Questions in the Psalms : who asks, who answers?

Job talking to Jesus

 

Have I said this before?

One engaging aspect of Psalm 2, as I said recently, is that it starts with a question.  Having noticed that,  I went looking for others, and there are indeed ten psalms which open with questions;  but there are many more questions in the bodies of the psalms.

A capsule full of questions
a lot of questions inside a single opiate?
How do you show a question?

There is no question mark in Biblical Hebrew or Latin, but both languages manage fine without.  It’s always interesting to see how a language deals with questions.  You can do it through question words, like Kipling’s six honest serving men , you can do it through word order, you can do it through adding a particle to one of the other words in a sentence, you can add a catch-all to the end of a statement (innit/ n’est-ce pas/ zar ne), you can even start a sentence with a word which indicates the answer you are expecting (Latin nonne for yes and num for no).  A question mark is a late invention, because it’s almost like St Francis’ advice about using words to preach only if all else fails.  There are so many ways to indicate a question, even if it’s not spoken aloud.  One theory about the origin of a question mark is that it’s an indicator of raising the pitch at the end of the phrase, ‘interrogatively’, as you might say.  I wonder whether Australians ever consider doubling the question mark to indicate that there’s a real question and not just a rising inflection?

page of psalm in multiple languages
lovely multilingual Psalter, even without question marks
What if the question is rhetorical?

I was charmed to discover that Henry Denham, in the 1580s,  suggested a backwards question mark to indicate a rhetorical question, though it lasted less than a century before dying out.  Its spirit lingers over those who try to develop a way to show irony or humour in text messages, but nothing has really caught on yet.  People keep trying though, because no one wants to be insulting inadvertently. Body language provides context that the written word does not, one reason why we need punctuation.

Lots of question marks
enough questions to keep you awake at night
Do they expect an answer?

The psalms contain both real and rhetorical questions, because so many of them are framed as a form of dialogue, even if we only hear one side.   I think the biggest problem with a rhetorical question mark would be deciding which questions actually are rhetorical.  The distinction is a subtle one, depending on the expectations of the speaker (though I used to have problems even choosing between nonne and num, because you can always inflect a question sarcastically to mean the opposite). Some rhetorical questions are obvious : Who is like the Lord our God? (Pss 34/35, 70/71, 88/89, 112/113), Who is the King of glory? (Ps 23/24), but some are more difficult to gauge :  How can God know? Does the Most High take any notice? (Ps 72/73), Is it possible for God to prepare a table in the desert? (Ps 77/78). 

Is it a real question?

It is easier to be sure of which questions are not rhetorical : Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face? (Ps 87/88); From where shall come my help? (Ps 120/121).  Bitterness and grief can use questions as a trope, yet these are not rhetorical questions but real ones : Will you be angry for ever?  (Pss 84/85, 89/90); Will you work your wonders [only] for the dead? (Pss 6, 29/30, 87/88), and the great question in Ps 136/137, which manages to be both a real question and a rhetorical one : How can we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?  Rhetorical questions may not require or even have an answer, but they are a way to introduce some of the biggest problems or questions that we all have to grapple with.

Are there questions in the early Old Testament?

Questions are surprisingly rare in the early books of the Old Testament, especially in conversations between God and people.  Usually, God is giving instructions, and the people comply.  Questions tend to mean trouble.  The first question ever comes from the serpent to Eve : ‘Did God really say…’, and after she and Adam have eaten the apple, it is God who starts asking the questions, starting with ‘Where are you?’ and moving so dreadfully fast to ‘What have you done?'(Genesis 3).  He questions Cain just before the fatal excursion when he kills Abel, and then asks another terrible question, ‘Where is your brother?’ (Genesis 4).  When God asks questions, they must be rhetorical, because of course he always knows the answer, but it is a way to make us face reality. 

Flood and Ark
the ark coming to rest on Mt Ararat (below) once all the baddies are drowned (above)

Noah never asks any questions, even sending out birds to find out how far the floods have receded rather than asking God, and over time, God becomes a more distant figure, still giving commands, but not available to question.  Abraham asks very few questions, despite having lengthy conversations with God, and when he does, they are very ceremonial and diffident (cf. the bargaining with God about whether there will be any just men to be destroyed in Sodom).   Abraham asks no questions at all when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac, because that would spoil the story.  Moses asks questions: Why me?  How can I be convincing?, but God gives him short shrift, and there is a definite movement of God away from the people, with Moses and later Aaron being the intermediaries.  God lives up on the holy mountain, and is not to be questioned.   Only when we get to David and the psalms do we hear direct, visceral questions again.

Who is being questioned?
More questions marks
questions come in all shapes and sizes

The questions are usually addressed to God, but not always.  The psalmist addresses other men (O men, how long will your hearts be closed? Ps 4) or sub-groups like ‘the wicked’ (Ps 51/52, 61/62), but also mountains (Pss 67/68, 113/114) and the sea (Ps 113/114).  These are obviously rhetorical in that they cannot expect a verbal answer, but they are direct and arresting, and they indicate the breadth of the scope of the psalmist,   rather than showing him as a single person alone at night, speaking into the void.

What is being asked?
Job talking to Jesus
how would you not ask questions, given the chance?

The same questions and themes recur continually. How long do I have to wait before you help me? (passim; from Ps 6 through to Ps 118/119, this question keeps being asked).  What is man, and why is God interested in him?  Who is just in God’s eyes?  Why do the wicked prosper?   Some of the rhetorical questions are just swagger : Who is like our God?  Whom should I fear?,  – but it’s good to read those as a contrast to the questions of desolation and desperation which recur.  How long? is perhaps the most frequent question, but it comes up addressed to different interlocutors, though mostly it is a plea for God to come to the rescue.  Sometimes the question is framed differently, as in Ps 100/101 (O when, Lord, will you come? v.2)  and Ps 118/119 (When will you console me? v.82; When will you judge my foes? v.84), and sometimes rhetorical questions are used to encourage the Lord to hurry (Can dust give you praise? Ps 29/30). 

Who’s asking?

Some of the more shocking questions are deliberately put into other people’s mouths, as in Ps 77/78 : They even spoke against God./ They said : ‘Is it possible for God to prepare a table in the desert?[…] Can he also give us bread?’ vv.19f, but most of the time the psalmist is happy to challenge God in his own voice.  He is so sure that God is on his side that the Lord’s tardiness in rescue must be due to sleep (Ps 43/44, v.24), or a desire to make a big entrance (many of the ‘how long?’ questions).  At times he can sound petulant or exasperated, but he is always honest and direct, and not afraid to remind God of how much praise and love the psalmist has already lavished on him.  This is not a dialogue between equals, but it is a covenant where both sides have rights of speech and reply.

How many questions can fit in a psalm?
history of Joseph
powerful people doing bad things

The psalmist also addresses his questions to specific groups, including powerful and frightening ones: ‘Do you truly speak justice, you who hold divine power?’ Ps 57/58, where he is haranguing wicked judges and rulers, and threatening them with God’s vengeance.  He returns to this theme in Ps 93/94, with a whole peppering of questions.  He summons God to appear on earth and do some smiting.  He calls out, twice, ‘How long shall the wicked triumph?’.  He tells God that these wicked people are confident that God will pay no heed, and then his question is addressed to them: ‘When will you understand?’ followed by two definitely rhetorical questions : ‘Can he who made the ear, not hear? / Can he who formed the eye, not see?’, powerful words echoed in Isaiah (6.10), Jeremiah (5.21) and of course in Psalm 113/115 to draw the contrast between God and pagan idols who can’t do anything.  He continues, ‘Will he who trains nations, not punish?/ Will he who teaches men, not have knowledge?’, and then swings round to talk about how good God is to ‘his own’.  Two more questions follow, and they might seem rhetorical if the tone were not so urgent.  ‘Who will stand up for me against the wicked? / Who will defend me from those who do evil?’  If God will not step in, he is done for.  As so often in the Psalms, the individual is crying out for help because his cause is just but the legal machinery is loaded against him.  He is not asking for indulgence or forgiveness; he is brave or rash enough to demand justice, and even reproach God with his last question : ‘Can judges who do evil be your friends?’  Of course not.  He ends with an affirmation of confidence, and we too have to trust that God saved him.

King and furnace
we really need a rescue here
Why are you cast down, my soul? (three times)

There is a similar flurry of questions in a few other psalms, including the Pss 41/42, 42/43 sequence. This is the classic yearning psalm, where the ‘how long?’ question is not because the speaker needs to be rescued, but because he so longs to see God’s face.  I have taken these two psalms together because they repeat lines and whole verses, both internally and from one to another; my commentary says that they were both originally parts of one poem, and there is plenty of internal evidence for that.  Any division is late, and porous.  The questions are simple, and addressed to different interlocutors.  First (Ps 41/42) the psalmist asks a general question (When can I enter and see the face of God?), which seems even humbler because he is not asking it of God directly.  He describes himself as pelted repeatedly by questions from others : ‘Where is your God?’  He remembers his past happiness as a leader in the Temple and questions his own sadness: ‘Why are you cast down, my soul?’, an interesting bit of introspection which leads almost to dialogue, as he actually answers two lines later. The psalm moves on into praise of God, and the speaker bravely questions God directly: ‘Why have you forgotten me?  Why do I go mourning[…]?’ before repeating the ‘Where is your God?’ question from others, now directly named as ‘enemies'(v.11).  The strophe with the ‘Why are you cast down?’ question is repeated, with its affirmation of faith in God. 

Procession
leading the rejoicing crowd into God’s house

Psalm 42/43 starts here and is practically a recap of the questions, shorn of the some of the beautiful images of the previous psalm.  The first strophe is the usual plea for help against enemies.  The second strophe is addressed directly to God : ‘Since you are my stronghold, why have you rejected me?’ and repeats the line, ‘Why do I go mourning oppressed by the foe?’.  Then we have two happy strophes, but this time looking forward to the future, not a remembrance of what is past, as in the previous psalm.  The last strophe is the same one that was repeated in the previous psalm, with the question to his own soul, to ask why it is sad and to end on a note of hope and praise.

asking God a question
Does God ask questions?

God himself gets to ask questions in the Psalms, especially in Ps 49/50, an interesting psalm which I discussed before, nearly all of it God speaking in the first person.  He mocks his people for thinking that ritual and outward observance are all that he cares about : ‘Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?’ (v. 13), and he goes on to reproach them for their wickedness, listing their sins, and then questioning again : ‘You do this, and should I keep silence?  Do you think that I am like you?’ (v.21).  Again, God asks a question in the baffling Ps 81/82, and it is the familiar ‘How long?’ question, upbraiding his agents, though presumably he could simply override them.

Are there any answers?

One very striking thing about all these questions is that they do not elicit answers, except in Ps 41/42, where ‘Why are you cast down?’ is followed by the explanation, ‘My soul is cast down as I think of you’ (v.7), but this is really rare.  In all the other cases I can think of, the question is left hanging, to be answered only by God’s action (a rescue, or a revelation).  The questions are piled up, but no answers come.  A similar situation creates the essential form of the Book of Job.

A parallel set of questions?  The Book of Job
Questions from Job's comforters
Job being questioned (or accused?) by his friends

The Book of Job is full of questions to God, in terms so like the words of the psalms that it seems likely either that they date from a similar era, or that one is, deliberately or unconsciously, quoting the other.  Job, like the psalmist, has real questions to ask God.  He wants to understand the reason for innocent suffering (the main ‘why’ question in the psalms), and he longs for relief (the ‘how long’ question).  The language is most beautiful, and Job constantly finds new ways to deal with his hypocritical friends, who are sure that his suffering is a just punishment for secret sin.  Job is asking his questions of God; the friends question Job, because they are convinced he is concealing past guilt, the justification for what they are determined to see as God’s just punishment. Job knows better, and he has complete faith in God’s goodness,  but he wants to understand why the innocent suffer; he wants to argue his case with God, like the psalmist pleading only for a fair hearing and a just judge.

pleading a case before God

Another person intervenes in the discussion : Elihu (these speeches are thought to be a later addition).  He reproaches Job for presuming to question God.  He reminds him that God has many ways to speak to people, dreams, visions, illness etc, but he is accountable to no man.  Elihu is like a bridge between the earlier discussion and the arrival of God himself; he describes the puniness of man and the mightiness of God even more strongly that the Psalms do.  Elihu describes the power of God in apocalyptic terms, like a warm-up act, and then bows out, as God speaks to Job ‘from the heart of the tempest’ (Job 38).

Leviathan with big teeth…but God is in charge

And what does God say?  How does he answer Job’s (fair and justified) questions?  He asks questions back, quite deliberately not even trying to give answers. ‘Brace yourself[…]; now it is my turn to ask questions and yours to inform me’.  All Kipling’s serving men come out in force; the questions rattle like hailstones.  The poetry is sublime, like Milton,  but better.  God pounds Job with his counter-questions, designed to show the difference between his knowledge and God’s.  Then he challenges him : ‘Is [God’s] opponent willing to give in?  Has God’s critic thought up an answer?’ (Job 40).  Job surrenders utterly, and says that he will not speak again.  God makes another speech (this is the section about Behemoth and Leviathan).  Job repeats his capitulation : ‘I have been holding forth on matters I cannot understand […], now, having seen you with my own eyes, I retract all I have said’ (Job 42).  God rebukes the false comforters, he praises Job and restores all his fortune and family, so there is a happy ending.

Shepherds and sheep
his flocks are bigger than ever
Why keep asking, if there are no answers?

But still no answers, because the answers are not the point, any more than they would be if they were to be found in the Psalms.  The basic question of innocent suffering, of why bad things happen to good people, is one that human beings have been asking ever since they learned to think, and there is no easy answer.  What matters is to keep on asking God the question ; the essential thing is the dialogue, and the relationship which makes it possible.

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.

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