Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Psalms: Poetry in Devotion

So now we’ve arrived at the Book of Psalms. This is basically a collection of prayers, poems, and songs traditionally attributed to King David. They are frequently quoted for inspiration and, in some interpretations, as prophecies (which seems odd to me since I don’t recall David being attributed any prophetic abilities thus far; maybe it comes up later).

Being, as it is, a collection of over a hundred separate short works without a truly unifying story or theme, the Book of Psalms presents a challenge in how to write about it. But for the sake of thoroughness, I don’t want to leave it out. My first idea was to list each psalm along with a one- or two-sentence summary of the central thought it embodies. But there are about a hundred and fifty of them, so that started to become tedious pretty darn quick. Also, it gets repetitive and vacuous just as quickly, because there really are only a very few themes encompassed within that mass of poetry. These are (in no particular order):

·         Kissing God’s ass (almost every psalm combines this with one or more other themes)

·         Insulting/threatening people with other religions or no religion

·         Asking/thanking God for protection from and/or assaults against opponents

·         Bragging about how righteous the author is

·         Groveling

·         (Interestingly enough) asking God for evidence that he exists and/or gives a fuck.

That being the case, there’s not much I can do beyond recommending that you read them for yourselves. At least to the degree you can stand it. Whatever else you may want to say about the author and his motivations, he is a poet and there is some impressive use of words and imagery in the psalms. I’ll just warn you that there’s only so much that clever language and imagery can do in the face of a hundred and fifty works all pounding the same limited set of themes. It gets really, really tedious and starts to blur together into a mass of repeated phrases and praises, cursing and whining. In the meantime, I’m going to just touch on a few things that stuck out to me along the way, and in the next post we’ll move on to the Book of Proverbs.

And the first thing that sticks out is the second half of the Second Psalm.

Psalms 2:7 I will tell of the decree: Yahweh said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve Yahweh with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

The author, theoretically King David, is declaring himself to be the Son of God, and demanding obeisance from all other kings on threat of divine punishment. Christians will sometimes ascribe a double meaning to this psalm, as if it refers to Jesus as well, but there’s no real reason within the psalm to believe that. It’s pretty explicitly the author that’s being talked about.

Skipping down the line…

Psalms 14:1 The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.”

Christian apologists love to quote this verse when arguing with atheists, because it lets them insult their opponents while pretending they’re making a scriptural argument. But really, this is just a poetic way of saying “atheists are poopyheads!” Which is not the level of intellectual discourse one might expect from the supreme intelligence behind the creation of the universe. Interestingly, this also suggests that even back in David’s day there were people who didn’t buy into the god BS, and they were significant enough that ol’ Davey-boy felt the need to throw out some anti-atheist propaganda.

But in case you miss it the first time (or in the more likely event that you just skipped over it out of tedium), Psalms is glad to repeat the message in Psalm 53. In fact, the first half of Psalm 53 is almost word-for-word identical to Psalm 14. I guess inspiration was running dry.

Alright… fuck… I can’t take it anymore. It’s been more than a month now since my last post, because I just can’t force my way through this mass of poetic nonsense. I’m only a third of the way through it, I’ve stopped reading every word, and I’m just skimming at this point, and even so the tedium is wearing me down. It’s just verse after verse after verse of the same stuff. “Please, God, help fuck up my evil enemies who don’t believe in you even though your backside is the greatest fucking thing I’ve ever applied my lips to.” I’m thinking the only reason Christians think the Psalms are inspirational is because they’ve never had to sit down and read them all. Maybe individually they work, but as a single body they’re tedious as all hell.

I’m sorry. I really wanted to get through this. But it’s just so… damn... mind-numbing! There’s so little that says anything interesting or novel, and I can’t torture myself with it anymore. My recommendation: if you’re interested in the Psalms, just flip the book open to a random location and read a bit, then put it down. Any spot is pretty much the same as any other. So you’ll have the gist pretty quick, and perhaps taking it in small doses will preserve your appreciation for the poetry. Just please, for the love of your sanity, do not try to plow through it from beginning to end.

Maybe later I’ll come back and see if I can work up some enthusiasm for it in smaller chunks. Perhaps I’ll do some mini-posts on single Psalms to mix in with later posts. Actually, here’s something that might be fun: if anyone reads this and wants to suggest a Psalm to get some commentary, I would be glad to take a shot at it. But for now, I’m done with this book. Next up: Proverbs!