Sunday, July 19, 2009

Psalms 73-82: Psalms by Numbers II

I broke off last time because Psalm 73 marks the transition from the Psalms of David to the Psalms of Asaph, whoever he is. I wasn't expecting this to be a terribly significant shift, though. Truth be told, I've been pretty skeptical about the idea that the "Psalms of David" were really written by King David -- people who study such things are apparently not even unanimously convinced that such a person really ever existed, after all, let alone that we can say much about his life and works.

That as may be, however, there is a definite stylistic shift between Psalm 72 and Psalm 73, marked enough so as to suggest -- through the many complications of translation, form, and history -- a different authorial voice. As a Psalmist, "Asaph" is more even-tempered and narrative. The sudden shifts of mood and topic are gone, and Psalms follow a single line of thought more or less from beginning to end. These Psalms are less personal and less emotional, more about the history and experience of the Israelites as a people. They have fewer resonant, ringing phrases -- I'm guessing that they are far less popular as sound-bite Psalms -- but are much easier to read in their entirety.

They still touch on many of the same themes as the previous 72 Psalms, however, so I was by and large able to evaluate them according to the categories I was using last week. Three chapters didn't quite fit the pattern, though, so the following number-crunching is for Psalms 73-77, 79, and 80.

Characterizations of God as Powerful

Asaph preaches the power and might of God. In 25% of the verses enumerated, Asaph is in some way referring to the past, present, or potential ability of God to shape the world and its events. Psalm 76, for instance, is about God's ability to make peace through the use of might: Surely your wrath against men brings you praise, and the survivors of your wrath are restrained. (10)

Two of the Psalms that didn't work with my categories are also largely about the power of God as well. Psalm 78 has an 8-verse preamble followed by a 64-verse summary of Israelite history from Moses to David -- two hundred and two pages of text, from Exodus to 2 Samuel, laid out in a single chapter! This summary, moreover, stresses God's power to bless the Israelites when they are properly obedient, and to lay them low when they stray.

Then, Psalm 82 stresses God's authority and power among the ""gods."" Got that? The ""gods."" That is, it talks about God's authority over the gods as if he were the CEO of a polytheism, but the word "gods" is in quotation marks. The text doesn't make clear if it is actually referring to other deities -- as I have often said, polytheism always seems to be lurking at the edges of Old Testament theology -- or whether it is making fun of puffed-up human bigshots:

"I said, 'You are "gods"; you are all sons of the Most High.'
But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler."

Psalms of Despair

This new set of Psalms is no less willing than the first 72 to complain of the absence of God. The theme of despair, which represents 20% of the text, is most evident in Psalm 74, where Asaph asks questions like "Why have you rejected us forever, O God?" (1) and says things like "We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be." (9) This continual refrain has been the most surprising element of the Psalms to me, but its presence has also been kind of reassuring. To me, doubt seems a necessary element of faith in a divine, inscrutable supernatural being, and I am always surprised and rather confused by people who claim to have never doubted, or feared that God might be other than they imagine or indeed altogether absent. That the Psalmists wrestled with this most obvious of religious problems lends them a credibility that escapes the blindly faithful.

The Wicked

Description of the Wicked was the third most common theme in this set, with 16% of the text. Most of this came in Psalm 73, which lists most of the typical problems with the wicked -- tautological characteristics like iniquity, evil conceits, malice, and oppression, and vague characteristics like violence, arrogance, and the propensity to lie. It begins, though, with a startlingly different take on the wicked than we've seen previously:

For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong
They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.
This flies straight in the face of what has been the party line throughout earlier Psalms, that the Wicked are due for a comeuppance in this world. It is quite a while -- not until verse 17 -- that Asaph makes clear that you shouldn't go out and sign up for the Wicked team. The Wicked do well in the short term, he suggests, but despite their prosperity, or indeed because of it, they are in trouble in the long term: Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! (18-19) This stands out as the first suggestion I've seen in the Bible that wealth could be a morally problematic or hazardous thing, as opposed to a simple blessing or even a sign of God's favor.

Let's Make a Deal!

Another theme that runs through the Psalms, although it would be hard to enumerate, it that of deal-making between God and humans. This element shouldn't be surprisingly, I suppose in a religion that is based on a Covenant, but it is still sometimes rather jarring and -- to my arguably prissy middle-class sentiments -- sometimes seems a bit distasteful in a sacred context. Psalm 81 talks about the deal from God's point of view, and quotes God as saying essentially "if you would obey the laws and lay off of other gods, I'd make things really easy for you; when you go do your own thing, though, you are totally on your own.

But then elsewhere, as in Psalm 80, the Psalms present God with a laundry list of complaints and requests, sometimes with the implication that worship is going to require a bit of a quid pro quo. If God restores the prominence of the Israelites and makes them successful among the surrounding kingdoms, Psalm 80 suggests, then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. (18) It all suggests a rather practical relationship, a sort of alliance, between deity and worshiper, with less in the way of unconditional love than a modern observer might expect. Did they have unconditional love in the iron age? Hard to say. The Psalms are, we are often forced to remember, from a culturally very distant world.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Psalms 65-72: Psalms by Numbers

Last week, I was kind of flirting with classifying the Psalms into different types -- I mentioned "Sanctuary Psalms," for instance, and "Celebratory Psalms." The problem with that idea is that, as I have mentioned numerous times, most Psalms don't cleave to a single topic. Like a lot of songs, they are filled with sudden mood swings and changes of topic.

In looking at today's set of Psalms, I decided to try to ennumerate out some of the key themes and see what proportion of the text they occupy. We've seen a lot of fretting about enemies in the Psalms, for instance, and calls for God to punish these enemies. This theme SEEMS super-prominent, but that's partially just because it's so jarring; I guessed that in terms of raw volume, it would be somewhat less impressive, and that seems to be more or less true.


  • If fifty people read the Psalms and enumerated out the main themes, you would very possibly have fifty different versions of what constitutes "the main themes." Nothing special about MY version.
  • Even if you thought my themes were the definitive set, we would probably argue from time to time about which category an individual verse belongs to. Categorizing stuff is always a messy exercise.
  • Doing this at the verse level obfuscates that there are some Psalms that are relatively thematic, some that split into two or three coherent themes, and some that ramble around all over the place. (In this set, #s 67, 65, and 68 are prime examples). The first three Psalms in this set are all reletively celebratory in nature, and so the set as a whole is probably more celebratory than your "average" ten Psalms, whichever those ones are.
  • Occasionally, there are verses that go right over my head. See below.

I meant to just tally up the next ten Psalms, 65-74, but predictably there were complications. One complication is Psalm 72, which is unlike anything I've seen previously; it's all about how great the king is and how things are going to be wonderful because of him. It is bracketed with a request for God to bless the king, but as (it says) a work by Solomon, it seems not a little self-serving. It is also a breakpoint, the end of the "prayers of David." The next several Psalms are all "of Asaph." Who? I don't remember an Asaph, but then I've read an AWFUL lot of names in this book.

So, anyway, the numbers here are just for the seven Psalms 65-71. The plan is, I'll come back next time and see if I can use the same breakdown for Psalms 73-82. K? K. With no further ado:

Celebratory Psalms

In this category, I place anything that amounts to pure praise: ecstatic professions of faith or devotion, as well as statements of intent to praise, give sacrifice, and so on. These kinds of verses are sometimes addressed to God in second person and sometimes about God in third person; I didn't distinguish these in my counting.


65:1 Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled.

66:17-20 I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.
Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!

In this sample, these made up a whopping 37% of the Psalmic real estate by verse.

Psalms of Sanctuary

The second most prevalent category of Psalm was the appeal to God for physical shelter and protection.

71:2-4 Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
Deliver me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of evil and cruel men.

These verses made up 14% of the sample.

Psalms of Despair

You can not escape the depressive streak that runs through the Psalms, as so often they address God with a catalog of profound miseries.

69: 1-3 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.

At 10%, these were the third most common kind of verse in this batch.

Other Categories

The other categories I've come up with so far are

  1. the related Complaints Against Enemies and Calls to Smite Enemies. At 4% and 7% of the same, you would say that they constitute 11% in an "Enemies" category and outweigh "Despair." Although there is some overlap between "Enemies" and "Despair," too. THIS IS JUST A LEARNING EXERCISE. IT ISN'T SCIENCE!!!
  2. Characterizations of God as Powerful (10%)
  3. Characterizations of God as a Bringer of Abundance (7%)
  4. References to Past Trials and Punishments Endured by the Israelites (2%)
  5. Discussion of The Wicked (1%) and The Righteous (1%)
  6. Mystical Visions (3%)
  7. Self-Accusation (1%)
  8. ?!???!!! (4%)

I'll talk more about some of these categories next time if they still seem to be meaningful. But if you are wondering what "?!???!!!" is all about, that would be those verses that I'm unable to make much sense out of. The main stumbling block this time was Psalm 68: 11-16, which goes like this:

11 The Lord announced the word, and great was the company of those who proclaimed it:
12 "Kings and armies flee in haste; in the camps men divide the plunder.
13 Even while you sleep among the campfires, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold."
14 When the Almighty scattered the kings in the land, it was like snow fallen on Zalmon.
15 The mountains of Bashan are majestic mountains; rugged are the mountains of Bashan.
16 Why gaze in envy, O rugged mountains, at the mountain where God chooses to reign, where the LORD himself will dwell forever?
It probably belongs under "mystical visions," but it's so quirky that I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Which of course makes me rather fond of it.

NEXT TIME: Psalms 73-82 -- the Breakdown.

This Week's Text: Psalms 65-72

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.