A Word of Introduction
For many people the scriptures are a strange world. The style of this literature is unfamiliar to us. The social world from which they come is far different than our own. The history and context of many sections eludes us. And, of course, the knowledge that we are reading the Bible in translation leaves us wondering what the text really says – and whether we are hearing what the original audience would have heard.
On the other hand, these words have endured for thousands of years. That fact alone suggests there is something universal in these words. Something in Shakespeare’s insight into the human condition keeps us watching his plays rather than those of his contemporaries, and something in his poetry keeps us listening to it across generations. What is true of Shakespeare is true of the scripture. Even though it is the literature of a time and place, it speaks of universal human truths in profound prose and brilliant poetry.
A twitter world – and a world atwitter – does not have much room for poetry or profound reflection on the human condition. But there is something in life that calls us to be spiritually deeper. One way to discover some depth within is by listening and reflecting on those writings that survive the test of time.
The psalms are a great place to start. The poetry is beautiful. They explore every dimension of human experience: guilt, grief, rage, hope, exquisite joy. And these are songs and prayers – things that are by definition universal. They don’t require knowledge of history.
This is not a commentary. It is a devotional reflection and exploration of the psalms. It is connected to other parts of scripture, and to the historic faith of the Christian church, but its purpose is not to teach ideas. It hopes to wander deeper into the spiritual reality embodied in Jesus – a reality rooted in the god who met Abram and Sarai, gave them a new identity as Abraham and Sarah, and asked them to set out on the journey of their lives trusting a promise. This god called Moses and an oppressed people out from Egypt, through the wilderness to a land of their own, staking God’s claim to be a god of social transformation – a god of justice and mercy in a world governed by privilege and power. And this god calls us through Jesus to trust the ultimate triumph of grace and life.
This reflection assumes that the word God has meaning: that there is some truth, some reality, something at the heart of the universe that pushes and pulls us towards truth, compassion and a life that participates in all that is eternal.
On the language for God
The ancient Israelites knew and worshipped feminine images of the divine – ideas they adopted from the cultures around them, but ideas the Biblical writings consistently opposed. Because these ancient writings use the masculine gender for God, I am reluctant to “correct” them. I do not believe God is male, nor do I believe the scriptures think God is male, but we humans are enamored with fertility (how can I be happy and prosperous) where the God of the Bible is concerned with justice and mercy. I think it best, therefore, to honor the ancient practice.
I will likewise honor the ancient convention of using the word LORD when the Biblical text uses the four letters for the name of God. The scriptures are about a specific god in a world of many gods – a god who led slaves out of bondage and guided them with laws, upheld by prophets, that called them to be a people of justice and compassion and not a nation of slaves and slaveholders like Egypt and every other kingdom. Since we, too, live in a world of many ideas about what deserves our ultimate allegiance it is important we be careful about the identity of the god of whom we are speaking.
On Hebrew Poetry
And one final note about the structure of Hebrew poetry: the usual form uses a technique called parallelism, where the thought is expressed once and then repeated with a parallel expression:
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples. (Psalm 96:1-3)
Sometimes the order of words reverses itself:
The LORD protects the simplehearted;
when I was in great need he saved me. (Psalm 116:6)
Sometimes there is a third line:
The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the gave came upon me’
I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. (Psalm 116:3)
And sometimes the second line will develop the image or idea:
Give thanks to the LORD for he is good;
his love endures forever. (Psalm 118:1)
Or represent an antithetical sentiment:
The LORD watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy. (Psalm 145:20)
But the basic pattern remains. It is like twirling a crystal in your hands and seeing its many reflections, and the two lines often form a wonderful conversation between each other.
A few poems follow an acrostic pattern – where each line or verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet from aleph (the first letter in Hebrew) to taw (the last). When we are considering these psalms you will see the verse preceded by the corresponding Hebrew letter.
Again, this is not a commentary. It is a collection of meditations on the text of the psalms. It tries to savor the text like holding a fine chocolate in your mouth long enough to enjoy some of its full richness of its flavor. I hope it will enrich your hearing of the text.
David K. Bonde