Remixing the Psalms
- Thursday, January 26, 2012
It may be no accident that the book of Psalms is in the center of the Christian Bible. The psalms express the heart and soul of the conversation between God and His people. Its popularity through the millennia lies in its human words to God that articulate our innermost joys, aspirations and fears, and in its prophetic words in which God Himself assures us and unmasks our pretensions.
What is a Psalm?
Psalms are tightly woven poetic compositions, unlike the prose prayers found in biblical narratives. Within the psalms, the identities of “I,” “we,” and “they” (usually the enemies) are open-ended. And the circumstances reflected are portrayed with a variety of impressionistic images. In Psa 35, the imagery applied to the opponents comes from a variety of spheres: the battlefield, agriculture, hunting, robbery, legal accusation, carnivorous beasts, and social mockery. This nonspecific language stands in contrast to David’s poetic lament contained in 2 Samuel chapter 1 (quoted from “the Book of Jashar”), which names its subjects (Saul and Jonathan), their enemies (the Philistines), and the location (Mount Gilboa).
While we have 150 psalms, each unique, they generally follow established literary patterns (such as individual/corporate laments, thanksgivings, hymns, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms). The psalms are full of liturgical and ritual allusions. Many of them contain plural commands, which imply the speaker is addressing a congregation (such as, “Hallelu-Yah!,” which means, “Y’all praise Yahweh!”). Several psalms refer to the temple on Mount Zion, to sacrifices, and ritual processions in accompaniment with the singing of the psalm and musical instruments.
The psalms were not spontaneous free verse written for singular occasions, but were carefully crafted liturgies written for recurring, typical human needs and for services of worship. They formed a kind of ancient prayer and hymn book.
Most Christian prayer books contain regular liturgies in which all worshipers participate during the liturgical year (such as Morning Prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and Easter Sunday), as well as special prayers and thanksgivings for particular groups and needs (governments, schools, the unemployed, and the sick). The book of Psalms is no different. The hymns and the songs about Zion were probably performed regularly at the temple during the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. The Royal Psalms were probably sung on special occasions, such as the king’s coronation. The laments of the individual may have been invoked in more local, private ceremonies, even at the bedside for the sick.
David and the Psalms: Whether or not David actually composed all of the psalms whose superscriptions name him (“a psalm of David” or “of David, a psalm”), we cannot be certain. The Hebrew preposition that translates “of” is even more ambiguous than the English preposition. Even the name “David” can denote the historical individual or a whole dynasty (Jer 30:9; Ezek 34:23–24; 37:24–25; Hos 3:5). Many of these “Davidic” psalms mention developments that took place after David’s lifetime, such as the construction of the temple (5:7; 68:69; 138:2) and its courts (65:4). Whether or not he was their author, the psalms were preserved, not to give us historical information about David, but to serve as models of prayer and praise for the people of God. The psalms were composed with language suited for any worshiper at any time and from any place. This quality helps explain their universal appeal over the millennia.
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