Saturday, October 10, 2009

Psalms 144 - 150: End of the Psalms

The stretch from Psalm 144 to Psalm 150 -- the final Psalm! -- begins with Praise be to the Lord and ends with Praise the Lord, and in between there are numerous praises sung to the Lord. What is not praise is mostly affirmation: statements to or about God that indicate his magnificence, power, mercy, love, and justice. What is left over is petitions: requests for the destruction of enemies and foreigners, and for peace and prosperity.

There is nothing in these final seven Psalms about the sorrow and despair of one who feels failed by God, and relatively few complaints about the vindictive enemies and evil-doers who have it in for the Psalmist. Other than that, they are fairly representative of the whole set of 150. They cover familiar topics and employ the Psalmic style: an energetic, declaritive, loosely structured poetry with a fairly narrow range of themes and images. They are rich in ringing phrases and chockablock with abrupt shifts of topic and mood. Having been composed for singing or chanting one at a time, they make -- as I have often complained -- for a tedious, numbing experience when read through en masse.

Reading the Psalms as an Outsider

There are some styles of music that, as an occasional guitar noodler, I enjoy playing even though I don't especially enjoy listening to them. Heavy Metal, bluegrass, and a lot of folk music fall into this category. Others will differ, of course, but for me these are musics that are best experienced as a performer, not as a listener. And to stretch a point, maybe this is somewhat true of the Psalms as well. To a worshiper -- to someone in the actual act of "Praising the Lord" -- the Psalms may be a rich library of texts, and therefore of practices, that enrich and add structure to that experience. To their original writers and to someone using them in the context of religious practice today, the affirmations and petitions of the Psalms may be perceived as ringing with the most sacred holy truths.

To an outsider to this experience, however, there is an arid and lifeless quality to the Psalms. In their singleminded assertions, stripped of anything like argument or narrative flow, it is hard to find anything like inspiration. They have been, to be sure, different from anything else we've encountered so far in the Bible, certainly unlike the epic historical accounts and the lists of stern Mosaic Law. The poetic Book of Job, although I found it equally inpenetrable as Psalms, was at least steeped in theological ideas, whereas Psalms itself consists merely of thousands of essentially unconnected religious statements. There is not enough development of ideas in Psalms for anything but the loosest theological concepts to be apparent, and even these are often at odds with each other: God is merciful, and vengeful; God is all-loving, and has abandoned me; God reigns over all kingdoms, and will protect me from the foreigners.

I knew when I picked the Bible up that it would not be a wholely unified document, but I did not realize just how much of a... scrapbook it would turn out to be. The range of materials is quite a bit broader than I realized. I don't recall exactly what I expected from the Psalms, but I don't think I expected them to be no more (and no less, I suppose) than the hymnal tucked in among the histories and prophets. Yet that's pretty much what they are.

Progress Report!

Reading Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, took 21 posts spread over 5 months and 6 days. Having completed Psalms, I've got through 19 of the 66 Books of the Bible: 28.8%.

Well, that's all fine and good, but I've also completed 628 of the Chapters of the Bible, or 52.8%! Or 16401 of the Verses, 52.7%! I'M MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH, PEOPLE!

NEXT TIME: Here come Proverbs! Which I expect to be... somewhat like Psalms, except pithier? And more addressed to everyday life, rather than religious practice? I guess I imagine Proverbs as being like Polonius' long advice-giving speech in Hamlet. I bet I'm wrong. But here's an advantage Proverbs is sure to have over Psalms: it's only 31 Chapters long!

We'll tuck into it next time!

This Week's Reading: Psalms 144 - 150


Jennifer said...


Michael5000 said...

w00t! indeed!

It's funny how excited I am about Proverbs.