Devotion – Reading the ancient poet as Jesus would have read

by Robert MacDonald

PsalterHow can we begin to appreciate the gift that we have in the Psalms? They are more than just a random collection of poems. They are, when read together in sequence, a complex history of the people of Israel. This is a history that was written for all of us to learn from. As I noted in the previous post, they are written to form a community of the merciful who have learned mercy through their covenant with God. This is a community that has learned to behave as God behaves. You might ask if this has ever happened yet.

We are privileged to discover just how creative the word of the Psalms is as we discover how it works in us. The work is a mystery within us, not our own doing. A servant who is corrected and freed from bondage is both devoted and filled with praise. So let us move from the narrow place of Psalm 3 to the fullness of praise in the final 5 Psalms. This will be the result of meditation on Yahweh’s Instruction as described by Psalms 1 and 2, and reflected in Psalm 149.

To appreciate how the Psalms bring praise, read their full instruction from 1 to 150. In Seeing the Psalter, I have done just that. As we go through them in the sequence they have been arranged in, we appreciate how differing aspects of the story are revealed and we look for structural markers (and there are some that are quite obvious in the story as a whole). To outline the markers is relatively easy but they are not to be known just by some abstract reasoning as if answers were sufficient.

One cannot appreciate fear, lament, forgiveness, love, care, correction, or exile by just thinking about it. One must be immersed in the experience, learning from the one who has your best interest in mind and who knows your every quirk and the needs that you have that you don’t know about or even would want to admit. But there it is. We are known, exposed, and vulnerable. These songs are important for us so that we come to know Yahweh (יהוה, the LORD) as our courage, with the same passion as David expresses in Psalm 18:

I am passionate about you יהוה my courage,יהוה my cliff, and my fortress and my security, my God, my rock. I will take refuge in him, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my retreat. Praising, I will call יהוה and from my enemies I will be saved.

Once the process has begun, no one will want to give up on it, even as its extremes become clearer. One is in the presence of the One whose character is ultimately reliable (Psalm 146) even if one could ascribe futility to the children of humanity as David does in Psalm 144: humanity is like futility, its days as a shadow passing away.

Because we become overly familiar with the Psalms in our favorite translation, I have left my readings in unpunctuated and sometimes foreign-sounding English. This will encourage slow reading and pondering. Here is an example of how I have laid out the text. All my English words are chosen with the help of computer programs that I have written to assist me with concordance, parallels, and the music of the text, about which much more could be said. This is Psalm 146. Note how the poet describes the character of his Lord and God, Yahweh (יהוה verses 7 to 9). It is this character of God that we see clearly in the person of Jesus.

הַֽלְלוּ־יָ֡הּהַלְלִ֥י נַ֝פְשִׁ֗י אֶת־יְהוָֽה 1 Hallelu YahPraise יהוה O my being
אֲהַלְלָ֣ה יְהוָ֣ה בְּחַיָּ֑י
אֲזַמְּרָ֖ה לֵֽאלֹהַ֣י בְּעוֹדִֽי
2 I will praise יהוה in my life
I will sing psalms to my God while I still exist
אַל־תִּבְטְח֥וּ בִנְדִיבִ֑ים
בְּבֶן־אָדָ֓ם ׀שֶׁ֤אֵֽין ל֥וֹ תְשׁוּעָֽה
3 Do not trust in princes
in a human child
where there is no salvation to it
תֵּצֵ֣א ר֭וּחוֹיָשֻׁ֣ב לְאַדְמָת֑וֹ
בַּיּ֥וֹם הַ֝ה֗וּא אָבְד֥וּ עֶשְׁתֹּנֹתָֽיו
4 its spirit goes forth
it returns to its humus
In that day its gleams perish
אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ
שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ עַל־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהָֽיו
5 Happy the one who has the God of Jacob for its help
Its reliance is on יהוה its God
עֹשֶׂ֤ה ׀ שָׁ֘מַ֤יִם וָאָ֗רֶץאֶת־הַיָּ֥ם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֑ם
הַשֹּׁמֵ֖ר אֱמֶ֣ת לְעוֹלָֽם
6 who makes heaven and earth
the sea and all that is in them
keeping truth forever
עֹשֶׂ֤ה מִשְׁפָּ֨ט ׀ לָעֲשׁוּקִ֗יםנֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לָרְעֵבִ֑ים
יְ֝הוָ֗ה מַתִּ֥יר אֲסוּרִֽים
7 doing judgment for the oppressed
giving bread to the hungry
יהוה releasing the prisoners
יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פֹּ֘קֵ֤חַ עִוְרִ֗יםיְ֭הוָה זֹקֵ֣ף כְּפוּפִ֑ים
יְ֝הוָ֗ה אֹהֵ֥ב צַדִּיקִֽים
8 יהוה giving sight to the blind
יהוה consoling the disturbed
יהוה loving the righteous
יְהוָ֤ה ׀ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗יםיָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד
וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת
9 יהוה sheltering the guest
orphan and widow he relieves
and the way of the wicked he subverts
יִמְלֹ֤ךְ יְהוָ֨ה ׀ לְעוֹלָ֗םאֱלֹהַ֣יִךְ צִ֭יּוֹן לְדֹ֥ר וָדֹ֗רהַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ 10 יהוה will reign forever
your God Zion from generation to generation
Hallelu Yah

Also for each psalm and sometimes for sets of psalms, Seeing the Psalter presents tables that reveal repetition patterns of the words in the text. Here is the table for Psalm 146.

Word / Gloss 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Vs Stem
הללו hallelu 1 הלל
הללי praise 1 הלל
אהללה I will praise 2 הלל
בּעודּי while I still exist 2 עודּ
אדּםּ a human 3 אדּםּ
לאדּמּתּו to its humus 4 אדּםּ
אשׁרי happy the one 5 אשׁר
עשׂה who makes 6 עשׂה
אשׁר that 6 אשׁר
השׁמּר keeping 6 שׁמּר
לעולםּ forever 6 עלםּ
עשׂה doing 7 עשׂה
שׁמּר sheltering 9 שׁמּר
יעודּדּ he relieves 9 עודּ
לעולםּ forever 10 עלםּ
לדּר from generation 10 דּור
ודּר to generation 10 דּור
הללו hallelu 10 הלל

The tables allow us to see something of how the poem is constructed. They are all produced automatically with parameters to select which words and verses to include or exclude. This often reveals the thinking of the poet. We communicate with a mind perhaps 2500 years older than ours.

No one stops reading the Psalms once started. I am now rereading them and imposing punctuation. Also they occasionally change as I work with more and more of the patterns of word usage in the whole Hebrew Bible.

I also work closely with what may be the original music that was associated with these poems and the rest of the Hebrew Old Testament. I have the music for this Psalm and for many other parts of the Bible on my blog: http:\\meafar.blogspot.com. The Psalms are not just a story, but a love song, his song with me in the night. (Psalm 42:8)

By day יהוה will command his loving-kindness, and in the night his song with me, is a prayer to the One of my life.

This is an indication of how Jesus, always in the bosom of the Father, learned from these same poems. There are many such indications in the Psalms. So many, I cannot number them. So I read and reread to make them truly my own.