Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. Ordinarily, we’d be talking about the psalm appointed for The Third Sunday of Advent in Year C which this year falls on December 13th, 2015. However, according to the Episcopal edition of the Revised Common Lectionary, the psalm slot is occupied by a canticle from Isaiah, not a psalm! As much as I love the canticles, I’ll save them for later and keep my focus on the psalms for now.
Since this is a by-week for the psalms, I’d like to take this opportunity to do a general introduction to the psalms, a sort of whirlwind tour of this book of the Bible that we’re going to spend some time talking about. One last word of warning… I tried to keep my usual format here and talk about four major things: the liturgical context, the interpretive context, the historical readings, and a thematic reading, but I realized pretty quickly that there was just too much to say to do it all as one show. So, this is going to be a two-episode encounter. Today, I’m just going to cover the liturgical context and the interpretive context, then I’ll try to cover the historical readings and the thematic readings next week.
So, why are psalms appointed here, in the Sunday service, for particular days?
In order to answer this question properly, we need to talk about how readings were historically selected for worship services. By the time that things shook out into a fairly stable pattern across the Christian West—by about the sixth century or so—there were two major kinds of services. There were the prayer offices, then there were the Eucharists. At the heart of the prayer offices was the repetition of the psalms. Complicated schedules were laid out so that all 150 psalms were prayed through every week–and some psalms showed up a lot more than that. In the monasteries and cathedrals—the intentional liturgical communities of the West—the psalms were literally at the center of their experience of the worship of God and permeated their thinking.
It’s no surprise, then, that we find the psalms in the Eucharistic worship of the church as well. These days, we have a three year lectionary that appoints four different items for every Sunday: an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a New Testament epistle reading, and a Gospel reading. Back in those days, they had a one-year cycle that only contained two readings. The first one was called the Epistle and usually was from one of the letters of the New Testament—but not always. On the fasts the church would take the reading from the Old Testament, usually one of the Prophets. The second reading was always from one of the four Gospels. So where were the psalms? The answer is that they were being sung! Not only were readings and prayers appointed for Eucharist, but there were also a series of chants that were fixed in a cycle according to the church year.
We’re familiar with singing hymns in our Sunday service; they weren’t. Hymns were sung at each hour of the Daily Office, not in the Eucharist. Instead, the main singing consisted of the chants.
The introit started the service; the gradual and the alleluia came between the Epistle and the Gospel (and in Lent and Advent were replaced by the tract); the offertory was sung before the Eucharist, and the communio was sung while the priest and anyone else were receiving the Eucharist. These chants were almost always direct citations from Scripture and were almost always taken from the psalms.
When the English Reformation came, most of these chants were swept away but the first Book of Common Prayer appointed an introit psalm alongside the Gospel and Epistle to start off the service. This was too much for some reformers, though, and in the second prayer book, published just three years later, the psalm was taken out. This doesn’t mean that psalms disappeared from the worship service, of course, the English church kept the singing of the psalms at Morning and Evening Prayer and we also have to remember that the hymnals used in Sunday services only contained metrical psalms for many generations.
So—what changed? How did we get to where we are now? In the mid-twentieth century, change was on the way. The Roman Catholic Church convened the second Vatican council between 1962 and 1965, and one of the key changes was a move away from the one-year cycle with its two readings to a greatly expanded three-year cycle with four appointed texts from Scripture—the scheme that we are used to now. The way the system works is that in the main seasons—Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter—the Gospel reading sets the tone and the Old Testament and the Psalm are selected deliberately in relation to themes in the Gospel. Now—exactly what those themes are is not always apparent! Indeed, some connections only work if you have some inside information, and that’s part of what I’m trying to do with this podcast: to give you the tools to see what those connections are and why and how they work. This whole connection business is important in the long green seasons too based on which track of the Revised Common Lectionary your church decides to use.
Again, in the main seasons, the first lesson and Psalm are keyed to the Gospel. One of the summer tracks maintains this approach. The other option disconnects them and reads through particular sections of the Old Testament that have some reference to the Gospel of the year. Thus, in Year C when we’re reading the Gospel of Luke, this track reads through the prophets as Luke and the prophets share a common concern for social justice. In Year A when Matthew is read, this track reads through the Law as Matthew is more hooked into the Jewish legal tradition than the other gospels. In Year B with Mark, it reads the histories to connect with Mark’s history. Now, this matters for us because when this track is chosen, the Psalm is selected to match themes in the Old Testament reading not the Gospel.
So, to recap, the Psalms have had a key role in Christian worship in the West ever since we’ve had records. Currently, the Psalms are chosen each Sunday to match the Gospel reading unless the continuous track is chosen in the summer in which case it matches with the Old Testament lesson.
Now, is there other information we need to help us understand what’s going on?
The book of Psalms is unique within the Bible. It’s a collection of 150 poems—and, right there we have two things to talk about. The first is the numbering, the second is the word “poems”; I want to look at each of these in turn.
In most any Bible you’ll come across there are 150 psalms. However, there is disagreement on their exact breakdown. Clearly, the original language of the Psalms was Hebrew. However, that’s not how the Early Church encountered them. While the first followers of Jesus may have read Hebrew, many of the first Christians were Hellenized or Greek-speaking Jews (like the apostle Paul), and within the first few generations the church was almost entirely composed of non-Jewish Gentiles whose common language was Greek. As a result, when the Church read the Old Testament, they read it in Greek following a translation called the Septuagint that was done by members of the Jewish community in Alexandria in Egypt starting in the third century BC and which was fully finished by about the year 132 before Christ.
The translation in the Septuagint is different from the Hebrew text in two important ways. First, the Septuagint contains more superscriptions which are little context notes at the start of the psalms about who wrote them or what situations they refer do than the Hebrew text does. In particular, Psalms 145-149 appear to be attributed to Haggai and Zechariah. Second, the numbering between the Greek and the Hebrew versions is slightly different. This is really important because when the Latin versions appeared (and there are two main versions of the Latin—the Romanum and the Gallicanum) they were based on the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew and they followed the numbering found in the Septuagint, and not the Hebrew. While St. Jerome did do a translation of the Hebrew text of the psalms, it didn’t really catch on—the Gallicanum became the standard and that’s what showed up in the Latin Vulgate Bible used through the Middle Ages. When the Reformers like Martin Luther started translating the Bible into their own tongue, they used the Hebrew numbers so the numbers you see in most Bibles and in today’s Book of Common Prayer follow the Hebrew scheme, but old historical and Roman Catholic sources us the numbering scheme of the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate instead. Here’s the basic rule: the numbers are the same until you get to 9, then the Latin sources are behind the Hebrew by one. So, Psalm 22 gets mentioned in Latin and old Roman Catholic sources as Psalm 21, Psalm 23 becomes Psalm 22 and so on. There’s a little bit of weirdness in the low one-hundreds but generally that rule works—subtract one from the Hebrew to get the Septuagint and Latin number—up until Psalm 147 when everything comes back together just in time for everybody to agree at 150. And then there’s an extra Psalm 151 that a few Greek and Latin texts tack on, but we’re going to totally skip that for now. So—if you remember, last time we talked about Psalm 25 and yet the Vespasian Psalter labeled that as Psalm 24—this is why, the numbering difference between modern English based off of Hebrew and medieval Latin based off the Greek Septuagint.
I also mentioned that the Psalms are poems, and I should say a little bit about that. Poems, generally, tend to have a set of common characteristics. First, they tend to not run on and on and on and on like regular writing or prose does, instead, they tend to be shaped into a set of more or less balanced lines. Second, they tend to use elevated diction, which is the English majors’ way of saying “fancy words.” Third, they tend to have an unusually high frequency of rhetorical devices or figures of speech. Fourth, they may make a particular appeal to feelings either directly or through the images and figures of speech that they choose to use. Fifth, there may be particular kinds of internal structures involving repetition of ideas or words. Sixth, they often use patterns of sounds as a structuring device. Common examples of this are alliteration—where words will begin with the same sound, assonance—where the middle parts of words sound alike, or rhyme where the ends of words sound alike. As you’ve probably realized by now, a lot of English poetry in the last several hundred years uses rhyme, preferring to end lines that way—but not every language or type of poetry does that. Even Old English poetry, for example, never used end-rhymes as a major feature and instead used alliteration all the time. Seventh, they frequently use rhythm within the line to give it a particular kind of cadence or beat when it’s read aloud or sung. Last and definitely not least, poetry invites its listeners to see the world a little bit differently; all of those previous factors come together to move us into a different head-space and invite us to experience things in a new way that we haven’t really seen before. It takes something ordinary like a vase or a flower or mouse or a crack in the wall and uses that ordinary thing to reveal some deep truth about life, the universe, God, and everything.
So—the psalms have these characteristics. They’re definitely poems. Some of them (if not most) were definitely used as songs as well. But here’s the thing: we have no idea what the tunes were. We have no idea what they sounded like. We’re not even entirely sure how Ancient Hebrew was pronounced. Furthermore, Christians have been reading, hearing, and praying the psalms in translation for the past almost two thousand years. That means that some of the cool poetic features that were written into the psalms are lost to us. “Patterns of sounds as a structuring device”, “rhythm within the line”, even “elevated diction—fancy language” doesn’t always survive across languages. However, that having been said, most of the translators knew that they were working poetry and even if the Hebrew sound, rhythm, and verbal texture got lost, many translators tried to incorporate some of these aspects from their own tongue, whatever that may be. As one of my friends likes to remind me, translation is an artform of its own and a translated object—especially a translated poem—is a new work of art in its new language. We certainly see that with the psalms and its why certain translations have gotten so much love over the years. The King James Version is obvious example here. Ask someone to say Psalm 23 and chances are, it’ll be the King James. Certainly in my Anglican tradition the Coverdale translation also has a special place because of the beauty and rhythm and poetical goodness that Coverdale stuffed in there. This is the version you find in the English and American Books of Common Prayer up until the latest American edition.
Now—one of these aspects of poetry is really important for understanding and appreciating the psalms, and that’s the one about internal structures that have repetition. In fact, some scholars would argue—and I think they’re right—that this is the foundational aspect of Hebrew poetry especially for Christians who are consistently encountering the text in translation. This is parallelism. This is where two or more lines are deliberately set in relationship with one another to make one complete thought. One is antithetical parallelism. This is where the psalmist will come at a thought from two different directions, one positive and one negative. So—we had a couple of these in Psalm 25:
“Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.”
Both of these are coming at how the psalmist wants God to remember him; don’t remember me that way, remember me this way. Sometimes it looks like the first line states something, then the second says the opposite, and sometimes that actually is the case, but often it’s a little more nuanced than that.
“Let none who look to you (God) be put to shame; *
Let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.”
So in this one, the psalmist is drawing a contrast between those who trust in God and the treacherous. These two kinds of people are clearly set up as being different kinds of folks, but you can’t just say that the two lines are opposites either. Well—we’ll see more of this and play with it more later throughout the psalms.
If antithetical is one kind, another major kind of parallelism is synonymous parallelism. So synonyms are two words that more or less mean the same thing, and that’s what this is to: when you have two lines that more or less mean the same thing. And we can even get more particular here. These are some synonymous parallels that really do try to mean exactly the same thing just with different words. Then, there are some that do something different to make it more pointed and to focus the meaning. Again, if we look back at Psalm 25, the first verse has both of these kinds of synonymous parallelism!
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
My God, I put my trust in you;”
This is saying the same thing two different ways so this is static because the meaning stays the same.
Now—watch this carefully—here’s the next part of the verse:
“Let me not be humiliated,
Nor let my enemies triumph over me.”
So, the first line is just talking about humiliation which is kind of a broad term. There are lots of ways to be humiliated. Like—being out in public and suddenly realizing you forgot to put pants on. Or slipping on a banana peel in front of everybody. Those fall under “humiliating”, right?
But the second line takes that idea and focuses it: “Nor let my enemies triumph over me.” So, we’re moving from a general idea of humiliation to focus on one particular kind of humiliation, being beaten by enemies. And that could still take quite a lot of forms too, but it takes the general idea and narrows it down. This is dynamic because we’re moving somewhere, we’re going from the general to the specific. There are other ways this can happen too, but this is a very common one.
Ok—that’s all I want to say about parallelism for now. Let’s not get too deep in the weeds here. But, I want you to know it’s there, I want you to start looking for it and noticing it. I may not bring it up all the time, but it’s one of these key features this is always lurking there when we read, sing, and pray the psalms. And for me, one of the places where I find the deepest insights is asking some of the parallel questions. What is the thing that these two verses are really trying to get me to wrestle with? If they’re coming from two different directions, what’s that thing in the middle that the psalmist wants me to focus on? Or, are these two lines actually saying the same thing, or is there motion here that is moving me in a particular direction or way of thinking?
Alright, so—one hundred-fifty poems. There are lots of different ways to break them down or to split them into chunks. The editors—whoever put them all together (and we don’t know when that happened although evidence suggests that it was probably after the Exile, maybe in the fourth or third century Before Christ—deliberately put them into five books probably to suggest a parallel with the five books of the Law. Another way to break them up is that there are some clear collections based on the titles. (We don’t have the titles in the Book of Common Prayer’s psalter; that’s the one thing I don’t like about this edition…) Some are connected with David, a bunch are connected with a Levite named Asaph and another with a Levitical group called the sons of Korah, then there are a number called songs of ascent.
The last way I’m going to mention (because there are more yet) is one that we’re going to talk about a fair amount and that’s by genre or literary type. While these are all poems, we have some groups of different kinds of poems. One list from a scholar named Lawrence Toombs is a good one: Laments, Hymns, Thanksgivings, Songs of Confidence, Hymns of Zion, Enthronement Psalms, Royal Psalms, Pilgrim Psalms, Wisdom Psalms, and Liturgies. And all of these different types have characteristics that define them and shape them. Of course there are some psalms that you can put into more than one category, but generally these are a good set of categories to have. We’ll explore these more thoroughly in the future as we get to them.
Look—there’s a lot more stuff I could say, but I’ll leave it at this point for now. To recap, the psalms are 150 poems. As poems, there are a variety of stylistic devices that include balanced lines, lots of rhetorical devices and figures of speech, and internal structures. Parallelism is a very important concept for Hebrew poetry and for the psalms in particular and there are a couple of major forms, antithetical parallelism where we’re at an idea from two different directions, static synonymous parallelism where we’re saying the same thing two different ways, and dynamic synonymous parallelism where we’re taking a thing and moving with it, either going deeper into it or moving it in a particular direction.
Please, don’t let some of the technical sounding stuff scare you off. These are just some of the basics that we’ve got to get through so that you can get the most you can out of the psalms. This was part one of a general introduction to the psalms; I’ll be back next week with part 2 and then we’ll get back to the psalms themselves after that.
If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes. You can find more of my thoughts at www.stbedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter (and there’s a link you can follow on my blog and in the show notes.) Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions.