Posted by: jevcat | June 27, 2010

Psalm Sung Blue

For years I worked my way through the Bible, a chapter each in Old and New Testaments each night.  Nowadays, I follow the two-year daily lectionary in back of the Book of Common Prayer.  But the Bible can still be daunting. 

The Hebrew scriptures overwhelm:  creation of the universe, parting of the Red Sea while the Israelites follow a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, prophets thunder.  The Greek scriptures are more intimate but mostly no less intimidating:  God comes down, the lame, deaf, blind are healed, the dead raised, St. Paul kvetches, and Revelations is just too weird for words – I did not participate in the trippy aspect of the sixties.  So where do I fit in all of this?  Very little of it seems to include the real world – at least my real world.  For that I need the Psalms.

Sometimes I think the Psalms are the main reason why I follow the lectionary.  Somehow the ebb and flow of emotions in them – they hit just about every gradation of human feeling – almost always seems to find a resonance with me:  hope, despair, anger, joy – they’re all there, and I always seem to come to them at the right time (lately the first two have really been vying with each other).  When I read:  “For my days drift away like smoke … My heart is smitten like grass and withered, so that I forget to eat my bread … I lie awake and groan; I am like a sparrow, lonely on a housetop” (Psalm 102:3-4, 7), I know I am not alone; others have felt as I do when I feel isolated and afraid.  But that is not the end of the story:  “As often as I said, ‘My foot has slipped,’ your love, O Lord, upheld me”  (Psalm 94:18) and “He has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city” (Psalm 31:21) – yeah, I’ve felt like that at times.  Pleas – “O Lord, be my helper” (Psalm 30:11) – are sometimes left hanging (been there) and sometimes, as in this case, followed immediately by rejoicing that the help has arrived:  “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:12) (been there, too).

The vengeance psalms do make me uncomfortable, perhaps mostly because I recognize in them an aspect of myself I don’t like:  “Let their sin be always before the Lord; but let him root out their names from the earth; Because he did not remember to show mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy and sought to kill the brokenhearted.  He loved cursing, let it come upon him; he took no delight in blessing, let it depart from him.”  (Psalm 109:14-16) – who hasn’t secretly (or not so secretly) wished for someone we don’t like or who has wronged us to be made uncomfortable or worse.  Who hasn’t felt just a tiny thrill when it happens, however quickly we might suppress it?  And then, of course the psalmist follows immediately with a prayer for aid for himself – and not only that, but asks God to make sure the offending party knows who’s responsible:  “They may curse, but you will bless.” (Psalm 109:27) – so there!  Oh, yes, human nature is on display in the Psalms – in spades.

The Psalms also provide words for times when they are hard to find, when wonder takes over:  “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is man that you should be mindful of him?  The son of man that you should seek him out?”  [Note to those with gendered language issues:  In theory, I agree, but I have a beautiful language issue and “man/woman” and other “inclusive” work-arounds interrupt the beautiful flow and natural rhythm of the words and jar me right out of the lovely space of the meaning.  That said, when I am faced with the Milky Way, I have been known to substitute:  “What is woman that thou art mindful of her?  The daughter of woman that thou considerest her?” – and yes, I do sometimes fall happily into formally archaic language when talking to God, acknowledging the duality that Julian of Norwich, in her down-to-earth Middle English, represents as “He that is highest is homeliest.”]

The Book of Psalms serves up valuable self-help advice:  “ … do not be jealous of those who do wrong … Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.  Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, the one who succeeds in evil schemes.  Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.” (Psalm 37:1, 7-9) – almost Buddhist, that last bit.

And when darkness and fear seem overwhelming, Psalm 139 has an unnerving way of popping up in the day’s readings:  “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.  If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night,’ Darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike” (Psalm 139:8-11).

If you asked me my favourite Bible passage, depending on my mood you might get different answers:  I Corinthians 13 and its paean to the overwhelming value of love, the first chapter of the Gospel of John with its glorious statement of the divine among us, God’s challenge to Job describing how God told the waters, “ ‘Come thus far’ I said, ‘and no farther:  here your proud waves shall break” (Jerusalem Bible).  On a particularly disgruntled day, I might even cite something like James 2:6:  “Is it not the rich who oppress you?” (NRSV).  But on a day-to-day basis, I’ll take the Psalms. 

Psalms are sort of like iPhone apps:  whatever it is I’m struggling with, there’s a Psalm for that.

[All Psalm quotes taken from the Book of Common Prayer.]


  1. Dear Janet,

    This resonates with me and reminds me of the strength that comes from both Scripture and Community. In posting this, you have given me, as reader, both gifts, scripture and community.

    Thank you! Many blessings, grace and peace,


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