To understand the psalms, we have to understand the world out of which they arose. As North Americans, we live in a most sheltered spot. The waves of adversity rarely go over us. Most of us have lived our lives in tranquil surroundings. Those who wrote the psalms lived in a more complex and dangerous world. We need to enter their world to see life through their eyes. If we do that we may well read their prayers with more empathy.
These psalms are not intended to be statements of theology. They are not carefully engineered statements of belief, like the Apostles’ Creed. They are urgent prayers that rush from a person’s inner-most being in response to the circumstances of their lives. They often voice strong emotion. They are reactions to life as it was encountered by Israel throughout much of its history.
A World of Warfare
In Western culture the great saints have spoken about the dark night of the soul, when God seemed absent from the experience of those that love Him. But C. S. Lewis reminds us that the psalmists knew more about the dark night of the flesh. Their problems were less psychological and much more physical. Their prayers were less the broodings of the soul in solitude: they were more the cries of a people caught up in the middle of intense crises.
Physical dangers were very real. There was always a border to be defended. The pagan world believed that might makes right. If they could take over another nation, why not? Eternal vigilance was always the price of freedom. At any moment a nearby clan could come screaming down on your village, and death, abduction, rape and pillaging were not abnormal experiences.
If you know the history of Israel at all you know that they were surrounded by enemy empires for most of their history. If it wasn’t the Egyptians, it was the Philistines, then the Syrians, then the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, followed by the Romans.
There is an interesting note in the story of David and Bathsheba that reads, “In the Spring of the year when kings go out to war, David stayed in Jerusalem.” In the Spring? War seemed to be an annual event for this small nation. Just like hockey season for we Canadians!
Many of the psalms respond to this harsh reality. If some of these psalms sound a bit blood thirsty and violent, it is perfectly understandable. Most of the Ancient Near East resembled variations of Syria and Iraq today.
The following Psalms speak of Israel facing the horrors of war. Psalms 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 108, 126, 129, 137,144. (13 psalms) Let me read Psalm 79 as a classic example.
1 O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2 They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3 They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
4 We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.
5 How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6 Pour out your anger on the nations
that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms
that do not call on your name.
7 For they have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation.
8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
9 Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and forgive our sins,
for your name’s sake.
10 Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes.
11 Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power preserve those doomed to die.
12 Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbours
the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord!
13 Then we your people, the flock of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.
A world of sickness
But there is another side to this dark night of the flesh. The crisis of life was often due to illness. These Psalmists talk of their flesh wasting away. (Psalm 22 is the response, in the first place, of a sick man to these circumstances.) If the word “cancer” or “aids” strikes fear into our age, there were hundreds of such illnesses that were incurable until the modern age.
But one of the worst part of an illness was not the physical distress. It brought economic stress too when a person could not work. But worse than that; it brought severe emotional stress. Sickness might mean death. It also indicated, to too many, that the person may well have been cursed by God. If a person was ill, it meant that God who is sovereign, must have either imposed it on the individual, or is refusing to take it away. Sin must be present, since sickness was seen as God’s judgment. Much of Israel believed the message “Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people.” Many added insult to injury, guilt was piled on top of grief. Job’s comforters always existed in that ancient world
15 of our psalms grapple with illness & its attendant guilt and fear. Psalm 6, 13, 22, 28, 31, 38, 39, 42-43, 69, 71, 77, 88, 102, 143.
1 O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am utterly spent and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbors stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek to hurt me speak of ruin,
and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like the deaf, I do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.
14 Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort.
15 But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I pray, “Only do not let them rejoice over me,
those who boast against me when my foot slips.”
17 For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
19 Those who are my foes without cause are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good
are my adversaries because I follow after good.
21 Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
22 make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!
A world of injustice
It was a world of great social inequities; masters and slaves, rich and poor, those who ruled and those who were ruled. A terrible injustice was often felt by the disenfranchised, the poor, and the weak. The orphans, widows, the debtor all tended to get victimized by people in power.
The problem of general injustice bothered the song writers. There appears to be an imbalance in the way the universe works. Evil people often prosper. Good people often suffer. Life does not seem fair. How come?
But there was a specific form of injustice that was even more terrifying than a general climate of inequity. A person could be accused falsely by a neighbour and dragged to the gate of the city. He could be brought before the King’s court. There were no lawyers. It was one person’s word against another. But not all people tell the truth. In the mouth of two or three witnesses guilt could be established, and woe betide the man who was faced by false witnesses. It was a world where bribes crossed palms too frequently.
There is a close connection between illness and injustice in many of our psalms. When a person became ill, he was presumed to be guilty of some sin, until health returned or innocence could be proven. The common mind said, “if someone is ill, and God is passing judgment, why should we not pass our judgment too?” The charge of blasphemy could be laid rather easily. Two or three people who could testify are not hard to find, if the victim has something wanted by a neighbour. False charges are easy to lay, but hard to escape.
Eight of our psalms speak of this terrible dilemma. Psalms 7, 17, 26, 35, 69, 73, 94, 109
Here is Psalm 26 with its poignant cry.
1 Vindicate me, O Lord,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
2 Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and mind.
3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I walk in faithfulness to you.
4 I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
and telling all your wondrous deeds.
8 O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
and the place where your glory abides.
9 Do not sweep me away with sinners,
nor my life with the bloodthirsty,
10 those in whose hands are evil devices,
and whose right hands are full of bribes.
11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity;
redeem me, and be gracious to me.
12 My foot stands on level ground;
in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.
A World of Sin
It was a world of natural evils: such as earthquakes, illnesses, famine and drought. It was also a world of moral evils: war, injustice, greed, violence. But the psalmist knew that he was more than merely a victim of the evil of others. He knew that he also was a perpetrator of wrong.
The law disclosed the issues of right & wrong. But it is one thing to know the law. It is another thing to keep it. But even when the law was kept, people of conscience knew of the subterranean issue of sin within that affected attitude and disposition, even if it did not spill out in deeds.
The psalmists use the language of penitence, crying out for forgiveness and for cleansing. Some of our Psalms are called “penitential psalms”. They are Psalms 6, 25, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. and then ones like Psalm 19 and 139 though not primarily penitential include the awareness of sin and guilt and defilement.
Psalm 51 is the best known and most used of these psalms of sadness about self.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
A world of Worship
But to paint life only as grim and deadly, or to paint all persons as either victim or perpetrator would be imbalanced. Life was also celebration. Religion expression was a central focus of Israelite life.
Worship times were times of great pageantry, beauty, excitement. Songs and dances were part of religious celebration. Rituals were performed by priests in glorious garments speaking exalted words about the great deeds of God. The holy days were holidays. Every 50 days there was a major festival; the equivalent of a long weekend. There were great communal meals, that included the eating of roast meats from sacrificial animals, and the gathering of scattered families and friends.
It was the time to hear the great Levitical choirs, with orchestras of every kind of instrument. It was audio-visuals at their best. It was a wonderful change from the drudgery of daily existence.
The Sabbath day was a glad day. Six days for work, hard work, long hours, eking out an existence for most of them. But on Friday Night. Dress up! The big meal of the week. Family time. The Sabbath rituals of the home. The hearing the Torah read. Sabbath was celebration and rest.
The temple was a vivid contrast to their tents or hovels. Its towering columns and embroidered work told them of beauty and truth and value. It pointed them to transcendent things. There was more to life that dirty aprons; there was priestly and Levitical dress. There was more than the smell of sheep; there was the smell of incense and barbecues.
Many of the psalms celebrate temple and festivals and the high moments of corporate worship.
There were the Songs of Zion; 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122, The Sabbath Psalms: 90 through 99, and The Songs of Ascent for festival days: 120 through 134.
Psalm 84 is one of its loveliest.
1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
4 Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise. Selah
5 Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah.
9 Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed.
10 For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
12 O Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you!
A World of domestic joys.
National life and domestic life also had their great joys. Often the nation was at war. But there were other times at the Coronation or a king, or at a King’s marriage (45) when it was good to celebrate. The Kingship of David and his descendants was celebrated with songs of patriotism. It was great compared to the instability of the neighbouring kingdoms. The Royal Psalms sound out that theme.
Songs of National Thanksgiving include psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 47, 72, 89, 93, 96, 97, 98, 99, 101, 110, 144, 132. (17 psalms in all)
And home life was not all drudgery either. There was the celebration of marriage, and of children being born, and of tranquil moments.
The Psalms of Domestic joys include psalms 16, 127, 128,
1 Happy is everyone who fears the Lord,
who walks in his ways.
2 You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
4 Thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the Lord.
5 The Lord bless you from Zion.
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
6 May you see your children’s children.
Peace be upon Israel
Again I would reiterate the wide range of hymns in the psalter being in contrast to our own hymnals. We have retained hymns of rejoicing. But very few hymns of lament, or penitence, no pleas for healing, for justice, for protection from enemies. No confessions of doubt and fear. No psalms of cursing.
Why would this be? Let’s dive into some of the psalms that make us uncomfortable to find out.