Abide: Psalms Part One

  • Psalms! There’s over 150 of them marked in the book by the same name in the Old Testament. How can we read them? Are they more useful as a narrative thread, or as a spice to season our spiritual diet? We’ll discuss that and much more on today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”

  • Psalms, there’s over 150 of them marked in the book by the same name in the Old Testament. How can we read them? Are they more useful as a narrative thread or as a spice to season our spiritual diet? We’ll discuss that and much more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communication Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research associate at the Maxwell Institute. In each week we discussed the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block, so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world of religious ideas. Today we are once again joined by Rachel Madsen, one of our research assistants for the Abide podcast. Rachel is an English Teaching major here at BYU. And after graduating, she plans to teach in secondary schools and eventually obtain a graduate degree in educational leadership to work in academic administration.


    Joseph Stuart: Welcome back, Rachel.


    Rachel Madsen: It’s great to be here.


    Joseph Stuart: We are thrilled to have you back. Now Kristian, we know that ultimately there are going to be three weeks on the Psalms. What’s the sort of overview that you think that we should know from the outset?


    Kristian Heal: We have already encountered hymns and songs earlier in the Bible, most notably the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32, and Deborah’s Song in Judges 5. These three early poems reverberate with the same structures, cadences, and images that are found in the Psalms and seem to belong to the same world. Like many of the Psalms, they are occasional poems celebrating God’s present victory in the context of salvation history. It may seem that poetry was much more important in the ancient world than it is today. Much of the Bible is written in poetry and a significant portion of the literary texts found in the ancient Near East are also written in verse. But actually, if you stop to think about it, our current world is saturated with poetry. Whether you’re a fan of 80s Rap, Taylor Swift, or the Beatles, you are listening to and learning from lyric poetry. And like these modern poems, most ancient lyric and narrative poems seem to also have been performed to musical accompaniment. The original tunes of the psalms are lost to us. But it is still possible to imagine these haunting and determined songs being sung by individuals, communities, and on national occasions. If the Pentateuch and the prophets describe God’s speaking and working with the house of Israel, then in the book of Psalms, Israel talks back. In Hebrew, the book is called Tehillím Haleem praises which suggests that Israel primarily responds to God in praise. An especially fine example of that is Psalm 67. But the psalms are far from being univocal and there is great variety in the collection  with hymns of praise appearing side by side with individual and communal laments and royal Psalms. I use the word collection deliberately, since the book of Psalms is clearly a compilation of hymns originally composed for liturgical, communal and personal worship, and devotion. Most likely during the hundreds of years that separate the early monarchy period and the exile. Scholars date the final compilation to the exile or the early second temple period. The Psalms are arranged in five books, corresponding it seems to the five books of the Pentateuch, or at least mirroring the five books of the Pentateuch. These five books are Psalms 1-41, Psalms 42-72, Psalms 73-89, Psalms 90-106, and Psalms 107-150. And each book closes with a blessing formula. There may have been earlier collections of psalms that were incorporated into these five books, as is suggested by Psalms 72:20 and the fact that the first three books have quite distinct characteristics. The titles are, by and large, later additions to the Psalms, seeking to place them in certain historical contexts or attributing them to certain authors. Scholars tend not to attribute any Psalms to David, though that attribution is traditional. There seems to be no consistent logical order to the Psalms. However, it appears that Psalms 1 is deliberately placed to open the book and other Psalms seem to have been deliberately placed beside each other such as Psalms 3-7, which form a series of individual laments. Finally, the poetry of the Psalms is unfamiliar. It’s not based on meter or rhyme, but rather on rhetorical structure. The central structural feature is parallelism, in which one line is understood to be repeated in the following line, but using synonyms. Scholars call this semantic parallelism because the two lines have the same meaning. Often however, there’s more movement in the poetry, with the repetition actually building momentum between lines rather than simply repeating them. The other aspect of the poetry of the Psalms is the vivid use of imagery to describe God and his relationship with Israel. The images are often ones of protection and rescue because this is a major theme of the Psalms. Thus God is a fortress, a rock, a refuge, a shield, a deliver, a protector, and the Lord of Armies, or hosts, as we’re more used to.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks so much for that Kristian. Rachel, what do you see in the Psalms?


    Rachel Madsen: Yeah, so Kristian talked about semantic parallelism, which is the use of synonyms to kind of mirror something. And this is super characteristic of Hebrew poetry in the same way that meter or rhyme as a form of English poetry. We’re not always exactly conscious of the fact that man rhymes with fan and that’s used in a chorus. But it is something that ultimately you can analyze, and scholars have spent a good amount of time analyzing the chiasmus, the parallelisms in Hebrew poetry, especially the Psalms. This is arguably because the Psalms don’t have very much of a narrative thread. There is some near the end of the book, but mostly it’s individual poems, prayers, pleas. There’s so much beauty to that personal aspect of feeling God and letting that transform the psalmist or psalmists. I like to think of all scripture as just an account of how humanity has experienced the presence of God. But the book of Psalms is maybe the most obvious example of this. It’s such a raw book of prayers that includes anger at God and others, desperation and oppression or isolation, utter sorrow. Historically, it’s been used as a book of prayers, some of which are only meant to be said as a last straw, wits end plea. Other poems or prayers are just beautiful poetry, like the famous “The Lord is my shepherd,” Psalm 23. One of my personal favorites is Psalm 8. This psalm is an A, B, C, B, A form where C is the emphasis. Going back to the form of Hebrew poetry, at times you’ll have something like A, B, C, C, B, A, and sometimes you’ll just have A, B, one C, B, A. It gets you to a point, whatever is in the center is generally the point of the poem. But in this one especially when there’s not a mirror, you know for sure this is the point. I’m not even going to try and say it again, I’m saying it correctly this first time. So I’m going to lay out the structure of this specific psalm. The first and last phrase, verse even, of Psalm 8 is, “Oh Lord, our Lord, How excellent or majestic, is Your name in all the earth?” I just love that. From the very beginning, right? You have a movement from Great God right? To our God, to a personal God. And that’s something that characterizes the rest of the Psalm. The next phrase is in verse 2, which is then mirrored by verses 5-8, they both speak about the ordained power of humankind with strength and dominion over the work of God’s hands. This leaves the last phrase of the Psalm which, unlike the rest of the Psalm, is just questions. So the whole point of the Psalm is this verse 3, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the Son of man that thou visitest him?”


    Joseph Stuart: I love that this is set up as a series of questions. Because, as Kristian noted in the introduction, this often is a way of Israel speaking back to Yahweh, to God. And it seems important to me that they feel comfortable enough that they are asking God questions in this space, too.


    Rachel Madsen: Yeah. And I think that even just having a question really opens up a lot more grandeur than any statement can. There’s something in questioning that just opens up something outside of a box, that you’re trying to find an answer, you have to kind of go outside of your own theology. Marilyn Robinson wrote that any sufficient answer to what is man would go some way toward answering what is God. It’s just something that really, really promotes wonder.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, that’s really interesting because for all the grandeur of these questions and the grandeur of thinking philosophically about the role of questions, it is so interesting to me that the psalmist chose to write about the heavens as the work of thy fingers maybe being one of the smallest ways of thinking about creation. Does that stick out to you?


    Rachel Madsen: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not even the work of your hands, it’s the work of your fingers right? It’s like tiny, little miniature dolls being painted or something. Yeah! And so this is fascinating because it’s again, going back to that big God, familiar God. Big creation, small creation. There’s this kind of sentiment that if we’re talking about the universe, God’s universe, that’s all there is. So if it’s everything, is there really a point in thinking of it as big as opposed to small? What if instead of this big grand universe, we had a cozy little, tiny, little universe. And that’s kind of what the psalmist is really getting at I think. The psalmist is really trying to close the infinite distance of God and humanity. He’s trying to say, big God, small God, big universe, small universe, and that makes the nature, the divine nature of man so confusing, ambivalent, it doesn’t work in any structure of our mind because is it big? Or is it small? We don’t really have an answer.


    Joseph Stuart: It seems to me too that perhaps in this situation, that the psalmist is trying not only to collapse the distance between God and man, but to say that there isn’t a strict binary about the nature of humanity. Not only good and not only bad, but somewhere in between.


    Rachel Madsen: Absolutely. To go back to Marilyn Robinson, who I think has at least my favorite commentary on this psalm, really concise and just beautifully put. She writes that, “The Hebrew Scriptures everywhere concede, yes, foolish, yes, guilty, yes, weak, yes, sad and bewildered, yes, resistant to cherishing and rebellious against expectation, and yes, forever insecure at best in his vaunted dominion over creation. Then how is this dignity manifest? Surely in that God is mindful of man in that he visits him. This is after all, the major assertion of the whole literature. What is man is asked in awe, that God should be intrigued or enchanted by him or loyal to him.” This kind of reworking with the idea of God is central to the poem, and also prevalent in all of life. Life is just majestic and wonderful, but also little and cozy. There is sublime and familiar, both characters of God we pray to. Psalms may not have a super followable narrative, but the poetry is unmistakably beautiful. And I think that really helps readers to understand God in different virtues as well.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s really well put, I also think that the lack of narrative thread and what you said about the Psalms expressing humanity’s interaction with God fits really well together. For instance, my spiritual experiences don’t generally follow a linear progression, where I feel like I’m ramping up to the mountaintop so to speak, and then decline, and then rise and fall. It goes all over the place and it depends on a whole lot of things going on. But I also see in the Psalms, a desperation, is maybe one word to put it in, that those who are writing the Psalms acknowledge that they need God’s help in everything.


    Kristian Heal: The Psalms often seem to be set in a brutal world, a world filled with enemies. And one of the things that struck me this time going through the Psalms is the prevalence of this sense of being kind of hunted and haunted. The Psalmist is either experiencing or imagining a world in which they are experiencing this opposition in sort of all things, this continual sense of needing to call upon God because they’re about to be overcome by their enemies who are trying to get them. And it’s difficult to sort of imagine this in our own world, a place where sort of enemies are bound so freely. Of course, there are many places in the world where we are, where people are surrounded by enemies and literally fighting for their lives. And all of a sudden, the psalms become far more personal and meaningful for them as they sort of plead for their own safety. Now, a poignant example of this, of supplication, this personal supplication, is found in Psalms 6. This is a supplication psalm in 10 verses and the basic outline is a direct supplication to God in verses 1-5, a description of the psalmist exhaustion in 6 and 7, an affirmation of faithfulness addressed to enemies, actual or metaphorical, in 8 and 9, and a final supplication in verse 10. The impetus seems to be sickness, but sickness on top of an already fraught and embattled situation, the pleas for relief, for mercy, for healing, for reconciliation and rescue. In this psalm, our supplicant suffers the ignominy of sickness and as he suffers, his enemies draw menacingly near. The first half of the psalm seems to be spoken in the supplicant’s earnest extremity and so many of the Psalms seem to capture these moments of life in its extremities. The petition is for rescue and relief from suffering. The supplicant is wretched, stricken, and heart stricken. But initially they are chastised, suffering the wrath of God it seems that we have to remember that good health and success is a sign of God’s favor in the supplicant’s worldview. So in their suffering, they’re assuming that they are being chastised.


    Joseph Stuart: I think it’s crucial to remember here too —so this actually brings to mind thinking about Joseph Smith’s First Vision. That when he is looking for answers, when he is in his desperation looking for help for deliverance, at that moment of great alarm, that’s when he has delivered. It’s not before that moment of great alarm.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think that’s right. So often in the scriptures the great moments of God’s deliverance come at these moments of extremity. And the quintessence of that of course, the scriptures go back to again and again, is that moment in which Israel is at the shore of the Red Sea, with an army bearing down on them. And this sort of captures that sense of impending doom. It captures our own personal feelings I think in times when we’re sort of fraught. And we in those moments, we want to cry, as I’m sure Israel cried in the face of those armies. “Oh, Lord, turn, rescue me. Deliver me as befits your faithfulness.” And this is particularly poignant to me, because of this word faithfulness, which is translated as it’s translated in the Jewish Publication Society version, kindness by Robert Alter, mercy by the King James Version. This is the Hebrew hesed, which we’ve spoken about in this series. And of this term, the Jewish Study Bible notes that is a frequent attribute of God in the Bible. Hesed, a common biblical term describes a relationship of mutuality between individuals or groups between God and human beings, especially Israel. It expresses both an attitude and actions devolving from that attitude, English loyalty, best approximated sense, which reflects kindness or favor. When used of God towards Israel, it may be related to the covenant it expresses God’s faithfulness, goodness, and graciousness.


    Rachel Madsen: Yeah. I think from my study of Biblical Hebrew, I think that hesed is really the best Hebrew word that we don’t have an English word for. I often have come to be thinking of just in my own life, I’m like wow, that is hesed right there. Kind of grace, loving kindness, just a really direct sense of connection that we just don’t have an English word for.


    Kristian Heal: That’s so true and this is the beauty of sort of being able to get back to the original and sort of see, as one friend said to me recently, sort of the world in color rather than in black and white. And trying to grasp this sense of hesed and how its functioning in this poem suddenly sort of explodes its meaning for us. Because what we see, is this supplicant in this moment of extremity finding finally some purchase on God, and that purchase which allows him to act to have faith that leads to I think that the turning of the poem, this moment of redemption, is this confidence once again in God’s loyalty, in God’s faithfulness. So in his sick and fraught circumstances, the supplicant finds clarity and this is the kind of clarity that Alma found in his darkest moments, as we’ve mentioned in previous episodes. For our supplicant, the transformation in his life seems to be preceded by a full hearted turn towards God who is faithful, good and gracious.


    Joseph Stuart: I wonder if there’s a little bit of a play here, because as you mentioned before, sickness or other suffering was seen as disfavor from God. And so it seems poetic to me, for lack of a better term, that just at this moment where he is at his worst, he finds God at his best.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly. I think this is really important. And so many of us have been brought low by sickness, particularly in the last couple of years. There’s this pandemic, it’s gonna rage across the world, and sickness brings us to this state when we feel absolutely bereft. I think that is something that’s captured so well in this poem, and the final couplet suggests the drawing in of evermore jubilant enemies. So he’s not just sort of ill, but sort of, he’s surrounded by people who want to, like Job’s so called friends, want to blame him for a sickness but sort of make that connection between his sickness and therefore his unfaithfulness. One of the things that we notice in this psalm is how God acts in the world. Verses one and two suggest that God acts out of wrath and fury. Verse 4 suggests that God acts out of kindness and verse 5 suggests that God preserves His faithful, so that they can continue their praise and worship, an ancient idea of why humans were created in the first place. The sun suggests that the supplicant lives in a world in which all of these things are live options all at the same time. And that seems to be a really kind of interesting and fraught world. But it is really interesting in terms of the poetry of the Psalm. What we have towards the end, is this sudden change, this sudden transformation from this state of being fraught and embattled and sick and calling out to God for help, and an affirmation of God’s goodness. Reading from the Jewish Publication Society, “Away from me, all you evildoers, for the Lord heeds the sound of my weeping. The Lord heeds my plea, and the Lord accepts my prayer.” Something has happened here, between these verses, between verses 6 and 7 and the affirmation of faithfulness in verses 8 and 9. Scholars suggest that maybe some cultic act has been performed at this moment, a visit to the temple perhaps. But this may also be the divine presence felt by the petitioner. It may be that in that moment of deepest despair, when God felt far far away, that the darkness was pierced and the comforting light of God’s love and faithfulness has returned.


    Rachel Madsen: Yeah. One of the articles that I read in researching Psalms gives us an outline for how our kind of movement with God in our life of faith goes. And he lists out three movements essentially, or three steps, and that is being securely oriented, and then being painfully disoriented, and lastly, being surprisingly reoriented, right? There are some psalms that do end in anger or in still lament, but almost all of them really do follow this like, oh, like, I’m following the commandments and I’m really in this whole God of Israel thing. I’m a faithful person and my life is going terribly. What’s happening? But blessed is the Lord. I see some light. I think that that is a great example of that characteristic.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah. That’s very nice, Rachel. I think that what we see in these examples, that lovely example that you shared with Psalm 8 and this example of Psalm 6 is the ability of this genre, this genre of poetry to compress meaning so powerfully that as we begin to unpack it, we start to see new things, we start to see the sort of depth of feeling and the applicability in our own life. It’s— to use a sort of another metaphor, this is that kind of compression that produces a diamond. And as we turn that diamond, we see these different facets that come out. And it’s this— this is the great potency of the Psalms and why they have served for over two and a half millennia as a mainstay of Jewish and Christian worshipers.


    Joseph Stuart: That’s a great place for us to end today. Have a blessed week y’all.