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ClassicsOnline Home » OLD TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 10: Psalms 1-78
The Book of Psalms
The psalms, both gathered in the Book of Psalms and as well as those scattered throughout both Testaments, are poems of faith, written over several centuries and reflecting the times, circumstances, religious beliefs and cultures of the different authors. Collected in the Book, they became the hymnal of the Hebrew people and, as such, were taken up into Christian spirituality. It is impossible to imagine Christian spirituality if the Book of Psalms had never found its place in the canon. Here is the humanity of the life of faith laid bare in all its wonders—and in all its ambiguity.
There is no point in disguising the fact that many of the psalms are embarrassing, and sometimes repelling and repulsive. I have chosen, in these recordings, to omit sections of some psalms, and omit other psalms altogether. I have, however, chosen to retain some verses that are omitted from usual liturgical use. These verses express elements within ourselves that generally we would prefer not to face. The psalms in their glory and their earthiness are a mirror of the human soul in all times and cultures.
These writings were, by and large, written in a period of violence, of radical dislocation and alienation. On occasions, in order to gain a feel for what the psalmist is conveying, we may need to project ourselves into the horror currently or recently experienced by those afflicted by violence and oppression.
The Psalms in context
The Hebrew psalms in general have a specific context in political and religious history. As far as possible, and to the best of the knowledge available to me, I have endeavoured to identify that context where it is relevant to understanding the psalm. As a broad overview, the central feature, as for the whole of the Hebrew Testament, is the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 598BC, with the initial exile, largely of the religious, political and economic leaders followed, 11 years later, by the final siege, capture and total destruction of the city and the Temple with the major exile of the population to Babylon. The exile had devastating consequences for the belief of the Hebrews in their god, Yahweh, whom they believed to be their unassailable protector but who had now been exposed as weak and helpless in the face of the stronger aggressor. Furthermore, Yahweh was god only in Palestine, having no presence in Babylon, while without a temple for his cultic worship there could be no contact or relationship between Yahweh and the Hebrew people.
It was the agony of the exile that generated a revolutionary new faith, a cosmic vision of God, a story going back to the very creation of the world and a calling to be a sanctified people living under Law. Then, wholly unexpectedly, the Persians defeated Babylon and the Hebrews, having resisted assimilation into the general population of the empire, were enabled to return to their home, rebuild their Temple and re-establish their faith—but a faith and a community now totally transformed by the experience in the exile. The various psalms that comprise the Book of Psalms record almost every phase of this process, stretching over at least two centuries.
Psalms for Every Day
In returning to the Prayer Book tradition, I became conscious that our forebears would find it hard to come to terms with how I read and interpret the psalms. That tradition, rooted in monastic practice, was to recite the psalms as if they were all at the same level of intensity, meaning and inspiration. Undeniably, this was (and still is for many) a meditative approach. This is not, however, how I read the psalms in this presentation. Each psalm is taken as an independent poem expressed with the feeling, the intensity, the pace, and the structure that, to the best of my discernment, I understand the original writer to be projecting. I interpret the psalms not as the measured divine word of traditional spirituality but as the outpouring of the human heart.
I grew up with the old (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer where the daily offices engaged the whole 150 psalms in a month, morning and evening. In this collection, I have decided to return to that tradition and present the psalms, morning and evening, day by day over 30 days as in the Book of Common Prayer.
Set 10: Psalms 1 to 78 for days 1 to 15
Set 11: Psalms 79 to 150 for days 16 to 30
Notes on the Psalms
Day 1 Morning
Vol 26 Track 1: Psalm 1 The two paths
The collection of psalms opens with a classic piece of Hebrew wisdom. There are two paths open to us: the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness, each with its outcome.
Vol 26 Track 2: Psalm 2 The messianic drama
Christians find an echo of this psalm in the stories of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration and 9 traditionally saw this as a messianic psalm. Sometimes, though, traditional interpretation can act as a blindfold preventing us from seeing other dimensions of meaning. Israel’s faith-struggle was played out on the stage of international geo-politics. Its faith lay constantly in the hands of non-Hebrew kings and governors. This psalm proclaims that the politics of all nations are conducted before God and it is God’s power that is the real ultimate. Judah may appear to the kings to be an insignificant squirt of a nation, to be trampled upon in their ambitions for power—but they must beware!
Vol 26 Track 3: Psalm 3 Morning prayer of the upright in persecution
For the original writer of the psalm, the experience of being surrounded by multitudes that rejected and mocked his faith may have been literally true. The 7th century Judeans thought themselves impregnable to conquest because their God would protect them. When that belief proved futile and the nation was annihilated there would have been many would mocked them, saying, “Where now is your God”? This psalm is an affirmation of faith into the face of all the circumstances that seemed to shout that faith in God is useless delusion. What non-faith can never understand is how faith can eliminate fear and produce a quiet spirit when such should be impossible.
Vol 26 Track 4: Psalm 4 Evening prayer
Despite the enigmatic opening sentence that indicates distress, the psalm seems to emerge from a place of reflection and communion with God. The wise counsellor offers advice on how to live in this state of peace.
Vol 26 Track 5: Psalm 5 Morning prayer
The power of the psalms lies in their timeless appeal because they are rooted in the experience of being human. Many a person could recite this psalm on getting up in the morning, confronting going to work and an environment that tests faith, integrity and patience to the limit. Even the opening words, wondering whether God hears, notices and cares, convey a universal experience even for the most faithful. “God, protect me and give me peace and joy in the middle of this hell-hole I’ve got to face today.”
Day 1 Evening
Vol 26 Track 6: Psalm 6 Supplication in time of trial
How often do we find ourselves in situations of intense frustration, powerlessness and anger at the seemingly unconquerable forces of oppression and God seems far away. The struggle of faith to fight through the sense of helplessness to an affirmation of confidence is captured in this psalm.
Vol 26 Track 7: Psalm 7 Prayer of the upright in persecution
The theme of Psalm 7 is the same as Psalm 6 but illustrates the wide range of conditions that give rise to various psalms. Psalm 6 was generated out of a passionate struggle of faith and feeling. Psalm 7, also relating to oppression and helplessness, arose from the reflectiveness of the wisdom tradition. Here the poet thinks of the heavenly court before which all the nations are assembled and the judge—God—appears ‘on high’ (as on any judge’s bench in a court). The plaintiff (the psalmist) is confident in the rightness of his cause against his oppressor and that the judge, who is upright, will deliver a verdict that will bring justice to the situation.
Vol 26 Track 8: Psalm 8 The power of God’s name
A profound wisdom reflection on the nature of the universe, this psalm exalts God as Lord of all creation and that those who acknowledge this Lordship are under the God’s protection. The wonder is increased when we contemplate that this species of ours is appointed by the Lord as steward of his entire estate, responsible for the well-being of the whole earth. It does lead us to reflect on how well we are exercising this stewardship!
Day 2 Morning
Vol 26 Track 9: Psalms 9 and 10 God strikes the wicked and saves the humble
Psalms 9 and 10 were written in a Hebrew poetic convention for reflective verses. Each verse is four lines and each begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence. Furthermore, each second line reflects the first as in a mirror. So we do not listen to this psalm as if its thought moves dynamically from beginning to end. Each verse says the same thing, variously expressed. Encapsulated here is the touchstone of ethical vision, universal for every age and culture. God is just and seeks justice; the entire weight of the spiritual universe is on the side of the weak, the defenceless, the poor and the powerless and against those who would wield power for their own ends and interests.
Vol 26 Track 10: Psalm 11 The confidence of the upright
Here is a classic wisdom psalm with an ambiguous division between ‘the wicked’ and ‘the upright’. If we apply this wisdom literally to our everyday experience we confront the insuperable problem of both the ambiguity of just who falls into what part of the division, and the reality that reward and retribution do not work out at all obviously in this life. This is language at the limit of human experience, rooted in the everyday yet ‘beyond’ the everyday.
Day 2 Evening
Vol 26 Track 11: Psalm 12 Against a treacherous world
This psalm appears to be directed inwardly upon the spiritual community itself, not primarily against external oppression. The community is betraying its own self and nature by forgetting compassion and concern for the needy and the poor.
Vol 26 Track 12: Psalm 13 A confident appeal
The New Jerusalem Bible headlines this psalm, A confident appeal, but that is quite the opposite of the nuance that I hear from this psalm.
Against the background of the opening words, the concluding appeal communicates a radical uncertainty. It is this factor, though, that enables the psalms to communicate so deeply with our humanity. Who, even among the saints, has not had times when the angst of these words does not capture how we feel and our basic spiritual uncertainty?
Vol 26 Track 13: Psalm 14 The fate of the godless
This psalm would appear to have been written during the exile in Babylon, judging by the last verse. The poet sees his tiny community of faithful Hebrews in their agonising state of exile. All normal wisdom would say that this exile was permanent and that any return to Judah was out of the question. What had happened to that Hebrew community during in their decades in exile, however, was their discovery of a faith in God as Lord of the nations and a confidence that God would bring them back to Palestine. The psalmist looks outside the community and sees only evil and seemingly indestructible imperial power. He asserts in the face of this that God is on the side of the community of faith and the day would come when terror would overwhelm the Babylonian oppressors.
Day 3 Morning
Vol 26 Track 14: Psalm 15 The guest of the Lord
This is an almost archetypical wisdom statement; yet it is also this wisdom that the author of the Book of Job is challenging. As Job portrays, there may be truth here—but also untruths, and the psalm provides a good example of a need 12 to take any part of scripture and read it against the whole. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, provides another challenge to the wisdom-perspective of the psalm, recognising that none of us can rely on our ethical purity as the basis for our standing before God.
Vol 26 Track 15: Psalm 16 The Lord my heritage
We may see our spiritual life as a whole as life lived in the presence of God, in the sight of God. This psalm gives expression to this thought. We can focus on what the poet is saying if we imagine other ‘ultimate’ options before which to live our lives—investors, political leaders, even our spouse/partner/friend! Only before God can we be totally open, and then only because we know we are forgiven and loved without qualification.
Vol 26 Track 16: Psalm 17 The plea of the innocent
How does the Christian read this psalm? Our spiritual perception does not allow us to identify with the self-righteousness of the poet. There are two avenues through which we can approach these words. The first is to identify these words of the sinless Jesus in Gethsemane. Another approach is to speak the words out of the grace of absolution; in the sight of God we are absolutely without sin, perfectly innocent—but by grace, not effort. Then the psalm rises to the ultimate expression of the meaning of our whole lives.
Day 3 Evening
Vol 26 Track 17: Psalm 18 A king’s thanksgiving
This psalm would have been written after the return from exile. Its context was the effort to establish in the rebuilt Jerusalem and Judah a model of the kind of society the exilic reformers envisaged as right for the people of God. One key to this reconstruction was the political leadership, and for this was developed the story of David as the ideal king, the model for all subsequent kings. This psalm projects thoughts and feelings of such a model king. The intent of the psalm is to set up a standard against which the community’s current and future leaders could measure themselves. We can usefully spiritualise the psalm into a model of the life of discipleship, recognising that the ideal expressed here falls short of the nature of discipleship as called by Jesus.
Day 4 Morning
Vol 26 Track 18: Psalm 19 The Lord, sun of saving justice
The two halves of this psalm are so different it is probable that they were originally separate, but joined here to provide contrasting expressions of the theme of God’s perfection. The two parts together are a profound meditation.
Vol 26 Track 19: Psalm 20 Prayer for the king
This psalm was probably recited at the coronation of a king. As Christians we can recite this as 13 a celebration of Christ’s ascension. We can also interpret it through the concept of the Christian community as a ‘royal priesthood’.
Vol 26 Track 20: Psalm 21 For a coronation ceremony
The approach to this psalm and can be as for Psalm 20. We may have difficulties with the verses celebrating violence and usually omitted when the psalm is read liturgically. Other than eliminating these verses of violence how do we deal with them?
One level of response is to recognise that this is a very human reaction to oppression and cruelty. Only in the light of emotions such as these can we understand acts like the obliteration of Dresden or the bombing of Hiroshima. It does not excuse the reaction but the recognition roots the psalm in real-time humanity.
The other level of response that can be constructive is to spiritualise the words into the complete victory won by Christ in the battle with all the forces of evil through his death on the cross.
Day 4 Evening
Vol 26 Track 21: Psalm 22 Sufferings and hopes of the upright
This is the preeminent psalm of the passion of Jesus and exercised a profound influence upon the thought of the first Christians as they grappled with their memory of the crucifixion. The Markan tradition places the words of the psalm directly in Jesus’ mouth when on the cross so that we can imagine him reciting the psalm in his suffering, working through the agony to the vision of triumph, transforming the faith of the community. Although John does not follow Mark with respect to the opening words, he echoes it first in the description of the division of the clothes but, more potently, he effectively speaks the end of the psalm and its triumphal conclusion when he makes Jesus’ last words be, “It is fulfilled”.
Vol 26 Track 22: Psalm 23 The Good Shepherd
No psalm so interpenetrates Christian spirituality as does the 23rd psalm and so familiar is it that when presented in a less familiar translation we can experience difficulty relating to it. Yet familiar words and phrases can hide meanings and depths from us that reveal themselves when the themes are spoken in fresh language.
What can anyone add to the depth of meaning already inhabiting these words for us? I can only add a personal note: when, a few years ago, I thought I faced imminent death from cancer, the only words that I could find were, “The Lord is my Shepherd: I lack nothing”.
Day 5 Morning
Vol 26 Track 23: Psalm 24 For a solemn entry into the sanctuary
As suggested by the New Jerusalem Bible title 14 for the psalm, it is an archetype of the liturgical introit hymn. Christian liturgical practice is equally explicit that no one may dare approach the sanctuary of God without a clean conscience. Unlike the psalmist, we dare not claim this for ourselves except as repentant and absolved –perfection given, not gained by moral effort, however strenuous. For the clean of conscience, though, the approach to the altar is an exultant experience.
Vol 26 Track 24: Psalm 25 Prayer in danger
This is another of the psalms that follows a Hebrew convention of starting each verse with the next letter of the alphabet. Each pair of lines is complete unto itself: the thought does not progress from verse to verse nor is there a continuity of imagery. Taken as a whole, this is a meditation upon the encouragement that comes to us constantly from grace, especially in times of stress and danger.
Vol 26 Track 25: Psalm 26 Prayer of the blameless
I find this psalm even more difficult to identify with than the psalms of violence. At least the expressions of violence, even as we reject and deplore them, still reflect an authentic humanity. This is a psalm that I could never imagine Jesus reciting in self-identification and it seems to me to defy spiritualization of its meaning into anything other than the very phariseeism that Jesus adamantly set his face against. Perhaps it serves to us as a reminder of the perils that the religious life can succumb to so easily.
Day 5 Evening
Vol 26 Track 26: Psalm 27 In God’s company there is no fear
Psalm 27 is one of the most profound expressions of spirituality to be found in any of the psalms. One way of seeing the life of faith is to conceive it as lived wholly and at all times in the sight of God, a conception well expressed here. The spiritual aspiration is to live our lives in such a manner that we can always be confident in that stance before God’s face, sure at all times of God’s unwavering support and faithfulness in and through everything. In consequence, when in the liturgy we openly celebrate this life before God, we sing and make music joyfully. Life in the Spirit is a life of deep confidence, even when surrounded by trouble and threat.
Vol 26 Track 27: Psalm 28 Petition and thanksgiving
Many of the psalms express the paradoxical nature of the life of faith: on the one hand the experience of God’s ‘silence’ and ‘inaction’ in our times of distress; on the other hand, our sense of sure confidence that we are in need help. From that sense of help springs thanksgiving.
Vol 26 Track 28: Psalm 29 Hymn to the Lord of the storm
I have always related to this psalm as one of my favourites for its sheer imagination and soaring poetry capturing the fury of a storm. It ends in the stillness that follows such a tempest. The storm speaks to the psalmist of the awe, power and majesty of God; the calm that follows speaks of the peace God always brings the faithful.
Day 6 Morning
Vol 27 Track 1: Psalm 30 Thanksgiving after mortal danger
As one who has personally walked into the jaws of death and been brought back by sheer grace, I bond closely with the psalm and its expression of joy and praise. This is the wonder of the psalms. We may not identify with them all, certainly not all of the time, yet I doubt whether there is anyone with any measure of faith who will not continually find reflected in one or many of the psalms their own experience of life lived before God.
Vol 27 Track 2: Psalm 31 Prayer in time of ordeal
Identifying with this psalmist’s expression can be at many levels. It is not hard to visualise people in parts of the world where violence and oppression directed against people of faith is very real and the psalm could be read almost literally. For most, though, the psalmist’s description transposes to inner struggles, or issues of health and sickness, or, in fact, almost any kind of overwhelming distress. The key word is “vexation” and that is a universal experience. The everlasting struggle is to find the confidence of faith in the face of feeling this vexation.
Day 6 Evening
Vol 27 Track 3: Psalm 32 Candid admission of sin
Central to the life in the Spirit is our capacity to acknowledge the extent and depth of our sin. Only the person who knows little of God could ever describe hesself as “good”. At the core of our experience of God lies the amazing grace of being completely forgiven, all our guilt taken away. It is in that freedom from sin that we stand so confidently before God and rejoice.
Vol 27 Track 4: Psalm 33 Hymn to Providence
Here is a cosmic vision and a psalm that may speak to the global issues of the 21st century. We face vast environmental, social and cultural changes, threatening human life itself. Can we believe that God’s is in control and God’s grace is to be found in the midst of it? Can we confront everything that is happening and echo the final verse of this psalm?
Vol 27 Track 5: Psalm 34 In praise of God’s justice
This is a psalm that we have to handle with great care and, if we are wise, we read with knowledge of the Book of Job that does an effective hatchet job on the sentiment expressed here. There is a depth at which what the psalmist is saying rings true, but as a script for life, as Job reveals, it is a recipe for disaster and disillusionment. Life as portrayed here is sheer illusion.
Day 7 Morning
Vol 27 Track 6: Psalm 35 Prayer of the virtuous in persecution
Few of us, at the level of ordinary lives lived out in the relative peace of Western societies, can connect personally with the psalm—though many can and do. But even in our own society, we can project these words onto the political arena and see how meaningful they can be: or see the situation of persecution experienced in other parts of the world. Even if we cannot find a personal identification, these words can provide a lens that can vivify intercession for those for whom these words are all too real.
Vol 27 Track 7: Psalm 36 The perversity of sinners and the benevolence of God
Responses to the psalms are subjective: this is their power and their authenticity. Psalm 36 is one I have difficulty in relating to—yet for many there is no such difficulty. My reaction to this poem is to sense it is as statement that arises from convention, not from the heart. Its sentiments are worthy but as something one is expected to offer.
Day 7 Evening
Vol 27 Track 8: Psalm 37 The fate of the upright and the wicked
This is a classic psalm of the Hebrew wisdom tradition. As a guide to the concrete experience of life, it is far from the mark, as noted in relation to Psalm 34. Yet equally, at a deep level it strikes true, in the same way as do the Beatitudes of Matthew and Luke. It is about our fundamental ethical orientation, and the inner conviction that orientation to ‘uprightness’ brings its reward while the rejection of uprightness creates consequences that are ultimately negative.
Day 8 Morning
Vol 27 Track 9: Psalm 38 Prayer in distress
How real is the experience captured here? We may not identify with the account of the persecution, but it is a near universal experience to sense times when God seems aloof and far away, deserting us when we feel low and isolated.
Vol 27 Track 10: Psalm 39 The insignificance of human beings before God
This psalm speaks for itself and needs no comment. It reminds us of our mortality and frailty.
Vol 27 Track 11: Psalm 40 Songs of praise and prayer for help
The core Hebrew experience from the sixth century BC to the present day has been one of living in a cauldron of trouble and it is out of this 17 cauldron and that their essential witness was and is made. The base-line experience was the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. What the Hebrew Testament witnesses to in its entirety is how the community came out of that devastating experience as a totally transformed people with a transformed faith. That core experience became the foundation that has enabled the Hebrew people to overcome every crisis that has faced them ever since. It was this core experience that enabled the ‘new Israel’, the disciples of Christ, to meet and rise above their own devastating experience of the crucifixion and emerge a transformed community with a transformed faith.
Day 8 Evening
Vol 27 Track 12: Psalm 41 Prayer of the sufferer deserted
Sometimes I have to question how we are to take psalms where the modelling is, at best, suspect and, at worst, unhealthy. This is such a psalm. We may indeed identify with the mood and feelings expressed at times in our lives but how the psalmist deals with his feelings is not one any competent spiritual director would commend.
Vol 27 Track 13: Psalms 42 and 43 Lament of a Levite in exile
This psalm was probably written a few years after the initial exile of 598 BC but before the temple was finally destroyed 11 years later. The priest, in exile, is in agony over the loss of worship. In the framework of the religious thinking at that time, God could be worshipped only in Jerusalem. During the exile, though, occurred the revolution begun by Ezekiel in 593 BC when he experienced the revelation of God in Babylon. This broke the concept that Yahweh could not appear outside Palestine. The priest is grasped by this new realisation that Yahweh is present even in Babylon.
In Psalm 39, the comment was made about the transforming impact of the exile of Hebrew faith. This psalm is a glimpse into the beginning of the process of transformation. The key element was the grasp that God could relate to his people and support them even an exile. From the place that they thought would separate them forever from that God, they encountered God and rebuilt their hope.
Day 9 Morning
Vol 27 Track 14: Psalm 44 National lament
This is another psalm from the exile. Several key developments took place over the 70 years, all combining together to effect a transformation among the Hebrew people in exile. One of these developments was the emergence of the story about how God created the people in Egypt and brought them out through the desert, making a covenant with them and then leading them to sweeping victories over the people’s inhabiting Palestine. The story was to generate a tremendous sense of hope and confidence, but it also created problems, as reflected in the psalm. The first problem was that for at least some people it had the effect of increasing despair, creating a sense of disillusionment and hopelessness. The contrast was stark between this ‘past’ and the reality of the present. The other problem reflects the major issue that the exilic transformation had to address. Prior to the exile, Hebrew religion was cultic and polytheistic and being right with the gods, including Yahweh, was a matter of faithfully maintaining the rituals. The writer of this psalm is confident that he and people did properly perform the rites, so it was incomprehensible that Yahweh abandoned them when he had the power to give them victory. The message of God’s ethical claim, preached by the reformers and the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, had not yet reached this writer.
This psalm stands as a reminder and witness to us that the process of growth and transformation is an ongoing one, as real for us as for this psalmist in his time.
Vol 27 Track 15: Psalm 45 Royal wedding song
If there were any psalm in the whole collection that I would choose to drop out of the canon (apart from the passages of violent retribution) it would be this psalm. By stretching our imagination we can make it an analogy of the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church.
Vol 27 Track 16: Psalm 46 God is with us
Along with Psalm 23, Psalm 46 counts among the most popular psalms and expresses itself with a raw power that is compelling. It is also salutary to recognise that this was a psalm that pre-dates the great transformation of Hebraic faith and articulates, in fact, the belief that brought the people to crisis and nearly destroyed them. In the last years of the seventh century BC, the Hebrews thought themselves impregnable to the political storms created by the geo-political conflict between Assyria (and then Babylonia) and Egypt. Jerusalem was the seat of the cult of Yahweh, god of battle and protector of the land of Palestine. Yahweh’s power would eternally protect the city, making it impregnable. That faith was shattered a few years later, nearly bringing down the entire edifice of faith in Yahweh, God of Israel.
The psalm, therefore, while a potent expression of faith, is also a reminder that we can misdirect our faith and lodge it in institutions and governments that are, like Jerusalem, in reality, transitory. The exilic experience devastated the faith of the Hebrews but by grace they rose out of the ashes and established the foundation of faith that has been determinative ever since.
Day 9 Evening
Vol 27 Track 17: Psalm 47 The Lord, king of Israel, king of the world
Among the many strands of change that transformed the Hebrews in the exile was to grasp God, Yahweh, as universal Lord and King. Pre-exilic Yahweh was god only of the Palestinians and his power was both shared polytheisticly with other gods and strictly limited to the soil of Palestine. The exile in this respect too, delivered a blow to the faith because, first, the Hebrews assumed that, far from Palestine, they had no access to God, but, second, that in Babylon they became immersed in a religious culture redolent with cosmic gods.
Out of this crisis was born the universal and monotheistic vision of God proclaimed by Isaiah II (Isaiah chapters 40 to 56) and celebrated by this psalm.
Vol 27 Track 18: Psalm 48 Zion, the Mountain of God
Christians spiritualise this and other psalms to apply to our sense of the rock-like permanence of our faith. That is a legitimate use of the psalms. Like Psalm 46, though, this psalm can and should also act as a warning against a misplaced focus of faith. This psalm has the feel of a postexilic writing, reflecting on a re-built Jerusalem, though with poetic licence. If this is correct, it demonstrates how, even after the exilic transformation, the old elements of faith endured and reemerged, now changed but still with the inherent danger of misplaced faith.
Vol 27 Track 19: Psalm 49 The futility of wealth
This psalm requires little comment. Its wisdom is timeless.
Day 10 Morning
Vol 27 Track 20: Psalm 50 Worship in spirit and truth
Here we have a classic statement of the spiritual revolution that arose out of the exile. Pre-exilic religion was about cultic sacrifice and ethics did not enter the picture. The core revolutionary notion that emerges in seventh century BC Palestine (originating probably in a parallel revolution taking place in India) saw that Yahweh was an ethical God and the cult was a useless exercise unless an ethical people performed it.
The psalm plays a critical role in Christian thought. The central and determinative rite of Christian worship is the Eucharist, an act of thanksgiving (that is what “eucharist” means in Greek). There is a sense in which all that God asks of us is to give thanks; everything flows from thanksgiving.
Vol 27 Track 21: Psalm 51 A prayer of contrition
This psalm requires little comment as it is one of the most familiar to the Christian community and 20 expresses the deepest levels of spirituality to be found anywhere in the psalms and indeed the whole of the Hebrew Testament. Its roots are the same as Psalm 50.
Vol 27 Track 22: Psalm 52 The fate of cynics
What we see in all the various psalms is Hebrew thought and spirituality captured in various places and at a whole range of points along a dynamic process—and on a swinging pendulum between opposite poles of theological vision. Once the spirit of the people was captured by the vision of God as ethical, concerned with justice, it was a short step to make the assumption that God delivered justice in the world. The Hebrews did not have, until Jesus’ time (and then fiercely disputed), a concept of a life beyond this life except for a shadowy existence in ‘Sheol’. If God was to deliver justice to the oppressed, punish the wicked and reward the good, it had to be in this life.
The psalm states the confident assurance that God does indeed deliver in this way. The Book of Job, chapter 21, stands as a flat contradiction to this understanding of faith, recognising that it is simply unreal.
Day 10 Evening
Vol 27 Track 23: Psalm 53 The fate of the godless
The psalm falls within the same comment as for Psalm 52. Christianity, from the mid-20th century, has been facing a crisis that, in a sense, these psalms capture. Over the last half-century, although a formal acknowledgement of traditional life-after-death is still widespread in Western society, in practice it has disappeared altogether from the people’s consciousness. As a belief, it has become ‘theological’, not actual, in the sense that people do not shape their lives by it any more.
That has left Christianity in a position not too dissimilar to the dilemma that faced sixth century Hebrews. What are the consequences that follow from being faithful to God?
Vol 27 Track 24: Psalm 54 Appeal to God the just judge
The theme of reward and retribution explored in the previous psalms continues here. The theme recurs constantly throughout the Hebrew scriptures and, though changed, is also dominant in the Apostolic Testimony and the whole history of Christian thinking since apostolic times. Yet, in reality, we are no closer to a satisfactory resolution than when this psalm was first written.
Vol 27 Track 25: Psalm 55 Prayer when slandered
This is another psalm wrestling with the problem of how to cope with evil. The poem introduces a new note: that of betrayal by close friends and compatriots. Verses 15 and 16 are omitted from 21 liturgical recitation of the psalm as expressions unworthy of use in that context. I have chosen to include them in this reading. How often do we find feelings of violence welling up unbidden in ourselves as anger at injustice overwhelms us? The psalmist is being honest. What the rest of the poem goes on to show is the spirit of one who masters those feelings and arrives at a different resolution.
Day 11 Morning
Vol 28 Track 1: Psalm 56 Trust in God
Many people have intellectual difficulties concerning their faith but the difficulties may disappear at the cutting edge of living the life of faith. The person living by faith in grace finds the profound truth expressed in these psalms. All that is said here is living experience and reality—but this can only be known from within the life of grace. The moment we attempt to extend the logic of the experience to a ‘law’ of physical life, the picture dissolves.
Vol 28 Track 2: Psalm 57 Among ferocious enemies
Here in this psalm is captured the spiritual vision that has produced a long and glorious history of martyrdom in both the Hebrew and Christian communities from earliest times. It is the vision of a transcendent God that puts human suffering in perspective.
When we are tempted to think the expressions are extreme, we may think of what people suffered in Nazi Germany, in Soviet Russia, and still suffer in many parts of the world today. The psalmist is not exaggerating.
Vol 28 Track 3: Psalm 58 The judge of earthly judges
This is a psalm omitted from the liturgical lectionary for its expression of vengeance. Yet as I write these notes, the streets are the major country are packed with vast numbers protesting at an act of injustice by the country’s powerful elite. Is it not exactly this passion to which the psalm gives voice?
Day 11 Evening
Vol 28 Track 4: Psalm 59 Against the wicked
This is another psalm from which, in liturgical use, a number of verses are omitted for their expression of violence. I have chosen to retain them in this reading because, when we take them out, the psalm as a whole lacks real sense. What is more, when people are confronting real evil, especially when that evil is embodied in that power of the state used as an instrument for repression of freedom and human rights, can it not be appropriate to cry to God to destroy that power?
Vol 28 Track 5: Psalm 60 National prayer after defeat
It is an eternal struggle that every person of faith wrestles with to one degree or another: disappointed expectation and frustrated hope.
We so easily make the step from conviction that what we are engaged on is God’s will to the expectation that what we are doing will—must succeed. Time and again these expectations are dashed and we are left bewildered and uncomprehending. The psalm gives expression to this confusion.
The core of the problem lies in the way we take what is myth (and by ‘myth’ I mean something that is deeply true as grace but not necessarily true as factual history) and expect it to translate into concrete experience. That is the point where religion always comes unstuck and we become vulnerable to disappointment and disillusionment.
Vol 28 Track 6: Psalm 61 Prayer of an exile
What does “exile” mean? It is separation from what we value most, a separation forced upon us by external circumstances beyond our control. This is a very real and universal human experience, expressed here.
The irony in the Hebrew experience is that it was among the exiles that the transforming grace was occurring—not among those ‘at home’. The spiritual witness is that this, too, is a universal experience for those who have the wisdom to perceive it.
Day 12 Morning
Vol 28 Track 7: Psalm 62 Hope in God alone
A classic wisdom psalm generating all the ambivalence in us normative to Hebrew wisdom: simultaneous delight and affirmation on the one hand, serious reservation on the other.
Vol 28 Track 8: Psalm 63 Yearning for God
Ambivalence comes to the fore again in the psalm. Almost to the end we can deeply identified with its spirituality—then suddenly there appears the streak of violent retribution that sits so oddly, in our minds, with what went before. Ignoring the last section, the earlier part of the psalm captures what is still today the core experience of spirituality, that it is the symbols of sanctuary and worship that generate in us a vision of God and revives and renews our spirit. In one sense, this is why we attend church worship Sunday by Sunday: to renew vision, arising more from symbol than by word: the vision of God, a vision we can take with us back into our everyday lives.
Vol 28 Track 9: Psalm 64 Punishment for slanderers
This is another wisdom psalm. Part of the problem with this understanding of wisdom is that, in actual life, it is extremely ambiguous as to 23 who are the good and who are the wicked. Each side in every conflict sees itself as the upholder of the good and the upright, the other as the ‘wicked’: each believes God is on its side and the other side contains slanderers. The wisdom does indeed express the profound truth about God and human life, but any and every attempt to make that truth concrete becomes impaled on the stake of ambiguity.
Day 12 Evening
Vol 28 Track 10: Psalm 65 Thanksgiving hymn
If we bring our imagination to bear on the words of the psalms and allow our feelings to be carried along on wings of imagination, this psalm becomes a wonderful expression of joy and thanksgiving we experience in our relationship with God.
Vol 28 Track 11: Psalm 66 Corporate prayer of thanksgiving
The time of exile is over, the people have been, against all expectation, enabled to return to Judah, where the temple has been rebuilt and the sacrifices to God resumed. But it is not simply a continuation of life as before, because the community in exile has been utterly transformed in faith and life. Before the exile, Yahweh was God only in Palestine and of the Hebrews: now he is Lord of the earth and nations.
The cult has been transformed into liturgy and we still recognise the fundamental elements that are here—our sacrifice is the Eucharistic offering in identification with Christ. In our liturgy, there is the acclaim by the whole earth (the ‘Gloria’), and there is the retelling of the saving story.
Vol 28 Track 12: Psalm 67 Harvest song
The vision that fills this psalm is the connection between material prosperity and the sign of God’s blessing. It is a vision that has its modern resurgence in today’s ‘supermarket’ churches and tele-evangelists. It is rooted in the wisdom teaching commented upon in earlier psalms. There is a profound truth here, but when transplanted into everyday life it can be defective and counterproductive to life in the Spirit.
Day 13 Morning
Vol 28 Track 13: Psalm 68 The epic of Israel’s glory
The psalms feed our imagination. Experiencing the psalm as Christians, we ‘look through’ the imagery to the victory of Christ on the cross, and we look through the depiction of the Hebrew liturgy to our own Sunday experience of Christian liturgy, its ritual that points to God’s majesty and the voice of the Spirit that speaks to us, a power we acknowledge as awesome.
Day 13 Evening
Vol 28 Track 14: Psalm 69 A lament
This is a psalm, written during the exile, ex 24 presses the sorrow, the sadness and the grief of the people. The sense of enmity all around them would have been palpable to them, the more so as they struggled to maintain their faith against the voices of those who said they should simply adapt, blend in to their new environment and conform to Babylonian religion. It may touch deep feelings in us, though it sails dangerously near self-righteousness.
Vol 28 Track 15: Psalm 70 A Cry of Distress
This is another psalm reflecting the exilic agony of the heart, and one in which we will find echoing in our own feelings and longings in situations along our life
Day 14 Morning
Vol 28 Track 16: Psalm 71 A prayer in old age
The psalm needs little comment as a statement of spirituality of an elder.
Vol 28 Track 17: Psalm 72 The promised king
This is a psalm that deserves deep and considered attention both spiritually and politically. Originally composed as a coronation hymn expressing the longing and hopes of the people in a new ruler, it serves as a reflection on the meaning of Christ’s kingship. It calls for attention even in the context of modern politics as the orientation of good government towards peace and justice, the standard by which any government is judged.
Day 14 Evening
Vol 28 Track 18: Psalm 73 The triumph of justice
The universal experience of the world is that it is ambiguous: nothing has any clear meaning but everything that is and happens can be interpreted and understood in multiple ways. There is no escape from this ambiguity—in anything. Yet in real life we do and have to make such decisions, otherwise ambiguity paralyses and destroys us. This psalm betrays just such an experience of ambiguity—of the manifest injustice in the world governed by a just God—and how the psalmist resolves the tension for hes own ability to function fully in the world.
Vol 28 Track 19: Psalm 74 Lament on the sack of the temple
In one respect this psalm, which may appear remote for us, is one of the most important of all the songs. The sack and destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 587 BC was the pivotal event in the entire history of the Hebrew people and therefore, other than the crucifixion, for Christians. The key that unlocks the sense of the Hebrew Testament as a whole is that this event, coupled with the exile to Babylon, effectively destroyed traditional Hebrew faith and religion. The entire Hebrew canon of writings, to one degree or another, is about making sense of this experience and finding the new faith, community, religious life and ethics that arose because of it.
The parallel experience for Christianity was the crucifixion of Jesus and the Apostolic Testament, to one degree or another, is about making sense of this experience and finding the new faith, community, religious life and ethics that arose because of it. The apostolic church was able to come to its ‘new wine’ life because it was able to draw on what the Hebrews had done centuries before.
Day 15 Morning
Vol 28 Track 20: Psalm 75 The universal judge
However difficult it may be to translate the concept of perfect justice into everyday life, the understanding of God is clear and unambiguous: God is absolute in goodness and justice, without compromise. The vital importance of this becomes clear when we consider our relationship with God, individually or communally. We never have to ask ourselves whether God is acting towards us with any degree of malevolence, manipulation or game playing. Although our concrete moral choices are always ambiguous, we are able to stand unequivocally in the certainty that God never leads us into evil.
Vol 28 Track 21: Psalm 76 Hymn to God the awe-inspiring
Through this psalm we look into the depths of the political and social events of our time and we see them in grace-perspective as God acting in and through all these events, and always in support of the poor and humble.
Vol 28 Track 22: Psalm 77 Meditation on Israel’s past
This is a psalm composed in exile when the days seemed darkest and there was no hope of restoration. It was during the exile that the story of Israel’s ‘past’ took root, a story that was eventually to provide the hope and vision of a return and restoration. This psalm may reflect an early stage in the development of that story when its effect upon the mind of the people was to heighten the contrast between the envisaged past when Yahweh was with the Hebrews and delivered them victoriously, and the present sad reality. At this point in their experience, the story served to intensified despair.
There is always a problem when we develop a habit of thought that locates our ‘glory days’ in the past, emptying the present of significance and value. As commented earlier, if only the psalmist could have had the eyes of grace to see that it was precisely in that exilic community that God was working a wonder of wonders that would lay the foundations of faith for all humanity to come.
Day 15 Evening
Vol 28 Track 23: Psalm 78 The lessons of Israelite history
As noted in the previous psalm, it was during the exile that the story of the past for the Hebrew people took root: that of an escape from Egypt through the desert to Sinai and the struggle with a rebellious spirit; to the emergence of the ideal king, David, and the establishment of Jerusalem as the cultic centre. The point of the story was to give the exiles the hope of return and restoration, so the psalm represents a stage further than Psalm 77 and perhaps a deliberate reaction to the initial response of intensified despair.
The fundamental vision being conveyed is that the Hebrew people were constituted as a ‘mission’ body charged with proclaiming God to the world. Even prior to the exile, the concept had gained credence that the kingdom of Samaria, annihilated by the Assyrians in the eighth century, was a kingdom of “Israel”, part of this chosen people. In that concept, Samaria had been destroyed because its people had been unfaithful to God, their responsibility to be faithful handed on to Judah and its city, Jerusalem.
The Spoken Word
The scriptures, Old and New Testaments, were shaped into their present form over centuries. From a range of documents, first the Hebrew and later the Christian community selected certain writings authorised for reading in public liturgy. That is the whole point of the canons of scripture. The Christian Church adopted the Hebrew canon in its entirety as being part of its own canon.
My objective in making these recordings is to present the scriptures to my contemporaries in a manner that will, I hope, capture their imagination and their attention. Most of the biblical books are finely nuanced, and it can take the art of reading to bring out those nuances. Through nuance we capture imagination.
The New Jerusalem Bible translation
I use the New Jerusalem Bible for these readings and I am grateful to the publishers (Random House (US) and Darton, Longman & Todd), for their permission to read from their translation. There are a number of good translation options available but, to my ear, only one, the NJB, captures the sound of words with vividness. Others are essentially literary compositions, their focus being upon the printed page. The NJB is not without its weaknesses but, on the basis of the sound of its words, it stands head and shoulder above other contemporary translations.
Any gift that I may have that is expressed in these readings is just that—a gift received from the Spirit through the person of others. I owe an inestimable debt to my speech tutor of student days, John N. Thompson and to Dr Raymond Foster whose enthusiasm for Jeremiah and Ezekiel set me on the path of a love for the scriptures. To my son, Jonathan, I owe all my skills with the computer, enabling the technical side of these recordings, while my wife, Barbara, and daughter, Ruth, have been my unfailing support, encouragement and critics. Strangely, the centrepiece of this acknowledgement belongs to five children, my grandchildren, for whom I ventured into recording in order to create for them disks of stories and music.
The manner of the gift
How did it come about that I created these recordings? In mid-2006 I was emerging from a long period of illness. During this period the daily morning and evening prayer offices of the church were my sustaining support. I began to record these offices and publish them on my website and on podcast, receiving considerable affirmation and support from many for the initiative.
The early broadcasts were poor in quality both from the standard of equipment and my technical inexperience, but both gradually improved and the standards rose. Initially, I recorded each day’s office as a complete entity, but found that this consumed an immense amount of time, recording, editing and making ready for broadcast and also brought variable quality, dependent as it was on my pressure, health and wellbeing on each day.
The logical next step was to record whole books of the New and Old Testaments and then break up the recording into the tracks corresponding to the daily lections and
that is what I proceeded to do. From that point it became a near-inevitable step to conceive the publication of the recordings in themselves, while a parallel development of conceptualisation took place regarding the philosophy behind the recording and their ordering, as recounted above. And so these recordings came to be. They remain for me indelibly planted in the spirituality of the prayer offices: for me, a gifting of the Spirit through me to the church.
For the prayer offices: www.genesis.net.nz
David Guthrie 2009
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OLD TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 10: Psa...