The Sacred Psalms

Photo Credit: Johanan Sowah

Photo Credit: Johanan Sowah

Buried within the depths of the Holy Bible are the Psalms, which are comprised of hundreds of passages about human suffering and joy and faith in God. Here, we are given the story of a man kneeling by the river of Babylon and weeping in dire anguish; we encounter the histories of the people of ancient Israel; we read fables that teach generosity and faithfulness. The Book of Psalms truly captures the essence of the teachings of the Bible and what it means to be a follower of Christ. In Ancient Greek, the word “Psalm” means “music”, which gives us a glimpse of the true form of the Psalms as their composer intended. They stand as the only comprehensive collection of works in the Bible which is derived from music. It is important not only to know, but also understand the meaning of the Psalms outside what is simply written in the Bible. As we go about understanding the Psalms in a lyrical way, the stories become our own in a way that simply reading scripture or singing hymns cannot. The reason behind this becomes clear once we make sense of the method behind which these verses were spread.

Firstly, parsing scripture does not maintain quite the beauty and antiquity on the same level that has allowed the Psalms to persist throughout the ages as more well-known than other passages in the Bible. One may go about understanding the significance of the lyrical nature of the Psalms by understanding another important classical tradition. The Ancient Greek works The Iliad and The Odyssey were narrated by a blind storyteller named Homer in roughly the 8th century BCE.  Homer weaved elaborate tales of conquest and drama, despair and love, which were passed down solely through spoken tradition 1. For many years, scholars were unaware that these epics were sung until the repetition of verses was identified as a rhythmic element. For example, Homer often uses the phrase “Dawn extended her rosy fingertips” 2 at the beginning of a new verse or scene, which, translated into the tongue in which it was transmitted, served as a mnemonic aid to the singer in not moving the story along, but also in helping the receiver retain the message. Hence this explains why these epics, as comprehensive as they are, were still able to endure. The first two verses in Psalm 29 begin “Ascribe to the Lord”, verses 3-7 begin with “The voice of the Lord”, and the last two begin “The Lord.” This repetitive pattern found in many of the Psalms is evidence that these words were sung and not spoken. When structured musical notation was created in Western Europe around the 9th century CE, the medieval Church invented ways to denote things such as melody, rhythm, and commands for the worshipper to sing. The implication is that the sung method not only affected how the message was delivered to believers during worship, but also how the message of Christ was disseminated throughout history.

Reveling in the Psalms in their true form offers a sufficiently richer history and breadth of experience than does singing hymns. The Psalms were an oral tradition in the early Church. 3 Among the hundred and fifty of them, believers tell stories of their suffering while captives in Babylon as they “sat down, wept, and remembered Zion” 4, “[give] thanks to the Lord” 5 while as slaves in Israel, laud their deliverance from bondage in Egypt after His promise to “bless the people of Israel” 6. The rich history and extensive breadth of experience discussed in The Book of Psalms are unmatched by the Christian hymns.

        C.S. Lewis, an acclaimed 20th-century British theologian and novelist, offers his own commentary on the Psalms, citing them as wonderfully coveted works of poetry that should be received as such. According to Lewis, we must open ourselves to be absorbed by these holy words and open our hearts to learn new things about ourselves and about the text, in the same manner that we do with poetry and classical works of literature like those of Homer. Not to know, rather learning to understand and appreciate the Psalms in their entire form, is more nuanced than one would be led to believe by simply parsing the verses in the The Book of Psalms.

Like the Homeric works, the Bible ascribes much of the writing to King David–as The Iliad and The Odyssey do to Homer–but all these texts owe much also to various anonymous writers. In short, the Psalms are an anthology, meaning they capture a wide breadth of meanings and experiences with our Lord from many different sources. Even though one tradition speaks to paganism ensconced in literature and the other tradition to the Word of God, one cannot overlook the parallels between their dissemination so as to understand exactly why the Psalms stand alone as so integral to our appreciation for the Bible and the traditions of early Christians. We are led to the same conclusion as with the Homeric epics, that the oral nature is a reason why the Psalms live on past antiquity, through the Church, and even still stand as some of the most widely known Bible verses. It one of the most integral pieces in the Bible as a method for spreading the Christian faith as well as a text that resonates with the common person. C.S. Lewis states, “the most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance,” 7 which is to exalt the name of the Lord with life and vigor.

As stated above, to understand the significance of the Psalms is to fully appreciate their meaning in the Bible. Firstly, the oral nature of the Psalms not only allow their message to be spread more easily, but it also allows them to stand as some of the Bible’s most prominent and defining passages. And secondly, the large scope of experience with God that the Psalms capture allows those who take in their messages to feel more personally connected to being a human being, as well as a follower of Christ.

Notes:

  1. Homer, Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. The Odyssey, Book IX
  3. Laudemont Ministries, A Sensible Approach to Christian Truths
  4. Psalms 137:1
  5. Psalms 136:1
  6. Psalms 115:12
  7. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms