Those Miserable Psalms
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a reasonably common view of the Psalms is presented by none other than God. King Arthur and his knights receive a vision of the Almighty and immediately grovel; God responds:
Oh, don't grovel! If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.Here on Sunday evenings through the year, and also morning and evening through the week without the refinement of music and dignified robes, a handful or a dozen or a hundred people gather in this Chapel and pray, or try to pray, the Psalms.
GOD: And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it's "sorry this" and "forgive me that" and "I'm not worthy". What are you doing now!?
ARTHUR: I'm averting my eyes, oh Lord.
GOD: Well, don't. It's like those miserable Psalms-- they're so depressing. Now knock it off!
Psalm 78 of which we earlier heard a portion sung tonight as the Psalm is not actually constructed as a prayer at all, but as a kind of historical narrative woven into a sermon; it begins with a bidding to the hearer:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.Referring to “dark” sayings, the Psalmist acknowledges that the history to be recounted is difficult; and what is told here is the history of the Exodus, of Moses and the Israelites escaping Egypt but then struggling with one another and with God in the wilderness for years. This Psalm may be the oldest intact literary version of that story we have, older than the final prose versions of the story contained in the books of Moses themselves. The portion the Choir sang this evening refers to the gifts of water and manna and quails given by God to feed the Israelites in the desert after their escape from Egypt, but in this story the dysfunctional relationship continues despite these triumphs, again God is wrathful, and the people rebellious.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us...
The Psalms reflect the lived experience of ancient Israelites, across a spectrum of lament and praise, bitterness and joy, murderous rage and soaring hope, “dark sayings” and all. Sometimes they are moralizing and historical like Ps 78; other times more personal and poignant. And yes, they are sometimes just miserable and depressing. The Psalms can seem to embody what so many people who are reasonable, moral and enlightened find difficult about religion; namely that they seem at best a mixture of high-minded principles and backward tendencies or beliefs, and at worst vehicles or excuses for chauvinism and violence.
Yet they have always been at the heart of Christian communal prayer, as of Jewish prayer. The twentieth-century theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, known to a few Australians because of our Prime Minister’s published interest in his work, wrote a short book for the students at the College where he ministered about praying the Psalms. He reminded his readers “It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray”.
This may seem to underline the difficulty; but the point is precisely that the Psalms do not allow us to depict ourselves before God the way we want to be, but compel us to be the way we and the world really are. They do not express the highest and purest ideals of spirituality or charity at all points, but neither do we. If you pray the Psalms, you exclude the possibility of coming before God having deceived yourself about who is speaking. You come not merely as a wishful thinker but as one who succeeds and fails, as one who hates and loves, as one who believes and who doubts. Clothing our prayer with the Psalms strips us of pretension and self-deceit.
This is essential to prayer, but may not be quite enough. How are we to deal with the difficulty of our brokenness, or our own propensity to reject or damage ourselves and others, even if we have acknowledged all the wrath and bitterness and revenge?
Bonhoeffer suggests that because the Psalms are historically the prayers of Jesus – prayers which he too, an observant Jew, said or sang with his own community of faith – that we can read and sing them too, as though with him. Reading and singing the Psalms with Jesus means insisting that the radical and all-encompassing love of God is the ultimate horizon of interpretation. It does not do away with the “dark sayings” any more than Jesus was kept from the obscurity and pain of the cross or Dietrich Bonhoeffer from torture and execution; but in Christ we claim all these things are not ignored but transformed.