Staging the Psalms

Here is another chunk for volume 2; the beginning portion refers to a discussion of Cassiodorus’s reading, pointing out that one of his strategies for interpreting the Psalms is drawn from the interpretation of classical drama. In this section, I’m picking up this notion and discussing how modern people can tap into this idea as a reading strategy for the psalms as well.


Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers ask us to listen for voices when we read the psalms. I can see several different ways in which this practice can enrich our engagement with the psalms.

First, at the most basic level, we need to be attentive to voices and the change of voice that occurs on the purely grammatical level. As we read each line of the psalms, one of the automatic questions that goes through your mind should be “who is speaking here? Is it the voice of an individual or of a group? To whom are they speaking? Are they speaking directly to God or are they speaking to the congregation around them?”

One way to visualize this is to follow Cassiodorus’s lead and to think of the roles in classical drama. In a Greek tragedy, there were a few major characters and a chorus. The chorus would usually make general comments, react to what was happening on stage, and fill in the audience about important action that had happened off the stage. The characters, then, would either interact with one another or would sometimes speak directly to the chorus. If we were to cast in our minds the classical dramatic production of a psalm, we can imagine there are always at least three major characters: the Psalmist, the Congregation, and God. The Psalmist or perhaps more properly The Voice of the Psalmist is the character who most often uses “I.” At this point, we’re not going to worry about the identity of this “I” (we’ll get into that in a second…). The Congregation is the chorus of fellow believers; frequently they get referred to as “you (plural)” but sometimes speak as “us” or “we” or even “I” as well. I chose the term “Congregation” because of the frequency with which this phrase appears in the psalms themselves. Two Hebrew terms can be translated as “congregation” or “assembly”—qahal and (adah; together they show up 17 times in the Psalms referring to a religious assembly with which the Psalmist interacts or to whom the Psalmist speaks. The Congregation is a chorus part and is almost always favorably inclined towards the Psalmist. (I hedge that because sometimes the Congregation seems to be portrayed as neutral rather than friendly as in some of the Psalms of Abandonment.) God is, of course, God. I imagine God always being on stage whether the Psalmist is speaking directly to God or not. Sometimes the Psalmist does speak to God, sometimes not—but God is always there listening nonetheless. Now—some psalms will indicate some additional characters. We can have an Anxious Chorus as in the opening of Psalm 11 or even a Bad Chorus as in Psalm 109. There is even the Betraying Friend in Psalm 41 (although whether he receives a speaking part or is simply referred to depends on how you stage it in your head!)

As you read through the psalm, consider: which lines are connected with which speaker? What does the grammar tell you about who is speaking to whom? While this may sound complicated, it’s not as hard as it sounds, particularly if you pay attention to the pronouns.

If you remember back to grammar class, we analyze pronouns in terms of person and number:

Singular Plural
First Person I/my/me We/our/us
Second Person You/your You/your
Third Person He/She/It/his/her/its/him They/their/them

We can see how this works when we take the first line of the familiar Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Clearly we are dealing here with the voice of the Psalmist. We know this because we see the use of “my” and “I”. But to whom is this “I” speaking? We have not been introduced to a major cast of characters yet so we can assume three: the Psalmist, God (aka “the Lord”) and the ever-present Congregation chorus. Since the Psalmist refers to God in the third person (that is, “the Lord”, not “you” or “O God”), then it is safe to assume that in this line the Psalmist is speaking to the Congregation.

We can move through a more fulsome example with the relatively brief Psalm 108. Again, we imagine our three main characters on stage. The Psalmist begins with direct address to God: “My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed; I will sing and make melody” The use of “My” and “I” clarifies for us that this is the Psalmist’s voice. The use of the vocative—direct address—in “O God” lets us know to whom the Psalmist is speaking. The Psalmist continues through verse 6. I assign these lines to the Psalmist rather than the Congregation because we see some intimate and inward thoughts more appropriate to an individual than a group. Then, verse 7 begins “God spoke from his holy place and said…” Perhaps we can see this as a line from the chorus as the Psalmist recedes and God steps to center stage? Then, from verse 7b through verse 9, we hear the voice of God. God speaks in “I” language and declares his victories over the inhabitants of the lands around Israel.

The crux of the psalm is verse 10: “Who will lead me into the strong city? Who will bring me into Edom?”

Who speaks this line? (Remembering that quotation marks are modern editorial decisions and not original to the psalms!) Is this a continuation of God’s address? In Ancient Near East battles, images of the gods were carried as military standards: is this line the voice of God asking who will bear his image or the Ark of the Covenant representing him into Edom? Or, conversely, is this either the Psalmist or the Chorus replying in response to God’s preceding boast of power? That is, if God is so victorious over the other nations, is God going to give assistance right here and right now in the present crisis?

If we hold off on making a decision and move on to the next verse, we see that question does become more pointed: “Have you not cast us off, O God? You no longer go out, O God with our armies.” There is direct address to God again with the vocative “O God” and “You”; however, the shift from a singular to the plural makes me think that the Chorus has come in—or perhaps even better the Psalmist and the Chorus singing together. Given that the question in verse 10 continues and becomes more pointed in verse 11, we can place verse 10 in the mouth of whomever we decide speaks verse 11. Verse 12 continues the address to God from the group, and then the final verse 13 moves from addressing God to addressing a listening audience, shifting references to God from the second person to the third person: “With God we will do valiant deeds, and he shall tread our enemies under foot.” The language of “God” and “he” clarifies that the Chorus is now speaking about God rather than to God, and this final declaration of hope serves as a challenge expressed as an answer to the question posed in verse 10.

This strategy of mentally staging the psalm as a classical drama in your head is a helpful means of helping you pay attention to the variety of voices and the shift of voices within the psalms. I like to think of this as an initial stage of reading. Once we have accomplished this staging, Cassiodorus will invite us to imagine who the various characters might be: Is the Psalmist David? Is it Christ? Could it be the personified Church? We’ll turn to this next…

2 Replies to “Staging the Psalms”

  1. That’s the purpose! Few people have the time, interest, or background to dig through this stuff profitably so I’m doing it for you… :-)

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