Going Deeper into the Psalms

With more understanding, praying other people’s prayers can profoundly impact our own spiritual lives

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People often expect the Book of Psalms to be “The Lord is my Shepherd” times 150. As those who read them regularly know, it is a crazy quilt of many different and unexpected voices, and not all of them happy. From time to time, we all need to remember that they were originally the prayers of other people.

The Book of Psalms claims David as its author, and this asserts its unity. However, this unity comes in the dialogue of many voices that touch basic human issues: injustice and meanness, sickness and death, covenant and trust, desire and love. They do not offer us one perspective or one theology; rather the procession of psalms becomes with a dialogue of different prayers from different voices asking us to respond. They invite or stir up or even provoke our prayer. As a result, the psalms have continued to play a vital role in the life of the synagogue and Church.

Understanding the psalms often means understanding the psalmist, and each voice demands the same kind of attention needed to understand another person. Just as we must be careful that our own expectations and prejudices do not overwhelm our interaction with others, so we also should let the psalmist speak so that we may understand what that voice is addressing to God and why. We may find it necessary to accept the voice even as we disagree.

Some psalms play an important role in the New Testament and early Church as their understanding of Christ unfolds. St. Augustine refers to these differences as the “plain sense” (signa propria) and the “transferred sense” (signa translata; De Doctrina Christiana, II.32). There has always been some tension between the two senses. Origen and the school of Alexandria saw every part of the Scriptures as pointing to Christ, much like the shadows in Plato’s cave giving evidence for a larger world of light and truth. On the other hand, the school of Antioch placed the emphasis on the “plain meaning” and limited the spiritual sense. In his commentary on the psalms, St. Augustine begins with the plain sense but pursues this second level of meaning in order to understand the Scriptures as the prayer of Christ, and we shall return to this.

St. Thomas Aquinas, without denying the “mystical sense,” also insists on the primacy of the “plain meaning” as the foundation for the larger meaning, and so let us begin by considering how Hebrew poetry generates its plain meaning.


Liturgy and Hymns of Praise


“Two important features of the psalms deserve special notice. First, the majority were composed originally precisely for liturgical worship. This is shown by the frequent indication of liturgical leaders interacting with the community (e.g., Ps 118:1-4). Second, they follow certain distinct patterns or literary forms. Thus the hymn is a song of praise, in which a community is urged joyfully to sing out the praise of God. Various reasons are given for this praise (often introduced by ‘for’ or ‘because’): the divine work of creation and sustenance (Ps 135:1-12; 136). Some of the hymns have received a more specific classification, based on content. The ‘Songs of Zion’ are so called because they exalt Zion, the city in which God dwells among the people (Ps 47; 96-99). Characteristic of the songs of praise is the joyful summons to get involved in the activity; Psalm 104 is an exception to this, although it remains universal in its thrust.”


The Craft of Hebrew Poetry

The psalms, like other classic poems, are able to stand on their own. Their authors have crafted them in such a way that they no longer need the author to explain them, for the poem is exactly what the author wanted to say. This does not mean that they are always easy, but if we want to grasp what the author wanted to say, then we must read and engage the text. A commentary may help to throw light on this or that, but the meaning of the text is not some idea to fish out of the text. These texts invite us to experience them, and for that we must understand something of the craft of biblical poetry.

Hebrew poetry, like poetry in general, relies particularly on repetition. Meter and rhyme, the repetition of regular accent and sound, are traditional hallmarks of English poetry. Hebrew poetry has rich sound but no rhyme, often with three main accents to a line. Repetition shows itself particularly in the repetition of key words, word pairs and ideas.

Robert Lowth famously calls this recurrence “parallelism,” and he focused particularly on parallel lines, like those we find in Psalm 1:1 (NABRE): “Blessed is the man / who does not walk / in the counsel / of the wicked, / Nor stand / in the way / of sinners, / nor sit / in company / with scoffers.”

Lowth calls this synonymous parallelism because the lines are constructed with synonyms. He identifies another type containing antonyms (antithetical parallelism), and a third type that includes everything else. His observation dominates biblical scholarship until James Kugel objects that the lines are not really synonymous because they do not say exactly the same thing.

In “The Idea of Biblical Poetry” (John Hopkins University Press, $33), Kugel argues that Hebrew poetry is continually moving forward, and that the second line adds something new. In fact, Kugel insists that the emphasis comes in the second line which carries the first forward in various ways. His great principle states: “There is A, and what’s more, there is B.” In Psalm 1:1 above, the verbs “walk / stand / sit” are not the same, but go from movement to rest. Likewise, the nouns “wicked / sinners / scoffers” begin with the state of being evil, then name those who do evil and end with those who mock evil. The lines are similar but not synonymous; there is movement, and Kugel would argue that the last is the most important.

The basic building blocks for the similarity are the myriad of word pairs — whether from natural or conventional association. The pair “sun” and “moon” belong to our common human experience. “Steadfast love” and “faithfulness” have perhaps some natural affinity but also belong to the language and convention of covenant. In addition to synonyms, there are antonyms, such as “wise” and “foolish” from the wisdom tradition that create contrasting statements that are not antithetical as Lowth called them but affirm the same idea. From these word pairs, Hebrew poetry builds its parallel lines that, as Kugel argues, also have a sequential and forward movement fashioned in various ways.

F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, in his book “On Biblical Poetry” (Oxford University Press, $82), gathers much of biblical poetry under the umbrella of lyric. Unlike either rational argument with its logical progression or narratives with its movement from tension to resolution, lyric juxtaposes various reactions and ideas to create an experience that is cultic, oral and extravagant. Psalm 22, for instance, begins in despair but quickly shifts to a remembrance of God’s salvation in the past.

Then it shifts again with the line, “But I am a worm, not a man” (Ps. 22:7). In the next move, the psalmist recalls God’s personal attention as midwife. After a petition, the psalm explore who is near and far but interrupts this with images of instability and of death as dust. The logic here is more the logic of the heart. An analysis of the text can help us become more alive to its movement and experience, but the head cannot always explain it.

Praise and Petition

Some psalms are pure lyric, pure reaction, but most psalms are directed to God or to other people, and they divide mainly into two large groups: 1) hymns of praise and thanksgiving and 2) prayer psalms which are often called laments.

Hymns of Praise and Thanksgiving

We praise God in the same way that we praise other people. We make statements about them — about their character or about what they have done. We praise other people to acknowledge their accomplishments, to affirm them as people, to align ourselves with them, to curry favor.

Sometimes, however, we make a statement because we feel an overwhelming need to acknowledge the quality of a person or an object: “It is such a beautiful painting”; “It was a perfect golf shot”; “It is hard to imagine a nicer person.” The statement may or may not be made to the person concerned. The painter may be dead, or the golfer on TV, but still we find a need to make the statement. While people may praise God for various reasons, we are at our best when we praise God for being God. Praise is the reaction of awe.

We also give thanks by making a statement, and it differs from praise only in the sense that I feel a responsibility to say something. “I thank you because you have done something important for me.” The line between praise and thanks is not always clear. What has been done may fill me with awe. Still, sometimes we recognize that we have a personal obligation to say something.


‘In praying the Psalms we learn to pray’

“The psalms teach how to pray. In them, the word of God becomes a word of prayer — and they are the words of the inspired psalmist — which also becomes the word of the person who prays the psalms.

“This is the beauty and the special characteristic of this book of the Bible: the prayers it contains, unlike other prayers we find in sacred Scripture, are not inserted in a narrative plot that specifies their meaning and role. The psalms are given to the believer exactly as the text of prayers whose sole purpose is to become the prayer of the person who assimilates them and addresses them to God. Since they are a word of God, anyone who prays the psalms speaks to God using the very words that God has given to us, addresses him with the words that he himself has given us. So it is that in praying the psalms we learn to pray. They are a school of prayer. …

“This is what happens with the prayer of the psalms. They are given to us so that we may learn to address God, to communicate with him, to speak to him of ourselves with his words, to find a language for the encounter with God. And
through those words, it will also be possible to know and to accept the criteria of his action, to draw closer to the mystery of his thoughts and ways, so as to grow constantly in faith and in love.”

— Pope Benedict XVI, general audience, June 22, 2011


Praise psalms often begin with a call for others to come and join the praise. Psalm 148 first calls heaven and everything above to praise the Lord (cf. Ps 148:1-4); then comes the call to the earth and its many dimensions (148:7-12). The Hebrew word often follows and is typically translated as “for” to indicate the reason we should praise: “for his name alone is exalted” (148:13b). However, can also mean “indeed!” And we can understand the word as an introduction to the statements of praise. “Indeed! His name alone is exalted.” Psalm 117 offers the simplest example.

“Praise the Lord, all you nations! / Extol him, all you peoples! / His mercy for us is strong; / the faithfulness of the Lord is forever. / Hallelujah!”

The New American Bible Revised Edition does not translate the in the Hebrew, though many translations have “for” to introduce the lines as the reasons why the nations and peoples should praise the Lord. By leaving it untranslated, the two lines can be understood either as the reason or as the statement of praise: Because “his mercy for us is strong,” we should say: “Indeed, his mercy for us is strong!”

According to Psalm 115:17, praise is the fundamental act of being alive: “The dead do not praise the Lord, / not all those go down into silence.”

As the psalm makes clear, those who make idols become like them with no mouth to speak and no sound in their throat (Ps 115:5, 7-8). However, the last two lines affirm: “It is we who bless the Lord / Both now and forever” (Ps 115:18)

The statement can be read as a vow, which will guarantee life to those who fear and therefore bless the Lord. To praise, according to Psalm 115, is the essence of being alive.

The Prayer Psalms (or ‘Laments’)

A third of the psalms are prayers for help, and their basic elements are similar to the way we would ask another person for help. First, you name and describe the person being asked. The description sets up the petition by praising the person and describing your problem. The petition asks for what is needed, and a “so that” clause may follow to explain what you hope to achieve.

These basic elements shape the opening prayers of the Roman Missal with the addition of a doxology.

The prayers of the Roman Missal are formal, universal and communal. Prayer psalms move with lyric freedom to juxtapose and capture personal and deeply felt emotion. Some demonstrate that you can say anything to God. Often they focus on the psalmist’s trouble and so are called “laments.”

Psalm 56 begins with a petition for mercy and then describes those attacking “all the day.” The psalmist adds statements of trust — a typical element of these prayer psalms. “I trust in God, I do not fear. / What can mere flesh do to me?” (Ps 56:5b)

Here the question is rhetorical and reiterates the psalmist’s trust, but other psalmists confront God with probing questions as in Psalm 13 which begins: “How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? / How long will you hide your face from me?”

At times the psalmist makes a vow to sacrifice if all goes well. Some find this a crass bargaining with God and unworthy of prayer; however, people facing dark trouble meet extremes with extreme measures and so reveal their despair.

These psalms have an implied story that must be pieced together from what the psalmist says. Some are sick; others are falsely accused and protest their innocence. Some are attacked for reasons that remain unclear. The characters are a good and faithful psalmist, an enemy who attacks, the Lord as hero and the community. The psalm is the call in the story for God to act as hero and defeat the enemy.

Complications of various kinds set in. In Psalm 55:14 the enemy is not an evil outsider, but “you, my other self, my comrade and friend.” Or the psalmist may acknowledge that situation is the result of his own sin, and so he has become his own enemy (cf. Ps 51). Or sin has brought God’s vengeance upon the psalmist, and the psalmist sees God as the enemy (Ps 38). Psalm 39 gives us a psalmist who can say to God, “Turn your gaze from me, that I may smile before I depart to be no more” (Ps 39:14). Psalm 88 ends with everything in darkness. Questions of when or if God will act appear in various psalms. Psalm 58, filled with the hurt of injustice, demands vengeance from God against the unjust judges.

These psalms have the raw energy of country songs, and they can be hard to hear. Those of us who read these texts continually can easily get lost in the routine that turn the psalms into just words. The voices and emotions can become dull, or we can just find it too hard to confront more raw emotion and pain. Whether or not we always are always conscious of the words, our praying them over and over should give us a feel for each voice.

Some psalms end without an answer. The book as a whole expects God to save, but sometimes we have only the prayer. A number of psalms come in two acts.

The first act presents the psalmist’s prayer for God to act. Then the psalm shifts suddenly; the trouble is over, and the psalmist begins a thanksgiving hymn. Some scholars suggest that people came to the Temple and relived their pain (Act 1), and then after an oracle of salvation announcing God’s redemption, the psalmist would make a hymn of thanksgiving (Act 2).

This theory makes sense of the shift during the Second Temple, but within the tradition of the Church, these two moments come to represent the cross and the resurrection. Even so, the gap between the two acts raises the question of how one moves from anguish to thanksgiving.

The Prayer of the Whole Christ

When considering what the psalms mean for me and for us, I find it helpful to think of them as windows or mirrors. The psalms are mostly windows into the life and prayer of other people. If we are honest, we know that the ecstasy of “my soul thirsts for you” in Psalm 63:1 is often as distant from us as the darkness of Psalm 88. My prayer grows out of confronting these voices in prayer.

At times a psalm or some part becomes a mirror reflecting back to us something of who we are. In these moments, we may need to force ourselves to look in the mirror, for that vision calls us to embrace our own particular version of the cross and its reality, yet only then can we hope to sing the thanksgiving hymn of Christ’s resurrection.

St. Augustine, in his commentary on the psalms, sees them as the prayers of Christ. Some are the prayers of Christ the Head, and some prayers of Christ the Body, that is, the Church. The psalms carry the many voices of the Church, and they challenge us to embrace them all. Reading the psalms should build up love of God and neighbor as ourselves, for, as St. Augustine insists, all interpretation must follow the regula dilectionis — “the rule of love”:


Questions to Clarify Your Approach to the Psalms

1) What did it mean?

2) What did it come to mean?

3) What does it mean for me / for us?

The answers to the three questions are related, but they are not quite the same. Importantly, we must recognize the question that we are trying to answer.


“If you seem to understand the divine Scriptures or some part of them but by that understanding does not build upon the twofold love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them.”

Therefore, we can never pray the psalms by ourselves. They are the prayers of Christ, Head and Body, the totus Christus, and by praying them, we give voice to the whole Christ.

In the Tenth Conference, Abba Isaac tells St. John Cassian and his friend, Germanus, about the power of repetitive prayer. Then the old monk reveals that Psalm 70:1 contains the most powerful verse in the Scriptures that will lead them to purity of heart: “O God, come to my help; O Lord, make haste to help me.” This verse, of course, became and remains the opening verse for the Liturgy of the Hours. Its place suggests that whole recitation of the office should be taken as a great repetitive prayer. With its many psalms and readings, the Liturgy of the Hours leads us over and over, deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Christ, Head and Body, so that we might come to that purity of heart which Abba Isaac describes in the Tenth Conference:

“When all love, all desire, all zeal, all impulse, our every thought, all that we live, that we speak, that we breathe, will be God, then that unity the Father now has with the Son and the Son with the Father will fill our feelings and our understanding.”

Just as God has loved us with a sincere and pure and unbreakable love, so may we also be joined to God with an unending and inseparable love.

Then we shall be united to this same God in such a way that whatever we breathe, whatever we think, whatever we speak may be God.

The psalms gather all of life into the Liturgy of the Hours so with these voices we may be milled and ground for the one bread of the whole Christ, Head and Body.

FATHER HARRY HAGAN, OSB, is a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, Saint Meinrad, Indiana, associate professor of Scripture at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, and writes texts for hymns.

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