War and peace, and everything else too
There is no human situation not covered by the Book of Psalms. Whatever is going on in your life, there is a psalm which will reflect it, as well as multiple psalms which help you to deal with it. This is partly because the Psalms are so old, and also because they are mostly expressions of feelings, so even the fact that we don’t know if there is a single psalm by a woman (some day I’m planning to look at this) doesn’t matter as much as you might think. This is because feelings of joy, fear, hope, despair and everything in between are common to us all. The collectors and organisers (never mind the writers) have had time to sift and distil different options across a vast sweep of history and an enormous range of human experience.
Light and dark psalms
We tend usually to concentrate more on the positive psalms in the liturgy, for praise, comfort and reassurance, celebrating God’s Law, recounting past mercies, and so on. Because the Sunday Responsorial Psalm is a response to the First Reading (nearly always out of the Old Testament), there are occasional opportunities for the darker psalms, and of course we concentrate on those during Lent and especially in Holy Week, with the penitential psalms, and the psalms of grief and suffering. The darkness is woven into the liturgy; our lives may be going on serenely and happily outside the time when we are in church; spring is coming (northern hemisphere), and indeed we know that if Lent is here, Easter cannot be far behind, as Shelley did not write.
Real life for the psalmists : War
But our situation is usually very different from that of any of the psalmists. They were living through wars, exile, and captivity, as well as periods of peace, and their songs reflect this. The current dreadful events in Ukraine have sensitised us to references to conflict, disaster and terror. I have been looking at the references to war in the Psalms, and there are many of them, sometimes as part of psalms which we regularly sing, though we often leave the war bit out.
We regularly sing the first three stanzas of Psalm 62/63, the beautiful yearning psalm ‘O God, you are my God, for you I long / for you my soul is thirsting’, but we don’t sing the last verse where the psalmist deals with his enemies (‘They shall be put into the power of the sword / and left as the prey of the jackals’ (v.11)). Similarly in Ps 67/68, we sing (in the Seventh Week of Easter, and in Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time Year I) ‘May the Lord be blessed, day after day. / He bears our burdens, God our saviour. / This God of ours is a God who saves. / The Lord our God holds the keys of death.’ but we then don’t sing the last two lines of the stanza : ‘And God will smite the head of his foes, / the crown of those who persist in their sins.’ If you stuck to the parts of the psalms which we are prescribed in the Sunday Lectionary, you would never know how much violence, retribution and smiting there is in the Psalter.
Echoes from history
I can’t be the only person to find myself arrested by painful echoes of the current news in some of the Church’s readings for this time. First Sunday of Lent : ‘The Egyptians ill-treated us, they gave us no peace […] But we called on the Lord […] The Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, our toil and our oppression’. In the first week of Lent, we have readings from Jonah : ‘He preached in these words,’Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed’; and from Esther : ‘My Lord, our King, the only one, come to my help, for I am alone and have no helper but you and am about to take my life in my hands […] Lord, reveal yourself in the time of our distress’.
Praying and singing in time of war
The Psalms are familiar with war, oppression and violence in a way that we never want to be, but it is oddly comforting, like when you go to hospital in labour in the middle of the night and find that the lights are on and the people are already awake to help you. The psalmists were often in desperate situations, and they were starting from a more precarious and dangerous time in history than we can imagine. One reason why the war in Ukraine has shocked us all is that it is happening in Europe, where we expect people to try to avoid war and respect the rule of law, but now we see how insecure we can be.
The psalmists knew this very well, mostly from personal experience. Periods of peace were few, one reason why there is so much longing for them. Even the word ‘peace’ is fairly rare in the psalms; ‘fortress’, ‘stronghold’ and ‘refuge’ are much more frequent.
Lord God of hosts
God is first given the name ‘the Lord of hosts’ in 1 Samuel 1.11, by Hannah, a woman in distress, which is interesting. It is the translation of ‘YHWH Sabaoth’, ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’, in the Latin Sanctus, translated later as ‘God of power and might’, but now restored as ‘Lord God of hosts’. This is such a familiar title for God that we don’t think about what it means. I think I vaguely assumed some connection with the Communion hosts, until I came across it in French : ‘Dieu des armées’ and I was shocked. Of course that’s exactly what it means. Some people prefer to think of it as ‘Lord of the hosts of angels, the heavenly host’, and of course that is also right. God has the ranks of angels who will do whatever he tells them, but there is more to it. In times of war and upheaval, having a God of hosts on your side is a very comforting thought, and this is why the title is used not just in the psalms but in some of the later prophets, mainly Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah, when life was very difficult.
Names and titles
Incidentally, Jesus doesn’t call God ‘Lord of hosts’ but ‘Father’, or ‘my Father’. He refers to him as ‘God’, ‘your Father’ (when preaching) or occasionally ‘the Lord’ when he’s quoting the Old Testament (e.g. talking to the devil in the desert) or telling a story (e.g. about the unjust judge and the persistent woman). ‘Lord’ is obviously an elastic term, which reaches from ‘the Lord your God’ to a more everyday honorific. Jesus doesn’t make any objection, and it doesn’t provoke the authorities, when people address him as ‘Lord’. He tells the apostles to refer to him as ‘the Lord’ (Matthew) or ‘the Teacher’ (Mark and Luke), if they are challenged while making preparations for the Passover meal which will be his Last Supper. In John’s Gospel, the apostles usually call him ‘Lord’ rather than anything else; and Pilate can’t work out what to call him at all. When Jesus more or less accepts at the end the title of King, he takes care to point out that he is not a king in any usual earthly way (power, conquest or oppression).
Lord God Almighty
In the Psalms, God, usually addressed just as ‘God’, is quite often called the Lord of hosts (‘the Lord of armies’ in Ps 23/24, ‘God of hosts’ Pss 79/80, 83/84), and here it is a title about his earthly power, especially in battle. He is the mightiest of the mighty. Psalm 45/46 has a built-in refrain : ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; / The God of Jacob is our stronghold’, which is a very encouraging song to be singing. If God is on your side, no one else can hold out against you. Conversely, if he withdraws his favour, anyone can beat you, so it is important to return to his favour, if you can work out how. There are several psalms which try to puzzle out what the people have done wrong and how they can correct it (Pss 43/44 and 88/89 are good examples). But in normal circumstances, God is there in order to protect his people. This is the undertaking of the covenant. He protects them from all sorts of evil, the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the plague that prowls in the darkness, the scourge that lays waste at noon (Ps 90/91), but also specifically in war situations :’A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand fall at your right’ (ibid.), but God’s faithfulness is buckler and shield, and you will come through unscathed.
A good side to be on
Israel’s unexpected successes in war are a major element of the story in the Old Testament, and God is the source of all of them. He is a force that cannot be beaten, a citadel that cannot be stormed, an impregnable tent ( Pss 26/27, 60/61). This is no vague concept of heavenly protection : God has a strong right arm (Ps 88/89). He is a war commander (Pss 67/68, 68/69), a victorious general (Ps 75/76). All these psalms build on the idea of God himself being a mighty warrior, a man of war as Handel set so beautifully in Israel in Egypt. (And do click on that link, because they sing the duet so well, aware of each other in the way people always should be in duets, but often aren’t, and the ‘orchestra’ is extremely impressive.) The words there are from the victory chant in Exodus 15 following the defeat of Pharaoh in the Red Sea. Protecting your people and winning battles for and with them is the king’s job, and a fortiori God’s (Pss 20/21, 93/94). ‘If the Lord had not been on our side,’ this is Israel’s song (Ps 123/124),… then terrible things would have happened, but with God as our God, we will be safe.
The vocabulary of war
The Psalms are familiar with the language of war. God himself is a fortress, a refuge, a stronghold. The psalmist knows about gates, borders, watchmen, ramparts, chariots, spoil, tribute and of course slavery. Even hot coals, in Ps 119/120. God surrounds his people like mountains (Ps 124/125). This is not for the scenery, but to make defence easier. His angel encamps around those who fear him (Ps 33/34) , to deliver them, –quite some angel, as I have said before. God is a warrior, a guard, he has weapons, usually arrows and a sword, but the psalmist likes to talk also about his shield, because God uses it to protect him; the Lord (or even just ‘his faithfulness’ Ps 90/91) can be represented as a shield as easily as a fortress or tower.
The Psalms can sound like our current news reports in their real experience of war : the earth ‘reeled and rocked’ (Ps 17/18) which sounds like bombs or missiles, and a few verses later, we have blast, scaling a wall, a ‘heavy bow’, a ‘saving shield’, pursuit of a fleeing enemy and finally victory. The psalmist is always looking for safety and security, the rock under his foot which will not slip, God’s love ‘in a fortified city’ (Ps 30/31.22). There is real danger here; ‘tottering walls’ (Ps 61/62), and foes are everywhere. ‘I can see nothing but violence / and strife in the city. / Night and day they patrol/ high on the city walls’ (Ps 54/55). This is what is happening in the cities of Ukraine, with aeroplanes added in. In Psalm 67/68, the psalmist asks God to’scatter the peoples who delight in war’ (v.31), another verse which suddenly sounds modern.
O for the wings of a dove
The psalmist longs for peace, when God will break the arrows and spears (Ps 75/76) but is resigned to fighting for as long as it takes, though he keeps asking God how long it will be and urging him to hurry. He does not want to fight (Ps 119/120), but is resigned to war because of his opponents : ‘they are for fighting’ (ibid.). God’s delight is ‘not in warriors’ strength’ (Ps 146/147), but he trains the king and his people for war (Ps 143/144), because they have to do their part. Although the psalmist begs him repeatedly, God does not do by himself the smiting for his people; he stands by them and assists as they do it. We have to wait for the New Testament and Jesus himself before we are told to love our enemies. The psalmist sees his enemies as God’s enemies, and is proud of his feelings against them, knowing that he is fighting God’s battles (Ps 138/139). He is not cynical about fighting but resigned : this is what evil men and foes do and always have done, so he looks forward to peace as something that keeps needing to be defended. Maybe this is what we were in danger of forgetting. Let us pray for Ukraine; the psalms have plenty of material and are a good place to start.
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