P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

K is for King David

K is for King David

This post will take some lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s legendary song Hallelujah as its framework. The second verse of Hallelujah reflects on an infamous scene of adultery:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

The second verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

These verses, either coincidentally or intentionally, highlight a couple of highly distinctive features of the Hebrew Bible which Christian interpreters have often failed to handle appropriately. The first of these is the tendency to portray heroes of the faith with painful honesty. Despite David being someone after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) he is portrayed as someone who does terrible things. One of the most memorable is his lust for Bathsheba which causes him to immediately commit adultery with her (2 Samuel 11:2‒4). To make matters worse David successfully conspires to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:15‒17). There is little interest in whitewashing the stories concerning the heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible—although we will consider in a later post why this story is absent from the account of David’s reign in Chronicles. All of the key figures in the life of Israel fail spectacularly at various points.

David’s failure regarding Bathsheba has captured the imagination of artists over hundreds of years, see [1] for an examination of this in religious painting. Cohen is not alone in finding this episode worthy of consideration. The way he does this is reminiscent of a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible known as midrash. One of the features of midrash, and there are many others, is looking for parallels between diverse biblical narratives. In the verse quoted above it appears that Cohen is drawing a parallel between Bathsheba’s impact on David and the impact of Delilah on Samson—she famously seduced him and cut his hair in events which lead to his death (Judges Chapter 16). Cohen’s midrash perhaps implies that it was lust for a woman which led to both David’s problems and to Samson’s.  The story of David’s life makes it clear that the conflict in his house was a result of God’s displeasure with his adultery and ‘murder’—poetically Bathsheba broke his throne, although the biblical narrative lays this firmly at David’s feet. That lust and sexual desire are the uniting thread between the stories of broken thrones and cut hair is echoed in the reference to sex later in the verse: ‘from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’.

 

  1. David Lyle Jeffrey, ‘The Hebrew Bible in art and literature’, pp.426‒446 in The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Psalm 149—Singing a New Song in 2017

Purple Rain: 2016

2016 was by any standards a remarkable year. On two days I awoke to the opposite outcome to that which I had expected in a national vote – I was personally disappointed on both counts. This time last year no one would have predicted all of the big events on the world stage of these past 12 months. It will, I am sure, go down as a historic year which set in motion events which will take decades to unfold. But 2016 was remarkable for other reasons. It seemed that everybody experienced a famous person that they liked, or admired, dying. The world of music alone lost Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and George Michael.

The most talented musicians leave a tangible cultural legacy. I find the role of music in culture fascinating. Have you ever wondered about the ubiquity of music? Why do we have song-after-song-after-song? Are there not enough songs by now? Is it really possible to do anything new with a song?

The cynic might say that the modern song writer is in it for the money. Whilst I cannot deny that there is a commercial dynamic to the music industry, there is something more. It is not cold hard cash that motivates budding musicians to work endlessly at anti-social hours for little or no money and limited recognition. I don’t think it is just a hope of future fame that can drive them. There is simply something creative about the human nature. Just as God created the Universe, as people in his image we are creative too. For some of us this means writing new songs and music and/or playing and performing music.

Psalm 149 makes much of singing a New Song. It is not alone in exulting us to sing a New Song. Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98 and 144 also refer to this idea. Isaiah 42 and Revelation 5 use it as a key motif too.

Hallelujah: Gathering to Sing

Singing together as God’s people is one of the essential activities that we engage in. There is something about singing with others. Of course not all of us enjoy it. Few of us choose to do it outside of Sunday worship and the football stadium. In football, and other team sports, singing together can be the very the worst of the tribalism that afflicts humankind—the singing of insults being a central dynamic. When we sing together in gathered worship this can be the very best of tribalism—the singing of praise being central. A football team are a self-serving and self-promoting tribe. To paraphrase Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), “The Church is the only tribe that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it”. [tribe is substituted for organisation.]

Singing together creates unity—we share the same beliefs and emotions; the same faith. The opening Hebrew word of Psalm 149 exemplifies this tribalism. Like the neighbouring Psalms it opens with the Hebrew Word hallelujah — or praise Yah—often translated as ‘Praise the Lord’. We belong to the tribe of Yahweh; the tribe of his son Jesus Christ.

Singing is partly about being together, being gathered, being the body of Christ. It is also education. In my church, and many others, there is scant opportunity to learn together in our time-poor lives. We do not have special classes; we do not have a second service. We learn primarily by singing and we learn from sermons. We probably never fully appreciate just how much we benefit from singing choruses and hymns. For most of us if we remember any words by heart that define our faith, it will be the songs we sing.

Education of course is not just about head knowledge—it is doing that teaches. Gathering and being together is itself a vital education. At the end of the day gathering is the gospel. Gathering is a foretaste of the age to come. The New Songs of the psalmist are a foretaste of the New Song spoken of in the Book of Revelation. New Song are songs of thankfulness. New Songs can be ‘old songs’ recovered and reclaimed afresh.

New Songs, in the Bible often seem to be connected with victory. For us the victory can sometimes simply be being a Christian after one more year in a world which throws the unexpected at us. Many of us have suffered closer, personal more tangible afflictions than Brexit, Trump or the death of our favourite celebrity.

Hallelujah.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.

We might use different instruments but this is fine. In fact we have to as the Hebrew words for musical instruments tend to be uncertain. It is not our musical culture, musicianship or instruments that count, it is gathering before the same creator God, Yah.

Under Pressure: Singing 24-7

Our Psalm is not just about singing together on a Sunday or other church gathering. Sometimes we have a view of church as a place of refuge, a place to escape the ‘nasty world’. Perhaps what I have said thus far seems to suggest this. There is a sense in which gathering together is about being refreshed and strengthened, and about learning too.

And yet this idea is potentially problematic if we become consumers or passengers looking passively to be fed during the short time of gathering. In a small church in particular, you are unlikely to find all the food you need to sustain you. In a larger church we might be fooled into thinking we have all the food and nourishment we need.

Despite the apparent passivity of our culture, the talk of tolerance, the solid democratic processes that govern our nation, we live in an environment which is toxic to our faith. As Christians we are under pressure. Pressure to conform, pressure to consume, pressure to go along with everybody else. I cannot even begin to guess the temptations which we might each face to conform to the world’s values. But a key to cultivating faith in the face of the pressure to conform is the practice of an everyday spirituality.

Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,

We can sing to God wherever we may be—not just church—everywhere, even bed. Although we should note that the ‘bed’ mentioned here is probably a reclining couch. The point is that worship is 24-7. It is the day-and-night meditation we read of elsewhere in The Psalms. It is the praying on all occasions we hear about from the Apostle Paul.

This can be a joy rather than a chore—a New Song not a new legalism. It is not as busy as it sounds—at its core it is about being single-minded. Being the same person whether in church, at home, at work or at play. New Songs sung ‘wherever we are’ could be the biggest thing we do in 2017.

Faith: Hopeful Singing

One of the remarkable things about The Psalms is that the psalmist can say anything to God. Yet, however confrontational these words the psalmist cries out from a stance of faith and trust. In any year, using these prayers and making them our own would seem to be a wise move. None of us know what 2017 will bring. What we do know is that The Psalms provide the words for every situation and for every emotion.

One of the challenges of The Psalms, however, is that they rarely do ‘what you want’—this is Scripture at its most surprising and untamed best. God has not given us a collection of nice pithy sayings. This is no catalogue of gift card niceties, nor the musings of a two-a-penny self-help Twitter guru or life coach.

By verse 7 we might think Psalm 149 has gone rather off the wall:

to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
Hallelujah.

Despite these verses jarring with our nice cuddly conceptions of God they are part of our faith and our trust in Yahweh and his Son Jesus Christ. They tell us that the massive wrongs of this world will be judged. They tell us that our God is Lord of history – whatever news reporters in the world’s war zones unintentionally intimate day-by-day and year-by-year.

These latter verses also make sense of the trajectory initiated in Psalm 2. That God will judge is not actually odd, it is a necessary perspective—how else can we claim that our God is a just God? Like the Psalmist we can look to God to deal with injustice. This is a major part of our hope. For the psalmist it is worth not only believing but making a song and dance about.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as Midrash

Midrash is a complex type of Jewish exegesis that blossomed as Judaism become Rabbinic. One, and it is only one, of the tools of midrash is using diverse texts from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) to answer questions asked by hearers of the text. In this way a deep reverence for the text is combined with the poetic imagination—two things which in my view should unite to do justice to Scripture. I am personally convinced that Hallelujah in doing the latter echoes, either consciously or inadvertently, the former. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has become something of a key text in Western culture. Through its use in diverse cinematic contexts, covers by other artists and simply because of its innate qualities of profundity and yet ambiguity, it is known to many at some level. My fascination with it centres on my admiration of Cohen as a poet and the central role of the biblical psalms in the song. What follows here is not meant to be an analysis but only a meditation on this remarkable song. The very title of Cohen’s most famous song is a frequent refrain in the Biblical Psalms. The Psalter would be familiar to Cohen given his Jewish heritage. That this is the case is evident from any number of biographies about Cohen. The Psalter has two collections of psalms united by their use of the word Hallelujah, which means literally ‘Praise Jah’, the covenant God of Biblical Israel. One of these series of psalms, Psalms 146–150, have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah. They all end with the same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups-and-downs of individual and corporate experience. There is, in these five psalms, only cause for praise and its execution. In this way they are, therefore, all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the each of the parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter. This is echoed in Cohen’s Hallelujah which exclaims:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Of course, for much of the song the singer has anything but the certainty and stability captured at the end. Psalms 111–118 are sometimes referred to as Hallel Psalms or the Hallelujah Psalms. As with concluding five psalms of the Psalter they make extensive use of the word Hallelujah. They do this in a less systematic way than the closing five psalms. Psalms 111, 112 and 113 all start with the word Hallelujah. Psalms 113, 115, 116 and 117 all close with this word. Thus only Psalm 113 has the inclusio device we saw above where the entire psalm is caught between to exhortations to ‘praise the Lord’. Psalms 114 and 118 do not contain Hallelujah. A subset of this series, Psalms, 113–118, are known as the Egyptian Hallel. They are known by this name partly because of their content and especially because they are used liturgically in the Passover meal which takes place on the eighth day of the Passover celebrations. The six psalms are used progressively through the meal: Psalms 113 and 114 are read before the meal. The other four are said at the end of the meal, during the drinking of the fourth cup of wine. So what question might Hallelujah be a midrash on? Perhaps its concern is how King David with all of his failings could be the author of the Psalter? The narrative of the Tanakh says very little about David’s musical ability. The most important thread being his playing of the lyre before Saul (1 Samuel 16:23ff. and 19:9ff.). David’s musicianship variously quietens a demon and angers Saul. Perhaps the former ability makes use of Cohen’s ‘secret chord’? Referring to David as a ‘baffled king’ seems appropriate because his life was full of the most momentous ups-and-downs just like the life of faith recorded in the Psalter—for every Hallelujah there is an opposing problem. Cohen’s song makes a direct mention of a key episode in referring to David’s voyeurism on seeing the bathing Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2). Cohen’s mention of moonlight might refer to the text ascribing the event to the ‘late afternoon’ (NRSV) or it might hint at the madness that was to follow—in biblical times the moon was thought to be a source of mental illness (cf. Psalm 121:6b). The initial result of David’s lust for Bathsheba is that she does indeed draw a Hallelujah from his lips and this results in the conception of a child that dies shortly after his birth. Later they have another son, Solomon. Whether his dalliance with Bathsheba broke his throne, or not, is speculation. The problems David has with his son Absalom might well stem from Absalom’s jealousy over Solomon’s status. Less ambiguous is that the domestic imagery of kitchens and the cutting of hair hints at another leader in Israel brought down by lust for a woman, see Judges 16. Hallelujah  speaks of a Holy Hallelujah and a Broken Hallelujah. These two descriptions are true of the biblical psalms in more than one sense. At one level we have the question of how David, in spite of his immense failings, was chosen by God and indeed favoured by God. How did a broken king write a holy book? Of course David’s identification as the Psalter’s author are idealistic. The psalms are the product of many psalmists. But many of the most poignant are those redolent with the sort of lament that David must have voiced when things went wrong, and in particular his battle, both physical and political, with so many enemies. Such psalms declare the brokenness which is so often the experience of the life of faith. All of the psalms, those from David’s pen and all the others, are of course the work of frail human beings. Yet the mystery is that their collection and canonisation has indeed made them holy to Jew and Christian because their experience is that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’. Anyone seeking an explanation or a theology of Scripture would do well to meditate on the midrash that is Hallelujah. Having said this, they might be better off looking to that which is signified rather than only a sign.

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord

Liel Leibovitz, A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2014.

Liel Leiovitz, assistant professor of Communications at New York University, argues that his book on Leonard Cohen is not a biography. In a similar vein this post is not a book review. Whatever else Leibovitz’s book is, it is certainly a sympathetic account of Cohen. Throughout reading it, the reader is continually reassured that the author has a concern and warmth for his subject. In the preface we read that:

“You feel the same hum at a Cohen concert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too can somehow transcend.”

We soon learn that Cohen is not a simple traditional religious type, however, given the fact that rock and roll, and orgasms, make up, along with theology, the three core themes of his canon. After the brief Prelude, the rather lengthier Preface portrays Cohen as the the only person with a sense of perspective and wisdom in a massive Festival (the first Isle of Wight one) gone seriously bad. The account has all the marks of a Legend, yet like all the best legends it has that ring of truth that gives you confidence that Cohen is in a somewhat special league of popular musicians, or indeed human beings.

The story of Cohen’s Jewish upbringing is warmly described, perhaps working especially well given our narrator is also a Jew. A Gentile would have found difficulty in expressing some of the captivating perspective given here:

“It’s a terrific cosmic joke, but it makes for great theology, too. Exiled for millennia, scattered across all corners of the world, the Jews have survived as a nation, outliving so many of antiquity’s proudest peoples, because they had the strange question to ponder: Why us? And what now?”

Cohen’s Jewishness is the key reason what I was drawn to this book. I wanted to find out more about a singer/songwriter whose lyrics exuded the Psalms of Israel, which are a passion of mine. I am still convinced that, Hallelujah, Cohen’s truly iconic song, is a profound meditative reflection on the Biblical Psalter. Surely this is a Holy and yet broken Hallelujah; the words of ‘men’ become the word of God in this treasured collection. Like Cohen’s work they are both poems and songs. Whether my reasons make sense, or not, I have certainly a greater knowledge of, and I hope insight into, Cohen. The reader like myself, who knew little of Cohen, will not be surprised to find out he was a poet long before he was a songwriter. Those like me who have enjoyed the echoes of the soul of the Psalms will find support for their experience in Leibovitz’s claim that duende (a Spanish term for ‘deep song’, similar to the concept of blues) is a key force behind his poetry and songs. For those that know the Psalms this is of course the thread of Lament, or Complaint, so prevalent there.

Throughout the book there are some cameos from major figures of popular culture from the 1960s to the 1980s. Two stand out in particular. When Bob Dylan enters the story you can’t help but feel for Cohen who discovers that Dylan write’s his songs in minutes, whilst Cohen trims and refines over years. When Phil Spector crosses Cohen’s path to work on an album, the reader is moved again. Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ was always going to being incoherent with Cohen’s minimalism. Why did on one realise this at the outset?

At one point I felt that the episodic nature of Leibovitz’s account yields a picture of Cohen as a intellectual Forrest Gump. For it is not only the big players like Dylan and Spector who arrive on stage, but big world events too. Cohen was the only Westerner in Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs debacle who could claim he was just there on a prolonged holiday. Some twelve years later he spent months touring for the Israeli armed forces engaged in the Yom Kippur War.

When the reader reaches the final chapter, A Secret Chord, they are surprised that Cohen’s most infamous song was written as recently as 1984. This song is so many things, not least it is perhaps the most explicit vehicle for the quest for redemption that, Leibovitz suggests, underpins Cohen’s ongoing critique of Jewish and Gentile culture through poetry, novel and song.

I am grateful to Leibovitz for this book, and I commend it to anyone with a passing interest in Cohen as well as those already familiar with this unique artist. On the 23rd September 2014, 2 days after his 80th birthday, he will release his 13th album. Lucky for us.