Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

This is the third of a series of occasional posts on the penitential psalms. Here we will focus on a single aspect of Psalm 102: its use of ornithological imagery. Pictorial language is not only central to the very nature of the psalms, but it is also key to understanding them. Focusing on the threefold use of bird metaphors will help us reflect on the question, ‘who is speaking this psalm?’

Here are verses 6 and 7 [verses 7 and 8 in the Latin and Hebrew textual traditions] from the NIVUK translation:

6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.

Augustine, following the Latin text, identifies the three birds as pelican, owl (or night raven) and sparrow. Perhaps because of his desire to distil everything of value from the Scriptures he argues that the three birds are not necessarily to be understood as a metaphorical unity:

We have three birds, then, and three habitats. A single person may combine the characteristics of all three birds; alternatively, the characteristics of the bids may be distributed among three persons. [1]

This is arguably a case of overinterpretation when we consider the uncertainty of the original terms and the use of parallelism in the Hebrew text. When we recognise the parallelism of v.6a and v.6b, the ‘pelican’ and ‘owl’ become one and the same. It is perhaps the case that the translators of the NIVUK have made this more readily apparent by their choice of rendering the first two uncertain Hebrew words as ‘desert owl’ and ‘owl’, and thus inviting a singular interpretation. The identity of a single persona behind the threefold imagery is also natural in that v.7 in its entirety parallels v.6.

Augustine also makes another interpretive decision that does not chime with modern understanding, although this time it is scientific rather than poetic understanding that has changed. And to be fair Augustine seems at pains to indicate the facts are far from certain:

Pelicans are alleged to kill their chicks by pecking them, then for three days to mourn the dead chicks in the nest. Finally the mother is said to wound herself gravely and pour her blood over her babies, which came back to life as her blood flows over them. [1]

From this supposed ornithological observation an argument is then developed by Augustine linking the pelican’s unusual childrearing approach with Christ’s salvific blood. Reading Augustine on the Psalms is worthwhile but, on this occasion, his Christological interpretation is forced. Interestingly, although Augustine is often thought to have established the identification of the seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—he does not make a consistent focused penitential interpretation here. Writing a century, or so, later Cassiodorus dismisses a Christological interpretation of the bird imagery and the psalm as a whole [2]. He does focus on a penitential interpretation. He also makes much of the physiology and behaviour of the three birds [3]. In doing so he argues that they are figuratively distinct types of penitents. His close reading is nevertheless an over-interpretation of the text given its overt reliance on a rich parallelism. This Hebraic poetic convention has often, and perhaps surprisingly, been variously forgotten and eclipsed over much of the past two millennia.

Writing rather more recently than the two Fathers, Goldingay, argues that tawny owl, screech owl and bird are fitting translations arguing from both a philological and poetic basis that the three terms point to birds that stay awake at night and are likely to keep people awake through their cries. His translation reads:

6 I have come to resemble a tawny owl of the wilderness,
I have become like a screech owl among the ruins.
7 I have been wakeful and I have become like a bird
on its own on a roof. [4]

Comparison with the NIVUK text above reveals this to be a less terse and more explanatory translation. The tension between preserving the terseness of the Hebrew text and helping the modern reader is a constant challenge for the translator. Robert Alter famously accuses the modern English textual tradition of ‘the heresy of explanation’, of being too quick to explain, thus undermining the texts intentional mystery and polyvalency [5]. In translating these verses, Alter captures both the terseness of the original and provides a clear poetic translation:

7 I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.
8 I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof. [5]

Addressing the question of the psalmist’s identity in a given psalm, or set of verses, can be a fruitful reflection. It can also be rather vexed, if any singular and overriding claim or assumption is applied across the Psalter. Over the centuries attempts have been made to read the psalms as consistently the words of David. Others have pursued, with similar singlemindedness, Christological readings. Hypothetical religious festivals have been proposed which make the words of the psalms the words of the king of Israel. In the past century there have been a series of critical methods for reading the psalms. My suspicion, however, is that those who have read the psalms as a spiritual discipline have rarely felt the need to be so singular in their reading. The same words and psalms can readily be heard as David, Christ, a precentor, or an anonymous ancient poet. Such polyvocality is not always welcomed by the academy because of its desire for explanation nor some conservative readers who expect contextual certainty. Early Christian interpreters were sometimes too quick to read Christ—his person and actions—into the text. Historical critical interpreters have sometimes been guilty of reading quite different things into the text. The nature of the Psalter stands against any such singular agendas.

Our reflecting on the identity of the psalmist is arguably most important in as far as it helps us to become the psalmist. How do we make these words our own? Are we being instructed? Are we being given words to pray? Are we being taught a vocabulary of prayer? How do we sing these words as a new song?

Psalm 102 is an example of the plasticity of so many of these poems. Countless faithful followers of Christ have owned this song in the midst of old age, loneliness, failure, impending death, and/or moral failure. Numerous others have prayed these words remembering and praying for others whose experience of the life of faith is currently a dark valley. We can also find Christ here, whether in his own experience or in gathering all our prayers as petitions to the Father. The ‘I’ of this psalm at the authorial level is undoubtedly singular, the voice of one psalmist. And yet in faith by the Spirit the reading of this psalm is infinitely polyvalent: it is a sing for all the faithful who are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

To conclude, we note that Psalm 103 might have been deliberately placed after Psalm 102 because it frames the answer to the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 102 with a positive bird metaphor:

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

References
1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 5, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003, p.53.
2. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms: Volume 3, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.1.
3. Ibid. pp.6–8.
4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90–150, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, p.152.
5. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3 The Writings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, p.xix.

The Scorpion: Jesus in the Wilderness

This post is inspired by The Scorpion, one of Stanley Spencer’s Christ in the Wilderness series. Here the painting is not a replacement for the Bible but rather a means to a fresh perspective on some aspects of Jesus preparing for his ministry. Given recent world events we don’t need to work hard to remember that all that we have here and now is always prone to becoming a wilderness. The riches of the gospel and our relationship with the living God are immense but the fullness of what Christ has done awaits the age to come.

The Scorpion is in some ways the most difficult of Spencer’s series as it prefigures the disturbing trajectory of the rest of Jesus’ life. For here we perceive a wilderness experience that starts in the literal wilderness and continues through a remarkable, yet short, ministry to Gethsemane and then the Cross.

The Scorpion points to a small number of biblical texts. In Luke 10:18–19 we read:

He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
Luke 10:18–19, NIVUK

Spencer’s painting portrays a stark and empty place, but it is nevertheless a place where God’s creation can be found. Here creation is experienced as a scorpion rather than the more prosaic daisies in Consider the Lilies (another of the unfinished series of eight paintings).

The people of Jesus’ day already knew all too well that the wilderness was a place of scorpions and snakes. As it says in Deuteronomy:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.
Deuteronomy 8:15, NIVUK

Scorpions are only mentioned twice in the Gospels. Both times by Luke. But they are mentioned occasionally outside the gospels. Sometimes they are literal and sometimes metaphorical. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, they are a metaphor for God’s rebellious people:

And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.
Ezekiel 2:6, NIVUK

In Ezekiel the scorpions are first the people of God who would not listen to the prophet. The verse can also be understood as a prelude to Jesus, the Son of Man who came to minister to all mankind. Jesus holds the rebellious peoples of this world in hands just as certainly as he holds a scorpion in this painting.

Jesus in the quiet wilderness escapes people as he focuses for 40 days on his future ministry. He has taken leave of the figurative scorpions but finds the literal ones that nip and sting so painfully. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is bitter-sweet. Here he finds a closeness to his Father but a revelation of a difficult path yet to be trod. He encounters creation, from the sweetness of the flowers of the field to the bitterness of the stinging scorpion.

Jesus’ ministry would also be bitter-sweet—a ministry to the sick, the demon possessed, the lost and yet rejection by a rebellious people. Jesus came into a world that is a perpetual night despite the sun’s best efforts. He came into the world because it is the night.

The second of two gospel passages that mention scorpions is also found in Luke just one chapter on from the first:

‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
Luke 11:11–13, NIVUK

Surely a rhetorical question if ever there was one? Jesus’ point in Luke is that God will not give us something bad when we ask for something good. At first sight literal food seems to be the focus and it does follow on from the Lord’s prayer with its talk of daily bread. But then fish versus snake, and egg versus scorpion, dissolve into a promise of the gift of Holy Spirit.

In Luke 11 there can only be one answer as to whether God will give us an egg or a scorpion. But this is perhaps not the case in Jesus’ wilderness experience. There he is, driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he has been sent not one but two scorpions. Perhaps he has even been stung? His hands look swollen.

Why would God the Father give Jesus a scorpion in his hour, or 960 hours, of need? Well, whatever actually happened in the desert is perhaps not Spencer’s only concern here. He probably has an eye on Gethsemane and the night when Jesus was betrayed. In that Garden Jesus knew that the ministry that had been discerned three years earlier in the wilderness was coming to its painful conclusion. His prayer crystallises the bittersweetness of the Son of Man’s actions for us:

‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
Luke 22:42, NIVUK

It is probably no coincidence that Jesus’ hands are cupped in the same manner that many receive communion wafers to this day—this is exactly how Stanley Spencer would have received it in his early years, in the army in Macedonia and in his later life in his beloved Cookham. For Christ in the painting, and the faithful communicant, this is a gesture of utter dependence on God. This is an expectant surrender and waiting for His gift of grace. Yet, Jesus received a scorpion that we might receive his body.

Whether or not Jesus’ hands are swollen by a scorpion’s sting—a foretaste of the literal pains of ministry to come—they look distinctive. It’s not that Spencer can’t paint hands it’s that he is making a point. Perhaps they are meant to look like a loaf of challah bread. Challah bread is a type of offering bread. Perhaps Spencer is reminding us that Jesus is the bread of life. Our cry to God gives us Jesus the bread of life who bore a scorpion for us.

For Spencer Jesus is going through the acutest form of the Dark Night of the Soul, a term for spiritual angst coined by St John of the Cross, the 16th Century Spanish mystic. We—that is me and most readers of this blog—are more likely to experience a milder form amidst all our numbing distractions, something that Douglas Adams referred to as The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul. Douglas Adams is ridiculing serious spirituality and yet there’s a sting in the tail when we remember what Jesus experienced for us and what some Christians elsewhere on the world experience for the sake of the gospel.

The experience of a scorpion and the sting of death was always going to be where Jesus’ ministry led. He probably discerned this as he prepared in those forty days. He certainly knew the time was close in Gethsemane. How else can the night brought on by humanity’s rebellion be dealt with? Jesus would know darkness that we might know light. Jesus would taste the sting of death that we might have life.

Darkness and night are, of course, a constant feature of the Passion. Just after Judas leaves the Last Supper we read:

As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
John 13:30, NIVUK

Jesus’ trial was undertaken at night. In the crucifixion itself we have night intruding into the day:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).
Mark 15:33-34

Finally at the resurrection the darkness and the night end:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
John 20:1, NIVUK

 Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus in Gethsemane and Jesus on the cross, in accepting a scorpion, points to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Another twentieth century work of art can help us perceive this remarkable gift. Here are the last verses of Seamus Heaney’s remarkable poem Station Isaland XI:

And from these two a third current proceeds
Which neither of these two, I know, precedes
Although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
Although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
Because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
Although it is the night.

Further Reflection

Stephen Cottrell (2012), Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting On The Paintings By Stanley Spencer, SPCK Publishing.

A Review: Rachel Mann’s ‘Spectres of God’

Rachel Mann, Spectres of God: Theological Notes for an Age of Ghosts, My Theology, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2021

Rachel Mann writes as poet-priest in a short book which is one of fifteen in the new ‘My Theology’ series. These books can be read in a single sitting but might be better imbibed more slowly. Each of the fifteen authors presents their distinctive Christian journey and theological priorities. It might be tempting to pick the one from the fifteen closest to our own experience and church tradition. For me this would, I suspect, be Alister McGrath’s contribution which I have yet to read. I hoped to be stretched by Mann’s contribution.

Readers who know Mann will anticipate a complex journey providing fresh perspectives on the well-trodden path of the Great Tradition. They will also expect poetic and literary verve. Such readers will not be disappointed.

This reader was initially uncomfortable with the opening metaphor of spectres of God. This image pervades—dare I say haunts—every page of the book. My discomfort was rapidly dispelled, and it was soon clear that the metaphor provides an array of fresh vantage points. In short, Mann successfully illuminates our contemporary intellectual zeitgeist along with its attendant theological and cultural baggage.

Spectres of God has at its centre three chapters: 1. The Spectre of the Body, 2. The Spectre of Love and 3. The Spectre of Time. These are helpfully framed by a shorter Introduction and a Postscript. An Appendix points to numerous literary and theological companions that Mann has encountered on her journey.

The first spectre is the idealised body. This is unpacked and explained in a dialogical manner which the whole book employs. Mann explores how various types of idealised body are eclipsed by the mystery of Christ’s body. Central to this mystery is the resurrected perfect body par excellence that still bears the traumatic punctures of crucifixion.

The spectre of Love—deliberately capitalised—is that ideal love which is tantalisingly ever before us in this life. Again we have a pointer to mystery. The second chapter ends with love and body intertwined preparing us for the third of Mann’s ghostly transcendentals, time. The future is sketched as ‘layers of hauntology’. What Mann designates as the Third Day provides the teleological goal which can make sense of the experiences of living life in a perpetual night.

The spirit of these three chapters reminded me of a poetic vision from a very different perspective. Seamus Heaney in his Station Island XI grapples with his own spectres of God:

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Because it is the night, we should welcome Mann’s pointer to the mystery of how in an apparently disenchanted culture the spectres of God are all around us.

 

 

Psalm 6: The First Penitential Psalm Today

This post will provide some examples of penitential commentary on Psalm 6 from the likes of Augustine, Cassiodorus, Denis the Carthusian, Luther and Calvin. In this way it introduces the reader to ancient readings and a facet of psalm interpretation which is unpopular today but was once immensely generative in doctrine, personal piety, Lenten practice, literature, and music. It also initiates an exploration of why such penitential readings of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 slowly waned in modernity. [1]

The first of the group of psalms designated the Penitential Psalms, Psalm 6, poses two acute challenges to the interpreter. Firstly, it is very short and so provides rather limited contextual information. Secondly, much of the content is open ended as to where it fits on the spectrum from literal to figurative. Augustine (354–430), who is thought by some to have established the grouping of the seven psalms, is quick to connect God’s wrath in v.1 with the psalmist’s sin which is not directly mentioned in the psalm. Having done this, he interprets the psalm as referring to what might be termed soul sickness thus conflating the reference to ailments in the bones (v.2) with that concerning the disturbed soul (v.3):

Accordingly the next verse, and my soul is greatly perturbed, makes it clear that the language of bones does not refer to the bones of the body. And you, Lord, how long? Here, obviously, is a soul wrestling with its own diseases, but long untreated by the doctor, in order that it may be convinced how great are the evils into which it has launched itself by sinning. [2]

Later interpreters might object to this singular focus on the soul on a number of grounds not least due to the potential for an anachronistic importing of Greek notions of the soul into the Hebrew text. This important matter will not delay us here but will be considered in a later post when we turn to another of the Penitential Psalms.

Like Augustine, Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) sees the psalm as both penitential and concerned with spiritual sickness. Augustine and Cassiodorus both find support within the psalm for a penitential reading from the psalm’s superscription or heading. Issues regarding the Greek and Latin translation of the heading gave rise to a long tradition of what now seem very fanciful interpretations of this and many psalm headings. Here is the NRSV’s rendering of Psalm 6’s heading compared to that in the Latin Vulgate and its translation in Denis the Carthusian’s late medieval Commentary [3]:

To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.

In finem, in carminibus. Psalmus David. Pro octava.
Latin text from Denis the Carthusian

Unto the end, in verses, a Psalm for David, for the octave.
English translation of the Latin

Like many other ancient and medieval interpreters Augustine, Cassiodorus and Denis each make much of ‘the end; and the ‘octave’ to refer to the Day of the Lord and other eschatological motifs concerning judgement. For example, Augustine and then Cassiodorus argue that:

. . ., it is possible to understand the day of judgement as the eighth day, because immediately after the end of this age, once eternal life has been gained, the souls of the righteous will not be subject to the ebb and flow of time. Perhaps because all time revolves around a seven-day cycle, the time which will be subject to none of that changeableness has been called the eighth day. [4]

For the octave denotes the Lord’s coming when the seven days of this age are at an end, and He comes to judge the world . . . That is why the penitent now introduced before us earnestly supplicates in the ordered divisions of his prayer that he may not be convicted for his deeds on the day of judgement. [5]

Cassiodorus is the first extent source to present the traditional seven penitential psalms as a group. He was also a keen advocate as to their ongoing value:

Though we should apply our eager intelligence to all the psalms, since the greatest resources for living are sought from them, yet we ought to pay particular attention to the psalms of the penitents, for they are like suitable medicine prescribed for the human race. [6]

Such exhortations about the value of the Penitential Psalms were taken very seriously by the medieval church. It is difficult to capture the magnitude of the importance that these seven psalms had for over a millennium. A snapshot of this rich reception can be found in a forthcoming Grove Booklet written by me and comprehensive assessment of their medieval ubiquity in a much larger study centred on Psalm 51 by Clare Costley King’oo [7]. By the thirteenth century King David was central to readings of Psalm 6, and the other six Penitential Psalms. Arguably the most famous example is Dame Eleanor Hull’s Middle English c.1420 translation of an earlier French text (probably mid or late thirteenth century) on the seven Penitential Psalms [8]. By this time David was understood as the model penitent [9]. His adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are alluded to in the heading of Psalm 51—the fourth of the seven Penitential Psalms—and this psalm was understood as David’s contrite words spoken to the prophet Nathan. All seven Penitential Psalms were read from this perspective facilitated by their being collecting together in Books of Hours and other devotional works on the seven like those of Dame Eleanor Hull. In short King David became the model penitent whose contrition and compunction all faithful Christians should aspire to follow. For example, we read in Hull’s commentary on Psalm 6 about the contemporary sinner:

. . . thinking and saying to himself, ‘I am young and hale and flourishing in my youth and prosperity in this world is mine. And God is meek and merciful and will mend me as he has done on previous occasions.’ I say to you truly that this man lies in his bed. But he rises not with his tears as David did every night. You should understand that such nights betoken deadly sin. For just as a man by night goes stumbling and knows not what he should hold onto but by some light coming upon him from the moon or some star, just so the reason of man goes stumbling into the pit of delight of the night of his sin wherein he lies asleep, lest the light of grace from above shows him the way of great repentance, as she had done to David who washes his bed with his tears every night, . . . [10]

By the time of Denis the Carthusian (1402–1471), at the other end of the medieval period, the sacrament of penance had taken on great importance in church doctrine and practice. This sacramental practice is very much in evidence in Denis’ interpretation of Psalm 6 where he devotes a lot of space to the relationship between the necessity of internal contrition and the outward penitential actions of the penitent:

I have laboured in my groanings: that is, I am interiorly contrite of my sins, although I do not omit the exterior acts of penance and the works of satisfaction, but weeping, abstaining, persisting in holy vigils I prostrate myself . . . [11]

. . . Also, this which is said—I laboured in my groanings—can be understood here to refer to the interior effort, for indeed the interior effort exceeds the exterior effort, just as the interior pain exceeds the exterior pain . . . [12]

because the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping, that is, the interior affection, from which the voice and tears spring forth, and on account of which they declare themselves to be heard. For not clamor, but love, not the tears of the eyes, but contrition of the heart penetrates the heavens and enter into the ears of God. [13]

The English Bishop and Cardinal, John Fisher (1469–1535) had similar concerns and focused on responding to the psalm as consequential for the age to come:

There are three different ways almighty God deals with sinners, according to the three different kinds of them. There are some sinners who continue in their wretchedness till they die, and those almighty God punishes in hell’s eternal pains, whose ministers are the devils. There are other sinners who have begun to be penitent before their death and to amend their lives, and these almighty God punishes in the pains of purgatory, which have an end and whose ministers are angels. Thirdly, there are still other sinners who, by grace in their life, have so punished themselves by penance for their offences that they have made sufficient repayment for them. And these almighty God accepts in his infinite mercy. [14]

Both Denis and Fisher read the psalm penitentially in dialogue with late medieval sacramental praxis and doctrinal development. Luther (1483–1546) is also concerned about the fate of sinners. He tends to speak, however, less abstractly and mechanically, and more personally than either Denis or Fisher:

God’s strength and consolation are given to no one unless he asks for it from the bottom of his heart. But no one who has not been profoundly terrified and forsaken prays profoundly. He does not know what ails him, and he remains secure in the strength and consolation of another, his own or that of creatures. In order, therefore, that God might dispense His strength and consolation and communicate it to us, He withdraws all other consolation and makes the soul deeply sorrowful, crying and longing for His comfort. Thus all God’s chastisements are graciously designed to be a blessed comfort, although through weak and despairing hearts the foolish hinder and distort the design aimed at them, because they do not know that God hides and imparts His goodness and mercy under wrath and chastisement. [15]

Calvin (1509–1564) writing a few years later than Luther commentates in a very different style. His approach seems much more like a modern commentary as he seeks a clear methodology to interpret the text in context before applying it. He still, however, sees the context as the life of David like many pre-critical interpreters. In the end his conclusions are often close to Augustine with who we began this journey:

David, being afflicted by the hand of God, acknowledges that he had provoked the Divine wrath by his sins, and therefore, in order to obtain relief, he prays for forgiveness. . . What the kind of chastisement was of which he speaks is uncertain. Those who restrict it to bodily disease do not adduce in support of their opinion any argument of sufficient weight. [16]

Contemporary academic interpreters tend to avoid David as the subject of the psalms and look to the content of the psalm itself to provide context. [17] In this way Goldingay, for example, argues that the psalm is not penitential but that the psalmist experiences God’s wrath in a manner akin to Job’s experience. For Goldingay the psalmist is not struggling with sin and God’s righteous punishment but is in the thick of lament in part because of the puzzle of why they are so afflicted by God. In closing his consideration of Psalm 6 he reflects on the whole:

All this can be brought to God without expressing either a correlative awareness of sin that needs confessing or a conviction about personal commitment that makes it possible to make a statement that trouble is undeserved. [18]

In a similar way Charry explains Psalm 6’s context by noting that:

In Christian tradition, it is also often read as the first of the Psalter’s seven penitential psalms, yet no confession of sin and no plea for forgiveness are offered. Nothing indicates that the speaker understands his adversity to be punishment for sin, only that it has apparently been going on for some time. The speaker cries for healing, not forgiveness. [19]

In appropriating Psalm 6 today, as functional Scripture, do we really have to choose between what was for a long time a dominant penitential reading and the modern rediscovery of biblical lament? I don’t think so. Whilst there are issues with some aspects of pre-critical interpretation both ancient and modern readings can cohere with the language of this psalm and inform our prayer. Intertextuality might be a dangerous tool in scientific exegesis but surely in a living textual faith there are interpretive connections and riches which legitimise using the words of this psalm as the basis for calling on God as a suffering sinner and/or struggling supplicant. A case can surely be made that a penitential prayer is just one specific subset of the complex lament that is central to the life of faith. These possibilities will be explored further when we turn to some of the other Penitential Psalms in future posts in 2022.

Many people of faith will at some point in the life of faith own the words of this psalm. As the Sidney Psalter expresses the opening verses we too might cry for a variety of reasons:

Lord, let not me, a worm, by thee be shent
While thou art in the heart of thy displeasure:
Ne let thy rage, of my due punishment
Become the measure. [20]

References

  1. Verse numbers here follow that found in the majority of English translation, for example, the NIV and NRSV. Many of the sources cited here use verse numbering that follows the Latin and Greek texts.
  2. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 1, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.) (New City Press, 2000), p.106. In all quotations in this post the psalm text is shown in bold and italics but otherwise identical with the original source.
  3. Denis the Carthusian, Commentary on the Davidic Psalms, Volume 1, Andrew M. Greenwell (translator) (Arouca Press: 2000) p.113.
  4. Augustine, Expositions, p.104.
  5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990), pp.89–90.
  6. Cassiodorus, Explanation, p.98.
  7. Mark J. Whiting, The Penitential Psalms Today: A Journey with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143, Grove Books, forthcoming 2022 and Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).
  8. Alexandra Barratt (editor), The Seven Psalms: A Commentary on the Penitential Psalms Translated from French into English by Dame Eleanor Hull (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  9. Michael P. Kuczynski, Prophetic Song: The Psalms as Moral Discourse in Late Medieval England, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp.81–119 and passim.
  10. Barratt, The Seven, p.16. My inexpert translation of the Middle English and one Latin phrase.
  11. Denis, Volume 1, p.117.
  12. Denis, Volume 1, pp.117–118.
  13. Denis, Volume 1, p.120.
  14. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), pp.9–10.
  15. Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 14: Selected Psalms III (Luther’s Works (Concordia)) (Kindle Locations 2613-2619). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
  16. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.65.
  17. This is something of an oversimplification given the vexed question in the last two hundred years as to what the context of psalm is, with David’s life, temple cult, canonical context, being just some of the options.
  18. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1–41 (Baker Academic, 2006), p.141.
  19. Ellen T. Charry, Psalms 1–50 (Brazos Press, 2015), p.27.
  20. Hannibal Hamlin et al. (editors), The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.17.

Jesus and the Holy Innocents

Readings: Psalm 123; Mark 10:13–16; Matthew 2:1–20.

The Magi: Pursuing Wisdom
We don’t know much about the Magi. There are lots of theories and ideas— snippets of both fact and fiction. There may, or may not, have been three Wise Men—three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh do not necessarily imply three Magi. They were probably part of a social elite of scholars. Although their field of expertise would have ranged from the wisdom of philosophy, through the physics of astronomy to something akin to astrology. They were doing the same basic task as the wise sages of Israel who left us with the Books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and ideas found in the Psalms and elsewhere in the First Testament.

The difference, of course, was they were not followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That didn’t deter God from dealing with them by revelations in the heavens and in a dream. The tribute from foreign kings that they carried to Jesus is the smallest foretaste of the honour that will be paid to this same Jesus as God’s plans are fulfilled Psalm 2 hints at these and includes these words:

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Psalm 2:10–11, NIVUK

Like so many Bible narratives we must be cautious not to read too much into a text that seems intent on hiding many of the things we’d like to know. But with some certainty, both background knowledge about the Magi and what they do in this story indicates that they are pursuing wisdom. Following a star in a way that mashed astronomy and astrology, interpreting dreams in the quest for revelation.

The same God who inspired and spoke to the Magi would have us be wise. But the foundation of our pursuit of wisdom is the baby they first sought. We have a fuller revelation of Jesus Christ, the divine Logos, wisdom personified. Whatever we think of New Year’s resolutions we’d be wise to make Jesus Christ our foundation for 2022.

Herod: Pursuing Power
Herod, the so-called Great, is the villain of the piece. He provides an echo of the evil Pharaoh in the Exodus story who ordered the death of the Hebrew boys as the most callous of pre-emptive strikes to weaken a slave work force so they could not rebel. Like Pharaoh, Herod appears to balk at nothing in order to cling to power. He, like Pharaoh, was also obsessed with massive building projects, including renovating the temple in Jerusalem.

Though brought up a Jew, his father was an Edomite. He was happy to have power by colluding with the Romans. His singular concern in Matthew 2 is remaining a puppet ruler. His horrific decree to kill all male Jews, two-year old and under, is the bluntest and most unsavoury of pragmatic methods to remove a future king that might topple him from power. Such a callous act has all the hallmarks of the extremes that men—and they are usually men—will go to keep their power.

Our passage does not have a definitive answer to the horror that Herod unleashes. But it does relativise him brilliantly. Whilst men do everything to cling to power time moves inexorably on, as it does for us all. Our passage opened with Herod in power:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, . . .
Matthew 2:1, NIVUK

But we read at the close of the passage:

After Herod died, . . .
Matthew 2:19, NIVUK

This dark episode makes the gospel shine even brighter and it reminds us that the Christmas story cannot be buried in sentimentality. This is a story of life in the face of death.

Joseph: Pursuing Obedience
The Bible says very little about Joseph. Nevertheless, he is absolutely central to this story. Unlike Herod’s singlemindedness, Joseph’s focus has the best of motivations: obedience to God. Joseph simply does what he is instructed to do by God. Through three dreams, and on two occasion, he ‘up-sticks’ and moves with Mary and Jesus. First the holy family move to Egypt as refugees fleeing murderous persecution. Some two years, or so, later they journey to Nazareth where Jesus then grew up.

Joseph’s obedience was not a slow one. There was no trying and testing other options. The story makes it very clear that Joseph acted as quickly as he possibly could to get Jesus out of harm’s way:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
Matthew 2:13, NIVUK

We know far more about Herod than Joseph but the quiet good life of obedience to God is better in eternity than celebrity or political power ill-used for personal gain. George Eliot, in her novel Middlemarch, puts it like this:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Eliot is reflecting on Enlightenment progress, but in God’s plans Joseph was instrumental for the even better reasons of faith, trust and obedience.

Where might faith, trust and obedience take us in 2022? We don’t know. Our unhistoric acts—in faith, trust and obedience—not only prevent things going ill but in God’s hands they can serve his purposes—the building of a kingdom not of human progress but God’s design in eternity. To quote a more dubious source than George Eliot:

“What we do in life echoes in eternity”.

Jesus and the Holy Innocents: Utter Dependence
So much for the Magi, Herod and Joseph, for not all the players in this story are active. Passive at the centre of this narrative is Jesus who can do nothing. He is humanly utterly dependent upon Mary and Joseph. This reality of Incarnation is captured acutely in Luci Shaw’s remarkable poem titled Kenosis. Note the title is a profoundly theological concept whilst the poem opens this in fully human fleshly terms:

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound.

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.

Poem: Kenosis by Luci Shaw
in Harvesting Fog (Pinyon Publishing, 2010) page 53

The other Jewish baby boys are passive too. They are also utterly dependent on human agency for protection. We don’t know the details—and I for one don’t want to—but we can imagine that some infants were protected by those around them but of course others were not.

In the midst of this horror, we can find a profound truth about the quality of being human. For we are all children, not utterly dependent upon human parents but dependent on God. We owe him our creation, our very breath and all that we can be in the future. Whilst he delegates us some power and authority, we remain under him. In the darkness of the story of the Holy Innocents this is no sentimental claim. This is a fact of life and death.

What do we do with this call to be childlike? This is the call of Jesus himself in Mark 10. It is the psalmist’s surrender recounted in Psalm 123. To be childlike is to empty ourselves, a pale echo of what Christ did. It is to denounce power. It is the only true wisdom. It is fearing God. It is the glance of a devoted servant to God face. It is, in short, about being holy.

Whether you are making, or have made, New Year’s resolutions, or they are not your thing, in 2022 let us all remember that we have a holy yet probably unhistoric part to play in God’s plans. Let us also remember the disturbing truth that no one becomes holy by accident.

 

Book Review: ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church’ by Richard S. Briggs

Richard S. Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church, Touchstone Texts, Baker Academic, 2001.

At the outset of this review, I am pleased to say that this is an engaging and delightfully readable book. Like all good guides Briggs ensures his company know precisely where they are at all times. Indeed, the whole enterprise is itself an echo of Psalm 23 as the reader is shepherded safely through Hebrew philology, metaphor, reception history, and theology.

Psalm 23 is arguably the Psalm of Psalms in the contemporary Western Church. Even to the unchurched its six verses are familiar from contexts as diverse as funeral liturgy to Howard Goodall’s setting of it as the theme tune for The Vicar of Dibley. As I was writing this review, it even had a round of its own in a seasonal episode of University Challenge! Such familiarity makes this psalm a fitting focus for this book which launches a new series examining touchstone biblical texts.

The generative nature of both Psalm 23 and its imagery is not only a central reason for its popularity it is also something of a problem for the guide—how can the journey be broken down into manageable steps? This challenge, and the way it is addressed, are explained in Chapter 1. Introduction: On Attending to Psalm 23. Much of the book comprises three longer central chapters which each examine one of three different, but intricately interconnected worlds: ‘behind’, ‘in’ and ‘in front of’ Psalm 23. This structure enables attention to the interpretive task without all the issues being brought to the fore at the same time. The subheadings of these three major chapters also reveal the logic of taking matters a step at a time as matters of background, exegesis and ministry are each explored in turn. This structure provides a sure path that avoids any risk of confusing detours.

In Chapter 2. The World behind Psalm 23 Briggs considers (i) what we can know about the author, (ii) who is speaking in the psalm, (iii) the relevance of shepherd imagery, and (iv) the significance of Psalm 23’s location in the Psalter. Briggs ably shows what we can know, and just as importantly what we cannot know, as he honestly establishes provisional answers. Chapter 3. The World in Psalm 23 is a verse-by-verse examination of the Hebrew text. Here Briggs is attentive to the full spectrum of his readers’ likely ability, and eagerness, to engage with the original language. By providing some optional sections and a short appendix there are effectively three ways to be guided through the psalm’s six verses depending on inclination and prior knowledge.

In Chapter 4. The World in Front of Psalm 23 Briggs moves to what he terms ministry—just how can this psalm can make a difference in the Church today? Having laid the necessary foundations in Chapters 2 and 3 this chapter examines four areas. As the connection of Psalm 23 to themes of rest, death, enemies and hope is examined, some key interlocuters contribute to what is a rich theological reflection. Walter Brueggemann, Jerome Creach, William Holladay, C. S. Lewis and Erich Zenger, for example, all help enliven the close of the journey. Indeed, so rich a table is prepared here that the reader is left in a quandary as to which overflowing cup might be taken to the congregation or small group. In fact, whilst Briggs does not specifically suggest it, I think this chapter—with support from elsewhere in the book— provides an excellent launch point for a four sermon series or fourfold set of teaching material.

The book closes with a wonderfully honest reflection on Hearing and Preaching Psalm 23 Today in the form of its fifth, and final, short chapter. This personal account somewhat paradoxically serves, as Briggs intends, to point firmally to this text in expectant anticipation that it can speak afresh today. The call—should we choose to accept it—is to do enough hard work that we can ‘get out of the way’ and enable others to hear the greatest shepherd of them all.

Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Johnny Cash’s Psalm 1: I Walk the Line

Johnny Cash the Psalmist perhaps sounds a little unlikely. And to be fair it is probably by some peculiar coincidence that there are so many connections between Cash’s I Walk The Line and Psalm 1. But the intertextual and thematic connections are worth considering. I suggest that both texts are enriched by reflecting on the other.

Both songs concern faithfulness. Cash’s song is, at face value and indeed originally was, a declaration of fidelity to his wife, Vivian Liberto. In later life after he discovered Christ it took on a new meaning as a declaration of fidelity to the God of the Bible. Psalm 1 is a statement of faithfulness, and a reflection on what that faith might look like, as well as the blessing it leads to. Some might judge it to be concerned with a dry legalism, but such a view owes more to eisegesis informed by a popular caricature of Jewish faith, than a true reading of the psalm. When we remember that law, or torah, is instruction from God we can perceive the relationship described in Psalm 1 rather than any transactional mechanism based on works righteousness.

Cash declares that he keeps ‘a close watch on this heart of mine’ and has his ‘eyes wide open all the time. One can imagine that early in his career, on tour in front of adoring adolescents, away from home that this would wisely be followed up as avoiding walking (Psalm 1:1a), standing (1:1b), sitting (1:1c) or lying in the wrong company.

The experience of Cash’s early career revealed his declaration ‘I find it very, very easy to be true’, to be rather naïve in the face of the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. In many ways Psalm 1 also has a naivety about it. It is sure-footed and certain in its call to integrity and piety, but later psalms revisit its certitude and make it appear naïve amidst the ups-and-downs of the life of faith. For example, Psalm 37 and 73 read as if they are penned by the same person a few years down the line—this person now questions not only their ability to do the right thing but wonders about those who seem blessed despite doing the worst of things. Closer to Psalm 1, Psalms 3 to 7 are a series of laments that cast doubt on the straightforward path to blessing promised in Psalm 1. Of course, Psalm 1 can be understood eschatologically, see Psalm 1:5, in which case it transcends naivety to become a reality in eternity.

Both Cash’s song and our psalm have a 24-7 motif:

I keep you on my mind both day and night.
Cash

. . . and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:2b

And in both cases, this ‘meditation’ is key to happiness. Cash claims that the ‘happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right’, whereas the psalmist equates such meditation with delight (Psalm 1:2a) and the whole poem is connected with happiness with its opening word meaning this in Hebrew (Psalm 1:1a). It should be noted that the happiness of Psalm 1 is a deeper more nuanced well-being, that encompasses happiness and blessedness and everything in between. In contrast, Cash speaks of the happiness that come out of right relationship with a loving human partner.

By its very nature and title, I Walk the Line is about the correct path to follow. This is very much a moral road as it concerns perfect fidelity and loving commitment to another. This is also the exact concern of Psalm 1 as it asks the question as to which path, or line, we travel, the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked (Psalm 1:6).

You can test this synergy and complementarity, between Psalm 1 and Cash’s song, for yourself by listening to Johnny Cash sing I Walk The Line here:

Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises I Walk the Line — Johnny Cash

 

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.