The biblical book of Psalms is really an amazing book. Tehillim, ‘praises’ is what the book is called in Hebrew. Mizmor, ‘psalm’ (Psalm 3) is what an individual psalm is called, along with a few other terms, such as shiggayon ‘wild, passionate song’ (Psalm 7), miktam (Psalm 16), tefillah ‘prayer’ (Psalm 17), shir ‘song’ (Psalm 30), and maskil ‘didactic poem’ (Psalm 32).
In the process of typing the psalms into my new blog Jerusalem Psalter, it was impressed on me how repetitive the psalms are in terms of their content. The same words are used over and over again, even the same themes recur with almost monotonous regularity—something I had never noticed before, reading and praying them day by day. For in reading the psalms and praying them, one doesn’t notice these details: one knows only the Lord before whom we are presenting ourselves. ‘Lay aside all earthly cares, that you may receive the King of all…’
This repetition of words and themes makes the book of Psalms in Hebrew, the Tehillim, to easiest and best place to start in the Old Testament, if you want to begin learning the biblical language. What surprised me most when beginning to pray the psalms in Hebrew was the simplicity, saying much with few words. In this, it resembles classical Chinese more than any other language I’ve studied. Hebrew words are ‘thought pictures’ in almost the same way, and a single particle of speech has immense freedom to express relationships between ideas that any modern language requires a dozen different words to achieve.
Aside from the linguistic notices, I also became aware of how warlike, aggressive and even vengeful many of the verses of the psalms are. You notice this when reading them as a text, but when reading them as scripture and as prayer—I don’t know why—they don’t affect you the same way. As Christians, and probably as Jews, we pray these words and inside of us we ‘just know’ somehow the movements of the spirit within us that correspond to the words, without taking them literally. There is a quality in the psalms, too, that corresponds only to a similar quality in us, that of the willingness and fact of struggle.
Before I entered the world of men and had to deal with life as it comes (I mean, in contrast to being a child at home, or even a college student), the psalms meant nothing to me. I knew Psalm 23 by heart in the King James version because of its use everywhere, especially at funerals. Beyond that, if I read the psalms at all, they were just biblical passages with no special significance. When I ran across verses that I’d heard in church or in bible movies, it garnished a little more of my interest, but an ‘academic’ interest in the psalms, or in the whole Bible per se, is not what the Book is for.
I had been picked on, bullied, most of my childhood years, and even in high school, for various reasons. For one thing, I never learned to fight, and growing up in inner city Chicago in the 1950’s, well, what can I say? Luckily I had a friend or two along the way who stood by me as guardian angel. In junior high it was a boy whose last name was Moses. In high school it was a youth whose last name was Yglesia (Spanish for ‘church’). What more could I ask for? With these two friends, I hardly had anything to fear from bullies, though I sometimes got into trouble when I was alone.
It was in young manhood, though, that persecution became real, and fierce. You wouldn’t have expected that. After all, this was modern late 20th century America, and by then I was living in Oregon, the ‘paradise of the hippies’ and other peaceable types. But did I find a safe niche among this group? Not on your life! Instead, I was in the working class, rubbing shoulders with guys who never outgrew their 6th grade bully mentality, one in particular was him we called ‘Jim Australia.’
Why he got this name, who knows? He wasn’t an Aussie, but I gather he was an ex-con, he had served time in prison. Some say he’d been in Australia and got into trouble there. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true, but I think his appearance conformed to what some folks thought an Australian should look like. He was a big man, of stocky build, had a full bushy beard and head of dark hair, a Scot or Irishman by ancestry, and he loved to pick a fight, and he always seemed angry. We never saw him smile, not once.
This ‘gentleman’ worked in the last furniture factory in Portland, where I worked. He was probably in his mid to late 30’s and I, a boy of 24 years who had just met the Lord and gotten saved. I had been working in a century-old furniture factory in a rural town where the other employees were unbelievably savage, cruel, mean and immoral. Since I wouldn’t cheat on my wife and do drugs, I quickly became a pariah there. The managers liked me, though, because of my careful work, and they gave me jobs in the shop that isolated me from these others as much as possible. It was working there that I gave my life to the Lord, as I have recounted elsewhere.
But I couldn’t take it anymore and began praying for a job where I could be with at least one other Christian. After a car wreck (it was my fault), and some other hardships, I decided that I had to leave small town America and go to the ‘big city’ to find a better job. I hadn’t stopped praying either. The prayer was answered when I found work at Portland’s last large furniture factory. There I was trained in every woodworking skill by Philip, a man 32 years my senior, who was that ‘one other Christian’ I had been praying for. But nothing is ever as easy as you think. With this blessing came also a warfare.
Jim Australia hated me from the first day he laid eyes on me, and before long he was actually trying to kill me, or at least ‘accidentally’ put me in harm’s way. He had been mean to others before, but he fastened his hate on me like a magnet. Once he pushed me into a bin of wood—that was gentle. Another time he aimed and threw a claw hammer at my head from a dozen feet away. God knows how I escaped injury. Another time he shoved me out the door of the bus as it stopped to drop us off at the factory, on an icy day sent me sprawling into the traffic of the adjoining street, and just after a truck had passed. This man meant trouble. He even discovered the route I walked to church, and waited in gangways to ambush me.
It was at this time of my life that I began reading the psalms, and as these things happened to me, the psalms started taking on life for me, started attaching themselves to the moments of my daily life. At first, it was the bad things that drew meaning from the psalms, but quickly my spirit began to discover all the blessings in these same divine songs. The Lord started teaching me and ‘surrounding me with songs of deliverance’ and I began to compose music and sing the very songs that were printed in my Jerusalem Bible, whether waiting for the bus, or at home, or walking down the street.
Without realizing it, I was starting to live in the Word, and the words of the psalms began to become my wisdom, my protection, my shield, my rock of safety—yes, here it begins! What David sang was becoming my song, and what David was, an anointed of the Lord, a king in His heavenly Kingdom, well, that is what the Father wants all of us to be. When we pray the psalms we step into King David’s shoes. What? But we’re not worthy? Of course we aren’t, I never said we were, but what God wants for us outweighs all our doubts and even all our faith, all our criticisms and all our enthusiasm.
‘Pause awhile and know that I am God, exalted among the nations, exalted over the earth!’ (Psalm 46)
Glory to You, O God, glory to You!