“It was the Christians’ psalm-singing that alerted the Roman world to the revolutionary new force in its midst”

We are living in an ecumenical age, when almost every day, it seems, Protestants, Catholics and Jews are taking some tentative steps toward greater understanding. We are turning with renewed devotion to the superb hymns of adoration, confession, and supplication that for 3,000 years have shaped the public prayers and private meditations of mankind. These are contained in the Book of Psalms, the world’s best-loved and longest-loved poems. In the Psalter, millions of people find a message that gives meaning to life.

The Psalms may be found in any Protestant, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Jewish Bible, in every prayerbook and hymnal, and even separately, published as supreme examples of world literature. They are read in all churches and synagogues; they are quoted in the milestone ceremonies of individual life, from baptism, confirmation, and bar mitzvah to marriage and the final rites. There is hardly anybody who does not know one or more of them by heart.

In the early days of Christianity, Christians banded together in communities so that they could sing the Psalms according to the Psalms’ own rule: “Seven times a day do I praise thee.” Following the example of Jesus, who quoted the Psalms throughout his ministry, sang them with his disciples after their last meal together, and spoke them front the cross, Christians made the Psalms their way of expressing hope, or joy in good news. “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray,” advises the epistle of James. “Is any merry? Let him sing psalms.”

It was the Christians’ Psalm-singing that alerted the Roman world to the revolutionary new force in its midst. Astonishment deepened to awe when the martyrs went to the lions joyously singing Psalms. Later, as Roman civilization crumbled and the barbarians moved in, art, culture, and learning survived in cloisters attached to abbeys built as shrines for the Psalter.

At the time of the Reformation, Reformers from Martin Luther to John Knox, Oliver Cromwell, and John Wesley drew strength from the Psalms and commanded followers to sing them out loud and clear. Luther so loved his “old and ragged Psalter” that he preferred it to all other Scripture. “There,” he wrote, “one sees into the hearts of all the saints, as into a fair and pleasant garden—as into heaven itself!”

The Pilgrims sailed from Holland “to sing the Psalmes and pray without a book.” And one of the early Puritan settlements on Cape Cod was named in allusion to Psalm 76:2: “In Salem also is his tabernacle.” Book One in the index of American publishing is the Puritans’ rhymed translation of the Whole Book of Psalmes, published at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640. It is one of the rarest and most precious of first editions.

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In 1787 the Constitutional Convention was near failure at Philadelphia because the thirteen former colonies could not agree on a form of effective national government. When the deadlock appeared too great for human power to break, eighty-one-year-old Benjamin Franklin rose to his feet. All his life, he said, he had been convinced that the Psalms were right in saying, “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” He moved that the delegates start the next day’s meeting by inviting a Philadelphia clergyman to come in and offer an opening prayer. The motion carried. So dramatic was the improvement in legislative temperaments and legislative efficiency that even today the United States House and Senate still observe Franklin’s precedent.

The appeal of the Psalms has been analyzed many times, with strikingly similar conclusions. In the sixteenth century, John Calvin of France called the Psalms truly “an anatomy of all parts of the soul. There is no movement of the spirit which is not reflected here as in a mirror. All the sorrows, troubles, fears, doubts, hopes, pain, perplexities, story outbursts by which the hearts of men are tossed, have been depicted here to the very life.”

Prefacing a recent Limited Editions Club edition, critic Mark Van Doren said the secret of the Psalms was that “like any great poems, they are more about the reader than the writer. They sing for any soul that is completely serious, whether religion be present or not.” To Van Doren they are the “supreme lyric poems of our world. This is the verdict of civilization.”

The Psalms are a special kind of poetry, intended to be sung. The word “psalm” is one key to their nature; it comes from a Greek verb meaning “to twitch,” as in plucking a stringed instrument. Although other instruments were also used, the usual ancient accompaniment to the Psalms was probably something like the Irish harp.

The Bible attributes authorship of 73 of the 150 Psalms to David, the shepherd boy, warrior, poet, and king who established the Judean dynasty at Jerusalem around 1000 B.C. David was the kind of powerful, zestful, and subtle man who could have written them, but from the existence of other psalm-like passages in the earliest Old Testament chronicles it has been thought that the tradition of psalm-composing predates David.

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Confirmation of this comes now from archaeology. Digging at Ras Shamra in Syria, scholars have unearthed the ruins of the lost city of Ugarit, a Bronze Age center of commerce on the caravan route between Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the library of a choir attached to a temple of a local deity were clay tablets covered with cuneiform characters. When the markings were decoded by code-cracking techniques developed in World War II, they turned out to be fragments of epic poetry similar in style and language to some of the Psalms. They are the first non-biblical poetry antedating the Psalms to be discovered. The Ugaritic epics explained many mythological allusions in the Psalms, such as the Leviathan or great whale and the “bulls of Bashan,” which had long puzzled scholars.

More remarkable were some eighty direct parallels, ranging from partial lines to one three-line Psalm passage. Some of the most memorable phrases in the Psalms, such as “my cup runneth over” and the “hart [that] panteth after the water brooks,” also appear. The language of these Ugaritic writings has now been classified as closely related to early Hebrew.

Religiously as well as ethically, the Ugaritic texts cannot be compared with the Psalms. They are filled with the gross and often cruel demigods of antiquity. But the fact that the Psalms have marked similarities to these ancient poems indicates that in the Psalms man confronts his ancestors not simply at the beginning of his upward reach toward God but in the midst of God’s downward revelation to man.

Part of the Psalms’ power to move people comes from their simplicity. They use short, concrete words, familiar, everyday images—sheep and shepherds, the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, night and day, mountains, valleys, thunder and rain, the proud and haughty and the put-upon. When the Psalm-singer says he thirsts for God as parched earth thirsts for rain, his meaning is clear to everyone. When he says he feels as alone as a solitary sparrow on a housetop, who does not think of a tiny bird he has seen sitting forlornly by itself?

But the chief appeal of the Psalms lies in their themes—life and death, good and evil, justice and mercy—all contained in one overriding theme, the marvelous ways of God with man. The God of the Psalms combines the deepest insights of theology and philosophy with what the simplest person instinctively feels to be true. He created the universe, assigned the stars their courses, appointed the moon its seasons, lifted the dry land out of the seas, still makes the river flow and the flowers bloom.

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But he is more than prime cause; he is the personal God of every individual. God’s love surpasses human love, even the purest: “When my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.” He is the source and author of all hopes: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” “In thee have I put my trust; let me not be ashamed.”

So exalted is the view of God in the Psalms that one might detect a tendency to make man insignificant. On the contrary, surveying the starry sky, a particularly awesome sight over the Middle Eastern deserts, the Psalmist exclaims:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,

The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained,

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

Back comes the answer:

Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,

And hast crowned him with glory and honor.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;

Thou hast put all things under his feet.

Julian Huxley, the biologist, has said that this passage is a theological statement of an astounding scientific truth, the biological uniqueness of man. To this view, the Psalms add a positive code of morality. The prudent, the good man loves the law of God’s truth, “and in his law doth he meditate.” Loving the law, he will deal justly with others, keep his word even when inconvenient, befriend the poor, and bridle his tongue. Because God sees even inside, he prays, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” If he does all this he will not want to die, but death will hold no terrors for him: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Preacher In The Red


Several years ago I was chaplain of a private school for boys. One evening while I was reading the service leading up to the sermon, a black cat wandered into the chapel. The door through which it entered was behind me. Close behind the cat came the headmaster, who cornered the cat on the altar. All this was unknown to me.

As he lunged for the cat I announced my text: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch forth thine hand and take it by the tail.”

There was a tittering among the boys and teachers which I did not understand. But I did understand when I turned my head and saw the headmaster marching down the aisle with the black cat under his arm.

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I was tempted to say, “There goes Moses now,” but I didn’t.—The Rev. W. B. MCKINLEY, Boonesboro, Maryland.

As anybody knows, to attain such peace of mind and soul is not easy. There are times, familiar to us all, when the Psalmist is so overwhelmed with the goodness of life that “my cup runneth over.” In such times he delights in comparing himself with sheep led into green pastures beside still water, and he calls on his friends to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

But there are other occasions we all sometimes encounter when the Psalmist contemplates his sorrows, sickness, and sins, and “waters my couch with my tears.” When his agony becomes unbearable, he utters the most piercing cry for help and forgiveness in all literature: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.… If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”

Although the Psalms have never ceased to hold their power, either for the individual or in the liturgies of religion, there is at present an awakening interest in them. New Psalm commentaries are appearing in bookstores and libraries. Some new hymnals and service books are restoring the Psalms for congregational singing. Last year Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Camerata Singers through the premiere of his latest composition, an oratorio based on Psalms 108, 100, 23, 131, 2, and 133. Sung in Hebrew, the oratorio was commissioned for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester and enters the music repertory as the Chichester Psalms.

Since the Psalms bring a universal message to mankind, how long will it be before people of different religions recite them together? It is partly a question of how rapid is agreement on a common translation. Present translations in use by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are all in more or less the same Elizabethan idiom. They differ chiefly in the question of which translation of a particular line is most felicitous.

Says Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, “One may perhaps envision a time when all Christians and Jews may accept a common Psalter. The Psalms contain the prayers in Divine Office of the Eastern and Western churches; they have long been the spiritual sustenance of the Protestant Reformation; and of course they arose from the joys and longings of the Jewish people. How excellent it would be if the Psalms could further unite all of us in some form of public recognition of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

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To Dr. John H. Hertz, chief rabbi of England, the Psalms “translate into simple speech the spiritual passion of the profound scholar and give utterance, with the beauty born of truth, to the humble longing and petition of the unlettered peasant. They are the hymn-book of humanity.”

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale has said, “We know that the Psalms are the perfect answer to the problems in any individual life. May it please God that the Psalms now should work their power among people of differing creeds.”

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