I know nice Jewish boys like me aren’t supposed to have favorite hymns, but I went to an Episcopalian high school, and if there’s anything I learned in four years of chapel services, it’s that those Christian composers sure could write. All of which is to say: I’m thrilled to discover that my favorite hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” was inspired by Psalm 90. Lyricist Isaac Watts actually improved on the Bible text. He took this from the King James: “For in your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has past, like a watch of the night,” and jazzed it up into this: “A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone; short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.” Now imagine it with a pipe organ!
And reader Paul Landskroener rebukes me for failing to notice that Psalm 46 is the source of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” my second-favorite hymn. (Psalm 46, incidentally, also inspires one of the queerest Shakespeare theories. The 46th word in Psalm 46 in the King James is shakes and the 46th word from the end of psalm 46 is spear. And Shakespeare was 46 years old when the King James was published. And Psalm 23, the most famous psalm, must have something to do with the plot of The Number 23, that new movie starring Jim Carrey as a man obsessed with the mystic powers of the number 23, which, need I remind you, is half of … 46. Coincidence? I don’t think so!)
Extraordinary, and comforting, images of God protecting his faithful. This passage seems especially fitting for our age of homeland-security anxiety: “You need not fear the terror by night, or the arrow that flies by day, the plague that stalks in the darkness, or the scourge that ravages at noon. A thousand may fall at your left side, ten thousand at your right, but it shall not reach you.” I have never been in a foxhole, but I can imagine that this would be a prayer soldiers recite in the darkest moments.
The psalms are rarely funny, but this one has a moment of brutal comedy. The psalmist is rebuking the arrogant and the wicked for saying that the Lord doesn’t notice their cursing and widow-murdering. “Shall He who implants the ear not hear, He who forms the eye not see?” Of course He’s watching, you morons!
It begins, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” You hear that line endlessly in religious services, both Christian and Jewish. I am somewhat dismayed to discover it’s the tritest Bible cliché: It’s the opening line of three different psalms!
Look, here it is again: “Sing to the Lord a new song.”
This is a glorious one, a tribute to God as provider and creator. “You make springs gush forth in torrents.” You make the wind. You make the grass for cattle, trees where birds can build their nests, high mountains for the wild goats, and the crags “as a refuge for the rock badgers.” (Rock badger? What’s a rock badger?)
God also makes the “wine that cheers the hearts of men.” Take that, my teetotaling friends!
This psalm, in addition to being a thing of beauty and a joy forever, neatly encapsulates the conflict between creationists and evolutionists. For creationists like the psalmist, the orderliness of the world is evidence that God made it. How else would the rock badger survive, if God hadn’t made the crag for it? Where would the stork make a home, if God hadn’t kindly provided the juniper tree? But to a Darwinist, these are post hoc explanations: The crag wasn’t created by God to give the rock badger a home; the rock badger evolved to exploit the opportunity offered by the crag.
All sides, fortunately, can agree that Psalm 104 is a pretty darn spectacular tribute to nature—whether it’s nature created by God or nature left here by chance.
Like a drunk uncle at a family reunion, David can always be counted on to disrupt a happy, peaceful occasion with wild speeches and untrammeled rage. Ignoring the soulful spirit of nearby psalms, David unleashes one of the nastiest attacks of the entire Bible, a vindictive spew aimed at his enemy. Let’s listen: “May his children be orphans, his wife a widow. May his children wander from their hovels, begging in search of bread. May his creditors seize all his possessions. … May no one show him mercy; may none pity his orphans,” etc.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That wouldn’t be a popular sentiment today, would it? We’d replace “fear” with “love.” Still, it’s very true to the book. So far, God has been much keener on scaring us than hugging us.
No reason to mention this one, except that it’s my mother’s favorite. We include it in our Passover seder every year, and she always likes to read it. When the Israelites left Egypt, the psalm says, “The sea saw them and fled, Jordan ran backward, mountains skipped like rams, hills like sheep.” I haven’t asked her about it, but I suspect that my mother is bewitched by that lovely image of mountains skipping like rams. Am I right, Ma?
At two verses and only 26 words, the shortest chapter in the whole Bible. It’s too dull to quote.
Practically every line is familiar. Priests and pastors must have some Amway-type arrangement with Psalm 118 where they get a bonus each time they quote it. (I don’t think this psalm has the same sway with us Jews, perhaps because of its heavy emphasis on rebirth, a more popular theme with Christians than us.) A few of the greatest hits:
“I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of the Lord.”
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
“This is the day that the Lord has made.”
So, it’s the end of the day—the day that the Lord has made—and I can’t wait to shut my Bible and head home for dinner, when all of a sudden I encounter this psalm. It couldn’t make a worse first impression. A) It’s an acrostic, where the first word in each line of each stanza starts with the same letter, which is presumably why it’s so clunky; and B) it’s the longest psalm in the book and the longest chapter in the entire Bible. As you can imagine, that’s not what I want to be reading at quitting time. But after a few stanzas, I realize that this is one weird psalm. I gradually catch on that it’s a love poem, but not a regular moon-swoon-June verse. It’s a love poem, written to … guess who?
No, not Him.
Not him, either.
A love poem to God’s laws—a steamy, Last Tango in Paris, sweat-soaked ode to all God’s commandments, decrees, laws, and rules. Imagine Supreme Court Justice David Souter getting crazy in love, and you get some idea of this psalm. (Question for God-fearing lawyers out there—is this a favorite psalm of yours?) Here is just a small sampling of the adoring verses:
“I take delight in Your laws.”
“Your decrees are my delight, my intimate companions.”
“I cling to your decrees.”
“I prefer the teaching You proclaimed to thousands of gold and silver pieces.”
“O how I love your teaching!”
And—and I did not make this line up, it’s right there, verse 131: “I open my mouth wide, I pant, longing for your commandments.”
Here’s a psalmist you’d don’t want to let too close to your Torah. It is, of course, incredibly easy to make fun of this kinky legalism, but let me try to restrain myself.
Instead of cracking Boston Legal jokes, I want to try to appreciate Psalm 119 for what it’s trying to do. Over the weekend I listened to a Leviticus book on tape (loaned to me by my colleague Jack Shafer). It’s read by awesome British actor David Warner, who makes God sound like, well, God. As I listened to Chapter 19, perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole Bible, I got chills. The Levitical laws mandating generosity to the poor, decency to the blind and deaf, honesty, and fidelity are as inspiring as the Bill of Rights. I’m not a follower of most of God’s Biblical laws—I can’t tell you the last time I kept the Sabbath or avoided a cheeseburger, and I have no patience with the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality—but I remain astonished that my ancestors wrote down laws 3,000 years ago, and those laws still guide our behavior today. Those laws—whether dictated by God or merely inspired by faith—are monumental and beautiful. They are our greatest heritage. They do deserve our love. We should pant for them, longingly.
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