Psalm 13

So I’ve officially finished Pseudo-Dionysius now, and it’s only now that I realise I’ve been spelling his name wrong. There’s an extra ‘i’ in the ‘sus’ part that I think I’ve left out. Anyway, I’m chugging away though Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and, uh, it’s going to take me a while. It’s dense stuff – and it’s also written in a very literary style, so you can understand what one section is talking about, but then it’s not immediately apparent how that part relates to the whole. There’s a lot of digesting to be done before I reach anything useful – anything worth writing about, I mean. For that reason, while I’m wrestling with Danish philosophy in the background, I thought I might spend some more time with Psalms.

Whenever I’ve read about the Psalms, I’ve always wanted to find a sort of literary criticism that tells me about how the things are put together and how the structure of the poem works. I’ve never found anything like that – most of the stuff I’ve read has revolved around which word is the best translation, blah blah blah – basically boring archeological history questions that don’t really treat the poem as a poem. It’s more like a dig site. Anyway, because I haven’t stumbled across what I want, I thought I might write it myself. I won’t do all the Psalms, or we’ll be here for the next three years – and if I’m still trying to figure out Either/Or in three years’ time, I’ll be very disappointed in myself. But we’ll do some of them. Without further ado, then, Psalm 13 (NSRV translation throughout).

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, 
because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

 The first thing to notice is that the psalm moves from bigger to smaller verses. The first verse has more lines, yes, but it’s also a more complicated grammatical structure. There’s longer clauses, longer thoughts (“How long must I bear…”), but also short, sharp sentences (“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”). There’s a lot of variation in there – it’s not measured or repetitive, right, it’s very busy, very messy and complex. It’s a cry of anguish, in that sense. It’s noisy and chaotic and disturbed.

Compare the serenity of the final stanza. It’s very clean, and very ordered. There are two groups of two-part sentences – so there’s a continuity of structure. Within each line, there’s a cycle back and forth between the speaker and God – “I trusted in your steadfast love;/ my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” The chaos of the world has been excluded. Everything has melted away, and there is only the pattern of perfect relationship between the speaker and God.

So the psalm moves from bigger to smaller verses, and that shift models the thematic movement from chaos to peace. That’s the arc of the psalm – it starts in noise and violence, with the drumbeat repetition of ‘How long’ forcing its way through the chaos, giving voice to confusion and impotence. It ends in peace, a clarity of structure reflecting a purified, unburdened mind.

It’s also worth noting that the torment suffered by the speaker is never really justified. If you jump back to Psalm 1, we’re told there are two ways – the way of the righteous, which is happy, and the other way, which is marked by wickedness, evil, and inevitable destruction. Those who take the second path are like chaff that the wind blows away.” Here’s the question – which path is the speaker on? Surely they must be walking the path of the righteous, no? The whole point of this psalm is that there’s an injustice – the enemy is exalted, God has forgotten me, God is hiding His face. It’s not a matter of ‘Dear God, please show me where I’ve done the naughty thing and I’ll stop doing it so bad things stop happening’ – it’s ‘God, how long is this shit going to keep up?’ There’s an implicit claim that the speaker isn’t doing anything wrong. Contrast Psalm 7, where the speaker says “O Lord my God, if I have done this/…then let the enemy pursue and overtake me”.

So God has forgotten the speaker, or God has hidden His face. Either way, the speaker blames God for what’s going on here – either He wrongfully caused it, or He didn’t stop it. The injustice of the situation is never really fully addressed in this psalm – it’s not resolved or explained away. You’ll have to turn to something like Job for a fuller exploration of the question (and even then you won’t find any answers beyond ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?’).

Other cool things include the fact that speech in this psalm is directed to God. The psalmist is raging against God in that first stanza – “How long, O Lord?” – and continues into the second (“Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!”) It’s very direct and personal. In the King James Version, we get the personal ‘thy’ – “But I have trusted in thy mercy”. Historically ‘thy’ and ‘thou’ used to be the more personal forms – you’d say ‘you’ to a random on the street, and ‘thou’ to your wife. It’s about degrees of intimacy. Ironically, because ‘thou’ is now archaic, it comes across as the more formal and reserved term, when historically it actually marks intimacy. Anyway – so not only does the psalmist talk directly to God, but it’s in the most intimate and personal terms.

Last point of interest: the final stanza. We talked a bit about its structure already, but there’s actually more to say. Notice that it shifts between past and future tense on each line – “I trusted…/ my heart shall rejoice…/ I will sing…/ he has dealt bountifully with me.” The first pairing describes a continuity: I trusted in God’s steadfast love previously, and (because that love is steadfast) my heart will rejoice in the inevitable upcoming salvation. The second pairing describes the speaker’s future actions: I will sing (once that salvation thing happens), because God has dealt bountifully with me.

There are two ways to read that final line – either God has dealt bountifully on other issues in the past, implying that He’ll do it again in the future, or God has already dealt bountifully with me on this specific issue. That is, the decision is already made, my salvation is already assured – “it is finished, to borrow from somewhere else. The past ensures salvation in the future – or rather, the past ensures that salvation is present now. The enemy has already been defeated. “How long” thus finds its response – suffering is not resolved, but the focus is shifted. Time is supplanted by the eternal, and salvation supersedes the pain.

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