Archive for the 'Psalm studies' Category

Wisdom in the Secret Heart

I don’t forget writers who have befriended me and held my hand, so to speak, through dark places and stormy waters, and occasionally I revisit them to see what I will find. One of these is Kathleen Norris, whose writing Dakota and A Cloister Walk found me dwelling “in the uttermost parts of the sea” (Psalm 139:9 RSV)) and, I can say gratefully, turned me around and pointed the way home. Recently I have been rereading The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. From the latter the following excerpt has especially lit up my synapses and gotten me stirred up to post after over a year:

In ancient monasteries, novices were often asked to begin their life in the community by memorizing the psalms and the gospels…To have literally learned it by heart would also mean that one was allowing the scriptures full access to the unconscious [my emphasis].

I would not usually choose to use the terminology of psychology to describe the effect of learning scripture “by heart”, but I think I know what she is referring to, and find it helpful on some level. I believe exploring the actual texts, however, can take us much closer to the heart of the matter–to what is really happening as the words–the Word–are incised in our hearts. The first text that always spring to my mind in this regard is from Psalm 51:

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (v 6 RSV)

It seems to me that “the secret heart”, unlike the come-lately notion of the “unconscious” cannot be scrutinized or analyzed. What is being wrought by God in the heart and how is always a mystery. I have grown to love this prayer, as it speaks of the Holy Spirit insinuating Himself into the mind of our heart so that we are changed ineffably and imperceptibly–given a wisdom of a kind and in a way that are opposite of our self chosen and inflicted delusions. I am reminded of a teacher of mine who recounted how, in a time of discouragement, she decided to embark upon a rule of daily prayer. After many months she became exasperated, wondering why it wasn’t “working”. Then this word came to her: “But don’t you see that every day is different?” In memorizing the Holy Scriptures–taking them to heart, as in faithful prayer, we may be allowed to see, little by little, that things are indeed shifting, that something new is afoot.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church we are taught that the scriptures of the Old Testament are always and entirely about/pointing to Christ. And more than that, even. In the course of my studying various recent (heterodox) writings on the Psalms, one writer mentioned that Jesus, because of his upbringing and immersion in the Hebrew scriptures, was able to quote Psalm 22 from the Cross (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). I had a double take. It should not escape our notice that one of the names or titles of Christ is “Word of God”. So was Jesus “quoting” the Psalms? There is an essential unity in the Holy Scriptures. Seeing Christ in the Psalms is not a matter of determining in some literal sense how all the words of the Psalms are about Christ. He had become the living embodiment of them. They were always His words–that is God’s Word, even at the same time they issued forth from the crucible of the personal and ritual life of ancient Israel. I have found scholarly theories on the historical origins, uses, structure and linguistics of biblical poetry to be alternately intriguing, instructive, inspiring, infuriating and, sometimes, inconsequential. Whatever the “facts” may be–and that we can never be sure of–one thing we can be sure of, is that none of these theoretical notions, however substantiated, can in any way reduce or circumscribe the mysterious presence and inscrutable working of the Holy Spirit in and through the words of the Holy Scriptures. I am convinced of this. And I believe that this really gets to the heart of why as followers and lovers of Christ, we would have an insatiable longing to imbibe them–and Him–as our very life, our eucharistic being.

I have noticed that while reading the Psalms, I sometimes experience a shift. In one moment the words may seem to be my words, then all at once I realize how far beyond me they are. For a moment I understand the petitition from many of our Orthodox prayers, “Pray yourself in me.” Deeply embedded in these texts is the Mind of Christ, urging us, leading us toward the mind that might grow in us when our heart is pure–giving us the grace that increases our yearning for God. As I memorize these texts, I trust that they are shaping me–changing how and what I see, how I describe my life, what I find desireable, what moves me from one place to another. I can’t see the movement. I think this is what Kathleen Norris meant by “allowing the scriptures full access to the unconscious.” I would like to explore later how In the context of the Psalms the one speaking never does so as an individual, but always as a member. This is where the mind-set of contemporary psychology is off the beam. We can say it no better than the Psalms as they seem to have a way of speaking for themselves and for us:

Thy way was through the sea,
thy path through the great waters;
yet thy footprints were unseen.
Thou didst lead thy people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
(Psalm 77:19-20 RSV)

Not so much to press the point, but more for the joy of sharing it, I can’t resist including a few more verses from the Psalms that seem to say what is such a strain to say in my own words. I preface with a little explanation concerning a recent discovery that has given me great delight. The quotations below are from a new translation (Norton, 2007) by Robert Alter, a Jewish scholar of Hebrew who has tried to recapture the spirit of the original Hebrew, while eschewing certain scholars’ “odd little Christological flourishes” in interpretation. Ironically, perhaps, I have been led to a greater awareness of Christ in the Old Testament through his amazing books The Art of Biblical Poetry and The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, Harper-Collins), despite his stopping short of Christ. “Whatever the Lord pleases he does…” (Ps 135:6 RSV). I had resisted getting this translation because of his highly publicized bias, until I recently reread The Art of Biblical Poetry. I wondered how could this not be good, and besides, how could he possibly take Christ out of the Psalms? So I relented. I have not been sorry. It has become my favorite, next to the RSV. It is quite similar in spirit and specifics–a little more stark and spare, and without the thees and thous. It is liberally annotated regarding Hebrew meanings, technicalities and difficulties of translation, explanations for his choices with many helpful insights.
With these verses from Psalm 119, I hope to give you a taste of his translation. But more than that hope that you will “taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8a RSV).

I recalled your laws forever,
O Lord, and I was consoled. (v 52)

I recalled in the night your name, O Lord,
and I observed your teaching. (v 55)

Better for me Your mouth’s teaching
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. (v 72)

Never shall I forget your decrees,
for through them you gave me life. (v 94)

My life is at risk at all times, yet your teaching I do not forget. (v 109)

The portal of Your words sends forth light,
makes the simple understand. (v 130)

I rejoice over Your utterance
as one who finds great spoil. (v162)

I have wandered like a lost sheep.
Seek Your servant, for Your commands I did not forget. (v 176)

I have to close with this:

Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
Psalm 84:5-7 (RSV)

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.


[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.


[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.


[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.


[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.


[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.


[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.


[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).


[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.


[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.


[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.