Blogging the Psalmist

“Why should anyone devote a contemporary blog to David, to delving deeply into his life and prayers and to reflecting and meditating on his poetry?” one might ask. It certainly is a legitimate question and one that deserves more than just a word or two in response. So I have attempted to address it as thoroughly yet succinctly as I can in the “Why David?” section of this blog. I invite you to take a look.

But before you go there, let me be the one to pose and answer a couple of related questions: why am I writing this blog? and why now? It’s a story I love to tell. You can read it here.

The Heart of Psalm 119 (Part 1)

Favorite Woodland Trail

It has been several months since I last spoke in this space. There is no easy transition from that silence, and even less to the subject that I have finally mustered the courage to engage. I must both confess and warn that in finally breaking the silence, I will also be breaking with the tradition of literally centuries of scholars and theologians who have examined, studied, prayed, written and instructed others about the intricacies and meaning of the longest poem in the Hebrew book of Praises (tehillim), namely Psalm 119. I do so cautiously and prayerfully, trusting that the skill I bring, honed in the formal study of textual criticism and literary manuscript revision, can bring some valid new insight here.

another WY mtn (1 of 1)It is precisely because I have never before encountered, in Biblical commentary or scholarship, what I have observed personally and am preparing to present that I have held to so long and deliberate a silence. I forewarn you of that before you continue to read this, if you choose to do so. And if you do, I ask you to remember that I do not approach Psalm 119 presuming to be any kind of theologian or Biblical or Hebrew scholar. I come solely as a lover of the psalms and, more important, of the God to Whom they are addressed and about Whom they speak; as an admirer of David not only as the man after God’s heart (although that is certainly enough) but also, in my opinion, as the greatest poet in the history of the world; and last, as a poet myself and one who has also studied with diligence to attain a rudimentary enough knowledge of Biblical Hebrew just to read those magnificent poems in the holy tongue in which they were originally composed.

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I also spent four years painstakingly and gloriously “living with” the 119th psalm in Hebrew – first transliterating it, then translating it and finally adapting its 22 sections into 22 poems or canticles in English that followed, as closely as I believed any cross-language endeavor could, the acrostic pattern of the original Hebrew poem while remaining as faithful as possible to the seminal text. That work ultimately culminated in a book entitled This Holy Alphabet (Paraclete Press, 2009).

In my introduction to This Holy Alphabet I briefly discussed the intricate architecture of the psalm, giving particular attention not only to its acrostic structure but also to the elaborate repetition of what have come to be known as the “nine key words” on which scores of scholars have centered their instruction and commentary about Psalm 119. They do so with good reason. At least one of those nine words appears in 174 of the 176 verses of the psalm. All nine turn the reader’s attention to the importance of God’s “word,” as each one focuses on a particular aspect of it or to what we might more precisely term the whole law of God.

Those nine words are: word (dabar-26), law (torah-25), judgment/justice (mishpat – 23), testimony (edot-23), commandment (mitzvah-22), statutes (qoque-21), precepts (pikudim-21), saying/promise (amrah-19) and way (derek-14).

I have arrayed the nine words above not in the order in which they first appear in the psalm but by their frequency of use. The numeral in the parenthetical after each Hebrew word signifies the number of times each term appears. In two cases in particular it is important to note that the Hebrew words are polyvalent and can be and are translated as two different terms in English. The word choice that a translator makes, as we will see again later, makes a profound difference.

As one might expect, the great poet chose to employ nine different terms instead of one or a handful because none are synonyms and each nuances, explicates, enriches and enlarges the meaning and understanding of what that God-given word/law — both “natural” and “supernatural” – is. That word/law is changeless, immutable, perfect, reliable, unassailable, complete and fulfilled. Thus, it is distinct from and stands in contrast to human law, which even in the greatest of political systems can be and is frequently amended and is therefore by nature always incomplete and constantly evolving.Sunday's purple dusk (1 of 1)

The well-known nineteenth century preacher Charles H. Spurgeon, author of the massive three volume commentary The Treasury of David, describes Psalm 119 succinctly: “This sacred ode is a little Bible, the Scriptures condensed, a mass of Bibline, Holy Writ rewritten in holy emotions and actions.” While his expression is arcane, especially to us 21st century readers, there remains much to commend his insightful synopsis. Or so I believe.

Following the notion that the psalm is in fact “the Scriptures condensed,” I was drawn to ask myself, and to repeat in prayer, this one simple, fundamental and perhaps disruptive question. If that is so, if that psalm truly reflects the essence of all scripture, why would the primary and almost intense emphasis – as memorialized in the nine words – be on law alone? What about those “holy emotions” that are essential to faith, that enduring passion that drives the believer to seek and follow God’s will? Surely the man after God’s own heart was no advocate of this kind of legalism. And even more certainly the Son of David — of whom the psalms prophesy and who himself knew and loved and quoted the psalms and who railed against those who took a Pharisaical approach to faith — was not either. What about heart, I asked agonizingly and again and again? What about that?

And so finally I did what any good student of scripture and trained textual exminer and poet would do. I went back to the writer’s very own words, to the Hebrew text itself, and I began to look more carefully at every single one of them. That is when I discovered what I have come to call “the other three words.” Those words are: servant (eved-15), heart (lev-14) and righteous/ness (tzedek/ah-13).

Those words change everything. And if we need some metric to justify their inclusion in our study and consideration, I offer this. The first two appear with equal or greater frequency than one of the nine (derek). The third is just one mention behind. But the impact of considering them is monumental.

So here, after years of trepidation at challenging the scholarly status quo and roughly the same amount of time trusting in the psalmist/poet’s word choice and sacred wisdom I come to this conclusion, or more precisely to this soulful resting place: I believe that the only way to plumb the heart of this psalm and to grasp the full measure of its meaning is to examine and seek to understand the significance, relevance and interplay of all twelve key words taken together.

That is what I hope to do – deliberately, attentively, humbly (for the ground on which we stand is holy) and reverently – in several subsequent blog posts. Whether or not you choose to follow along with me, this I hope … that you will take the time to read Psalm 119 again with diligence and care, savoring and meditating on every word. If you do, I know you will be blessed.

And then I hope you will join me on the sacred journey to dive deeply and anew into “the little Bible, the Scriptures condensed.” Amen and amen.


The Heart of Joy

Swallowtail with Broken Wing

In response to my June post on the Heart of Happiness, a thoughtful reader commented “I have frequently used joy instead of happy” and inquired whether or not I thought that substitution would “work.” I responded that I did not know, but I certainly would take a look at the Hebrew text and search out an answer.  Although I could easily recite from memory several verses in the psalms that speak of joy, I had never really spent much time contemplating the psalmist’s focus on joy or examining the nature of  joy in the psalms. [Read more…]

The Heart of Happiness

Light Breaks over Montana

Both regular and casual readers of the psalms might legitimately question my supposition that the heart of “the man after God’s own heart” was one primarily characterized by and possessed of happiness. In light of the fact that the psalter is heavily laden with poems of complaint and lament, many of which were composed by David, I realize that mine is a bold statement. But I believe that it is supported both by the text and the life of David. So I will attempt now not so much to defend my assertion as to lead others along the path that led me to that conclusion. [Read more…]

The Silence of the Heart

Footprints in New Snow

Although it was centuries after King David’s death that Habakkuk wrote “But the Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him,”(Hab 2:20), it is certainly reasonable to expect the great psalmist might have uttered Habakkuk’s words on more than one occasion. We do not have any Biblical record of his doing so exactly, but he does begin Psalm 62 with the straightforward declaration, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1). So the central position that silence holds in David’s spiritual sojourns is clear. For him, it seems, such silent waiting was essential to opening the way to hear clearly from his Lord.  [Read more…]

The Heart of Blessing (Part Four)

Small Blaze of Fall

The final section of Psalm 103 is the shortest of the four, containing only three verses. But the all of verses 20 through 22 is the most expansive including in one small word the whole creation, animate and inanimate, earthly and celestial. And the entirety of this all is called upon by the psalmist to “Bless the Lord” in what I imagine as a glorious cosmic symphony.  In addition, the last line of the poem– Bless, O my being, the Lord! –repeats the opening line using a literary device known as envelope structure, which is characteristic of many of the psalms and other ancient Hebrew poetry. In a handful of words, it neatly envelops the entire psalm by repeating the primary theme around which it is constructed. In this case, the poet also uses it to bring the universal tribute back to his own intensely personal outpouring of reverence, homage and joy. [Read more…]

The Heart of Blessing (Part Three)

Just South of Inverness

In my initial post on Psalm 103, I designated this third of the four alls, or sections, that comprise the poem as the “contextual” one. While that may be accurate in terms of the literary purpose it serves, the terminology falls extraordinarily short of capturing the essence of verses 6 through 19. This portion of the psalm truly centers on the heart of blessing — that is, on the manner in which God interacts in unique covenant relationship with David and with all of His people. [Read more…]

The Heart of Blessing (Part Two)

What I Find, What I Keep

In this Part Two of the Heart of Blessing we begin looking at the second of the alls Psalm 103 presents, namely the all of the character and nature of the God of Israel. Surely David understood as well as any man that no language can fully convey what the human mind can only partially perceive. He also seemed to realize that the various formal aspects of poetry could provide him the best tool through which to intertwine verbal expression with nonverbal or spiritual thought, so he drew on that skill in the intricate crafting of this psalm. Within that framework, we now begin to look for the heart of this praise song by mining the mother lode of verses two through five. [Read more…]

The Heart of Blessing (Part One)

Psalm 103 is surely one of the most familiar of all the psalms and its opening line often quoted or adapted in prayer, sermon and song. The majority of the standard English texts over the centuries– from the King James to the recent English Standard Version and numerous others as well– render its opening line with exactly the same words:  “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and everything that is within me, bless His Holy name.”  I have loved that verse (Ps 103:1a) for as long as I can remember knowing it. But my study of the holy poem in its original Hebrew has opened my appreciation to scholar Robert Alter’s translation of those critical first words: “Bless, O my being, the Lord, and everything in me, His holy name.” [Read more…]

The Ascending Heart

Light Bathes the Outer Banks

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning,” (Ps 130:5-6) wrote the unidentified psalmist of the eleventh Psalm of Ascent. The lack of ascription of this psalm to a particular poet seems to enhance the universality of its application. It removes the necessity or temptation to confine it to a particular place, time, set of circumstances or person. The speaker could be you, or me, or even David. The anonymity gives the poem and this verse of it a power and possession that each of us can take as our own hope and petition. [Read more…]

The Quiet Heart

Guatemalan Lake

One of the psalms that I see most often quoted (other than the 23rd, of course) and that I hear referred to as a favorite is Psalm 46, a song attributed to the Sons of Korah. It begins “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” and then moves to the line that I personally find the most compelling: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). What exactly does being still before God mean? Surely it refers to more than a state of physical inactivity. More important, how do we achieve that stillness, especially in the hyper-charged age in which we live? I believe– and think the psalmist David for whom the Sons of Korah worked as temple musicians and choristers and worship leaders, would agree– that our stillness must be preceded and accompanied by silence. [Read more…]