The Psalms: Praying the Human Experience
The book of Psalms within the bible is a collection of 150 psalms in total. They are the prayers of the Jewish people and range across the centuries of the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hence some are very old, from the oral tradition (2000 BCE on), and others relatively new, from after the exile (5th – 3rd century BCE). There are many different types of psalms in the collection: hymns of trust and praise (Ps 104), laments (Ps 22), royal psalms (Ps 2), wisdom psalms (Ps 111), liturgical psalms (Ps 134) and historical psalms (Ps 105), to name some of the categories.
The psalms are the prayer of a particular people but can be the prayer of all people. Psalm 136, for example, is a prayer of praise for the wonderful world God has given us. The refrain,“for his steadfast love endures forever”, reminds us that the wonderful beauty of creation is evidence of God’s great and never ending love for us. God is creator and lover of all creation.
The psalms are basically prayers and so the true subject of the psalms is the praying community. The psalms may be termed “cultic texts” and so we need to ask what the cult is. The cult is simply the Temple liturgy or the prayer of the people. The cult or liturgy is not an institution shut in on itself, concerned only with the cultic personnel. The main participants in the cult are the praying community. The liturgy is the centre of an institution embracing every part of people’s lives. The psalms also embrace every part of human experience. They are unique because they mirror the whole of life and as prayer they are an essential part of communal praying. The psalms speak and sing of the creator and creation. They encompass the broad sweep of history and reverence the personal joys and sufferings of individuals.
How did the psalms evolve? They did not evolve as literature as some other sections of the bible may have. Nor did they evolve as hymns. They were generally not written down and then read or sung, but rather prayed, sung and later written down. Thus at work is the oral tradition of personal and communal prayer. The psalms show that Israel’s public worship was the heartbeat of the whole community.
The psalms have been in the form of a book within the bible called the Psalter since the time of the Greek translation in about the third century BCE. Recent scholarship indicates that the Psalter, or collection of the psalms, has been carefully collated and edited over time. The fact that the whole collection is divided into five sections suggests, to many scholars, that this is patterned on the five books of the Torah or Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the bible. These ancient psalms of Israel are not only hymns and prayers to be sung and prayed at a place of public worship; they are designed to nurture the spirituality of the people.
The two largest groups of psalms are the psalms of praise and the psalms of lament. In Hebrew the entire collection of psalms is called tehillim which means hymn. Many of these prayers or hymns are songs of praise. In fact ten percent of the psalms fall into the category we call psalms of praise.
Psalms of praise
Psalm 117 is an example of a hymn of praise in miniature. It begins with a call to prayer.
Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol God all you peoples! (v.1)
Next, as is often characteristic in psalms of praise, the preposition for appears to give reasons for praising God.
For great is God’s steadfast love towards us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. (v. 2)
Finally the psalm concludes as it began.
Praise the Lord! (v. 3)
In two short verses this briefest of all psalms expresses a sense of well-being. The writer or psalmist is free from anxiety because God is good and worthy of praise. The world of this psalmist is protected by God’s hesed (steadfast love) and emet (faithfulness). Psalm 117 is a perfect example of the praise category and is the shortest in the Psalter.
Another psalm of praise is Psalm 100.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing. (vv. 1-2)
Thus it begins with a boisterous command to praise God. Verse 3 states,“Know that the Lord is God. It is God that made us”. The word “know” is a significant covenant word meaning to know God intimately, suggesting a close personal and loving relationship. Security is present in this psalm as well for “…we are God’s”. God looks after us. The final verse is like a refrain through the whole Psalter and indeed the whole bible: “For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.” (v. 5)
Here we have the covenant words of hesed (enduring love) and emet (faithfulness) again. These beautiful sentiments are expressed in terms of relating with God and with others through the generations. It is a profoundly simple life message.
Psalms of trust
Psalms of trust are often considered a sub-category of the psalms of praise. Psalm 139 puts before us an intimate conversation with God, who knows us completely just as we are and who is always with us; a God who watches us constantly with love. Fortunately we really cannot get away from God even if we want to, so the psalmist tells us, “Where can I flee from your presence? If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (vv. 7, 9-10). In many ways this is a psalm of innocence and so is appropriate for use with children. It also has depth of spirituality and reality observed – again traits that children have often in abundance. Psalm 139 tells us that God created the very person that we are, putting us together in the womb. God is intimately involved with the making of each person and for such an enormous mystery the psalmist exclaims with thanks and praise. “…I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works…” (v. 14). This psalm is often regarded as some of the most exquisite poetry in the whole collection of the book of Psalms. It is unrivalled as a portrayal of the certainty of God’s nearness and interest in us, and yet paradoxically how difficult it is for us to fully understand this intimate God, “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to an end – I am still with you” (vv. 17-18).
Psalm 131 is a poem and a prayer of tranquillity and quiet. Here we have another very short psalm which is perhaps one of the most beautiful psalms of trust. Our relationship with God, fostered by such prayers, is like that of a child in its mother’s arms, “…like a weaned child with its mother” (v. 2). The prayer is peaceful and quiet, “…I have calmed and quieted my soul” (v. 2). The heart has no lofty ambitions. Life is simple and sweet in the arms of a mother-like God. It is easy perhaps to imagine Jesus often praying Psalm 131.
Psalms of lament
Psalms of lament are affairs of the heart. These psalms highlight the wholeheartedness needed in prayer. Prayer is often described as a matter of the heart, and the laments present the harsh reality of life as is felt truthfully in the heart. The psalmist does not shy away from facing sorrow or from voicing disappointment with God or anyone else.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
My soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.
You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak. (Ps 77:2-4)
Read the rest of Psalm 77 to see the tough questions the psalmist puts to her/himself and to God in verses 7-9. Even from the short extract above one is painfully aware of the anguish of the author.
A whole heart is one that is not divided. It is not a heart that is exempt from pain. A rightly oriented heart knows what it is to be appalled.
Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled. (Ps 143:4)
A heart attuned to God and self knows how to say:
My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. (Ps 102:4)
I am poor and needy, and my heart is pierced within me. (Ps 109:22)
My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. (Ps 55:4)
There are many more similar examples of heartfelt pain and lament, thus it is not surprising to know that the psalms of lament comprise the largest group or category in the Psalter. Some scholars claim 50 of the 150 psalms are laments. While others assert that 40 are individual laments and about a dozen or more are communal or national laments.
The psalms of lament have a primitive call or a primeval anguish; Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream expresses them well in imagery. The main section of these psalms is of course the lament, complaint or description of the need. This part may contain several elements, not always in the same order. Often the complaint is in general terms and not described specifically, “I pour out my complaint before God; I tell my trouble before God.” (Ps 142:2). Or as Psalm 102 describes itself: “A prayer of one afflicted when faint and pleading before the Lord”. The various complaint formulas reveal one of the common motives of the complaint, to relieve the heart.
What are the most common complaints in these psalms? Danger of death looms large; death from natural causes like disease or disasters, or death from human malice. Thus it is the enemies of life who are complained against. Illness had a religious meaning in ancient times. It must be noted that not all expressions of complaints are to be understood literally because there was most probably a common stock of conventional formulas and Semitic overstatements:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; (Ps 22:14).
For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. (Ps 38:7-8)
People in distress will likely depend for help on fixed religious patterns which in turn can be reflected in the description of the need. We need prayer formulas in times of need to help us to pray, to give us words that express our needs. Thus three of the Gospel writers had Jesus praying psalms while dying. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew Jesus prays the great lament, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1). In the Gospel of Luke however, Jesus is portrayed as praying a different psalm – “into your hands I commit my spirit” (Ps 31:5). Both psalms are laments.
Psalm 31 is the prayer of someone in a time of ordeal and yet it has great statements of trust. The imagery is both poignant and reassuring. God is likened to a shelter, a sheltering rock and a walled fortress. These are all images taken from the life of the writer. Even though the person is experiencing some kind of hardship or trial there is no doubt that the help, protection and support of God is present. In the Gospel of Luke as Jesus is dying he prays part of this psalm, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46; Ps 31:5). There is a tradition that this is a night prayer where the individual gives their spirit to God while asleep and unconscious. God gives their life breath or spirit back to them in the morning; a real act of trust. Does Jesus, in Luke’s text, understand death as sleep? As the English poet John Donne, fifteen hundred years later, expressed so well in Death be not Proud, “One short sleep past; we wake eternally. And death shall be no more. Death thou shalt die!”
Psalms of praise do praise God as their name suggests. They have words of praise for many reasons. They praise creation, God and the gift of life, but they also express words of trust and thanksgiving. All life’s experiences are appropriate topics for the psalmist. The language of praise is often the language of poetry. Happiness can be identified in prayer and expressed in a way of life that is God’s way.
The psalms of lament would seem to provide a healthy psychological balance and outlet to our daily living. Whinging to God and asking God to carry out various vengeful actions on our enemies would seem infinitely saner than acting ourselves or keeping our pain within to create ulcers and a myriad of other illnesses. It is wise to let the psalms speak for us on some occasions; the psalms of lament would seem particularly useful in this regard.
Overall then, the book of Psalms includes comprehensively the themes and topics found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The Psalms and the book of Isaiah are the two books most frequently quoted in the Christian Scriptures. The Psalter has always been the scriptural book of prayer and praise for synagogue and church, indeed the monastic Prayer of the Church (or Divine Office of the Breviary) has the Psalms as its main component. The psalms influence theology. The focus of the psalms is God and the human person, thus they deal with the principal functions of religion and the basic tenets of God’s relationship with us and as such are crucial texts for theological formulations.