Blogging The Bible

The Most Famous Poem Ever Written

The Book of Psalms presents two daunting challenges to the Bible blog. First, because it’s just a series of poems, in no particular order, there is no compelling reason to start at Psalm 1 and read on to Psalm 150. You might as well start at Psalm 47 and then read 112 and then 6 and then 65 and then so on. But since the aim of the blog is to read straight through the Bible, I will dutifully begin with Psalm 1 and trudge forward. Second, because there is no story, it’s a very demanding read. As I quickly learned when I began my Psalmistry last night, reading one psalm is a joy, reading two is a pleasure, reading three is a chore, and reading a dozen or more is like sitting next to a desperate Amway salesman on a trans-Atlantic flight.

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Psalm 1
A righteous man studies the Lord’s teaching “day and night.” It’s 11:30 p.m., so that’s me!

Psalm 2
One of several psalms addressed to kings and princes, all of which strike a similar theme. Don’t plot against God or try to supplant Him. Remember, you serve at His pleasure, and if you get too big for your britches, you will regret it. “O kings, be prudent; accept discipline, you rulers of the earth … lest He be angered, and your way be doomed.”

Psalm 3
The first of many psalms “of David”—that is, psalms that King David supposedly wrote. Since David is the Bible’s most fascinating character, I’m looking forward to reading these. Given David’s not-inconsiderable ego, it’s hardly surprising that the main theme of David’s psalms is: Poor me, I have so many enemies, even though I’m such a righteous man. Thanks for killing all my enemies, God!

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I love this wonderfully modern line at the end of Psalm 3, where he praises the Lord: “For You slap all my enemies in the face.”

Psalm 6
Another psalm of David. It opens: “O Lord, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury. Have mercy on me, O Lord.” This is an interesting appeal to the Lord. God often reacts too quickly in the Bible, immediately flying into a rage at human sin and frailty. What’s so appealing about this verse is that David is not denying his wrongdoing—he knows he’s a sinner—but he wants God to count to 10 before smiting. He’s asking God to grant him a few moments so that he can plead for forgiveness and prove his faith, hoping that the Lord’s fury will subside. As always, David is a superb psychologist, daring to understand, and manipulate, the Lord.

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Also, a literary point: Note that the first line—”do not punish me in anger”—is followed by a line that means exactly the same thing: “do not chastise me in fury.” I haven’t mentioned it before, but this similar-but-not-identical repetition is a common device in Bible poetry. (Psalm 3, for example, begins: “O Lord, my foes are so many! Many are those who attack me.”) If I remember correctly from my college class in oral literature—lo, these 17 years ago—such repetition is common in song-poems all over the world. “Oral formulaic” poems contain repetitions so that the bards who had to perform them would have an easier time remembering them. (The oral formulas particularly apply to epic poems, but there are elements even in small poems like the psalms.)  When the song-poems were eventually written down, the repetitions came along. (I assume—and correct me if I’m wrong, scholars—that the psalms were sung and performed long before they were written down.)

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Psalm 8
Psalms, like Hamlet or Casablancaor Genesis, has what I would call a cliché problem, or maybe a Bartlett’s problem. It is salted with so many famous phrases that it sometimes sounds trite. In this psalm, for example, appears the question: “What is man that thou are mindful of him?” As a reader, this tripped me up and distracted me from the rest of the very lovely poem, because it’s a phrase I have heard many times before, without ever being able to place it.

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In any case, the psalm thanks God for bothering to pay attention to us. It’s a winning poem because it’s humble without being self-loathing. (Most Bible verses about human failings tend to the histrionically negative.) It’s realistic about our smallness—we’re just human beings, little nothings compared to the sun and moon and stars—but it doesn’t weep with over-the-top self-hatred. It also occurs to me that I like it because it reflects my own gratitude about being alive: Isn’t it nice, that of all the gin joints, on all the planets, in all the galaxies in the universe, I walked into this one! Why am I so lucky to be born on Earth, and a human being too? If that’s not a reason to thank God, I don’t know what is.

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Psalm 10
At the beginning of the psalm, the poet, like Habakkuk, asks God why He “stand[s] aloof” during bad times and allows the wicked to crush the good. But by the middle of the poem, the author recognizes that God is paying attention to all this evil and keeping score: “You do look! You take note of mischief and vexation!” And by the end, the psalmist knows that God redeems the downtrodden and crushes the tyrants. The entire cycle of belief, from doubt, to revelation, to vindication, in just 18 verses.

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Psalm 11
God will rain down “blazing coals and sulfur” upon the wicked. Question: Why is sulfur a frequent Bible punishment? It’s God’s favorite chemical weapon, the mustard gas of the ancient Near East. Was sulfur in fact an Israelite weapon? Or, even if it was not a weapon, was it a common natural threat? Was there a Judean volcano or hot spring that spewed dangerous sulfur? I’ve been to Israel a few times and never seen (or smelled) any sulfur. But I can’t imagine the Bible’s authors would have written about sulfur with such alarm unless they had reason to fear it.

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Psalm 13
This psalm displays David at his most Davidian. We hear his incredible whininess: “How long, O Lord; Will You ignore me forever? … How long will my enemy have the upper hand?” But he also shows off his seductive powers. Listen to this fabulous line, exactly the approach to God you’d expect from a pickup artist as skilled as David: “Look at me, answer me, O Lord, my God!” Can’t you just see that devilishly handsome king, lyre in hand, tears welling up in his deep brown eyes, knowing that no one alive—not even God—could resist him? What mortal dares to command God, “Look at me”? Only His most beloved king, David.

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Psalm 16
Among many other nice metaphors about the Lord, David says, “He is at my right hand.” This right-hand phrase appears several times in the Bible: Is it the source of “right-hand man”?

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Psalm 18
The longest and most spectacular psalm yet, it’s actually an almost word-for-word copy of 2 Samuel, Chapter 22. It opens with David rattling off an amazing series of nouns to praise God: “my crag, my fortress, my rescuer, my God, my rock in whom I seek refuge, my shield, my mighty champion, my haven.”

It then turns into a story of how God “bent the sky and came down” to rescue David. Egomaniac David, naturally, thinks he deserves nothing less because he is a “blameless” man. “The Lord rewarded me according to my merit.”

Psalm 20
This one is sweet because it gives us David at his least self-absorbed. Usually his psalms are all about, well, David—how great he is, how the Lord had better stop ignoring him, how his enemies will suffer, etc. In this poem, David finally spares a thought for everyone else: “May the Lord answer you in time of trouble. … May He grant your desire, and fulfill your every plan.” Its selflessness gives it a power and a heart that are lacking in many of his first-person psalms.

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Psalm 22
This psalm surely has special meaning for Christians. David, complaining again, opens the psalm by crying: “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” Even I know these are Jesus’ last (or nearly last) words.

It is not the only line in this psalm that relates to the death of Jesus. David imagines his killers “casting lots for my garments”—which is what the Roman soldiers did over Jesus’ clothes. 

The climax of this psalm is curious. David bargains with God, promising to proclaim His glory—as long as God saves him from death. This is characteristic of David. His love of God is conditional—dependent on God doing good for him (making him king, saving his life, etc.). Yet the overriding message of the Bible is always that our love for God mustn’t be conditional. When your faith is conditional, it’s self-interested and utilitarian. Love for God must be absolute. But David is always the Bible exception. Because he is God’s favorite, he can get away with gamesmanship that the rest of us don’t dare try.

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Psalm 23
Probably the most famous poem ever written: “The Lord is my shepherd.” It’s just as good as I remember. Read it! I have only two small points to make about it. First, the King James version famously and majestically refers to “the valley of the shadow of death.” But my Tanakh translation replaces that with “a valley of deepest darkness.” I assume my translation is more accurate, but it’s so … blah!

Second: Why is this psalm world famous and the other 149 are not? One reason must be that Psalm 23 is a most pacific and gentle poem. One of the revelations I’ve had reading the Bible is that its most famous passages are almost always its gentlest and most loving parts. While there are certainly famous Bible stories that are disturbing—Noah, Ten Plagues, etc.—the celebrated bits are far milder than the book as a whole. Psalm 23 is a perfect example of this whitewashing, presenting a God who is loving, mild, forgiving, openhearted—even though the God of the psalms, and of the Hebrew Bible generally, is usually quick to anger, furious, and unforgiving. The Psalm 23 God is certainly better for marketing.

Psalm 24
I pause here only for family reasons. This psalm begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds.” My late grandmother Helen Plotz edited anthologies of poetry, including a 1965 collection of spiritual poetry, The Earth Is the Lord’s.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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