From Reflections on the Psalms
“Now let us stint all this and speak of mirth.” So far – I couldn’t help it – this book has been what the old woman in Scott described as “a cauld clatter o’ morality.” At last we can turn to better things. If we think “mirth” an unsuitable word for them, that may show how badly we need something which the psalms can give us perhaps better than any other book in the world.
David, we know, danced before the Ark. He danced with such abandon that one of his wives (presumably a more modern, though not a better, type than he) thought he was making a fool of himself. David didn’t care whether he was making a fool of himself or not. He was rejoicing in the Lord. This helps to remind us at the outset that Judaism, though it is the worship of the one true and eternal God, is an ancient religion. That means that its externals, and many of its attitudes, were much more like those of Paganism than they were like all that stuffiness – all that regimen of tiptoe tread and lowered voice – which the word “religion” suggests to so many people now. In one way, of course, this puts a barrier between it and us. We should not have enjoyed the ancient rituals. Every temple in the world, the elegant Parthenon at Athens and the holly Temple at Jerusalem, was a sacred slaughterhouse. (Even the Jews seem to shrink from a return to this. They have not rebuilt the Temple nor revived the sacrifices.) But even that has two sides. If temples smelled of blood, they also smelled of roast meat; they struck a festive and homely note, as well as a sacred.
When I read the Bible as a boy I got the idea that the Temple of Jerusalem was related to the local synagogues very much as a great cathedral is related to the parish churches in a Christian country. In reality there is no such parallel. What happened in the synagogues was quite unlike what happened in the Temple. The synagogues were meeting-houses where the Law was read and where an address might be given – often by some distinguished visitor (as in Luke 4:20 or Acts 13:15). The Temple was the place of sacrifice, the place where the essential worship of Jahweh was enacted. Every parish church is the descendant of both. By its sermons and lessons it shows its ancestry in the synagogue. But because the Eucharist is celebrated and all other sacraments administered in it, it is like the Temple; it is a place where the adoration of the Deity can be fully enacted. Judaism without the Temple was mutilated, deprived of its central operation; any church, barn, sickroom, or field, can be the Christian’s temple.
The most valuable thing the psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance. I am not saying that this is so pure or so profound a thing as the love of God reached by the greatest Christian saints and mystics. But I am not comparing it with that, I am comparing it with the merely dutiful “church-going” and laborious “saying our prayers” to which most of us are, thank God not always, but often, reduced. Against that it stands out as something astonishingly robust, virile, and spontaneous; something we may regard with an innocent envy and may hope to be infected by as we read.
For the reason I have given this delight is very much centered on the Temple. The simpler poets do not in fact distinguish between the love of God in what we might (rather dangerously) call “a spiritual sense” and their enjoyment of the festivals in the Temple. We must not misunderstand this. The Jews were not, like the Greeks, an analytical and logical people; indeed, except the Greeks, no ancient peoples were. The sort of distinction which we can easily make between those who are really worshipping God in church and those who enjoy “a beautiful service” for musical, antiquarian, or merely sentimental reasons, would have been impossible to them. We get nearest to their state of mind if we think of a pious modern farm-laborer at church on Christmas Day or at the harvest thanksgiving. I mean, of course, one who really believes, who is a regular communicant; not one who goes only on these occasions and is thus (not in the worst but in the best sense of that word) a Pagan, practicing Pagan piety, making his bow to the Unknown – and at other times Forgotten – on the great annual festivals. The man I picture is a real Christian. But you would do him wrong by asking him to separate out, at such moments, some exclusively religious element in his mind from all the rest – from his hearty social pleasure in a corporate act, his enjoyment of the hymns (and the crowd), his memory of other such services since childhood, his well-earned anticipation of rest after harvest or Christmas dinner after church. They are all one in his mind. This would have been even truer of any ancient man, and especially of an ancient Jew. He was a peasant, very close to the soil. He had never heard of music, or festivity, or agriculture as things separate from religion, nor of religion as something separate from them. Life was one. This of course laid him open to spiritual dangers which more sophisticated people can avoid; it also gave him privileges which they lack.
Thus when the psalmists speak of “seeing” the Lord, or long to “see” him, most of them mean something that happened to them in the Temple. The fatal way of putting this would be to say, “They only mean they have seen the festival.” It would be better to say, “If we had been there we should have seen only the festival.” Thus in 68, “It is well seen, O God, how thou goest in the sanctuary the singers go before, the minstrels follow after; in the midst are the damsels playing with the timbrels,” (vv. 24, 25), it is almost as if the poet said, “Look, here he comes.” If I had been there I should have seen the musicians and the girls with the tambourines; in addition, as another thing, I might or might not have (as we say) “felt” the presence of God. The ancient worshiper would have been aware of no such dualism. Similarly, if a modern man wished to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of his life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord,” (27:4) he would mean, I suppose, that he hoped to receive, not of course without the mediation of the sacraments and the help of other “services,” but as something distinguishable from them and not to be presumed upon as their inevitable result, frequent moments of spiritual vision and the “sensible” love of God. But I suspect that the poet of that psalm drew no distinction between “beholding the fair beauty of the Lord” and the acts of worship themselves.