Memorizing the Psalms: Introduction and Psalm 9

Your word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against You. (Psalm 119: 11)

I was at home from church today, with the beginning of a cold. Just the kind of time I need to spend with the Psalms. Over a period of many years, since about age ten, I have committed many of them to memory. Now, when I set out to fix one more firmly, I find it helpful to analyze it by making notes about its structure—primary themes and motifs, repetition, reiteration and intensification, segues from one section to the next,returns and affirmations, along with the inversions and turns of phrase that serve to clarify and deepen my understanding of the whole.

The sources that have been most instructive and inspiring to me in exploring the underlying structure of the Psalms are Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry and Fr John Breck’s The Structure of Biblical Language. There are generally accepted technical terms and methods of analysis among scholars for this kind of study, but I don’t trust myself to use them accurately. Although I don’t approach this as a technical exercise, but rather a way of forging “highways in the heart,” the technical explanations have helped to crack open this world of poetry for me.

I like to use the text of the Revised Standard Version for most Psalms. I find it holds together structurally, with a minimum of confusing switches of voice and awkward and strangely wrought phrases that don’t make sense to me. The translation seems consistent within each Psalm and from one to another. It flows well, has its own poetic rhythm in English, and is not unnecessarily archaic and obscure. This is of course, my personal take on it. For my personal use I generally substitute You for Thou and Thee, with accompanying grammatical adjustments. I hope not to be a grammatical snob in daily life and conversation, but “You art the God who workest wonders” seems unfitting for the Holy Scriptures. I don’t hold a translation, per se, sacred, but don’t make alterations that would require understanding of the original text and language. When reading in church, I try to stick with the form designated by the bishop.

What I write here is based on my own best understanding, which I present as a personal exploration. I am an ordinary parishioner with an extraordinary love of the Psalms. I welcome any further insights, especially from others who love the Psalms or want to delve into them. I am grateful to Father Thomas Hopko in his many lectures about everything Orthodox, to Father Patrick Henry Reardon in his book Christ in the Psalms, and to St Athanasius in On the Psalms, as well as the writers mentioned above, for the many insights and the intensification of my lifelong relationship with the Psalms their work has given me.

Today I focus on Psalm 9, the first in the Kathisma 2 of the Psalter, designated for Sunday Matins in the Orthodox Church.

PSALM 9 A Psalm of Forgetting and Remembering and of Praise for God’s Righteous Judgment

The RSV divides this Psalm into ten sections of two verses each. This breakdown has been helpful to me in discerning the pattern of the poetry.

SECTION 1

[1] I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart;
I will tell of all thy wonderful deeds.
[2] I will be glad and exult in thee,
I will sing praise to thy name, O Most High.

The poet opens expressing his intention to praise God and recount his deeds. He repeats his intention in a variety of ways:
In the first phrase he identifies the Lord as the object of his gratitude, then he begins to address the Lord personally. It helps me in memorizing to underscore and connect similar words and phrases and to note how the same thing is restated in a variety of ways. These are likely to become more specific or more intense, and to have subtle variations in order and grammatical structure. These shifts are like an undercurrent which carries the meaning below the surface. Exult might be a synonym for be glad, but is more intense, more specific. The use of Most High anticipates the image in later verses of God on the throne of his righteous judgment.

In the second phrase of vs 1, the writer points to what he will be doing in the rest of his poem: Unfolding the reasons for his great song of praise. The remainder of the poem is a sort of conversation among motifs: Identifying these and seeing where and how they are repeated and inverted and interwoven is very helpful in seeing the progression of the poets idea to its conclusion. To a weaver, these would be the warp, the foundational threads that hold the poem together as a whole piece.

I have identified these as primary:

(1) God sitting on His throne giving righteous judgment
(2) Remembering and forgetting–God’s (everlasting) and men’s
(3) The self-destruction of the wicked
(4) The vindication of the just
(5) The interaction of the righteous with God (his participation in the life of God)

It might be helpful, after having identified motifs, to mark them on a written copy. This will often uncover other relationships you might not have noticed at first. The purpose of all this is to open up the eyes of your heart to let the Holy Spirit speak through the poem. It is good if it is done with a prayer to the Holy Spirit.

SECTION 2

[3] When my enemies turned back,
they stumbled and perished before thee.
[4] For thou hast maintained my just cause;
thou hast sat on the throne giving righteous judgment.

Notice the logical sequence of verbs in vs 3: turned back > stumbled > perished.
Here he contrasts the fate of the wicked before God (vs 3), with the faithfulness of the Lord’s judgment of the righteous (vs 4). The latter he states twice, but the second phrase intensifies the assertion with a clear visual image.

SECTION 3

[5] Thou hast rebuked the nations, thou hast destroyed the wicked;
thou hast blotted out their name for ever and ever.
[6] The enemy have vanished in everlasting ruins;
their cities thou hast rooted out;
the very memory of them has perished.

Begin to note here, how throughout the poem the terms enemy, nations, wicked are used interchangeably. Such synonyms are threads that are woven through the warp threads to create the pattern.

The phrases and images in this section intensify until they seem to explode into an abyss of nothingness. I esteem this as one of the great moments in biblical poetry. rebuked > destroyed > blotted out forever and ever > vanished in everlasting ruins > the very memory perished. It’s not just one thing, but this and this and this, until there is no more that could be done–it is final, irrevocable, finished. Summarizing a passage in this way helps to personalize it, relate it to your own poetic sensibility. It is possible that you will discover new capacities in this exercise.

SECTION 4

[7] But the LORD sits enthroned for ever,
he has established his throne for judgment;
[8] and he judges the world with righteousness,
he judges the peoples with equity.

Once again as in SECTION 2, the poet follows the destruction of the wicked with the everlasting righteous judgment of God. Thus SECTION 3 and 4 are an expansion, development of the idea introduced in SECTION 2. Identifying such continuity is helpful in remembering the sequence of verses. Notice that he does not use nations, which in this poem always is synonymous with the wicked, but rather the world and the peoples.

SECTION 5

[9] The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
[10] And those who know thy name put their trust in thee,
for thou, O LORD, hast not forsaken those who seek thee.

This segues or blooms from the Lord’s judgment to His steadfastness toward his people, and tells who they are. Vs 10 echoes vs 2 in mentioning not just the Lord, but the name of the Lord. Such phrases as these are part of the undercurrent that I referred to earlier. As the poem is about remembering God, let us consider that it is by His name, in His name, and according to His name, that is, according to His very nature, that this is possible. Those who seek Him are the ones who know His name and vice versa. “If with all your heart you truly seek Him, you shall every truly find Him.” This phrase in its musical setting pops up from my years in church choirs and relates this back to vs l.

If there is a repetition of a beginning letter it is often a helpful memory cue. Here the LORD has not forsaken. In SECTION 6, he does not forget.

It is easy at first to perceive the Psalms as overly repetitious. But often in the various juxtapositions of repeated phrases is revealed the beauty of the Lord, the poetry of His salvation.

SECTION 6

[11] Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion!
Tell among the peoples his deeds!
[12] For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;
he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.

There is a wonderful sub-motif that I noticed today, which starts here: the mention of Zion. The next sections being to weave more intensely the conflicts between the wicked and the righteous (the poor, oppressed, the afflicted, those in trouble).
The second half of the Psalm returns to praise, but now as an imperative, rather than a declarative. He is now speaking to, and as part of, a company. It occurs to me that the mention of Zion is always about a company. This seems like a significant and highly fitting shift in perspective, as the poet is unfolding the awesome and pervasive nature of God’s judgment and power. Memory cue: Once again He uses tell (see vs 1). In this section, he who avenges, is at the same time he who does not forget. See in how many ways the opening of the Psalm echoes throughout.

SECTION 7

[13] Be gracious to me, O LORD!
Behold what I suffer from those who hate me,
O thou who liftest me up from the gates of death,
[14] that I may recount all thy praises,
that in the gates of the daughter of Zion
I may rejoice in thy deliverance.

The cry of the afflicted concluding the previous section is exactly what we find embodied in this section. The poet is assured that the Lord will hear his cry. Memory cues: The pairing of these verses is particularly effective because of the contrast between the gates of death, and the gates of the daughter of Zion—the contrast of suffering and oblivion with rejoicing and deliverance—undeniably, exultantly Paschal. Another memory cue: recount > rejoice (a reiteration).

SECTION 8

[15] The nations have sunk in the pit which they made;
in the net which they hid has their own foot been caught.
[16] The LORD has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands. [Higgaion. Selah]

Here an answer is given to the poet’s cry. The nations have exchanged places with the poet at the gates of death. It is interesting, that though there is the theme of the Lord executing judgment on the wicked, it seems to be that their undoing is always their own mischief, not a punishment so much as an inevitable consequence. This is an expansion and clarification of the stumbling of the enemies in verse 3. The truth is out, the Lord has made himself known. In the light of His righteous judgment—His just being who He is, their ways are revealed for what they are. This reminds me of the story of Esther when the wicked Haman was himself hanged on the gallows which he had built for Mordecai (Esther 7:10). Sometimes connecting with a familiar story is a helpful memory aid. As you pray with the Psalm, these may arise unbidden from your own experience.

SECTION 9

[17] The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.
[18] For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
and the hope of the poor shall not perish for ever.

This reminds me of a reprise at the end of an epic opera. The wicked depart to their godless oblivion, and the needy and poor are justly remembered and delivered forever.

SECTION 10

[19] Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail;
let the nations be judged before thee!
[20] Put them in fear, O LORD!
Let the nations know that they are but men! [Selah]

Echoing SECTION 2, there are now bookends for the main body of the poem.
This is also a sort of AMEN, a so-be-it, so-be-it, the poet praying in a spirit of solidarity with the LORD for what he has already declared that God has done and is doing, thereby aligning himself with the LORD and His righteous judgment.

Advertisements

7 Responses to “Memorizing the Psalms: Introduction and Psalm 9”


  1. 1 Kerry August 27, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    I’ve been wondering when you were going to post again! I enjoyed your insights. Blessings and Health to you, Jane.

  2. 2 Mimi August 27, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    Wow! What beautiful words and an excellent exposition of how to memorize a Psalm. Thank you.

  3. 3 Charles June 27, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Very insightful, I’m on a mission to memorize all the Psalms first and then Proverbs which I also love.
    Thank you.

  4. 4 Jeff Romanczuk December 21, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    It doesn’t surprise me that you prefer RSV, but what do you make of the St Anthanasius Academy Septagint wording? More or less clunky than RSV?

    Keep going, Jeff

  5. 5 www.mappler.info April 28, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Having read this I thought it was extremely informative.
    I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending way too
    much time both reading and leaving comments. But so what,
    it was still worth it!

  6. 6 Evangeline August 29, 2015 at 3:48 am

    Good way of explaining, and good post to get data about my presentation focus, which i am going to present in academy.


  1. 1 Thy Word Have I Hid In My Heart « Glory to God for All Things Trackback on August 27, 2007 at 4:17 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s





%d bloggers like this: