November 26, 2012 0

Episode 16 – Psalms

By in Blog, Podcast


In my left hand, I’m playing Angry Birds Star Wars… Hold on. Just a… hold on. Just a minute… Oh, man… Stupid Stormtrooper pigs! When will the galaxy be rid of you?!

Oh, sorry. I guess you’re here about the BOOK.


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. This week, for the first time on BOOK, we’re going to veer off course a bit and interrupt the historical timeline of the bible to look at a very different sort of literature: the Psalms. “Psalm” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “the pluck of a harp,” but the word has come to refer to sacred songs and poems. The biblical Psalms are a diverse and fascinating collection which represent a surprising variety of perspectives, occasions, and very human emotions.

These Hebrew verses are arranged in five “books,” five collections of songs with no apparent thematic or organizational structure. There may well be such a structure, but it’s not obvious to us. The five parts may be an intentional echo of the fivefold Torah, suggesting that the Psalms are perhaps a counterpoint to the covenant law, the human response to the divine instruction. Whatever the case, the key to appreciating the Psalms is to allow the real – often broken – human voices in them to speak loud and clear. The range and intensity of emotion in these poems is stunning. There are psalms of exuberant gratitude, of deep despair, of bitter dejection and vengeful resolve. Modern readers tend to enjoy and relate to the happy and sad psalms, but the angry ones remain an issue. Christian thinker and ancient poetry guru C.S. Lewis felt he had no choice but to reject some of the psalms, calling them “hateful.” We’ll revisit that controversy later in the show.

On one level, the Psalms are just ancient hymns, the songbook of national Israel with a song for just about any occasion. But that’s the function of the literature. The origins, context and composition of the literature – as far as we can discover them – are the real attraction here. We obviously don’t have time to read and examine all 150 psalms in a short podcast. But I’d like to take a good look at a few of my favorites, which I think represent the whole body of psalms quite well. Here we go.

Psalm 1 & Psalm 2

The first two psalms are very short and represent two of the major thematic strands running through most psalms. One is about the joy of keeping the covenant law, and the other is about the king. Here’s Psalm 1:

1 Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, does not stand in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted beside streams of water which yields its fruit in season, whose leaf does not wither, and all that it produces thrives.
4 Not so the wicked, they are like chaff that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Before we comment on the content of this poem, a word about its language. Of course, we miss out on a lot because we don’t read these poems in Hebrew. Translate any poetry out of its original language, and you’re going to lose some – perhaps MOST – of its impact. To make it worse, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to translation. There are countless Christian and Jewish translations of the Psalms, and the tone and meaning can vary according to the interpretation. The versions I’m reading here are an amalgamation of the English Standard Version and the Jewish Publication Society translations, with a little of my own tinkering.

Just to give you an idea of what we’re missing not reading the Hebrew, here’s the first line of Psalm 1 in the masoretic Hebrew text:

[TRANSLITERATION:] ashree ha-ish asher lo halakh ba-etzat reshaim 

“Happy is the man who who does not walk in the way of the wicked.” ashree ha-ish asher… The consonance in that short phrase is very typical of Hebrew poetry, and there’s almost no way to carry that over into a faithful translation. We’ll look at a few more common Hebrew poetic devices as we move along. One more note about language: We’ve observed this before, but it’s worth mentioning again that references to “the LORD” in Bible translations are not generic titles but substitutions for the personal name of Israel’s God – “Yahweh” according to scholarship, though that’s probably not entirely accurate. It’s helpful to our understanding of these songs to remember that they are not generically religious, as they are often assumed to be today. They are specific to Israel, and its covenant with its God.

Psalm 1 is a simple verse about a choice facing every Israelite: keep the covenant law and prosper, or forsake it and suffer the consequences. The didactic nature of the psalm puts it in line with the wisdom literature of Israel, and psalms like this one are often called “wisdom psalms.” We’ll talk a lot more about Semitic wisdom literature next week. This psalm’s simple message is illustrated with appropriately simple imagery having to do with motion and agriculture. The happy person doesn’t walk, stand, or sit with the wicked, because they have nothing to tether them to the ground, and the wind blows them away like chaff (the leftover debris after grain is processed). Instead, the lawkeeper is planted in the ground like a tree. He isn’t tossed about the breeze, and his deep covenant roots mean that he can produce fruit and prosper. The simplistic ideals of this kind of teaching didn’t always match up with real-life experience, but that’s something we’ll tackle head-on in our wisdom podcast.

Psalm 2 is similarly single-minded, but on a different topic altogether. Here’s the text:

1 Why do nations assemble, and peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth take their stand, and rulers scheme together against the LORD and against His anointed, saying,
3 “Let us break the bonds of their yoke and shake off their ropes from us!”
4 He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord mocks them.
5 Then He speaks to them in anger, terrifying them in His rage,
6 “I have installed My king on Zion, My holy mountain!”
7 Let me tell of the decree: the LORD said to me, “You are My son, I have fathered you this day.
8 Ask it of Me, and I will make the nations your domain; your estate, the limits of the earth.
9 You can smash them with an iron rod, and shatter them like potter’s vessel.”
10 So now, O kings, be prudent; accept discipline, you rulers of the earth!
11 Serve the LORD in awe; rejoice with trembling,
12 kiss the son, lest He be angered, and your way be doomed in the mere flash of His anger. Happy are all who take refuge in Him.

This is a royal psalm, and boy-howdy is it ever ROYAL. This short song is a theological celebration of the monarchy. The king of Israel is seen as the personally chosen (“anointed”) representative of God on earth, and the nations of the world plot and scheme against him in jealousy and rebellion. This is most likely a product of the Davidic dynasty and the nationalistic program to get all Israelites on board with the monarchy. Israel’s king did not (or was not supposed to) wield his own power, but the power of Israel’s God who, since creation, had entrusted his people with dominion over the earth and everything in it.

In fact, scholarship suggests that this might be a coronation liturgy, performed at the installation of a new king. If you notice, the perspective changes throughout the poem. First, an officiator – probably the high priest – describes the king, “his anointed” in contrast to his many enemies. Then, in verse 7, the new king speaks in the first person: “Let me tell of the decree… YHWH said to me, ‘you are my son.’” Then the officiator – or perhaps the assembly of the people – speaks: “Kiss the son” (that is, pay homage to the new king) “lest he” (that is, God) “be angered.” We may be listening in on an exclusive ancient ceremony. This is the first of many royal psalms.

Psalm 14

Psalm 14 is one of the scores of psalms attributed to King David, who is indeed described in the bible as something of a singer/songwriter. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that the inscription on these Psalms – “ledavid” in Hebrew – could mean a variety of things. It could mean “of David,” as in, “written by David.” But it could mean “for David,” or “in the style of David,” or “dedicated to David.” Still, it’s completely possible that he wrote them, and perhaps likely given the close connection many of them have to events from his life. Here’s Psalm 14:

[1] The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
no one does good.
[2] The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
[3] They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
[4] Are they so witless, all the evildoers
who devour my people as they eat bread
and do not call upon the LORD?
[5] They will be seized with fright,
for God is with the generation of the righteous.
[6] You would shame the plans of the poor,
but the LORD is their refuge.
[7] Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

The refrain of this Psalm – “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no god’” – is popular with modern Christians looking for a word from the bible about atheists. However, it’s more than a little anachronistic to read Psalm 14 in that key. First of all, we’re talking about an ancient world that didn’t have any atheists. Everyone believed in a god more more likely a host of gods, and intellectual atheism wasn’t a popular option. Second, the term David uses here for “fool,” the Hebrew nabal, was used as a designation for other Israelites. David’s talking about people inside the covenant community who “say in their hearts” that there is no God. That is, people who think and act and live as if God wasn’t there. Once again, a bible verse popular with those pointing a finger at others turns out to be a stinging indictment of religious bozos.

There’s a short episode in Samuel (which we skimmed over in our podcast on the subject) where David encounters a man who is actually called Nabal. In the story, David is on the run from Saul and must rely on the kindness of the Israelites he encounters to survive and evade the soldiers who hunt him. Nabal is a wealthy sheepkeeper who refuses to assist David and is more than a little rude to him. David and Nabal nearly go to battle before Nabal’s sweet and wise wife Abigail defuses the quarrel (also Nabal dies and David marries Abigail). You can read the account in 1 Samuel 25. We imagine this might be the backdrop to Psalm 14, with David blowing off steam writing poetry in his journal.

Psalm 45

Here’s the text of Psalm 45:

For the leader; on shoshannim. Of the Korahites. A maskil. A love song.
2 My heart is astir with gracious words; I speak my poem to a king; my tongue is the pen of an expert scribe.
3 You are fairer than all men; your speech is endowed with grace; rightly has God given you an eternal blessing.
4 Gird your sword upon your thigh, O hero, in your splendor and glory;
5 in your glory, win success; ride on in the cause of truth and meekness and right; and let your right hand lead you to awesome deeds.
6 Your arrows, sharpened, pierce the breast of the king’s enemies; peoples fall at your feet.
7 Your divine throne is everlasting; your royal scepter is a scepter of equity.
8 You love righteousness and hate wickedness; rightly has God, your God, chosen to anoint you with oil of gladness over all your peers.
9 All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; from ivoried palaces lutes entertain you.
10 Royal princesses are your favorites; the consort stands at your right hand, decked in gold of Ophir.
11 Take heed, lass, and note, incline your ear: forget your people and your father’s house,
12 and let the king be aroused by your beauty; since he is your lord, bow to him.
13 O Tyrian lass, the wealthiest people will court your favor with gifts,
14 goods of all sorts. The royal princess, her dress embroidered with golden mountings,
15 is led inside to the king; maidens in her train, her companions, are presented to you.
16 They are led in with joy and gladness; they enter the palace of the king.
17 Your sons will succeed your ancestors; you will appoint them princes throughout the land.
18 I commemorate your fame for all generations, so peoples will praise you forever and ever.

This lovely and somewhat sensual song is a song “of the Korahites,” a line of composers and poets associated with the family of Korah, the priests who rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the scroll of Numbers. What’s mildly interesting about this particular psalm is that it appears to be a royal wedding song. What’s exponentially more interesting is that scholarship suggests this was the wedding song of the wicked King Ahab and his wickeder wife Jezebel. Not exactly the Davidic ideal.

Psalm 48

Here’s Psalm 48:

A song. A psalm of the Korahites.
2 The LORD is great and much acclaimed in the city of our God, His holy mountain —
3 fair-crested, joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, summit of Zaphon, city of the great king.
4 Through its citadels, God has made Himself known as a haven.
5 See, the kings joined forces; they advanced together.
6 At the mere sight of it they were stunned, they were terrified, they panicked;
7 they were seized there with a trembling, like a woman in the throes of labor,
8 as the Tarshish fleet was wrecked in an easterly gale.
9 The likes of what we heard we have now witnessed in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God — may God preserve it forever! Selah.
10 In Your temple, God, we meditate upon Your faithful care.
11 The praise of You, God, like Your name, reaches to the ends of the earth; Your right hand is filled with beneficence.
12 Let Mount Zion rejoice! Let the towns of Judah exult, because of Your judgments.
13 Walk around Zion, circle it; count its towers,
14 take note of its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may recount it to a future age.
15 For God — He is our God forever; He will lead us evermore.

This is another Korahite psalm, and another royal psalm of sorts. Whenever you see “Mount Zion” imagery in a psalm, it’s an appeal to Jerusalem and the royal theology that said God had permanently planted his feet on Israel’s “holy mountain.” What’s remarkable in this particular psalm is the mention of “Zaphon” in verse 3. Zaphon was the “holy mountain” of Canaanite religion, and its appearance in a Hebrew worship song may have some fascinating ramifications. Were the Korahites simply “borrowing” Canaanite songs and replacing the names of Canaanite gods with “YHWH” and “Zaphon” with “Zion?” Well, if so, it’s not nearly as scandalous as it sounds given how history and literature and anthropology work, but it’s an intriguing possibility all the same. We’ll explore foreign influences on Hebrew literature more deeply in our wisdom podcast.

Psalm 110

A psalm of David.
[1] The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand while
I make your enemies your footstool.”
[2] The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter.
Rule over your enemies!
[3] Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.
[4] The LORD has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
[5] The Lord is at your right hand;
he crushes kings on the day of his wrath.
[6] He works judgment among the nations, heaping up bodies;
he crushes chiefs over the wide earth.
[7] He drinks from the brook by the way;
therefore he holds his head high.

This royal psalm attributed to David is thematically very similar to Psalm 2, and is significant for a couple of reasons. First off, Psalm 110 is the single most quoted passage of Hebrew Scripture in the Greek New Testament. It is a loadbearing piece of theology for the argument of the New Testament. Additional, and not unrelated, it’s the language in verse 1 and the mention of Melchizedek in verse 4 that make this a rather pregnant little song. If David is meant to have written this, or even if it’s ghost-written from his perspective, what does “YHWH says to my lord…” mean? Who is a “lord” or “boss” between David and YHWH? Furthermore, what is meant by the appeal to the mysterious Melchizedek, the non-Hebrew king/priest who appeared to bless Abram in Genesis 14? David knows full well that Israel’s kings are forbidden from acting as priests, and that such behavior is what lost Saul his throne. This is the foundation for much speculation regarding so-called “messianic” theology, something we’ll discuss more fully in future podcasts.

Psalm 119

A quick mention of Psalm 119, which – if you’re familiar with it – you’ll be glad to know we’re not going to read in its entirety. Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm by far, and the longest single “chapter” in the bible (though chapter breaks are superficial divisions added later). It’s actually a self-contained collection of 22 short psalms, each beginning with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 119 is a celebration of Torah, and the first stanza is representative of the full contents:

[1]  Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD!
[2] Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,
who seek him with their whole heart,
[3] who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways!
[4] You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.
[5] Oh that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping your statutes!
[6] Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
[7] I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous rules.
[8] I will keep your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me!

Psalm 137

We come now to a more difficult type of psalm. You won’t hear this one read in a Sunday morning church service. In fact, the only time Psalm 137 is referenced these days, it’s by people who are criticizing and often condemning the bible for being barbaric and hateful. Even the beloved Christian thinker C.S. Lewis called it a “devilish” text and wished it wasn’t in the bible at all. What’s the big deal? Here’s the text:

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung up our lyres,
3 for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4 How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
6 let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.
7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall; how they cried, “Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!”
8 Fair Babylon, you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us;
9 a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!

It’s easy to see why this psalm is so difficult for many people to deal with. It’s a biblical worship song which calls curses upon an enemy and daydreams about dashing their children against rocks. The problem is almost insurmountable. There is data which brings the text into sharper focus, though it does not eliminate all objection. The first line of the psalm is the most important element for our interpretation: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat.” This is NOT a happy worship psalm from the national period of Israel when the kings reigned from Zion and the covenant was the center of life. This is an EXILE PRAYER. At this moment in Israel’s history, Zion is lost. The covenant is broken. The people are in the strange, unwelcoming land of Babylon, and times could not be more desperate.

We tend to think of religion as divine inspiration or instruction. But historically speaking, religion consists of human expression and reaction to life experience. The experience of exile is unspeakably disruptive and horrible for Israel, and the literature from this period is appropriately brutal. The honest wish from an Israelite’s prayer to “dash their children against the rocks” isn’t any more acceptable because it’s in a religious setting, but it’s perfectly understandable from the point of view of broken, desperate humanity. And this isn’t just a sick, out-of-the-blue prescription of random violence, this a desire for justice, for the crimes of an invading empire to be visited back upon it. We are not called to justify or commend this prayer, only to understand and appreciate the painful place from which it comes. To wish it wasn’t here is to wish for a tamed and bowdlerized bible.

Psalm 139

Here is an excerpt from my personal favorite psalm, number 139, presented without comment:

For the leader. Of David. A psalm.
[1] O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
[2] You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
[3] You know my walking and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
[4] Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
[5] You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
[6] Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
[7] Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
[8] If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
[9] If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
[10] even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
[11] If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
[12] even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

Psalm 23

Lastly, we would regret it if we didn’t look at the most famous of the psalms, number 23, David’s shepherd song. This one is so familiar, but I’d like to offer this translation, which I believe is closer in tone and detail to the Hebrew original, and which hopefully illuminates some familiar ideas with fresh light:

A psalm of David.
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water and a place to rest;
3 He refreshes my throat; He guides me on the right paths as befits His name.
4 Though I walk through a valley of deep darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread out a table for me in full view of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my drink is overflowing.
6 Only goodness and steadfast love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will return to the house of the LORD for many long years.

Psalm 23 is one of the most accessible and beautiful pieces of ancient poetry we’re fortunate enough to have on record. It’s an exploration of David’s intimate relationship with Israel’s God, expressed in the imagery and feelings he knew best. Verse by verse, we appreciate the exquisite artfulness of Psalm 23.

Verse 1: A simple metaphor: “YHWH is my shepherd.” In David’s experience, this is the ultimate compliment he can pay his God.

Verse 2: Like a shepherd, God leads me to the places where the water and green food are.

Verse 3: The traditional translation reads “he restoreth my soul,” which sounds properly religious. But these are Hebrew words with very simple, practical meanings. The Hebrew word “nephesh” does symbolically mean “soul,” as in “an individual person,” but the word literally means “throat.” There is certainly no Hebrew equivalent of the Platonic “soul,” the disembodied, immortal essence inside a person. David is simply talking about having a drink.

Verse 4: Note first of all the shift in pronouns. The first three verses described God in the third person. The next two verses – the climax of the poem – will address God directly. “You are with me.” And like all shepherds, God must lead his sheep through dangerous valleys where steep cliffs jut and predators lurk. The “rod and staff” are a perfect illustration of the Hebrew concept of judgment. Like the shepherd, God carries two sticks: One for keeping hungry dogs away, and one for gently prodding and leading his sheep.

Verse 5: In the face of real danger, the shepherd God doesn’t just protect his sheep, but he prospers it in the face of its enemies. The blessings are abundant to overflowing.

Verse 6: The traditional translation of verse 6 reads “I will dwell in the house of YHWH forever,” but that translation is deceptively anachronistic. “Dwell in the house of the LORD forever” is usually taken as a reference to going to heaven after death, but no such concept existed in Israel at this time. When you died, you went to the grave and were symbolically collected to the “bosom of Abraham” with the rest of the departed family of Israel. The Hebrew verb here is more likely “shuv,” which means “return” to, not “yashav,” which means “dwell in.” This is a reference to the temple. David says, the Shepherd has been so good to me, I will always return to his house (the tabernacle) as long as I live, like a sheep who knows where he will be taken care of.


There are two unproductive ways people can read the Psalms today. They can sit in judgment of the human weakness, pride, and despair on display in them, or they can ignore or mute that humanity in the name of fervor. The best way to get something out of them – whether your interest in them is religious, academic, or otherwise – is to let them be what they are, and to embrace some of the most candid human expression in the whole bible.

I think of it like this: the Torah was the schematic of what Israel was meant to be, the covenant ideal. The Psalms are the reality, the humanity, the grey areas in which actual people lived.  Critics of the bible often cite psalms (like 137) as proof that the bible is toxic and broken. But I personally find the candor, warts, and other flaws on display in these poems to be quite comforting and encouraging.

A little personal note in conclusion: When I was a kid we read and sang a lot of psalms, but it was always the happy ones about God rescuing his people – which meant us, the good guys. That was fine with me, but during the boring parts of church I would flip through the rest of the psalms and read the ones about despair and doubt and revenge, and it made me genuinely happy, as if I’d discovered the secret forbidden section of the bible that said it was OK to be a human being.

As challenging and obtuse as we may find the Torah law to be at such an historical and cultural distance, it’s heartening to see that it was no picnic for the people who lived inside it. And apart from some of more outrageous wisdom texts (which we’ll look at next week), the questions and doubts expressed in the psalms are unique in the whole bible.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. And I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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