Showing posts with label #Psalms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Psalms. Show all posts

The sort of poetry which doesn’t rhyme.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 August

When children are first exposed to books, they’re exposed to poetry. (What, you didn’t realize Green Eggs and Ham rhymed?) Starting with children’s books, all the way up to Shakespeare.

And what’s the one thing English-speakers are all agreed upon about poetry? I’m not gonna wait for your answer: It rhymes.

Except it doesn’t always.

We were introduced to Walt Whitman in high school. To his stuff other than “O Captain! My Captain!”, which does rhyme; usually “Song of Myself” or “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d.” And a bunch of us objected, as do high schoolers across America: “This isn’t poetry. It doesn’t rhyme!” ’Cause we knew from Green Eggs and Ham on up: Poetry rhymes. That’s what makes it poetry.

Well, no. Poetry’s about using wordplay to evoke emotion. It’s why it works so well with small children. But it doesn’t have to rhyme, or have a metrical rhythm, or any of the things we frequently find in traditional English-language poetry. True, lots of languages do rhythm and rhyme. Even Hebrew poetry can rhyme, as y’might notice in Israeli hip hop. (What, you haven’t listened to Israeli hip hop? Lemme fix that.)

But the ancient Hebrew stuff focuses on rhyming in a different way. English rhymes sounds. Done and won, red and head, still and will, butterfly and flutter by. Sometimes you’ll find rhymes in Hebrew writings too; they’ll use them to make puns. But for rhyming, ancient Hebrew focuses on rhyming ideas: Same concept, said again in different words.

Fr’instance.

Psalm 19.1 NRSV
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Note what lines up with what.

FROM LINE 1.FROM LINE 2.
“heavens”“firmament”
“are telling”“proclaims”
“the glory of God”“his handiwork”

Same ideas. Different lines. (Or sentences, or clauses. Hebrew sentences typically start with וְ/ve- or וָ/va- or וּ/u-, all of which mean “and.” So translators have the option of making a new sentence, new clause, or a new line. In theory an entire Old Testament book is just one big run-on sentence. But anyway.) And yes, you don’t usually think of “God’s glory” and “God’s handiwork” as the same thing… but now you do, ’cause you’re meant to.

This, and passages which practice this very same sort of parallelism, is how we know we’re dealing with Hebrew poetry. And it’s all over the bible, Old Testament and New. It doesn’t matter that the NT was written in Greek, because its writers all knew their Old Testament, and how to write Hebrew-style poetry, so they did. The psalms are nothing but poetry. The prophets are almost entirely poetry. Even the historical books and Law are loaded with poetry. Jesus uses poetry all the time to make his teachings memorable. Seriously, it’s everywhere.

It’s so common, whenever someone starts repeating ideas we immediately recognize this as “bible language.” (Assuming people are familiar with bible. Not so many of us are anymore.) People pray in Hebrew poetry, teach in it, give speeches in it, write songs in it. It’s all over English-speaking culture too. ’Cause our literature has been so heavily influenced by the King James Version and those who read it.

Because English poetry is primarily about rhyme and rhythm, it’s often tricky to translate our poems into other languages. You can’t always keep the poetic structure. But when Hebrew poetry is rendered into every other language… the parallelism is still there.

Almost as if God planned it that way, huh?

Why Hebrew poetry matters.

Hebrew poetry helps us interpret the bible. The scriptures’ authors used it to reiterate their points, and hammer ’em home with repetition. (Hey, check that out; I just did a little Hebrew poetry there myself.)

Which is really useful when we’re not sure what the authors meant. If any verse is difficult to interpret—we aren’t sure what the words mean, or we are sure but aren’t sure what the author meant by them—frequently the authors were writing in a poetic style, so we can simply look for the parallel ideas. ’Cause most of the time, there they are. The context of the parallels can help us interpret the proper meaning.

In fact you’ll notice a lot of the bible’s misinterpretations are usually the result of someone not bothering to check the context. Sometimes they don’t realize parallelism is going on, and try to interpret the parallel idea as if it’s an entirely separate, different idea. One famous example is this’un:

Genesis 1.26 NRSV
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Notice the parallels, and you’ll realize the author of Genesis is totally writing in poetry. Here, I’ll put it in lines, since the translators of the NRSV didn’t bother:

Genesis 1.26 NRSV
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image,
according to our likeness;
and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,
and over the birds of the air,
and over the cattle,
and over all the wild animals of the earth,
and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

“Fish of the sea” gets contrasted with “birds of the air.” Domestic animals get contrasted with wild animals, and with every creeping thing on the earth.

And of course “in our image” is a basic parallel of “according to our likeness.” But it seems St. Irenaeus of Lyons wasn’t up to speed on his Hebrew poetry. (He knew his Greek poetry; not so much the Hebrew stuff.) He took the two words he saw in his Septuagint as two individual ideas, and stretched ’em so he could talk about what he wanted to talk about: Free will. Irenaeus claimed having his image means we likewise have free will; having his likeness means we likewise can do good. Well, till Adam and Eve sinned. Humanity actually lost God’s likeness, Irenaeus claimed. But we still have “his image,” the free will… which we now use to pick which sin sounds more fun.

Meh. If I wanted to claim humans are depraved, it’s not hard to do. It says so in the New Testament. It’s so easy to put together a basic theology on it. I don’t have to twist Old Testament passages till they do as I want. But before I rant further about bad interpretation, I’ll just remind you: Hebrew poetry. These are parallel ideas, not separate ones. If you know this, you’re not gonna repeat Irenaeus’s mistake. Okay?

Types of parallels.

Yep, grammar nerds came up with a few categories for all the different kinds of parallels we find in Hebrew poetry. Don’t worry; I’m not giving a test later. Just realize there are lots of ways ancient Hebrew authors played with words.

SYNONYMOUS. The usual, most common type of poetry in the bible is basic synonymous parallelism. Ideas get repeated. Like yea.

Amos 2.14-15 NRSV
14 Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong shall not retain their strength,
nor shall the mighty save their lives;
15 those who handle the bow shall not stand,
and those who are swift of foot shall not save themselves,
nor shall those who ride horses save their lives;

Yeah, that army was screwed. Every line just describes more defeat for its soldiers.

Sometimes poets liked to take the clauses in one line, and flip ’em over for the next line. Notice the first two lines of this Jeremiah verse.

Jeremiah 25.34 NRSV
Wail, you shepherds, and cry out;
roll in ashes, you lords of the flock,
for the days of your slaughter have come—and your dispersions,
and you shall fall like a choice vessel.

Notice “you shepherds” is in the first part of line 1, but “you lords of the flock” is in the second part of line 2. “Cry out” is in the second part of line 1, but “roll in ashes” is in the first part of line 2. Grammar nerds love to give names to this kind of behavior, so this one’s called a chiasm, ’cause the ideas in the clauses get flipped. You can draw a diagram connecting them… and it’ll look like an X, which is also the Greek letter chi, hence chi-asm. Nerds.

Thing is, y’might notice fewer chiasms in some bible translations, ’cause in order to make parallels more obvious, the translators unflipped the clauses:

Jeremiah 25.34 NLT
Weep and moan, you evil shepherds!
Roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock!
The time of your slaughter has arrived;
you will fall and shatter like a fragile vase.

It’s not a big deal, but it’s why I’m not using the NLT for my examples.

Another term grammar nerds like to fling around is emblematic parallelism. All that means is the poet’s using similes and metaphors. As poets do.

Hosea 4.16 NRSV
“Like a stubborn heifer,
Israel is stubborn;
can the LORD now feed them
like a lamb in a broad pasture?”

ANTITHETICAL. When we compare opposites, contrast ideas, or use antonyms, we got antithetical parallelism. The proverb-writers love kind of poetry. Love love love. Proverbs is riddled with this type of poetry.

Proverbs 1.7 NRSV
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
 
Proverbs 10.1 NRSV
A wise child makes a glad father,
but a foolish child is a mother’s grief.

The godly experience this; the wicked experience that. God gives this bunch good, that bunch evil. Wisdom does one thing, stupidity does the reverse. Truth produces blessing, lies produce evil. And so forth.

SYNTHETIC. One of the meanings of synthesize is “to build.” So in synthetic parallelism, the poet starts an idea in line 1, then builds ideas onto it in the lines which follow.

Psalm 147.7-11 NRSV
7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
11 but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.

There’s a whole logical chain to this psalm, which we see when we analyze the poetry:

  1. (a) Sing to God. (b) And make melody.
  2. (a) God sends clouds. (b) And rain. (c) And grass.
  3. (a) God feeds animals. (b) Specifically ravens.
  4. (a) God doesn’t care about horsepower. (b) Nor human power.
  5. (a) God is pleased with our respect. (b) And our patience.

The most common kind of synthetic parallelism is where line 1 starts an idea, and line 2 finishes it. We also see this all over Proverbs—either with comparisons, or explanations.

Proverbs 26.1 NRSV
Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
so honor is not fitting for a fool.
 
Proverbs 19.20 NRSV
Listen to advice and accept instruction,
that you may gain wisdom for the future.

CLIMACTIC. A climax is the end of something. In climactic parallelism you simply have loads of repetition… but all the endings are different.

Psalm 29.1-2 NRSV
1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,[a]
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;
worship the LORD in holy splendor.
 
Matthew 5.3-9 NRSV
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Notice Jesus’s poetry in Matthew 5: He has all the repetition of climactic poetry. And for those people who consider the stuff after “for they/theirs” to be separate lines, he’s using synthetic poetry—explaining why they’re blessed. (Kingdom is theirs, inheriting the land, getting filled and satisfied, etc.) Yeah, you can mix up all sorts of parallelism.

Bonus: Metrical psalms!

Because some English-speakers simply have to have all their poetry rhyme, various Christians have created metrical psalms—translations of Psalms which gave ’em English-style rhymes and rhythm. The Scottish Psalter is one example. I’ve dabbled in it myself.

Psalm 8 KWL
Arranged for lyre. A David psalm.
1 Our master LORD: What noble name!
You have, in all the earth, great fame
which sets your splendor in the skies.
2 And in the kids’ and infants’ cries
you build your strength against your foes,
the vengeful; stop all who oppose.
3 I see the skies—your fingers’ act:
The moon, fixed stars—and I react:
4 So what are humans, to your mind?—
You care for Adam’s sons so kind.
5 A little less than gods, we’re made
with glory, honor, crowns you’ve laid.
6 The things your hands made, you ordain
beneath our feet; you have us reign.
7 All sheep and cows at our command,
rule over animals on land,
8 birds of the air, fish of the sea,
whatever swims there: All we see.
9 Our master LORD: What noble name!
You have, in all the earth, great fame.

If you notice the gray text, you’ll notice I had to pad the translation a bit so it’d rhyme. That’s the catch with metrical translations: The more you try to make it fit English poetry, the less precise and exact of a translation it becomes. You can do it, but you sacrifice accuracy for esthetics. And if you’re not careful, all the original poetry—all the Hebrew parallelism placed there by David and the other authors—gets hidden, or even gets deleted. It’s why metrical psalms are great for memorization, but not so great for bible study.

The Puritans made ’em metrical because in a lot of their churches, they wouldn’t allow you to sing anything which didn’t come from bible. (Lest you unintentionally wind up singing heresy.) So once the psalms were thus adjusted, and you could find some music to match, you could sing all 150 of ’em.

When I taught English, I had my students take a stab at adapting the psalms into poetry. One boy objected to “tampering with scripture,” but I pointed out he was only making something based on scripture. Nobody was gonna consider his poem a replacement for scripture. (Certainly hope not.) Still, y’might try your hand at it yourself. I find it to be a fun devotional practice.

De profundis.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 July

The prayer known as de profundis deɪ proʊ'fun.dis, commonly deɪ prə'fən.dɪs is also known as Psalm 130 in Jewish and Protestant bibles, and 129 in Orthodox and Catholic bibles. The Latin name comes from verse 1 in the Vulgate: De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine, “From the deep I call to you, Lord.”

My translation doesn’t rhyme this time, but it’s still in iambic septemeter.

Psalm 130 KWL
0 Song for the climb.
 
1 I call you from the deep, oh LORD. 2 My Master, hear my voice!
Your ears must pay attention to my supplications’ voice!
3 If you kept track of moral faults, my Master, who could stand?
4 But with you there’s forgiveness. For this reason, you’re revered.
5 I wait—my life waits—for the LORD; my hope is in his word.
6 My life awaits my Master like a night guard waits for dawn.
Like night guards wait for dawn… 7 so Israel: Wait for the LORD!
For with the LORD is love, and much redemption comes with him.
8 He will redeem you, Israel, from all your moral faults.

Connected to the Hebrew idea of waiting is the idea of hope. You’re waiting for God ’cause you expect him to do something. Like answer your prayer in some way.

In Christian tradition, De profundis is a common rote prayer. A lot of Christians pray the psalms, but this one’s frequently found in the prayer books of many denominations. Mainly because it shows a certain amount of repentance, and its hope in God’s grace and dependable love.

These godless kids these days.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 October

Psalm 14

Amár navál belibó/“The fool said at heart” (Latin Dixit insipiens) is by David, and we number it at 14.

Commentators figure it’s a lament: David, or Wisdom (i.e. the Holy Spirit) mourns the fact kids these days don’t follow God anymore. Not like “our righteous group,” Ps 14.5 the dor/“age group” (KJV “generation”) David’s in, which he deems more devout than the younger set. Back in his day people followed God, took his side, knew where their help came from, and expected God to rescue ’em yet again. In comparison, this generation is hopeless, nihilistic, cynical, faithless, and godless.

Basically, the same lament every generation has about the next one. Well, with one exception: The people from this generation, who gang up with the previous generation about their peers and successors. That’s a phenomena I’ve seen quite often lately. My parents are “baby boomers,” I’m in what marketers call “generation X,” and those coming of age right now are called “millennials”—and way too many of the preachers my age are wringing their hands over the younger generation. They’ve believed the myth that things used to be better when they were kids. Used to be better in their parents’ day.

Nope, they haven’t read Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 7.10 KWL
Don’t say, “Why were the old days better than these days?”
You don’t ask this question out of wisdom.

It’s a really good book for deflating know-it-alls.

Anyway, Psalm 14 kinda wanders in the direction of this false nostalgia. I remind you the psalms don’t actually rhyme. Just the same, let’s put a little iambic tetrameter on it.

Psalm 14 KWL
0 To the director. By David.
1 The foolish think God isn’t here.
They wreck. They do no good. They sneer.
2 From heaven, the LORD looks to see
if any child of Adam be
astute enough to seek God out.
3 But all of them are turned about.
They’re twisted. They do nothing good.
Not one of them 4 knows what they should.
Their every act is sin; when all
eat bread, it’s not the LORD they call.
5 There’s no respect; no holy dread.
God’s with our righteous group instead.
6 Ashamed to help the poor, are you?
Because the LORD’s their refuge, true?
7 Was rescue sent from Zion’s hill?
Who got this aid for Israel?
The LORD will set his people free.
May Jacob—Israel—have glee.

The Almighty our defender.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 August

This psalm isn’t necessarily about you, y’know.

Yoshév b’setér Elyón/“Seated in the secret [place] of the Highest,” (Latin Qui habitat) is our 91st psalm. It’s often called the Psalm of Protection, ’cause it talks about how the LORD will protect “you.”

Who’s the “you”? Actually that’d be the king. This is a messianic psalm, addressed to (and possibly written by) Israel’s king. This fact isn’t obvious; the psalm never bluntly says it. Hence loads of Christians figure they’re the “you,” apply it to themselves, and take a lot of comfort in the idea God’ll deliver us from our every foe.

Problem is, God never promised us any such thing. On the contrary: Jesus promised us we’d suffer. Jn 16.33 So to claim Yoshév b’setér Elyón for ourselves is not only taking the bible out of context, but setting ourselves up for huge disappointment when it inevitably won’t come true that way.

Yeah, my translation rhymes. Went with trochaic octameter.

Psalm 91 KWL
1 Seated in the Highest’s secret, seated in Almighty’s shadow,
2 tell the LORD, “You are my refuge and my fortress—God, I trust you.”
3 For he frees you from the fowler’s traps, from pestilence, destruction.
4 With his pinions you he covers. Under wing you find protection.
His truth is your shield and buckler 5 from the arrow’s daily flight.
His truth is your strong defense, so do not fear the dread of night.
6 Pestilence which walks in darkness, ruin at noon devastates—
7 thousands at your side and right may fall—but round you, it abates.
8 Only with your eyes you look, and see the wicked get their due.
9 The LORD God’s your refuge, and the Most High is a home to you.
10 Evil gets cut off from you. Inside your tent, plague is expelled.
11 For his angels, God commands to watch you, all your ways surveilled.
12 Lest you strike your foot on rocks, by hand they lift you in protection.
13 Step on lion, cobra; trample cub—and dragon!—his discretion.
14 “Since they love me, know my name, I rescue them and grant them safety.
15 They call; they I answer. I’m with them in all their difficulty.
I deliver them, and honor them, 16 and fill with days sufficient.
I will show them my salvation,” says with grace the LORD omniscient.

Don’t mess with our Messiah.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 July

A psalm for coronation—and a warning for the nations round about.

The second psalm, Lammá ragšú goyím/“For what reason rage the nations?” (Latin, Quare fremuerunt gentes) is considered a Messianic psalm ’cause it’s about Israel’s king, and one of the king’s titles is of course Messiah. And it’s considered a Messianic prophecy ’cause Jesus is Messiah, so Christians are gonna look for ways in which it gets fulfilled in the present day—kinda like the apostles did when they quoted it.

Acts 4.23-28 KWL
23 Once released, the apostles went to their own people
and brought news of whatever the head priests and elders told them.
24 Those who heard it unanimously lifted their voices to God and said, “Master,
you who made the heavens, earth, sea, and everything in them,
25 who said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our ancestor David your child,
‘Why are the nations furious?—the people practice stupidity?
26 The earth’s kings stand forth, and rulers gather themselves together,
against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ Ps 2.1-2
27 For truly they gathered together in this city against your holy child Jesus, whom you anointed—
Antipas Herod and Pontius Pilate, with gentiles and Israeli people—
28 to do whatever your hand and your will predecided to happen.”

After all, if the psalmist (who’s not identified, though you notice the apostles figured it was David) was speaking of Herod, Pilate, and the head priests conspiring against Jesus, it sure does look like the first lines of this psalm.

Why was it composed? We figure it’s for coronations. When a new king was anointed, they’d sing this. The first book in Psalms appears to be from the kingdom of southern Israel (“Judah”), so likely it was sung by and to the kings of Jerusalem. The original doesn’t rhyme or have meter, but I rendered it in trochaic heptameter anyway.

Psalm 2 KWL
1 For what reason is the uproar of the nations?
Or the people found in useless meditations?
2 Kings of earth and rulers take a stand, consulting
on the LORD and his Messiah—thus resulting
3 in, “Let’s tear their chains off; throw away their bindings.”
4 Seated in the heavens, my Lord mocks their findings.
5 Then he speaks, with nostrils flaring, to their hubris.
In his burning rage he terrifies them senseless.
6 “On my holy Zion hill, I poured out my king.”
7 Let me now instruct you on the LORD God’s ruling.
“You’re my son,” he told me, “on this day I birthed you.
8 Ask me and I grant the wealth of nations to you.
Your inheritance extends to earth’s horizon.
9 Shatter with your iron staff; like jars you’ll break them.”
10 Now kings, think it through. Earth’s judges, heed this warning.
11 Serve the LORD in fear. Rejoice, but do it trembling.
12 Kiss the son lest he destroy your path in anger.
Small things make him burn. Bless all who seek his shelter.

When we’re surrounded by sickness and evil.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 April

A lot of the “problems” westerners go through are what we call “first-world problems”: If you’re rich and comfortable, little annoyances get exaggerated into big huge crises. Like when your phone battery dies, or the grocery store shrinks your favorite yogurt from 150 grams to 100 and raises the price a nickel, or somebody cut in line at the coffeehouse, or someone misunderstood your latest tweet and got all offended. Now your day is just ruined.

Poor people just laugh at these woes as ridiculous. ’Cause they are.

Parents of teenagers know what I’m talking about. I used to teach grammar, and my kids would write poetry, and sometimes they’d write really awful poems in which they’d bellyache about the “problems” in their largely problem-free lives. Rarely were they legitimate—like not having enough food, like fighting a difficult disease, like child abuse. Just a bunch of first-world problems. This or that kid was mean to ’em. Parents wouldn’t give them the money to waste on toys or clothes or concerts. And who needs good grades when you’re gonna be in the NBA someday? Teenage angst is largely the result of new hormones affecting a young mind that doesn’t yet know how to handle ’em. But kids assume it’s all this other dumb stuff.

Anyway. You want some real suffering, kids, you listen to David ben Jesse. Dude peaked too soon, making his king crazy jealous, forcing him into hiding for years. Once he finally took the throne he had to fight three civil wars—and that’s on top of all Israel’s external foes.

Plus, at the time he wrote this psalm, David apparently hadn’t changed his drawers in way too long, leading to a savage case of crotch rot in verse 7… and that’s the optimistic interpretation. Best I don’t speculate further. But you think your life sucks? David’s really sucked.

Yes, my translation made it rhyme again.

Psalm 38 KWL
0 David’s psalm—something to remember.
1 LORD, don’t correct me angrily, instructing me in heat,
2 because your arrows fall on me. Your strong hand has me beat.
3 My flesh’s instability from your indignant face;
my bones lack peace; my sinning moves your presence out of place.
4 I’ve more misdeeds than height! a heavy, heavy load for me.
5 My wounds all stink and rot thanks to my clear stupidity.
6 I’m twisted, bent way down; I walk in darkness all the day.
7 My burning genitals!—unstable flesh just wastes away.
8 I’m numb. I’m very crushed. My groaning heart through which I’ve cried—
9 My Master, my desires and sighs are obvious. Don’t hide.
10 My heart vibrates. My strength is gone. My eyes’ light: Also gone.
11 My loves and friends both shun my plague. My nearest: Far along.
12 Some want to trap my soul, have me wreak havoc, do what’s wrong.
They meditate on tricks to play upon me all day long.
13 I’m deaf, so I heard nothing. Mouth not open. I stayed mute.
14 Much like a man who doesn’t hear, I’d nothing to refute.
15 I hope in you, my LORD, my Master God. Reply, I plead:
16 I said, “These big shots hope to see me trip on my own feet.”
17 For I expect to fall! It’s like I’m walking on a thorn.
18 My evil I confess; my sinning causes me to mourn.
19 My enemies, alive and strong—and liars—come in droves.
20 Instead of goodness, vice; since I chase goodness, they oppose.
21 Don’t leave me, LORD! I need you here. Please don’t be far away.
22 Save me quick, my Master and my savior—come today!

Vengeful God, loving God.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 December

When I translate the psalms, I make ’em rhyme because I can. Iambic octometer, anyone?

Psalm 3 KWL
0 David’s psalm, while fleeing the presence of his son Absalom.
1 My enemies—ten thousand, LORD!—have multiplied and charge at me!
2 The myriads say of my life, “God’s rescue? Not for he.” Selah.
3 But you, LORD, are my shield and honor, granting my authority.
4 I call the LORD, who from his holy mountain answers me. Selah.
5 I lay my head to sleep, and wake because the LORD has strengthened me.
6 Do I fear opposition from ten thousand circling people? Nah.
7 You rose and saved me, LORD my God. Face-punched my every enemy.
Broke evildoers’ teeth. 8 You bless your own with rescue, LORD. Selah.

Psalm 3 is Adonái me-rabu (Latin, Domine, quid multiplicati), “LORD, how are they increased,” written by King David ben Jesse in the 10th century BC, and as verse 0 points out, it was when his son Absalom attempted to overthrow him.

It’s a vengeance psalm. One of many. David liked to write ’em, and he’s not the only one; a lot of the prophets wrote vengeance poetry too. Because the psalms are some of the better-known passages of the bible, it creates a lot of problems for Christians: We read this stuff, and have the darnedest time reconciling it with the way Jesus and his apostles describe his Father in the New Testament. In the NT, God is love. In the OT—if you’re selectively reading it, and most Christians do—God appears to be all outrage and wrath.


From The Simpsons episode 14.10, “Pray Anything.”

The title of this article comes from an episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets ahold one of those lenticular photos—a 3D image, some of which will change when you tilt ’em. One image is of God (or at least the old guy from the Sistine Chapel ceiling) looking wrathful. The other is of God giving a thumbs up. “Vengeful God… loving God,” Homer comments.

Bipolar God, apparently.

But is he? Nah.

So where do we get this idea? Simple: We’re overlaying our own bad attitudes onto God. We’re vengeful, so when we read the Old Testament and see God righteously judging the nations, we presume he’s vengeful. We confuse God’s righteous anger with our own far-from-righteous anger. We even use it to justify doing likewise. But we’re too corrupt to act in anger without sliding into evil. God has self-control. We don’t.

The Lord’s my shepherd.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 August

Most everybody’s favorite psalm.

Adonái ro’i (Latin, Dominus pascit me), “the LORD’s my shepherd,” was written by King David ben Jesse in the 10th century BC. In the Hebrew bible it’s the 23rd psalm. (In the Septuagint and Vulgate it’s the 22nd.)

Hebrew poetry doesn’t rhyme. But really, all it takes to make a rhyming translation is a little effort. So I did. Went with anapestic septameter. (Poetry nerds know what that means.)

Psalm 23 KWL
0 David’s psalm.
1 I am never deprived, for my shepherd’s the LORD. 2 In his pastures of grass do I rest.
I am guided by him to the waters so calm. 3 He provides me my life. I am blessed.
I am led down the rightest of paths by his name. 4 In the valley’s dark shade, I may veer;
but because you are with me, I won’t be afraid. In your stick and your staff, I take cheer.
5 You arrange me a table in face of my foes. You rub fat on the wool of my head.
You have made my cup overflow. 6 All my life’s days, love and goodness pursue me instead.
I will always return to the house of the LORD for the length of my days. I’m well-led.

Now, the down side to doing this is the parallelism in these verses becomes a little less obvious. And that’s not unimportant. So in order to make the parallels more obvious, I’ll format it thisaway. (And drop the text I had to pad it with to keep it in meter; and put the contractions back in.)

Psalm 23.1-6 KWL
1 I’m never deprived; my shepherd’s the LORD.
2 In pastures of grass do I rest.
I’m guided by him to the waters so calm.
3 He provides me my life.
I’m led down the rightest of paths by his name.
4 In the valley’s dark shade, I may veer;
but because you’re with me, I won’t be afraid.
In your stick and your staff, I take cheer.
5 You arrange me a table in face of my foes.
You rub fat on my head. You make my cup overflow.
6 All my life’s days, love and goodness pursue me.
I return to the house of the LORD for the length of my days.

Nobody knows what “selah” means.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 June
SELAH si'lɑ, 'seɪ.lɔ, 'si.lɔ verb. Term occurring 71 times in Psalms and thrice in Habakkuk. Probably a musical direction, but meaning unknown.
2. [excl. in popular Christian culture] Amen; or some form of blessing, greeting, or praise.

There’s a friend of mine who loves to end her emails with “Selah.” Just for fun, I started ending my emails to her with “Callay”—a word from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” apparently said in celebration, but like selah we don’t precisely know its meaning, ’cause Carroll was deliberately being silly.

Last month she finally asked about it: “What’s ‘callay’ mean?”

“Same as ‘selah,’ ” I replied.

She didn’t inquire further. I’m guessing she thinks she knows what selah means, so she just accepted my explanation. A lot of folks who use selah think they know its meaning. It means amen, right? It’s a declaration of support, agreement, truth, joy… something positive. It’s why they put it in all the reggae songs.

Well, it may mean something positive. We don’t know.

No, seriously. We don’t know. Whatever it means, we lost its definition before the bible was translated into Greek in the second century BC. The Septuagint translates it diá-psalma/“having to do with a psalm.” Yep. Even they didn’t know what it meant—and they knew ancient Hebrew.

Oh, there are theories. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon and Theological Wordbook of the OT (which is based on that lexicon, so don’t think of it as an independent authority) deduce it means “lift up” or “exalt.” They figure this based on the ways Jews and Christians have used it through history. The similar word salá means to make light, toss aside, or balance; so it could mean something we pick up.

But when we come across it in Psalms and Habakkuk, it’s just a musical instruction. Since it’s regularly found in psalms specifically written for a menache’ákh/“choirmaster,” Ps 4, 9, 20, 21, 39, 44, 46, 47, 49, 52, 54, 55, 57, 59-62, 66-68, 75-77, 81, 84, 85, 88, 140, Ha 3 it might be a vocal instruction.

But which instruction? For all we know, “selah” was the cue to blast the trumpets.

If it means “hang,” must we hold the note? If it means “weigh,” does that mean sing it louder, or lower? If it means “reject,” is this a stop, or a pause? If it means “value,” does this mean it’s an extra-important line—so therefore we’re to sing it louder, or more solemn, or with more instruments, or even that we’re to repeat it like a chorus? Or might it have an entirely different meaning, one we’re not aware of, like “chorus” or “refrain” or “forte” or “pause” or any of the other notes we include on sheet music?

You see the problem: We’re guessing.

Fortunately we’re not trying to duplicate the psalms’ musical performances. If we set the psalms to music, we write our own musical pieces, our own choral works; we stick our own pauses and choruses and fortes in there. Not knowing what selah means won’t affect us any. It’s not like the whole theology of a psalm can flip over, depending on how Christians translate selah. It’s a direction for the choirmaster. Not for us.