FROM THE BOOK OF PSALMS TO THE RESPONSORIAL PSALM (1) – The Book Of Psalms: an introduction

– Aurelio Porfiri

There is no Christian who is not familiar with the Book of Psalms: these 150 poems are the base for our way of praying. And for us Catholics, the liturgy is filled with texts taken from the Psalms, so we cannot avoid even if we want (why should we?) to have some kind of acquaintance with the Psalms. In this series I will show how important this collection of Poems is and then I will focus on one liturgical use of the Psalms, what we call the responsorial psalm, after the first reading in the liturgy of the Word. But before that we need to immerse ourselves in the world of the Psalms and there are so many things we need to know that is better to start right away.

The purpose of the Book of Psalms is to honor God. These songs were the liturgical songs of Jewish people who call the Psalms tehillim, that means “praises.” The Poems all together form the Psalter, a collection of these religious songs. Yes, songs, because the Psalms were supposed to be sung. We don’t have to think of the Psalms as a collection composed in a short period of time. In fact, the Psalms took centuries to compose: “The Psalter is a collection of collections and represents the final stage in a process that spanned centuries. It was put into its final form by postexilic temple personnel, who completed it probably in the third century BC. As such, it has often been called the prayer book of the “second” (Zerubbabel’s and Herod’s) temple and was used in the synagogues as well. But it is more than a treasury of prayers and hymns for liturgical and private use on chosen occasions. Both the scope of its subject matter and the arrangement of the whole collection strongly suggest that this collection was viewed by its final editors as a book of instruction in the faith and in full-orbed godliness – thus a guide for the life of faith in accordance with the Law, the Prophets and the canonical wisdom literature. By the first century AD it was referred to as the “Book of Psalms” (Lk 20:42; Ac 1:20). At that time Psalms appears also to have been used as a title for the entire section of the Hebrew OT canon more commonly known as the ‘Writings’” (From the NIV Study Bible, Introductions to the Books of the Bible, Psalms Copyright 2002 © Zondervan in https://www.biblestudytools.com/psalms/). So, when we speak about the Psalms, we are talking of a collection of other collections, a sort of selection done from different sources, some of them also pagan, most probably. The Book of Psalms is divided into 5 books, maybe in imitation of the Pentateuch.

So, as we have said, we cannot talk of one single author for the Book of Psalms, even if tradition attributes the authorship to King David. This may be due to several references in the Bible about the musical abilities of the great King, as in 1 Sam 16:23: “Whenever the spirit from God seized Saul, David would take the harp and play, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, for the evil spirit would leave him.” Or 2 Sam 23:1: The inspired utterance of David son of Jesse, the utterance of the man exalted by the Most High,
the man anointed by the God of Jacob, the hero of Israel’s songs.” Or Lk 20:41-47, where it’s Jesus himself talking: “Then he said to them, ‘How do they claim that the Messiah is the Son of David? For David himself in the Book of Psalms says: The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool.” Now if David calls him “lord,” how can he be his son?’ So, even if the Bible suggests David as the author of the Book of Psalms we may think that he may have authored at least some of them.

A Catholic Byzantine Bishop, Kurt Burnette, has said about King David and the Psalms: “Some psalms are grand, while others are simple. There are psalms of joy and psalms of suffering; psalms of lament and psalms of triumph. These prayers provide the spiritual foundation of all Jews and Christians. Almost everything we know about spirituality and prayer comes from the psalms. Twenty-five to thirty-five centuries after they were written, they continue to be the spiritual foundation of nearly two billion people around the world. Who was the remarkable author who composed these prayers so long ago? According to both Jewish and Christian tradition, the psalms are the work of King David, a man after God’s own heart. David, who as a boy who slew a giant, was himself a spiritual giant. When he went out to fight Goliath, he told Saul, ‘Don’t worry about me, I have killed bears and lions to rescue my sheep out of their mouths’ (see 1 Samuel 17:34-36). He pursued friendship with God with the same energy that he pursued a lion or bear who stole one of his lambs. This amazing man who sought God in everything composed these songs that contain in them every sort of prayer we could imagine. In some of my parishes I have encouraged my people to start reading just one psalm each day. Every time someone has come to me and said, ‘I started doing that, and it’s like a miracle. Every day, that one psalm was exactly what I needed. It’s as though God wrote that psalm for me!’ I often used to wonder how David developed his amazing friendship with God in the Psalms—a friendship that still saves people today. A friendship that provides spiritual food for the simplest and most sophisticated, for sinners, for beginners, and for saints who have prayed their entire lives” (in https://media.ascensionpress.com/2015/03/16/psalms-prayers-heart-king/).

Even if David has not composed all the Psalms (in some Psalm titles we see other authors), it is good to give a sort of “moral authorship” of the Psalms, because he really represents the greatness and sinfulness of men, something that is well represented in the Psalms.

The Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) has said about them: “The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become.”  Because the Psalms are not only beautiful and meaningful prayers, but are models for our own prayers, for the way we dare to speak to God. Remaining in the Protestant field, here is what John Calvin said: “There is no other book in which there is to be found more express and magnificent commendations, both of the unparalleled liberality of God towards his Church, and of all his works; there is no other book in which there is recorded so many deliverances, nor one in which the evidences and experiences of the fatherly providence and solicitude which God exercises towards us, are celebrated with such splendour of diction, and yet with the strictest adherence to truth; in short, there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.”

We share this heritage with Jews, Orthodox, Protestants, but let us not forget the fundamental importance of the Psalms for us Catholics. As we have said in the beginning, our liturgy is almost unthinkable without the Psalms and also these poems were very well known and loved by Our Lord Jesus Christ that show us how important is to be familiar with these prayers for our Christian life so as to be true followers. We will study in more detail this fascinating topic, “Jesus and the Psalms,” in our coming chapter. For the moment let us meditate on what CS Lewis has said in his Reflections on the Psalm: “David, we know, danced before the Ark. He danced with such abandon that one of his wives (presumably a more modern, though not better, type than he) thought he was making a fool of himself.  David didn’t care whether he was making a fool of himself or not.  He was rejoicing in the Lord… The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance. I am not saying that this is so pure or so profound a thing as the love of God reached by the greatest Christian saints and mystics. But I am not comparing it with that, I am comparing it with the merely dutiful ‘church-going’ and laborious ‘saying our prayers’ to which most of us are, thank God not always, but often, reduced.  Against that it stands out as something astonishingly robust, virile, and spontaneous; something we may regard with an innocent envy and may hope to be infected by as we read….”

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