Class, Day 2: The Harrowing Narrative of the Psalms

I was disappointed last semester that we didn’t talk more about the Psalms. My professor said he enjoyed praying them, not teaching them, so our contact was limited to the required devotional time, which no one much liked (hard to be devotional when you’re being graded on the quality and frequency of your entries).

So yesterday filled in some gaps, as we discussed the Psalms, Judaism and Christianity’s oldest songbook.

The Psalms are split into five books, likely an intentional hearkening back to the five books of Torah, which are frequently mentioned and upheld. Perhaps the most important thing I was never taught about the Psalms (honestly, I’m not sure I was ever taught anything about the Psalms) is this: They are not a random collection of poetry.

“You can’t understand the collection of the Psalms except through the lens of the exile,” our professor said.

The five books move, and they do so in a way that seems to reflect the horrifying, brutal, violent history of the Judean monarchy.

Further, there is a significant change of tone from Book 3 to Book 4, and a more subtle – yet even more important change in vocabulary.

The Psalms start with 1, the introduction, which focuses on wisdom and the law, followed immediately in Psalm 2 by the enthronement of the king:

Why do the nations rant?
Why do the peoples rave uselessly?
The earth’s rulers take their stand;
the leaders scheme together
against the LORD and
against his anointed one.
“Come!” they say.
“We will tear off their ropes
and throw off their chains!”
The one who rules in heaven laughs;
my Lord makes fun of them.
But then God speaks to them angrily;
then he terrifies them with his fury:
“I hereby appoint my king on Zion,
my holy mountain!”

I will announce the LORD’s decision:
He said to me, “You are my son,
today I have become your father.
Just ask me,
and I will make the nations
your possession;
the far corners of the earth
will be your property.
You will smash them with an iron rod;
you will shatter them like a pottery jar.”

The king (the “anointed one”) is described as God’s son. As Christians, I think we see this and think: Messianic! Perhaps this can be true in some cases; when written, however, this was typical nationalism. Pagan nations upheld their kings as gods, but since Israel worshipped just one God, the king instead was described as his son. This is a song praising God’s establishment of, protection over and blessings for the Judaic monarchy.

It doesn’t last long.

Psalms 3-7 are psalms of disorientation; the kingship is faltering as Judah is ravaged by the armies of Babylon and refugees flee into the walled cities for safety. These psalms focus heavily on the presence of enemies, but confidently on the ability of God to overpower them.

LORD, I have so many enemies!
So many are standing against me.
So many are talking about me:
“Even God won’t help him.”

Answer me when I cry out,
my righteous God!
Set me free from my troubles!
Have mercy on me!
Listen to my prayer!

Hear my words, LORD!
Consider my groans!
Pay attention to the sound of my cries, my king and my God,
because I am praying to you!

Please, LORD,
don’t punish me when you are angry;
don’t discipline me when you are furious.
Have mercy on me, LORD,
because I’m frail.
Heal me, LORD,
because my bones
are shaking in terror!
My whole body is completely terrified!
But you, LORD! How long will this last?
Come back to me, LORD! Deliver me!
Save me for the sake of your faithful love!
No one is going to praise you
when they are dead.
Who gives you thanks
from the grave?

I take refuge in you, LORD, my God.
Save me from all who chase me!
Rescue me!
Otherwise, they will rip me apart,
dragging me off
with no chance of rescue.

But Psalm 8 is a reorientation of faith, a restatement that God will watch over his people.

1 LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name throughout the earth!
You made your glory
higher than heaven!
2 From the mouths of nursing babies
you have laid a strong foundation
because of your foes,
in order to stop vengeful enemies.
3 When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
4 what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
5 You’ve made them only slightly
less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
6 You’ve let them rule
over your handiwork,
putting everything under their feet—
7 all sheep and all cattle,
the wild animals too,
8 the birds in the sky,
the fish of the ocean,
everything that travels
the pathways of the sea.
9 LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name throughout the earth!

This pattern generally continues for the first 89 psalms. The lament psalms, however, get bleaker and bleaker as Judah’s situation grows worse and worse. Each of the three books end with a psalm darker than the last (41, 72, 89). They culminate in the utter blackness of Psalm 88, the darkest of the lament psalms. Here is how it ends:

11 Is your faithful love
proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness in the underworld?
12 Are your wonders known
in the land of darkness,
your righteousness
in the land of oblivion?
13 But I cry out to you, LORD!
My prayer meets you
first thing in the morning!
14 Why do you reject my very being, LORD?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Since I was young I’ve been afflicted,
I’ve been dying.
I’ve endured your terrors. I’m lifeless.
16 Your fiery anger has overwhelmed me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 They surround me all day long like water;
they engulf me completely.
18 You’ve made my loved ones
and companions distant.
My only friend is darkness.

Babylon has broken through the walls of Jerusalem. After a two-year siege in which the residents cannibalized their own children for survival, Judah is exiled. Babylon sacks and burns the temple. The nation vanishes. God is dead.

Or is he?

Psalm 90 turns a page; it’s a transition psalm, and it transitions to Psalm 91, which expresses a sense of new hope:

3 God will save you from the hunter’s trap
and from deadly sickness.
4 God will protect you with his pinions;
you’ll find refuge under his wings.
His faithfulness is a protective shield.
5 Don’t be afraid of terrors at night,
arrows that fly in daylight,
6 or sickness that prowls in the dark,
destruction that ravages at noontime.

Then, in chapter 92, the Psalms start over.

In Psalm 1, those who love the Lord “are like a tree replanted by streams of water, bearing fruit at just the right time and whose leaves don’t fade.”

In Psalm 92,

12 The righteous will spring up
like a palm tree.
They will grow strong
like a cedar of Lebanon.
13 Those who have been replanted
in the LORD’s house
will spring up
in the courtyards of our God.
14 They will bear fruit
even when old and gray;
they will remain lush and fresh
15 in order to proclaim:
“The LORD is righteous.
He’s my rock.
There’s nothing unrighteous in him.”

And, finally, in Psalm 93, a new statement of kingship, but there is no more discussion of God’s anointed ones. No longer are the kings the sons of God; rather, God himself is king!

1 The LORD rules!
He is robed in majesty—
the LORD is robed,
clothed with strength.
Yes, he set the world firmly in place;
it won’t be shaken.
2 Your throne is set firm
for a very long time.
You are eternal!

3 LORD, the floods have raised up—
the floods have raised up their voices;
the floods raise up a roar!
4 But mightier than the sound
of much water,
mightier than the sea’s waves,
mighty on high is the LORD!
5 Your laws are so faithful.
Holiness decorates your house, LORD, for all time.

While there are some mentions of God as king in books 1-3, books 4 and 5 do not reference a physical king at all. In exile, the Hebrews – soon to be known as the Jews – have found peace and reasons for worship in the reality that God is still in control, even when it looked like he was far away from them.

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