The Book of Psalms includes 150 poems written over several hundred years, roughly half a millennium, estimated from the 10th C. BCE until the 5th C. BCE. Although the Psalms are often attributed to King David, scholars doubt he had a hand in more than a few, if any at all. For Jews and Christians this anthology of poems constitutes a treasured resource for expressing the human experience — caught in a whirlwind of triumphs and calamities – as we encounter God’s immutable perfection. The range of these poems is surprising. We expect hymns celebrating God’s grandeur, and many Psalms do that. However, the Psalms also give voice to our wavering faith, our anger, our vanity, even at times to our despair. Even the 23rd Psalm, the one we know best, is harder-grained than we usually notice. The Psalms are poems, like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, built upon the dramas of heart and mind. They are rhythmic and employ elevated and memorable language – all this is well noted. Less obvious, many Psalms contain artful little dramas, poignantly particular. The following essay explores a bouquet of psalms representing this range of themes and voices.
Psalm 23 (King James Version)
1: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3: He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
The 23rd Psalm is as familiar as anything in the Bible. The Lord as shepherd is so tried and true that we are likely not to think about what shepherds do. The shepherd is kind but forceful. He makes sheep do what on their own they would not, even though it is good for them. And so we find the paradoxical praise for a kind of bullying that leads us to the abundance of life, the “green pastures” that hold all we seek, and the “still waters,” calm and running deep (unlike a babbling brook) that quench our souls’ thirst. We most appreciate such forceful care when we have lost our soul and His care restores it. How forceful must this caring be? It requires the shepherd’s rod and staff. Sheep are wayward and stupid, so the good shepherd must tug them and at times strike them to drive them to the right path. When we go wrong, we suffer for it; it is God’s reminder that we have strayed. Our afflictions indicate His careful guidance.
5: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Surprising, too, is the reward that comes from being in the right path. God prepares an abundant table for us, made all the sweeter because the speaker’s enemies must look on in bitter dismay. The special sauce is vindictive as the victorious Hebrew relishes his blessings completely by antagonizing his enemies with his joy. It isn’t enough that his own cup overflows with abundance but that the cups of his enemies are empty and broken. Although the King James Version imagines us dwelling “in the house of the Lord forever,” the ancient Hebrews had no concept of an eternal after-life. In Hebrew, the psalm says “for many days” sometimes rendered as “my whole life long.” Psalm 23, as most of the psalms, is less ethereal and more in-this-world than we usually suppose.
Psalm 19 (New International Version)
Psalm 19 is rich beyond measure and seems to belong to Hamlet or The Tempest. Psalm 19 is a celebration hymn, but also much more. This psalm is sure-handed, declarative, unflinching. Is God’s grandeur a mystery? Regard in wonder the miracles around us! In the night sky and in the cycle of day and night, God the craftsman demonstrates His skills. God’s creation needs no words but speaks a universal language. The poet’s spirit is aflame with what he sees.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
His images are bold, perhaps irreverent, veering close to Nature worship, forbidden to the Hebrew people: “In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.” For the poet the sun races across the heavens with the power of a heroic young man; emerging from his marriage tent after a night of sexual delight, the hero runs his race in the celestial stadium. Poets are helpless against the proscriptions against graven images and against figuring God through our senses, the one world we know. God’s heaven demonstrates His creative force, as does our erotic and athletic joy. This secret language utters God’s handy-work, as the psalmist teaches us.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
While thankful for bodily joy, the psalmist then identifies a more surprising gift. The material world is a wonder, but God’s law is His greatest gift. The heathens know the glory of physical being, but God’s law makes us fully human and supplies the scaffolding for our freedom. The law, so often resented as limiting the freedom to be ourselves, is precious beyond measure: “refreshing the soul”; “giving wisdom to the simple”; “rejoicing the heart”; and “enlightening the eye.” The law, usually thought of as abstract and bloodless, has rarely been the focus of poetry. We may easily agree that the law encapsulates thinking that we, in our simplicity, could never invent for ourselves. Similarly, law entices us to think carefully about who we are and what we need. But how does the law “refresh the soul” and “rejoice the heart”? The answer lies in the lines that introduce these qualities; God’s law is “perfect,” “trustworthy”, “right”, and “clear.” The world we know swarms with possibilities, like pathways in the desert, we can go anywhere. Against this anxiety and confusion, God’s law is certain, tested, and comprehensible, and allows the psalmist perfect faith. The soul sinks easily into doubt; the perfection of the law revives the spirit with comforting reassurance. What better proof of a loving God; and how rarely do we notice! The law, of course, warns us of errors, rewards us when we follow the true path, and supports the best interests of individuals and the community. However, for the psalmist, the law represents treasure beyond wealth in gold; it is sweeter than honey and the honeycomb. In Psalm 19, the speaker thinks sensually, savoring the law’s sweetness on his tongue.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is pure,
The decrees of the LORD are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
The psalmist knows our weakness. Despite the law, we go wrong: “But who can discern their own errors?” We are devious beings, lawyering God’s law to license our lawlessness. In our arrogance, we concoct laws for ourselves and misinterpret God’s laws, despite their perfect clarity. This is the source of our sinning; our inventive treachery.
11 By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
The prayer that closes Psalm 19 brings this observation into focus: “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, /LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” The psalmist asks that his words and thoughts cohere so that neither casts a shadow of difference upon the other; only then would they be acceptable to God. This is the hard rock of being, of our redemption from lawlessness that would otherwise overwhelm us.
14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 39 (New Standard Revised Version)
God, our shepherd, burdens our lives. The speaker in Psalm 19 hungers for perfection, inspired by God’s skill and by His law. Contemplating the perfect language of things, the speaker must wrestle with the deviousness of consciousness and the gap between thoughts and words. A slip-shod life would be less troublesome; but once we grasp God’s magnificence and perfect coherence, how can we embrace something less for ourselves? Jews joke that they wish He had chosen others since bearing God’s demands for moral perfection is often also a torment. In Psalm 39, one of the darkest, the poet extends this complaint and implores the Lord to turn away and let him breathe. Psalm 39 indicts God for afflicting our bodies, leaving us ignorant of what this pain and terror means, and then inducing guilt for our justified complaints. Like Job and Ecclesiastes, Psalm 39 entertains the thought that our lives may be meaningless and that God may be more hindrance than help with our absurd mortality.
1 I said, ‘I will guard my ways
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked are in my presence.’
2 I was silent and still;
I held my peace to no avail;
my distress grew worse,
3 my heart became hot within me.
While I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
4 ‘LORD, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
5 You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
6 Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
7 ‘And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
8 Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool.
9 I am silent; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
As with most poems, with Psalms we must ascertain setting and situation, the implied drama that makes the poet’s voice urgent and comprehensible. This Psalm’s narrative is peculiar and unsettling. Until well into the psalm, we do not know what drives the speaker’s intensity. Until verse 10, we do not know that the speaker has suffered a stroke, a scourge, a plague; a blow so disabling that he thinks now only upon his mortality and the emptiness of life. From the dizzying ledge of imminent extinction, life has no meaning: the wealth we gather so feverishly goes to others; our beauty is blasted by illness; we are poor sojourners challenged to find our way as aliens to an inscrutable God, like strangers in a foreign land.
From his sickbed, the speaker condemns the injustice of his suffering. He has been honorable towards God, keeping quiet his misery, in the presence of the wicked, who take pleasure in boasting a victory for their cynicism, and among the good, who might lose heart. He has remained dumb; understanding that his affliction is God’s doing and makes sense only in some way he cannot grasp. We are mist, a breath, mere vanity; we pass like phantoms, ghosts chasing empty desires. And what use is this bleak truth? Robert Alter’s translation captures the spare energy of the speaker’s grim fears:
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
To my cry hearken,
To my tears be not deaf.
For I am a sojourner with You,
A new settler like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
Before I depart and am not.
In distress, the speaker begs God to hear him. If God cannot explain this suffering, then the stricken man asks that He look away and dispel the sufferer’s feeling that he is sinful for complaining. God could at least let him breathe easy, relieve his anxieties before he vanishes.
10 Remove your stroke from me;
I am worn down by the blows* of your hand.
11 ‘You chastise mortals
in punishment for sin,
consuming like a moth what is dear to them;
surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah
12 ‘Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
13 Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more.’
Does this psalm provide consolation for those who suffer? While Psalm 39 captures the near despair of a man stricken inexplicably by God and may resonate with the grim experience of others, the poem leads to a bleak dead end. Relief comes only with his evaporation into nothingness, a torment better endured without God’s disapproving gaze.
Psalm 46 (King James Version)
Psalm 46 is a joyous battle hymn. It celebrates a warrior God who insures His people’s victory against enemy nations that seek their destruction. In its famous words: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption – none will inspire fear to a people God protects. The City of God rests safe amidst the tributaries of a great river; settled in bedrock, “she shall not be moved.”
1: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2: Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3: Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
4: There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
5: God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
But the focus of the hymn is martial and aggressive. Although “the heathen raged, [and] the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.” The promise assures that warfare ends in victory and peace: “He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.” The Psalm concludes in God’s own voice, assuring His people that the Covenant with Jacob remains firm and unchanging: “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” God promises that he will subdue the heathen nations and make them worship the one true God, bringing universal peace.
6: The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
7: The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
8: Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
9: He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
10: Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
11: The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
Psalm 46 reminds us that the psalms are musical performances, choral and instrumental works, obviously of different musical treatment depending on their themes. As quiet, and inward, and steeped in odd tonalities as Psalm 39 would be, Psalm 46 is public and rousing, with thunderous instrumental support in a major key, as is our own “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The “Battle Hymn” in its brilliant imagery depicts God fighting alongside His human agents: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of Wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible Swift sword;…” Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics in 1861 to encourage the troops of the Northern Armies; the tune was already a popular marching song. Psalm 46 is mute on means; it asserts that the long arc of history belongs to God, and means and methods are beside the point. God will provide the five smooth stones, He will bring David to the battle field, and David will slay Goliath. Psalm 46 sings out its rousing confidence that the enemies of God’s people will be overcome, and the City of God will flourish.
Psalm 55 (Robert Alter Translation)
Psalm 55 is a troubled treatment of embattled Israel. The enemies are within the gates, and bitter factionalism has set the power-seekers against the pious. The speaker invokes God’s help against his antagonists who torment him and others who oppose the new regime. He suffers “fear and trembling” and wishes for the “wings of the dove” to escape his suffering. The wicked patrol the ramparts and practice everywhere their terror and deceit. The psalm depicts a “1984” totalitarian culture, where guile and threat have extinguished the voices of those who fear and respect the Lord. Worse yet, the source of the speaker’s hatred and fear is someone with whom he was once close, a friend who worshipped at the temple with him. In the psalm, the speaker addresses this traitor who betrayed their friendship and the community of the faithful.
Hearken, O God, to my prayer,
and do not ignore my plea.
Listen well to me and answer me.
In my complaint I sway and moan.
From the sound of the enemy,
from the crushing force of the wicked
when they bring mischief down upon me
and in fury harass me,
my heart quails within me
and death-terrors fall upon me,
Fear and trembling enter me, and horror envelops me.
And I say “Would I had
Wings like a dove.
I would fly off and find rest.
Look, I would wander far away,
And lodge in the wilderness, selah
Would make haste to a refuge for me
From the streaming wind and storm.”
O Master, confound, split their tongue,
for I have seen outrage and strife in the town;
day and night, they go round it on its walls,
and mischief and misdeeds within it,
Disaster within it,
guile and deceit never part from its square.
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
no foe boasts against me,
that I might hide from him.
The speaker calls down God’s vengeance upon those who have corrupted the peace and harmony of His law. The anger in the speaker’s voice is emphatic: “God shall hear, and afflict them, even he that abideth of old.” But in the midst of this political condemnation, he returns to the heart of his dismay, the betrayal by a friend. His contempt and anger is vivid. The speaker wishes to keep his complaint general, but the pain of his friend’s treachery keeps erupting into his formal supplication to God: “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.” The speaker appeals to God to punish the enemies of His peace and civic harmony. However, his friend’s treachery rises up both as emblem of civil discord and main source of his bitter sorrow.
But you – a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we
shared sweet counsel,
in the house of our God in elation we walked.
May death come upon them.
May they go down to Sheol alive.
For in their homes, in their midst, are evils.
But I call to God,
and the Lord rescues me.
Evening and morning and noon
I complain and I moan,
and He hears my voice.
He has ransomed my life unharmed
from my battle,
For many were against me –
Ishmael and Jalam and the dweller in the east,
who never will change and do not fear God.
He reached out his hand against his allies,
Profaned his own pact.
His mouth was smoother than butter –
and battle in his heart.
His words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords.
Cast your lot on the Lord
and he will support you.
He will never let the righteous stumble.
And you, O God, bring them down
to the pit of destruction.
Men of bloodshed and deceit
will not finish half their days.
But I shall trust in You.
The architecture of God’s law and justice constitutes the peace we seek in our personal lives. In the psalms, general and the specific converge; the law and our desires seek the same ends; the personal and the political cohere. The psalms express the human measure of the law; suffering humanity’s dawning recognitions of what this means in the depths of our emotions. The speaker of Psalm 55 wishes to focus his complaints within a formal framework. However, the betrayal of a friend, a man like himself, strikes him more poignantly than his friend’s betrayal of God. His friend and he grew up together, they prayed together in the temple, they were one person; and now this friend exercises terror and guile against him, having broken the covenant of God but, more important to the speaker, the covenant of friendship.
Psalm 137 Jewish Publication Society
Psalm 137 supports this essay’s argument. Psalms are poems, not only because they have meter and imagery and elevated thoughts and language but because they tell a story and express emotions vividly. We go wrong in sanctifying the Psalms so that the human drama is eclipsed by ethereal concerns. Psalm 137, for example, could be domesticated into a fervent statement of allegiance to Zion. But the force of Psalm 137 is its anger, and we can appreciate that anger only by reconstructing the circumstances of the poem, as the poem insists we do.
The Edomites, a ferocious ally to Babylon, have destroyed Jerusalem. The newly enslaved Israelites are being marched by their Babylonian captors to foreign soil. Along the way, their enemies require of their captives a rejoicing song, for which Israel is famous. The Babylonians were selective in choosing survivors of that holocaust, garnering people of talent in crafts and arts. This particular group is made up of musicians, carrying their lyres with them. They seem to be women since their curse is aimed at their counterparts, the daughters of Babylon. The request of the Babylonian captor is outrageous, and the speaker suitably enraged.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps.
For there they that led us captive asked of us words of song, and our tormentors asked of us mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
The captives are bravely uncooperative; they hang their instruments in the poplar trees and refuse their new masters’ cruel request. They are adamant; the hand that would stroke the strings should wither, and the tongue that would sing should be disabled if they forget their love for Zion. This fierce attachment is more intense than any other source of joy or solace.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.
Remember, O the Lord, against the children of Edom the day of Jerusalem; who said: ‘Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.’
O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that repayeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock.
The psalm’s conclusion is ferocious. The revenge recalls specifically what they have witnessed; the murder of their infants, slaughtered before their eyes. The women bless those who will slaughter the children of Babylonian mothers so they will know what they have done. To preserve Biblical sweetness, some interpreters insist that the cruelty that ends Psalm 137 is not vengeance. But such a view transforms this powerful song of anger into bland piety. When we are done with holocausts, we can afford to mistake the ferocity and grief of Psalm 137.
Psalm 139 (National Conference of Catholic Bishops)
Scholars have attempted to group the psalms into categories – songs of praise, supplication, thanksgiving, wisdom, history psalms, royal psalms, Zion psalms, etc. This is helpful, but it obscures how much each psalm expresses its own drama. There is nothing like Psalm 137, and nothing really like any of the Psalms we have reviewed. Psalm 139, our last, is another special case, and a fitting summation of where all the Psalms are tending.
For those who ask where and what God is, Psalm 139 has much to tell. God is everywhere; in the womb that forms us, deep in our bones and hearts and mind. God is with us always, in our most private places. Before we utter a word, God knows what we will say and what we mean by it, even when we would prefer not to. God resides not only in our pious thoughts but in our hellish ones. When our thoughts lie in darkness, God knows what we feel and think, and judges us without evasion. God is the principle and the force of truth and of goodness, standing aside and judging our deviant selves. God upholds our better self, that part that knows we are going wrong even as we invent fine justifications for our self-betrayal.
LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
You sift through my travels and my rest;
with all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
LORD, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”—
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.
You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be.
God is the perfect law, the way we are intended to live the best version of a human life. Psalm 139 gives voice to conscience, consciousness, and conscientiousness; that is, to the voice within that tells us the truth and fashions the will to carry it out. As in the other psalms, the speaker is human and therefore conflicted. He has sought to hide from God, to escape the burden of goodness and truth and fidelity. But he has found, with some frustration, there is nowhere to hide.
How precious to me are your designs, O God;
how vast the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands;
when I complete them, still you are with me.
When you would destroy the wicked, O God,
the bloodthirsty depart from me!
Your foes who conspire a plot against you
are exalted in vain.
God is everywhere and always, but most especially within, the deep reality that his ungainly self must somehow emulate and obey. He asks: “Probe me, God, know my heart; try me, know my thoughts. See if there is a wicked path in me; lead me along an ancient path.” This inwardness utters itself in constant battle against God’s enemies, those foolish enough not to recognize what is all around and in them. The psalmist speaks his truth; he owes God that.
Do I not hate, LORD, those who hate you?
Those who rise against you, do I not loathe?
With fierce hatred I hate them,
enemies I count as my own.
Probe me, God, know my heart;
try me, know my thoughts.
See if there is a wicked path in me;
lead me along an ancient path.
Psalms suffer from a respect so suffocating that they cannot be read and understood in the genre of their creation. These lyric poems have each of them a dramatic setting that provides them point and poignancy. They gain their power by representing the drama of being human, the speaker caught between aspirations to perfection and the travail of being incomplete and subject to ineluctable forces and incomprehensible events. As with all great poetry, the voices are distinct and the passions are familiar.