Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms

Generative Possibility
Nick Cave’s album, Seven Psalms, was released on the 17th June 2022. I discovered this collection because of the title’s likely nod to the Penitential, or Seven, Psalms. This post is a review of Cave’s short album, but one with a difference. By considering seven features—or signs—of the biblical psalms I address the question of how this recent work relates to the ancient Psalter. Whatever else might be said of the Book of Psalms, its generative potential cannot be denied. And however near, or far, Cave’s lyrics might be from ancient Israel it is psalmody that lies behind them. The simple cover of the work in question provides further insight into the way in which the Psalter has worked here. For a small simple cross is the singular graphic feature. These songs are to be understood as a Christian reception of the Psalms. When we hear the address ‘Lord’, it is presumably both Yahweh and Christ that are in mind. Doubtless like the biblical psalmists, Cave’s own context also supplies generative direction. From what I know of Nick Cave’s recent life he has experienced pain as acute as that known by the ancient poets. This is not, however, the place for biography as the goal here is not explanation. I aim to point, with Cave’s creation, to the Psalms and thence to the one whose breath generated them.

Poetic Nature
Cave’s album comprises seven short psalms or responses to the Psalms. In addition, an eighth much longer track—some eleven minutes, or so—captures the music and refrains of the seven but omits Cave’s poetic voiceovers. Probably inadvertently this one-plus-eight form alludes to the tension between psalms as single entities and the Psalter as a whole. More certain is that Cave’s words are to be seen as poems. Much modern music is poetry, with Dylan and Cohen providing ample evidence for such a claim. Here, Cave has made poetic intent unambiguous by using spoken word, rather than lyrics, along with the music. A key feature of Cave’s Seven Psalms is the centrality of figurative language. Much of the metaphor and imagery is biblical and connects with its source organically. Some is deliberately in tension with its origin. For example, whereas Psalm 84 celebrates that:

Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Psalm 84:3, NIV

By contrast, in Cave’s sixth psalm—Such Things Should Never Happen—the baby sparrow dies, and the swallow only finds a nest after experiencing grief. Troubling yes, but an honest nod to the perplexities of theodicy and death amid the life of faith.

A third group of metaphors and images beg the question of whether Cave tries too hard with his figurative language. I will leave the listener to judge for themselves, but I found that after some initial jars these softened with repetition and reflection.

Terseness
The terseness of Hebrew poetry is generally acknowledged as part of its very nature. Translators have had to wrestle for some two thousand years with the degree to which this can and should be preserved. All seven songs here are terse and have a form like the songs to which to which they point. More specifically each of them can be broken into two or three strophes, each comprising four lines. They also can be understood as following another common feature of biblical poetry in that each strophe comprises two bicola with the second cola (B) furthering the first (A) in a diversity of ways. Here is an example from I Have Trembled My Way Deep:

A:    I have trembled my way deep into surrender.
B:    I have stretched my aching body across the world.

Note how the second cola enriches and furthers the first and the two together are more than the sum of the two parts. In this specific example we also see how poetic terseness provides openness and polyvalence. This bicola, like so much biblical psalmody, asks us ‘who is saying these words?’. The first psalm of this cycle—How Long Have I Waited—asks another perennial question from the psalms, ‘how long?’. Such repetitive motifs are actualised by their terseness and intertextuality. They are in a sense world-defining—tangibly demonstrating Walter Brueggemann’s idea that the biblical text is the word that redescribes the world.

Prayerful reflection
Another frequent refrain of the Psalter is the cry ‘have mercy on me?’. And this is the title of Cave’s second psalm. This confession of sin is either hyperbole on Cave’s lips or he is writing of the sins of a nation or a dictator. Or perhaps the words reflect our common guilt as fallen humanity. Here a mirror is held up to Psalm 137 as the psalmist confesses that they have ‘dashed the new-born upon the rocks’. In this confession, and throughout, Cave is continually and prayerfully reflective which is surely the raison d’être of the Psalter. The beauty of psalm-based reflection is for all the clarity there is also a huge measure of open intertextual allusion and word play.

Faithful Questioning
Of course, questioning the apparent injustice of the created order does not make songs into psalms nor an album into a Psalter. The stance of the psalmist is also key. These seven songs make this extra step in that the questioning apparently arises from faith and trust. We have already noted that the one addressed is Lord. There is also an underlying assumption that the questioned Lord will answer, if not now at some later date. These songs are a cry from the depths like Psalm 130. This is no pitiful unanswered cry of someone drowning but rather a call to one whose saving hand has been glimpsed reaching out. Psalm 42’s ‘deep calls to deep’ in I Come Alone to You and the prayer, ‘pierce me deep’ in I Have Trembled My Way Deep reveal a rich relationship in a play of words where the problem is transmuted into a solution as is so often experienced in earnest prayer.

Pilgrim Songs
Like the ancient Psalter these songs provide overall a firm, but at times an inchoate, glimpse into the journey of faith. These songs are rich with the motifs of pilgrimage. The words ‘way’ and ‘wandered’ are found in the titles of two of the songs. This is someone who knows they have yet to find their home:

I have wandered all my unending days.
Shuttered your shining aspect in the stars.
Hidden alleys and tramp broken highways.
With little in my pockets but my prayers.
Nick Cave, I Have Wandered All My Unending Days

Perhaps here the pocketed prayers are the biblical psalms? Like the richness of the Psalms, we should note that Cave’s responses are not only words of lament and introspection, but they are also songs of praise like the Pilgrim Psalms of the Psalter:

Splendour, Lord, oh glorious splendour.
The world explodes amazing at your hand.
Oh glory, Lord, oh splendouring wonder.
March together across this loud and wild land.
Nick Cave, Splendour, Glorious Splendour

Expectancy
Throughout the seven songs there is the attitude of the biblical psalmist, a faith seeking understanding. Questioning is normal, or even required, as we make our way through the life of faith. Whilst the journey is important it can only make sense when the goal is something understood. This comes across in Cave’s collection most clearly in the refrain to I Have Wandered All My Unending Days: ‘There is a mansion in the sky’. This might be an intentional reference to the song by The Brian Jamestown Massacre of the same name. Both Cave’s work and that of The Brain Jamestown Massacre refer to the Johannine Jesus’ claim that:

My Father’s house has many rooms . . .
John 14:2a, NIV

This goal of our pilgrim wandering helps cultivate the psalmist’s expectation which turns to an attitude of trust. Such a way of reading the life of faith helps us pray the psalms aright, as well as generate our own echoes of this school of prayer. I hope I have heard the Seven Psalms aright and Cave and I share the same road.

Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

V is for Victorian Opinion

Many of these posts have celebrated Psalm 51 as the Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. Even as late as the Victorian period there were some commentators who weren’t shy of throwing a few superlatives at this psalm and its six companion penitential psalms. Here is Neale and Littledale’s take on the seven psalms:

the seven weapons wherewith to oppose the seven deadly sins: the seven prayers inspired by the sevenfold Spirit to the repenting sinner: the seven guardians for the seven days of the week: the seven companions for the seven Canonical Hours of the day. [Neale and Littledale, p.124]

The reference here to the seven deadly sins is another reason for the popularity of the penitential psalms and their chief, Psalm 51. In the Middle Ages the notion that there were seven serious—i.e. deadly—sins was a popular one. I am unsure when the association was first established but here’s the list of which psalms which can be said, according to Catholic tradition, to counter a specific sin:

• Psalm 6: Pride
• Psalm 32 [31]: Avarice
• Psalm 38 [37]: Anger
• Psalm 51 [50]: Lust
• Psalm 102 [101]: Gluttony
• Psalm 130 [129]: Envy
• Psalm 143 [142]: Sloth

I have included the Latin psalm numbers in parentheses as the seven deadly sins are most readily connected with the Roman tradition and psalm numbering. A comparison of the seven sins and the seven prayers reveals a less than convincing match. The exception being Psalm 51 and the sin of lust. In this case, in accordance with the heading, the context is very much a story of sin that began with David’s lust for the bathing Bathsheba.

Despite the lack of one-to-one correspondence between the seven psalms and the seven deadly sins, I suggest we would do well to have Psalm 51 to hand daily. This is a psalm that can help us avoid sin and the Psalm of Psalms for asking for God to forgive us in his bountiful mercy.

 

Reference
John Mason Neale and Richard Frederick Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms: From Primitive and Mediaeval Writers, second edition, volume 1, London: Joseph Masters, 1869.

T is for Tears

Despite the title, I have to confess there are no tears mentioned in Psalm 51. Despite this undeniable fact how many will have shed tears when praying this psalm? Is this not the frequent marker of true contrition and compunction?

I know from personal experience that this psalm can be accompanied by tears. If we read it as the head of the penitential psalms then it’s accompanied by tears, groans, and sighs:

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
    they grow weak because of all my foes.
Psalm 6:6–7, NRSV

Here we have arguably the most copious shedding of tears in all of the Bible. There’s even the indication that the plentiful tears are linked to a sight issue. Although we should note these psalms are often metaphorical with regard to the psalmist’s plight, the language would seem to imply these are the most literal of tears. The choice between literal or metaphorical elsewhere in the penitential psalms defies certainty, as here for example:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
Psalm 32:3, NRSV

And similarly, here in this account of sighing and eyes:

O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
    as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:9–10, NRSV

The mention of tears in Psalm 102 is less concerned with contrition than with general woe, or is the link with ashes a sign of penitence?

For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

There is, I suggest, an openness that defies a singular interpretation. This is an aspect of God’s mercy, that these psalms though rooted in an ancient context, when prayed today our context, our situation in life, makes these words ours. So, let’s pray Psalm 51 frequently and when the situation is right let’s not hold back the tears. We live after all in a vale of tears awaiting that day when there will be no more need of tear ducts (Revelation 21:4). Tears can be words before God as they are a sacrament, a sign, of our response to the living God.

Q is for the Quality of Mercy

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has a speech about mercy, the central theme of our miserere, Psalm 51. It is delivered by Portia in Act 4 Scene 1 in a courtroom context. Portia is pleading, even begging, for Shylock’s mercy. It provides a rich meditation on the meaning of mercy and its relationship with justice. Such reflection is important in earthly affairs, but as is made clear in the speech it pertains closely to the mercy with which Psalm 51 is concerned—that is the unfathomable quality of mercy shown by the Creator to his creatures:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I