May 7, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The theology contained in the psalms

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

The theology contained in the psalms naturally reflects the beliefs of the ancient Israelites, sometimes back as far as 3,000 years ago. Some of it is not our theology, but much of it is.

With those Israelites, we believe in God and we share the belief that “God’s grandeur is beyond understanding” (Ps 145:3).

We also believe in God as the Creator of the universe. Psalm 104 is a hymn of praise of God as Creator. They, of course, had no notion of the immensity of the universe that astronomers have since discovered, and our religion doesn’t say exactly how God created the universe as that psalm does.

We also both believe in “God who governs the world with justice” (Ps 10:9). But we depart from them in their belief in “the Lord enthroned on Zion” (Ps 10:12). Psalm 66 is praise of God as Israel’s exclusive deliverer. However, Psalm 117 is concerned with more than just the Israelites: “Praise the Lord, all you nations! Give glory, all you peoples!” (Ps 117:1).

The psalms recognize humans as the culmination of God’s creation. “You have made them little less than a god” (Ps 8:6), but they sometimes marvel that God is so committed to them because, “What are mortals that you notice them; human beings, that you take thought of them?” (Ps 144:3).

Some of the psalms wonder why the wicked often prosper while the good suffer. Their only answer is that the prosperity is only temporary. “The wicked perish, the enemies of the Lord; like the beauty of meadows they vanish; like smoke they disappear” (Ps 37:20). The fact that that’s not always so remained a problem.

When the psalms were written, the Israelites didn’t quite know what happened after death. The psalms frequently mention Sheol, which is usually translated as “the nether world,” a place of darkness and dust where the dead live—both the just and the unjust. It was neither a place of reward nor punishment, but the psalms considered the possibility that the dead didn’t altogether stop existing.

This changed by the time of Christ, at least among some of the Jews. The Pharisees and the Sadducees argued about whether there was life after death, and Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) clearly showed a belief in separate places of reward and punishment.

We are not sure how this new belief developed, but it was surely present by the time of the Maccabees in the second century B.C. Judas Maccabeus took up a collection for an expiatory sacrifice for men who died in battle, and “if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death” (2 Mc 12:44).

It is possible that God didn’t want his Chosen People to be too concerned about life after death, especially after the 430 years they had been in Egypt. We know how concerned the Egyptians were about trying to make themselves prepared for what they believed would be life after death. †

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