Psalms and Their Wretched Authors and Readers

Foxes Book of Martyrs 1851I have been thinking increasingly that the Psalter has fallen into the wrong hands – into my hands, and that, in my hands,  those who Frantz Fanon referred to as The Wretched of the Earth have been betrayed

The psalmists (I’m assuming many, or at least several) describe the wretchedness of their lives. Take the psalm appointed for today (March 31st), Psalm 102 as an example. The psalmist talks about her/his crying and distress. S/he isn’t just downhearted, but is smitten-down-hearted. Her enemies rage at her all day and every day and have ganged up on her to bully her. S/he is alone, hungry and thirsty. This is how s/he pours out the wretchedness of her situation:

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
    let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
    on the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
    answer me speedily on the day when I call.

For my days pass away like smoke,
    and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
    I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
    my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
    like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
    I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
    those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like an evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

But this isn’t self-pity: the psalmist is just telling it like it is. There is no room for self-pity because the psalmist knows God and his history. He knows that he turns to the prayer of the destitute, that he hears the sighs of the prisoner. This is an uprising of prayer and outpouring of trust that her enemies will be short-lived while “the children of your servants shall continue, and their descendants shall be established in your sight”.

This is a prayer of the down-hearted and an act of defiance in the face of her enemies. It is but one page of a prayer book that comes from the hands of those who have fallen on hard times and belongs in their hands. I am sorry to have snatched it from them. I hope I don’t take their words from them, and that I might hear their lament and join their Amen.

This is how this prayer (Psalm 102) turns out, from hard pressed people to their God:

12 But you, O Lord, are enthroned for ever;

    your name endures to all generations.
13 You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
    for it is time to favour it;
    the appointed time has come.
14 For your servants hold its stones dear,
    and have pity on its dust.
15 The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
    and all the kings of the earth your glory.
16 For the Lord will build up Zion;
    he will appear in his glory.
17 He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
    and will not despise their prayer.

18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
    so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
19 that he looked down from his holy height,
    from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners,
    to set free those who were doomed to die;
21 so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion,
    and his praise in Jerusalem,
22 when peoples gather together,
    and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.

23 He has broken my strength in mid-course;
    he has shortened my days.
24 ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away
    at the mid-point of my life,
you whose years endure
    throughout all generations.’

25 Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you endure;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
27     but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall live secure;
    their offspring shall be established in your presence

The image is from The Book of Martyrs, John Foxe, 1516-1587, Goodrich, Charles, 1790-1862.

3 thoughts on “Psalms and Their Wretched Authors and Readers”

  1. In a course I took on eco-ethics, I read and summarized an essay written about the Psalms and some of them were written as a tribute to the voice of God in nature. A purpose of the Psalms was to call humans to respond to the voice of God and be embedded in the world created for us in a respectful manner.


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