I have a love-hate relationship with this one particular list of “top 150” song-poems. The songs themselves are known simply as the “Psalms.” They were written a few thousand years ago by David son of Jesse, Asaph, and the Sons of Korah, among other now-anonymous authors.
Later, they became the original “greatest hits” collection within the Hebrew Scriptures, and have been studied, recited and treasured by Jews and Christians down through the centuries. Jesus of Nazareth quoted Psalm 22 during his crucifixion. Psalm 23 continues to be a standard text at funerals and after tragedies. Snatches from still other Psalms have made their way onto the lips of characters in blockbuster movies like Saving Private Ryan.
Some Psalms are very short. Psalm 134, for example, is only three verses or 43 words in the King James Version, about the length of a tweet. Others are very long, like Psalm 119, which has 176 verses and a lot more than 43 words.
As a kid, I was given a New Testament accompanied by “the Psalms and Proverbs.” I was taught to love the Psalms because they are in the Bible and are a particularly useful repository of source material for Sunday worship songs. I heard them referred to as the Bible’s ‘prayer book,’ which I understood to serve as a sort of regulator to keep human emotions and events from straying into the forbidden grounds of unorthodoxy. I also learned they can be grouped into categories like “Pilgrim Psalms,” “Lament Psalms” and “Messianic Psalms.”
I’ve read the Psalms many times, most recently in liturgically oriented Psalters, but, and I intend no sacrilege here, I find some parts of the Psalms repulsive. I do not rejoice at the opportunity to wash my feet in the blood of “the wicked,” and I have no desire to bash in the heads of my enemies’ infants, for example.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I acknowledged this dissonance that I began to find myself drawn to the raw and haunting phrases of the Psalms. The more I get to know and work alongside “people in need,” a category of people often mentioned in the Psalms, the more I identify with the psalmists and their subjects. These 150 song-poems take their audience on an emotional roller-coaster, returning over and over to central themes like repentance, praise, rescue and vindication: “I’m so sorry, please forgive me!”, “God, You are amazing! I am safe with you,” “I am on your side and have done nothing wrong, but I am in deep s–t, so come save me!” and “What my enemies are doing isn’t right! I want them brought to justice! Don’t forget You said You would take care of the downtrodden, so do what You said You would do!”
These stark, human refrains take on an almost shrill tone at times. “Give them what they deserve, but save me because I’ve done nothing wrong!” soon switches to “Don’t give me what I deserve, please show mercy to me!” It’s almost as if the song-poems were meant to serve as a sort of literary and musical channel for the flood of real human emotion and turmoil.
Scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests in a recent interview that there are three things we can do with insatiable anger or a thirst for revenge:
- Act it out violently,
- Deny it and risk that emotion coming out somewhere else where you didn’t plan it, or,
- Give it over to your therapist or to God, which is what Brueggemann proposes is happening in the Psalms.
We would all do well to choose the third option over the other two. I took that advice recently. For the first time in a long time, after hearing of a neighbor’s recent dire physical and financial plight, I went to the Psalms. I poured my despair, anger and sadness at the world I have allowed to exist and helped build into those ancient literary-musical channels: “But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me: thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God.”
Somehow, revisiting these song-poems I love and hate, helped.