Psalms: The prayer-book for Jews and Christians
An introduction by Noel S Donnelly
Over the past few years we’ve become quite accustomed to singing many of the psalms… and I mean singing , not just chanting! It’s good to hear in particular so many psalms being sung in the liturgy of the Word: God speaks the Word (in our first reading, for example). But God is a God of dialogue: God wants our response to the Word in the reading, and so we as a community sing our Responsorial Psalm . . .very often in a popular style of music.
NUMBERS: Shortly before 250 BCE the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in a version known as the Septuagint (referring to the number 70: there was a tradition that 70 scribes were involved in the translation). During the course of this translation some minor changes were made: Psalms 9 & 10 were joined together, as were Pss 114 & 115. On the other hand the Hebrew versions of 42, 116 & 147 were divided in two. The result was a difference in the numbering of the Hebrew and Greek collections: As a general rule, from Ps 10 to 148 the numbering of the Hebrew is one higher than the Greek e.g. Ps 57 in Hebrew is 56 in Greek. Hebrew system in RSV, JB , etc and lectionaries but the Grail and some others follow the Greek numbering.
Hebrew Text Septuagint
Most scholars now use the Hebrew numbering. But some R.C.’s stick to the Septuagint numbering (older in terms of MSS). (The Hebrew received text was from 10th C mss. But much of this is now confirmed from Dead Sea Scroll mss, dated around 50 AD).
HEBREW POETRY: This is not a matter of rhyme but of BALANCE:
1. Of ideas: A wise son makes his father glad; but a foolish son is a grief to his mother. (Prov 10:1)
Truthful lips endure forever; the lying tongue only for a moment. (Prov 12:19)
Have mercy on me Lord in your kindness In your compassion blot out my offence. (Ps 50).
2. Of rhythm, not rhyme: DAH DAH DAH DAH DAH DAH Cry out with joy to the Lord – Serve the Lord with gladness.
A special kind of psalm, a Lament leaves a space for a sob DAH DAH DAH – DAH DAH – (called a “qinah”) From the depths I cry Lord to You Hear my voice. –
3. Of lines: Ps 100 has three lines per verse; each line adds delight and depth to the other:
The IMAGERY used is quite spectacular: You have kept count of my sorrows; put all my tears in a bottle. (Ps 56:8)
(A lonely fugitive): I have become like a pelican in the wilderness, like an owl in desolate places. I lie awake and I moan like some lonely bird on a rooftop. (Ps 102:7-8)
Note concrete more than abstract: Ps 104:26 Man solid as a cedar, disappears into thin air. Mountains dance; important men, heavyweights who rise when put on the scales; ointment flows over a person’s hair and face; enemies are bulls, lions, dogs.
COLLECTIONS: One clue to the way the Psalter was formed can be found in the names that are attached to some Psalms: 83 “of Asaph” 84 “of the Sons of Korah”. See also Psalms “of David” 3-41 and 51-70. Almost certainly not all written by David himself at the time indicated at the heading: Ps 3; 51; 57; 63 An anonymous singer reflects on the experience of David and make it available to all of us.
A Temple Hymn Book emerged with five main groups: each block ends with a blessing:
1-41 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel From age to age. Amen Alleluia! (41:1 3)
42-72 Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, who alone works wonders, Ever blessed his glorious name. Let his glory fill the earth. Amen! Amen! (72:1 9).
73-89 Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen, Amen! (89:52)
90-106 Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, For ever, from age to age. Let all the people cry out: “Amen! Amen! Alleluia!” (106:48)
107-150 The whole of Ps 150 is great hymn of praise, rounding off the 5 Books.
Some time before 400 BC this was all put together specifically for the Temple liturgy. A final step was when this was included in the third section of the Old Testament: The Writings. (The Law, The Prophets and The Writings (see Lk. 24:44 where Jesus refers to “everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and in the Psalms). The psalms too are the Word of God. With the spread of Judaism over the world, there was normally no access to the Temple. The focus of community prayer was the synagogue. This is where the scriptures and songs were learned by the often-illiterate people. The Books were costly and inaccessible but the responses were learned and sung… and the Psalms became a resource for individual private prayer. The psalms had come back to the people again.
Liturgical Situations: Ps 80 Note v 1 “For the choir master: Tune “The Decrees are Lilies”” Sometimes a well-known tune is to be used: 22; 45; 56. Stage Directions too: Ps 95:6; Ps 11 8:27(References to music-making, dancing singing marching and hand-clapping!) Ps 150:3-4 Ps 68:25-26 (Lively and noisy). Noel Donnelly..