I usually know before I start a blog whether it’s for The Tablet or for this website, but I was in two minds about this one. I wanted to write about choosing the hymns for Sundays, which meant it was about Church music, but it wasn’t specifically psalm-based. But after all, I have written about hymns here before, so it was a difficult decision to make.
In the end, I did it for The Tablet, but in fact I do want to publish it here too, because I know several of you also have to choose the hymns for the congregation week by week. It’s a joy choosing the hymns, but it’s also quite a responsibility. So here’s a blog about how I do it and the different things I try to remember during the process. I hope you find it interesting, and maybe even a bit useful. The most important thing is that we all keep singing. There’s a Serbian proverb I was charmed to discover : Ko peva, zlo ne misli, which means ‘If someone’s singing, there’s no room for ill will’, which is a great thought when you see a congregation all joining in.
O God, you are my God, for you I long, sings the psalmist in Psalm 62/63, most beautiful of the yearning psalms. ‘My Lord’ or ‘my God’ is a very frequent way for him to address the Almighty. It is a distinct and deliberate declaration : ‘I say, ‘You are my God” (Ps 30/31). Sometimes God is labelled as belonging to someone else, nearly always Jacob (e.g. Pss 113/114 and 145) but overwhelmingly often the psalmist refers to God just with a direct possessive. And we’re still doing it; look at the words of many hymns (O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder; My God loves me; My God, accept my heart this day, and so on and on).
What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)
But what is the meaning of the possessive in this context? To jeer at someone and ask ‘Where is your God?’ is hurtful and insulting (Ps 41/42), described as ‘taunts’. Is it adding to the insult by implying that God is only one among many, that everyone has their own and this one of yours has no power, or is it more the implication that this one mighty God that we know about will not intervene? What about the danger of reducing God down to only human size?
In some cultures with multiple gods, there are little gods as well as big ones. There were small family-specific gods, the lares and penates, in a Roman household, and indeed that is a useful label for particularly prized possessions, indicating a value to the owner that is not necessarily monetary. We have some lares in our house, a couple of particular much-loved pictures, the wooden stork in the stairwell, a brass snake, and so on. (That last one sounds positively biblical, but it’s Indian and belonged to my mother’s family.)
But now this is God that we are talking about. We know that the psalmist is well aware of the difference in scale (and everything else) between him and God (‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ (Pss 8 and 143/144)), but he keeps claiming God in the way he addresses him. What does it mean, ‘my’ God?
If x then y
Obviously the relationship between God and man is not one of equals, but this is precisely how God himself describes it when he makes covenants in the Old Testament. ‘They will be my people, and I will be their God’ – there are so many instances of this that I am simply attaching a link here to a list of them, including St Paul’s references to them in his Epistles. The concept is of a reciprocal duty : humans will do sacrifices (in the early days) and then move on to thanksgiving and virtue, as God tries to explain that these mean more to him than dead sheep and goats (cf. Ps 49/50). The relationship is drawn as a legal agreement or covenant, and it is always ratified by a sacrifice.
The New Testament changes the basic rules, and we certainly don’t need to do any more blood sacrifices because of Jesus’ once-for-all self-giving, but the idea that the reciprocal agreement is earthed in a sacrifice (and then maintained by a sequence of further sacrifices, like Abraham’s trail of altars on his journeys) goes back to the earliest days of the patriarchs and is consummated rather than simply changed by Jesus. It’s a long learning process through salvation history and across both Testaments. Jesus is still trying to pass on the same message when he quotes Hosea 6.6 in Matthew 9.13 : ‘Go and learn what this means,’I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. But the reward is great; the other half of the bargain is that the Lord promises to be ‘their’ God.
An offer you can’t refuse
The mutual obligations are all-embracing, but the psalmist is very clear that it is worthwhile. The Lord’s promise to be the God of his people means protection, a strong right arm fighting on their side, rescue from the pit whenever necessary, an ever-present help in time of trouble, even food and drink when otherwise unavailable (manna and the quails for the Israelites, and supplies for Elijah, in the OT; the feeding of the hungry crowds in the NT), and in the end happiness for ever, though details on the afterlife are wisely never given. So accepting the deal and asserting reciprocal ownership is a frequent feature of the psalms. Like Pascal’s wager, the deal is too good to turn down.
I will be so good to you
The balance is crucial, and it lends itself particularly well to the parallelism of the poetry in the psalms. I claim you as my God, and therefore you have obligations towards me. Repeatedly we see the Lord being put on one side in the balance and on the other side we might have ‘the poor’ or ‘the blind’, ‘widows and orphans’ or ‘the just’; sometimes (as in a battle) God holds the mid-line between the forces of evil and ‘those who fear the Lord’, and he is total protection. So we have in Ps 99/100: He made us, we belong to him, / we are his people, the sheep of his flock (v.3). Ps 139/140 : I have said to the Lord : ‘You are my God.’/ Lord, hear the cry of my appeal! Ps 85/86 : You are my God, have mercy on me, Lord. Ps 94/95 : Let us kneel before the God who made us / for he is our God and we / the people who belong to his pasture / the flock that is led by his hand. Whether we are sheep or people, we have a duty to God, and his corresponding duty is to take care of us, because we belong to him.
He, the Lord, is our God (Ps 104/105)
Because the psalms are so personal, there are more references to ‘my God’ than to ‘our God’, but the plural possessive is fairly common too. ‘My God’ is not a claim to exclusivity. He actually defines the group. This is why it is so significant when Ruth says to Naomi, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God'(Ruth 1.16). She is choosing to change all her previous allegiances to become an integral part of her mother-in-law’s tribe, accepting every article of faith as her own. And the lonely foreign widow is taken into the group and becomes one of the Christ’s ancestors; her God is indeed the same God.
God’s presence and his very self
One of the features that makes God different from all the other gods that the Israelites come across is that he is with his people, even while they are still nomadic. He does not belong to only one place, like other gods, because his place is to be at their side. They take the Ark of the Covenant with them on their wanderings, not because they think the Lord is actually in the box, but because the tablets of the Law remind them that he is always there with them in some form, visible (pillar of fire, pillar of cloud) or invisible (a still small voice). In the New Testament, under the New Covenant, even the name insists on this : Emmanuel, God-with-us. This is one of the strongest pillars on which the psalmist’s relation to God rests. You are my God because you are here with me, wherever I am.
Thou the Ocean, I the billow
It does imply ownership, but a reciprocal ownership, and it’s not so much a grammatical possessive as more of an ethic dative. You are God for me, that is the crucial basis of our relationship. It is like when Julian of Norwich describes Jesus saying to her ‘I am the ground of thy beseeching’, or like the psalm which says ‘In your light, we see light’ (Ps 35/36), or like G.M. Hopkins’ poem comparing Our Lady to the air we breathe (‘Be thou then, O thou dear /Mother, my atmosphere). It is less an assertion of ownership and more an expression of love, on both sides.
You were made for me
This is in fact how we often use ‘my’, claiming someone or something because they are particularly dear to us. My husband, my mother, my daughter, my son, my friend, my home, my country. It defines the relationship but also indicates how strong the feeling is. There is a lot of this in the psalms. God doesn’t need telling or reminding, but it is reassuring for us to affirm the relationship, and it is an expression of love. You can say ‘darling’, and you can say ‘my darling’; the feeling and the message are subtly different.
Titles and Thomas
The titles for God are often given as a doublet in the psalms. ‘O Lord our God’, twice in Ps 8, ‘O Lord my God’ in Ps 29/30 and Ps 39/40, even a triple in Ps 83/84 : ‘Lord of hosts, my King and my God’. There are many examples. ‘My king and my God’ also occurs in Pss 5 and 43/44 and elsewhere; ‘the Lord my (or your) God’ is frequent. But we have to wait for the apostle Thomas in the New Testament for ‘My Lord and my God’. I don’t know whether this is because the various translators along the way wanted to keep this as something special, or whether it’s unique to the (Greek) gospel as distinct from the (Hebrew) psalms, but either way we can and do see here a wonderful and unique expression of love and faith where the effect is world-changing but also intimate. This is why it is one of the Eucharistic Acclamations in Ireland, but unfortunately not for the rest of us. I’ve written tunes for all the others, but I haven’t managed this one yet. It’s daunting; five short words which mean so much. The double possessive does not mean ‘You belong to me and to no one else’. It means the same as the line in Amazing Grace : [I] was blind but now I see. It means everything.