I enjoy reading the Psalms. I have long enjoyed poetry — in fact, I enjoy it so much that I have written it since I was young. Currently, I have a collection of a couple thousand attempts at poetry that I have produced. Sometimes I write a poem when I am trying to connect with a piece of scripture, sometimes when I am trying to better understand somebody else’s point of view, and sometimes just because I have a pen, some paper, and some time.
I might love Psalms as a reader, but as an interpreter, and a lecturer, Psalms is a special challenge. When I study other passages, they are generally set in a time and place. There is a traditional author, and a traditional audience; in many cases, there are a few alternative theories on who wrote the Biblical book, to whom, and why — but, the theories tend to be easy enough to follow for me to keep everything in my head. The Psalms are different — they are clearly an anthology. This anthology was apparently put together after the Judah was resettled, and the temple was rebuilt, but each Psalm has its own history, with its own author and its own original audience. In addition, the whole has an editor, and an intended audience.
Not only is there all this complexity, but this is an anthology of poetry, written in a foreign language. Poetry is, generally, extremely difficult to translate. Poetry tends to play with language in ways that are unique to the language it is written in. While we can enjoy the metaphoric language, and the images play off of each other, we completely miss how the writer plays with the language. We can all see that Psalm 145 is a Psalm of praise, but we need a bit more information.
The best way I can describe the structure of Psalm 145 is that it is like an alphabet book. Each line begins with another letter of the Hebrew Alphabet — but, that’s not quite right: An alphabet book is for teaching a child about letters and reading; It is a mnemonic — it is something that one is supposed to remember — and memory is very important. This Psalm is part of an observant Jew’s daily prayers; if an observant Jew knows his prayers, he knows the psalm. He knows this one, because the next line starts with the next letter of the Alphabet.
As I like poetry, and I enjoy attempting to make new poems, I will try to create an example, in the same theme, and idea of this Psalm:
Always, I will praise you Lord
Because you are worthy of praise
Continually I will sing Your praises
Daily I am overwhelmed by Your greatness
Every generation remembers your deeds
For you brought salvation to our people
Great and everlasting is your mercy
Happiness fills those who hear your voice
I will meditate on your glory
Justice is defined by your Law
King above all kings
LORD above all Lords
Merciful are your deeds
Nations praise you for them
Our salvation is from you Lord
Praise flows from every lip
Quickly your salvation comes
Rest comes for all who are weary
Sight comes for those once blind
Today is the day of our salvation
Undying is your mercy
Vast is your love
We thank you for your deeds
Xeric lands were made fruitful by your hands
You protect us as a fortress
Zealous is your love for us
While I’m not completely happy with the last few lines, and I’m sure nobody will be memorizing these words, nor reciting them on a daily basis, this is something that can give you an idea of what was going on. Because every line starts with the next letter of the Alphabet, the person reciting the prayer knows exactly where he or she is. Remembering which line is next is like remembering how the Alphabet goes.
Psalm 145 is a prayer giving praise to God. It is somewhat repetitive, emphasizing that praise is eternal — but it does praise God for several things: This psalm starts by praising God for being great and powerful. The very concept of God being God is the concept of greatness. Along with the greatness of being, God is created for the greatness of God’s actions.
I know the Old Testament can be hard on the Jews for not remembering all the things that God has done — but, I have to say that these days it is hard to accuse them of forgetting. There is a song associated with the Passover meal, Dayenu which does just this — it lists the things that God did, and goes on to say that if that were all God did, it would be enough. This song covers God freeing Israel from Egypt, restoring Israel as a nation, sustaining them miraculously, and giving them the Sabbath, the Torah, and the Temple.
After celebrating what God has done, there is a praise of God’s Justice, love and mercy. Americans don’t often think about how such things are connected, but it is difficult for me to imagine a system of Biblical Justice that did not speak of God’s love for humanity, nor God’s sense of mercy. When we talk about justice, we often talk about punishment for crimes. When the Old Testament talks about justice, it talks about the type of justice that returns what is lost. Not only does God’s justice return what was lost, but it is merciful and in many cases gives more than there was to begin with.
The next theme that it has (along with repeating what is already here) is talk about how God is faithful, and eternal. Paul wrote to Timothy saying that even if we are faithless, God remains faithful. This is an issue of faith: God is great, all the time. God is just, all the time. God is loving, all the time. God is merciful all the time. God’s love and mercy is not dependent upon our merit, but simply dependent upon God being God.
Here is a prayer which was prescribed for daily prayer. These words are not something that many American Christians would think to Pray. There is nothing in here that makes a request for God to work in our lives, help us with what we need, nor even to forgive us. When God is called merciful, just, and loving, it is not to ask for mercy but to describe God. This daily prayer is not like the prayers we are accustomed to.
Of course, the reason one would pray such a prayer isn’t to make God aware of God’s power, nor what God has done, nor how God has behaved. God knows these things better than any of us do. We cannot form the words to describe God, because our imagination is finite. Our finite minds cannot comprehend what it means to be infinite. If God is God, God must be far greater than the god that we imagine — and, any description we make cannot be especially helpful to God in understanding who God is.
What I do notice is that this is part of a prayer that the Jews pray every day. I don’t know when this custom started, but I do know that it seems to have been in effect during the Babylonian captivity. When Daniel prayed three times a day, this Psalm would have been part of those prayers. When King Darius threatened to put those who prayed to any God in the lions den, Daniel continued to pray, praising God for his mercy, great power, and faithfulness. When it looked like God turned his back on Israel, the children of Israel prayed — praising God for his love and faithfulness.
Every day, those in captivity reminded themselves of exactly who God was. When Judah was a province in the Persian empire, they reminded themselves of God’s eternal power. When the Greeks took over the temple, and turned it into a temple of Zeus, they remembered that God would destroy all of God’s enemies.
The prayer that was recited, day after day often didn’t seem to match up with what was happening in the world. They praised God, even when the world seemed to fall apart. They praised God for God’s faithfulness, love, and mercy when it seemed that God forgot them, and abandoned them to their enemies.
I believe that this is an example of a prayer that one prays, because prayer changes us. These prayers are sustaining prayers, reminding God’s people that even when things looked hopeless, that God was still bigger than their problems. This prayer is a prayer of faith: It is naming a truth that is easy to forget when the hard things of the world are overwhelming. May we all praise God, and remember.