Friday, February 10, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
QUESTION: I struggle when reading the Book of Psalms. I don’t seem to get much out of them. Can you provide some background that might help?
ANSWER: The Catholic Church utilized the psalms as a central part of its official prayer life. It also recommends the reading of psalms in private prayer. It does so for a number of reasons, and I personally feel that the psalms are one of our most precious treasures.
Their value might be seen in the fact that they have been a part of prayer for Jews for almost 3,000 years, and for Christians for 2,000. They are also important because they span almost every degree of human emotion.
The author of the Book of Psalms is generally thought to be King David. However, in general his authorship has come to be understood much like that of Moses for the Pentateuch or Solomon for the wisdom literature of the Bible. It seems far more likely that the psalms were of more complex origin than one man sitting down and composing all 150 of them.
As with any people or nation, song and poetry were an important part of the life of the people of Israel. Many of their songs spoke of the goodness of God and God’s actions on their behalf. Others spoke of the marvels wrought by God as seen in nature and the beauty of creation. Still others spoke of human sorrows and joys. Some of the psalms are older than King David, some seem to have come after him and others certainly bear the mark of this great figure in the life of Israel.
A number of the psalms seem to have emerged from Israel’s history. These originated at the campfires of a nomad people and at the hearths of men and women teaching ancient belief to new generations.
Other psalms originated in the struggles encountered by God’s people. The exile produced psalms of great sorrow and lament, and the restoration after exile produced psalms of thanksgiving and praise. Finally, the monarchy and the years of Israel’s great influence also contributed to the collections of poetry and song. The psalms, then, are inspired songs and poetry, but their inspiration was the work of God over many generations.
The classification of psalms gives evidence to this diverse history and origin. For example, there are psalms of praise (8 and 29), thanksgiving (30 and 68) and trust (11 and 16). There are psalms of lament by an individual (5 and 6) and the community (44 and 74), and there are psalms to be used on pilgrimage (24 and 48) and by those falsely accused (7 and 35).
Psalms teach us about God the loving creator and the dread of being out of God’s sight. Psalms speak of God’s justice and mercy and the way in which we must be concerned about one another.
Admittedly, the theology of psalms does not always perfectly echo Christian values, but we must remember that they were composed in a world view vastly different from our own. Yet they can speak to us in our day in profound ways.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.