If you want to know a nation’s accomplishments, read its history. If you want to understand a nation’s culture, recite its poetry. If you want to touch a nation’s soul, embrace its prayer. This is the gift of the Psalms. For in this biblical book we touch the soul of Israel and our own as well. Within this book are collected one hundred and fifty prayers addressed directly to God, reflecting the range of human desires and emotions. No more accurate insight can be given into the heart of the believer than to follow the dialogue from creature to Creator, from petitioner to Savior. Here all pretense and posturing are left aside, and what remain are urgency, honesty, and praise.
This is a study of the first third of the Book of Psalms. To orientate ourselves for this effort, we will examine briefly the history of the Psalms, their setting, and how they can be classified.
The History of the Psalms
The word “psalm” in the original Hebrew means simply a “song.” These songs of Israel were composed over a period of seven hundred years, beginning with the rise of the Davidic monarchy (1000 B. C.). The Book of Psalms, therefore, is certainly not the work of a single author but rather a collection of prayers written at different times and for varying reasons. It is impossible to connect individual psalms with their historical authors, but it is likely that most psalms were composed by talented individuals in the royal court or temple. Not all the psalms of Israel are contained in the Book of Psalms. Psalms can be identified in other books of scripture such as the Song of Moses in Exod 15:1-18 and the Song of Deborah in Judg 5:1-31.
Many psalms originated in local sanctuaries. These small places of worship developed their own collections of “songs” used in the praise of Yahweh. Over time these collections were gathered and reshaped by editors into larger collections. This process of enlargement and adaptation continued until the final form of the Book of Psalms was reached after Israel returned from the Babylonian exile (538 B.C.). We can trace this process because smaller collections are still recognizable within the present Book of Psalms.
Two collections of psalms are gathered together under the name of David: Pss 3-41 and 51-71. Most of the psalms in these groupings have come down to us with a title, “of David.” Although it might be tempting to conclude that this title indicates that King David was the author of these psalms, this is unlikely. The titles of the psalms have been added by later editors wishing to associate the psalm with a particular person or event. Moreover, the phrase “of David” need not indicate authorship. It can also be translated “on behalf of David,” which would mean “written for the sake of David.” Even more likely it could be read as “belonging to David,” which would indicate that the psalm was collected under the name of David.
What makes this last possibility attractive is that the entire Book of Psalms has been associated with David. The scriptures testify that David himself was skilled at song. He was called to play music for Saul whenever the king’s spirits were low, and when he played Saul would be relieved (1 Sam 16:23). David was also said to dance before the ark of God with song (2 Sam 6:5). But David’s chief achievement for Israel was to capture the city of Jerusalem, making it his own city and locating the worship of Yahweh there (2 Sam 5:6-9). The Book of Sirach testifies to David’s connection to both the songs of Israel and their use in the temple:
In all that he did he gave thanks to the Holy One, the Most High, with ascriptions of glory; he sang praise with all his heart, and he loved his Maker. He placed singers before the altar, to make sweet melody with their voices. He gave beauty to the feasts, and arranged their times throughout the year, while they praised God’s holy name, and the sanctuary resounded from early morning (Sir 47:8-10).
In light of David’s establishment of worship in Jerusalem, it is easy to explain why so many psalms and collections of psalms would be titled “belonging to David.”
Other psalm collections can be identified within the Book of Psalms. Psalms 73-83 are titled “of Asaph.” Asaph is identified in 1 Chr 16:5 as one of David’s chief musicians. Psalms 42-49, are titled “of the Sons of Korah.” These psalms seem to have formed the repertoire of this family of temple singers.
When the Book of Psalms received its final form, other single psalms were added to the already assembled collections and then shaped into a five-fold division, probably to mirror the five-fold nature of the Pentateuch. Each section ends with a shout of praise which serves as a doxology (Pss 41; 72; 89; 106). Psalm 150 offers a monumental hymn of praise to conclude both the last section and the entire book.
The Setting of the Psalms
Even though the history of individual psalms can only be partially reconstructed, the setting of most psalms can be traced to the temple in Jerusalem. It was here, in the place where sacrifice was offered and Yahweh was worshipped, that these song-prayers of Israel were often composed, regularly used, and carefully preserved. The temple was the center of Jewish life. Each year brought three pilgrimages to the holy place with numerous public ceremonies and opportunities for private prayer. All of these required praise and song.
No accurate records of how the temple ceremonies were conducted have survived. However, many liturgical actions can be found within the psalms themselves. As we will see in the daily reading guide, various psalms describe processions, smoke and incense, carrying the ark, dance, washing or sprinkling with water, fanfares, and prostration. The title of Ps 100 indicates that it was to be used when the thanksgiving sacrifice was offered. The title of Ps 30 tells us that it was sung at the dedication of the temple. Directions in Ps 5 say that it should be played “with flutes.” Seven psalms (4, 6, 54, 55, 61, 67, 76) are directed to be played “with stringed instruments.”
Seventy-one times the psalms include a direction “selah,” the meaning of which is unclear. It could mean that an interlude should be played, that the people should sing louder, that those who pray should prostrate in homage, or that a refrain such as “for ever” be spoken. Although debate continues over the precise meaning of certain directions, there is little disagreement over the setting in which we are to locate the psalms. They are the liturgical prayer of Israel, the prayers which accompanied the worship in the Jerusalem temple.
Classification of the Psalms
Because a clear history of individual psalms eludes us, a major advance in the understanding of the psalms was provided by the work of the German scholar, Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932). Gunkel analyzed psalms according to their structure, which allowed him to classify them into various types. Once the particular form of a psalm was identified, efforts could be made to determine the life-setting in which the psalm originated.
Gunkel’s work has had profound influence in the study of the psalms. His classifications have been both accepted and adjusted. His three main categories are psalms of praise, psalms of lament, and psalms of thanksgiving. Psalms of praise extol the greatness of Yahweh, giving the reasons for Yahweh’s glory. The reasons are usually the great acts of creation or the saving deeds within history. Psalms of lament identify a problem which is besetting the one who prays. This trouble could be sickness, death, sin, injustice, or persecution. Following the description of the problem, the one who prays asks for God’s help. This request is at the center of the psalm. For this reason these psalms might be more clearly termed psalms of petition. They seek God’s intervention in a difficult situation.
Psalms of thanksgiving are prayers offered to God in response to a saving experience. Claus Westermann has argued that such psalms do not warrant their own category. Westermann notes that there is no Hebrew word for “thanksgiving.” The word we translate as thanksgiving is the word for praise. Therefore, according to Westermann, it is more accurate to include the psalms which Gunkel has termed psalms of thanksgiving as part of the psalms of praise. For in them praise is given for God’s saving action.
We will follow Westermann’s simplification. This will allow us to divide the psalms into two basic types: psalms of praise and psalms of petition. By doing this, the two categories of psalms will match the two motivations which guide all prayer: the desire to praise God and the need to ask God for help.
Psalms of praise and petition can be further divided into psalms that are voiced by the community and psalms which are prayed by an individual. This division must be appreciated without being overplayed. An individual psalm may strike us as more personal, yet it should never be seen as a private prayer. Even individual psalms were prayed as part of a community and often in connection with a communal liturgy. Nor should we understand the community psalms as erasing the personal investment of those who pray. Community and individual psalms express the two poles of every prayer. In the midst of a holy people, I lift up my most personal needs; as a saved individual, I praise God as part of a community.
A number of other psalms can be classified according to a particular characteristic or situation. Royal psalms commemorate some event in the life of the king. Psalm 2 recounts the accession to the throne; psalm 45 a royal marriage; psalm 18, victory by the king in war. Wisdom psalms reflect the influence of the wisdom tradition which deals with the problem of evil and the justice of God. Liturgical psalms are those which are clearly connected to a procession or pilgrimage event in or around the Jerusalem temple.
More specific classifications will be offered as we examine each psalm. However, the four general classifications presented here provide a practical starting point: psalms are individual or communal prayers of praise or petition.
The psalms are prayed regularly by millions of Christians. In monasteries and cathedrals, in parish rectories and private homes, followers of Jesus offer these prayers to God. Because of the spread of Christianity, today there are numerically more Christians than Jews who pray the psalms. This fact is not easily justified. For these prayers, which so many regularly use to worship Jesus, contain no explicit reference to him. Jesus’ name never appears in the psalms nor is there any overt mention of his life or ministry.
This absence of Jesus from the psalms is simply explained from a historical perspective. The psalms were written several hundred years before Jesus’ birth, thus direct references to him would be impossible. How then can we justify a “Christian” reading of the psalms? Does this practice not violate the intention of the original authors? Is not finding Jesus in the psalms an indefensible reading of these prayers outside of their proper context?
We may well reduce these questions to one: is there a valid way to re-read an older text in a new context? To begin, we will document the presence of re-reading within the scriptures.
Re-Reading in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures
Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures re-read older texts in light of new experiences. When the Jewish prophet Deutero-Isaiah wants to describe the return of Israel from the Babylonian exile in 538 B.C., he reaches back over seven hundred years to the foundational event of Israel’s history:
Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isa 43:16-19)
The clear references to the crossing of the Red Sea and the wandering of Israel through the desert indicate that Isaiah is re-reading the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt in light of what he sees as a new exodus from Babylon.
In so far as we are able to reconstruct the history of the psalms, it is clear that existing psalms were revised and enlarged so that they might relate to new contexts. This process can be identified within a group of psalms called the Royal Psalms. The original setting of these psalms was to provide song at a royal ceremony. Psalm 2, for example, was probably sung for a Davidic king of Judah on the occasion of his installation. We can picture how clearly the famous seventh verse of this psalm (“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”) accompanies the action of the Davidic king as he assumes his throne. Yet even hundreds of years after the monarchy in Israel had ended, Jews continued to pray this psalm. The context had changed. No longer was the psalm seen as a description of the existing king. It became an expression of a perfect king, a descendent of David, who would some day assume the rule in Israel. Royal ritual was re-read as future promise.
After the resurrection of Jesus, his followers began to re-read the Hebrew scriptures in light of his gospel. Searching the Hebrew scriptures, the authors of the Christian scriptures drew upon the psalms more than any other book, with the exception of the prophet Isaiah. This reinterpretation was used to develop two major themes: Jesus’ exaltation and his sufferings.
Just as their ancestors re-read the Royal Psalms to refer to a future Messiah, the authors of the Christian scriptures now applied them to the One who they believed had fulfilled that role. In the baptism and transfiguration scenes of the gospels, the voice from heaven identifies Jesus as God’s Son. This is clearly a re-reading of Ps 2:7. The author of Hebrews is even more explicit in his use of this same verse. For when he wishes to show Jesus’ superiority over the angels, he quotes Ps 2:7 directly: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’?” (Heb 1:5).
The second theme which Christians re-read into the psalms was Jesus’ passion. Psalm 22 was particularly useful to the early church in understanding Jesus’ crucifixion. Both Mark and Matthew place the first verse of this psalm on Jesus lips just before he dies: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46). Moreover, the evangelists use Ps 22 to gather details for the scene at Calvary. Matthew has those who mock Jesus on the cross quote verse eight (Matt 27:43). From verse 18 (“They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”) all of the gospels describe the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments. John is even more explicit by actually quoting the verse of the psalm (John 19:23-24). All of the evangelists describe Jesus being given vinegar to drink. This is drawn from Ps 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Again John emphasizes the use of the psalm when he tells us that Jesus acknowledged his thirst, “to fulfill the scripture” (John 19:28).
Many additional re-readings could be added to those cited above. Those mentioned here, however, illustrate that the re-reading of older texts in light of new events was a practice common within both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
The Validity of Re-reading Older Texts
Now that we have established that the practice of re-reading older texts exists, how can it be justified? Let’s begin with a contemporary example. On the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, a solemn ceremony was held at ground zero. As part of that commemoration, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was read. Here a text which was 139 years old was re-read in a new context. Clearly there were parts of the address which fit poorly into the new setting. The United States was no longer “four score and seven years” old, nor were we “engaged in a great civil war.”
However, other phrases from the address proved to be profoundly relevant and meaningful. The words, “We are met here on a great battlefield of that war,” assumed an eerie new meaning when spoken in the emptiness which the twin towers once filled. The sentence, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract,” shifted its meaning from soldiers at Gettysburg to men and women—fire fighters, police, and victims—who gave themselves for others in New York. As the address continued, Lincoln’s words moved from description to motivation: “It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work they have, thus far, so nobly carried on . . . .that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” With that move, new listeners felt their hearts strengthened to face the upcoming struggle against terrorism. An old text spoke new meaning in a new context. Both text and context were enlarged by the re-reading.
This example shows that if the re-reading of an older text is to be valid, both the difference and the continuity between the text and its new context must be maintained. In the re-reading of the Gettysburg Address, the history of the text was preserved. There was no implication that the text was contemporary. No one supposed that Lincoln foresaw the tragedy of September 11th and sought to address it. Thereby the difference between text and context was upheld. At the same time, a continuity between text and context was made obvious. The national struggle, death, sacrifice, freedom, and resolve which Lincoln knew reinforced and expanded those same realities in our time, giving them a connection to American tradition and identity. It was of immense importance that the text was a part of American history. A re-reading of the same words, had they been spoken by the emperor of Japan, would not have been as effective. Because Lincoln was an American president and Gettysburg was an American battlefield, the continuity with an American tragedy was amplified.
When Christians read the psalms, we are re-reading old texts in a new context. We are re-reading Jesus into Hebrew prayer. If we wish that re-reading to be valid, both the difference and the continuity between text and context must be honored. We must not forget the psalms’ historical character. They are historically not Christian prayer but Jewish prayer. We should not imagine that Jesus has been “hidden” in the psalms by the authors who foresaw his coming and chose not to mention it.
At the same time, a clear continuity between these Hebrew prayers and the Christian reader is what validates a Christian re-reading. The God to whom the psalmist prays is not a foreign God to Christians but the One God who we believe is the Father of Jesus. The saving action of this God which the psalms extol in the Exodus and the return from exile is, from a Christian perspective, continued in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The perfect king for whom the psalmist longs is, for Christians, Jesus who we call Messiah. We can validly claim a continuity between the psalm text and our Christian context because we claim a continuity between Jewish history and Christian history, between the God of Abraham and the God of Jesus, between the hope of Israel and our own hope.
Christians must never minimize the difference between the Psalms and Christianity. We must never appropriate these prayers, as if they are our own. The Psalms remain forever the Songs of Israel, Jewish in their origin and nature. Yet Christians can re-read the psalms from our own context. For as long as we recognize our continuity with Israel, our Christian re-reading is an enlargement rather than a replacement of God’s covenant with the Jews. As the Jewish psalmist praises God’s beauty, goodness, and truth, we can validly re-read Jesus in his words. But we do this not because we believe the psalmist recognized Jesus in his prayer, but because, in the light of who he is for us, we see Jesus wherever God’s beauty, goodness, and truth appear.
Silence destroys relationships. People who are fortunate enough to have intimate relationships in their lives know that nothing damages those bonds more that the end of communication. After an argument or hurtful remark, a deadly silence can settle in. Wounded souls can co-exist in the same living space, refusing to acknowledge each other’s presence. If the void continues, the estrangement deepens. Healing and reconciliation are required if shared life is to be restored. Yet reunion is not possible until someone is willing to speak.
Sometimes that silence can build into an overwhelming obstacle, a palpable barrier that holds life back. There might be some small talk, some chatter about the details of living. But to engage in true dialogue seems too risky. For to address the other directly would release a torrent of complaints and hot emotions which would throw life into turmoil and, more importantly, reopen hearts to be hurt again. So people end up trapped, walled into a voiceless void, unable to summon the courage to break the silence.
The escape from such a prison occurs when we choose to push through the barrier and address the other. Simple words such as, “We need to talk,” or, “This has to stop,” are an act of faith, a willingness to throw ourselves back again into the hurt and misunderstanding without knowing what will result. Often such words emerge from our desperation, from the knowledge that the risk of communication, however uncertain, has become less painful than the silence which is killing us.
Psalms push through the barrier of silence. Most of the psalms are not descriptions of God, or accounts about God, but cries to God. When a psalm is prayed sincerely it breaks the silence and takes the risk of opening communication. The most important word in the psalm is the word which addresses God. Grammatically this word is in the second person or vocative voice. Words such as “Lord” or “my God” anchor the psalm, situating it within a relationship. Often the address is a complaint, because the psalmist is in need and God seems to be absent.
The most prevalent type of psalm is the one we have called the individual prayer of petition. Here the psalmist is beset by trouble, usually sickness, false accusation, or armed conflict. These evils are not viewed from some abstract angle. They are immediately related to a personal relationship. God is addressed as someone who is involved, capable, and responsive to human pleading.
God is invoked in thoroughly human terms, as if God were a negligent spouse or friend. Once the silence is broken, emotions, accusations, and arguments spill forth. The personal hurt and disappointment of the one who prays is obvious: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” (Ps 10:1); “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps 13:1); “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck” (Ps 69:1); “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God” (83:1); “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1).
The directness and honesty of these invocations reveal the nature not only of the psalms but also of all genuine Christian prayer. Lengthy meditations could be drawn from their power. Here, I will offer only three points for reflection.
1) We must pray as the people we are. Because prayer activates our most profound relationship, there can be no phoniness when we speak to God. We may wish to put our best foot forward, to make a good impression; but it is more important to be real than to be polite. We must stand as our real selves before God with all our warts and imperfections. The only person God can love is the person who actually exists. That is why it is better to pray as a genuine sinner than as a fake saint.
Therefore, human emotions are not only acceptable but necessary in prayer. If we are angry, honest prayer will show that anger. If we are afraid, genuine prayer will not attempt to dissemble courage. If we are disappointed with God’s care for us, real prayer will let that disappointment show. Of course, prayer has the power to transform us. But that process can only take place if we begin with what is real, with the person who we really are. It is then that God can touch us and reshape us.
2) Honesty indicates intimacy. The strong feelings and recriminations which fill the psalms may seem out of order when one addresses the creator of the universe. But their extensive presence within the psalms is not an indication of disrespect but rather of intimacy. It is only when we are close to God and cherish that intimacy that we will pray what we really feel. We are polite to strangers; we are brutally honest with those on whom our survival depends. When we have been hurt in a close relationship or disappointed in another’s behavior towards us, it may take courage to speak. But when we do address the person whom we love, it is not courteous chatter which emerges but utter honesty: “You have let me down; why did you do that?”
The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference. We do not waste our energy on people who are unimportant to us. Strong emotions, even negative ones, indicate that we care enough to feel. Only a deep relationship can risk such raw passion. Only intimacy will accept such truth.
3) God adjusts to our limitations. There is no parity in our relationship with God. God is creator; we are creatures. God is pure spirit; we are flesh and blood. God is without limitations; we are bounded by sickness, failures, and death. According to the great theologians of our tradition, God is totally other. God knows all things, even the future. From this theological tradition there is no need for prayer, no need for us to ask God for anything. God knows what we need before we ask it and has already decided to save us in a way that is frequently beyond our imagining. Our prayers can affect no change in God, because God is perfect, beyond our power to persuade or influence. This is the God of the theologians.
How different is the God of the psalms! This God is constantly invoked, cajoled, and even questioned by the psalmist. God is addressed as one who will respond as humans do. In most psalms of petition the psalmist is quick to inform God of the exact need which must be addressed. The psalmist does not shrink from bargaining with God or appealing to God’s pride. Unlike the God of the theologians, the God of the psalms is addressed in the same way we would address any human from whom we sought a favor.
It is impossible to completely reconcile the God of the theologians and the God of the psalms. But I would suggest that what we find in these inspired songs of Israel is a God who is willing to accommodate the divine nature to the human condition. In the psalms the One who is totally Other is willing to be addressed in a manner which we can understand. God assumes the qualities of a human partner. This move is not only humbling but necessary. For unless God chooses to become like us, any attempt we might make towards prayer or relationship would prove fruitless. In this way the God of the psalms foreshadows the incarnation, that definitive act of love by which God assumed a human nature in Jesus. In our dealing with God, the need is always the same: we can never relate to God on God’s level, so God must always choose to relate to us on ours.
Given this act of accommodation on God’s part, we should not hold back from using it. When we are in need and God seems absent, when evil attacks and God does not save us, we should not bite our lip and hold in our frustration. We should take the risk and speak to God with all the honest emotion that would characterize an intimate human relationship. We should break the silence and pray.
There is a saying in Italian: “Tradurre e tradire,” which means, “To translate is to betray.” Something is lost whenever words are translated from one language to another. This point is well illustrated in the above saying. The pleasing parallelism in sounds between tradurre and tradire are lost in English. The betrayal is especially severe in poetry where meter and rhyme seldom survive translation.
Since the psalms are Hebrew poetry, we should expect great difficulty in appreciating their artistic beauty when we read them in translation.
Fortunately, the nature of Hebrew poetry reduces the impact of the loss. In Hebrew poetry the art is accomplished more by balancing thoughts than by matching sounds. The content of one line is made parallel to the content of another. Thus not only the sense of Hebrew poetry but also its beauty is more easily translated into another language. This will allow us to appreciate the art of the psalms as we read them in English.
Sometimes the parallelism will balance the same thought: “Why are you downcast, O my soul, / and why are you disquieted within me?” (Ps 42:5). Sometimes it will balance two opposite thoughts: “in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; / in the evening it fades and withers,” (Ps 90:6). The way in which this parallelism functions cannot be reduced to a few categories. It is part of the art of the psalms to present different variations.
The parallelism can extend beyond two lines. Observe how in the following lines the sense of grief is repeated over and over until in the last line the cause of the grief dramatically appears: “I am weary with my moaning; / every night I flood my bed with tears; / I drench my couch with weeping. / My eyes waste away because of grief; / they grow weak because of all my foes,” (Ps 6:6-7).
As you read the psalms, simply look for some comparison or similarity from one line to the next. You will find that very quickly you will catch the poetry of the psalms.
Psalm 1: “Their delight is in the law of the Lord.”
The first psalm we encounter in the Psalter belongs to a special category: wisdom psalms. Unlike most other psalms, wisdom psalms call us to learn rather than to pray. They instruct us how to deal with the basic issues of life. Psalm 1 does not fail us in this regard. It poses a basic human question: how can we live a happy life? This concern is clear from the opening line, “Happy are those . . . .” Formally this expression is a beatitude. In a way similar to the beatitudes of Jesus, which serve as a preface to his Sermon on the Mount, this psalm serves as an introduction to the entire Psalter. It was probably given its present position by the final editors of the Book of Psalms in an effort to guide the reader. The psalm orientates us to read all the psalms that follow as wisdom, as instruction, as torah.
Torah is the heart of this psalm. In verse 2 we find that those who are just and happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord. When we hear “law,” we think of rules and regulations. When the psalm speaks of “law,” it intends torah. For a Jew torah is a gift, the blessing by which God’s will is recognized in the very structure of creation. Embracing torah is not legalism but accepting God’s presence in human life.
How then is one to be happy? Psalm 1 gives a clear answer: recognize God’s will in your life and follow it. Those who do so are righteous (verse 6), and all that they do will prosper (verse 3).
Reflection: Where do I usually discover God’s will in my life? How can I strive to be open to God’s will today?
Prayer: God of Wisdom, I can be distracted by so many demands which fill my day. Help me to realize that my life will be blessed when I place your purpose for me before all else.
Psalm 2: “Happy are all who take refuge in him.”
Today’s psalm is similar to yesterday’s in that it belongs to a special category: royal psalms. These psalms were associated with key events in the life of the king. Psalm 2 was probably sung at the installation of the king of Judah. The Judean monarchy came to an end in 587 B.C. Yet believers have continued to pray this psalm to this day. Even when the historical settings of the psalms have vanished, their theological truths remain.
The editors of the Psalter added this psalm together with Ps 1 as a preface to the entire book. The two psalms pose the question of happiness from different perspectives. Whereas Ps 1 asks how an individual is to be fulfilled in world where wickedness abounds, Ps 2 asks how is a community to survive in a world where “the nations conspire” (verse 1)? Psalm 1 asserts that the individual who takes delight in the law of the Lord will be happy. Psalm 2 assures us that every nation which takes refuge in the Lord will be similarly blessed (verse 12).
Psalm 2 reminds us that God’s reign is not simply for individuals. God indeed wishes to save me, but God plans to do so by saving us. The king in this psalm, whether we understand him historically as the ruler of Judah or eschatologically as the Messiah, is the representative of the community. God’s rule is not limited to our hearts. Its stage is as wide as the world itself. Every psalm in its own way calls us to assist in building the Kingdom of God.
Reflection: What national or world events do I see as threatening God’s kingdom? How often do I make these events the object of my prayer?
Prayer: King of the nations, allow me to join my voice to others and to work for justice and peace. Lead me to influence the policies of my government to promote your plan for the world.
Psalms 3 and 4: “Many are saying to me, ‘There is no help for you in God’.”
The two psalms we pray today are both individual prayers of petition. Psalm 3 asks for God’s help against the overwhelming hostility. Note how the word “many” is repeated three times in the first two verses to emphasize the strength of the attack. Psalm 4 asks for God’s help against a false accusation. Verse 2 indicates that the psalmist’s honor has suffered shame.
As we work our way through the Psalter, it will become clear that the power of the psalms results form their ability to pinpoint particular aspects of human life. An effective example of this is found in Ps 3:2. Here the psalmist complains that those around him are trying to destroy his hope. They tell him, “There is no help for you in God.” Their words imply, “What’s the use? Don’t kid yourself. Give up.” All of us recognize people like this in our lives. They are negative people who see the worst side of every situation. When we meet them or talk to them, they do not build us up. They erode our confidence. We leave their presence saddened, depressed, robbed of joy.
The genius of Ps 3 is that once this complaint is expressed, it is transcended. The psalmist does not wallow in pain, but turns to God: “You, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts up my head” (verse 3). This psalm is to be prayed by all who are influenced by the negativity of others. Though they may be many, God is a shield of protection. We can walk in their presence and still be people of hope.
Reflection: Who are the negative people in my life? How is God calling me to deal with them?
Prayer: Lord, my protector, not all people are good for me. The attitude of some only saddens and deflates me. Help me accept them as your children, but save me from their influence.
Psalm 6: “O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.”
Psalm 6 is the first of a group of psalms which the Christian church has selected to use as penitential psalms. This is surprising in so far as there is no mention of penitence in it. The request is for healing (verse 2). Although subsequent readers have interpreted that petition as healing from sin, the first use of this psalm was much more physical. In its original setting this psalm was used by a person seeking bodily healing.
The sickness is serious. The psalmist tosses on his bed of pain, weeping (verse 6). Death seems to be on the horizon (verse 5). The psalm is easier to understand if we associate it with a ritual in the Jerusalem temple. In that setting the sudden change of mood in verse 9 marks the point of the ceremony when the psalmist has prayed with a temple minister and now asserts “the Lord accepts my prayer.”
This psalm recognizes the undeniable pain of sickness, an evil which all of us will have to face sooner or later. The psalm understands that sickness consists not only in physical agony but also in spiritual despair: “My soul also is struck with terror” (verse 3). When illness strikes, the entire person is attacked. Psalm 6 is to be prayed by anyone who knows the panic which results from the onset of sickness. Not only does the psalm identify the physical and spiritual dimensions of suffering, it guides the one who prays to hope. It asserts that we must place our whole selves into the Lord’s care. For God will deliver us because of his steadfast love (verse 4).
Reflection: How well do I deal with sickness? Do I recognize in illness an opportunity to trust in the Lord?
Prayer: Saving God, I fear the suffering which sickness brings. When my body and soul are touched by pain, let me know that your love for me stands firm.
Psalm 8: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”
Psalm 8 is the first psalm of praise we encounter in the Psalter. It is the only psalm which is entirely a direct address to God. Like many hymns of praise, God is glorified because of the work of creation. The psalm begins and ends with praise of God’s name which is majestic in all the earth (verses 1 and 9). What is unique to this psalm is how the reflection upon creation is used to define the human person.
At the center of the psalm the question of humanity is posed: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (verse 4). The psalm is not looking for a detached philosophical definition of the human person. It seeks to understand who humans are in their relationship to God. How does God see them? The answer is twofold. Compared to God they are clearly subordinate. Yet they are still crowned with glory and honor (verse 5). In relation to the rest of creation, they have been given authority, dominion over the work of God’s hands (verses 6-8).
This psalm is a healthy antidote for anyone who is inclined to demean the value of human life. Because of God’s goodness, we have been made good. In this light humans have been given real power over creation, genuine responsibility for the earth. At the same time the glory of God which begins and ends the psalm must not be forgotten. Human authority is framed by God’s presence. To give glory to that presence and neglect the earth is to abdicate our responsibility. To act as if our authority is absolute is to insult the Creator.
Reflection: When have I most appreciated the beauty of creation? How clearly do I recognize my responsibility to protect the beauty I enjoy?
Prayer: Creator, for all my weakness and failings, you have made me good. Allow me to see your glory in all things beautiful, but especially in the gifts you have given to me.
Psalm 9 and 10: “O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek.”
Originally Pss 9 and 10 formed a single psalm. They are presented as such in some early manuscripts and they remain linked by sharing a common acrositc pattern in which every second line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Perhaps the reason that subsequent editors split this early psalm into two parts was the dramatic shift in tone which occurred within its structure. Psalm 9 looks like a psalm of thankful praise; Ps 10 expresses a plea for help against hostile nations. We can make sense out of this shift in tone when we realize that the original psalm personified the nation as an individual. Thus the “I” of the psalm was Israel praying for deliverance from its enemies. The thanksgiving, now found in Ps 9, recalled God’s favors in the past and led to the petition that God save the nation from harm (Ps 10).
Israel who prays in these psalms takes the role of the lowly. She places herself among the needy and poor (Ps 9:18), the innocent and helpless (Ps 10:8), the orphan and the oppressed (Ps 10:17-18). The strategy in doing this builds upon the biblical belief that the Lord is the protector of the meek and oppressed (Ps 9:7-10). With her place among the needy, Israel believes that her plea for deliverance from her threatening neighbors will be heard.
These psalms are particularly suitable for those who feel helpless, especially when they are opposed by overwhelming powers. In our own time these ancient prayers speak to those who must face impersonal governmental structures and heartless institutions. The smaller we feel, the more we must turn to the protector of the lowly and the oppressed.
Reflection: When have I felt helpless, matched against overwhelming odds? Did I pray in those circumstances? With what result?
Prayer: Protector of the meek, I often attempt to hide my faults. When life forces me to face them, allow me to place my trust in you.
Psalm 11: “Flee like a bird to the mountains.”
What should be done when life becomes difficult? One response is to run away. This is the choice which Ps 11 rejects. In the opening verses the troubles which the psalmist faces are described by a friend. They are serious. An attack is imminent. The arrow is already on the bow which is now bent at full tension (verse 2). The very foundations on which the psalmist depends have been destroyed (verse 3). The palmist’s friend advises that there is no time to lose: “Flee like a bird to the mountains” (verse 1). Get yourself out of here!
The psalmist objects. There is another way. The foundations may have crumbled, but God has not. The Lord is still in his holy temple (verse 4), ready to judge the wicked and protect the righteous (verses 5-7). When standing alone, the wisest course might be to run away. But when the Lord is present, it becomes possible to hold one’s ground.
This psalm is a challenge rather than a command. There are certainly situations in which the right choice is to flee. God does not expect us to harm ourselves by remaining in abusive circumstances or suffocating in lifeless relationships. Not all arrangements are workable; not all scenarios have a future. Yet when discernment calls us to remain in a dangerous situation because we believe that good will result from our sacrifice, faith can make that option possible. Even though we seem surrounded and outnumbered, God’s power can even the score. Because we believe that God is with us, we don’t need to fold, we don’t have to run.
Reflection: When have I felt that it was necessary to abandon a hopeless situation? When have I decided it was right to remain? Did my faith play a role in those decisions?
Prayer: O Lord my strength, give me the courage to leave when I must, to stay when it is right, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Psalm 14: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.'”
The beginning of Ps 14 poses a problem for contemporary believers. Does our experience confirm that those who deny the existence of God are fools? We probably know some good and honest people who, looking upon the state of the world, conclude, “There is no God.” Is it appropriate, then, to call such reflective and sincere people stupid?
This issue is resolved when we realize that the Hebrew word which is here translated “fool” (nabal) does not describe someone who is dumb, silly, or clownish. Rather it characterizes a person whose life is based on a faulty premise. The psalmist is not so much ridiculing non-believers as disagreeing with them. In fact the psalmist seems to accept the very factors which might lead others to conclude that God is absent: “there is no one who does good” (verses 1 and 3). Nevertheless, despite evidence to the contrary, the psalm asserts that this is God’s world. God is still seated in heaven (verse 2) and remains the refuge of the poor (verse 6).
When we read this psalm as a dispute rather than a slander, a healthy understanding of faith emerges. Faith is a gift. We do not earn it by our intelligence or goodness. Jesus thanks his Father who has “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants” (Matt 11:25). The ability to believe is not derived from our intelligence quotient. Therefore, we can respect those who do not believe in God even as we disagree with them. We have something which they do not: the gift of faith which allows us to see God in a broken world.
Reflection: Have I ever doubted that God was present, that God was real? If I am a believer, am I thankful that I have been given faith as a gift?
Prayer: Merciful Lord, give me caution in judging those who do not believe in you. Allow me to realize that without your free gift, I too would fail to recognize your presence.
Psalm 15: “Who may dwell on your holy hill?”
The original purpose of Ps 15 was to inform worshippers of the cultic requirements which were necessary before someone could enter the Jerusalem temple. In verse one, the “tent” refers to the temple which occupied Mount Zion, God’s “holy hill.” The psalm is best classified as an Entrance Liturgy. Before pilgrims could worship in the temple, they may have posed the questions in verse 1 to the gatekeepers. Verses 2-5 provide a formalized answer.
The requirements in this psalm are those of moral rectitude. This demand is not unique to Israel. Other temples in the ancient world had similar expectations. An inscription at the Egyptian temple at Edfu commanded to those who wished to enter, “Do not appear with sin. Do not enter in uncleanness. Do not speak lies in this house. Do not embezzle the provisions.” The connection between worship and morality was part of the liturgical tradition of the ancient world.
Psalm 15 attacks religious hypocrisy. It reminds all who would worship God that their actions should correspond to the words they pray. In doing this, it insists that prayer is no magical formula which functions independently of human intentions. The prayers of our lips are hollow and false if they are not matched by the actions of our lives. This does not mean that our good works can in any way force God to hear us. But it does demand that our prayer be sincere and honest. The only way to worship a God who is good, just, and loving is to reflect those same qualities in the way we live.
Reflection: When have I sensed the gap between my religious beliefs and my personal decisions? How could this fault reduce my ability to pray?
Prayer: Lord, I am not perfect. Allow me to realize that coming before you in my sinfulness is better than praying in empty hypocrisy.
Psalm 18: “The Lord lives! Blessed be my rock.”
In order to determine the original setting of Ps 18, we must ask who is the speaker of the psalm. The last verse identifies him as the king (verse 50). The many military references (verses 34-42) indicate that the reason for thankfulness in this psalm is victory in battle. This explains why the psalm is often classified as a Royal Psalm of Thanksgiving. It was likely written by a court poet to be recited by the king after a particular battle or at an annual festival which recounted national victories.
Even though it is the king who speaks, he speaks on behalf of the entire people. So this psalm recounts the victories which God has won for all of Israel. Those victories are described in cosmic terms. The earth reeled and rocked, the foundations of the mountains trembled and quaked (verse 7), so great was God’s intervention to save the nation.
Although the original setting of this song was at a national liturgy, the personification of the people in the singular voice of the king invites subsequent believers to personalize the psalm. Abstracting from the royal trappings, the voice of the psalm can become our voice. Transcending the military images, the victories in the psalm can become God’s victories in our lives.
Who of us have not known times when God’s intervention saved us from our enemies, whether they be persons, sickness, or addictive patterns of sin? Whenever we feel God’s power shake our world to save us, this psalm can become our prayer. These ancient words of the king can become our present words of thanksgiving.
Reflection: Have I ever experienced the dramatic saving power of God? How do the memories of such events nourish my faith?
Prayer: Saving God, without you I would be crushed by the power of evil. I give you thanks. For I know that it is your strength which makes my victories possible.
Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God.”
Originally Ps 19 was probably two separate psalms. Verses 1-6 comprise at least part of an ancient hymn of praise to God which extols God’s power in nature. Verses 7-14 are a more recent composition which glorifies the law of Yahweh.
Even though the ancient hymn of praise uses inanimate images such as the heavens, the firmament, and the sun, it describes these aspects of creation as speaking. Verse 4 declares that “their voice goes out through all the earth.” This dramatic assertion tells us that the glories of creation are communicating something to us: the presence and power of God. Most of us can identify with this claim. We have ourselves been moved beyond the beauty of a golden sunset or the turmoil of a raging sea to recognize that God is with us.
The true genius of Ps 19, however, results from its inclusion of the newer psalm on the law. By joining a hymn of nature and a hymn of the law together, the editor of this psalm has linked nature and morality. The psalmist knows that there is “great reward” in keeping the law (verse 11), because the law shows us how to live, how to please God. Therefore, our commitment to observe the law becomes the appropriate response to the power of God in creation.
Psalm 19 tells us that the appreciation of God’s presence is not complete unless it is followed by action. It is not sufficient to revel in the beauty of the world and sense God’s love enfolding us. Once we know that God is with us, we must do God’s will. Once we see God’s goodness, we must build God’s kingdom.
Reflection: Remember a powerful experience of seeing God in the beauty of creation. How could such an experience lead me to action?
Prayer: Maker of all things, it is your love which infuses the world. Whenever I recognize your goodness in creation, lead me to increase the goodness in my life.
Psalm 20: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord, our God.”
Every nation, including our own, prays for its leaders. This is the impulse behind Ps 20. Classified as one of the royal psalms, this song was an intercession by the community on behalf of the king. The last line (verse 9) indicates that its original setting was a prayer for victory before the king engaged in battle. How such a liturgy might have unfolded is shown in 2 Chr 20. When king Jehoshaphat hears that an enemy is marching towards him, ready for battle, he assembles the people and prays to the Lord. He bows down with his face to the ground and all the people do the same. Then the Levites stand up to praise God with a very loud voice (2 Chr 20:18-19).
The theology of this psalm is still relevant today. Israel’s leader was the king, and for him they prayed. But the psalm makes clear that it is not the king who will save the nation. God will. It is the Lord who will protect the king (verse 1). For Israel chariots and horses were the ultimate weapons of military power. Verse 7 insists that their power is secondary. The nation’s security is to be found in the name of the Lord.
Psalm 20 challenges a world which all too often submits to the cult of personality and the prestige of governmental position. This psalm contradicts nations who equate their security with their nuclear weapons and military intelligence. Regardless of their form of government, people of faith see their leaders as agents of a higher power. Leaders make decisions; God wins the victory.
Reflection: Have I ever discerned God’s presence in the decisions of government leaders? Do I pray for God to preserve my nation from harm?
Prayer: Faithful Lord, you are the one in whom I place my trust. Protect our nation from violence and injustice. Teach our leaders humility and right judgment.
Psalm 22: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.”
The crux for understanding Ps 22 is the shift which takes place in the middle of verse 21. For the first twenty and a half verses this psalm reads like a prayer of petition. The remainder of the psalm is all thanksgiving and praise. The need of the petitioner in the first part is profound. All who see him mock him (verse 7); there is no one to help him (verse 11); he is surrounded by vicious dogs (verse 16). However, beginning with the second half of verse 21, we enter a new world. Here the psalmist is rescued (verse 21), heard (verse 24), and delivered (verse 31).
The dramatic change has generated several attempts to explain what might have happened to alter the psalmist’s condition. Setting aside such historical concerns, we will accept the text as it stands and ask what it tells us about our own experience. From a faith perspective the answer is clear. The psalm traces the movement from death to life. It preserves these realities as two distinct steps. Real despair is followed by real salvation. In a peculiar way it also defies the ability to find a logical connection between them. First there is sorrow; then there is joy.
When read from a faith context, the change in the psalmist’s condition is removed from any human explanation or control. Salvation happens because God grants it, not because we have expected it or earned it. Psalm 22 has its own way of claiming that deliverance is sudden and gracious—a mystery. Re-read through Christian eyes, it is a paschal mystery—the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Reflection: When have I experienced a sudden intervention of God’s grace? Does the memory of such a gift give me courage or hope?
Prayer: O God, my Savior, when I am surrounded with the deepest of sorrows, free me from the logical conclusion that all is lost. Let me turn to you and wait for salvation.
Psalm 23: “You are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.”
This is perhaps the most loved psalm in the entire Psalter. The image of God as the shepherd has inspired innumerable paintings and stained glass windows. This is likely the psalm which influenced Jesus to tell the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4) and for John to call Jesus the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18). Commentary on Psalm 23 is almost superfluous. Yet a few remarks might stimulate additional reflection.
Note that the shepherd is not the only image of God in the psalm. The shepherd leads the psalmist to green pastures, still waters, along right paths and through the darkest valley (verses 1-4). By verse 5, however, the image of the shepherd is replaced by the image of the host. In the last two verses of the psalm God is the one who prepares the table, anoints the guest with oil, and invites the psalmist to dwell his whole life long in the divine presence.
The popularity of this psalm flows from its sense of intimacy, and that closeness is intensified by the manner in which the psalmist prays. Although the beginning and ending of the psalm speak of God in the third person, verses 4-5 address God directly: “You are with me . . . You prepare a table . . . you anoint my head.” The shift to this direct address is sudden and personal. Moreover, instances of the first person in this psalm are extensive, occurring eighteen times in six verses. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (verse 1). Although God is always the Shepherd of the community, this psalm focuses on the I-Thou relationship which nourishes every believer’s faith.
Reflection: Am I more attracted to the image of God as a shepherd or as a host, as one who guides me or as one who dwells with me?
Prayer: Loving Lord, never allow me to forget your particular love for me. Although you save me as part of a people, I am not a nameless face to you. I am your child.
Psalm 24: “Who is the King of glory?”
The last four verses of this psalm indicate that it was originally used as part of “gate-liturgy” which took place at the entrance to the temple. The question-answer format of these verses reflects the dialogue between people and cantors as the ark was carried into the temple during some great national festival. The beautiful and impossible request made to the gates (“Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in”) emphasizes the inability of any humanly made structure to contain the divine presence.
This “gate-liturgy” praises God as the one who is “mighty in battle” (verse 8). The description may at first seem poorly matched to the first two verses of the psalm which present God as the creator of world. Yet this disjunction is resolved when we realize that it was common in the ancient world to visualize the act of creation as a cosmic battle. To the peoples of the Ancient Near East, the opposite of creation was not non-existence but chaos. God was the Divine Warrior who conquered the forces of chaos and brought the ordered, livable world into being. It was God’s continuing presence which preserved the world from slipping back into disorder and anarchy. Because of the instability of water, the seas and rivers of verse 2 represented the chaos which the creator had vanquished.
Psalm 24 reminds us that creation is not simply a past event. The order and beauty of our world is supported by a power which holds chaos at bay. Our God upholds us—our God, the King of glory.
Reflection: When have I paused to wonder at the order of the world and the interdependence of all its creatures? Can I perceive God’s presence in the pattern of nature?
Prayer: King of Glory, your power supports every day and season. Allow me to appreciate the depth of your presence and the beauty of your love.
Psalm 25: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.”
At first glance Ps 25 reads as a simple prayer of petition by an individual. Personal needs such as protection from the psalmist’s enemies (verse 2), forgiveness of the his sins (verse 11), and freedom from the troubles of his heart (verse 17) fill the verses of this prayer. Yet the last verse informs us that the psalm has something larger in view. That final request is a prayer for Israel. That petition repositions the psalmist’s personal needs into a wider context.
A careful examination of the psalm reveals that a corporate dimension comes to the surface in several places. Verse 3 refers to all who wait on the Lord. Verse 10 describes the many who keep God’s covenant, and verse 14 speaks of those who fear the Lord.
This psalm carefully connects the needs of the individual to the common good. It exposes our interconnectedness to each other. It implies that the same injustice and depravity which cause my enemies to attack me motivate attacks on other innocent people (verses 2-3). It reminds us that sin is not simply a personal failure but one which is supported by corporate guilt—that not only individuals but nations must learn to fear the Lord (verses 10-11). This psalm believes that God saves me from the net of harm (verse 15), but realizes that true happiness includes the prosperity of my children and all those related to me (verse 13).
Those who pray Ps 25 will be led to a larger vision. To live in “a world of one” is limiting and false. My needs are related to the needs of others. My God is the God of all.
Reflection: When have I realized that my joy is part of the joy of the world? How have the tragedies of others placed my own losses into context?
Prayer: O Lord, my Savior, never allow me to doubt your personal love for me. But never let me forget that your care extends to all humanity.
Psalm 27: “Though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.”
There are two distinct parts to Ps 27. Verses 1-6 comprise a song of praise and confidence in God. Verses 7-14 are a song of petition to God in a time of need. Both the praise and the need are immense. The confidence in the first part is presented without qualification. Even though evildoers may consume his flesh and an army encamp around him (verses 2-3), the psalmist’s trust in God’s care will not be shaken. He will lift his head and sing in the presence of the Lord (verse 6). The need in the second part is real. The psalmist has been abandoned, even by his parents (verse 10). Adversaries attack him with false accusations and violence (verse 12).
The strong contrast between these two parts has led commentators to suggest that Ps 27 was constructed out of two earlier and very different psalms. Whether or not this is the case, the psalm makes perfect theological sense as it stands. The last two verses of the psalm return to a theme of confidence, effectively surrounding the petition (verses 7-12) in a prayer of trust. A double invocation of “the Lord” in both the first and last verse grounds the security which the psalmist feels. His present crisis is thus expressed in the setting of faith.
This psalm shows us how to pray in time of need. We must, of course, turn to the Lord and give voice to our pain. However, such trouble is best understood when it is viewed in the context of confidence. When we claim God’s love, our insecurity is reduced. When we embrace God’s presence, whom should we fear?
Reflection: When has the experience of God’s presence lessened my anxiety? When has my faith allowed me to face a difficult situation?
Prayer: God, my light and my salvation, my need for you is frequent and real. When I find myself alone and confused, allow me to turn to you not in doubt but in confidence.
Psalm 29: “The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.”
Psalm 29 is very possibly the oldest song in the Psalter. Its origins pre-date the presence of Israel in the promised land. Indeed there is a consensus that it was originally a Canaanite psalm in which the god who was praised was not Yahweh but Baal. When Israel entered the land, it adapted this pagan song so that it could be used in the worship of its own God.
This explains why there is no mention in the psalm of the great events of Israelite history such as the Exodus. Instead the qualities of the “Phoenician storm god” have been applied to Yahweh. Seven times the psalm speaks of “the voice of the Lord.” When the metaphors which describe this voice are examined, it is clear that the psalmist equates this voice with the thunder of the storm. The voice of the Lord is powerful (verse 4), breaking the cedars of Lebanon (verse 5), flashing forth lightening (verse 7), shaking the wilderness (verse 8), stripping the forests bare (verse 9).
Yet “the god of the storm” does not only control the powers of nature but has also created them. The image of God’s voice “over the waters” (verse 3) carries a reference to the original act of creation, reflecting the opening lines of Genesis where “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2).
All humanity shares an awe for the power of nature and can draw a reflection of divine power from creation. Just as Israel was able to discern Yahweh in “the god of the storm,” Ps 29 invites us to recognize that truth is present in religions other than our own.
Reflection: Do I have acquaintances who follow another faith? Have I recognized in their lives a reflection of God’s presence?
Prayer: God of power, may I recognize your presence in the beauty and terror of creation. May that recognition enable me to extol your presence in my life.
Psalm 30: “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
The title of this psalm states that it was used “at the dedication of the temple.” This statement seems to be a later insertion which intervenes awkwardly between “A psalm” and “Of David.” Therefore, it is unlikely that the dedication in question was that of the Davidic temple. The Talmud relates that Ps 30 was used at the dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 B.C. It is also possible that the psalm was used at the dedication of the second temple in the sixth century B.C. after the return from the Babylonian exile. Most likely the psalm was originally a prayer of thanksgiving by an individual after being released from a serious sickness (verse 2). However, when the nation prepared for the dedication of their place of worship, they turned to this psalm of thanks to give voice to their prayer.
The choice was appropriate. The temple was the center of Jewish worship. The highest form of worship is praise for what God has done for us. Continually within this psalm God is praised for the movement from evil to good. Sickness changes to health (verse 2); death to life (verse 3); anger to favor (verse 5); mourning to dancing and sackcloth to joy (verse 11).
The foundation of all prayer is not what we need but what God has done. This makes thanksgiving the highest form of worship. Whether we are dedicating temple or examining our own life, grateful praise applies. Catholics recognize the Eucharist as the center of their worship. There should be no surprise, then, when we realize that the meaning of Eucharist in Greek is “thanksgiving.”
Reflection: For what am I thankful in my life? How often do the reasons for my thankfulness lead me to praise?
Prayer: Faithful Lord, all good gifts come from you. Never let me take for granted what you have given me. Never allow me to remain silent when I realize my blessings. +
Psalm 31: “My times are in your hand.”
The structure of Ps 31 is both complex and revelatory. The first eight verses could well stand on their own as a complete prayer of confidence in the Lord. The ending of the psalm (verses 19-24) praises God who protects those who turn to God for refuge. The center of the psalm is a double prayer of petition (verses 9-18).
The key to reading the psalm is found in its petition. At first it seems that the psalmist is faced with two separate needs. In verses 9-10 the psalmist complains because of physical sickness. His strength fails; his bones waste away. In verses 11-18 he laments the attacks of adversaries who flee from and speak against him. When these two complaints are linked together, they provide a useful insight into human sickness. The troubles of illness are not just physical. They are also social. Not only are our bodies attacked, our relationships are as well. Sickness sets us apart and often engenders fear and rejection in others. The whispering which the psalmist understands as scheming against him (verse 13) is best seen as a result of his sickness. Those to whom he looks for support have pulled away. They have given up on him like a broken vessel; they are already treating him as one who is dead (verse 12).
This double petition is enfolded in trust. The beginning and ending of the psalm profess confidence that God will save. No matter how complex our need, God remains our rock of refuge (verse 2). It is not by chance that in his deepest need Jesus used the words of Ps 31: “Into your hand I commend my spirit” (verse 5; Luke 23:46).
Reflection: Have I ever had to deal with a significant sickness? In what ways did it influence my relationships with others?
Prayer: Author of life, few things render me more helpless than the loss of health. In my deepest need build my confidence in you.
Psalm 33: “The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.”
Classified as a Hymn of Praise, Ps 33 extols the limitless power of God. The psalm first presents God as creator who made all things (verses 6-7, 9). But God did not create and then leave the world to its own devices. Still involved in creation, God directs the unfolding of history, keeping the nations in check (verse 10), more powerful than the mighty armies of earthly kings (verses 16-17). Enthroned in heaven, God views the deeds of humankind (verse 13). Nothing escapes God’s notice or control.
How should humans respond to this awesome power? The psalm recognizes two points of view. The first response is fear, and it is appropriate. Faced with such overwhelming power, all people should submit and recognize their status as creatures. The psalm calls all who exist to adopt such fear of the Lord (verse 8).
However, a second response is also possible: hope. Hope differs from fear because it recognizes what lies behind God’s power. Three times the psalmist proclaims God’s hesed, God’s “steadfast love” (verses 5, 18, 22). To understand this love is the privilege of Israel who perceives that the power of the universe is not aloof or unconcerned but guided by care and compassion. It is, therefore, an act of Israel’s faith to proclaim that “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (verse 5).
All the nations are moved to awe in God’s presence (verse 8). Israel is moved to happiness because she has been chosen to be God’s own people (verse 12). If God’s supreme power is guided by love, then there is always a future, always reason to hope (verse 22).
Reflection: When have I been able to recognize the power of God’s love guiding the events of history? When has that power touched me personally?
Prayer: Supreme God, your power extends to every time and place. Aware of your rule over me, allow me to approach you not in fear, but in hope.
Psalm 35: “Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions!”
The psalmist in Ps 35 feels himself under attack from enemies. Using military images, he demands that God fight on his side (verses 1-3). He prods God into action, questioning the slowness of God’s response: “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (verse 17); “Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense” (verse 23). Nor is the psalmist shy about wishing every possible calamity to fall upon his enemies. He would have them dishonored, confounded, pursued down a dark and slippery way to ruin (verses 4-8).
With the gospel demand to forgive our enemies ringing in our ears, it might be difficult for us to accept the warlike and vengeful attitude of the psalmist. Yet particular lines of the psalm effectively pinpoint the realities of evil which many of us experience at the hands of others.
Verse 10 recognizes the inequality of power and how those who have the upper hand take advantage of the weak. We must admit that there is injustice in our world because of the influence of wealth, status, or popularity.
Verses 12-14 locates the experience of receiving evil for good. When his friend was in need, the psalmist cared and prayed for him as he would for a member of his own family. Yet those actions were not reciprocated, but forgotten.
Verse 15 acknowledges that people can take satisfaction in the misfortunes of others. Jealousy and competition negate compassion and replace it with a smug attitude of superiority.
Psalm 35 warns us against naiveté. Evil is real and so are our enemies. Even as we try to forgive them, it is proper to ask God’s help in dealing with them.
Reflection: How have I been hurt by others? In what ways can I identify with the psalmist’s demand for God’s help?
Prayer: Compassionate God, no wound is as deep as the one that comes from the hand of a friend. Make me thankful for the friends that are true, and wise concerning those who are not.
Psalm 37: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”
This psalm shows more influence of the wisdom tradition than any other song in the Psalter. Many wisdom sayings, similar to those found in the Book of Proverbs, can be identified in the psalm. “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil” (verse 8). “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked” (verse 16). Despite these scattered maxims, the psalm centers its concern on the issue of doing what is good.
Wisdom deals with the problem of good and evil in the world. Why should one choose to do good? Why do those who choose evil seem to prosper? In answer to these questions, Ps 37 maintains a clear position: goodness will be rewarded; evil will be punished. The opening verse instructs us not to fret over the wicked. Wrongdoers will soon fade like the grass. But those who trust in the Lord will receive the desires of their hearts (verse 4).
The formula is simple. Perhaps too simple. We can cite many examples where those who do good suffer and those who do wrong flourish. The psalmist is not oblivious to this problem. Lest his formula seem too naïve, he insists that his position requires time. It takes the perspective of a lifetime (verse 25). We must be patient (verse 7) and wait for the Lord (verse 34).
Whether or not we are persuaded by the psalmist’s position, there is wisdom in his words. In many situations, time will bring blessing to those who do good and punishment to those who do wrong.
Reflection: How am I affected when I see those who have no conscience or concern for others flourish? Do I find the perspective in this psalm helpful?
Prayer: God of justice, it is difficult to explain why people should do good when doing evil seems to produce such positive results. Lead me to promote what is good even when its benefits are not immediate.
Psalm 38: “It is for you, O Lord, that I wait; it is you, O Lord, my God, who will answer.”
Psalm 38 is a prayer of petition written for someone who is sick. The illness is described in detail: the flesh and bones deteriorate (verse 3); foul wounds fester, the body is bowed down, the loins burn (verses 5-7).
It is problematic for us that this psalm connects sickness with sin. In the ancient world, people ascribed all aspects of their lives to the activity and purpose of God. Sickness was not viewed in scientific categories but spiritual ones. If the evil of sickness touched human life, it was presumed that God was involved. A ready explanation for God’s purpose in sending sickness was as a punishment for sin. Psalm 38 makes this connection. The illness is the result of God’s anger and discipline (verses 1-3) over the psalmist’s sin and foolishness (verses 4-8).
The connection is understandable. Nor is It limited to the ancient world. Even today, when evil strikes and sickness occurs, people are tempted to explain its presence as a punishment for sin. Our theology insists that God does not punish us through sickness. We are wise to agree with the Book of Job and admit that we have no adequate explanation for the presence of evil in our world.
It is possible, however, to read Ps 38 without accepting its understanding of the origins of human sickness. We can fully support what it tells us to do. The psalm knows that God has the power to heal sickness. It tells us to wait for the Lord’s assistance (verses 15-16), to trust that the Lord will provide both help and salvation (verse 22). However we explain the cause of sickness, in God we find its cure.
Reflection: Have I ever understood sickness or trouble as a punishment for sin? What would I say to someone who told me that such a connection existed?
Prayer: Loving God, I believe that you intend only good for me. I recognize that my sins do cause pain, but let me understand that such suffering comes from my foolishness rather than your will.
Psalm 39: “You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.”
Psalm 39 is heavy on reflection and light on prayer. It draws somewhat from the wisdom tradition which mediates upon the meaning of life. This psalm opts for a melancholy stance towards the human condition. The psalmist insists that life is fleeting and that humans should recognize the limited span of their years (verses 4-5). They can never be sure of the future. What they begin another might have to finish (verse 6).
The brevity of human life turns to sadness. The one statement of confidence in the psalm (“My hope is in you”) is prefaced with a doubtful question, “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?” (verse 7). The final petition of the psalm seeks to bring some comfort, but only for a while. For soon the psalmist will depart and be no more (verse 13).
What do we do with such a sour psalm? Admit the truth within it and transcend it. In a society which seeks to deny the reality of death, the words of this psalm are valuable. The recognition of our own mortality can sober our minds and lead us to allot our time to the people and causes which truly matter. The brevity of our lives can teach us to embrace the truth of the present moment and never take any joy for granted.
The shortness of life, however, need not depress us. We who believe in a life beyond this earthly existence always have reason for hope. We can transform melancholy into anticipation. The author of Hebrews offers an encouraging perspective: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14).
Reflection: When have I had to face my own mortality? Did my faith give me assistance at that time?
Prayer: Lord, allow me to realize that life is short and the hour of death unknown. Teach me then to live today and to entrust tomorrow to you.
Psalm 41: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.”
The last verse of Ps 41 is a doxology which praises the God of Israel. It is not an original part of the psalm but was added to conclude the first section of the Psalter which ends with this psalm. The Book of Psalms is divided into five sections mirroring the five books of the Pentateuch. This format indicates that the Psalter is not simply a collection of prayers but a means of instruction. Like the Pentateuch which guides Israel towards a proper response to God’s love, the Psalter also leads the one who prays towards right living.
Proper instruction is clear in Ps 41. We have previously examined psalms which were prayers for healing from sickness. Psalm 41 is a prayer of thanksgiving by someone who has been healed. Even though there is extensive description of the causes of the psalmist’s distress (verses 4-10), those troubles are in the past. Now the psalmist praises God because his enemy has not triumphed over him (verse 11) and God has upheld him (verse 12).
The psalmist adds to this thanksgiving an insight from his experience: He believes there is a connection between God’s graciousness and the way we act towards others. “Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble” (verse 1). The psalm asserts that God remembers our care for others when we turn to God in need. The insight of this psalm is echoed in the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt 5:7). These are true words of wisdom. They are indeed proper instruction for correct living.
Reflection: How does giving thanks lead me to right living? What actions have I done for the poor or weak which would result in God’s approval?
Prayer: Lord, remember my goodness to others when I seek goodness from you. Forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me.
Psalm 42-43: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
Although existing as two separate psalms within the present Psalter, Pss 42 and 43 most likely originated as a single work. They share together a single meter, a united theme, and the same refrain occurs within both of them (42:5, 11; 43:5).
These psalms describe a desperate situation. The psalmist has lost the sense of God’s presence. He remembers a better time, a time when he worshipped in the house of God with “glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving” (42:4). Now his soul is disturbed (42:5) and he walks around mournfully (42:9). Enemies taunt him, “Where is your God?” (42:3, 10), demanding an answer he cannot give.
It is unclear what the original setting of these psalms might be. Very possibly they describe the situation of a person after the exile when access to the Jerusalem temple no longer existed.
Even if the original setting cannot be reconstructed, the themes of these psalms strike a universal cord for all believers. People of faith experience periods when God is absent. Whether it comes after a personal tragedy or as a result of intellectual conflict, there are times when the presence of God evaporates.
Psalms 42-43 describe a faith crisis and point to a solution: memory. The past experiences of the psalmist are a basis for hope. Faith was real in the past. Even though it is now missing, the psalmist believes that it can and will return. Then he will again go to the altar of God (43:4). These psalms give hope to all who struggle to recover God’s presence. They proclaim that those who have known God’s presence in the past can trust to find God again in the future.
Reflection: Have I ever experienced a period in my life when it was difficult to believe? What factors helped me to recover from such a difficulty?
Prayer: O God, my rock, my faith fluctuates in different times and circumstances. Help me to see that when my belief is weak, your care continues; when I can no longer feel your presence, your love remains.
Psalm 45:”I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.”
Psalm 45 is a royal psalm to be sung on the occasion of the king’s wedding. The voice of the unknown author of the psalm appears at the beginning to announce his song (verse 1) and at the end to address the king, promising offspring and eternal fame (verses 16-17). During the Davidic monarchy a royal wedding was a religious event, for the king and his offspring were God’s appointed leaders. The body of this psalm gives exaggerated descriptions of the power and beauty of the king (verses 2-9) and the queen (verses 10-15). God’s role in this psalm is secondary. God is mentioned only as the one who blesses and anoints the king (verses 2 and 7).
After the collapse of the monarchy, this psalm continued to be prayed by Israel as a promise of the messianic times. Its vivid wedding description has provided an image by which both Jews and Christians can understand their relationship with God. Human marriage is frequently used within the scriptures as a way to illustrate the mystery of God’s relationship to us. Isaiah 62:5 describes a marriage between God and Israel: “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you.” The Christian scriptures end with a grand description of the wedding of Jesus, the Lamb, with the new Jerusalem: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come” (Rev 19:7).
Our only way to grasp even a glimpse of the mystery of God is to draw upon our human experiences. Marriage provides an image whereby our relationship to God is grounded in both commitment and love.
Reflection: What does my insight into married life tell me about God’s relationship to us? How does human marriage fall short of adequately presenting the divine-human relationship?
Prayer: Faithful God, I believe in your commitment to me. Allow me to recognize in the loving marriages I have known a genuine reflection of your love.
Psalm 46: “We will not fear, though the earth should change.”
Psalm 46 is a communal hymn of praise. It is also the first of the “Hymns of Zion” which extol confidence in Yahweh who has chosen to take up residence in Jerusalem, the city of David. The psalm, therefore, professes a supreme trust in God’s commitment to protect the nation from harm.
The psalmist recognizes two threats to the security of Israel. The first comes from the forces of nature. The ancients believed that the inhabited world was founded on pillars which supported it above the chaos of the primeval seas. The psalmist is confident that even though the earth change and the mountains shake in the midst of the seas there is no reason for fear. God is our refuge and strength (verses 1-3).
The second threat to Israel comes from other nations. Even at the peak of its national glory, Israel was always surrounded by more powerful nations. Verses 8-10 are best read as an address to these foreign powers. These nations are invited to examine God’s works and recognize that Yahweh is the one who “makes wars to cease” (verse 9). They are told to “be still,” to stop their preparations for war, because God will protect Israel from the threat of their military might (verse 10).
Psalm 46 was a bold statement on the part of Israel. It claimed that God’s power could protect the nation from the real and concrete machinations of its enemies. This psalm still challenges us today. As foreign groups threaten the security of our nation, dare we believe that security lies not simply in the accumulation of armaments but in the power of a God who causes wars to cease?
Reflection: Do I accept the claim of this psalm that God does control the forces of the nations? Can such a belief energize my efforts to work for peace?
Prayer: Lord of the nations, your power extends to every time and place. Permit me to accept your lordship not only personally but also internationally.
Psalm 49: “Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend.”
The comic line, “You will never see luggage on a hearse,” may well sum up Ps 49. This wisdom psalm attempts to undermine the false confidence which people can place in wealth (verse 6). Death is the common lot of rich and poor alike. The psalmist’s claim that “you can’t take it with you” (verse 17) exposes the danger of taking excessive pride in material possessions.
The psalmist’s strategy, however, runs the risk of depression. If death is the end of all, if mortals are like animals which perish (verses 12 and 20), then real hope eludes everyone. To counter this conclusion, Ps 49 provides one of the most significant lines in the Hebrew Bible: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (verse 15). There is no positive understanding of an afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. Sheol, which is the place to which all travel after death, is no heaven. It is a grim place in which light can never be seen (verse 19). Accepting the universal reality of death and the hapless circumstances of Sheol, the psalmist dares to assert that God will save him from Sheol’s power.
This remarkable assertion does not amount to a profession of a blissful afterlife. It does, however, come close. The psalmist is willing to claim God’s power over death and God’s clear intention to save him. Psalm 49 is valuable even for Christians who believe in an eternal place of happiness. For it reminds us that the source of everlasting joy is not to be found in a location but in a God who cares for us.
Reflection: How have my experiences of death influenced the way that I live? Does a belief in an afterlife direct the choices I make?
Prayer: Eternal Lord, I cannot adequately picture what heaven is like. It is your love for me that I know. Let that love be the basis of my confidence.
Psalm 50: “Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.”
Psalm 50 offers us a double theme of grace and responsibility. The majority of the psalm is in the form of a direct address from God to Israel.
God first establishes supreme independence from human control. Even though the psalm accepts and validates the sacrifices of the temple, it is firm in its insistence that God in no way depends upon them. God does not need the bulls offered in worship because “every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills” (verse 10). God will answer simply because Israel asks for help (verse 15). The sacrifices of the temple do not control God. The best offering is a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” because it expresses gratitude for God’s free gift (verse 14).
Yet even though the gift is free, God expects an appropriate response. God expects those who are saved to walk in the “right way” (verse 23). The psalm catalogues the sins of the wicked whose actions warrant God’s wrath (verses 16-22). God’s law defines human response according to the covenant (verse 16).
Psalm 50 undercuts the widely held misconception that Israel believed it could be justified by its works. This psalm honors the law as a guide to living the “right way.” Yet the psalm is clear that these human actions in no way earn a place in God’s sight. Paul’s insistence on the supremacy of grace was no Christian innovation. Israel knew that following the law was honoring the covenant, but that covenant existed only through God’s free gift.
Reflection: How often do I reflect upon God’s free gift of life to me? Do I realize that my deepest relationships and blessings come from God’s gracious love not my worthiness?
Prayer: Gracious God, direct my prayer and enlighten my mind. Allow me to see that the only fitting worship of you is a sacrifice of thanksgiving.