Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Psalms: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew worship music and poetry, written by different authors, in different time periods, and for different reasons.  Many of the Psalms are ascribed to King David, who in the books of Samuel and Kings is often described as a musician.  Each psalm is unique, but there are certain recurring themes that run throughout: hope, misery, pleas for help, faith, the goodness of God, vengeance on enemies, deliverance for the nation of Israel, praise, thanksgiving, war, and peace.  

"King David Playing the Harp" from the Westminster Psalter (1250)

The Psalms are sort of like the soundtrack to Israel’s history, expressing the community and individual’s response to events and their meaning.  One unique thing about the Psalms is that they reflect a personal, individual relationship with God, as opposed to one strictly mediated by priests.  When I read the Psalms, one main theme seems to be most prominent, and that is, “Help, God!”.  For the very beginning of their existence, the Israelites suffered tremendously, and the Psalms offered people a kind of personal, and communal outlet for their anguish, and their tenacious hope.  I have decided to include a selection of quotes on this theme, divided into two sections: “Help me out, God” (personally) and “Help us out, God” (as a community)—a kind of ancient Hebrew mixtape.  As usual, I have put the Psalm quotes into my own words…

On the theme of: “Help me out, God”…

“Be gracious to me, God, for I am suffering;
Heal me, O Lord, for I am tired in my bones.
And my soul is disheartened.
How long will this last?”

--Psalm 6:2-3

“My God, my God, why have you neglected me?
I cry out, but deliverance seems really far away.
I cry out during the day, 
but you don’t answer;
I cry out at night, 
and I can’t sleep.”

--Psalm 22:1-2

“Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become so disturbed?
Hope in God, for I will again praise Him
Even his presence is comforting.”

--Psalm 42: 5

“My heart is in anguish within me,
And I’m scared of dying.
Fear and trembling and horror 
have overwhelmed me.
I prayed…
“Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would wander far away,
I would live in the wilderness.
I would find a place of refuge
From this shit-storm.”

--Psalm 55: 4-8

“Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,
My soul takes refuge in you;
In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
Until destruction passes by.”

--Psalm 57: 1

“Save me, O God,
I feel like I’m drowning.
I feel like I’m slipping down a mountain, with no foothold
I feel like I’m drowning in a flood
I have cried so long 
that I’m tired, 
and my throat is parched
and my eyes are all red.
I’m waiting for God.”

--Psalm 69: 1-3

“O God! 
Some violent men are actually trying to kill me!
They don’t care about you.
Listen, I know you are merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and full of grace and truth.
So help me out, here!
Give me strength!
Give me a sign, here!
Let those assholes see it, and be ashamed,
Because you, O Lord, have helped me and comforted me.”

--Psalm 86: 14-17

“Listen up, God!
Listen to my cry for help!
Don’t be silent when I’m suffering so much.
Listen to me,
Give me an answer.
I’ve taken up chain-smoking,
I’ve got weary bones,
My heart is withering, like grass.
I’ve lost my appetite.
When I’m alone, I literally cry out.
I’m losing weight, to an unhealthy degree.
I’m like a lonely pelican.
I’m like an owl in a waste land.
I can’t sleep.
I’m like a lonely bird on a housetop.

People are persecuting me,
They are making fun of me.
Food doesn’t taste good any more,
Tears fall in my beer,
It’s because you are a wrathful God
It’s because you don’t care about me.
I spend my days in misery;
And I wither away like grass.”

--Psalm 102: 1-11

“I am afflicted and needy,
And my heart is wounded within me.
I feel like a lonely ghost
I feel like an insignificant insect.
I’ve stopped eating.  
I am literally wasting away.”

--Psalm 110: 22-25

“I feel like dying,
I feel like hell;
I feel distress and sorrow.
I prayed: ‘Please, God, 
I beg you, save my life.’”

--Psalm 116: 3-4

“Too long have I lived 
among war-mongers.
I am for peace.
They are for war.”

--Psalm 120: 7

“Out of the depths I have cried to you, God.
Please listen.
I know I fucked up.
Who doesn’t fuck up?
But you are a God of forgiveness.”

--Psalm 130: 1-4

“Rescue me, God, from evil men;
Preserve me from violent men,
Who devise evil things in their hearts;
They continually stir up wars.
They are liars.
Save me, God, from bad men,
Preserve me from violent men,
Who keep making things hard for me.”

--Psalm 140: 1-5

“I cry out to God,
I tell him my troubles.
When I feel overwhelmed,
He understands.
When I was really lonely and scared,
I cried out to you, God
I said, ‘You are my refuge,
You give me hope.
Listen to my cry,
For I am very low;
Save me from my persecutors,
For they are too strong for me.
Bring my soul out of prison.”

--Psalm 142

“Listen to my prayer, God,
Just listen, and don’t judge, okay?
Humans are flawed creatures, you understand.
I am overwhelmed.
I am appalled.”

--Psalm 143: 1-4

On the theme of “Help us out, God”…

“God will give strength to oppressed people,
He’ll help them during tough times.”

--Psalm 9:9

“God, you listen to humble people;
You strengthen their heart, 
You listen closely to people
like orphans
and those who are oppressed,
So cruel dickheads can’t scare or hurt them anymore.”

--Psalm 10: 17-18

“Where the fuck are you, God?
If you are sleeping, wake the fuck up!
Are you hiding or something?
Because we are living in oppression
And are really hurting down here
Wake up!  Help us!  Save us!
We need some grace down here.”

--Psalm 44: 23-26

“God is our refuge and strength,
He helps us when we are in trouble.
We won’t be afraid, 
even when the whole world is screwed up,
And the sea level is rising,
its waters roaring and foaming,
and once-tall mountains are covered.”

--Psalm 46: 1-3

“God, you have rejected us.
You have broken us;
You have been angry; 
Please restore us.
The world is really messed up.
Heal it.
You make your people see hard things,
You make us drink the wine of astonishment.”

--Psalm 60: 3

“God, why have you rejected us forever?
Why are you so pissed at us?
Remember your people?
Remember when you said we were yours?
Remember when you saved us?
Zion, your holy place, is in ruins.
If you get a chance,
come see what it’s like
to live in these ruins.

--Psalm 74: 1-3

“Well, God, we’ve been conquered.
Invaders have totally fucked up your temple,
And destroyed Jerusalem.
(Thanks for nothing).”

--Psalm 79:1

“How long will you answer our prayers with anger?
We are crying all the time,
Our enemies laugh at us
Please restore us.
Please look upon us with favor,
like you used to do.
Please save us.”

--Psalm 80: 4-7

“Be gracious to us, God, be gracious to us;
People are treating us cruelly. 
Rich, powerful, apathetic people.”

--Psalm 123: 3-4

“While living in exile in Babylon,
We sat by the river
And we wept,
When we remembered the home we lost.
We hung our harps on weeping willows.
Our conquerors made us sing songs
of home, as a kind of cruel joke.
How can we sing songs about you, God,
When we have lost everything?”

--Psalm 137: 1-6

The Jamaican ska band The Melodians did an awesome version of Psalm 137, aka "Rivers of Babylon"

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