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A Primer on The Psalms: Understanding a Masterpiece

September 3, AD2017

While we often scavenge the world of literature for pertinent, practical self-help books to assist in restoring us to a state of physical, mental and spiritual health, one of the most overlooked but most profound of works on the topic is found in the Psalms. Our everyday familiarity with the Psalms should not let us lose our wonder at their presence in the pages of Sacred Scripture. We should always marvel at God’s Word.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Psalms as the very “…masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament” (CCC 2585). Divinely inspired yet humanly written as are all the Books of Sacred Scripture, as one flips through the pages of the Psalms we find a vast and diverse array of gems of theology and spirituality. Human emotion come through in a high, noble form both in terms of holy sorrow, holy joy and the ever-present human yearning for God’s presence and mercy in the triumphs and tragedies of life.  In the Psalms, we discover a man set amongst God’s beautiful visible creation that we are meant to rule and guide.

The Book of Psalms: The Psalter

The Book of Psalms, also known as the “Psalter” is a treasure of the Church that has held a central role both in the Liturgy of the Word and in the Liturgy of Hours.  Compiled over the centuries before the coming of Christ between approximately 1000 BC at the time of the emergency of the Davidic Monarchy to its final compiling into the form we know today in the 2nd century BC, The Book of Psalms includes both hymns and poetry. In sum total, The Psalms are comprised of 150 songs of praise, literally from the Greek psalmoi meaning “songs of praise”.  Faithful Christians and Jews have had recourse to them over the centuries and certainly, whether celebration or woe, the psalms are “songs of praise” of God no matter the troubles of life pervading this book of the Bible. Such a fact alone is a lesson of the Psalms for each of us. No matter what this life presents us with, we should praise God.

King David

King David is most closely associated with the authorship of the Psalms. Indeed this is quite accurate inasmuch as he did compose 73 of those Psalms under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit either directly or indirectly.  However, others, including his son King Solomon, the Sons of Korah, Asaph, Heman, Ethan, Moses and a particular one of David’s musicians named Jeduthan are the authors of the other 77 Psalms, including some that have no particular author attribution at all. One discrepancy which often appears in the Psalms is a slight numbering variation which you may have wondered about. The numerical sequencing in Biblical often includes a smaller, bracketed font size number next to the primary number. This discrepancy arose after the coming of the Septuagint so the Greek and Latin Bible numbering vary slightly from the Hebrew biblical numbering system.  Catholic English versions of the Bible including the RSV and NAB have also adopted this system as have the majority of Protestant translations.

Comfort

Over the years, I have often found comfort, encouragement, and union with the authors of the Psalms as I traverse the various peaks and valleys of life.  When I was at the Augustine Institute pursuing my graduate degree, we often were reminded that Sacred Scripture is our family story; the Bible was written for each of us individually to such an intimate degree it exists for each of us as if we are the only person. For me, this was most relatable when praying with the Psalms which often over the years have seemed to jump off the page, relating to a variety of life experienced and circumstances I was going through. And is a case for many people, I think, certain Psalms have become my go to sources of strength and peace, no matter the day or situation I face.

Having a favorite Psalm or Psalms is a real blessing. There has also been the sense as I read them that they were meant in a special way for me so many centuries after they first were composed because the living Word of God pervades and suffuses all of human time. The Psalms really are intended for each of us so intimately that we sometimes are left in awe just as the truth that Jesus died for each of us without exception. If we were the only person that needed saving, He would have still embraced the cross. That fact should also fill us with even more awe.

Yet, as personal as the Psalms are in the passionate cries of these prayers, there is a very communal dimension to them in praying for others just as there is a fundamental communal element to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the wood of Calvary.   This intention usage of the Psalms as personal prayer and communal, liturgical prayer is as ancient and enduring as the Psalms themselves. Israel using them routinely in both ways.

Human Emotions

We all feel anger, sadness, indignation, despair, joy, and peace as our lives progress. Sometimes even in short order. We see the experiences of the authors of the Psalms, who longed for a Messiah while striving to grow in virtue. You see the restlessness of the heart of the Psalmist as you read, a restlessness Saint Augustine spoke of. Reflection upon who God is and his attributes is a common thread. The authors enjoyed (or as is so often the case rather endured) human emotions like us through the Psalms. At the same time, we witness the works of our loving God present through human history, a loving Father always with what is best for us in mind.  This intimate cooperation of God and Man in the writing of the Psalms, this longing for salvation is realized as the Word of God becomes flesh. God becomes a man who quotes the Psalms on the Cross, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) and “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5).

Thus, as we pray and read each psalm through the lenses of the love and knowledge of Jesus which we now possess in the Age of the Holy Spirit, the Father reveals His mercy and goodness to us. We continue to embrace the Psalms as did the People Israel, knowing in our Redeemer, the redeemer they hoped for, God and Man are united and reconciled in Jesus. We are left full of hope for the life to come, knowing as we traverse the peaks and valleys of pilgrim life on earth, nothing will be impossible for us with God at our side.

 

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Filed in: Church History, Prayer • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Nate is a cradle Catholic hailing from the rolling grasslands northeast of Denver,Colorado. He has an MA in a theological field from The Augustine Institute, a BA in Theology from Franciscan University and has a desire for serving others in the confluent spheres of theology, business and politics. He has worked as a College Financial Aid Advisor as well as having owned his own Catholic goods & bookstore among other job titles. His great passion is moving others through reflective writing on the Truth, Beauty and Goodness of our Triune God and the Catholic Faith.

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