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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Surprises in Psalm 63

I like to rail against the psalms.  It’s something that I do.  I hear people say, “Oh, I just love the psalms; they make me feel good,” and I wonder to myself (and sometimes out loud) “which Psalms are you reading exactly?”  Don’t get me wrong, however.  I don’t push back against them because I reject them or despise them.  I wrestle with the biblical psalms because I find myself in them – that is, I find both the me that I know I am, and the me I would want to be.

I’m reading Psalm 63 today – another of the “psalms of David.” And though we might question the attribution of several of those psalms that are attributed to King David, there’s nothing in Psalm 63 that would specifically preclude it from being considered an authentic psalm of David.  Another suggestion is that this psalm is the prayer of an exiled Levite / temple worker who longs to resume his participation at the temple. (Dahood, 96)  Possible, I suppose. But I see no compelling reason to dismiss the Davidic setting.   (Even if it were written by someone other than King David, it seems to accurately capture something of this time in David’s life.)

The superscription to the psalm places it during his time in the wilderness of Judah.  There were actually two times that David is said to have lingered in the deserts of Judah – once while he was pursued by King Saul (1 Samuel 22 – 23) and later during the revolt of his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15 – 16).  This psalm would seem to fit better during the later since the author refers (or seems to refer) to himself as “the King” in verse 11. 

There were two surprises waiting for me in Psalm 63 today.  The first is the appearance of the concept of rewards and punishments in the afterlife.  For the most part, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has very little to say about the afterlife, the focus is not on “going to heaven” or “avoiding hell.” It is focus on living a good life, here and now.  A good life is its own reward.  Especially in the earlier parts of the Hebrew bible, though in some of the later books there is a developing idea of rewards for the righteous and punishments for the wicked.

I will praise you as long as I live,
    and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63: 3 – 4 (NIV)

It’s vague in the NIV (my usual complaint about the NIV) – but it seems that the psalmist expects a future reward.  Reading the same verses from Mitchell Dahood’s translation in the Anchor Bible series is more striking:

So may I bless you through my life eternal,
in your heaven raise my hands.
Yonder with milk and fatness
may my desire be satisfied
while my lips shout for joy
my mouth will praise you.

It seems that the Psalmist expects some sort of reward in heaven – “yonder” to feast in the presence of God. A few verses later we find the psalmists expectation of punishment for the wicked (again from Dahood’s translation):

But they who murderously seek my life,
may they go to the nether world’s depths.
May they be smitten by him
with the edge of the sword,
Become the portion of jackals.
(Psalm 69: 9 – 10)

This is almost, but not quite, “may they go to hell!”  I know that the concept of “hell” is more of a New Testament idea, The Hebrew Bible describes the place of the dead, in the depths of the earth, as sheol, as “the grave” where all the dead go – the good, the bad, and the ugly… but in this psalm is an expectation of punishment in death for the wicked – in fact the curse “may they be devoured by jackals” would be a punishment even into the afterlife…afterdeath…

I won’t try to build too much on these… they’re pretty vague and dependent upon a particular translation… but it’s a little surprising (at least to me) to see these concepts creeping in so early in the theological story.

The other surprise for me was this outburst of violence in verses 9 and 10, these curses wrapped up within this otherwise beautiful and intimate expression of a desire to be close to God. (I wrote a bit about this last week in Psalm 58.)  And it’s like this throughout the psalms – those beautiful and uplifting songs of our faith are filled with shocking and gruesome statements. 

It’s no good to sanitize the bible – to take out all the rough edges and grit and dung. Doing so makes the bible unbelievable.  I think of Psalm 63  (and others like it) as an example of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi - beauty that includes imperfection.  The psalm is more wonderful, not less, because of this (seemingly) incongruous outburst of violence.  This is real, and reality is flawed. 

And, because we’re on the Psalms, here is one of my favorite authors talking about psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

And here is a song based on Psalm 63

Dahood, Mitchel, S. J. Psalms II (51 - 100) Introduction,Translation, and Notes, Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, New York, 1968.

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