The Problem with Psalms

The Book of Psalms is one of the high points of the Bible in terms of literature. While some are songs of David while on the run, many of these 150 poems (151 in the NSRV) were likely composed as Temple hymns for choruses and lyres. All of them contain some of the loveliest imagery to be used in worship to this very day. Reading through the collection, I was surprised at how many phrases I was already familiar with from their use in modern church music and even classic rock. Yet it soon became apparent that they were not all written by an aspiring harpist, or for David’s Tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple.

This is glaringly obvious in famous Psalm 137, that starts out “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion… How shall we sing the Lord‘s song in a strange land?” It simply could not have been written before the Babylonian exile.

And then there’s Psalm 104, which is one of the longest, but is not only attributed to Moses, it parallels the Hymn to the Sun by the disgraced monotheist Pharoah Akenhaten(!). That should cause some rethinking about the whole Exodus, to say the least…

Anyway, reading through them all, one per day,  can be a bit dull at times despite the rich metaphors. For being songs, the Psalms were not composed to be read silently one after another, but sung individually aloud as chosen selections.  But each one I read in several different translations of the same text from a huge, magnificent parallel Bible with four different versions (New American Bible, Revised English Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and the New Jerusalem Bible), all printed in lockstep across the same spread, which I had inherited. It’s one of the best Bible tools I own and it makes differences in the text really stand out.

As the Psalms are poetry which can be notoriously hard to translate, this proved an excellent idea. In poetic translations, rigorous accuracy of language is often not as important as faithfulness of expression.  Each team of translators was able to  choose their own approach and decide just how to translate each word. Should one try to reproduce the cadence, or rhymes of the original, or concentrate on meaning and images?

What I first noticed was how uniform overall the translations were. Expressions and wording varied, but not by all that much – until the linguists had to deal with obscure words. Then holy cow, the translations could differ tremendously from each other, sometimes even with completely opposite meanings.

Yet, this made it easy to discern what the translations have in common: i.e., the nature of the Psalms. It was easy to see the songs were each written for a specific purpose: to either praise the Lord, petition the Lord for protection, remembrance and mercy, or to admit one’s misery and failures due to sin, and even complain about God’s ignoring and favoring one enemies. Each one of these themes alone is fine, but pushed together, the mashup is one of the potent things that makes the Bible one of the world’s most dangerous books.

Consider Psalm 149, the second to last. As I read this, I wondered why I’d never heard it as a hymn.  But it quickly became obvious just why that was.

Psalm 149 (NSRV)

Praise for God’s Goodness to Israel

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord!

Yep, tone kinda changes at verse 6 doesn’t it? The exaltation of holy violence, the gleeful assumption that all this spilled blood is God’s high and holy will is why the Bible is so dangerous. Of course, we moderns can separate the bloody Bronze Age political reality of living surrounded by enemies from such noble sentiments as revealed in the first five verses – or can we?

I wish I had an easy answer to this problem. Yet I don’t think the problem is with God – note that the author is not putting words into the Lord’s mouth here – but rather the author’s. It’s easy to assume that since God’s in charge, the world is just the way God wants it, that if the world is red in tooth and claw, it’s God’s will. Many sensitive souls have rejected religion for just that reason.

I really can’t blame them, but they often forget that this is a fallen world that will not, cannot, measure up to either their ideals, or God’s. But something really, really bad happened sometime long, long ago; maybe even well before our creation. What that reason was is expressed in mythic terms in Genesis, but it somehow implies that the reason is that sex makes death necessary. And indeed, many Early Fathers believed that it was sex before marriage that led to the expulsion from Eden.

The entire sacrificial system of the Jews was built to deal with a just God who demands life as payment of offenses against Him, and Christianity is based on the idea that His Son died as a substitute for our own deaths. But why SIN = DEATH = BLOOD is a mystery in the truest sense of the word.

However, I believe there is a higher meaning to this.  For instance, “double-edged sword” can be interpreted as “the Word of God that cuts both ways”. This may be a clue that for our own true spiritual evolution, it is not the blood of our enemies that is demanded as much as our own. The struggle is not so much to transcend others as much as it is ourselves. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”