Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Things I think about when I think about Psalms

This is David. He praised
God upon the harp. He also
pondered God, questioned
God and begged God.
Having “finished” Job (as if anyone could) I’m plowing through the Psalms at a blazing pace of approximately one per day. (Of course when I get to #119, I’ll definitely stretch it out over several days!) Anyhoo, I have a lot of random thoughts regarding these tasty literary treats… and the more I read the more my head has to stretch to contain them. 

I mean, the Psalms seem to be a lot of things. They’re songs, of course… The Oxford Companion to the Bible says that the title in Hebrew means “praises,” then it’s translated into Greek as the word “psalm” is from the Greek translation, ψαλμοί psalmoi, which means "instrumental music" and, by extension, "the words accompanying the music.”

This being the case, some of the intros to the Psalms talk about what tune they should be sung to, what instruments to use and what occasions to use them on. For example: “For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David” introduces Psalm 22. (This Psalm which pretty accurately describes Jesus’s suffering on the cross serves double duty as prophesy! Is there anything the psalms can’t do?!)

This is Larry, Edge, Bono and Adam.
They want to know, "How long?"
...just like David did.
Lots of the songs we sing in church today are lifted straight from English translations of the Psalms. When I’m reading them, anytime I know a song that has similar words, I can’t help but hearing the tune in my head, and I most likely will have it in my head all day… which can’t be a bad thing! I need all the good thoughts my brain can think! For instance, Psalm 61 gives us this plaintive tune by Matthew Ward, and Psalm 40 is one of my favorite pleas from U2. I’m telling you, this one gives me chills… and I think it only partially has to do with the good-lookin’ Irishman belting it out!
Moving right along, I get the impression that some of the Psalms are also written as literary exercises. That is, some of them are written in certain patterns like we might write sonnets or haikus. I know this, because my particular Bible has a bunch of notes at the bottom that give historic, linguistic and literary background for just about everything. These helpful pointers tell if a word could also mean something else, or if there is a literary tradition behind what is written and also the meaning ascribed to the passage by the majority of scholars. 

One of the things the writers of these notes like to talk about is how each Psalm is structured. For instance, Psalm 119 is an acrostic. It is actually divided into sections and named for the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and each letter gets 8 verses.

This is a song that
has a lot in common
with Psalm 119.
It’s almost like that old M-O-T-H-E-R song by Howard Johnson and Theodore Morse… you know, “"M" is for the million things she gave me…”

So if I were writing something like this it would be like

A... Almighty is our God. He rules over all the Earth… 
B... Beautiful and bountiful are the gifts He gives His children…
C... Complete is my devotion to the One who made me…

This is Pete Townshend.
If you try really hard, you can
figure out how to pray the
songs on this album.
etc. I know you’re thinking, don’t quit your day job - writing Psalms is not your bag, baby. And you’re right! I’m just showing you what I mean. Though he didn’t write this one, I can imagine David – the author of many of our psalms – on the run, hiding out in a cave coming up with similar stuff – praying so hard and constantly in his head that he started to give shape and structure to his heartfelt cries to God. Not unlike the time I had a eight-hour drive and I put in Pete Townshend’s White City and decided I was going to figure out how each song could be about God, and pray it.

Because the psalms, are, of course, prayers… This is easy to see - many address the Almighty directly: ie. “Oh Lord, how Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth,” or “Have mercy on me, Oh God”… that sort of thing. And they are the beautiful, poetic kind that I could never dream of coming up with on my own (see above). 

My prayers are much… shorter… and less artful, to say the least. If I say I will pray for you, I most certainly will… but I am not a verbose and flowery prayer despite being kind of a bigmouth. It’s more like just saying your name, holding you up to God – after all, He’s the one who can actually help you. This seems much easier that spinning my wheels trying to do what is beyond my ability, right? 

This is Arya Stark. She's thinking about
all the people she wants to kill.
Yeah - my prayers are more like… well, I’m reminded of Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. See, in this grand epic by George R. R. Martin, young Arya Stark has lost most of her family because of the treachery of a rival family, and every night before she can sleep, she lies there naming out loud each member of the horrible Lannister family and their minions: “Joffrey… Cersei… Tywin… the Mountain…” Of course, she is not praying for her enemies, as we have been instructed to do; no – she’s naming each person she intends to kill.

Which actually brings us to another cool thing about the Psalms… the guys who wrote them were not one bit embarrassed about saying exactly what they thought to God… whether it was “You’re awesome!” or “How long are you going to make me wait? I’m dyin’ here!” or even “Kill my enemies!” 

I guess it makes a difference that Arya intended to kill her enemies herself, where the writers of the psalms ask God to wreak justice… Again, this seems much easier… 

This is Tom Petty.
He knows a thing or two about waiting.
So… I’d rather lie in my bed and pray for you than insert myself into your situation, and even my prayers are short… Am I coming off as a huge lazy-ass? I could deny this, but I’d be lying. That said, I’ve always believed that letting God be God is one of the most taxing jobs there is… That’s right – giving a need to God and WAITING for Him to act is one of the most tedious and anxiety-producing things I've been asked to do! The Bible is full of stories of folks who got sick of waiting and took matters into their own hands… and every one a cautionary tale. Yes, my friends, the waiting actually IS the hardest part.

So… maybe the Psalms are written by a buncha waiters... People who are cooling their heels, thinking about their situation, then about God and what He’s gonna do. It’s no wonder they get so emotional. And we could write our own Psalms while we wait for whatever it is we're waiting for... but not all of us are poets, are we?

This is Belgian singer
Selah Sue. 
Sometimes after 
saying saying something 
particularly profound, the 
psalmists will say, "Selah,"
which means 
"pause and think of that." 

Fortunately we already have these beautiful, emotional, and spiritual works of art to meditate on… We can pray them along with the psalmist, taking comfort in the knowledge that people from everywhere and everywhen have felt just like we do... 

We also learn what it looks like to be a human who is tight with God. In the Bible, David is called "a man after God’s own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14,) and his songs show us just what such a thing looks like… to be intimate with the living God, to interact with Him on a personal level… sharing your whole heart and soul, good and bad… It’s not like God is going to be surprised by any bile that we spew, right? He's just glad we're talking to Him. And if we don't know what to say, the Psalms make it easy. And beautiful. 

Just this morning I read Psalm 62, which sort of sums up what I’ve read in the Psalms so far: It’s about a guy who's having a very bad day.... He ponders his circumstances, asks God to help him... then announces to the world: “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him.” Selah.*

*The Amplified Bible translates selah as "pause, and think of that."

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