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

Praying The Psalms — Part Two Roland E. Murphy

From The Psalms Are Yours

We conclude, then, that there are both continuities and discontinuities in the relationship of the Old Testament to the New.  Since the Christian rightly believes that the New is the fulfillment (but not the eradication or supplanting) of the Old, there is a natural temptation to neglect the Old.  The ideal is to seek a balance between continuity and discontinuity, or, better, to seek out the continuities which make the Old Testament truly God’s word to the Christian.  Not too long ago Rudolph Bultmann denied continuity, in the sense that he denied that the Old Testament was God’s word for a Christian.  Rather, the Old Testament was bankrupt.  Only existentially, from a human point-of-view, might it prepare a person for Christian faith.  This view is profoundly wrong.  The Old Testament, in its many levels of meaning, remains the fruitful word of God for a Christian.  Contrary to what the famous historian Adolf von Harnack thought, it was not a mistake for the Christian church to retain the Old Testament.  No return to Marcion is possible if one is able to open oneself to the religious values that come from the revelation of God to Israel.  It is not my purpose or privilege to point out the religious values that come to Judaism.  I recognize that they do, but my purpose in this little book is different.  It is to underscore continuities and to derive spiritual profit from the discontinuities—all toward a deeper understanding and praying of the psalms.

The assumptions are simple enough.  One begins with the assumption that the God and father of Jesus Christ revealed himself in the Old, and that the psalms witness to this revelation.  Further, that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ did not snuff out or obliterate the revelation made to Israel.  Therefore it is not a question of a Christian facing a different religion in the Old Testament.  If there is the same God, there are also continuities, however, striking the discontinuities at first sight may seem to be.  The reader can be the richer by learning from both.

The modern reader may be somewhat disconcerted by the bold and free way that the early Christians interpreted the Hebrew scriptures as their “own,” in the sense of interpreting them from a distinctively Christian point of view, finding Christ and Christian realities somehow present within the life of Israel and the pages of the Old Testament.  It is only in the last few centuries, when “interpretation” or “hermeneutics” emerged with the historical-critical method that the ease with which Christianity absorbed the Old Testament began to be questioned.  How is one to respect the historical vision of Israel, and the vision which Christianity has of itself as being fulfillment?  How can one be honest to the important and religious values of the Old Testament in themselves, without explicit reference to Christian belief or practice?  The intellectual and religious effort to understand the Old Testament within the framework of Christianity is brilliantly described by R. A. Greer in Early Biblical Interpretation, to which J. H. Kugel has contributed several valuable chapters on Jewish interpretation.

The Christian interpretation is beautiful and faith-filled, and forms part of the treasure which Christians can draw on for prayer, liturgy, and other expressions of self-understanding.  At the same time, one has to be careful of extremes, of exaggerations which fail to appropriate the Old Testament on its own level.  Where this occurs, the Christian response to the total word of God is the poorer.  There is danger of snuffing out the message of the Old Testament, those books and passages that have no open or pliant reference to the New, but nevertheless remain charged with the spirit of God.

The Christian conscience can be dulled into a lesser degree of morality if it neglects the sharp social message of the prophets (e.g., Amos).  True, the Epistle of James contains a striking message on the same topic.  But the divine threat uttered through Amos, and actually implemented, can perhaps function more effectively among Christians who may be impervious to the cutting words in James.

Similarly with a purely Christian reading of the psalms.  If one wants to pray directly to and about Christ, the New Testament should inform the prayer of the Christian, completed by the striking words of Augustine and the later masters among spiritual writers.  But if one is going to use the Old Testament, the Christian must be ready to perceive the provocation and also the enlarged vision of God and reality which is peculiar to it, without its being wrapped up in a Christian blanket.

It is not only a fact, but it is fitting, that the psalter should be recited in public prayer as well as in private devotion.  Communal recital calls for a few reflections.  Usually this is done by means of alternating the sequence of verses of the choir (or congregation).  Another procedure is to have a leader read several verses that are punctuated with some kind of responsorial verse uttered by those in attendance.  The method seems to derive from monastic practice, and in its favor one can say that it makes the recitation of the psalms easy and simple; everything can function like clockwork.  But that is the trouble.  It makes for a mechanical and monotonous recitation.  Moreover, when the alternation is simply between consecutive verses, the structure of the psalms is nearly always disturbed, and sometimes totally destroyed.  Thus, what should be (or can be) effectively delivered by a solo voice is simply taken up by the group on the other side of the hall.  For example, the verses of Psalm 46 (which is the basis of the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) can be run through one after another.  But if one attends to the structure, the recitation will take a different form.  The structure can and should guide the recitation.  Thus, the refrain (“The Lord of hosts is with us…,” in vv 8 and 12, and probably to be inserted after v 4) cannot be simply treated like any other verse, or the effect of the prayer is diminished.  The same is true of the affirmation of v 11: “Be still and confess that I am God!”  Such a verse calls for a solo voice, as the structure suggests.  It should not be swallowed up by the rush of the opposite side of the choir.  It is ironic that the (liturgical) voice of God is dimmed in this and other instances.  It is easy to surmise that in Israel’s liturgy such key verses were pronounced by one of the Temple personnel in the name of the Lord.  So should it be today, in the sense that the divine voice is not simply to be bandied back and forth by a choir.  This destroys the power in such psalms as 50:5, 16; 81:7; 82:2, 6; 91:14; 95:8.  In other instances, a solo voice is appropriate even when it does not represent the divinity, especially where a leader seems to be giving instructions to a group (e.g., Psalm 33:1–3).  In some instances the possibilities of several “voices,” solo and choral, are many, as in Psalm 32.

The bracing effect of an intelligent analysis and performance in the recital of a psalm can well be illustrated in Psalm 15 (see also Psalm 24).  Verse 1 is a clear question; and the remainder of the psalm is an answer (perhaps v 5cd can be separated as a third part).  The prescriptions in vv 2-5 are a description of the type of person whom the Lord welcomes.  There can be nothing casual about this, nor should the prescriptions be separated.  At the heart of the psalm is the integrity demanded in the presence of the all-holy and majestic God.  The proclamation of the psalms is to be accompanies by a lively sense of the divine presence and of personal unworthiness.  The Muslim custom of removing footwear upon entering a mosque (and imitated by Christians at the church in Taizé, France) is a fitting symbol of what Psalms 15 and 24 are about.

The alternative recitation of the verses in a psalm is common in both Catholic and Protestant tradition, and it seems to derive from monastic custom.  It is clear from what has been said above that it is not a happy inheritance.  In order to enliven the ritual, the back-and-forth of the verses must yield to a structured presentation.  In many cases no one structure is necessarily better than another; either of them, or perhaps a third possibility, is better than the deadening pattern of alternation.

While this introduction aims at presenting a minimum of presuppositions, scholarly and otherwise, that are helpful to understanding the psalter as a book of the Bible, its main objective is to challenge the reader to understand and absorb the psalms.  It does this by surveying several interpretive approaches and by eventually providing a mini-commentary.  But the entire procedure is intended to be explanatory and challenging, not to be prescriptive.  The Book of Psalms is perhaps the most read of all the books of the Old Testament.  This is astonishing in one sense because the text is very uncertain in many places, the images are distant from our experiences, and the world view is so foreign to the modern mentality.  But the psalms have a directness in language; they speak to God and of God—and also to us in our puzzling human nature—and thus they have preserved their popularity down through the centuries.  What can we learn about them that will be helpful to a greater understanding?  This book has attempted to make suggestions to that end.

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