forgiveness, so of course the decision-maker is someone to inspire a certain amount of trembling. (This strikes me, incidentally, as a very Christian sort of passage.)

And here’s a lovely passage, I think:
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Psalm 131: A very short song of abject humility, echoes the “watchman waiting for morning” line with a metaphor which doesn’t ring quite as well to the modern ear:
But I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Really, I’m not even sure what that means.

Psalm 132: A longer Psalm in three parts. First, it recalls David’s oath to build a suitable temple for the Ark of the Covenant. Second, it expresses the need and desire of the people to go and worship at the “dwelling place.” And third, it recounts God’s promises to David to provide leadership, prosperity, and success to Israel. As usual in the Old Testament, the contractual nature of religious practice is much in evidence, with the implication that “here we are, God, doing our part by coming to worship in the proscribed manner; don’t let us down with your part of the bargain.”

Psalm 133: The first line of this short Psalm conveys the meaning of the whole: How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! (1) If you continue past that very quotable first line, though, you get a great example of how ringing sound bites from Psalms often seem pretty curious when they are not cropped out of their surrounding text:
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard,
Running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.
Anyone here especially like oil running down into their beard? No?

Psalm 134: Three short lines, the condensed version of which is: “Praise the Lord! Left up your hands and praise the Lord! May the Lord bless you!” This is religious practice at its most fundamental level. Even when this simplified, however, there is still an element of the contractual in the picture: Praise, that you may be blessed. You do your bit for God, and God will do his bit for you.

Next Time: The Penultimate Psalms!

This Week's Text: Psalms 130-134

Monday, September 14, 2009

Psalms 120 - 129

All of the songs of the 120s are labelled "songs of ascents." I'm not sure what that means. They are all quite short, though, at four to nine verses long. All ten of them together are considerably shorter than Psalm 119.

120: The Psalmist complains of lying lips and deceitful tongues (2), and tells such liars that God will punish them with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree. (4) Then, he laments living among those who hate peace. (6)

121: I recognize Psalm 121 immediately from, of all places, the soundtrack of the 1980s movie "The Falcon and the Snowman." Funny.

It is an eight-verse poem of reassurance in second person that reads almost as a lullaby, affirming to the readers or listeners that God will watch over them and preserve them from harm. And although I have often expressed scepticism over whether the Bible should really be promising physical protection to believers, in this context I find the sentiment rather touching. This might be my new favorite Psalm.

122: A jumbled and upbeat Psalm about how nice it is to pray and worship communally, especially in Jerusalem.

123: A short Psalm of devotion and submission to God, asking mercy for those who have endured the contempt of "the proud" and "the arrogant."

124: States forcefully that Israel would have been doomed in its conflicts with its neighbors, if not for the direct assistance from God.

125: Compares people who believe in God with unshakeable mountains.

126: A song of joy and happiness, stating that the Lord has done great things for us (3), especially in returning the exiles from captivity.

127: The first two verses of this Psalm state that all labor is futile unless it is in accordance with God's will. The remaining three verses are in praise of sons, who are a blessing from God; it's best to have a lot of them and to have them young.

128: A promise of prosperity to believers, with this great line: Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. (3)

129: A somewhat disjointed Psalm that seems to be about how the peoples who were against Israel have now fallen on hard times.

Well, I still don't know what a "song of ascents" is. This set of Psalms seems unusually upbeat and brief; maybe that has something to do with it. Or, maybe it just has to do with the musical setting?

...ah-ha. Says here that they probably are the songs traditionally sung while climbing up to Jerusalem. Also that they are short and upbeat, so I guess I was on the right track.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Psalm 119: The Longest Psalm

I singled out Psalm 119 for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's freakin' long. One hundred seventy-six Verses long, in fact, which (sez here) makes it not only the longest Psalm but also the longest book in the Bible.

Secondly, it is divided into 22 sections, each of which is labelled with a Hebrew letter. On the page, this makes it look pretty cool and potentially experimental and interesting. On reading it, unfortunately, I was a bit underwhelmed and unable to see what the point of all the alphabetic divisions was. Then, however, I consulted an authoritative commentary on holy scripture and all other things -- it's called "Wikipedia" -- and was glad I did. Check this out:

This psalm is one of about a dozen alphabetic acrostic poems in the Bible. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each, and in Hebrew forms an acrostic, with each stanza starting with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Further, within each stanza, each line begins with that same letter.
In other words, the eight verses of the "Aleph" section all start with the letter Aleph, the eight verses of the "Beth" section all... well, you get the picture. Cooool.

This aspect of the Psalm doesn't survive in the translation, however, so in reading I naturally focused on the simple meaning of the text. And the meaning is fairly straightforward, and consistent throughout the Chapter. I'll give you a sample line from each section, and you can see if you can find any sort of overarching theme. Ready? Here we go.

Aleph: You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. (4)
Beth: I rejoice in following your statues as one rejoices in great riches. (14)
Gimel: My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. (20)
Daleth: I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws. (30)
He: Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. (33)
Waw: ...for I delight in your commands because I love them. (47)
Zayin: I remember your ancient laws, O Lord, and I find comfort in them. (52)
Heth: I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. (60)
Teth: The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. (72)
Yodh: I know, O Lord, that your laws are righteous.... (75)
Kaph: Preserve my life according to your love, and I will obey the statutes of your mouth. (88)
Lamedh: Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you. (91)
Mem: Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (97)
Nun: My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end. (112)
Samekh: My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws. (120)
Ayin: Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. (124)
Pe: I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. (131)
Tsadhe: The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy. (138)
Qoph: Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever. (152)
Resh: Look upon my suffering and deliver me, for I have not forgotten your law. (153)
Sin/Shin: I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you. (168)
Taw: May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. (172)

EXTRA CREDIT: Rewrite an English translation of Psalm 119 so that, in each eight-verse section, each verse begins with the same letter. For full credit, get all twenty-two sections in alphabetical order. You may skip any four letters you wish.

AMAZING SIDENOTE: As I finished today's reading, I was all like "wow, it looks like I'm getting to the halfway point in this book!" Well. There are 923 pages in my Bible. Today, I read most of page 462. ~You~ do the math!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Psalms 111 - 118

Eight More Psalms!

111 A short "Praise the Lord" Psalm -- it opens with that phrase -- touching on the greatness and majesty of God, his propensity for giving his followers sustainance and the ability to conquer other peoples, and his justice and uprightness.

112 A Psalm about how great and successful life is going to be for a righteous man who believes in God, with a short coda about how miserable things will go for wicked people.

113 The third Psalm in a row beginning with "Praise the Lord," this is a short passage that does just that. God is praised particularly as one who lifts up the poor and makes barren women fertile.

114 A short and somewhat cryptic celebration of God's miracles during the Exodus.

115 Ooh! Psalm 115 is suddenly RICH in theological content! For starters, it introduces the brand-new idea that there is a specific non-earthly dwelling place of God: Why do the nations say, "Where is their God?" Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. (2-3) Then, it explicitly takes on polytheism. In verses 4-8 it says that the idols of the surrounding peoples have mouths, but cannot speak, and so on through eyes, ears, noses, hands, and feet, which can not walk, and then it darkly hints that those who worship the idols will end up the same way.

Yet even while it makes these big gestures towards standard Christian theology as I learned it in Sunday school, it retains the general Old Testament line against life after death: The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to man. It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence; it is we who extol the Lord, both now and forevermore. (16-18)

116 A fairly ecstactic prayer of fealty to God, in thanks for having "turned his ear" to the Psalmist and delivered him from all of his problems.

117 Is tiny. Here it is in its entirety:

1 Praise the Lord, all you nations;
extol him, all you peoples.
2 For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord.
(It says here in the footnote that the bit translated as "Praise the Lord" is, in Hebrew, Hallelu Yah. I'll be.)

118 A long prayer proclaiming the physical protection afforded by God, and encouraging everyone to celebrate and praise God.

Psalm 119: Is long and looks kind of... unusual. So we'll stop here for now.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Psalms 101 - 110: Let's Speed This Up

Ten More Psalms!

101 A first-person vow to God that the Psalmist will behave well.

102 One of the most negative Psalms yet, a lament of sickness, destitution, and humiliation. The Psalmist compares his misery with the greatness of God, more or less blaming God for his downfall but seemingly without rancor.

103 Literally a "Praise the Lord" sort of hymn; the phrase crops up five times in the Psalm. It is a catalog of God's virtues. The most memorable phrase, though, is a brief break to describe humanity by way of contrast: 15 As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. Kind of a downer.

104 A long Psalm of praise, ascribing all natural phenemona to God. Light, winds, earth, rivers, plants, wine, the moon, animals, the sea, whales, everything: God made it all, and it's all good. There's only one negative note, as the last verse calls for sinners and the wicked to be swept from the earth.

105 A long song of Thanksgiving, recounting the history of the Israelites from Genesis and Exodus.

106 More or less a sequel to Psalm 105, Psalm 106 continues the summary of history from the Exodus through to at least the wandering in the desert.

107 The first of a new set of Psalms, "Book V." This is a Psalm of wild contradictions, exhorting everyone to give thanks for God's "unfailing love" and celebrating the good things he provides for his worshipers, but at the same time also celebrating the miseries, captivity, and deprivation that those who "rebelled against the words of God" are subject to. Love can apparently be both unfailing and extremely conditional.

108 A military Psalm, calling on God to support the armies of David and ensure their victory.

109 We haven't seen any of the paranoid Psalms for a while, but this one starts out in good form with complaints against wicked, deceitful enemies full of hatred. From there, it transforms into a scorching curse, wishing all manners of misfortunate and woe on the people who wished the Psalmist ill, as well as their friends and family.

110 And Psalm 110 is just kind of... weird. It's definitely about the power of God, but... well, it's short, I'll just give it to you whole.

1 The LORD says to my Lord:
"Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet."
2 The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion;
you will rule in the midst of your enemies.

3 Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy majesty,
from the womb of the dawn
you will receive the dew of your youth.

4 The LORD has sworn
and will not change his mind:
"You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek."

5 The Lord is at your right hand;
he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.

6 He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.

7 He will drink from a brook beside the way;
therefore he will lift up his head.