March 5, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Hymns of praise of God in the psalms

John F. Fink(Fourth in a series of columns)

Although some of the 150 psalms in our Psalter are wisdom poems or royal and historical psalms, they generally fall into classifications of hymns, laments and thanksgiving.

Nineteen of them are considered hymns of praise of God, including the last six, 145-150. The others are scattered throughout the Psalter. Although some might have been prayers of individuals, most were probably composed for use in Israel’s liturgies, just as are our hymns today.

They are not all alike in their structure, but most of them begin with a call to praise God, perhaps originally by the leader of the community. This is followed by a recounting of God’s marvelous acts, the reasons he deserves our praise. It ends with a repetition of the call for praise.

Psalm 8, for example, begins, “O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is your name over all the Earth!” It then recounts the wonders of creation, “the moon and the stars which you set in place.” It then marvels that “you have made man little less than the angels” and put all the animals under his feet. It ends by repeating, “O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is your name over all the Earth!”

Or Psalm 104, which both begins and ends with “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” Then in 35 verses, the psalm praises God’s creative wisdom and power: the sky, mountains and oceans; springs and streams for the animals; vegetation for humans “and wine to gladden men’s hearts”; the sun and the moon with the activities of day and night; and the mighty seas “in which are schools without number of living things both small and great.” Seeing all this, the psalmist says, “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God while I live.”

Psalm 29 praises God’s majesty in a severe thunderstorm. After an invocation to give the Lord glory and praise, it marvels at what it calls “the voice of the Lord,” which it calls mighty and majestic. Among other things, the voice “strikes fiery flames,” “shakes the desert,” and “twists the oaks and strips the forest.” It must have been some storm!

Psalm 145 is a favorite of the Jews, who include it daily in their prayers. Some of its phrases occur in other psalms or other books of the Bible. It praises God for being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness,” for being “faithful in all his words and holy in all his works,” and who “fulfills the desire of those who fear him.”

Besides the 19 hymns of praise, six psalms (46, 48, 76, 83, 87 and 122) extol Zion as God’s holy mountain and Jerusalem as the city where God chose to dwell. God is praised in these psalms, too, but specifically for preserving Israel from its enemies and for continuing to live with his Chosen People in Jerusalem. These psalms obviously have more significance for Jews than they do for Christians. †

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