February 19, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Psalms are ‘the masterwork of prayer’

John F. Fink(Second in a series)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the psalms “the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament” (#2585). For poetry lovers, these are the Bible’s poems. But more than poems, they are also hymns.

Most of them were probably composed for Jewish liturgical worship, although they are both personal and communal. Many of them are printed with notations that indicate the musical instruments used to accompany them.

For example, the notation above Psalm 4 says “with stringed instruments” while the one above Psalm 5 says “with wind instruments.” Psalm 8 is to be accompanied “upon the gittith,” but I have no idea what a gittith is.

They were ancient songs. About half of them are attributed to King David, who lived about 3,000 years ago. He might or might not have actually composed them himself, but his authorship of some is taken for granted in the New Testament.

Some of the titles indicate when he supposedly wrote them. For example, Psalm 3, which is about trust in God in time of danger, is said to have been composed when he fled from his son Absalom (see 2 Sm 15).

Other psalms are attributed to various temple singers with names like “the sons of Korah” or “the sons of Asaph.” Four psalms are attributed, respectively, to Moses, Solomon, Herman and Ethan. And some are more recent, composed in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. after the Israelites’ exile to Babylon, but not as late as the Maccabean period about 165 B.C.

Praise of God is the most common theme of the psalms. Indeed, the psalms were collected into five books of the Psalter, which means “Praises,” and each of the five books ends with a doxology or psalm of praise. But there are many other forms of prayer, too: lament, contrition, petition, thanksgiving.

They usually are simple prayers and they sound spontaneous, but some are literary masterpieces, especially Psalm 119. By far the longest psalm in the Psalter, it has 176 verses. It is an acrostic. Its 22 stanzas (of eight verses each) are in the order of the Hebrew alphabet and each verse within a stanza starts with the same letter.

St. Ambrose wrote, “A psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, praise of God, the assembly’s homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song.”

St. Pope Pius X had a great love of the psalms. He wrote: “Who could fail to be moved by those many passages in the psalms which set forth so profoundly the infinite majesty of God, his omnipotence, his justice and goodness and clemency, too deep for words, and all the other infinite qualities of his that deserve our praise? Who could fail to be aroused to the same emotions by the prayers of thanksgiving to God for blessings received, by the petitions, so humble and confident, for blessings still awaited, by the cries of a soul in sorrow for sin committed?” †

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