Ps. 42-43: The Math of Psalms 42-43...and of Life

Dr. Irvin Scott is Senior Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before coming to Harvard, Scott served for five years as the deputy director for K12 education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Prior to his foundation work, Scott spent over 20 years working in the "trenches" as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and chief operating officer. 

 

I am an English teacher by training, but I have spent the last 30 years married to a high school math teacher. Perhaps it is this combination of sensibilities that led me to read, analyze, and interpret these complementary psalms (or one extended psalm) from both a literary and computational perspective. What I discovered has led me to a deeper appreciation of the ancient poet’s ability to give eloquent voice to the mixture of sorrow, anger, wonder, and joy that are all a part of life.

In analyzing Psalms 42-43, one of the first questions I might ask my high school students is to count the number of lines in the texts. Using the New International Version of the Psalms, the answer would be 64. From there, I would ask them to see if they saw any themes, motifs, or repetitions running through these 64 lines. I might even encourage them to use a highlighter to code patterns—something I did as I prepared to write this reflection.

What I noticed—and hope my students would notice—is that there appears to be at least three different “states of mind” that the writer experiences throughout Psalms 42-43. I will refer to the first as anticipation or hopefulness, the second as opposition or conflict, and the third as wondering or questioning.

Using a metaphor of a spirited deer looking to quench its thirst, Psalms 42 opens with a deep sense of anticipation and hopefulness. It is not an ordinary thirst, but one that can only be satisfied by a supernatural river of water that never runs dry. So begins the imagery of the human quest for a transcendent relational existence beyond our mundane individual existence and satisfaction. Using simple mathematical analysis, I have counted 41 lines in which the poet is in this state of anticipation or hopefulness.

While this state of mind is the predominant state within these psalms, it is not the only state. There are times when the writer is in a much darker and confrontational state of mind. In a few cases, the confrontation appears to come from external forces. Therefore, I refer to this state as oppositional and conflictual. According to my calculations, there are 18-20 lines of poetry that reflect this state of mind.

Finally, there is a state of mind that seems to end with a ubiquitous symbol of interrogation: the question mark (?). Here the psalmist seems to be in a state of what I call wondering and questioning. This is neither a period of triumph or hopefulness, nor a time of clear challenge or opposition. Rather, it is an interval in which the writer is posing questions to a God he cannot see or fathom. According to my calculations, there are 13 lines of poetry that end with a question mark, several of them overlapping with the two other states.

Of the 64 total verses in Psalms 42 and 43, 20% of them are devoted to a state of wondering and questioning, 26% to conflict and challenge, and 64% to a state of anticipation and hopefulness.

At this point, the English teacher in me reemerges to ask several interpretive questions based on these basic computations:

 

·                 Does this breakdown reflect my experience of life? If so, how do I feel about this distribution?

 

·                 To what extent do we need this mixture—including the anguish and pain—to live a meaningful life that includes opportunities for challenge and growth?

 

·                 Theologically speaking, to what extent do I believe God is actively involved in this complicated game of “hide-and-seek”?

 

·                 When does God turn away from me and when am I the one who turns away?

 

·                 How might my memories of intimacy with the Divine and in fellowship with other seekers help me endure times of loneliness or desolation?

 

In Psalms 42-43 King David (or whoever may have written this text) invites us to contemplate the shape and texture of our lives. In unpacking this powerful poem, we might begin by counting and categorizing the language used by the psalmist to express his feelings, but then we must ask if these states of mind (or heart) reflect our own experiences? How can this ancient text help us to sort through our own feelings of anticipation or hopefulness, opposition or conflict, and wondering or questioning?

 

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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.