The Psalms aren’t what you think they are.
I set for my task to read all the psalms. I came close, but instead of writing about as many psalms as possible, I’ve chosen a few that seem especially important or challenging.
Some generalizations about the psalms
At first, I decided that there was a modal psalm, an average psalm that said something like this. “Oh, Lord, I am being tormented and mocked by my enemies. Slay them, and I will be thankful and worship you forever.” Not every psalm is a lament and call for retribution, but it is the most common type. Some psalms simply praise the Lord, such as psalm 8. Songs of thanksgiving (for example, psalm 136) and wisdom psalms (for example, psalms 1, 14) are other common types of psalms.
The psalms are diverse, but it’s possible to find a question common to many of them. Do I live for myself and my pleasures, or do I follow the path of God? Psalm 1, which in so many ways sets the scene for the psalms that follow, states the issue clearly.
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked . . . but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
This is called Torah piety. Torah piety is more than just rule following. It is trust in and loyalty to one’s covenant partner, God.
Covenant or commodity
Every psalm expresses or assumes a covenant between God and humans. Humans agree to worship and obey God, and God agrees to protect and foster humans. Covenantal faith teaches that communion with God, and consequently solidarity with one’s neighbor, who is made in God’s image, constitutes the true goal of human existence. The alternative to communion with God is the endless pursuit of commodities–things that promise to make us safe and happy (Brueggemann, p 319).
Trouble is, reality doesn’t always work this way. The most dramatic expression of the failure of God to fulfill his part of the covenant, or so the psalmist sees it, is psalm 44, which has been used to question God’s failure to stop the Holocaust, and the abuse of children (Blumenthal). Although the psalmists regularly lament their situation, psalm 44 goes further, accusing God of having failed Israel and allowed its shameful humiliation at the hands of its enemies. Yet, by the end of the psalm, the Israelites call once again on God’s steadfast love. Israel and God are partners in a difficult marriage—argument yes, divorce never.
The first two verses of the longest psalm echo the beginning of the first psalm. Obedience to Torah is the route to a fulfilling and complete life.
Torah piety does not consist in simple obedience to a code of commands. Rather, Torah piety is an expression of trust in and loyalty to a covenant partner; trust and loyalty that are embodied in obedience to the law, but express a communion with God, and not simply compliance with a set of rules.
Torah piety in general, and this psalm in particular, view adherence to Torah instruction as the alternative to a life of autonomous self-serving and self-sufficiency that can only end in self-destruction. (Brueggemann, p 520)
Torah piety is best understood by its opposite: a self-centered life built on the illusion of autonomy. But I wonder. Doesn’t it depend on how one pursues a self-sufficient life? I can love my partner, love my children, be a good friend and neighbor, and still value my relative self-sufficiency, all the while understanding that I serve myself best when I care for others. It’s not all or nothing.
Fidelity to whom?
Psalm 119, indeed all the psalms, teach that fidelity is the source of well-being, joy, and liberty. What if we add a contemporary twist: fidelity to self? Shtisel, a marvelous television series on Netflix, concerns life among a small group of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. A main source of dramatic tension is whether Akiva should give up his painting, at which he is gifted, because the only thing of value is living a life of obedience to the Jewish law (Talmud). As I watch the show unfold, I find myself rooting for Akiva to be faithful to his talent. Only this, I believe, will allow him to live a full life. The psalms suggest otherwise; fidelity to self is of no value. The only value is fidelity to God and Torah (first five books of the Bible). But isn’t there some point in between?
The devaluation of autonomy need not lead to deadly conformity, as a Christian reading of this psalm sometimes suggests. A lively tradition of interpretation and argumentation, called midrash by Jews, keeps Torah relevant to changing times. Akiva’s nephew asks the head Rabbi if surrogate pregnancy is against Torah. The rabbi replies that the nephew has been studying Torah long enough so that the Torah is now in him; he must consult the Torah within. *
This is one way of finding a midpoint between fidelity to self and fidelity to Torah. Whether many ultra-orthodox rabbis would actually respond this way is another question.
Grace versus law is a bad way to read psalm 119
It’s common among Christians to dismiss psalm 119 as an expression of Jewish legalism. Salvation comes from God’s unconditional grace, not law. But if one takes grace as seriously as Martin Luther, then perhaps there is not so much difference as first appears. For Luther, the cost of grace is autonomy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way.
When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship. (loc 684-687)
Though what they teach is different, isn’t a life ordered around “absolute obedience to Christ” awfully similar to a life ordered around Torah piety?
Psalms 137 and 139
What makes these psalms so wonderful and fascinating is also what makes them deeply disturbing. Psalm 137 opens with one of the saddest but most beautiful verses in all the psalms.
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows we hung our harps.
By the end of the psalm the Israelites say “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” How terrible the symmetry between beginning and ending, from hanging harps on trees in sadness to smashing babies against rocks in revenge. Psalm 139 jolts us even more sharply, once more moving from tenderness to vengeance.
Psalms like this make us uncomfortable, or at least they should. It’s easier to recall the poetry of the 23’d psalm, with its green pastures and still waters. But the psalms won’t let us off so easily. Humans want not only justice; they want revenge. This is who we are, and the psalms take us as we are, and put this reality in beautiful form through which we can know it and bear it, and perhaps reflect upon it when we see it so starkly.
I’ve tried not to read the psalms as precursors to Christianity, though one can do that too. For example, psalm 22 is the source of the well-known words of Jesus from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) Indeed, much of the New Testament is written so as to prove the predictions of the psalms, above all that Jesus is the messiah. Instead, I’ve tried to interpret the psalms in their own context. It is in this context that our humanity, in all its beauty, ugliness, and need is confronted. It is in this context that we are most fully human.
* Most ultra-orthodox men and boys spend every day studying Torah. The Israeli government pays the men a modest stipend so they can study instead of work. Now married, Akiva’s nephew had been studying Torah every day for years since he was a boy.
David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. London: SCM Press, 1959.
Walter Brueggemann and William H; Bellinger, Jr. Psalms. Cambridge University Press, 2014.