Abide: Psalms Part Three

  • A book has many lives. It’s thought, it’s edited, it’s printed, it’s reprinted, it’s commentated on, and this repeats, if the book merits it, ad infinitum. This is certainly true for the Bible as a whole, but, I suggest, for the Psalms in particular. How do we think about Psalms as an ancient text conveyed for a modern people?

  • A book has many lives. It’s thought, it’s edited, it’s printed, it’s reprinted, it’s commentated on and this repeats if the book merits it, ad infinitum. This is certainly true for the Bible as a whole, whose many translations are a testament to how much it is meant in people’s lives. But I suggest that this is particularly true for the Psalms in particular. How do we think about Psalms as an ancient text, not only in its original context, but for what it means for Latter-day Saints today? What does it mean for an ancient text to shine light for modern people? We’ll discuss that and much more in today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research associate at the institute. 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 and their testimonies to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are once again joined by Dorie Cameron, one of our research assistants. Dorie is a junior at BYU from Great Falls, Montana studying art and creative writing. She has a strong interest in literature, culture, media, and language.


    Joseph Stuart: Welcome back, Dorie. Now Kristian, this is our third episode of the Psalms. What should we know as we’re going into this episode?


    Kristian Heal: So it’s interesting and useful to consider the ancient context of the Psalms as we did in the first episode of the Psalms or how they influence Jewish and Christian scripture and worship over the past two millennia, as we both met in the second introduction to the Psalms, but what are the psalms mean for us today? How can we read the book of Psalms as 21st century Latter-day Saints? A recent article by John Goldingay entitled, Hearing God Speak from the First Testament offers some constructive counsel. The first thing that Goldingay advocated is the importance of reading scriptures historically. He says, “The scriptures themselves are theological texts affirming truths about God, as these truths were preached in historical context.” This is a vitally important first starting point for reading scripture. We know that scripture is doing many things, but the first thing it is doing is speaking to its first audience. Goldingay continues by emphasizing that we would be foolish to miss what emerges from focusing resolutely and expectantly on the way the writings functioned in those contexts. So Goldingay is writing as a theologian and an exegesis of the Old Testament. A professor, but also a pastor. From these various vantage points, he goes on to observe that our theological interpretation needs to avoid anachronism. What does this mean? It means that reading the Old Testament he says, “…requires us to be seriously canonical, or rather seriously textual, and therefore to be seriously historical. It requires it because that is the way we can hear how God was actually speaking then, rather than being confined to our listening to things that the people of God have articulated.” So that’s the first approach that he recommends. Secondly, Goldingay emphasizes the importance of spiritual reading. He calls this, “The kind of interpretation that I’m pulling spiritual,” he says, “…in both starting from a question that we have and finding God speaking to that question through scripture in a way that has nothing much to do with its own meaning.” This is an approach to reading scripture that resonates with us as Latter-day Saints. We’re frequently invited to approach the scriptures and the prophets with questions, to come to the word of God asking, even expecting revelation. Expecting God to talk back to us through the scriptures and through the words of the prophets. Finally, Goldingay advocates reading scripture in juxtaposition with each other and with the events of the week. In many Christian churches, this is done through the lectionary. But for us it can be achieved by, for example, doing our Come, Follow Me reading in conjunction with a regular cycle of reading the Book of Mormon, or the New Testament, or recent conference talks. By allowing the scriptures and the prophets to talk to each other, new insights can appear. When John Goldingay did this, he noticed that. He says he heard God speak through the scriptures in old and new ways, through the collocation of passages with each other, with questions arising from our present context, with concerns of my own, and with the week’s events and news. So this can be a powerful way for the scriptures to speak to us today, to speak to our present needs and concerns. But it requires us to allow the voices of the scripture to be heard in concert, rather than sequence. “This can”, as Goldingay says, “…open up new possibilities of God’s speaking through the scriptures.” He concludes by saying, “The voice of God comes to us in the text of scriptures through our letting there be an interweaving between the way they speak in that context, and the way our context relates to the questions they raise. When we do this”, he says, “…we become like someone who lives in two worlds, the world of the scriptures and our contemporary world.”


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks so much for that Kristian. One of the things that shines through in the psalms for me, is thinking about the characteristics of God that have been true from Old Testament times to the present, including mercy and judgment. Could you tell us more about Psalm 101 and how that fits with these themes?


    Kristian Heal: I was really struck this time going through the Psalms, by this particular psalm, and by this notion of singing of mercy and judgment and how it was portrayed. It reminded me of a mission experience. I once had a missionary companion who read Tom Clancy novels for his personal study. This was before the bar was raised you would be pleased to know. He was not excited to be on his mission. He was there because he was expected to be there. And I was rather more eager, possibly too eager. But that’s another story. I wanted to get on and do the work. So when we were headed off to our area or walking to appointments, my companion would adopt an amiable saunter. He wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere. My counter move was to get him talking and when he was engaged in conversation, I would slowly speed up my pace of walking, until he noticed, and sort of deliberately slow down and then the game would start all over again. So my recollection is that this was more or less how he approached his mission until about a month 19 or 20, when he had his own personal conversion experience. I met him after this point at a zone conference and he was a different man. He worked hard for the rest of his mission. He had success. He felt the spirit. He saw people come into the church, and ended his mission on this wonderful high. This to me at least, is a mission success story. It’s also one of the reasons why I can’t stay with the author of Psalm 101, all the way through the end. So this beautiful psalm has a promising start. It begins, “I will sing of faithfulness and justice. I will chant to him to you, oh, Lord, I will study the way of the blameless when shall I attain it? I will live without blame in my house.” So this is a song of desire, the desire of the psalmist to achieve greater faithfulness. It reminds us of Abraham, a seeker of knowledge who sought greater light and knowledge. But after this psalmist  starts to wobble and at verse five, the wheels seem to come off. “He who slanders his friend in secret, I will destroy. I cannot endure the haughty and proud  man.” Now, in this seemingly acquired state of righteousness, the first thing that this psalmist wants to do is start sort of destroying the less righteous. The psalmist then turns his attention entirely to the behavior of those around him and describing what he will do with the unworthy until he reaches fever pitch in verse eight. “Each morning, I will destroy all the wicked of the Lamb, to rid the city of the Lord of all evildoers.” I’m certainly not a fan of slandering friends in secret or of the haughty and proud, but I don’t think that they should be destroyed any more than I think they should get up each morning and round up some wicked people equal to us to destroy them. I can’t help thinking of my missionary companion. I can’t help thinking of the teaching of Jesus. This makes me read the psalm differently. I can’t embrace the zeal for community purity that we saw with Josiah for example. I prefer the ideal of the peaceable walk, that this is the virtue that followers of Christ adopt in a community, even a fraught community. So I don’t think that one graduates from studying the way of the blameless to destroying the wicked. That doesn’t seem to me to be the progression that we’re seeking for. So this psalm, although I sort of love this enter at the opening, I find myself kind of becoming less enthusiastic about the way that it develops. I’m more inclined towards the experience of Enos, who in finding forgiveness for himself, immediately turned and sought blessings for his own people, and to pray for others.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that this is really a fascinating way of thinking about how we interpret scripture, because I think that we can all point to times in our lives when we are more like the companion who reads Tom Clancy novels for spiritual preparation, but also those times when we have been the more zealous one in relationship within our community. So how can we read this recognizing that just like the Prodigal Son, sometimes we’re the first character in the story, and sometimes we’re the second.


    Kristian Heal: So I think part of it comes down to reading strategies with the psalm. If I approach this psalm with the question of how I can achieve greater holiness in my life, then part of the answer is there in verse two. “I will study the way of the blameless. I will live without blaming my house.” Those two lines are pure gold, they’re wonderful. They’re answering that question that I’m bringing to the psalm. I sometimes think that reading the scriptures is like panning for gold. That has certainly been my experience in reading the Psalms this time round. And as far as I can see, that is how the psalms are used in the New Testament, we pan for gold and throw the rest back. However, there’s one warning that goes with such an approach. I think that one reading of the text of scripture is never enough, it’s not enough to go through them once, and gather up that gold and feel as though the job has now been done. The mine has been—the veins have all been found. You’ll certainly find gold and maybe have enough nuggets that you feel like the Psalms have been well mined. But the thing about the scriptures is, the veins keep moving as our lives change. The scriptures have this remarkable capacity to grow and change with us. And this is especially true for a book as rich and complex as the Old Testament in general and the Psalms in particular. So I think it’s important to go back as we do every four years or maybe more frequently. And as we go back, we find new insights, new ways that the Psalms and the Old Testament are sort of speaking to us. We also come to them with new questions, because we’re in new phases of life, and have different concerns, greater wisdom, greater compassion, and perhaps greater humility.


    Joseph Stuart: That’s a welcome reminder to me in my life, that I can always do much better at extending compassion to others, the same compassion that I want them to extend to me. Now Dorie, in your research, you looked into Psalms as a source of poetry or music. Could you tell us more about your research?


    Dorie Cameron: Yeah, so the Psalms were compiled into psaltery, what we might think of as a hymnbook, surprisingly, consistent across multiple areas that celebrated the Jewish faith. Although unlike our modern hymn books, we don’t have the actual music that goes with it which is a real shame. It’s hard to tell which songs are meant to be an upbeat bit, and which ones are meant to be more of a funeral dirge. But like our modern day hymns, the psalms each seem to have certain purposes in religious worship. First of all, they were largely sung in the temple. They would have musicians playing instruments and singing these psalms at the temple in Jerusalem. And that’s a really interesting thing to think about since modern Latter-day Saint culture, we’re used to a very quiet temple experience and I like to think about what it would be like to have somebody serenading my spiritual experience with the words in Psalms. Some of the Psalms were designated for specific occasions. For example, this week we read Psalms 113 through 118. These Psalms collectively are considered the halel phrases and they would be sung the mornings of most Jewish festivals, save for a few praising God, expressing gratitude. The Psalms are used to meditate to direct the thoughts. They’re a teaching device, much like we use songs in primary to teach small children. It was a way for some writers to testify, to share their experiences and their feelings about God. I really love seeing some of the personal experiences described in the Psalms. I meant many of these psalms, for example Psalm 116 is largely written from the first person. “I was greatly afflicted. I said in my haste all men are liars.” It creates such emotion. And as this is poetry, Psalms are considered the in-between place between human perception and God’s revelation. It was a way to communicate with God, to figure out how he communicates how he feels. And I think poetry is uniquely suited to such an experience as trying to commune with deity.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I confess that one of the psalms that has had the most impact in my life, is Dolly Parton’s Light of a Clear Blue Morning which, after an especially bad breakup as a young person, I woke up and that was the first song that came on my iPod, at that point, and just immediately feeling better about the world. And so while Sister Parton may not exactly be the psalmist that we read in the Old Testament. I do think that it’s important for us to think about that in the Doctrine and Covenants that says that the song of the righteous is a prayer to God. How else might we think about the connection in this sort of, in between space of humanity and divinity, in thinking about psalms in the way that they’re employed both anciently as well as today?


    Dorie Cameron: Well, you said the song of the righteous is a prayer unto God. So many of these psalms are structured as prayers. The Psalmist asks things from God, the Psalmist expresses gratitude, thank you for this, the Psalmist expresses their troubles and their suffering, Lord, I’m in a difficult position. Much like we would in our prayers today. In many senses these Psalms are prayers to God.


    Kristian Heal:  I love this idea of, in general, the kind of Psalms teaching us how we can pray, the kinds of things. We have within our tradition a sort of pattern of prayer that we teach our children, that we teach the missionaries. But I think our prayers, there’s more potential there perhaps, and the psalms suggest some of these ways that our prayers can be prayers of praise, prayers of lament, prayers of yearning, in this idea, right? I’ve seen a number of people writing on the Psalms. The Psalms teach us how to speak back to God. So I think it is a really powerful idea. And it’s interesting that we’re kind of speaking back to God that with the model for us, is this sort of poetic genre. I kind of wonder about and as we go into the prophets, we’re going to be seeing that the prophets are writing in poetry. What is it about poetry that sort of makes it suitable, that sort of that helps it do this work of prayer, or praise or these various things?


    Dorie Cameron: Divinity is all about the things that are not mortal and worldly. It’s the things that are so difficult to describe in straightforward language. Poetry is about subverting the face value of language. Poetry is about defining something that is undefinable. Poetry is uniquely suited to describing the divine. When I read the Psalms, I get the sense that the writer is trying to encapsulate a spiritual feeling that really cannot fit into mortal language. Instead, they have to use poetic devices, imagery, they have to use the very structure of the language in order to communicate these ideas, through the repetition of words, through the rhythm of the language. In times like these, I regret that I’m not one of our podcasters that speaks Hebrew. I don’t speak Hebrew. Because when I read these, I want to know what it sounds like in the original Hebrew. How do the syllables create a rhythm? How does it make my mouth move? Because I think then I would understand a little bit more what the writer wants me to understand. Is this a harsh phrase? Or is this a soft phrase? Another reason I’m sad we don’t have the original music to go with it because that would also help me to understand what exactly the writer is trying to capture that can’t be captured in normal language.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, it makes me think actually about the original words and musical arrangement for the hymn, Praise to the Man. That was a funeral dirge rather than a sort of military march. And it impacts, it shapes, how we appreciate the text that’s given through it.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think this is really sort of important to think about. And it’s something, it’s interesting to read Robert Alter’s translation of the Psalms. It’s a recent translation by somebody who has a familiarity with Hebrew through its entire history and is constantly lamenting the inability of English to render this sort of compact language and to capture the sort of cadences in the original. And he tries to do that as much as possible and which is why his translation sort of reads differently than the one that we’re used to. And this is part of I think, a good translator’s objective is not just to capture the words, but to also capture the rhythms and cadences, especially when it comes to poetry. So I think you’re exactly right there, Dorie.


    Dorie Cameron: I’ve been viewing a lot of YouTube videos lately of people performing these psalms in the original Hebrew, having written their own music to set it to. It’s— I certainly don’t think that it’s how the original songs were performed, but it helps me to get into that mindset a little bit more. I also like thinking about the individual psalmist. I believe we’ve discussed on this podcast, the authorship of the Psalms. Many of them are attributed to King David, though there’s not necessarily evidence for that. Instead, I think of individual worshippers, recording their experiences. Each song, being an individual with a unique relationship with God trying to express those feelings. And in that sense, the Psalms feel remarkably human. You talked,  Dr. Heal, about how you don’t necessarily agree with some of the sentiments in Psalm 101. While there are many songs that express similar very human sentiments. Psalm 137 in particular, is a little bit violent. And I read that not so much as revelation from God, that’s how God wants us to behave, but these are very human emotions, human writers, trying to work out their religious devotion and their faith.


    Kristian Heal: I think that’s a really lovely observation, Dorie. It allows us to read the Psalms with more empathy when we come to these passages that we don’t agree with. Trying to think, what is the imagine the pain or the difficulty or the circumstances in which an author on the one hand would sing praises to God, but seek God’s love and kindness with reference and to extol God’s kindness and graciousness while at the same time, seeking to do violence and seeking to protect themselves. I think that’s a really lovely perspective from which to view the Psalms.


    Dorie Cameron: And the psaltery was designed to be universal for worshipers. It wasn’t limited to people living in Jerusalem, or people living in Babylon, it was somewhat universal much as I suspect our new hymn book will be a bit more applicable to the worldwide church. These Psalms expressed emotions that everyone can relate to in some way. We may not be literally in captivity, but we can feel the pain of sin and transgression. We all are held to certain commandments, we all seek a relationship with God. The universality really stands out to me when I compare these ancient songs with Latter-day hymns, oddly enough. As I read through these, I automatically into my head, pop little lines from hymns that we’ve seen today. I read in Psalm 116, “For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears in my feet from falling.” I’m hearing, “I once was lost but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.” I read from 118, “The Lord is on my side, I will not fear. What can man do unto me?” and I hear, “The Lord is my light, then why should I fear?” 148, “Praise the Lord from the earth, the dragons and all deep beasts and all cattle creeping things and flying fowl.” “All creatures of our God and King, come with your voice and with us sing!” These are very universal ideas that speak to me of the same God then, and now.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place for us to end today. Have a blessed week, y’all.


    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu. Thank you and have a great week.