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The

Psalms Grail Translation Introduced by Henry Wansbrough All booklets are published thanks to the generous support of the members of the Catholic Truth Society

CATHOLIC TRUTH SOCIETY PUBLISHERS TO THE HOLY SEE


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Introduction to the Psalms The psalter is the prayerbook of Israel, the treasury of Israel’s hopes and fears, successes and failures, loves and hates. The 150 psalms of the Hebrew Bible are only a part of the rich harvest of sacred songs contained in the Bible. Other such canticles can be found elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2) in the New Testament (the Benedictus and the Magnificat), and in the hymn collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Authorship of these psalms is attributed to King David, not least because he soothed King Saul by his playing of the harp, but also because he was revered as the founder of the Temple liturgy. Many of the psalms were subsequently imaginatively prefaced by a title which attached the psalm to particular events in David’s life. In fact their composition cannot be limited to David and spans a thousand years. Some are based on ancient Canaanite hymns, still retaining traces of the pre-Israelite religion of Canaan, hymns to the god of storm, thunder and lightning (Psalm 28). Others reflect the triumphs and glory of the monarchy in Jerusalem (Psalms 44, 109). Still others sing of the sadness of exile in Babylon, when the nation was carried off to captivity and servitude, leaving in ruins Jerusalem and its Temple (Psalm 136). It was during this period of exile that observance of the Law became the dominant feature of Judaism, so that psalms of this period are characterised by love of the Law (Psalms 1 and 118) 3


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and by the repentance for sin which was so dominant in the spirituality of the exile (Psalm 50). Still other psalms, especially the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 119-133) sing of the joy of returning to Jerusalem on pilgrimage for the great festivals. There are psalms of national victory and psalms of national defeat, psalms of individual achievement and psalms of individual failure, psalms which hymn the work of God in nature and psalms which celebrate the work of God in the history of Israel. Some psalms beg for release from trial, others thank God for deliverance. It can be quite useful when praying a psalm to reflect for a moment on the principal context and original purpose of the psalm. Psalms and the Liturgy Singing, dancing and instrumental music were important elements in the Temple liturgy. Sacrifice, processions and other liturgical activities are frequently mentioned in the psalms, which suggests that they were used for such celebrations, and many of the psalms are attributed - in the later titles which stand at the head of psalms - to various individuals or groups of cantors. We know the occasion of the use of certain psalms, for example Psalms 148-150 (‘the Great Hallel’) at the end of the Passover meal. Yet of the details of how they were used in the Temple liturgy we know almost nothing. Were certain psalms prescribed for certain days or festivals? 4


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INTrODuCTION

Were they stored in the Temple and handed out to officials or individuals who requested them? from early times the psalms have been used in Christianity. No doubt they were used already by Mary, Jesus and the disciples in their daily prayers. In the gospels Jesus himself quotes the psalms to show that he fulfills the scriptures, especially Psalm 21 about his Passion and Psalm 109 about his resurrection and Exaltation. The latter psalm was used frequently in the New Testament as evidence of his glorification at the right hand of God. Since then the psalms have remained the staple of Christian prayer, occurring already in the earliest liturgy recorded at Jerusalem, and sanctified by Christian use ever since. for centuries they have provided the material for monastic and priestly prayer, and in every age have been used to express the prayers of Christians in moments of crisis or joy. A psalm is always used to provide the response of the people to the first reading at Mass. Since the revival of the use of the Liturgy of the Hours as a widespread public and private prayer of Christian communities and individuals the psalter has again become increasingly important as a vehicle and expression of worship. The Psalms as Poetry unlike much conventional English poetry there is no such thing as rhyme in Hebrew poetry. Structure is provided by rhythm and balance. rhythm consists in a regular number 5


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of stress-beats per line, sometimes two, sometimes three or four, with interposing unstressed syllables (like the poetry of Hopkins or Eliot). Some rhythms - seldom reproduced in translation - are adapted to particular kinds of songs, e.g. 3 + 2 stresses per line alternating for a lament, as Psalm 27. Another frequent element of structure is acrostic, that is successive lines (Psalms 110 and 111) or groups of lines beginning with successive letters of the alphabet (Psalm 118). frequently, too, a psalm is bound together by a refrain (‘for his great love is without end, Psalm 135) or by the repetition of the opening phrase at the end of the psalm (‘How great is your name, O Lord our God, through the earth’, Psalm 8). The most notable structural feature, however, is balance or parallelism of lines, a sort of thought-rhyme, in which an idea is expressed once positively and once negatively (‘even darkness is not dark for you, and the night is as clear as the day’ Psalm 138:12) , or first generally and then more particularly (‘for it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb’, Psalm 138:13) or simply alternatively (‘If I take the wings of the dawn, and dwell at sea’s furthest end’, Psalm 138:9). The most attractive feature of the poetry of the psalms is the imagery, mostly drawn from nature, and redolent of the Palestinian countryside, especially in such splendid nature-poems as Psalm 103. The dryness of the country is 6


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constantly brought to mind by the imagery of life-giving water (v. 10). The image of God as a rock of refuge or stronghold recalls the steep escarpments of black basalt or threatening grey granite. Young lions roaring for their prey and the flocks of birds (v. 21, 12) conjure up the thickets of the Jordan, while the ‘wine, to cheer man’s heart, oil, to make his face shine (v. 15) reflect the fertile vineyards and olive-groves of the hill-country, and the wild goats and rock rabbits (v. 18) the shy but inquisitive fauna of the ravines. A dominant image for God is that of King, which forms the kernel of a whole series of psalms (92-98), expressing the importance of the kingship-theme in Israelite theology. With this is linked the imagery of God as a warrior defeating his enemies, often with a brutality unacceptable to a more sensitive age (Psalm 52:6; 108:14-15). A further image for the majesty of God, growing partly out of previous Canaanite conceptions of the storm-god and partly from the experience of Israel on Mount Sinai, is the awesome power of God expressed in thunder, lightning and earthquake (Psalm 17:7-15; 76:16-19; 96:2-6; 97:7-9). Hunting is another favourite locus of imagery, whether by the chase, traps, nets or pits to ensnare either the psalmist himself or his enemies - again often represented under the image of animals preying on enemies or nestling in the shelter of the Most High. 7


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Christian Interpretation of the Psalms Subjects of much prayer and meditation, the psalms have been interpreted in many ways within Christianity. At first the overwhelming tendency was to look in them for prophetic allusions to Christ, in accordance with Jewish methods of interpretation at the time. This occurs already in the New Testament: ‘The Lord’s revelation to my Master: Sit on my right’ (Psalm 109:1 in Mark 12:36) or ‘You will not leave my soul among the dead’ (Psalm 15:10 in Acts 2:27). In the following centuries an allegorical approach was popular, so that the Passover hymn, ‘When Israel came forth from Egypt’ (Psalm 113) was interpreted as describing the emergence of Christians from slavery to sin. Common also was the moral approach, by which the ferocious dashing of children against a rock (Psalm 136:9) was interpreted as dashing evil thoughts against the rock of Christ. Without the abandonment of such approaches, more recently the tendency has been to return to a literal historical approach, even for prayer. forming a sort of prayerhistory of Israel, the reflection of many different stages and aspects of revelation and of God’s guidance of his People, the psalms can bring us to a sense of God’s unfailing love in the face of human striving, stubbornness, failure and forgiveness, an expression of the faltering human response, now despairing, now devoted, to God’s ever-watchful care and correction. 8


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Note on the numbering of the psalms: the psalms were all originally written in Hebrew and were translated centuries later into Greek. For that translation the Hebrew psalms 9 and 10 and the Hebrew psalms 114 and 115 were each joined into one, but conversely the Hebrew psalms 116 and 147 were divided into two. This means that from 10 to 148 the numbering of the Hebrew is one higher than that of the Greek. On the whole Roman Catholic writing and liturgy (following the Latin Vulgate) preserves the Greek numbering, while Protestant writing and liturgy revert to the original Hebrew numbering. Here the Greek numbering is used.

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P S A L M 1:6

The Psalms ways of living 1 Two Happy indeed is the man 1

who follows not the counsel of the wicked; nor lingers in the way of sinners nor sits in the company of scorners, 2 but whose delight is the law of the Lord and who ponders his law day and night. 3

He is like a tree that is planted beside the owing waters, that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade; and all that he does shall prosper. 4 Not so are the wicked, not so! for they like winnowed chaff shall be driven away by the wind. 5 When the wicked are judged they shall not stand, nor ďŹ nd room among those who are just; 6 for the Lord guards the way of the just but the way of the wicked leads to doom.

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