Introduction to the Psalter

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bob-2012-2sby Bob MacDonald

What can I assume when I say introduction? I have met many who do a double take when I say the word Psalter. What is the Psalter? The Psalter is a set of 150 poems that were created between 2200 and 3000 years ago, and collected between 2200 and 2500 years ago. We call the poems ‘psalms’ but only 57 of them have this title in their inscription (in the Hebrew). The Jewish term is Tehillim, or ‘praises’.

I have met one who asked if the Jews have the same Psalter as the Christians. From an introductory point of view, the answer is yes. If you worship in a Synagogue, you probably would recognize many of the psalms since they are the foundation of the opening of the Sabbath service. If you worship in a Christian congregation, you may, depending on your denomination, know several psalms from the Sunday services. But what do we mean by ‘the same’ Psalter?

The Prayer Book leaves out several sections of the poems.

The first translation of the Psalms from Hebrew was into Greek around the second century BCE. From that time, there were significant differences in interpretation. The Psalms were carried into the churches for over a millennium and even to today by Jerome’s Latin translation(s) from the 4th century CE. There are now for the English, so many different translations and presentations of the psalms that it is hard to begin to describe how different they are from each other. My Anglican colleagues will know the Psalms from the Prayer Book in a translation from the 15th century by Miles Coverdale. The Prayer Book leaves out several sections of the poems (see e.g. Psalms 109, 137). The Canadian 1959 Prayer Book leaves out Psalm 58 entirely. Psalm 58? The 58th psalm? If you were using the Greek or Latin translation, this would be the 57th psalm! So the differing Psalters even have different chapter numbers. And the English translations have differing verse numbers from the Hebrew.

The Psalms teach us how to live with the multiplicity of troubles we encounter.

How then can we begin to know this book? Do we even want to? The answer must be that we do want to but we won’t get there too easily. If we are Jewish, the psalms define for us our canonical history and lead us to our prayer for the nation, for the land, and for all peoples. If we identify with Jesus, the psalms teach us how ‘he learned obedience’.[1] Also they teach us how to live with the multiplicity of troubles we encounter. If we look at all the psalms used in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament, we could come to the conclusion that the Psalter is ‘the book of Scripture that represents the conversation between the Father and the Son’.[2] Christians particularly will want to learn the psalms for this reason alone.

If we are of other traditions or none, these poems still represent an old and significant body of poetry that has been loved by many human beings. The Psalter is the most quoted of any Old Testament book in the New Testament. ‘Over one third of the 360 Old Testament quotations in the New Testament come from the psalms.’[3] Peter Flint at the Oxford Conference in 2010 listed for us the top 10 Qumran count of distinct scrolls as follows: Jeremiah – 6, Ezekiel and Numbers – 8 each, Daniel – 9, Leviticus – 16, Exodus – 17, Genesis – 20, Isaiah – 21, Deuteronomy – 31, and Psalms – 37. In the book arising from this conference,[4] his essay cites 43 psalms scrolls or manuscripts that incorporate psalms. Just these two statistics show us that the psalms were loved by the society of that inter-testamental period from the second century BCE to the end of the first century CE.

An introduction must have some poetry – not just talk about it. Let’s read Psalm 3 first. The musicians among you will recognize that this is set by Henry Purcell in his verse anthem, Jehova, Quam Multi Sunt Hostes Mei. Here is the Coverdale version in modern English.[5]

Psalm 3 Coverdale

Lord, how are they increased that trouble me! Many are they that rise against me. Many there be that say of my soul, There is no help for him in his God. But thou, O Lord, art my defender; thou art my worship, and the lifter up of my head. I did call upon the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. I laid me down and slept, and rose up again; for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid for ten thousands of the people that have set themselves against me round about. Up, Lord, and help me, O my God, for thou smitest all mine enemies upon the cheek-bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly. Salvation belongeth unto the Lord; and thy blessing is upon thy people.

You will notice immediately that it looks like prose. A few carefully placed carriage returns will make this easier to read. Note that in the Hebrew, verse 1 is the inscription. The presence of an inscription often results in different verse numbering between the Hebrew (in parentheses) and English editions. Psalm 3 is the first psalm with an inscription.

(1) A psalm: for David when he fled from his son, Absalom.[6]
1 (2) Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise against me.
2 (3) Many there be that say of my soul,
There is no help for him in his God.

3 (4) But thou, O Lord, art my defender;
thou art my worship, and the lifter up of my head.
4 (5) I did call upon the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill.
5 (6) I laid me down and slept, and rose up again; for the Lord sustained me.

6 (7) I will not be afraid for ten thousands of the people
that have set themselves against me round about.
7 (8) Up, Lord, and help me, O my God,
for thou smitest all mine enemies upon the cheek-bone;
thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.
8 (9) Salvation belongeth unto the Lord; and thy blessing is upon thy people.

Coverdale ‘that trouble me’ is different from the translation that Purcell uses where ‘hostes’ would be translated as enemies. Yes, those who trouble me may well be my enemies, but they may well be just our own troubles, constraints, or worrisome thoughts too.[7]

The repetition of ‘many’ underlines word recurrence, a common aspect of Hebrew poetry. Also to be noted is the parallel thought of verse 1 in the form a-b, a-b. Recurrence and parallelism are two techniques that are keys to reading and hearing the poem. These aspects of Hebrew poetry are often and sometimes unavoidably obscured by translation. In this case, what is obscured is the recurrence of ‘increased’ and ‘ten thousands’ that are from the same root and therefore have similar sounds in Hebrew, but not in translation. There are many translations in English, in Latin, and even in Greek. In the next section, the poem is from the Hebrew with a close translation.[8]9781938434419m

Psalm 3 from Seeing the Psalter

1

A psalm of David,
when he ran away from the face of Absalom his son

2

יהוה, how multiplied my straits!
Many arise over me

3

Many say of me
There is no salvation for him in God
Selah

4

But you, יהוה, a shield about me
my glory, and lifting high my head

5

My voice, to יהוה I call
and he answers me from his holy hill
Selah

6

I lie down and I sleep
I awakefor יהוה supports me

7

I will not fear the multiplicity of people
that surround set over me

8

Arise יהוה
save me my God
for you strike all my enemies on the cheek
the teeth of the wicked you break

9

Of יהוה is the salvation
On your people your blessing
Selah

Hebrew words: 70. Percentage of Hebrew words that recur in this psalm: 39%. Average recurring words per verse: 3.

2 straits, צר (cr) or trouble, foe related to צרה (crh), צרר (crr), trouble, adversary, also part of the word for Egypt מִצְרַיִם (mitsraim lit. double straits). Straits imply a narrow space limiting or constricting movement. The Vulgate Jehova quam multi sunt hostes mei would imply that the straits are only external enemies. In this case, I think that is slipping from cause to effect.
3 salvation ישׁע (ysh`) Note the related word הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי אֱלֹהַי (hoshieni elohai) save me, my God, in verse 8.
in God, בֵאלֹהִים (b’lhym) Note that God is a frame in the poem. This is the first time we have seen this word Elohim. The preposition in is full of promise. It is possible that one could use an agency preposition, like by or even phrase the translation God won’t save him avoiding the preposition altogether. But doing this would impoverish our experience, for God is not the last minute cavalry in a Western film. Nor is God a distant hero who rides off in the dust after effecting salvation.
8 strikeenemiescheek, teethwickedbreak is a reverse parallel, a-b-c, c-b-a.

יהוה recurs six times in this poem, linking all three stanzas. God occurs twice and this is the first time this word is used in the Psalter. Multiplied – arise – salvation – God link the first and third stanzas. Verses 4 to 6, the second stanza, are linked to the outer stanzas only by the words יהוה, the connector כי (ky), and the word of unknown meaning, סלה (selah), often thought of as an interlude or pause, or even a change of pitch,[9] or da capo instruction (HALOT[10]), or weigh this (Vantoura[11]), but as will be seen repeatedly, not necessarily marking a sectional boundary. Many is the tie for the first stanza, verses 2 and 3. People frames the last stanza, verses 7 to 9.

In this first psalm of David, the poet speaks in verses 2, 3, and 4 to יהוה, but in verses 5, 6, and 7, the point of view changes and the reader is addressed directly. Then in verse 8, יהוה is again addressed, with verse 9a perhaps for the reader’s ears also. Verse 9b may be the editor speaking to us. The point of view spans the stanzas determined by recurrence.

Note the five repeated words in sequence that highlight the contrast expressed in the psalm between verses 2 and 3 and verses 7 and 8. The sequence highlights what it frames: verses 4 to 6. Rendtorff[12] (p. 323) notes how each verse of this psalm is Midrash on the story of David from 2 Samuel. One could imagine the poet meditating on his own or David’s life. Given also the effect of these psalms on an individual, one can imagine David’s writing this psalm from reflection on his own experience. Yet the psalm has people as a frame, so that we might not forget that wider context in which we live. The last frame in a psalm often acts as a focal point.

Selected recurring words

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Some of the most touching music of the early polyphony of the 15th and 16th century comes from the story of David’s grief over Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33). It is perhaps significant that this first psalm of David begins with this inscription.

Approaching the text

The Psalter is not just a hymn book. It is also a story.

There are so many possible questions. The one I have asked in Seeing the Psalter is this one: Is the Psalter a hymn book or is it a story? There are (only) 150 psalms in the Psalter. In many modern hymnbooks there are seven or eight hundred. No one would read a modern hymnbook in sequence. But the Psalter is not just a hymn book. It is also a story. Was the Psalter written all at once? No. Hymn books are collected over centuries and so is this collection of psalms. So – it is both hymn book and story, written over centuries and collected into a specific sequence.[13]

The story in the psalms is the story of the history of Israel, a story meant to teach, a story with a purpose, a story that underlines Jesus’ statement from John 15:1: I am the vine. Before I began my study of the psalms, they were a jumble of ancient hymns to me. Goulder[14] has an apt phrase. The Psalms have been treated as so many independent units, flotsam washed up by the tides of the late centuries before our time. One of my objectives in my book is to see coherence in their organization.

People often approach the psalms as if one could divide them by category or genre. This is a very difficult approach. For instance, there are traditionally 7 penitential psalms. In my summary of Book 2 of the Psalter, I note these 7 with a caveat that they are more than fits into the ‘penitential’ category.

Perhaps the most remembered Psalm of Book 2 is Psalm 51, made famous by Gregorio Allegri in the sublime polyphony of his Miserere. Psalm 51, like Psalms 6 and 38, is a penitential psalm. Traditionally seven psalms are so named (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). Psalms 6, 38, and 51 are penitential. Each of these psalms, however, plays its role in the story of the Psalter in a way that this genre, as name, does not reveal. So Psalms 6, 38, 70, and 137 underscore a theme relating to remembering. Psalm 51, following Psalm 50, confirms that blood sacrifice is not the priority, but rather the offering of thanksgiving (Psalm 50), and the new spirit and clean heart (Psalm 51). Psalm 102, prior to the entr’acte of Book 4 is part of the frame for Book 4, balancing Psalm 90. Psalm 130 is one of the Songs of Ascent. Psalm 143 is part of the Davidic closing bracket for the Psalter.[15]

A psalm reaches more deeply than can be encompassed in a one word summary.

The terms ‘royal’ and ‘lament’ are equally problematic. They are too reductionist. A psalm reaches more deeply than can be encompassed in a one word summary.

If we begin at the beginning, Psalms 1 and 2 are a pair framed by ‘Happy’:

1.1 Happy the person
who does not walk in the advice of the wicked
and in the way of sinners does not stand
and in the seat of the scornful does not sit …
2.11 serve יהוה in fear
and rejoice in trembling
2.12 Kiss, each of you – pure lest he be angry
and you perish in the way
for he kindles as a hint of his anger
Happy! all who take refuge in him

If we move on to Psalms 3 to 6, we can observe the shape of the story. All these are psalms of David. David is in trouble (3.2); he makes demands and is answered with a one-verse rebuke (4.2-3); he makes promises and demands and describes his Lord (5); and then suffers a sharp rebuke for an unstated reason, but the result is known in that first penitential psalm 6. Psalm 7 reflects on the struggle, a shiggaion, a wild dance or a mistake. Psalm 8 celebrates the life of the children of humanity as a gift. Psalms 9 and 10 are the first of four acrostics in Book 1.

Alphabetic acrostics are poems in which the initial letters of the verse or of sets of verses are sequenced by the letters of the alphabet. These occur only in Books 1 and 5. Psalms 9 and 10 taken together are a broken alphabetical acrostic. Seven of the twenty-two letters are missing or out of sequence.

I say a great deal about the acrostics in Seeing the Psalter. They are the organizing principle of Books 1 and 5. They are marked in their places as play and as celebration, each one following a significant psalm. They mark the whole of the Psalter as a book collected and formed during or after the exile of Judea to Babylon.

When we move on to Psalms 11-15, the stage is set with the question: who will guest in your tent, O Lord? Who will live with you? This question can serve as our approach to the Holy. The Psalter forms an approach to the Holy through the formation of a people who know mercy. Holiness is not then fully unapproachable, but it is to be approached through the covenant of mercy, a mercy that creates its own guest.[16] Book 1 continues with 8 poems leading to Psalm 24 which is followed by the second acrostic. Why these 8 poems? 16 – the claim that the one under mercy will not be abandoned; that the elect is ‘the apple of God’s eye’ (17), that there is a deep compassion going both ways (18); that the Torah is declared by the created order (19); that the king will triumph through great adversity, (20-23) and enter the Holy place (24). The people reach the Holy place in Book 5. The approach is long and difficult, yet only (in an image) a short distance up the 15 steps of the temple (the songs of Ascent, Psalms 120 to 134). One could see Psalm 120 as defining the movement from blackness and charade to the place of the Holy. You may remember Meshech and Kedar[17]. I recall many a chorister wondering where these places are.

Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Meshech,
and to have my habitation among the tents of Kedar!

woe to me for I am guest in a charade
I dwell in tents of blackness

I cannot say it is easy. Holiness has a reality that impurity cannot bear. But it is certainly not impossible and it is an invitation. We are instructed, again in the Epistle to the Hebrews, to approach the Holy place and to enter through the veil, that is to say, the flesh of Jesus, into the presence of God.[18] Here there is as our end, as shown at the end of the Psalter, continuous praise.

 

 


[1] Hebrews 5:8, Revised English Bible.

[2] Seeing the Psalter, Bob MacDonald, p. 5.

[3] The Psalms through the Centuries, Susan Gillingham, p. 14.

[4] Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms, ed. Susan Gillingham, p. 11 ff.

[6] Revised English Bible.

[7] The other Vulgate is more like Coverdale: Domine quid multiplicati sunt qui tribulant me. Oh, how the translations multiply against me!

[8] From Seeing the Psalter, pages 28 and 29.

[9] Change of pitch would be inconsistent with the interpretation of the music proposed by Suzanne Haik-Vantoura.

[10] Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

[11] The Music of the Bible Revealed: The Deciphering of a Millenary Notation, Suzanne Haik Vantoura.

[12] The Canonical Hebrew Bible, A Theology of the Old Testament, Rolf Rentdorf.

[13] But note that some scrolls found at Qumran show differing orders especially in psalms from Books 4 and 5. See Flint (op. cit.) and Psalms dwelling together in unity, JBL Vol. 131, No.3 Ryan Armstrong p 502.

[14] The Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Michael Goulder, p. 10.

[15] Seeing the Psalter, op. cit. p. 228.

[16] Come, my way, my truth, my life (3rd verse), George Herbert.

[17] Psalm 120:5.

[18] Hebrews 10:20.