22 October 2018

Darkness I Sing

Dad would wake us up, Mom would pause fixing breakfast, we'd work our way out to the table...and read the Psalms.

I don't remember how “successful” we were in terms of chapters read per day, but these morning readings gave me words for the beauty of a frosty morning, “...he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes....” (Psalm 147:16) and the fears I felt around my paper route, “Help, LORD! for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men” (Psalm 12:1).

Years later as I struggled to understand relationships and a changing vocation...a friend pointed me to the Psalms again...and gave me Derek Kidner's two-volume commentary. 

That's how I started noticing poetic forms in the Genesis creation story, in blessings and cursings throughout Genesis, in Exodus—when Moses and the people burst into song on the far side of the Red Sea—and in the time of Judges when Deborah, Barak, and Jael defeated king Jabin and Sisera.

The Psalms emerge within this poetic tradition. In the introduction to his translation and commentary on the Psalms, Robert Alter dates the writing of the Psalms between the eleventh century—around the time of David—and the fourth centuries BCE—after the Babylonian deportation.

Part of this history is recorded in other parts of the Bible. King David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16, “...and he appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, and to record, and to thank and praise the LORD God of Israel: Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, Jeiel, and Shemiramoth, and Jehiel, and Mattithiah, and Eliab, and Benaiah, and Obededom: and Jeiel with psalteries and with harps; but Asaph made a sound with cymbals; Benaiah also and Jahaziel the priests with trumpets continually before the ark of the covenant of God. Then on that day David delivered first this psalm to thank the LORD into the hand of Asaph and his brethren.”

When Hezekiah cleansed the temple in 2 Chronicles 29, “...he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets....And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.”

The account of King Josiah's Passover in 2 Chronicles 35 listed King David's worship instructions in parallel with the office of the priests: “When the service had been prepared for, the priests stood in their place, and the Levites in their divisions according to the king’s command.... The singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their place according to the command of David, and Asaph, and Heman, and Jeduthun the king’s seer....”

By the first century CE, the Psalms were sufficiently regarded that the New Testament gospel of Luke records the resurrected Jesus citing the law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms concerning himself.

Kidner explains Hebrew poetry is not measured out in syllables or feet as in English poetry, but “heard in the sound of, say, three or four stresses in a short sentence or phrase, matched by an answering line of about the same length....” and “What we have called a couplet...can build up at times to the higher climax of a triplet....”

“...it is the exception rather than the rule to find stanzas of equal length or even any clear definition....” Kidner says, “But the fundamental characteristic of this poetry is not its external forms or rhythms, but its way of matching or echoing one thought with another.”


We see this form in Psalm 88...here with text from the King James Version and line breaks adapted from Robert Alter's translation and commentary.

O LORD God of my salvation,
        I have cried day and night before thee:
Let my prayer come before thee:
        incline thine ear unto my cry;

For my soul is full of troubles:
        and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.
I am counted with them that go down into the pit:
        I am as a man that hath no strength:
Free among the dead,
        like the slain that lie in the grave,
whom thou rememberest no more:
        and they are cut off from thy hand.
Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit,
        in darkness, in the deeps.
Thy wrath lieth hard upon me,
        and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah
Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me;
        thou hast made me an abomination unto them:
                I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.
Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction:
        LORD, I have called daily upon thee,
                I have stretched out my hands unto thee....
Wilt thou show wonders to the dead?
        shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah
Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave?
        or thy faithfulness in destruction?
Shall thy wonders be known in the dark?
        and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

But unto thee have I cried, O LORD;
        and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.
LORD, why castest thou off my soul?
        why hidest thou thy face from me?
I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up:
        while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.
Thy fierce wrath goeth over me;
        thy terrors have cut me off.
They came round about me daily like water;
        they compassed me about together.
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me,
        and mine acquaintance into darkness.

Its formal flexibility allows Hebrew poetry to express a wide range of human experience...and express things in uncomfortable proximity to one another. Psalm 88 ends...without resolving the darkness it describes. The beautiful lament that begins Psalm 137 ends in a scream for vengeance.

The psalmists are honest in ways we moderns perhaps experience but don't often express. So honest that it's hard to identify a theme uniting the entire anthology...at least in the way we think of themes, prone as we are to confine particular emotions to particular genres.

One stream that does run through all this wildness...is a relatedness to the God of Israel.

Which is perhaps a point...I'm not sure I'd have noticed if the Psalms were less wild.

Alter says, “The prose narratives of the Hebrew Bible, despite the sundry links with the surrounding literatures that scholarship has identified, are formally innovative in striking ways. Indeed it is arguable that at least as a set of techniques and conventions, they constitute the most original literary creation of the biblical writers. Psalms on the other hand, or psalmlike cultic hymns and celebrations of the gods, were common in Egypt and mesopotamia, and Syro-Canaanite literature....”

Alter continues, “Many of the psalms, then, derive some of their poetic force from the literary antecedents on which they draw. But the Hebrew poems were manifestly framed for Israelite purposes that were in many regards distinctive and at best no more than loosely parallel to the polytheistic texts that served as poetic precedents.”


Returning to the text of Psalm 137...

By the rivers of Babylon,
        there we sat down, yea, we wept,
                when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive
        required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth,
        saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD’S song
        in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee,
        let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem
        above my chief joy.

Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom
        in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Raze it, raze it,
        even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
        happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee
                as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
        thy little ones against the stones.

To frame a context for the imprecatory Psalms, we can observe the psalmists lived under conditions more like Syria's civil war than like American suburbia. Betrayal meant annihilation of family, the disappearance of culture, and deportation to an alien place.

We might also observe that King David, founder of the Psalmic tradition, refused to take vengeance against some who wronged him at a time when such restraint was odd.

In “Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137,” David W. Stowe quotes Miroslav Volf, “In the imprecatory Psalms, torrents of rage have been allowed to flow freely, channeled only by the robust structure of a ritual prayer. Strangely enough, they may point to a way out of slavery to revenge and into the freedom of forgiveness.... rage belongs before God—not in the reflectively managed and manicured form of a confession, but as a pre-reflective outburst from the depths of the soul. This is no mere cathartic discharge of pent up aggression before the Almighty who ought to care. Much more significantly, by placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice. Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. In the light of the justice and love of God, however, hate recedes and the seed is planted for the miracle of forgiveness.”

Though I have not experienced genocide or deportation, there have been times my first step toward forgiveness came while pacing a parking lot in tears, praying that God would break someone's teeth out....self-reflective enough to admit they might not deserve it...but confessing in the bare act of screaming, my dependence on the justice of God.


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