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The psalms and human experience
The psalms form part of the heritage of Jews and Christians alike, but after looking briefly at some specifically Christian perceptions, I want to suggest an approach which recognizes their universal significance.
Traditionally, Christians have understood the Psalms both as witnesses to Christ and as expressions of their own life of faith.
Witnesses to Christ
As early as the New Testament itself, various psalms are quoted in Christological contexts. The exegetical rationale for this is the ancient belief that King David, the supposed author of the Psalms, was speaking prophetically of his descendant Jesus (e.g. Acts 2:50).
Thus Psalm 91:11- 12 underpins Matthew's account of Jesus' temptation in the desert (Mt.4:6); and Psalm 118:22-23 becomes a crucial "proof text" of Jesus' claimed Messiahship (Mt.21:42; Mk.12:10-11; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7).
Other important verses include Ps.110:1 (Mt.22:44; Mk.12:36; Lk.20:32; Acts 2:34-35; Heb.1:13; 10:13); Ps.2:7 (Acts 13:33); Ps.28:16 (l Pet.2:6).
This use of the psalms is in line with the New Testament's approach to Scripture generally: many passages from Isaiah and other prophetic texts are put to the same kind of use.
Nor is this a Christian invention: in several texts from Qumran, Scripture is also seen as prophetic and as finding its intended meaning in contemporary events and personages. Tanakh itself contains elements of such interpretational "re readings" (e.g. Jer.25:11-12; 29:10, interpreted in Dan.9:2,24-27).
A Christological understanding of the Psalms has persisted throughout Christian history and is still met with today, especially in devotional and liturgical contexts. Any psalm may be seen as illuminating an incident in the Gospels, or as a prayer prayed by Jesus himself (to this extent the Jewishness of Jesus is understood).
Nowadays, with the help of contemporary biblical scholarship, the Psalms are better understood as hymns and prayers shaped by many voices over many years in ancient Israel, and they are appreciated as texts linking Christians to their origins in early Judaism.
Expressions of the Life of Faith
From the beginnings of Christianity, the psalms have also been understood and used as the prayers of Christians 1. Timeless and universal in their themes and imagery, yet specific and memorable, the psalms have always been found relevant and topical. They form an integral part of most church services, and of the monastic breviary. Some have formed the basis for well-loved hymns (e.g."The King of Love my Shepherd is", cf.Ps.23; "All People that on Earth do Dwell", cf.Ps.100). Some have been recast in consciously twentieth century dress:
"Galaxies chant the glory of God,
Arcturus twenty times the sun's magnitude..." cf.Ps.19
"Blessed the man who says no to the party
who will not join committees..."cf.Ps.1
"When Israel came at last
out of Egypt's concentration camps"... cf.Ps.1142.
New "Psalms" have been created on the model of the old, reflecting new awarenesses:
"God is my strong rock in whom I trust,
and all my confidence I rest in her..."3
"It was here in this great and grey cathedral
that you surprised and captured me..."4
In all these ways the biblical psalms have influenced, and continue to influence, our religious consciousness.
But if the Psalms attract, they can also repel. Many seem obscure and alien. Luckily there is good accessible scholarship to help our understanding.5 Even when they are intelligible, they often shock with violent images, or sentiments that offend our moral sensibilities (e.g. Ps.58:6- 11). Favourite psalms sometimes trip us up with verses which we cannot swallow (e.g. Ps.137:8-9; Ps.139:19-22). In liturgical usage, "difficult" psalms may be ignored, or the offending verses omitted. But when we attempt to read, study or pray the psalms directly from the Bible, we are forced to confront the issue.
One of the most interesting recent approaches, which finds room for these difficulties, is that of Walter Brueggemann.6 In the psalms he sees a reflection of a cycle of experience which, following Paul Ricoeur, he calls "orientation", "disorientation" and "reorientation". The first state reflects what might be called "normality"; the others represent extreme or "limit" situations. Life, he suggests, is a continuous movement in and out of these three states, usually in fairly modest ways, but sometimes more dramatically. The psalms appeal to us and help us (or help us to help others) by articulating moments in this cycle, with varying degrees of intensity, and in language which, because it is highly symbolic, is of great creative power.
In this state we are basically "alright"; we feel "orientated", that is, we have our bearings. Life is reasonably uncomplicated, our faith feels secure, we are willing to subscribe to the status quo, whether political or ecclesiastical. There are many psalms which evoke this state, mainly those in the formal categories of praise, confidence and wisdom. All the great hymns which celebrate God as creator and affirm the goodness and reliability of the world order belong here (e.g. Pss.19; 104; 112), as do the meditative psalms which proclaim that virtue is always rewarded and vice punished (Pss 1, 36, 37). At such moments personal integrity and happiness seem unassailable:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life ... (Ps.23:6)
I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread... (Ps.37:25)7
But there come times when old certainties waver, when scales fall from our eyes and we see that the just are forsaken and their children do beg for bread; or when some personal trial or tragedy overwhelms us. Then we may feel "disorientated"; we lose our bearings, suffer moral or physical pain, fall into depression or bitterness of heart; faith is tested to the limit and, just when it becomes most urgent, God seems to have vanished. We have entered the world of the lament psalms, with their anguished cries of pain and supplication:
O Lord, how many are my foes... (Ps.3:1)
Help, Lord... (Ps.12:1)
How long, O Lord...? (Ps.13:1)
I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold...(Ps.69:2)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps.22:1)
In these psalms there are in fact discernible all the stages of what we call the grief, or bereavement, process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.8
An initial denial of some traumatic experience often expresses itself as nostalgia and isolation. Nostalgia makes us retreat into the comfort of the past, of the "good old days" before the death happened or the illness struck or the relationship fell apart. In the psalms this is most frequently expressed as a yearning for the time when God was present and answered prayers. Most of Ps.77 seems to be at this stage.9 Sufferers often feel isolated, as if cut off from family, friends, society and God. They feel alienated, and unable to communicate, misunderstood and shunned by others. This too appears in the psalms (e.g. Ps.22:1; 38:11). There is even a sense that God is responsible (Ps.88:8). Most of Ps. 38 is at this stage.10
Another stage is that of protest, a healthy and necessary stage, though hard to handle. It is here that the psalms can be particularly helpful, since they articulate strong emotions symbolically. Even the most vindictive prayers for God to destroy enemies can function as a safety valve for wild irrational thoughts. The "cursing" psalms do not function for us on the level of moral choice but on that of emotional hurt; shocking as they are, these elements in the psalms represent psychic realities which need to be acknowledged in a controlled way. Most of Ps.109 seems to be at this stage.11 Sometimes God is seen as the cause of the affliction, and is addressed in terms of vigorous protest, with a frank questioning of the ways of the Almighty which is also very liberating (Pss.6:3; 10:1; 13:1-2). By these means the difficult phase of anger in the grief process can be given a constructive outlet.
This phase consists in clinging to straws, trying to buy time by making promises for an impossible future. In the psalms, this appears as a variety of motives for God to act on the psalmist's behalf (e.g. Pss.6:5-6; 35:25; 51:12-13).
The stage of depression comes when reality finally sinks in, but pain or grief are just too much to bear and we fall into apathy or despair. Here too the psalmist has been before us, expressing for us both the intolerable pain and the sense of hopelessness. Most of Ps.88 is at this stage.12
Finally, however, comes the stage of acceptance, when fear or grief is relinquished, and the present is embraced with new-found calm. This is not hopeless resignation (that belongs to the previous stage), but a new phase. The sufferer is open once more to the future; in many cases this can be a moment of "breakthrough" to new life. Almost all the lament psalms express something of this experience. Some merely glimpse it (e.g. Pss 42:5,11; 43:5; 31:24; 102:27-28; 130). Ps.2 seems to be mainly at this stage. Other psalms express the sense of deliverance more strongly (Pss.22:23-31; 56:8-13; 57:7-11; 689:30-36; 102:18-22,25-28). In these instances the note of praise is dominant and there is a move to celebrate with others; it is the moment of reintegration into family or wider community, which properly belongs to the state called "reorientation".
The experience of regaining our bearings is celebrated, as we have seen, in many of the lament psalms. There are also special psalms of thanksgiving which emphasize this state (Ps.9; 18; 30; 116; 118). They are almost lament psalms in reverse, for although they start with a strong affirmation of trust in God and of gratitude for deliverance, they often hark back to the previous sufferings, showing how intimately the two experiences are related (e.g.Pss.18:1-6; 30:1-3). Sometimes they modulate into a new plea for help (e.g. Pss.9:13; 27:7; 40:1-3,11-15). Everything however is seen with new eyes, even the suffering. Old certainties are not taken for granted but there is an even greater conviction that God is good, and that joy must be shared with others (e.g.Ps.116:14). Then gradually the elation subsides and we return to a state of "normality" or "orientation", though now with a better appreciation of the fragility of things, of the value of simple happiness and of the importance of the ideals for which we yearn and which the psalms of orientation describe. The serenity of Ps.23 means something rather different once the dark valley has been actually traversed, and perhaps that is why this psalm of security is so frequently a source of comfort in times of darkness.
When they are approached in the way which Brueggemann has explored, the psalms are no longer either specifically "Jewish" or specifically "Christian": they are authentically "human". In all the multiplicity of ways in which we experience ourselves, ourselves in relation to others, and ourselves in relation to the Mystery within us and beyond us, with which our deepest longing is to be in conversation, the Psalms provide us with words that have stood the test of time. Prayers emerging from and reflecting the history and faith of Israel, yes; prayer highlighting the full significance of the life, teaching and person of Jesus of Nazareth, yes; but also and simultaneously, prayers of life and death and re-creation for us all.
Jenny Dines teaches Bible at Heythrop College, University of London. She is a Canoness of St. Augustine.
1 See A Curtis in A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation,
ed. R. Coggins & L. Houlden, SCM, London 1990
2 Ernesto Cardenal, Psalms, Sheed & Ward, Lonon 1989
3 Janet Morley, "A Psalm", The Month, Feb. 1988, p.544
4 Edwina Gateley, V.M.M. Psalms of a Laywoman, Anthony Clark, Wheatampstead, Herts., 1986.
5 Particularly helpful:
John Eaton's short Torch Bible Commenatary;
J. Keselman & M. le Barre in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary;
Martin Israel, A Light on the Path, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1990.
6 See "Psalms and the Life of Faith", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 17(l980) 3-32. What follows is an adaptation of my article on the Lament Psalms, "Rage against God", March 1994 pp.103-107.
7 Quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Collins l989.
8 See Elizabeth Kubler Ross, On Death and Dying, Macmillan, New York, 1969.
9 See also Ps.22:2-5,9-10; 42:4; 44:2-10; 55:7,14; 80:9-14; 102:26-28; 137:1-6; 143:5.
10 See also 10:1; 13:2-3; 43:2; 55:13-15; 77:8-10; 120:5-7
11 See also Ps.12:4-5; 55:9,l5; 69:22-29; 83:15-19; 94:1-7; 137:7-9
12 See also Ps.22:6,14; 38:11-13; 69:2-3; 77:2-3; 102:4,7; 137:4; 143:3-4.