Saturday, November 30, 2013

Psalms 108-114


Psalm 108 is attributed to David, but if he wrote it he was plagiarizing himself. Verses 1-5 are identical to Psalm 57:7-11. Verses 6-13 are the same as Psalm 60:5-12. I'm not sure how this strange hybrid came to be.

Psalm 109, is also attributed to David. It is the prayer of one who has been falsely accused. Verses 6-19 call down curses on the Psalmist's enemy. My father was a fairly creative curser, but he had nothing on this guy. I particularly like the bit where he says, essentially, "May your orphaned children beg for bread in the streets." Okay, that is a paraphrase. There are several "Psalms of Imprecation" like this one. The sentiments they express may be harsh and ugly, but they are perfectly human. I've said before, I love the psalms because they teach us that we can say anything in prayer.

Psalm 110 is another "Royal Psalm" apparently composed for a king's coronation. It is quoted by Jesus in a dispute with the Pharisees (Matthew 22:44 and parallels), and is cited in other New Testament texts where it is associated with Jesus' kingship. Verse 4 mentions Melchizedek, the mysterious priest of Salem whom we met in Genesis 14:17-20. I take a priest "of the order of Melchizedek" to be a non-levitical priest. In context it seems that the king is being anointed as a priest. In the book of Hebrews, the verse is applied to Jesus.

Psalm 111 is a "Wisdom Psalm" which offers praise for YHWH's saving acts on behalf of Israel. Verse 10 repeats the wisdom motto: "The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom." Commentaries usually explain that "fear" connotes "awe," "respect," and "reverence" more than "abject terror." Martin Luther explained that whatever a person "fears and loves" above all else is that person's god. In his explanations to the 10 Commandments in the Small Catechism, Luther repeatedly says that we are to "fear and love God." It is (most certainly) true that the things we fear have control over us and, in that regard at least, become our gods. "It is," according to Hebrews 10:31, "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." I suspect that the Psalmist had something like this in mind.

Psalm 112 is another alphabetical acrostic. It is thematically related to Psalm 111 and repeats the wisdom trope: the righteous prosper and the wicked fail.

In Jewish tradition Psalms 113-118 make up the "Egyptian Hallel." These six psalms are read as a part of the Passover seder.

Psalm 113 declares that YHWH, though exalted, cares for the poor and elevates the lowly.

In Psalm 114 creation reacts to YHWH's saving act of bringing Israel out of Egyptian bondage. The waters flee from YHWH. The mountains and hills skip (tremble?) like calves.

It's hard not to smile at a picture of a skipping calf. I liberated the image from this website. I like the picture but I don't know enough to endorse the site.
Next: Psalms 115-119

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Psalms 106-107


Psalm 106 is another recitation of Israelite history. This one begins in Egypt and ends with the conquest of Canaan. In every event Israel is faithless and God faithful. The psalm apparently dates from the time of the exile. It calls on God to be faithful once more, and to restore the people to their homeland. It also encourages the people, in exile, to be more faithful than their ancestors were.

Verse 48 is a doxology and serves to conclude Book IV of the Psalms.

Psalm 107 begins with a summons for people (returning exiles) to gather from the four points of the compass to worship God. It then tells how God has rescued the hungry, prisoners, the terminally ill, and those in danger on the sea. It ends with a description of the kinds of reversals that the prophets used to describe the return from exile. In the New Testament such reversals are characteristic of the Kingdom of God.

Next: Psalms 108-114

Psalms 103-105


Another psalm. Another earworm.

Psalm 103 is attributed to David. It has been the source of several English language hymns but reading it starts the Godspell setting of James Montgomery's words playing on my mental jukebox.

Verse 9 is another iteration of the frequently repeated confession of YHWH's nature:

YHWH is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Psalm 104 also begins "Bless YHWH, O my soul...." It describes God's work in creation and, according to the New Interpreter's Study Bible, "shows unmistakable dependence upon the contents of the Egyptian 'Hymn to the Aten,' or Sun Deity. I have always like verse 26 which declares that God made the fierce, frightening sea monster Leviathan just for fun. The God of this psalm is creative and generous, sustaining his creation.

Psalm 105 recounts the history of Israel from the time of the Patriarchs, through Egyptian slavery, liberation, the wilderness  period, to the conquest and settlement of Canaan.

Next: Psalms 106-107

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Diverse Music of the Psalms


On a recent Working Preacher podcast Rolf Jacobson, who teaches at Luther Seminary, compared Psalm 46 to a country song. I think he was referring to the song's structure: stanza, stanza, refrain, stanza, refrain.

Yesterday on this blog I posted a video of Hank William's song "There's a Tear in My Beer" which I compared to Psalm 102:9 which speaks of the psalmist's drink being mingled with tears. Maybe I was being just a little facetious. Maybe. Just a little.

I have also recently posted a video of Sinead O'Connor performing her song "Whomsoever Dwells" which is based closely on Psalm 91. The song comes from Sinead's album Theology which also includes an electric version. I like the electric version better but couldn't find a decent video of it.

A few days ago a friend of mine, who is something of a metalhead, referred to some heavy metal songs as "prayers." I not only conceded the point, but, being steeped as I am in the Psalms just now, added, "I think that some of the psalms were written for electric guitars, thudding bass, heavy drums, and screaming vocals."

Of course some of the psalms were written for harp, timbrel, and lyre.

And here's the point: Reading through the psalms I am often put in mind of particular pieces of music. That's because the psalms, at least most of them, were written to be sung. They were performed on instruments that are foreign to us now (Just what is a timbrel anyway?). They were written to tunes that are now long lost, tunes like "The Dove on Far-Off Terebinths" (Psalm 56).  That is, I think that "The Dove on Far-Off Terebinths" was a tune. I suppose it might have been a rhythm, a key, a raga, an instrumentation. But I think it was a tune.

If the psalms remind me of music it is because they are music. And they are a diverse collection of music, as diverse, say, as Hank Williams and Heavy Metal. It might be an interesting exercise to read through the psalms and assign each one to a musical genre. Psalm 46 is country. Psalm 102 is blues. Etc. I'm not going to do it, but it might be interesting.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Psalms 96-102


I think it is safe to call this post the midpoint of my year of blogging biblically. The project will take 365 calendar days, though not necessarily sequential calendar days. I have taken a day off here and there and will continue to do so. But as of this post, we're halfway through the Bible (or at least the Protestant canon of the Bible) and right smack in the thick of the Psalms.

There is a current of universalism in today's psalms. YHWH, the God of Israel, is sovereign over all nations and ruler of all creation. This isn't the same as a doctrine of universal salvation, the very mention of which gets some Christians' shorts in a knot. What Christians call salvation is not really a concern of the Hebrew Scriptures. What these psalms do, however, is to suggest, joyfully, that the Lord is concerned for all people and for all the universe.

Of course there is a contrary trend in the Bible as well. There are plenty of Scriptures that suggest YHWH is an exclusivistic, tribal God. In the New Testament, too, there are writings that proclaim the universal scope of God's love and others that draw sharp lines between insiders and outsiders. It is a rich collection of diverse materials, this Bible that we have.

Psalm 96 calls on all of creation to sing a new song in praise of YHWH, the only true God. This Psalm is quoted in its entirety in 1 Chronicles 16, and, according to the New Interpreters' Study Bible, draws on material found in other psalms. The phrase "worship YHWH in the beauty of holiness" is odd. What is "the beauty of holiness"? Could there be a more natural translation of this idiom?

Psalm 97 declares that YHWH rules over all the earth. Idolators are shamed. The righteous rejoice.

Psalm 98 calls all the earth to praise YHWH with musical instruments. That's not just the people of the earth. Even the rivers "clap their hands" and the mountains sing.

Psalm 99 shows a more local concern. YHWH is "enthroned between the cherubim" which I take to mean the figures on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Israel's ancestral heroes are invoked: Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. Zion is the proper place of worship.

Psalm 100 is short. It returns us to the theme of universality calling all the earth to  make a joyful noise to YHWH and inviting it to join in Israel's worship.

Psalm 101 is the prayer of an individual, attributed to David. In it the psalmist vows to live righteously and goes into a little detail about what that righteous life might look like.

Psalm 102 is the fifth of the seven Penitential Psalms. Its heading says that it is "A Prayer of an afflicted person...." It seems to me that it must be a composite because it is sometimes the prayer of an individual and at other times a communal prayer. It complains of both illness and enemies and asks God to rebuild Zion. There are some wonderful images in this psalm.

I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop. (verses 6-7)

For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink... (verse 9)

I think I've heard that last bit in a country song.

Next: Psalms 103-105

Friday, November 22, 2013

Psalms 90-95


And so we begin Book IV of the Psalms (Psalms 90-106).

Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses. It is a communal prayer that contrasts God's eternal nature with human mortality. Verse 4 is a poetic statement:

For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
  or like a watch in the night.

Sometimes this verse has been misused as an interpretive principle either in defense of Old Earth Creationism (making the "days" of Genesis 1 into periods of 1000 years) or in schemes for setting the date of the end times.

Psalm 91 has no title and no attribution. It poetically promises God's protective care for the faithful. I find it hard to read this one without hearing music. Verses 1-2 are used in the popular modern hymn "Eagle's Wings." Personally I dislike that song. I find it treacly and overdone. My taste runs toward Sinead O'Connor's interpretation of this psalm "Whomsoever Dwells."

Verse 11 is quoted by the devil when tempting Jesus in Matthew 4:6.

Psalm 92, if its title is to be believed, is a "song for the Sabbath." Written in the wisdom tradition this psalm declares that it is good to praise God with musical instruments. It goes on to say that the righteous flourish while the wicked perish.

Psalm 93 is the second enthronement psalm (Psalm 47 was the first). It pictures YHWH enthroned over all the world. Verses 3-4 declare the Lord's power over the floods: the ancient, primordial forces of chaos.

Psalm 94 is another wisdom psalm, this time a lament. It calls on God to avenge the psalmist against wrongdoers.

Psalm 95 begins praising God as the almighty Creator. Then, invoking the story of the Exodus calls its hearers to faithfulness.

Psalms 93-95 have no titles.

Next: Psalms 96-102

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Psalms 86-89


Psalm 86, ascribed to David, is the prayer of an individual. Verses 1-7 are a prayer for help expressed in general terms. Verses 8-13 give praise and thanks for help received. Verses 14-17 ask for help again. Throughout this psalm the psalmist reminds God of God's good nature. Verse 15 is another instance of the theme repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible. The Lord is

merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding
   in steadfast love and faithfulness.

 Psalms 87 and 88 are attributed to the "sons of Korah" (NIV) or, if you prefer a more gender-neutral term "Korahites" (NRSV).

Psalm 87 describes the splendors of Zion. I can't read it without the hymn "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken" playing on my mental jukebox. The Harper Collins Study Bible notes suggest that Zion (Jerusalem) is "the mother city of all who know the Lord, wherever they are born." The reference to "springs" (NRSV)  or "fountains" (NIV) is open to interpretation.

Psalm 88 is specifically attributed to "Heman the Ezrahite." It is the prayer of an individual who is sick and, at least in their own perception, at the point of death. The psalmist prays at night (verse 1), in the daytime (verse 8), and in the morning (verse 13). The Pit (Hebrew Sheol, verse 4) is the shadowy realm of the dead. For most of the Old Testament period Israel had no conception of bodily resurrection, heavenly reward or eternal punishment. This psalm ends on a bleak note:

Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
   your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
   from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
   my companions are in darkness.
                    (Psalm 88:15-18, NRSV)

Psalm 89 is attributed to Ethan the Ezrahite. It opens with a statement that YHWH established the David dynasty (verses 1-4). Verses 5-8 describe YHWH as greater than other gods. Verses 9-13 address God directly in the second person and YHWH's might in creation. Yet again we have creation account that varies from those in Genesis. Here YHWH subdues Rahab, not the harlot of Jericho, but the sea monster. Verses 14-18 declare that the faithful are blessed. Verses 19-29 tell how God chose David and established an everlasting dynasty for him. Verses 30-37 say that YHWH may punish the Davidic kings but, for David's sake, will not destroy the dynasty. Verses 38-45 get to the heart of the matter: Jerusalem has been destroyed. Verses 46-51 petition YHWH to renew his love for the psalmist and the king, who may be the same person.

Verse 82 is a doxology and provides the ending for Book II of the Psalms.

Next: Psalms 90-95

A Quote

When it comes to Old Testament studies, Walter Bruggemann is the man. His prose can be dense and therefore difficult, but it is also rich and quotable. Ponder this paragraph from Bruggemann's book An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, 2009, p. 171).

At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel's creation texts, sapiential traditions, and hymnic exuberances. This insistence flies in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces a competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievements, and finally mortality. It seems to me that, in the end, all of these anxieties are rooted in an ideology that resists a notion of limitless generosity and extravagant abundance.

This, I think, is a great insight: Faith is the trust that the center of reality, God, is generous. Much suffering is rooted in faithlessness.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Psalms 80-85


At Ekklesia (the Greek New Testament reading group I attend) yesterday, a question came up about the date of the Psalms. The book of Psalms contains compositions from a wide span of ancient Israel's history, from the monarchy (maybe earlier?) through  post-exilic times.

Psalm 80 reflects a northern tradition (v. 2) and may have been composed at the destruction of the city of Samaria. It asks how long God will be angry with his people. Verses 8-13 are an extended analogy comparing Israel to a vine. The psalm ends with a plea: restore us.

Psalm 81 begins happily enough with a call to praise. It quickly goes south after that. Verses 6-16 are a first-person address from God to Israel. God only asked one thing of the Israelites: "Have no other gods." But would they listen? Nooooo. God asks his people to repent and, in return, promises food and relief from enemies.

Psalm 82 is set in a heavenly courtroom. The "gods" of verse one are divine beings of some sort. Maybe the psalmist meant something like angels. Maybe they are supposed to be the gods of other nations. Whatever they are, they make up God's heavenly court and witness God's demands. God wants earthly rulers to bring justice for the poor, weak, and needy.

I'm going to repeat that in case any of my elected representatives happen to read this blog.  God wants earthly rulers to bring justice for the poor, weak, and needy.

I take the statement "I say, 'You are gods...'" (verse 6) as divine sarcasm. I'll entertain other possibilities, though. What say ye? This psalm ends with a cry for justice.

Psalm 83 is the last of the psalms attributed to Asaph. Verses 1-8 tell how certain gentile nations conspire to destroy Israel. Verses 9-12 allude to incidents in the book of Judeges and describe the fate of some of Israel's former foes. Verses 13-18 are a prayer vindication, victory, vengeance...something that begins with V.

I think that Psalm 84 must have been composed for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It speaks of longing for the temple. Verse three has a charming image of the sparrow finding refuge at God's altar. The Bible treats sparrows as something of little worth (cf. Matthew 10:29). Even today they are considered junk birds by those who put out bird feeders. Yet, even something so common and humble has a home in God's temple.Verses 8-9 are a brief prayer for the king. Verse 10b is one of my favorite Scriptures to quote. You see, I was raised to extend the common courtesy of holding  a door open for others. Sometimes they express surprise. It's handy to be able to say:

 I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.

Psalm 85 is ascribed to the Korahites. I take it to be a psalm about the return from exile. While the expectations for the return were great, the reality was difficult. This psalm asks for God's continued help in facing the tasks of rebuilding and defending Jerusalem. It ends with a promise of restoration. The imagery found in verse 10 is, in my estimation at least, among the most sublime in Scripture:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

I found the picture of the sparrow here.

Next: Psalms 86-89

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Psalms 78-79


Psalms 78 and 79 are both attributed to Asaph. Both reflect the theology of the Deuteronomist: Israel's obedience brings blessing. Rebellions brings punishment.

Psalm 78 is lengthy but easily summarized. The Psalmist recounts Israel's history from the Exodus through the kingship of David. The purpose of this psalm is to teach the story of God and Israel to future generations. Israel's relationship with God is difficult.

Psalm 79 is a lament. Jerusalem has fallen. The temple has been desecrated. The psalmist interprets this as the signs of God's punishment. The psalmist cries out for revenge.

Next: Psalms 80-85

Friday, November 15, 2013

Psalms 74-77


Today's psalms are all attributed to Asaph.

Psalm 74 is a communal lament over the destruction of the temple. The psalmist is eloquent in expressing a sense of forsakeness. Verses 12-17 speak of God's power in creation. These verses seem to reference a creation myth unlike those in Genesis. Although the psalm asks for God's help, it does not ask revenge.

In contrast, Psalm 75 is a communal prayer of thanksgiving. It declares that God is judge over the nations. Verses 2-5 are spoken by God (through a prophet or priest?) in the first person. "Horns" in verse 10 are figurative symbols of power.

Psalm 76 declares the God of Israel to be sovereign over all nations. The intended meaning of verse 10 is unclear:

Human wrath serves only to praise you,
when you bind the last bit of your wrath around you.

Psalm 77 depicts the psalmist's sleepless night wondering whether God has forgotten or abandoned him. It recounts some of God's "wonders from of old" (particularly the parting of the Red Sea), probably as a cause for confidence.

Next: Psalms 78-79

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Psalms 70-73


Psalm 70 is attributed to David and is nearly identical to Psalm 40:13-17. The major difference is that Psalm 40 uses the divine name YHWH (translated "Lord") and Psalm 70, typical of Book II of the Psalms, substitutes Elohim (God).

Psalm 71 has no heading and may have been a continuation of Psalm 70. It shares with that previous psalm a plea for deliverance from enemies. It is, seemingly, the prayer of an older person.

Psalm 72 is a royal psalm attributed to Solomon. Verse 1 explains the attribution. It refers to the king as a "king's son." The psalm praises the king for his concern for the poor and asks that he be blessed with long-life, dominion, victory, and prosperity. Verses 18-19 are a doxology, perhaps meant to conclude Book II of the Psalms. Verse 20 says that the "prayers of David are now ended." There will, however, be more psalms attributed to David. Probably Book II was thought of as "the prayers of David."

Book III begins with Psalm 73 which is attributed to the musician Asaph. We have seen this attribution before at Psalm 50. Psalms 73-83 are all attributed to Asaph.  This psalm declares that the wicked prosper. Briefly. The psalmist admits to being tempted to live like those wicked. But in the end the psalmist declares his faithfulness.

Next: Psalms 74-77

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Psalms 66-69


These four psalms, along with psalm 65, are called "songs." The headings for Psalms 68 and 69 specify that they are "of David."

Psalm 66 is something of a jumble. Verses 1-4 call the who earth to praise God. Verses 5-7 thank God for the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus. Verses 8-12 talk about God "testing" Israel, a reference, perhaps, to conquest and exile. Verses 13-15 promise God an animal sacrifice. In the remaining verses, 16-20, an individual declares to anyone who will listen that God has answered a prayer.

Psalm 67 has two strophes punctuated with the refrain,

May the peoples praise you, O God,
May all the peoples praise you.

This psalm declares that God has blessed Israel in order that Israel might make God known to all nations.

Psalm 68 is more of a mess than Psalm 66. I can't make much of it. Especially verses like this:

The women at home divide the spoil,
   though they stay among the sheepfolds—
the wings of a dove covered with silver,
   its pinions with green gold. (12b-13).

I know its a song of victory, but what does it mean? Verse 18 is quoted, to odd effect in Ephesians 4:8.

You ascended the high mount,
   leading captives in your train
and receiving gifts from people,
   even from those who rebel
   against the Lord God's abiding there.

Granted, Ephesians quotes from the Septuagint, but still, its an odd use of an odd psalm.

Psalm 69 is an individual prayer for rescue from enemies who make false accusations. The notes in the New Interpreters Study Bible say,

In the NT, Ps 69 achieves kergymatic standing with Isa 53 and Pss 22 and 118.

In other words, New Testament writers applied this psalm's image of an innocent sufferer to Jesus.


Next: Psalms 70-73

Monday, November 11, 2013

Psalms 58-65


We have eight psalms today, all attributed to David. Have I mentioned that serious scholarship does not take these attributions very seriously?

The New Interpreter's Study Bible notes call Psalm 58 "puzzling." I would describe it as harsh. Verses 1-2 are addressed to "you rulers." Whoever the rulers are, they are unjust. Verses 3-5 describe them as snakelike. Verses 6-8 asks God to kill them. The remaining verses, 9-11, tells us that the righteous are happy that God kills them.

The heading for Psalm 59 relates it to incidents in 1 Samuel 19. This is another prayer for protection from enemies who are described as "dogs" in a refrain. The enemies in this psalm appear to be gentile nations. Verse 11 asks God not to kill them lest the people forget. The psalm ends with an expression of trust in God.

I can't find a clear reference for the events mentioned in the heading for Psalm 60. Joab, it says, killed 12,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt. 1 Samuel 8:13 says that David, not Joab, killed 18,000 Edomites there. 1 Chronicles 18:2 attributes the same 18,000 Edomite deaths to Abishai. Let's just shrug this off as a mystery. The Psalm itself begins with a statement that God rejected Israel's armies, i.e. they were defeated in battle. Verses 4-5 are a prayer for victory. Verses 6-8 were probably spoken by a priest or prophet. They speak of God's rule over lands within Israel, and over some Gentile neighbors. Verses 9-12 are a prayer for help.

Psalm 61 is an individual prayer for help including a petition for the king.

Psalm 62 has a refrain that begins "For God alone my soul in silence waits." The first part of the psalm is a prayer of trust in the face of threatening enemies. The second part is an instruction to trust in God, not in things that do not last. Verse 11 uses a Hebrew poetic device:

Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
   that power belongs to God,...

 That once...twice escalation is something we will see in the Proverbs.

Psalm 63 expresses the psalmist's desire for God which, it says, is quenched in prayer. Long ago I learned a song, a round, that set verses 3-4 to a simple tune:

Your lovingkindness is better than life.
Your loving kindness is better than life.
My lips will praise you.
Thus will I bless you.
I will lift up my hands unto the Lord.

I can't read this psalm without getting an earworm of that song. Aargh!

Psalm 64 is the prayer of someone who has become the victim of a smear campaign. The psalmist's adversaries shoot verbal arrows at him (verse 4). In return God will shoot them "with his arrow" (verse 7).

Psalm 65 is my kind of psalm. It expresses gratitude to God for forgiveness and thanks for nature's bounty. I find myself sometimes moved by a deep sense of thankfulness for undeserved grace.

The earworm picture was found at Spongepedia.

Next: Psalms 66-69

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Psalms 51-57


Today we have seven psalms, all of which have headings attributing them to David. Five of them are tied to specific incidents in David's story.

Psalm 51 is one of the penitential psalms (the others being 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143). In my mind it is the quintessential penitential psalm. It has played an important role in the liturgies I have known. Verses 10-12 are used as an offertory:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
   and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit.

The entire psalm features heavily in the liturgies of Lent. It is read during the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday and at the beginning of the service for Good Friday.

The heading for Psalm 51 connects it to the time when David was confronted by the prophet Nathan for his adultery with Bathsheba and his conspiracy to kill her husband Uriah. It's not a bad application for the psalm but the attribution is nearly impossible. The psalm dates, according to the New Interpreter's Study Bible to the 7th century BCE. Verse 18, which calls on God to "rebuild the walls of Jerusalem" would seem to be even later, from the time of Nehemiah and Ezra, the 5th century.

The heading for Psalm 52 connects it to the story in 1 Samuel 21-22 where Doeg the Edomite ratted David out to King Saul. This psalm, addressed directly to an enemy, doesn't fit that situation perfectly. The psalmist's enemy is a liar. Doeg only told Saul the truth.

Psalm 53 is Psalm 14 slightly reworked. The divine name YHWH ("Lord," in English) is replaced in several instances with Elohim ("God"). There are other small differences, but both psalms 53 and 14 ridicule fools who trust in themselves rather than God.

The heading of Psalm 54 relate it to an event in 1 Samuel 23:15-19. In it the psalmist prays for revenge on his enemies.

Psalm 55 also concerns enemies but more particularly, and more poignantly, the psalmist has been betrayed in some way by a friend:

My companion laid hands on a friend
   and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
   but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
   but in fact were drawn swords. (Psalm 55:20-21)

The Psalmist wants revenge:

But you, O God, will cast them down
   into the lowest pit;
the bloodthirsty and treacherous
   shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you. (Psalm 55:23)

The desire for revenge, though it is human and understandable, is an unbecoming motive. One thing that I love about the psalms is that no human emotion is off the table. If the psalms are, in any way, models of prayer for the believer, they teach us that we can express ourselves, even our basest desires, freely to God. Of course, this does not mean that we should expect God to bless our lower nature.

Like Psalm 34, Psalm 56 has a heading that ties it to David's sojourn in Gath (1 Samuel 21). Like the four psalms preceding and the one following it, Psalm 56 is a prayer for protection from enemies.

Psalm 57's heading relates it to David's hiding from Saul in the cave at Adullam (1 Samuel 22).

Next: Psalms 58-65

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Write Your Own Psalm


You say you’ve always wanted to be a psalmist but don’t know where to begin? Fortunately for you writing psalms is easier than you think. Just follow the simple steps in this tutorial and you’ll be writing biblical quality psalms in no time!


Maybe you’ve read an article about the techniques of Hebrew poetry and thought, “I could never do that. It’s too complicated!” But you’re in luck. Most of those difficult techniques don’t translate well anyway. There is really only one technique that you have to master: parallelism.

    Parallelism is repeating the same idea
      in different words.
   Using diverse vocabulary to restate
      the same thought--that’s parallelism.

    Parallelism is easy and fun.
    It is simple and enjoyable.

   Do you get the idea?
   Do you grasp the concept?

Good! I told you it was easy!

All it takes to master the technique of parallelism is practice and a good thesaurus.


Now you are ready to begin writing your psalm. But what will you write about? Most psalms contain one or more of these four elements: Complaint, Cry for Help, Thanksgiving, and Praise.

A. Complaint

We all have things to complain about. Psalmists usually complain about their health and/or their enemies.

If you choose to complain about your health, be graphic. Describe your fevers, chills, sore feet, falling hair, halitosis, poor eyesight, and seeping pustules in detail. If at all possible mention “the Pit” as in, “I am going down to the Pit.”

If you decide to complain about enemies, use animal imagery: bulls, jackals, and dogs are good choices.

You may, if you wish, complain about both your health and your enemies:

    I am a mass of boils;
    I am covered with seeping sores.
    Enemies surround me;
    Dogs encircle me
       As I go down to the Pit.

Your complaints don’t have to be personal. You may also complain on behalf of your entire community. In this case you will probably focus on enemies rather than illness.

B. Cry for Help

Now it’s time to ask YHWH to help you. Don’t be afraid to grovel. Abject pleading may be called for. Be sure to tell God why he should help you. For example:

    You have always helped us before.

    I won’t be able to praise you if I go down to the Pit.

    I’ve always been a good person.

    People will laugh at you if you don’t help us.


Note: If you are writing a Penitential Psalm, ask the Lord to save you from your own bad self.

C. Thanksgiving

If God gives you the help you desire, be sure to say thanks. If God hasn’t given you help yet, say thanks in advance. Promise to do something in return. For example:

    Offer a sacrifice

    Pour out a libation

    Give praise in the midst of the assembly

    Help the poor

    Instruct the foolish

 If you aren’t going to offer an animal sacrifice, you may want to mention that God doesn’t really want one anyway:

    Bulls and rams you do not desire
    You turn up your nose at lambs and goats.

D. Praise 

Tell God how wonderful he is. Invite others to join in. For example:

    Your friends and neighbors

    Other nations

    Plants and animals

    Mythological creatures: Leviathan, Behemoth,

    Heavenly creatures: Seraphim, Cherubim, Angels

    Stars and Planets

After you’ve written a few psalms using the steps outlined above, you’ll be ready to try your hand at more advanced psalms: Wisdom Psalms, Songs of Zion, Royal Psalms, and Songs of Ascents.

Although I wrote this with tongue, I hope obviously, in cheek, there are some serious points to be made. Parallelism is a common and important technique of ancient Hebrew poetry. The elements of Complaint, Cry for Help, Thanksgiving, and Praise are themes of many of the psalms and, according to Walter Bruggemann in his book An Unsettling God, programmatic for much of the Old Testament narrative. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Psalms 46-50


Today we have five psalms, four of them have headings attributing or dedicating them to the sons of Korah. The fifth, Psalm 50, is called a "psalm of Asaph," who is mentioned as a musician and head of one of the Levitical families in 1 Chronicles.

Psalm 46 is a Lutheran favorite. Martin Luther paraphrased it in the song that became the anthem of the Reformation, Ein' Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God). It consists of three strophes, two of which end with the refrain:

YWHW of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. (vv.7, 11)

Which leads one (this one anyway) to wonder whether the refrain also once stood at the end of verse 3. The psalms first strophe describes the threat of natural disasters. The second strophe the threat of foreign armies. The third strophe encourages the faithful to "be still" and trust in God in the face of every threat.

Psalm 47 is a song of praise which describes God as the king who rules over all nations. Verse three reads:

God has gone up with a shout,
YHWH with the sound of a trumpet.

On the basis of this verse Christians have used this psalm to celebrate Jesus' ascension ("God has gone up") and Jews to celebrate Rash Hashanah ("the sound of a trumpet") when shofars (trumpets made of ram's horns) are blown.

Psalm 48 is a song of Zion, that is, a psalm that uses the imagery of God's holy city, Jerusalem, and its temple on Mt. Zion. Here Zion inspires joy in the faithful (vv.1-3) and fear in Israel's enemies (vv. 4-8). It ends with instructions to make a procession around the city.

Psalm 49 stands in Israel's wisdom tradition. All people, even the rich, wise, and powerful, are mortal. Therefore, they are not to be feared.

Psalm 50 seems to be a liturgy in which a priest or temple prophet, speaking in the words of God, admonishes the people. Their sacrifices are vain unless they live godly lives.

Next: Psalms 51-57

Monday, November 4, 2013

Psalms 40-45


The book of Psalms is subdivided into five sections which, just to keep things confusing, are called "books." Today we finish Book I of the Psalms and begin Book II. Psalms 40 and 41, rounding out Book I, are attributed to David. Psalms 42, 44, and 45 have headings attributing them to the "sons of Korah." Psalm 43 has no heading and seems to be a continuation of Psalm 42.

Remember Korah? He's the Levite who led an unsuccessful rebellion against Moses and Aaron back in Numbers 16. He wanted equality with the Aaronic priests. I guess his descendants were still in the role of underlings.

Psalm 40 seems backwards, or schizoid, or something. I wonder if it isn't actually two psalms that got jammed together. It begins with thanksgiving for the Lord's help but ends asking for help.

Psalm 41 begins with a beatitude blessing "those who have regard for the poor." It then becomes a prayer for deliverance from illness and enemies. The psalms seem to conflate illness and enemies frequently. Verse 13, the last verse of this psalm, is actually a doxology concluding Book I.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
   from everlasting to everlasting.
        Amen and Amen.

Book I most frequently used the divine name YHWH. Book II more often uses Elohim (translated "God") to designate the deity.

Psalms 42-43, as I mentioned, are a single composition. It has three verses strophes punctuated by the refrain:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
   my help and my God.

This psalm, apparently written by an individual living in exile. Perhaps the psalmist was a war captive. He expresses his deep longing for God, his hope for return. His remembrances of worship in his homeland are almost nostalgic.

Psalm 44 begins with a bright note about how God helped Israel displace the native Canaanites. Almost immediately the Psalm turns somber. The Israelites have suffered defeat and cry out for God to help them again.

Psalm 45 is an odd one. The heading identifies it as a "love song." It seems to have been composed for a royal wedding. It spends some time praising both the king and his queen. Though it admits of other interpretation, verse 6 seems to address the king himself as "god."

Next: Psalms 46-50

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Psalms 36-39


Today we have four more psalms, all attributed to David and all, I think, related to Israel's wisdom tradition.

In the NIV, Psalm 36 begins:

I have a message from God in my heart
   concerning the sinfulness of the wicked;
There is no fear of God
   before their eyes.

In the NRSV it says:

Transgression speaks to the wicked
   deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God
   before their eyes.

The Hebrew of this verse is, apparently, ambiguous. The rest of the psalm is a description of the wicked (vv. 1-5), a contrasting description of God (vv. 6-9), and a petition for protection against the wicked (vv.10-13). The contrast of the wicked with God is unusual; we might expect a contrast between the wicked and the righteous. It is interesting to note  that God saves "both humans and animals" (v. 6).

Psalm 37 is another alphabetical acrostic. Each section of approximately two verses begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is spoken in the voice of an older person who declares that, in the long run anyway, the righteous prosper and the wicked are brought down. Verse 11 may sound familiar:

But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

This verse has a distinct parallel in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:5):

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

The Greek word translated "earth" in this verse can just as well be translated "land" and may refer to to the entire earth but only the land of Israel.

Psalm 38 is the complaint of one who is suffering illness and rejection. Like Job, the Psalmist wants an answer from God. The Psalmist is faithful and asks God's help. The author of this Psalm also equates suffering with punishment for sin (vv. 17-18)

The heading of Psalm 39 mentions Jeduthun, a musician in King David's court (c.f. 1 Chronicles 25:1). This psalm is another lament from one suffering illness and rejection. The psalmist reflects on the brevity of human life. In v. 12, he calls himself an "alien, like all my forebears" probably a reference to Israel's experience of exodus.

Next: Psalms 40-45

Friday, November 1, 2013

Psalms 32-35


We have four psalms today, three of which are attributed to David. One (Psalm 34) is given a setting in David's life. One (Psalm 35) has no heading which may mean that it is supposed to be connected to the previous psalm.

Psalm 32 is called a "maskil." No one seems to know exactly what a maskil is though my study Bibles suggest that it may be a didactic psalm, or an artful one. This psalm connects forgiveness of sin with physical healing which may assume the opposite connection: sin causes suffering. Verse 5 is familiar to me from the liturgies of my childhood where it was quoted:

I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.
And thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.

Psalm 33 calls the audience to praise God with music (vv.1-3) because God is right, just, and true (vv. 4-5) and has power over creation (vv. 6-9) and over the nations (vv. 10-11). The first strophe of verse 12 is often quoted in the cause of civil religion:

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.

But let's be clear. The nation referenced here is ancient Israel, not the modern USA.

The remaining verses of Psalm 33 describe the Lord's power over armies and his protection of those who fear him (vv. 16-19) and proclaim the psalmist's hope (vv/ 20-22).

The heading affixed to Psalm 34 connect it to the episode in 1 Samuel 32:10-15 where David pretended to be mentally ill, though the king in 1 Samuel is identified as Achish, but here is called Abimelech. The psalm, another alphabetical acrostic, is a thanksgiving for answered prayers. God provides for the righteous, it says. The wicked don't fare so well.

Psalm 35 is a prayer for protection from enemies. Reading it reminded me of a friend, a pastor who read this psalm, or one like it to a paranoid woman. The woman found it "helpful."

Next: Psalms 36-39