Thursday, January 13, 2011

Psalms 22-24

22. My God, my God
Why have You abandoned me;
why so far from delivering me
and from my anguished roaring?
My God,
I cry by day—You answer not;
by night, and have no respite.
According to the New Testament (Mark 15:34) Jesus invoked this opening verse when crucified on the cross.  It is a powerful opening for a prayer.  Anyone could have mouthed such words from the midst of their anguish and pain.  The psalmist often opens with such words but then concludes with words of praise.  The psalms open with pain and conclude with faith.  This psalm however is far longer on pain.  It concluding words are as follows:
Let all the end of the earth pay heed and turn
to the Lord,
and the peoples of all nations prostrate themselves before You;
for kingship is the Lord’s
and He rules the nations.
But the psalm began on a personal note of pain: why have You abandoned me?  It concludes with an impersonal note of faith.  Has faith indeed been restored?  Earlier the psalmist writes:
Because of You I offer praise in the great congregation;
I pay my vows in the presence of His worshippers.
Let the lowly eat and be satisfied;
let all who seek the Lord praise Him.
Always be of good cheer.
What began on a personal note concludes in a rather formulaic manner.  Again and again I find the psalmist speaking from the depths of personal trial and pain and then repeating rather mantra like statements of faith.  Yehuda Amichai writes of “the precision of pain and the blurriness of joy.”  Is pain indeed easier to speak about than joy?  Is faith more elusive than struggles and trials?

23. The most famous of all psalms.  I turn to Robert Alter’s new translation.  It is quoted here in full.
A David psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His names’ sake.
Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadows,
I fear no harm,
for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil.
my cup overflows.
It is difficult to interpret this psalm for it has a resonance beyond its exact translation and meaning.  How many times have we recited this at a funeral or shiva?  Here Alter translates the most famous of lines: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me…” differently.  I prefer his translation of the Hebrew.  A vale of death seems more apt than a valley of death, although the Hebrew is usually translated as valley and might be more fitting to the metaphor of God as a shepherd.  Regardless many people are attached to the King James translation.  There is a certain majesty found in the old English.  There is a certain comfort in reciting words that one memorized in grade school.  At funerals I notice a divide between the generations.  When there are many people in their seventies, educated in American schools in the 1950’s, I can invite the assembled crowd to recite the 23rd psalm in English.  The group will then recite the old English from memory.  There is great comfort in hearing the group reciting these words in unison.  Maybe we should teach our children to memorize this psalm as well.  Then they would be able to call upon it when they face loss.  But how many of those who recite these words from memory think of the meaning of the words?  There is a rhythm and music to the words.  Yet notice the faith of the psalm.  God is our shepherd.  Our greatest heroes like Moses and David were shepherds because shepherds tend to their flock but also know where the errant sheep wanders.  The shepherd cares for the flock as well as the individual.  God cares for the people and the individual in pain.  We march through the valley.  We do not remain there.  And one day our eyes will not be moistened by tears but our head by oil.  Redemption is our hope and prayer.  We will fill our cups and they will be brimming with joy.  Such is the faith of this most famous of psalms.  Again note how the pain is personal but the faith is in the impersonal third person.

24. The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds,
The world and its inhabitants….
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in His holy place?—
God is so high and mighty and lofty then no one can possibly stand near.  Such is the sense created by this opening.  But then we learn it is not beyond our reach.  It is as simple as living an honest life.  To live the ethical life is to ascend God’s holy mountain.
He who has clean hands a pure heart,
who has not taken a false oath by My life
or sworn deceitfully.

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