PRAYER: Praying The Psalms — Part One , by Roland E. Murphy

Praying The Psalms — Part One Roland E. Murphy

From The Psalms Are Yours

The previous considerations of this introduction have had a particular purpose; they are oriented toward an enjoyable and productive praying of the psalms.  They provide background and hopefully some insights into prayers that seem to be so different from our modern style.  The discussion of interpretive approaches and of literary genres is meaningful only if it has contributed to the understanding of these psalms.  For we cannot pray what we do not understand.  Again we raise the caution that prayer is not learned by a set of rules or by pure information; the way of the Spirit of God has its own shortcuts.  But all things being equal, the lessons of history in interpreting and praying the psalms are not to be disregarded.  It seems desirable to avoid seizing upon favorite individual lines as ejaculations, while failing to get into the inner movement that the psalms have.

One’s prayer style must remain free, without constraint, without prescription.  We can all hear a given psalm differently and pray it differently, with equal effect before God.  There is no one way of prayer.  But it would be imprudent to think that the recitation of a psalm, simply because it is part of the Bible, is in itself effective.  What good is the traditional Evensong or Vespers, recited or sung by a group as an objective worship of God, if the psalms are not appropriated by the participants?  Ideally, the one who prays should truly share in the message of the psalm.  We have considered various hermeneutical approaches, and it is left up to the reader to be convinced one way or another.  In any case, it is necessary to make a decision in this matter of praying (as opposed to merely mouthing) the psalms.

At least one basic question needs further discussion: How do you pray the psalms?  By identifying with the psalmist and the words of the poem?  This procedure is natural enough.  The words or prayer of the psalmist become yours.  That this is not always a simple move has been already made clear in the discussion of vengeance in the psalter.  It may also be difficult in other respects as well.  Can we identify with a lament when we are in a joyful mood and celebrating?  (Normally the liturgy tries to choose particular psalms that will avoid this psychological impasse.)  We can hardly allow our prayer to be dictated by subjective moods.  A time of joy can be an appropriate time to consider the suffering or difficulties that are expressed in a lament.  No legislation can answer this dilemma, but we need to be reminded that we should not be ruled merely by the subjective mood of the present moment.

However, identification is not the only way to “pray” the psalms.  Imitating the lectio divina (literally, divine reading) of monastic custom, we can meditate on the affections and concepts as they attract us.  We can linger over certain phrases, and here the natural poetic parallelism of the Hebrew psalms is an aid.  The second (and, in some cases, the third) line of a verse serves to prolong our consideration.  It intensifies by repeating the first line.  Yet, it is not simple repetition; it is a deepening and extension of it.  The first few verses of Psalm 71 (entitled in the NAB as a prayer “in time of old age”—cf. vv 9, 18) can serve as an example:

In you, Lord, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your justice rescue and deliver me;
listen to me and save me!
Be my rock and refuge,
my secure stronghold;
for you are my rock and my fortress.

Those who are well acquainted with the psalter will recognize a familiar phrase, “taking refuge in” (God), that has been discussed above.  Such a favorite term comes to have a certain coloring or resonance when we hear it so often.  In the parallel line a similar idea is expressed, but in a negative way: not to be put to shame.  This idea also is frequent in the psalms.  Here shame has the nuance of being deserted, despised, ostracized, if the Lord will not provide refuge.  The four commands in v 2 are insistent, as it were, to force the Lord to intervene.  It is a matter of divine justice, no less.  But this justice is not a legal thing; it is the saving justice (recall the concept of the saving righteousness of God in the writings of Saint Paul) to which the psalmist appeals.  Following upon this insistent demand is a whole series of metaphors that build on the notion of security and refuge expressed already in v 1a.  Poetic parallelism offers great opportunities for a prayerful lingering over an expression of trust in God.

Up to this point there is nothing specifically Christian about the prayerful sentiments that have been expressed.  The believing Jew will naturally have his or her own coloring and nuance to these verses.  And a believing Christian is entitled to go beyond the horizon of the psalmist into the revelation of the New Testament, and to contemplate refuge and protection which Christ affords, the “rock” that he is.  This goes beyond the literal historical meaning.  The truth is that anyone, regardless of religious presuppositions, reads an ancient poetic text with a fuller meaning.  This is true of all classics that have deserved preservation down the years.  As has been observed before, “If we should really be able to reconstruct the meaning which Hamlet held for its contemporary audience, we would merely impoverish it.  We would suppress the legitimate meanings which later generations found in Hamlet.  We would bar the possibility of a new interpretation.  This is not a pea for arbitrary subjective misreadings: the problem of a distinction between ‘correct’ and wrong-headed readings will remain, and will need a solution in every case.” (R. Welled and A. Warren, Theory of Literature)

There are many rich religious ideas occurring in the psalms: trust, hope, praise, love, salvation, and so on.  These ideas can be absorbed on their own level (that of the psalmist and the Old Testament world) and then extended into the world of the reader.  The reader thus shares in this experience, extending the faith-filled utterance of the psalmist (or even rejecting it?).  The lengthening or deepening of the thrust of a psalm or any other Old Testament passage enables the Christian to avoid a too facile allegory or simple substitution of a Christian veneer.  We can translate “life” into all that it means for us personally.  We know the evils and trials from which, like the psalmist, we wish to be delivered.

The poetic imagery serves this continuity between the Testaments.  Certain symbols have an umbrella-like quality.  No one who has ever said, “Out of the depths I cry to you”—no matter to whom or what these words are addressed—has failed to be caught up and carried on by the imagery (even if the depths of Sheol were originally intended!).  The situation of the reader may very well differ from that of the psalmist, but the images and words cast a wide net that enfolds many varying circumstances.

Continuity is also promoted by the evocative quality of Old Testament poetry.  The psalms are not dry dissertations.  They are highly emotional summons of outcries that can hardly be muffled, even by a sluggish reader.  It is necessary to yield to this movement, to the turmoil of the cries of both lament and praise.  This effect must be tested out by the reader—and not once but many times, because there is no one reaction to the psalmic poetry that is final and definitive.

This emphasis upon the continuity between the Old and the New is not meant to be one-sided.  There are also discontinuities.  The most significant are the laws of legal purity and impurity, which Christians find themselves unable to deal with.  However, one should take a long view of this, and look at the purpose, or better, the symbolism which lurks behind such laws (e.g., Leviticus 19).  How meaningful to the average Christian is the use of many sacramentals, such as the sprinkling with holy water, or the wearing of the scapular?  Should we not become more aware of symbolism?  Kingship and the centrality of Jerusalem are better examples of discontinuity.  Perhaps the greatest would seem to be “Sheol,” in the light of the doctrine of Christian immorality.  But we have seen that there is room in our daily experiences for the “non-life” symbolized by Sheol.  The cancellation of the Sabbath by Sunday, the feast of the Resurrection, is another discontinuity, but at the same time one must ask if Christianity has lost something by its neglect of the Sabbath “rest” and the corresponding allotment of time and personal investment of self to the Almighty.

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