Continuing my translation with comment of the third book of Psalms (73-89)
A song. A psalm of the Korahites. To the choirmaster. Set to “Mahalath Leannoth”. A maskil. For Heman the Ezrahite.
Yahweh, my rescuing God, I cry out by day
And at night I cry out before you.
May my prayer come into your presence;
May you hear my call for help!
For my soul has its fill of misfortune
And my life approaches the Place of Death.
I am counted with those on their way to the Pit;
I have become a fighter without force!
Free from flesh amongst the dead
Like the slain who sleep in the grave,
Unremembered by You their God,
They are removed from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit
In the obscurity of the deep.
Your anger is a weight upon me
And all your waves have gone over me.
You have distanced my friends from me;
You have defined me to them as unclean;
I am closed in and cannot come out.
My eyes are wasted with weeping;
To you I have called everyday, Yahweh;
To you I have held out my hands.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Will the ghosts get up and praise you?
Will your lovingkindness be recounted in the grave,
Your faithfulness in the place of futility?
Are your marvels made known in the mirk
Your justice in the land of oblivion?
But Yahweh God, I have asked for your aid;
In the morning my prayer comes to meet you.
Why, Yahweh, have you slighted my soul?
Why do you hide yourself from me?
Weak and yielding up life from my youth
I have endured your terrors and am done.
Your wrath has rolled over me;
Your fierce attacks have finished me;
They wind around me all day like water;
They encompass me completely.
You have put me far from lover and friend,
And darkness is now my dear one.
I had not expected to admire this psalm. Having read it carelessly in translation, I thought it was just another psalm of complaint, perhaps a particularly dreary one. Now that I have worked through the Hebrew text, and found inadequate English equivalents, I value its frank eloquence and its honest negativity. This author permits no glimpse of any positive answer to his/her complaint. No consoling word comes from God or from his own experience. There is no hope in life or death or beyond death. The author has suffered life-long illness and is defeated by it, yet in his resolute despair he still speaks to his God.
He/she doesn’t deny that even his life has contained some goodness; she mentions friends and loved ones twice, but only in the context of her complete alienation from them. She wants to insist that what has happened in her life is an outrage, an injustice, a cause for protest. Her anger is the only evidence of faith, for it is only trust in God and God’s faithfulness that leads her to think that life should be better than it has been. This person has been faithful to God, but questions if God has been faithful to her.
The image of the waters of the great deep- a metaphor of chaos in the Hebrew Bible- is used throughout the psalm to portray how forces inimical to God and the life God has created have infiltrated creation, threatening its goodness. (“And God saw it, that it was good.) The Bible of course insists that this declaration of God belongs “in the beginning” and perhaps not in the world as it is now. (I have suggested that the “that it was good” only applies when the whole seven days are completed, and that we are still in the sixth.) Be that as it may, the psalmist’s complaint, like Job’s, is surely just, and must be allowed to stand as a refutation of any comfortable piety. The shattering conclusion, “darkness is now my dear one” could be arrived at by so many millions of human lives, that it cannot be set aside as extreme. Any believers, especially Christians, who think they know the answer to this psalmist’s complaint, ought to tread very carefully on the holy ground of her honesty.