A Book for All Seasons – the Book of Psalms

Cry out with joy to the Lord

Chris McDonnell, Catholic Times, 10 July 2020


Many of us will have followed the example of Desert Island Discs and have chosen our own eight tracks of music to take into exile. But let’s adjust the option slightly. If the question were about selection of books from scripture, what would be your choice then? What would you choose and what would determine your choice? I would have no hesitation in selecting the Psalter, the Book of Psalms, a book for all Seasons. I would like to explore with you this week some of the reasons behind my choice.

There are 150 psalms altogether, most of them attributed to David. In fact they are often referred to as the Songs of David. They are the lyrics of a poet whose voice resonates with the beauty of carefully formed ideas and reflections. They tell a mixed story of joy and tears, struggle and success, effort and repeated failure. They challenge their readers to face up to their own success and failure in life’s journey and in so doing to come face to face with the mercy and constant forgiveness of the God who made us.

At times there is frustration, even anger, in the voice of the psalmist as he tries to come to terms with the consequences of his struggle. There is a feeling of being ‘let down’ in time of need and of the pain of others being critical of Israel, and of the psalmist’s need for God. Psalm 13 expresses some of that despair.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear grief in my soul,
have sorrow in my heart all day long?

 How long shall my enemy prevail over me?
look, answer me, Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes lest I fall asleep in death;
 lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him”;
lest my foes rejoice when they see me fall.

As for me, I trust in your merciful love.
Let my heart rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord who has been bountiful with me.
I will sing psalms to the name of the Lord Most High.”

Psalm 41 opens with the beautiful image of a thirsty deer.

Like the deer that yearns for running streams
So my soul is yearning for you my God.

My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life
When can I enter and see the face of God?

My tears have become my bread, by night by day
As I hear it said all the day long ‘Where is your God?’”

There is an ache in those words, an ache of being forgotten, the ache of someone in need.

Psalm 5 is another cry for help, a plea that God might hear in time of distress.

“To my words give ear O Lord, give heed to my groaning
Attend to the sound of my cries my king and my God.

It is you whom I invoke, O Lord, in the morning you hear me
In the morning I will offer you my prayer, watching and waiting”.

Here there is an openness, a dependence, an expectation of help.

Then in some psalms we have a note of joy and thanksgiving, a tone of praise for God’s goodness.

Psalm 32 calls for such reflection.

“Ring out your joy to the Lord, O you just
For praise is fitting for loyal hearts.

Give thanks to the Lord upon the lyre
With a ten stringed harp sing him songs.

O sing him a song that is new
Play loudly with all your skill.”

Then there is the realisation of our own weakness and failure, of our faults and mistakes. Psalm 35 is stark in this acknowledgement.

“Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart
There is no fear of God before his eyes.

He so flatters himself in his mind that he knows not his guilt
In his mouth are mischief and deceit all wisdom is gone”

There is also the need for consolation in time of distress, the confidence of trust when faith is placed in God. Psalm 56 expresses this need.

“Have mercy on me God, have mercy for in you my soul has taken refuge for in the shadow of your wings I take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by”

That same plea for mercy comes again in Psalm 50 where we stand before God in our need.

“Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness
 In your compassion blot out my offence
 O wash me more and more from my guilt
And cleanse me from my sin”

The prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours works its way through the Psalter week by week, month by month, placing before us the full complement of psalms for our prayerful consideration. In that way the psalms come to enrich our lives and their words linger in our memory.

Psalm 18 is a beautiful statement of praise.

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands. Day unto day takes up the story and night unto night makes known the message.

No speech, no word, no voice is heard yet their span extends through all the earth, their words to the utmost bounds of the world”

Possibly the most well-known psalm is psalm 23  

“The Lord is my shepherd;
 there is nothing I shall want.|
Fresh and green are the pastures
 where he gives me repose.

 Near restful waters he leads me;
he revives my soul.
He guides me along the right path,
for the sake of his name……”

It is a psalm of care and concern, picking up the image of a shepherd and his care for the flock, anxious for their safety and well-being. There is an expression of security here, of confidence and trust.

Another well-known psalm is psalm 130, still often referred to in the Latin phrase as ‘the de Profundis. This psalm is often associated with prayer for someone who has died, seeking forgiveness and hope ‘of the watchman for daybreak.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the sound of my pleadings.

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?…..”

Each psalm offers space for reflection, an opportunity to ponder on the psalmist’s words and in doing so better to appreciate our own life experience.

Psalm 136 ‘By the waters of Babylon’ was released as a song by group Boney M in 1978, telling the story of exile.

“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, remembering thee O Zion”

Many years ago I wrote a sequence of poems in memory of Thomas Merton. One of the poems derived from psalm 39, with each verse beginning with words from the psalm. When I shared the text with Br Patrick Hart at the Abbey of Gethsemani he told me that it was the psalm the monks recited together the night they heard of Merton’s death.

I will finish with those few words.

One who passes by

You have given me a short span of days*
and in the passing of that determined time
I did not stand still, repeating last year’s experience.

 My life is as nothing in your sight*
hidden beyond a gateway crossed in a dark December
night, I made my way leaving behind the time of wandering.

A mere breath the one who stood so firm*
surety of movement as my steps were taken
exploring beyond the wall into the rose garden
each patient year.

A mere shadow the one who passes by*
stops to speak to listen to words that echo in the mind
long after the speaking stops and leave is taken.

A mere breath the hoarded riches*
of life, full lived of days and weeks
prayed out with other silent men of prayer
or faced in solitude.

And who will take them no one knows*
I did not write words nor speak to brothers
or to friends of my pilgrimage knowing each one face to face.
Take them as you choose.

*Psalm 39 Vs 6/7 Grail Translation

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