The Complete Book of Psalms

Psalmic Mystery: Does God Believe in Free Will?
What's really in the Good Book.
March 15 2007 12:06 PM

The Complete Book of Psalms

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The end of the psalms approaches, and I can't say I'm sorry. These have been the most challenging—that is, uh, boring—couple of weeks of the Bible blog. I'll be thrilled to see Psalms in my rearview mirror. Now, let's burn through the last lap.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Psalm 121
A great, short prayer for God's protection, it has one of the best opening lines in the psalms: "I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?" (From God, of course!) The Lord vows to shield the psalmist from all threats. But I'm a little confused by one verse. The Lord promises to keep the author in the shade, as though that's a good thing: "The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night." Is the psalmist a vampire? Does he suffer from photophobia? Has he run out of SPF 45? Since when is it a blessing to avoid sunshine and moonlight?

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Psalm 126
The last chunk of the book includes a bunch of short, imagistic psalms. Unlike the other psalms, they ditch the throat-clearing preludes to God and vengeful postludes. Instead they're a bit like modern poetry—a metaphor or two, and not a lot of explanation. For example, this psalm finishes: "Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves." It's at once lovely and a little bit cryptic.

Psalm 127
A poem about the blessing of having sons. "Happy is the man who has a quiver full of them." This is possibly true, but I know a family with five boys, and "happy" is not the first adjective that comes to mind.

Psalm 131
An atypical psalm of David, in that it is amazingly humble. David tells himself that he has finally found peace by lowering his ambition: "I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me." This is followed by a vivid metaphor: "I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me." I love this metaphor, but honestly, I don't understand it. Isn't the soul supposed to be our master, not our child? Also, isn't the soul supposed to calming, while our minds are violent, arrogant, and ambitious? But here the rational brain soothes the impetuous, foolish soul. David's soul seems more like his id.

Psalm 133
A delightful image! The psalm looks forward to the unification of Israel, saying that reconciliation will be "like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes." What a combination of strangeness, beauty, and grandeur! Can't you see the oil glistening, the beard shiny and matted with it, and the joyful smile on Aaron's face as he is anointed as God's priest? The prayer captures God's blessing, Aaron's thanks, and—most of all—the physical sensation of that oil: slick, golden, glorious.

Psalm 136
The funnest moment of the Passover seder is when we sing "Dayenu," usually translated into English as, "It would have been enough!" (or, if you prefer, "Enough, already!") "Dayenu" thanks God for all His interventions on our behalf: If He had just taken us out of Egypt, Dayenu! If He had just taken us out of Egypt and given us matzoh to eat, Dayenu! And so on and so forth through parting the Red Sea, drowning the Egyptians, leading us to Mount Sinai, making the Sabbath, giving us the Torah, Dayenu! The song has the same catchy buildup as "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and a rousing chorus. Anyway, I wonder if Psalm 136 is the inspiration for "Dayenu": It's a series of thank-yous to God for His gifts: "who spread out the earth on the waters … who made the great lights … who struck Egyptians through their firstborn … who divided the Red Sea in two," etc., etc.

Psalm 137
A very important psalm for Jews
. Even an ignoramus like me knows its opening line, "By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion." A mournful song of exile, the poem insists that we never abandon Israel: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you." The psalm, as you can imagine, is beloved by Zionists. In his new book Prisoners, Jeffrey Goldberg writes wonderfully about how Psalm 137 made him decide to move to Israel. (Actually, Goldberg had his revelation when he listened to the Melodians' reggae version of the psalm, "Rivers of Babylon," which is on The Harder They Come'ssoundtrack. I can't find the Melodians' version on YouTube, but here's the Boney M rendition, which is nearly as famous.)

The Melodians and Boney M leave out the last verses of Psalm 137, and I suspect most modern readers try to do the same thing, at least in their head. That's because it's monstrous. After the heartfelt versifying about our home, Zion, the author addresses the final lines of the poem to the Babylonian enemy: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock." This juxtaposition of personal sorrow and grotesque revenge—infanticide! with rocks!—perfectly captures the cognitive dissonance of the psalms. These poems appeal to the best in us, and the worst—often at the same time.

Psalm 139
Several Christian friends have told me how much they like 139. It imagines a God who knows exactly what is in us: He knows what I am going to say, "even before a word is on my tongue." He wrote down my whole life in His book, "all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed."

I find this notion of predestination creepy. One of the best things about being human is free will. Of course we are constrained by brain chemistry, upbringing, economic circumstances, etc., but we mostly get to make decisions on our own and live with the consequences. If you shift all the choices back to God, it's a cop-out. Sure, it frees you from the agony of hard choices and mistakes—it's God's will—but it also removes the responsibility, regret, and self-examination that make us thinking creatures.

There's also a self-contradictory quality to Psalm 139. It declares that God has set our future and knows every word we will say before we say it. At the same time, it repeatedly asks God to "test" us—to search us and make sure we are not wicked. If God has written our futures and knows our thoughts, why would He need to test us? The psalmist wants to have and eat the cake. He wants to give God credit for absolute power, but he also wants to get credit for not being wicked. ("Test me, Lord. See, I'm not wicked.") You don't get to have it both ways: If God has predestined it all, then you deserve no credit for your goodness. God made it happen.

Psalm 141
This is the self-help psalm for drug addicts and alcoholics, for any of us who have problems controlling ourselves. Usually psalms beg God for relief: Kill my enemy. But Psalm 141 is more sophisticated. It places the responsibility on us to change ourselves, and petitions God only for a helping hand. The author asks God to "set a guard over my mouth" and to "keep me from the trap" that enemies have laid. The psalmist is asking God for help, so he can help himself. The psalmist doesn't want to say any more wicked things, so he's praying for self-control over his tongue. He doesn't want to "eat … the delicacies" of the wicked, so he's imploring God to give him the strength to resist. The message is the opposite of Psalm 139's predestination: It demands that we do the work ourselves. God will lend aid, but we must make the effort. That's why I like it!

Psalm: "O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath, their days are like a passing shadow."

Macbeth: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

A small echo, but maybe something?

Psalm 150
A romping, stomping hoedown of a psalm. It lists all the instruments that we should play while honoring God. "Praise Him with trumpet sound; praise Him with lute and harp! Praise Him with tambourine and dance; praise Him with strings and pipe! Praise Him with clanging cymbals; praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!"

What a great finish! Now onto the Book of Proverbs.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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