Shamai Gelander, The religious experience in the Book of Psalms, Peter Lang, New York 2016, 250 pages
Virtually all books of the Old Testament express the world view and opinions of their authors, with a didactic purpose in mind. The writings of the historiographers, priests or prophets purportedly bringing the word of God are in fact expressions of the views of the spiritual leadership that conceived and consolidated the biblical monotheism. Although two books – Job and Ecclesiastes – express the dissenting views of authors who went against the prevailing and traditional views of morality, they are philosophical tracts reflecting the criticism and objections of rebellious individuals.
Not so the Book of Psalms. What makes the Book of Psalms unique is the fact that it provides an outlet for an individual or group of people who have come to pour their soul out before God. In other words – the psalms are an expression of the world of the pious individual and of his beliefs. That is not to say that they were composed by simple folk: the psalms themselves contain sufficient clues to indicate that they are the work of master poets. Nonetheless, the psalms are what the authors sought to place in the mouths of the worshipper – thinking, no doubt, that they would aptly express what was on his mind. In any event, one of the primary aims of this book is to try and uncover what the speaker is experiencing in each instance: what were his circumstances when voicing his prayer, and what feelings and ideas came together to forge the emotional and spiritual belief experience.
In the ancient commentaries, from the Talmudic Sages onwards, there are clues to understanding the Psalms and their idiomatic expressions through metaphor. Virtually all attribute the psalms to King David himself: some see them as prophetic works, and some see them as merely expressions of a speaker identifying with David’s personal experiences. Both camps believed that the work’s meaning can be understood if presented as a metaphorical experience, that any worshipper can relate to.
Previous contemporary studies have focused mainly on dividing the Psalms into two categories: literary genres (the entreating prayer, lamentation or protest by an individual or a public; songs of praise and thanksgiving; the ‘royal psalms’; and psalms of festive ceremony), and psalms that point to the historical setting in which the psalm was composed. Since quite a few psalms straddle the boundaries of this formal classification, in this book I have chosen instead to classifying the psalms by the types of experiences they describe.
To determine the nature of the experience described in any given psalm one must first distinguish between common, schematic expressions (such as ‘evildoers’; ‘be ashamed and sore vexed’) and unique metaphors that were coined exclusively to describe the particular imagery of the psalm in question. With this in mind, Chapter 1 also attempts to trace the development of a given graphic expression from original, unique metaphor to a common and ‘fixed’ turn of phrase. Apart from helping to decipher how the psalms were formulated in the first place, the main benefit of such an exercise is to shed light on the experience itself – namely, when descriptions comprise mostly stock phrases, one may assume that the psalm was composed in circumstances far removed from a particular experience, and was intended for ceremonial purposes or at a public event, to make it identifiable by a large and diverse audience.
The fact that psalms have, in their course of their history, become incorporated into daily prayers, in prayers of festive holidays and in the daily lives of worshippers, is probably thanks to their craftsmanlike composition. This is particularly true, it seems, of the psalms intended for festive ceremonies – those involving a celebratory mass procession featuring, among other things, declarative ‘wise sayings’ that represent a distillation of an ideology. The subjects of these maxims vary, but in structure and wording they are more like festive slogans than profound ideological-instuctional material demanding quiet and introspective study. In most instances they are short and concise, with decisive and absolute statements, which also make them fit in well with the ceremonial rhythm of the other psalm elements. They talk about the God’s ways, about the rewards to the righteous and the punishment of sins, about the good ways of the world and issues of morality. These, coupled the range of topics, amount to a picture of ceremonial discovery by the participants of the festive ceremony, and suggest an experience of spiritual uplifting, especially concerning their relationship with the sense of God’s presence. In particular, the proclaiming of pithy slogans – in the form of question and answer or verses that the participants know how to complete – indicate that the festive ceremony consists of ideological statements that are familiar to the participants, and enable them to identify personally and fully with the occasion (as epitomised in Psalm 24).
Taking part at the ceremonial event is therefore an experience of double identification: identifying with the crowd of fellow participants and seeing oneself as being part of this distinctive group, but also as someone whose very existence and experience of this sort is evidence that all is well in the world.
However, the festive ceremony, as we know, also includes another ritualistic element – of raising sacrifices. The essential difference between these two elements is that while the festive procession allow the participant to express themselves at both the ideological and emotional level, the rituals involved in ceremonial sacrifices are virtually all obscure and mysterious, with symbolic or magical meanings known only to a select few. Accordingly, the participant of the festive ceremony experiences it on two levels: one conscious, and the other mysterious and unimaginable. Chapter 4 of this book examines this subject at length by focusing on ceremonial psalms of this sort.
For a full understanding of the religious experience, we must focus first on the basic level of the content. Various psalms depict a kind of conversion, in which the speaker experiences a form of transition from the actual to the desirable – namely, from the present or actual reality to the desired and hoped-for situation. In many psalms the speaker’s mind undergoes a transition from despair to hope. In some cases the transition is gradual, and ends on a not entirely optimistic note – in others it is sudden and acute. The most extreme example of conversion of this sort is found in psalms where the worshipper appears to have begun actually experiencing his salvation and redemption and appears to be in an ideal situation, when in fact – as found on closer inspection – he is still in the throes of acute distress. Such extreme disparity between the actual and the desirable can also be found both in the individual laments (especially Psalm 23), and in communal ones (mainly Psalm 126), so it cuts across the official classification of psalms into prayers of complaint versus songs of praise and thanksgiving. Chapter 1 deals with various kinds of transitions and conversions of this sort.
Most psalms feature less extreme transitions. In some, the speaker’s belief is in crisis, and his confidence needs bolstering. In the first verses of Psalm 5, for example, we discover that not only is he in urgent need of God’s help – he is not even sure that God is on his side rather than that of his opponents. Accordingly, he must first rule out this possibility by a process of elimination, and only then can he note God’s attributes in a positive fashion – after that, he can see his way towards achieving confidence in his salvation. In psalms of this sort the medium of prayer is more apparent than in those where the transition from despair to hope is sharp and sudden. In the latter case, the abrupt transition is sometimes explained by the fact that the expressions of hardship themselves contain the seeds of hope and security. Another explanation is based on a reconstruction of the psalm as applied in ritual ceremonies: originally – between the first part, describing the speaker’s tribulations, and the second part praising his salvation – a priest or prophet would respond, to say that God has heard the prayer and has acceded to it (see 85:9; cf. I Samuel 1:16). Over time, when the psalm became part of ritual prayer, this response was omitted in the written version, to allow for other replies to be inserted, to suit the circumstances.
Chapter 2 is devoted to the experience of proximity to God. This involves a contrasting, dichotomous tension between Man and God, which has many aspects. One is a proximity to the point of physical sensation (see 94, and especially 94:9; 63:2, or 42:2-3) versus a sense of God’s distance and concealment. Even the idea of God watching over one contrasts the notion of restrictive supervision (#139) with a benevolent guardianship that is liberating and gives security. Another aspect is the contrast between man’s sense of insignificance compared to the power bestowed upon him by God (Psalm 8). This harks back to the contrast between actual and desirable, giving it an additional dimension, namely, that man’s sense of insignificance compared to God is due not to his own feebleness and limitations, but to God’s power, in granting Man with many abilities, to the point of having control over God’s creatures.
Man’s sense that the entire world is his to control leads us to the experience described in Chapter 3 – namely, the recognition of harmony and perfect congruence between justice and world order. The worshipper acknowledges that justice is not merely a matter of a social convention, nor a relative value , but the law of nature itself. In other words, nature is where justice takes place, and in any event, a world created by God has no room for evil. This view has many and varied manifestations not only in the Book of Psalms but throughout the various genres of biblical literature, and this chapter cites many such examples.
These experiential sensations in turn lead us to the subject of Chapter 5 – namely, the experience of the ‘assured life’. Here, the speaker expresses his confidence that God does not want his death – on the contrary, God needs Man to thank him and spread the word about his wonders. It follows, therefore, that salvation and redemption are not necessary acts of kindness by God, but an instrinsic, inevitable consequence of His very nature. In some cases, the speaker is even assertive in this confidence (30:10, cf. 6:6). It is worth noting at this point that the speaker’s total confidence in his salvation – based on God’s innate attributes and the pointlessness of his own death – is present only in the individual laments, not in the communal ones. In the latter, the appeal to God is replete with historical references and even traces of ancient myths, while the individual’s experience is entirely different. In this respect, the ‘assured life’ experience is reminiscent of those concerning the recognition of the world order and the place of Man in the world, as well as the dichotomy of Man versus God. From here, it is but a short distance to the experience discussed in Chapter 6, that of ‘Every man is a king’. These ‘royal psalms’ are symbolic expressions of the individual’s identification with the stable and just order, as embodied in the figure of the king.
This division into chapters according to types of religious experience is intended, in part, to help distinguish between the various layers of the speaker/worshipper’s belief. Although each psalm usually concerns one central experience, in many of them there are traces, expressions and descriptions relating to other aspects, that are expanded upon in psalms under another categories. In effect, one can determine the nature and essence of the religious experience in a given psalm by the nature of the description involved, and the expressions used: as a rule, if a psalm relates the speaker’s hardship in great detail, and uses unique expressions to describe the mental anguish and suffering inflicted by a wicked person, while salvation is described in comparative brevity and with stock expressions – the speaker is likely still in distress, and his salvation lies mainly in his mind – in his hope and belief. The reverse is also true: a psalm in which the hardship is described in fleeting terms, with generic expressions and turns of phrase, tells us that the hardship endured was some time in the past.
Throughout the book, several psalms serve as a test case, from which we embark to find other examples with relevant phenomena. In any event, we shall find that certain psalms, or parts thereof, are repeated and discussed in various chapters.