Comments on the Psalms
It is fitting that after Lent and Easter, we allow ourselves to attend the concert of songs which are the Psalms. We read the story of the Passion of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel this year, and echoes of Psalm 22 rang in our ears when the soldiers divided his garments and especially when Jesus began to pray the first verse of this psalm in his agony: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This verse has come to be known as the “Fourth Word” from the Cross, although for Mark and Matthew it is the ONLY word.
John has references to Psalms 69 and 34 in his account of the Passion, both referring to thirst.
These references confirm Dr. Beal’s point that “The Psalms give voice to the tremendous depth and breadth of human experience… “( p. 144). The Alleluias of Easter are there, too, and great hope, confidence and joy. If we were to “sing to the Lord a new song” every day, some people would use the psalms, picking one that matches their life situation, their need, their fear, or their heart’s being full of thanksgiving and joy.
The psalms have not lost their popularity. Although some books of the bible are read and preached about infrequently, something of the Psalms usually finds its way into worship every Sunday. When the Cleveland Ecumenical Institute scheduled a four week course on the Psalms taught by Rabbi Roger Klein, forty people signed up, and we had to close the enrollment because of lack of space! A priest came to hear the Jewish interpretation of the Psalms. Rabbi Klein brought with him the original Hebrew text, intending to use the original language at times to enlighten the understanding of the translation.
Dr. Beal chooses just 6 psalms to include in his book on Biblical Literacy. They are good choices. What mood do they evoke? In 1926, Archibald MacLeish wrote a poem about the nature of poetry, and concluded it with a line that used to be famous: “A poem should not mean, but be!” It was a modernist statement, wanting poems to be like little gems which we could hold up to the light and see the intricacy and ingenuity of their structures as if we were seeing all the colors of the rainbow, dazzling us with their beauty.
That MacLeish quote, however, doesn’t seem to apply to the Psalms at all, and never has.As Dr. Beal points out, they do have intriguing parallel structures, and contain lots of imagery, symbols and analogies. But they are not read for their beauty. Many people might comment on the beauty of a Psalm 23, perhaps the most popular among the 150 songs, but people who know that psalm have held on to its verses with their fingernails when their lives seemed destined to drown in the shadows of this life’s darkest valleys.
The Resurrection convinces believers that we can get THROUGH those dark times, and come out with a “new song” on our lips, perhaps that from Psalm 149: “Sing to the Lord a new song of praise…For the Lord loves his people/and he adorns the lowly with victory…Alleluia.”