I have recently completed a reading of The Revelation and have begun a new series which will look at the Psalms, or at least the first book of them, that is Psalms 1-41. I am even less of an expert in Hebrew than I am in Greek, but I will study the Hebrew and usually give the reader my own translation of the Psalm for the day. The Psalms collected in the Hebrew bible were written over a period of perhaps 800 years, and are difficult to date. Probably none of them were written by King David and their true authors are unknown. They were used in the worship of the second temple in Jerusalem and have been used in most traditions of Christian worship, including that of the Church of Scotland, in which they were versified into such international favourites as “The Lord’s my shepherd” and “All people that on earth do dwell”. They are poetic songs and should be appreciated as such. They are also not free of prejudice, (they hardly mention women) and inappropriate emotions (they ask God to smash the faces of enemies). In other words, they speak my sinful language.
FIRST PRESIDENT OF HUNGARY AFTER FALL OF COMMUNISM, DIES
ADORATION I offer, Yahweh, to you, my God
2 BUT in my trust in you do not put me to shame, let not my enemies gloat over me.
3 CALLING to you, none shall ever be put to shame, but shame is theirs who groundlessly break faith.
4 DIRECT me in your ways, Yahweh, and teach me your paths.
5 ENCOURAGE me to walk in your truth and teach me since you are the God who saves me.
FOR my hope is in you all day long — such is your generosity, Yahweh.
6 GOODNESS and faithful love have been yours for ever, Yahweh, do not forget them.
7 HOLD not my youthful sins against me, but remember me as your faithful love dictates.
8 INTEGRITY and generosity are marks of Yahweh for he brings sinners back to the path.
9 JUDICIOUSLY he guides the humble, instructing the poor in his way.
10 KINDNESS unfailing and constancy mark all Yahweh’s paths, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
11 LET my sin, great though it is, be forgiven, Yahweh, for the sake of your name.
12 MEN who respect Yahweh, what of them? He teaches them the way they must choose.
13 NEIGHBOURS to happiness will they live, and their children inherit the land.
14 ONLY those who fear Yahweh have his secret and his covenant, for their understanding.
15 PERMANENTLY my eyes are on Yahweh, for he will free my feet from the snare.
16 QUICK, turn to me, pity me, alone and wretched as I am!
17 RELIEVE the distress of my heart, bring me out of my constraint.
18 SPARE a glance for my misery and pain, take all my sins away.
19 TAKE note how countless are my enemies, how violent their hatred for me.
20 UNLESS you guard me and rescue me I shall be put to shame, for you are my refuge.
21 VIRTUE and integrity be my protection, for my hope, Yahweh, is in you.
22 Ransom Israel, O God, from all its troubles.
This is an alphabetical psalm in which each verse starts with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The above translation which is from the New Jerusalem Bible is the only one known to ne which makes the effort to reproduce the effect of this in English, so have given it pride of place. It uses the unspoken holy name of God, Yahweh, which may be unfamiliar to some readers.
The middle eastern alphabet, from which all modern ones are derived, was invented in the Sinai area around 2000 BCE and was developed especially by the Phoenicians into the forerunner of most modern alphabets. The Jewish people were therefore near the beginning of the this crucial skill of civilization, the ability to write down words easily and clearly. It was a considerable improvement on the Egyptians system of hieroglyphs which retained a pictorial element, also seen in Chinese script.
The alphabet must have seemed to the scribes who used it to have an almost magical power to communicate human thought. Obviously it was of great use to rulers who employed scribes to communicate their instructions to subordinates and to keep their accounts. But it was also useful to religious leaders to inscribe sacred texts and record the stories of their Gods. The Hebrew Bible is a great collection of texts produced by one of the first civilisations to use a phonetic alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet contains only consonants, so they would write BTTR for butter and distinguish it from better by context alone. In fact this works surprisingly well, but over time they developed a system of dots and dashes to stand for vowels.
Doubtless alphabetical games and puzzles were around as soon as there was an alphabet. It soon became evident that poets and song writers could increase the memorability of their productions by using alphabetical sequences. There are a number of examples amongst the Psalms.
The writer of this psalm doubtless saw the alphabetical structure as
a) a way of helping singers to remember what came next
b) a device for giving pleasure to performers and listeners, a kind of game
c) a symbol of completeness. The whole alphabet stands for the whole experience of God.
WE may feel that the train of thought is slightly artificial as each new departure has to start with new letter, but the psalm includes all the elements of the faith in God amongst the community of Jewish people, probably after their exile in Babylon.
There is personal and communal adoration of God and expressions of trust in God’s guidance. The Torah is not named but is characterised as God’s way or path. To follow God’s path is called Halakhah in Hebrew which means “walking”. The psalmist delights in God’s path because God is good, kind and faithful, exercising special care for the poor and downtrodden. The compassion of God leads the psalmist to think of his own sins, acknowledging them and asking God’s forgiveness. God’s path leads to happiness and fruitful life. The psalmist reflects on the pain caused by his enemies, asking God to rescue him, as a reward for his integrity. The psalm ends with a prayer that the rescuing God will also rescue his people Israel.
The psalm says, this is what it’s like for a person or community to trust in a God of justice and loving kindness. The alphabetical structure, says, yes, this is a complete way of life, nothing is missing. The simplicity of this faith, with its emphasis on personal trust, practical obedience and communal discipline is an achievement of the Jewish community in centuries after their return from exile. With the addition of the reforms brought in by the Pharisees it provided a model for the first Christian communities and the development of the Christian churches.