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27 June. Psalms 1-8.
The Psalms – all 150 of them – are so diverse and rich in meaning that it is going to be difficult to write just a few paragraphs about each batch of them. Some days I may write a little about each one, other days pick a single psalm to explore. If I have missed your favourite, do let me know why you like it! I will be using the ‘protestant’ rather than ‘catholic’ numbering of the psalms, since that is what I am more familiar with, and sometimes I will quote from the traditional translations rather than the modern (NRSV). But let’s start with the first one.
Some Bibles give each psalm the Latin title by which it was known in the days when they were regularly changed by monks and parish choirs in that ancient language. The first is known as Beatus vir – “Blessed is the man”. Modern translations render this as “Happy are those (… who do not follow the advice of the wicked)”. Right at the start of this collection of wisdom poetry and sacred songs is the assertion that the route to true happiness is not through “success”, wealth or even good health, but in moral virtue. Those who follow God’s way are like well-watered trees: strong, resistant to anything life can throw at them, and (though the psalmist would not have realised this) producing life-giving oxygen to sustain human life. The wicked by contrast are “chaff” – straw in the wind – and of no use to anyone.
Psalm 2 is the bold statement of the king in Jerusalem that he is God’s son and that through him God will bring victory over those who conspire against him. No doubt written by or for one of the kings of Judah, probably David to whom several of the psalms are attributed, but Christians see this as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, whom God addressed audibly as “son” at his baptism, and whose “reign” from Jerusalem started with his resurrection.
Psalm 4 is one of those regularly sung at Compline (the last prayer time of the day in the monastic tradition), owing to its last verse: “In peace will I lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Combined with verse 4 “When you are angry do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent”, this helps us to relax and forget our worries at the end of the day.
Psalms 5, 6 and 7 are among the many written in times of anguish by David (or others) who were in terror of their enemies. From them we learn that God is never with those who wield terror and threats, rather he is with their intended victims, for he is the defender of the weak and oppressed. Never forget that, and always consider which side you are on in times of dispute.
Psalm 8 is definitely one of my favourites. For a rare moment in the Bible, which normally pays little attention to the skies (perhaps as a reaction against the sun-worship and astrology of other religions), we are reminded that this earth is just a tiny part of a vast and wonderful creation, the whole purpose of which is to bring praise and glory to its creator. The writer of this psalm could not have begun to imagine the vastness of the universe as scientists now describe it, but even so he or she was over-awed by creation and moved to worship. So should we be.