O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
O Lord, our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth.
I will sing of loyalty and justice; to you O Lord I will sing.
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.
O sing to the Lord a new song.
Each one of those is the first line of eight different psalms. NOT picked at random. They are the first lines of eight distinct types of psalm. No doubt you recognized the last one as the opening line of the first reading today, Psalm 98. It’s also the basis for the text of the offertory anthem you will be hearing right after the sermon. Psalm texts have been and continue to be used in religious music of many types. In fact there are about fifty instances of psalm texts used in the United Methodist hymnal in hymns, canticles and prayers in addition to the one hundred and five of the one hundred fifty psalms used as the psalter in the back of the hymnal. Those numbers should be considered approximations as I quickly counted them myself based on the indexes at the back rather than any kind of astute scholarship. But I think that’s pretty close.
The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, in the entry on Psalms states “Psalms is not only the Bible’s longest book; it is the Bible’s most diverse both literarily and theologically.” Given that, we might want to pay attention to it.
Psalms, and the psalter…
Ok. What the heck is a psalm and a psalter, anyway? I mean, there are probably very few people who wouldn’t recognize “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’ even if they have no idea where it came from or had never heard of a psalm. And probably most people may recognize the term ‘23rd psalm’ even if they have no idea what it is.
So, what is a psalm? One of the peculiararities of the english language is that the words ‘psalm’ and ‘song’ sound quite similar although as far as I have been able to ascertain the two words are not linquistically related. There are psalms though, that are labeled ‘a song of ascents.’ Some are labled as hymns. And some, as in the case of the 98th psalm explicity say ‘O sing.’ The word ‘psalm’ comes from the Greek ‘psalmos’ one meaning of which is touching or twang, as of a bowstring or stringed instrument.1
It also means ‘songs’ or ‘songs accompanied by stringed instrument.’2
It’s a translation of the Hebrew word for ‘sing’ or even ‘accompany singing.’3
So there is from the start, a musical connection. And psalms and hymns do have a relationship to each other; a form of the word we translate as ‘hymn’ from the Greek is ‘hymnos’ which is used in the context of a song of praise.4 So what constitutes a psalm as opposed to a hymn as opposed to a song? Years ago, before I went into ministry there was a member of the church I attended who had emigrated to America from England during the Second World War. She told the story of crossing the Atlantic on an American ship at a time when there was still some danger from enemy submarines. On the voyage she attended a worship service and for the first time was exposed to the American style of hymn singing. She said she was almost scandalized by the fast tempo at which they were sung. She recalled thinking “why, these aren’t hymns; these are songs!” So everybody has their own conception of what would characterize a hymn as opposed to a song.
But getting back to psalms, just what are they? Where did they come from? Who wrote them? What are they for? How are they to be understood? A moment ago I recited the opening lines of eight psalms and asserted that they were from eight different types. Before seminary I never knew that psalms had a type. But they do and if you were to take the time to read through the entire collection you would likely notice that the individual psalms have different characteristics. For example a psalm that begins with the words My God, my God, why have you forsaken me and one that begins with Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth just might each have a different emphasis and different point. However, before I get into that there is something that needs to be pointed out. This may seem simplistic and obvious to some but it is crucial and essential to be clear about this.
If you look at a book such as the Gospel of John which we heard this morning, or a book such as Acts, or a letter of Paul, or an Old Testament narrative such as Genesis, or a book of laws such as Leviticus it is clear that the intended audience is a human community. The writers of those books were trying to convey something specific to a human audience. For example, in the letter to the Romans Paul basically states that it is from him “to all God’s beloved in Rome…” Or the opening of the Gospel of Luke which states “In the first book, Theopholus…” In both those cases the intended audience consists of other people.
But a psalm that begins with the words “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck,” who is the intended audience there? Many of the psalms are clearly directly addressed to God,
no mistake about it. Many, but not all. And that is where the discernment of psalm type comes into play. Case in point, the psalm for today which begins with the words “O sing to the Lord a new
song” is clearly aimed at a community. The interesting thing is though, that it is directing that community to direct their song to God. So even in that case we come back to expression towards
Some psalms are laments, sometimes called complaint psalms, clearly directing anger and frustration. There are the psalms of praise. And there are what have come to be called wisdom psalms, such as psalm 1; Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked. An important thing to bear in mind about the psalms: nearly every theological theme that sounds throughout the Old Testament can be found in the Psalms. Covenant, history, creation, wisdom.
What I find so compelling and powerful about them is that most are cast as human speech. In modern terms, perhaps, they are expressing the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ Psalm 8
asks the question “what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” 144 asks the same question. Think of that for a second. What a powerful question! What are we, God, that you even think about us? Interesting that those two psalms, while asking basically the same question give quite different answers. 8 makes the statement “yet you have made them a little lower than God and
crowned them with glory and honor” in the NRSV translation. And 144 states “They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” Same question, two different answers. The human
condition. The testimony of the psalms regarding humanity covers the extremes; we are powerful AND fragile; filled with dignity AND fraught with affliction; given almost divine capacities AND
confronted with physical and social debilitation. And while we can find some of the sentiments and feelings conveyed in the psalms troubling, such as the explicit call and demand to God for the destruction of enemies, we need to bear in mind that these are human sentiments and NOT commands of God.
So what are the psalms for? We do know they played an important part in the worship life of ancient Israel. Scholar James L. Mays states that they have a double identity: scripture AND liturgy.5 And indeed, they have played and continue to play, an important role in the worship life of faith communities and, while their original intent appears to be solely part of corporate worship, they have played an important role in individual piety and spiritual practice for a great many people through the ages. They have been used widely and continuously to nurture and guide personal meditations and devotions. Mays also points out a vitally important function; Through them, individuals connect themselves with a chain of prayer that binds the saints across the ages and frees them from arbitrary autonomy in prayer.6
I find this statement very intriguing. Arbitrary autonomy in prayer. In mulling that one over it occurred to me that another way of putting it would be to say that it gets us out of what I would call our ‘prayer bubble.’ Or maybe a prayer bell jar. If you haven’t heard of a bell jar it is usually a glass dome shaped somewhat like a bell, that could be put on a base that seals it with an object in it so a vacuum can be produced by pumping out the air. Bell jar can also refer to a glass dome put over objects to protect them and isolate them. Is our prayer life under a bell jar? ‘Just you and me, Lord. Only want to talk to you.’ The psalms as part of a prayer life can be a powerful corrective to that kind of isolation. This body of liturgy that is also scripture can help stay connected not only with God, but with the communion of saints that reaches back through time and in so doing move ahead through the present and into the future.
I have even used the psalms in pastoral care situations, especially with people who are experiencing strong emotions and don’t know quite how to deal with that. They have been particularly helpful in helping people who have been saddled with the misconception that one should never feel or express anger at God. Show them some of the lament and complaint psalms. Plenty of anger expressed there!
And, of course, there are psalms that express great joy and praise. Some not only directly express those feelings to God, some are exhortations or imperatives for the community to do so.
Psalm 98, a setting of which we will sing in a few short moments, has been classified as both a hymn of imperative praise and an enthronement psalm. It is in three distinct parts; a general call to praise the Lord in song because the Lord has done marvelous things, an invitation to all the earth to join in the praise, and finally, it intensifies the invitation to include all that is. It is, in fact, the text that Isaac Watts used to compose the text to a hymn called ‘Joy to the World!’ which is no doubt familiar to most people.7
The psalms are very old with individual psalms dating back to long before they were put into a single body. Through them we can connect with the communion of saints. Through them we can sing the new old song.
1. Bullinger, Ethelbert W., A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New
2. Bauer, Walter, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testamentand Other Early Christian
3. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4, entry on Psalms.
5. Mays, James L., Psalms in the Interpretation commentary series