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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The spiritual riches of the Psalms are proved from experience, which now spans some three thousand years of religious history. The Psalms were the principal prayers of the Chosen People by which they expressed their faith and hope, their joys and their sorrows to Yahweh, and through which they mainly prayed as a believing community.
The Psalms were recited by Jesus Himself, both alone and together with Mary and Joseph. They were recited and sung by the Blessed Virgin, and are an integral part of her Magnificat. They were used by the Apostles and the early martyrs of the Church. The ancient Fathers have written volumes in commentary on the Psalms and, from the beginning of Christianity, they have been adopted by the followers of Christ literally unchanged.
They remain unchanged in their sentiments of the human heart speaking to God, even as Christ recited the Hallels at the last Passover. St. Matthew tells us, After Psalms had been sung, following the institution of the Eucharist, they left for the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30).
Christ died on the Cross reciting the twenty-second Psalm, My God, my God, why have you deserted me. Verse after verse of this Messianic Psalm voices the distress that He felt as He was dying: Here I am, now more worm than man, scorn of mankind, jest of the people; all who see me jeer at me, they toss their heads and sneer, He relied on Yahweh, let Yahweh save him! If Yahweh is his friend, Let Him rescue him. Yet, before the Psalm closes, it declares that Those who seek Yahweh will praise Him. Long life to their hearts (Psalm 22:1, 6, 7, 26).
The Apostles used the Psalms in their prayers of worship (Acts 16:25, James 5:13, I Corinthians 14:26). The earliest liturgical service of the Catholic Church was taken from the Psalter. St. Paul tells the first century Christians, Sing the words and tunes of the Psalms and hymns when you are together (Ephesians 5:19).
It is commonly believed that St. Ignatius (died 107 A.D.) introduced into the Church of Antioch the custom of psalmody, or antiphonal singing. What is not so well known is that the recitation (or singing) of the Divine Office, which is built around the Psalms, began among the Christian faithful already in the first century. It later became the established form of prayer for religious and by the fifth century was standard for monastic communities. The arrangement of the Hours of the Office was fixed in detail by St. Benedict (480-550), who named it Opus Dei, the Work of God.
St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) in his Spiritual Exercises says, We should praise the Psalms (Rule Three for Thinking with the Church), because he saw the neglect of the Psalms and the Divine Office as one of the contributing factors to the crisis in the Church in the sixteenth century.
The new Code of Canon Law has three canons on the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, whose basis is the Psalms. In this way, the Church praises God in song and prayer without interruption and intercedes for the salvation of the whole world. Clerics and members of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life are bound to perform the Liturgy of the Hours according to the norms of law. However, Other members of the Christian faithful according to circumstances are also invited to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours inasmuch as it is the action of the Church (Canons 1173-1175).
Names and Authorship
The Old Testament canon of the Bible contains a collection of one hundred and fifty songs, some long and some short, which compose what we call the Book of Psalms. The world psalm comes from the Greek psalmos, which is used in the Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures. Primarily the word means playing on a stringed instrument, and then a song that is sung to such music. Consequently, Psalter literally means a stringed instrument which, by transference, means a collection of songs. The Hebrew term is Tehillim or Tillim, songs of praise.
We know that the Psalms were not all composed at the same time, nor are they the work of one person. They were written by a variety of divinely inspired singers and later on collected to form the present Book of Psalms.
Most of the Psalms have headings which give the authors name. Often the heading will indicate the time or occasion of composition, along with directions for song. These headings are the work of those who assembled the Psalms and not of those who originally wrote them. The information contained in the headings therefore comes from Jewish tradition.
Among the ascribed authors, David holds the first place. This is so true that the whole Book of Psalms is often called by his name. The reasons for this are that David is believed to have begun collecting the Psalms; he composed many of them himself; and the rest may be said to breathe his spirit. In the Hebrew Bible, seventy-three Psalms are attributed to him. The Vulgate (and Septuagint) add twelve others or, with Psalm 71, thirteen.
The remaining Psalms give no indication of their author. They are called ownerless, and in the Jewish Talmud are said to be orphaned.
When were the Psalms composed? It is not impossible that at least some of them were composed as late as the second century before Christ. However, not only the headings but the tradition of the Jews refer them to an earlier period. Moreover, in the time of the Maccabees in the second century B.C., the Book of Psalms had already been fully translated into Greek.
The most characteristic and essential feature of the poetic form of the Psalms is parallelism. It is the principle of balance. This parallelism occurs in different ways. It is mainly of three kinds:
Along with parallelism are alliteration and assonance. Not a few Psalms are acrostic or alphabetical, for example Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34 and 145. The letters of the alphabet begin successive lines, couplets or strophes. In Psalm 99, the same letter begins eight successive lines in each of the twenty-two alphabetical strophes. In other Psalms the same word or words are repeated many times.
All of this rhythmic poetic form is consciously intended to heighten the beauty of the psalmists praise of God. The calculated effort and care expanded are reflections of the sacrifice in time and literary genius spent in giving honor to the Most High.
Scholars have compared the highest reaches of poetic verse and song produced by the religions of the Near East, that were contemporary with the Israelites, and all agree there is nothing that even approaches the beauty of the Psalms. Nothing but the divinely inspired faith of the believers in Yahweh could have achieved what we find in the Psalms. A classic example of what this means is seen, even in the translation, in the Psalm entitled The Good Shepherd, and ascribed to David. The repetition of the first couplet as an envoi is suggested by many commentators, to complete the envelope form of the poem:
Meditation on the Psalms
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius recommends as an effective form of prayer what he calls, contemplating the meaning of each word (or phrase) of a prayer. The prayer in question may be any standard vocal prayer that we use, like the Hail Mary, the Anima Christi, or the Hail Holy Queen. It may be one of the Psalms.
To illustrate the principle, Ignatius takes the Lords Prayer and explains his method as follows:
One may kneel or sit, as may be better suited to his disposition and more conducive to devotion. He should keep his eyes closed or fixed in one position without permitting them to roam. Then let him say, Father, and continue meditating upon this word as long as he finds various meanings, comparisons, relish, and consolation in the consideration of it. The same method should be followed with each word of the Our Father, or of any other prayer which he wishes to use for this method.
Our purpose here will be to take a few verses from several Psalms and apply to them what is called the Second Ignatian Method of Prayer.
The Two Ways (Psalm 1).
A. The Biblical Text
Happy the man who never follows the advice of the wicked, or loiters on the way that sinners take, or sits about with scoffers, but finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh, and murmurs His law day and night.
He is like a tree that is planted by water streams, yielding its fruit in season, its leaves never fading; success attends all he does. It is nothing like this with the wicked, nothing like this;
No, these are like chaff blown away by the wind. The wicked will not stand firm when Judgment comes, nor sinners when the virtuous assemble. For Yahweh takes care of the way the virtuous go, but the way of the wicked is doomed.
B. Prayerful Insights
The Greatness of the Lord (Psalm 8)
A. The Biblical Text
Yahweh, our Lord, how great is your name throughout the earth! Above the heavens is your majesty chanted by the mouths of children, babes in arms. You set your stronghold firm against your foes to subdue enemies and rebels.
I look up at your heavens, made by your fingers, at the moon and stars you set in place ah, what is man that you should spare a thought for him, the son of man that you should care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god, you have crowned him with glory and splendor, made him lord over the work of your hands, set all things under his feet, sheep and oxen, all these, yes, wild animals too, birds in the air, fish in the sea traveling the paths of the ocean.
Yahweh, our Lord, how great your name throughout the earth!
B. Prayerful Insights
Christ in the Psalms
One of the most satisfying aspects of the Psalms is that so many of them foretell the coming and qualities of the Messiah and His Kingdom.
Messiah is the Hebrew word for Anointed One, and is the equivalent in Greek of Christos, or Christ. In the Old Testament, the term was sometimes applied in a general sense to prophets or priests (Exodus 30:30). More specifically it referred to the coming of the one who would usher in a period of righteousness and conquer evil and sin (Daniel 9:26). Along with his priestly and prophetic powers, the Messiah was to be a king descended from the line of David.
When Christ actually came, He left no doubt that He was, indeed, the One-who-is-to-come, and the New Testament authors made it clear that they knew Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah (Matthew 16:17, Acts 2:36, Galatians 3:24-29).
Among the sources of Messianic prediction, the Psalms have been called by some, the Gospels in song. One after another of the Psalms describes who the Messiah would be, how He would act, what He would achieve, and especially how the kingdom He established would flourish beyond the end of time into eternity. Our warrant for this Messianism is the New Testament, both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The Gospel of St. Matthew alone has at least thirty-eight direct or implicit citations from the Book of Psalms.
The Messianic Psalms, properly so called, are variously classified. Here we shall group them under the following headings: 1) the Oracle of Nathan, 2) the Royal Psalms, 3) the Kingship of Yahweh.
The Oracle of Nathan
Originally spoken by the prophet Nathan to David (II Samuel 7:1-17), the prophecy is repeated and put into song in Psalm 89:20-38. Its opening and closing verses are echoed throughout the Old Testament, and re-echoed in the writings of St. Paul and the Book of the Apocalypse:
I have selected my servant David
His dynasty shall last forever,
The Royal Psalms
There is a group of Psalms called Royal because they foretell the kingship of the coming Messiah. They are Psalms 2, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, and 110. While the immediate king of whom they speak is a contemporary monarch, the royalty to which they refer goes beyond the Old Testament figure and, as the New Testament and the Churchs tradition bring out, applies to the Messiah.
The most dramatic use of the Royal Psalms in the New Testament occurs in the opening chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, which St. Paul begins by saying that in ancient times, God spoke through the prophets, but in our own time, the last days, He has spoken to us through His Son. Paul then observes that Christ, the Son of God, is far above the angels Then he explains, by drawing on the Psalms:
God has never said to any angel, You are my Son, today I have become your Father, or I will be a Father to Him and He a Son to me (Psalm 2:7: II Samuel 7:14) About the angels He says, He makes His angels winds and His servants flames of fire, but to His Son He says, God, your throne shall last forever, and His royal scepter is the scepter of virtue; virtue that you love as much as you hate wickedness. This is why God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness, above all your rivals (Psalm 45:6-7). And again, It is you, Lord, who laid earths foundations in the beginning, the heavens are the work of your hands; all will vanish, though you remain, all wear out like a garment; you will roll them up like a cloak, and like a garment they will be changed. But you yourself never change and your years are unending (Psalm 102:25-27). God has never said to any angel, Sit at my right hand and I will make your enemies a footstool for you (Psalm 110:1).
This introduction of the Letter to the Hebrews (I:5-14) brings out the unique role of the Psalms in the Jewish tradition. It was mainly through the centuries of prayerful recitation and singing of the Psalms that the people of Israel came to look forward to the Redeemer who would save them not so much from earthly oppression as from sin and from the just punishments of an offended God.
Psalms of the Kingship of Yahweh
There is a cluster of Psalms (47, 93, 96-100) which present the universal reign of Yahweh. They predict that the word of God will reach all mankind and inaugurate universal peace.
The key to understanding these Psalms is their fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God-become-man. Thus the majesty of God is revealed, through Christ, to all peoples.
Thus the worship of the one true God is opened to the whole universe:
Again God will reveal Himself as all-loving and merciful, even as He judges the world with equity:
Classification of the Psalms
The Psalms have been variously classified as to their contents, and no single grouping can do justice to the spectrum of mystery and insight that is found in the Psalter. One set of categories divides the Psalms as follows:
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