Blogging The Bible

The Meek Shall Inherit What?

Psalm 25“O my God, in you I trust.” I’ve got an idea: Let’s stamp that on some coins.

At the beginning of this psalm, David implores God, “Do not let me be put to shame.” He repeats the same plea at the end. In between, he also asks the Lord not to shame His followers but to definitely shame the “wantonly treacherous.” The theme of shame runs through the Psalms—it’s also key to Psalms 31, 34, 35, 40, 44 … I find the obsession curious. Isn’t it odd that David is less troubled by being defeated by his enemies than he is by the dishonor of that defeat? Perhaps I’m skeptical of this because shame is such an un-American concept. We are perhaps the world’s first culture of shamelessness. If I had been raised in a society that was more honor-bound—many Middle Eastern nations, for instance, or Japan—David’s dread of shame would touch me more.

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Psalm 26
David offers a beautiful description of righteous behavior, though enough with the braggadocio already! “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 …”

Psalm 29
This quirky psalm abandons the usual formula (Dear Lord, please be my salvation and smite my enemies, thanks, David). Instead, it’s a poem about God’s voice. Really. Just His voice: “The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars … The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness … The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare.” No wonder they always want Morgan Freeman to play God!

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Psalm 33
A vivid image of the all-seeing God: “He sees all humankind. From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth—he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.”

Psalm 34
Though you can’t tell from the English translation, this is one of several psalms that’s an acrostic. In the original Hebrew, each stanza begins with a different letter, starting with aleph and going right through the alphabet. (What’s next, Psalms Sudoku?) The word game doesn’t do much for the poem itself, which is a workmanlike, blah version of the usual prayer for redemption.

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Psalm 35
David really unloads on his enemies, asking God to deliver a serious whipping: “Let them be put to shame and dishonor … Let them be like chaff before the wind … Let their way be dark and slippery [that’s my favorite line!] … Let ruin come on them unawares.”

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This psalm seems to be the source of the wonderful phrase: “They repay me evil for good.” Hello again, Bartlett’s.

Psalm 37
One of the Bible’s clearest discussions about the difference between good and evil. The premise of the psalm is: Don’t worry about the wicked, because God is going to get back at them, big-time. (There is something ironic about David, who spends most of his day agonizing about his enemies, advising us not to trouble ourselves about ours.) He carefully compares the righteous and the wicked. For example: The righteous “utter wisdom.” The wicked “seek to kill.” The righteous are generous, while “the wicked borrow, and do not pay back.”

Hold on a second! Verse 11 reads: “But the meek shall inherit the land.” Excuse me? Did you know that Jesus had borrowed from Psalms for the Sermon on the Mount? I sure didn’t. (Isn’t it a bit of a cheat to steal your best applause lines from someone else?)

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Speaking of the meek and the mount, click here to watch a video of me reading the Sermon on the Mount, right on the Mount itself. Why, you ask, was I reading the Sermon on the Mount? Great question! It will be answered here, too.

Psalm 38

Doctors, nurses, please gather ‘round. This patient presents with an extraordinary and alarming set of symptoms. We need a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Patient D, please tell us how you feel.

“My wounds foul and fester.”

Really? Please continue.

“My loins are filled with burning.”

Hmm. Yes. That sounds quite unpleasant.

“There is no soundness in my flesh.”

What do you mean by that? Could you elaborate?

“There is no health in my bones.”

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What about your heart? Do you have any pain there?

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“My heart throbs.”

It sounds dire, doesn’t it, colleagues? Maybe a sexually transmitted disease (burning loins—not surprising, this is David we are talking about)? Also—look at that sword wound in his side. It’s so severely infected (“foul and fester”) that perhaps we’re looking at septic shock (“no soundness” and “no health”), as well as a secondary infection of the heart (“throbs”)? Get this patient to the ER—stat! Charge the paddles! He’s flat-lining!

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Update, 16:30 hours. Patient D has refused treatment, but heartbeat and other vital signs suddenly returned to normal. Possibly delusional—insists that someone he calls “God” is healing him. “It is for you, O Lord, that I wait. It is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.” Hospital attorneys advised Patient D that hospital cannot be held responsible for complications, disability, pain, suffering, and death that may result from aforementioned refusal of treatment. Patient D insisted that he understood risks, signed waiver, demanded return of his crown and scepter, and checked himself out.

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Psalm 41

The last David psalm for awhile. He believes that his enemies “whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me.” David even accuses “his bosom friend” of plotting against him. David says that since he is doing God’s work, he’s safe, and these treacherous foes will suffer instead.

If David is right, and he is indeed God’s most faithful servant and the target of wicked plots, then all his megalomaniac poetry is excusable, as is his longing for vengeance. But what if he’s wrong? Then he’s like the Last King of Israel-Land—turning on his loyal allies, lashing out with grotesque, excessive violence against his critics, and exhibiting the kind of extreme narcissism that suggests a personality disorder. It’s hard to match this self-aggrandizing paranoiac with the charmer of 2 Samuel.

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Psalm 42

What’s called “Book 2” of the Psalms begins here. The Book 2 psalms hit a lot of the same notes as the first 41 but aren’t as snazzily written.

Psalm 45

A psalm that is oddly out of place. Most of the psalms are dedicated to God, but this one is written to the king. It is sycophantic, even tacky, next to the awed hymns to the Lord God Almighty. The psalmist slobbers over the king: “You are the most handsome of men … Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one … Your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.” Doesn’t it insult God to include this bit of royal brown-nosing in a collection of holy songs?

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The worst part comes at the end, when the poet urges a young woman to seduce the king. He tells her: “[F]orget your people and your father’s house,” and come be the king’s wife. Icky.

Psalm 47

A musical psalm: Clap your hands for God! Sing songs for God! Play your trumpet! Shout hymns of joy!

Psalm 49

I love the Bible moments—which are surprisingly frequent—when the ancient text captures what we think of as a modern idea. Here’s one. God tells us not to envy the powerful or the wealthy, because everyone dies—the wise and the foolish. And—this is the modern moment—it doesn’t matter how much they have, “for when they die, they will carry nothing away.” You can’t take it with you! They knew that in ancient Israel, too.

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Psalm 51

A psalm attributed to David, as he did penance for Bathsheba. David begs, begs, begs mercy and confesses his terrible sins. Question: How do we reconcile this contrite, humble David with the proud, inerrant king of the first 41 psalms?

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Sincere or not, David’s powerful confession seems to be the source of remorseful language we still use today. David begs to be “whiter than snow.” He asks God to make a “pure heart” for him. Most interestingly, for those hooked on original sin, he says, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

Psalm 53

OK, these are getting kind of dull and repetitive.

Psalm 58

The Bible is better on violence and revenge than any book I’ve ever read, bloodier than Stephen King, icier than Jim Thompson. The psalmist asks God to take out his enemies: “[B]reak the teeth in their mouths … like grass let them be trodden down and wither. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime … The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.”

Bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked! If I was struck by the profound modernity of Psalm 49, I am struck by the reverse here. The Bible is never appalled by violence. We are to take pleasure in it, to enjoy shedding the blood of enemies.

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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