Intro: Why the Psalms Now?
Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Reagan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke University Divinity School. Educated at the University of California, Berkeley, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Oxford University, and Yale University, she draws upon the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament to address matters of concern to contemporary Christians and Jews, including climate change and interfaith relations.
Really…Psalms?! There is nothing self-evident about the decision that this time of global crisis should also be PsalmSeason, when these ancient prayers-poems-songs receive fresh attention from an international and interfaith network of artists, clergy, activists, teachers and scholars. Psalms speak to us across a distance of well over two millennia. Is anybody still listening? And if so, why?
The simplest answer is that the Psalms speak directly from and to the human heart. They are “an anatomy of the soul,” as the Christian theologian John Calvin called them nearly five centuries ago, “for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror."1 Physical suffering and mental anguish, the desolation of abandonment by friends and by God, terror in the presence of enemies, gratitude for such never-ordinary joys as healthy children and peace among kinfolk, awe at the beauty of the heavens or the fierceness of a storm, quiet confidence in God – all these find vivid expression. The psalmist’s emotion is palpable; the straightforward language draws us in: “My tears have been food for me day and night” (Ps. 42:4); “Teach us to number our days” (Ps. 90:12).
The book of 150 Psalms speaks with the most consistently personal voice in the Bible, often in the first person (“I,” “we”). The psalmists are acutely self-aware, but that does not mean that the Psalms are primarily self-expression. Rather, they are communication. Almost all the Psalms address God directly, in the different moods and modes with which we speak to an intimate someone we count on to listen, whether or not what we have to say at any given moment is “nice.” The psalmists don’t especially trouble to be polite to God, or to shield God from our disappointment in the way things are going; this is one difference between their view of what is necessary for prayer and the assumptions made by many moderns. Because the Psalms are so often plain-spoken, they represent a commitment to relationship, however troubled it may currently be. Both the commitment and the trouble are evident in this line, familiar to Christians like me, as Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God…my God! Why have You forsaken me?!” (Ps. 22:2). As that cry from a crucified Jew suggests, by the first century of the Common Era the Psalms were well established as the common prayer of Israel. Although the Psalms are deeply personal, they are not private. To this day they form the backbone of daily and weekly worship, individual and corporate, for countless Jews and Christians.
Speaking personally, I suppose there has never been a time when I have lived without the Psalms. I never discovered them; they were given to me as the mother-tongue of prayer. In my Anglican tradition, a psalm, or at least some portion of a psalm, appears in every single worship service. Perhaps that is why I gravitate toward this book more than any other of the Bible in my prayer, preaching, and teaching. Having lived with them thus for nearly seventy years – coincidentally, the exact period that one psalmist identifies as the human lifespan, if all goes well (Ps. 90:10) – I am still surprised by new evidence that they are both indispensable and inexhaustible for Jews, Christians, and other seekers, especially in times of crisis. Most often it is a single line, a phrase or verbal image that slows me down and gives my restless imagination a place to lodge.
There is a long tradition that associates the Psalms with the renowned figure of King David, whose troubled history gave him plenty of reason to cry out to God in distress or gratitude for deliverance. There is no reason to doubt that David was a musician and may have composed sung prayers. However, the frequent notations that stand at the head of various biblical Psalms, “for David” or “a David psalm,” do not necessarily indicate literal authorship. The Psalms evidently figured importantly in worship at the Jerusalem temple, which stood cheek-to-jowl with the royal compound – the “House of David.” The book of Psalms is the accumulated work of various poets, musicians and choral groups, as indicated by various other editorial notations: “for the lead player,” “for the Korahites,” etc. As with almost all religious music before the modern period, they were composed (or at least, preserved) anonymously.
The Book of Psalms must have been compiled and edited over many generations and centuries, until it finally achieved its present canonical form around the first century of the Common Era. Because every psalm passed through many mouths and ears and scribal hands in the course of this lengthy process, it is nearly impossible to identify the specific historical circumstances in which a psalm may have first appeared – the outstanding exception being Psalm 137, which seems to have originated “by the waters of Babylon,” the exile. Some notations evoke particular moments in David’s life, like Psalm 51, which is associated with a confession of sin prompted by the rebuke of the prophet Nathan (see 2 Samuel 12). References like this point to the kind of situations in which such prayers are appropriate. Since David’s biography is well known to so many readers, it provides a guide for knowing how to pray out of our own desperate circumstances.
Any lover of words knows that translation from one language to another is always imperfect and unfinished work, and this is especially true of poetry. Having myself grown up with the lovely sixteenth-century cadences of the Psalms as they appear in the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer – to my ear, so well-suited to liturgical use – it was a shock in early adulthood to begin reading the Hebrew originals, with their highly compressed, sinewy poetic structures and continually tantalizing linguistic ambiguity. Since there can be no definitive English translation of the Psalms, this project makes use of a variety of published translations. Some of these aim at closely approximating the Hebrew, while others take interpretive license, seeking to capture and convey a mood rather than exact phrasing. Further, the artists who interpret the psalms through music, dance, creative writing and visual media are themselves engaged in the work of translation, as they seek to bring the many different moods and tones of the Psalms into contemporary contexts.
Yet there is a sense in which many psalms require little “translation” before we put them directly to use as our own prayers. Unlike almost every other part of the Bible, they are written in undisguisedly human language, often spoken in extremis – exactly where very many of us now find ourselves. The Psalms offer us language for coming before God without pretense, to say what we feel with the expectation that God will listen and care. But as we see in the Psalms and know also from ordinary experience, “saying what we feel” in the context of a mutually committed relationship is just the beginning of a conversation. Sometimes that conversation shows us aspects of ourselves and our situation we had not seen; it may change what we feel. We hope this PsalmSeason will generate such conversation for all those who take part in it, helping to move us, as the psalmists themselves so often do, from distress and lament in the direction of trust, hope, and praise.
1John Calvin, Preface to the Book of Psalms (1557).
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.