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The Psalms

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 author’s 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.

Poetic Form

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:

  1. Synonymous parallelism is the most common form. It consists in the simple repetition of the same thought in slightly different words. Thus, “God, hear my cry for help, listen to my prayer” (Psalm 61:1).

  2. Antithetical parallelism is produced by contrasting the first member with the second. Thus, “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered, let those who hate Him flee before Him. As smoke disperses, they disperse; as wax melts when near the fire, so the wicked perish when God approaches. But at God’s approach, the virtuous rejoice, exulting and singing for joy” (Psalm 68:1-3).

  3. Synthetic parallelisms, when the first member is developed or completed by a similar thought in the second, or third in the case of triplets. Thus, “Why this uproar among the nations? Why this impotent muttering of pagans – kings on earth rising in revolt, princes plotting against Yahweh and His Anointed” (Psalm 2:1-2).

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 psalmist’s 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:

The Poet: 1. Yahweh is my shepherd
  I lack nothing.

The Sheep: 2. In meadows of green grass He lets me lie.
To the waters of repose He leads me;
  There He revives my soul.

  3. He guides me by paths of virtue
  for the sake of His name.

  4. Though I pass through a gloomy valley,
  I fear no harm;
Beside me your rod and your staff
  are there, to hearten me.

  5. You prepare a table before me
  under the eyes of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil,
  my cup brims over.

The Poet: 6. Ah, how goodness and kindness pursue me,
  every day of my life;
my home, the house of Yahweh,
  as long as I live!

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 Lord’s 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

  1. Happy. We are all searching for happiness. In fact, this is the deepest hunger of the human heart. Yet so many people are unhappy. Our besetting temptation on earth is to be taken in by those who are not doing the will of God and yet are apparently happy.
  1. Wicked, sinners, scoffers. The wicked are those who are doing their own will contrary to the will of God. Sinners are those who are offending God. Scoffers are those who ridicule the laws of God and pity those who, like children, are afraid of doing what they want because it is forbidden by someone they call “God.”
  1. Follow, loiter, sit. There are three dangers to avoid, namely, following the counsel of people who are living wicked lives; associating with persons who are notorious sinners; and sitting in conversation with those who make light of religion and things of God.
  1. Pleasures, murmurs. In contrast with the wicked, sinners and scoffers, the truly happy man enjoys doing the will of God. He finds pleasure in submitting his will to the will of God, since that is the purpose of our freedom, to choose what pleases God. Built into such use of human freedom is the inevitable consequence, namely interior joy. We literally “find” happiness in pleasing God. As a person becomes accustomed to doing God’s will, he will “murmur” the divine law constantly. To murmur, in biblical language means to read in an undertone, or to pray meditatively.
  1. Tree, fruit, success. The interior joy experienced in doing the will of God has a corresponding promise outside the one who obeys the divine law. Compared to a tree that is planted by water streams, the obedient person flourishes in what he does. Just as there is such a thing as false pleasure and true joy; so there is apparent success and real achievement. Real achievement, even in this life, is assured only those who sincerely strive to do the will of God.
  1. Chaff, wind. The Psalmist compares the wicked and what they do with the chaff, or seed coverings and other debris that are separated from the seed in threshing grain. Again in biblical language, “chaff” stands for something light and worthless.
  1. Judgment. Two kinds of judgment are implied here: God’s judgments in this life in the myriad divine visitations that He sends to all of us, to reward the good and to punish the wicked; and God’s final judgment at the end of time, as foretold by Christ will take place on the last day. Whatever firmness sinners may seem to have in their wickedness is doomed to be shaken before the judgment seat of God.
  1. Virtuous, wicked. In conclusion, there is a promise and a threat. The promise is of God’s care for the virtuous, all through life and into eternity. The threat is “doom” for the wicked, which the Vulgate renders as, “The way of the wicked shall perish.” No matter how much, or how learnedly sinners may defend themselves before other men, they cannot defend themselves before God. Their sins will be punished by failure. In the providence of God sin never succeeds.

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

  1. Our Lord. God is Lord of the universe in two ways: He created the world out of nothing, and He governs the world by His almighty power. But the Psalmist addresses God as “Our Lord.” He is ours because, unlike the irrational creation, we have a mind to know that He is our Maker and Master, and we have a free will to act on our knowledge of God. He is therefore “ours” because we are uniquely “His.”
  1. How great your Name. The Name of God is the being of God acknowledged by creatures. No one is greater than He. But this places on all of us a grave responsibility. We must glorify the Name of the Lord. This means that we are to learn all we can about God; we are to grow in our faith. We are to be more generous in responding to the will of God; we are to strive to decrease in our own eyes, while increasing our dedication to God. And we are to make the name of God better known and loved by others; we are to be more zealous in the apostolate.
  1. Children, babes. Christ would later set down the principle that unless we become as little children, we shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It takes humility to chant the majesty of God; proud people chant their own praises, or the praises of other human beings.
  1. Enemies and rebels. Throughout the Psalms, there is the constant refrain that wicked people are at enmity with God; they oppose Him and His faithful ones. Between enemies and rebels, the worst are the rebels. They are persons who had believed in God and served Him, but they have either lost their faith or, if they still believe, are weakened in their faith and over the centuries have been the leaders of rebellion, often from inside the fold. God’s promise is to set a firm stronghold, literally a fortress, in which the friends of God are secure and from which they can defend themselves against the enemies of the Lord.
  1. Thought, care. As the Psalmist compares the reaches of the firmament, the sun, moon and stars, with little man, he exclaims in wonder that God should even give man a thought or, less still, even give a care. But just here is the mystery of man’s greatness, not because of size or physical magnitude but because man has a spirit, his soul, made to the image and likeness of God. Surely God is mindful of all His creatures; but He is specifically thoughtful and concerned – every moment – about each one of us individually, personally, specifically. The implications of this are staggering. Unless God were thus mindful and careful about each one of us, we would lapse into the nothingness that we were, before He gave us existence and began to flood our being with manifestations of His love.

    If God so loves us, how much should we love Him in return? His thoughtfulness of us should be met by our thoughtfulness of Him – having Him as often and as much as possible on our mind. His care for us should be met by our caring for Him, concerned about His honor, devoted to his interests, and solicitous to do His will.
  1. Lord over God’s creation. Before closing the Psalm, the inspired author draws a parallel between man’s littleness and his greatness. The littleness means that man is small in material extension. The five billion people on earth are as specks of dust compared with the grandeur of the visible universe which is millions of light years in quantity and ravishing in beauty across the expanses of stellar space.

    Yet, and this beggars description, God has placed all this inanimate and irrational world to serve the needs of man, to be at his disposal, that he might be, speaking to God, “lord over the work of your hands.” There is a condition attached to this, however. Yes, we are to use and enjoy the creatures that envelope us on every side. But we are to use them according to the will of God. Creatures are to make us conscious of their Creator; they are to remind us of God. Creatures are to lead us to glorify their Creator; they are to open our hearts to Him.
  1. Yahweh our Lord. The last verse of this Psalm is a repetition of the first verse. Where God is concerned, our prayers to Him are not infrequently literal repetitions of the same words. This is not surprising, since what can we creatures do when speaking to the Creator but tell Him over and over again who He is in Himself – Yahweh, and who He is in relation to us – our Lord.

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
and anointed him with my holy oil;
my hand will be constantly with him,
he will be able to rely on my arm (Psalm 89:20-21)

His dynasty shall last forever,
I see his throne like the sun,
enduring forever like the moon,
that faithful witness in the sky (Psalm 89:36-37).

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 Church’s 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 earth’s 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:

  • “Sing to Yahweh, all the earth” (Psalm 96:1)
  • “Tell His marvels to every people” (Psalm 96:3)
  • “The most distant parts of the earth have seen the saving power of our God” (Psalm 98:3)
  • “Yahweh is king…He is high overall nations” Psalm 99:1,3)

Again God will reveal Himself as all-loving and merciful, even as He judges the world with equity:

  • “Yahweh loves those who repudiate evil, He guards the souls of the devout” (Psalm 97:10)
  • “Yahweh our God…a God of forgiveness” (Psalm 99:8)
  • “Yes, Yahweh is good, His love is everlasting, His faithfulness endures from age to age” (Psalm 100:5).

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:

  1. Songs of adoration, addressed to God and honoring His glory in Himself and His majesty in the world that He made.

  2. Songs of gratitude, thanking God for His goodness to each person as an individual, and especially for His generosity toward the people whom He calls His own.

  3. Historical Psalms, which recall the glorious past of Israel and recount God’s marvelous deeds.

  4. Psalms of petitions, in which the Psalmist begs Yahweh for help, especially for strength in enduring the oppression of unbelievers.

  5. Psalms of instruction, which teach even as they speak to God. One of their main lessons is to explain the prosperity of the godless, that can be such a scandal to believers.

  6. Psalms of imprecation, as they have come to be called (34, 51, 68, and 108 in the vulgate), are those in which the Psalmist pronounces a curse over the enemies of God and God’s people. Thus David prays, “May no one be left to show him kindness, may no one look after his orphans, may his family die out, its name disappear in one generation” (Psalm 109:12-13). Written under divine inspiration, they were not so much statements of the human author as prophetic terms foretelling the divine intention, i.e., what God will do to those who resist His will.

  7. Psalms of lamentation, that express sorrow for sin, one’s own and those of all the world. The penitential Psalms belong to this group, namely Psalms 6, 31 (32), 37 (38), 50 (51), 101 (102), 129 (130) and 142 (143). The best known is the Miserere (Psalm 50), which is the most common prayer for mercy in the Christian liturgy.

  8. Prophetic Psalms are also called the Messianic Psalms, explained above. Even as they anticipate the glories of the future Messiah, they also foretell His sufferings.

  9. Gradual Psalms are a group of fifteen, namely Psalms 120 to 134, each of which bears a special title in Hebrew, rendered by St. Jerome “canticle of steps,” or “song of degrees.” Among the explanations offered for the term, it may refer to 1) the literary character of these Psalms, as indicating instances of step-like progression, 2) “lifting up” of the heart in praise to God, 3) the “going up” of the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem after the exile, or most probably 4) the “going up” of pilgrims to Jerusalem for annual festivals.

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