The book of Psalms

This should be the easiest book to summarise, since it’s the only one that I have read repeatedly daily and weekly for more than five years. And this is because the book of Psalms forms the main body of the Divine Office of prayer, which clergy and Religious use every day. So, yes, this should be the easiest book to summarise, but it isn’t really, because it is so varied in its sentiment, being a collection or anthology of poetry from various times in the history of the Hebrew people. A lot of it is given as the work of the musician-king, David of Bethlehem, whose portrait is at the bottom of this post, but some psalms seem to predate even him, and several come from the centuries after him. By the time of Christ, the book of Psalms would have been a staple at the synagogues and several if not all of the psalms would have been memorised by the Jews, so that even in His extremity on the Cross, Christ was reciting the psalms. We know this, because several of his recorded words on the Cross, in the gospel accounts of the Crucifixion are extracts from psalms. Being unable to summarise the book well, I shall simply reproduce parts of my favourite psalms, with some commentary. In the extracts, the psalm numbers are provided in the scheme A(B), where A is the Greek numbering in the Catholic Bibles and B is the Hebrew numbering used by the Jewish community and the protestants – so Psalm 50(51), which used to be presented as Psalm 50 in Catholic Bibles, is now more commonly found as Psalm 51 in modern Bibles.

First of all, psalms 1 and 14(15) are tributes to the just person, who has lived a good life (essentially, in the Jewish sense, has dedicated himself or herself to the fulfilment of the prescriptions of the Torah, the Hebrew Law:

“Blessed is the man who does not guide his steps by ill counsel, or turn aside where sinners walk, or, where scornful souls gather, sit down to rest; the man whose heart is set on the law of the Lord, on that law, day and night, his thoughts still dwell. He stands firm as a tree planted by running water, ready to yield its fruit when the season comes, not a leaf faded; all that he does will prosper.”

“Who is it, Lord, that will make his home in Thy tabernacle, rest on the mountain where Thy sanctuary is? One that guides his steps without fault, and gives to all their due; one whose heart is all honest purpose, who utters no treacherous word, never defrauds a friend, or slanders a neighbour.”

Psalm 1: 1-3; Psalm 14(15): 1-3

These, then, are ideal for (for example) the feast day of the martyr Saint Stephen, first of the Christians to die for the Faith. The Church has always had her martyrs, for even so-called ‘Christian’ or ‘Catholic’ kings have often pushed for control of the Church, through whom they have sought to control the hearts of men and women. To those who persecute the church, the great Messianic psalm 2 is an excellent reply:

“What means this turmoil among the nations? Why do the peoples cherish vain dreams? See how the kings of the earth stand in array, how its rulers make common cause, against the Lord, and against the King He has anointed, crying, ‘Let us break away from their bondage, rid ourselves of the toils!’ He who dwells in heaven is laughing at their threats, the Lord makes light of them; and at last, in His displeasure, He will speak out, His anger quelling them…”

Psalm 2: 1-5

The first of the seven penitential psalms provides a wonderful image of the penitent sinner, calling upon God to redeem him from slavery to sin, at a moment that predates the dawning understanding of the immortality of the soul:

“Lord, turn back, and grant a wretched soul relief; as Thou art ever merciful, save me. When death comes, there is no more remembering Thee; none can praise Thee in the tomb. I am spent with sighing; every night I lie weeping on my bed, till the tears drench my pillow. Grief has dimmed my eyes, faded their lustre now, so many are the adversaries that surround me. Depart from me, all you that traffic in iniquity; the Lord has heard my cry of distress.”

Psalm 6: 5-9

Zipping on to Psalm 8, which wonders at why God on High has selected the children of Men to receive his many gifts and graces, giving them dominion over the rest of Creation:

“I look up at those heavens of Thine, the work of Thy hands, at the moon and the stars, which Thou hast set in their places; what is man that Thou shouldst remember him? What is Adam’s breed, that it should claim Thy care? Thou hast placed him only a little below the angels, crowning him with glory and honour, and bidding him rule over the works of Thy hands.”

Psalm 8: 4-7

It’s worth mentioning Psalm 17(18), King David’s great psalm about the bounty of God to him personally, which would have been dear to the heart of our Blessed Lord, being as He was a descendant of that great king. But I won’t quote from it, skipping instead to the blessing psalm, Psalm 19(20).

“The Lord listen to thee in thy time of need, the power of Jacob’s God be thy protection! May He send thee aid from His holy place, watch over thee, there on mount Sion; may He remember all thy offerings, and find savour in thy burnt-sacrifice. May He grant thee what thy heart desires, crown thy hopes with fulfilment. So may we rejoice at thy deliverance, rallied in the name of the Lord our God…”

Psalm 19(20)

Next comes the great passion psalm, Psalm 21(22), which Christ seems to have recited on the cross. We all know the first words of this psalm – ‘Eli, Eli, lamá sabáchthani?’

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Loudly I call, but my prayer cannot reach Thee. Thou dost not answer, my God, when I cry out to Thee day and night, Thou dost not heed. Thou art there none the less, dwelling in the holy place; Israel’s ancient boast. It was in Thee that our fathers trusted, and Thou didst reward their trust by delivering them; they cried to Thee, and rescue came; no need to be ashamed of such trust as theirs. But I, poor worm, have no manhood left; I am a by-word to all, the laughing-stock of the rabble. All those who catch sight of me fall to mocking; mouthing out insults, while they toss their heads in scorn, ‘He committed himself to the Lord, why does not the Lord come to his rescue, and set his favourite free?'”

Psalm 21(22): 2-9

It even has overtones of the Agony in the Garden, when Christ asked that the bitter chalice of His suffering be taken away, if possible. But it’s also the cry of the faithful who suffer in any way whatsoever, without finding any relief from it. Awful, the thought. And yet, the next psalm continues the theme with hope. It’s no wonder it’s everybody’s favourite psalm:

“The Lord is my Shepherd; how can I lack anything? He gives me a resting-place where there is green pasture, leads me out to the cool water’s brink, refreshed and content. As in honour pledged, by sure paths He leads me; dark be the valley about my path, hurt I fear none while He is with me; Thy rod, Thy crook are my comfort.”

Psalm 22(23): 1-4

Absolutely wonderful. Continuing on to Psalm 25(26), a favourite with the early Church, which was so concerned for purity before God (I wish we were so concerned today also):

“How well, Lord, I love the house where thou dwellest, the shrine of thy glory! Lord, never count this soul for lost with the wicked, this life among the blood-thirsty; hands ever stained with guilt, palms ever itching for a bribe! Be it mine to guide my steps clear of wrong; deliver me in Thy mercy. On sure ground my feet are set; where His people gather I will join in blessing the Lord’s name.”

Psalm 25(26): 8-12

And now we come to the next penitential psalm, Psalm 31(32), whose message is trust in God, stay on the narrow path, don’t be stubborn like an animal that needs bridle and bit to be directed correctly. Know your dignity, you who trust in the living God…

“Do not be like the horse and the mule, senseless creatures which will not come near thee unless their spirit is tamed by bit and bridle. Again and again the sinner must feel the lash; he who trusts in the Lord finds nothing but mercy all around him. Just souls, be glad, and rejoice in the Lord; true hearts, make your boast in Him.”

Psalm 31(32): 9-11

Zipping along to Psalm 42(43), the song of a priest who has for some reason been kept from his duty of sacrificing to God at the Temple in Jerusalem, but now returns:

“The light of Thy presence, the fulfilment of Thy promise, let these be my escort, bringing me safe to Thy holy mountain, to the tabernacle where Thou dwellest. There I will go up to the altar of God, the giver of triumphant happiness; Thou art my own God, with the harp I hymn Thy praise.”

Psalm 42(43): 3-4

One of the most popular of the psalms in the Christian liturgy is Psalm 44(45), which is used constantly for both feasts of the Lord and for feasts of the Blessed Virgin:

“Thine is more than mortal beauty, thy lips overflow with gracious utterance; the blessings God has granted thee can never fail. Gird on thy sword at thy side, great warrior, gird thyself with all thy majesty and all thy beauty; ride on triumphant, in the name of faithfulness and justice. Dread counsel thy own might shall give thee; so sharp are thy arrows, subduing nations to thy will, daunting the hearts of the king’s enemies. Thy throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, the sceptre of thy royalty is a rod that rules true…”

Psalm 44(45): 3-7

It has messianic overtones, like so many other psalms directed either towards powerful tribal leaders of ancient Israel, in the procession through the desert to the promised land, or towards the great Israelite kings, David and Solomon, or indeed towards the great king that everybody was expecting to redeem the fortunes of the people of Israel in the distant future. Meanwhile, in Psalm 49(50), we hear the voice of God speaking of the real end of the sacrificial system of the Hebrew religion. It was not an end in itself, but was intended to draw men and women to worship of God, in praise and thanksgiving, by which they would grow closer to God, and so draw upon his graces and grow in virtue.

“‘I do not find fault with thee over thy sacrifices; why, all day long thy burnt-offerings smoke before me. But the gifts I accept are not cattle from thy stock, or buck-goats from thy folds; I own already every wild beast in the forest, the hills are mine, and the herds that people them. There is no bird flies in heaven, no life stirs in the country-side, but I know of it. If I am hungry, I will not complain of it to thee, I, Who am Master of earth and all that earth contains. Wouldst thou have me eat bull’s flesh, and drink the blood of goats? The sacrifice thou must offer to God is a sacrifice of praise, so wilt thou perform thy vows to the most High. So, when thou criest to Me in time of trouble, I will deliver thee; then thou shalt honour Me as thou wilt.'”

Psalm 49(50): 8-15

Thus follows the greatest of the penitential psalms, Psalm 50(51), and a wonderful way of saying Sorry. This was the psalm of King David when he unfortunately fell in love with a married woman, Bethsabee, and proceeded to have her husband killed, so that he might marry her instead. Here this psalm continues the theme of the previous one:

“O Lord, Thou wilt open my lips, and my mouth shall tell of Thy praise. Thou hast no mind for sacrifice, burnt-offerings, if I brought them, Thou wouldst refuse; here, O God, is my sacrifice, a broken spirit; a heart that is humbled and contrite Thou, O God, wilt never disdain.”

Psalms 50(51): 17-19

This is what God wants: humility and a heart that desires Him, is pleased to be moulded by Him. Zipping along to Psalm 67(68), we discover more hints of the Suffering Servant of God, referring either to the nation of Israel, toiling under subjugation to foreign powers, or indeed to the unexpected Suffering Messiah of God:

“Draw near in my distress, and grant deliverance; relieve me, so hard pressed by my enemies. Lord, Thou knowest how they reproach me, how I blush with shame; Thou seest how many are my persecutors. Heart-broken with that shame, I pine away, looking round for pity, where pity is none, for comfort, where there is no comfort to be found. They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink.”

Psalm 67(68): 19-22

These words must have shocked the Apostle and the women at the foot of the Cross, ringing in their ears as they saw how badly Christ was treated there. Carrying on along, I would like to mention Psalm 77(78), which is a wonderful compressed narrative, telling the story of the liberation of the people from Egypt. At a time before writing was commonly a practice, stories and lore were passed on by word of mouth, from father to son, among the people in general. Thus, a history of the nation of Israel was maintained without the facility of books and libraries. It seems to me that this psalm is a good demonstration of how that was done, so is a catechetical summary of events. Psalms 104(105) and 105(106) are similar historical psalms. Here is a nation of people that does not rejoice in their being faithful to their God, but curses their inability to be faithful at all!

“So it was that the sons of Ephraim, bow in hand, were routed in the day of battle. They were false to God’s covenant, refused to follow His law, as if they had forgotten all His mercies, all those wonderful deeds of His they had witnessed. Had not their fathers seen wonders enough in Egypt, on the plains of Tanis, when He parted the sea to let them pass through it, making its waters stand firm as a mound of earth; when He led them with a cloud by day, with glowing fire all through the night? He pierced the rock, too, in the desert, and slaked their thirst as if from some deep pool, bidding the very stones yield water, till fountains gushed from them, abundant as rivers. And still they went on offending Him, there in the wilderness, rebelling against the most High, challenging God in their thoughts to give them the food they craved for.”

Psalm 77(78): 9-18

The infidelity of the people would eventually lead to the destruction of the fortunes of the nation and the exile of most of the people, and especially the nobility and the royal family from the Holy Land. And from their place of exile, the people sang hopefully to God, asking for restitution. Here we find the image of Israel as a fruitful vine, devastated but able to be restored. This image was used by Apostles like Saint Paul, to put forth a grafting on of the Christian Church onto this ancient vine.

“Long ago, Thou didst bring a vine out of Egypt, rooting out the heathen to plant it here; Thou didst prepare the way for its spreading, and it took root where Thou hadst planted it, filled the whole land. How it overshadowed the hills, how the cedars, divinely tall, were overtopped by its branches! It spread out its tendrils to the sea, its shoots as far as the great river. Why is it that in these days Thou hast levelled its wall, for every passer-by to rob it of its fruit? See how the wild boar ravages it, how it gives pasture to every beast that roams! God of hosts, relent, look down from heaven, look to this vine, that needs Thy care. Revive the stock which Thy own hand has planted, branches that by Thee throve, and throve for Thee.”

Psalm 79(80): 9-16

Sometimes, people say that the book of Psalms has something for everybody, expresses the wide gamut of human emotions. I was unable to understand that idea until I saw the psalm of the person in great depression, at the depths of despair, but still hopeful enough to pray to the God Who listens: 

“Lord God, day and night I cry bitterly to Thee; let my prayer reach Thy presence, give audience to my entreaty, for indeed my heart is full of trouble. My life sinks ever closer to the grave… Thou hast estranged all my acquaintance from me, so that they treat me as a thing accursed; I lie in a prison whence there is no escape, my eyes grow dim with tears. On Thee I call, to Thee stretch out my hands, each day that passes. Not for the dead Thy wonderful power is shewn; not for pale shadows to return and give Thee thanks. There in the grave, how shall they recount Thy mercies; how shall they tell of Thy faithfulness, now that life is gone…? Ever since youth, misery and mortal sickness have been my lot; wearily I have borne Thy visitations; I am overwhelmed with Thy anger, dismayed by Thy threats, that still cut me off like a flood, all at once surrounding me. Friends and neighbours gone, a world of shadows is all my company.”

Psalm 87(88): 2-4, 9-12, 16-19

Unlike the other psalms, this one has no resolution, and we leave the psalmist in utter despair, as it seems. And then we come to a more hopeful psalm, which rejoices in God as Protector. This psalm is good enough even for the devil, who tempted Christ with its promise of divine help:

“He, the Lord, is Thy refuge; thou hast found a stronghold in the most High. There is no harm that can befall thee, no plague that shall come near thy dwelling. He has given charge to his angels concerning thee, to watch over thee wheresoever thou goest; they will hold thee up with their hands lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone. Thou shalt tread safely on asp and adder, crush lion and serpent under thy feet.”

Psalm 90(91): 9-13

Psalm 94(95) is one of the few psalms I know by heart, for it is recited by clergy and Religious practically every day of the year, as the beginning of the Divine Office of prayer, every morning. It is memorable also from the few times it is the psalm at Mass, although I don’t think it has the final curse included when it is used at Mass:

“Would you but listen to His voice to-day! ‘Do not harden your hearts, as they were hardened once at Meriba, at Massa in the wilderness. Your fathers put Me to the test, challenged me, as if they lacked proof of My power, for forty years together; from that generation I turned away in loathing; These, I said, are ever wayward hearts, these have never learned to obey Me. And I took an oath in anger, They shall never attain My rest.'”

Psalm 94(95): 8-11

This of course refers to the original Israelite nation journeying through the desert towards the Promised Land, where they would enjoy God’s Rest. At one fatal moment, when Moses had sent scouts to report on the defences of the Chanaanite people the Israelites were to dispossess of the Holy Land, and the scouts decided that those defences could not be overcome and the people grumbled, God was highly offended at this lack of faith and swore that that generation of people would not enter the Promised Land, but would wander about the desert until they died there; their children would inherit God’s Rest.  Anyway, the warning is a good way to begin the day. Now then, going on to Psalm 99, a lovely little hymn that I learnt at school, many, many years ago – the Lord alone is God and we are His people, His sheep:

“Let the whole earth keep holiday in God’s honour; pay to the Lord the homage of your rejoicing, appear in His presence with glad hearts. Learn that it is the Lord, no other, who is God; His we are, He it was that made us; we are His own people, sheep of His own pasturing. Pass through these gates, enter these courts of His, with hymns of praise, give Him thanks, and bless His name. Gracious is the Lord, everlasting His mercy; age after age, He is faithful to His promise still.”

Psalm 99(100): 1-5

Carrying on along, Psalm 103(104) is a wonderful psalm about the natural world and its dependence on Holy God for its sustenance. It is rather long, but here’s a little bit of it:

“And all look to Thee to send them their food at the appointed time; it is through Thy gift they find it, Thy hand opens, and all are filled with content. But see, Thou hidest Thy face, and they are dismayed; Thou takest their life from them, and they breathe no more, go back to the dust they came from. Then Thou sendest forth Thy spirit, and there is fresh creation; Thou dost re-people the face of earth. Glory be to the Lord for ever; still let Him take delight in His creatures.”

Psalm 103(104): 27-31

Any summary of the book of Psalms cannot ignore the quintessential Messianic psalm, Psalm 109(110), which was referenced by Christ Himself, and is recited in the Divine Office of prayer every Sunday evening and on feast days and Solemnities too:

“To the Master I serve the Lord’s promise was given, ‘Sit here at my right hand while I make thy enemies a footstool under thy feet. The Lord will make thy empire spring up like a branch out of Sion; thou art to bear rule in the midst of thy enemies. From birth, princely state shall be thine, holy and glorious; thou art My Son, born like dew before the day-star rises.’ The Lord has sworn an oath there is no retracting, Thou art a priest for ever in the line of Melchisedech.”

Psalm 109(110): 1-4

The most important theme of the Old Testament in general is the avoidance of idolatry and polytheism. It seems very important to the living God that His people not decline either left or right towards other religions, staying always true and faithful to Him alone. This has always been a strong point of the Hebrew religion and its daughter religions, Judaism and later Christianity. The next psalm I want to mention, Psalm 113(114), has a rather striking section expressing our absolute contempt for idol-worship:

“Our God is a God that dwells in heaven; all that His Will designs, He executes. The heathen have silver idols and golden, gods which the hands of men have fashioned. They have mouths, and yet are silent; eyes they have, and yet are sightless; ears they have, and want all hearing; noses, and yet no smell can reach them; hands unfeeling, feet unstirring; never a sound their throats may utter. Such be the end of all who make them, such the reward of all who trust them. It is the Lord that gives hope to the race of Israel, their only help, their only stronghold.”

Psalm 113(114): 11-17

I really should include the shortest psalm of all, Psalm 116(117):

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, let all the nations of the world do Him honour. Abundant has His mercy been towards us; the Lord remains faithful to His word for ever.”

Psalm 116(117)

One of my favourites psalms is also the longest of all, Psalm 118(119), a hymn of faithfulness to the Hebrew Law, the Torah, by which God first solemnised his covenant with the nation of Israel, at the end of Exodus and the book of Numbers. I shall only quote a bit from the end that gives the basis of the Divine Office of prayer of the Christian Church (seven moments or hours during the day):

Votive thanks seven times a day I give Thee for the just awards Thou makest. Very great peace is theirs who love Thy law; their feet never stumble. Valiantly, Lord, I wait on Thee for succour, keeping ever true to Thy charge. Vanquished by great love, my heart is ever obedient to Thy will. Vigilantly I observe precept and bidding of Thine, living always as in Thy sight.”

Psalm 118(119): 164-168

We must never forget that the nation of Israel, the People of God, has always gloried not in themselves and their own accomplishments, but in that God had chosen them, and had desired to be present in their midst. This is what has always made them unique. We Christians have inherited this glory in the presence of the Most High in our tabernacles and sanctuaries. A short psalm expresses this well:

“If the Lord had not been on our side, Israel may boast, if the Lord had not been on our side when human foes assailed us, it seemed as if they must have swallowed us up alive, so fierce their anger threatened us. It seemed as if the tide must have sucked us down, the torrent closed above us; closed above us the waters that ran so high. Blessed be the Lord, Who has not let us fall a prey to those ravening mouths! Safe, like a bird rescued from the fowler’s snare; the snare is broken and we are safe! Such help is ours, the Lord’s help, that made heaven and earth.”

Psalm 123(124)

Another one of the penitential psalms is known well to us from the funeral services of the Church:

“Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord; Master, listen to my voice; let but thy ears be attentive to the voice that calls on Thee for pardon. If thou, Lord, wilt keep record of our iniquities, Master, who has strength to bear it? Ah, but with Thee there is forgiveness; be Thy Name ever revered.”

Psalm 129(130): 1-4

Another deep foundation of the Jewish religion, and therefore the Messianic expectation and the Christian religion, is the promises made by God to king David, already mentioned. Because of his faithfulness, which rarely failed during his long life, God told David that his family would always retain the kingship, at least in one place, and one of his descendants would have an eternal throne. And so it was expected that the Messiah, when he finally came, would be of the house and line of David. And, sure enough, the Blessed Virgin happened to be of the house and line of David. This is expressed in Psalm 131(132):

“Think of Thy servant David, and do not refuse audience to the king Thou hast anointed. Never will the Lord be false to that inviolable oath He swore to David: ‘I will raise to thy throne heirs of thy own body; if thy sons hold fast to My covenant, to the decrees which I make known to them, their sons too shall reign on thy throne for ever.”

Psalm 131(132): 10-12

The People of God has always been convinced of the omniscience of God – his ability to know all things. There’s quite no place that anyone can run to, to get away from God. And this too is expressed in a psalm – God has designed us, fashioned us in the womb, and he has a destiny for us all:

“Where can I go, then, to take refuge from Thy spirit, to hide from Thy view? If I should climb up to heaven, Thou art there; if I sink down to the world beneath, Thou art present still. If I could wing my way eastwards, or find a dwelling beyond the western sea, still would I find Thee beckoning to me, Thy right hand upholding me. Or perhaps I would think to bury myself in darkness; night should surround me, friendlier than day; but no, darkness is no hiding-place from Thee, with Thee the night shines clear as day itself; light and dark are one. Author, Thou, of my inmost being, didst Thou not form me in my mother’s womb? I praise Thee for my wondrous fashioning, for all the wonders of Thy creation. Of my soul Thou hast full knowledge, and this mortal frame had no mysteries for Thee, who didst contrive it in secret, devise its pattern, there in the dark recesses of the earth.”

Psalm 138(139): 7-15

The final penitential psalm is Psalm 142(143), which has a wonderful end: a plea to God for succour, for no other reason that that the person praying is dedicated to God as His servant. And the servants of God will always have enemies plotting their destruction. I have always liked this ending:

Thou art my God, teach me to do Thy Will; let Thy gracious spirit lead me, safe ground under my feet. For the honour of Thy own Name, Lord, grant me life; in Thy mercy rescue me from my cruel affliction. Have pity on me, and scatter my enemies; Thy servant I; make an end of my cruel persecutors.”

Psalm 142(143): 10-12

And that’s the end of the book of Psalms. The last of the psalms are songs of praise to God for his bounty to mankind in need. They all begin with Praise the Lord! I shall only quote the last one, Psalm 150. And I shall do it in full, for that’s a good way to end this post:

Praise God in His sanctuary, praise Him on His sovereign throne. Praise Him for His noble acts, praise Him for His surpassing greatness. Praise Him with the bray of the trumpet, praise Him with harp and zither. Praise Him with the tambour and the dance, praise Him with the music of string and of reed. Praise Him with the clang of the cymbals, the cymbals that ring merrily. All creatures that breath have, praise the Lord. Alleluia.

Psalm 150
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