The Importance of the Psalms in our Daily Catholic Lives
Psalms Provide Essential Elements in the Practice of Our Faith
We refer to and recite them all the time as Catholics: at Holy Mass just before the Gospel reading; in our sacred songs and prayers; in the Divine Office; and in religious and non-religious ceremonies and events – whether that be in Catholic wedding ceremonies or the inaugurations of politicians to local, state and federal offices. I am referring to the psalms. Their recitation is so common in our daily lives as Catholics that sometimes I think we forget the unique and powerful elements that they bring to the practice of our faith. So it is fitting to ask, therefore, what is the backstory of the psalms? Moreover, even though we refer to them by one name, are there different types of psalms?
Comprising a book of the Old Testament, the psalms may be conceptualized as a collection of songs, perhaps better thought of sacred poems. The psalms make up the third section of the Hebrew Bible, what we typically refer to as the Writings, or Ketuvim. Referencing the scholarship of Hermann Gunkel, Collins notes that “the psalms were not the spontaneous prayers of individuals, but reflect fixed forms that were transmitted from generation to generation” (485). There are several different types of psalms; including Hymns, Psalms of YHWH’s Enthronement, Psalms of Individual Complaint, Psalms of Communal Complaint, Psalms of Thanksgiving, Royal Psalms, and Wisdom Psalms.
The book of Psalms in the Bible is composed of 150 poems, further divided into five books, perhaps paying homage to the first five books of the Old Testament or the Pentateuch. Biblical scholarship has revealed that “the anthology that became the Book of Psalms was put together in the Second Temple period, perhaps in the fifth century BC but probably no later than the fourth century BC. The decision to assemble the disparate psalms in a book may have been motivated by the redaction of the Torah in the fifth century BC as a canonical book intended for public reading” (Alter Kindle Locations 362-365).
I will illustrate three subtypes of psalms, and then provide analysis and commentary on the meaning of each for events in our own time. One type of psalm is defined as a Hymn, or song of praise, Collins noting that “the singing of praise seems to have been a prominent part of the temple worship throughout the history of Israel and Judah” (487). A short, but sweet example of this type of psalm is Psalm 117:
Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Extol him, all you peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 117 is not only shortest psalm but also the shortest chapter in the Catholic Bible (Alter). The power of this psalm to me is it represents a powerful doxology, an unambiguous hymn of praise. In five short lines we praise the Lord, throughout the world, by all peoples. Not only to we praise God, but we affirm his love and faithfulness for all time! Syllable for syllable I cannot think of a stronger affirmation of faith, love, trust, and hope in God than is offered through Psalm 117.
There are no specific details of God’s faithfulness or love, just pure affirmation of hope, dedication, and acknowledgment of the power of God. Full stop. Psalm 117 has such direct application to the world today because unlike so many of the other psalms which in their acknowledgment and praise of the Lord focus on Jerusalem, the people of Israel, this psalm is universal in scope, applying to all peoples and all nations; a truly ecumenical message that is so needed in today’s divisive religious and political climates.
A second type of psalm is defined as a Psalm of God’s Enthronement. For example, Psalm 93 is one of my favorites:
The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea,
majestic on high is the Lord!
Your decrees are very sure;
holiness befits your house,
O Lord, forevermore.
When we read or think about “kings,” especially in poetry or prose before the birth of the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, the reference was generally to human rulers, not the divine. Psalm 93 is an exception to that principle, declaring God to be king, and employing human metaphors to robe God the king in majestic robes. The end reference to God being not only king but lawmaker also nicely tie in the covenant, not only now, but “forevermore.” As a final note, the roaring and mighty waters metaphor belie the true grandeur, power, and magnificence of the Lord, and translate in my reading to the Song of Songs 8:7 where it is written: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” And they say God isn’t mentioned in the Song of Songs! Not to mention that this use of power of God through the metaphor of water is also referenced in the later Christian tradition, when it is written about Jesus Christ in Revelation 1:15 that “His voice was like the sound of many waters.”
In today’s world it is always important to note that whether we are focused on the Old or New Testaments, that the precepts of God are both universal and eternal. This would be music to the ears of a Catholic Canon Lawyer.
A third type of psalm is defined as a Psalm of Individual Complaint, which when paired with the Psalms of Communal Complaints constitute “the basic material of the Psalter” (Collins 488). Therefore, we now take a turn away from songs/psalms/poems of praise and majesty, and segue into excising our grief, pain, longing and sense of detachment from God through the psalms. A great example of this is found in Psalm 26:
Vindicate me, O Lord,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I walk in faithfulness to you.
I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
and go around your altar, O Lord,
singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
and telling all your wondrous deeds.
O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
and the place where your glory abides.
Do not sweep me away with sinners,
nor my life with the bloodthirsty,
those in whose hands are evil devices,
and whose right hands are full of bribes.
But as for me, I walk in my integrity;
redeem me, and be gracious to me.
My foot stands on level ground;
in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.
This is a psalm dedicating to imploring the Lord to validate the author (King David?), and most poignantly to invite God to gaze into his innermost parts, his heart and mind, as proof of his fidelity. To implore the Lord as such takes a confident person! For me Psalm 26 is the poem, the song I wish I could recite or sing with full confidence that if the Lord looked into my heart and mind, I would be able to feel so self-assured as to almost demand of God redemption due to my own inner purity, innocence, and outward works of goodness.
I do not think I will be imploring the Lord God in such a manner anytime soon. And I wonder, all things considered, if David is indeed the author of this psalm, how he could do likewise given the complexities of his own inner thoughts and outward behavior, not all of which shares anything to do with having “hands in innocence.” But for all of us who live in today’s world, Psalm 26 is a constant reminder to strive to be the very best you can, in your heart, in your mind, and in your deeds, before the Lord.
We experience in the psalms a depth and breadth of human experiences, a poetic manifestation of our relationship with God in singing His praises, in celebrating God’s majesty, and sometimes in the expression (albeit poetically) of just plain human crankiness! The next time you find yourself reading, singing, thinking about, or reciting a psalm, perhaps you can think about the richness and diversity the psalms add to the practice of our Catholic faith; and in the range of emotion and expression of our relationship to God that the psalms evoke in their poetic expressions.
Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition, 2007.
Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press, 2014.