Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: A Conference on the Psalms

It was at an adult conference of one of the Protestant denominations, held on the campus of an Ohio college. Typical of the era of religious tolerance and mutual understanding was the privilege afforded this writer of serving on the faculty, of sharing his knowledge of, and his approach to, the “Old Testament” with the believers in the New. The Biblical book chosen for daily study was Psalms. A question was asked, an answer was attempted; and it might well be that the subject is of interest to a wider circle.

But first, a few preliminary remarks on the Book of Psalms. While the Christian Church has appropriated the “Old Testament” as a whole, there would hardly seem to be a more “Christian” book in the whole of the Hebrew canon than Psalms—that is, outside famous chapters like Isaiah 53 and individual verses in other Biblical books which have time-honored Christological interpretations. It is the Book of Psalms, as a whole, that has won the heart of the Christian, and which is familiar to him from its liturgical use in church services. And it is not only the quaint page headings of the King James Version that make it so essentially a “Christian” book. It is the sentiments themselves of the Psalms, the pronounced element of “personal religion” which is often said to be missing in so much else of the “Old Testament.” Add to this the fact that the Book of Psalms is the one and only “Old Testament” book that is frequently bound together with the New Testament, and one is no longer taken aback by the amazement so often expressed by pious and sincere Christians when they hear for the first time that Psalms belong to the Old Covenant. And yet—even the unprejudiced reader cannot fail to notice, once he engages in a systematic study of the Psalms, that there are some very “un-Christian” sentiments expressed in them: sentiments which simply ask for the old stereotypes to be brought out into the open again: the God of Vengeance of the “Old Testament,” and the God of Love of the New! The Psalmist is very conscious of his “enemies.” He prays for their destruction. In his suffering, he cries out unto the God of Vengeance. There is no “turning of the other cheek” here, no loving of one’s enemies. Very clearly, the Psalmist lived by an ethic quite different from the one we read about in the Sermon on the Mount.

And so the question came up. It simply had to be asked. But it was asked without any malice aforethought. It was presented as a sincere request for enlightenment. How can we reconcile the Psalmist’s imprecations against his adversaries with what, in our Christian environment, we have been taught to regard as true religious sentiments?

_____________

 

The answer fell into three parts, which might here be labeled liturgical, homilectical, and “existentialist.” As far as the liturgical use of the Psalms is concerned, we can just omit (in so far as we are not Fundamentalists) whatever verses we find offensive. In prayer we have to be honest. We cannot be expected to mouth phrases, hallowed by ancient usage though they be, which not only do not express what is in our hearts, but give currency to notions opposed to our deepest convictions.

When, for example, Psalm 145 is recited in the Reform Jewish service, verse 20 is simply omitted. It reads: “The Lord preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy.” (No doubt this omission survives as a legacy from calmer and more optimistic days, when no urgent need was felt to see the wicked destroyed. Alas, in the process, we also had to forego the comfort of reminding ourselves that “the Lord preserveth all them that love him.”)

Similarly, when modern Jews try to relive in spirit the experience of the Babylonian Exile by meditating on Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”), they are liable, at this late stage of the game, to stop with verse 6, without giving vent to their feelings by calling down terrible curses on the “children of Edom” and the “daughter of Babylon.”

Moreover, while our pious ancestors in rabbinic days may not have shared our cavalier disregard of “uncomfortable” verses, they tried at least to help themselves by means of “interpretation.” Famous is the story, recorded in the Talmud, of Rabbi Meir who was vexed by the conduct of wicked neigh-bore, and who prayed to God for their destruction. His wife bade him desist, and she quoted by way of proof, of all things, verse 35 of Psalm 104 (“Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more”). But by changing the vocalization of a single Hebrew word—chattaim to chataim—she made the verse to mean: “Let sins [sic] be consumed out of the earth, and then the wicked will be no more (because they will have repented)!”

But this first part of our answer is, after all, still on a rather superficial level. It deals with our own liturgical use of the Psalms, with the question of how far a liturgical text can be meaningfully employed some two thousand years after it was written. It leaves unanswered the problem of why the “enemies” should have been dragged into the Psalms in the first place.

In trying to answer this, we are not going to take a short cut which a superficial use of the Higher Criticism might possibly suggest to us, by dubbing the verses which offend our susceptibilities as “later interpolations.” No, we shall face up to the question of why the original authors “marred” their compositions by the introduction of such hostile sentiments. We can do this best by turning the whole argument around, by saying that it would be impossible to understand the composition of the Psalms without the presence of the verses that “mar” them.

For the Psalms—at any rate, the Psalms under discussion in this context—were not written in the quiet of the study. They arose out of actual life situations, out of the kind of crises in which men turn to God. There was neither the leisure nor the inclination to dream up Utopia or Polly-anna. The man who can say, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” is in no need of praying for the destruction of the wicked; nor, on the other hand, is he liable to write Psalms which can be meaningful as “personal religion” to a sufferer removed from him in both time and space. And perhaps it is just this which makes the Psalms so meaningful: that there is nothing artificial about them, that we can feel a kinship with those men of flesh and blood and emotions who had experiences not too dissimilar from our own.

The world is not perfect as long as there is evil in it, as long as the wicked are around to harass the godly. But the plan of God is to make the world perfect. And this, of necessity, implies the elimination of evil. How well we can understand the thirty-fifth verse of Psalm 104 from this point of view, the verse which voices the prayer that “the sinners be consumed out of the earth”! For thirty-four exhilarating verses the poet has been singing the praises of nature and of nature’s God. But, after all, he does not live in the “New Jerusalem,” but in this not yet perfect world of ours. And so he completes his picture of the glories of nature by giving expression both to his awareness of the existence of wickedness, and to his fervent hope that the world will be made perfect by its speedy removal.

Lest it be said that such a hope is too “Jewish,” and not “Christian” enough, we are reminded by as authentic a Christian as the late Dean Stanley that “the duty of keeping alive in the human heart the sense of burning indignation against moral evil—against selfishness, against injustice, against untruth, in ourselves as well as in others—that is as much part of the Christian as of the Jewish dispensation.”

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This brings us to the third and final part of our answer. In a whole week spent in the studious, devotional, and congenial atmosphere of the adult conference, this writer heard a great deal about Jesus and his love. And many a time he heard him referred to as the Prince of Peace. But he was also given a hymnal (used at the daily vesper services) in which this very Prince of Peace is invoked as “the royal Master” who “leads against the foe.” And the followers of this Prince of Peace,” laying claim to the title of “Soldiers of the Cross,” are bidden to arise, and to gird themselves with their armor bright; for “mighty are your enemies, hard the battle ye must fight.”

This, of course, was nothing new. It has long been recognized that the New Testament has its blood-curdling Apocalypse as well as its pacifist Sermon on the Mount; and the picture of the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” may do less than full justice to the hero of the Gospels. But what the hymns referred to above express so forcefully, even if the purely metaphorical use of the expressions be granted, is the idea of the Church Militant.

The Church Militant! The Church, when all is said and done, is still very much a fighting Church. It sees its challenge and its task in territories still unconquered (again, if you prefer, in a purely metaphorical sense). The Kingdom of God has its “foes” whom the “Soldiers of the Cross” have yet to subdue.

As an outsider who tried to be objective, this writer was not offended by these notions. But he found the terminology certainly most suggestive. Were he engaged in religious polemics, he might perhaps suggest that the Church first follow the advice of Jesus by removing the “log” from its own hymnals before talking offense at the “speck” in the Hebrew Psalter. But polemics are not our object here. We seek mutual understanding and enlightenment. And we understand from the hymnology of the Church that the present-day Christian shares with the “Old Testament” Hebrew an awareness of the presence of evil in this world. On this basis we can understand one another, whether the image in which we try to enclose our hopes for the ultimate Redemption be “the Coming of the Messiah,” “the Messianic Age,” “the Second Coming,” or “the Kingdom.” Whenever the Jew and the Christian pray: “Thy Kingdom come!” (and the “Lord’s Prayer” does share this request with the Kaddish) both Jew and Christian give expression to this “existential” awareness that the world in which they live is as yet unredeemed.

And in the light of this awareness, the Jew can understand why the Christian calls upon the Incarnate Word to “gird on his mighty sword.” The Jew may even be moved to a sympathetic appreciation of the tragic tension involved in Christianity, which, on the one hand, believes that the Redeemer was born 1957 years ago, and which, on the other, still has to pray, as did the Apostle Paul (I Corinthians 16:22) in the Aramaic dialect of early Jewish prayer: “Marana tha!—Our Lord, come!”

But by the same token, the Christian need not be repelled, and most certainly need not revert to the Gnostic distinction between the “God of Love” and the “Jewish God” (a distinction which the very Fathers of the Church have been at great pains to refute), when he hears the Psalmist praying:

O Lord, how manifold are Thy works!
In wisdom hast Thou made them all;
the earth is full of Thy creatures. . . .
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have
    being.
May my meditation be pleasing to Him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no morel
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
Hallelujah
.
(Psalm 104:24, 33-35.)

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