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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Psalms Today

Most people are acquainted with the psalms because they are incorporated into the regular prayer of the church. Others may be more familiar with some of them through their own personal use in private devotion. Everyone interested in the psalms will also want to know more about how they function as means of prayer. Moreover, a study of the psalms would be incomplete if we did not address the role that they have played and continue to play in shaping the minds and hearts of believers. We cannot arrive at this insight by limiting our examination exclusively to historical or literary analyses. While the psalms are certainly religious literature they are at the same time means to spiritual transformation.

Poetic Imagery

The psalms are poetry. They are, in fact, some of the most beautiful poetry that the human spirit has created. The imagery is vivid, the verbs are energetic, and all can share the sentiments expressed. One need not be familiar with the historical situations from which the psalms sprang in order to appreciate their enduring worth. Like all classic literature, they express fundamental human values that speak to every culture and every age. By merely reading the psalms thoughtfully and respecting their integrity, we can be touched by their lyrical artistry and drawn into the dynamic world that they envision.

This reflective, even contemplative, reading can plunge us into the religious dispositions of the psalmist, for the words and the images that grew from these dispositions can now readily serve as vehicles carrying us back into them. We may not come to the psalms with hearts filled with praise or thanksgiving or grief, but the world mirrored there, a world that is real though perhaps not identical with ours, often resonates deep within us. It is as if we know that world, or at least we sense that we should know it and, recognizing it, we cry out in praise or thanksgiving or grief. In this way the poetic imagery can be the starting point of our meditation on the psalms.

Genuine Prayer

For Jews and Christians, the psalms are much more than profoundly moving poetry. They are the voice of our respective religious faiths. First heard centuries ago in a land far removed from ours, they have been on the lips of believers in every historical period since that time. It is not merely that we use the psalms to express our devotion; they in fact profoundly shape our religious consciousness. The psalms have served as a prism that spreads before us the many facets of our relationship with God. Gilead, Manasseh, and Ephraim (see Ps 60, 9 ) may be unfamiliar names to many, but they were beneficiaries of God's promise of protection of which we are heirs, and so we identify with them. We “join in procession with leafy branches up to the horns of the altar” (Ps 118, 27 ), convinced that our prayers too will be answered.

Liturgy is not merely a celebration of some past event. It is an enactment in which and through which promises and claims that were made in the past become present realities. The Exodus was certainly a concrete historical event. Whenever Israel reenacted this event, however (see Jos 24 ), the reality of the Exodus became present with all of its power and possibility. The participants of the liturgical celebration were not participants of the original escape. “When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. He brought us out of Egypt” (Dt 26, 6–8a ). The psalms have a role to play in this creative reenactment. Not only do they address God in sentiments appropriate to what has been described, but they also fashion a world wherein we interact with God by means of these very sentiments. When we really enter the world sketched in the laments, we are plunged into fear and distress and we cry out to the Lord. Now this is our world; these are our sentiments; this is our prayer.

When we pray the psalms in this way, we are not simply using their religious imagery to express our own personal devotion. Nor are we merely calling to memory events of the past in order to be inspired by the saving acts of God in our history. We are entering into and carrying forward our creative, dynamic religious heritage. In this way the heritage becomes the inspiration of our personal devotion, and our devotion is shaped by this biblical heritage.

The World beyond the Psalms

The psalms not only invite us into the world created by their imagery and sentiments, they also prompt us to move beyond this world, back into our own world and circumstances, there to reengage in the transformation we ourselves have already undergone. The implications of this transformation of our world and the forms it may take will vary according to the sentiments found within the psalm. (Once again it will be helpful to return to the classification of psalms outlined above under the heading Types of Psalms.)


The laments, the largest category of psalms found in the Bible, continues to cause considerable difficulty for many contemporary believers. Some people think that prayer should be primarily praise, petition, or thanksgiving. The fact that many of the sections of the laments, which contain accusations against God or the cursing of antagonists, have been deleted from liturgical texts seems to support this misconception. We have become so accustomed to seeing ourselves as “Alleluia People” that we relegate any mention of suffering and pain to the prayers of petition. This is unfortunate because it prevents us from dealing honestly and straightforwardly in worship with the grief and frustration we experience in the face of national crisis or personal misfortune. It is natural to complain, even to complain to God. Laments are often admissions of guilt, pleas for forgiveness, and promises of amendment. When we pray the laments in this spirit we confess that God is a just yet forgiving judge, and we pledge ourselves to lives of faithfulness to our own covenant responsibilities.

The laments are not only protests of our grief or fear or anger, but they are also testimonies of our trust in God's faithfulness to covenant promises. They do not originate in the hearts of nonbelievers. Rather, they spring from the conviction that God is on our side, willing and able to provide for us in our distress. Remembrance of past protection is at the heart of this conviction. If God was compassionate in the past, surely God will show us the same compassion in the future.

Finally, there is another way to enter the world of the laments. It is through solidarity with those who suffer and are oppressed. While laments may not come easily to the lips of the comfortable, they are integral to the prayer of those who are in distress. As we share or stand by them in their suffering, their prayer becomes our own; as we enter into the sentiments of the laments, we begin to understand and identify with their suffering. Laments can strengthen us in our commitment to justice and peace.


As we praise God for the splendor of creation and acknowledge that the universe belongs to this divine architect and not to us, we should also be moved to profound respect for the world of which we are a part. We may exercise a kind of dominion over the animals with whom we share the earth, but we exercise this rule in God's stead. Hymns of praise can instill in us the dispositions necessary to become responsible stewards of the treasures of creation.

The hymns extolling the Lord for having delivered Israel from the threats of extinction depict God as an ever‐present savior. This nation has been rescued from oppressive policies that threaten its well‐being and prevent its self‐determination. In praising God as a faithful liberator, Israel is also acknowledging God's enduring commitment to justice. God's people—and that includes all people—must be free to follow the inspiration of God as they receive it. As we pray these hymns, we too should find ourselves committed to justice toward and respect for the autonomy of all nations.

The Lord is also acclaimed as champion in the cosmic struggle with the threatening forces of chaos. Acknowledging that these forces were never completely destroyed, psalms that acclaim the kingship of the Lord declare that God is still in charge and, thus, deserving of our undivided devotion. If we praise the Lord in this fashion, we can hardly allow anything—whether wealth, power, or national loyalty—to rival the allegiance we have pledged to God.

The final division of hymns consists of the songs of Zion, which honor the mountain on which the Lord dwells, from which the Lord reigns, and to which all the nations are invited. We have seen that in these psalms the drama has moved from the cosmic plane to the world of history. The Lord is not in some distant remote place, inaccessible to the people. On the contrary, God is in the midst of the people, approachable, even inviting. We may have no allegiance to Zion itself, but with these psalms we are really acknowledging God's commitment to our well‐being and God's faithful presence in our midst. A word of caution is in order here lest we fall into the trap of national chauvinism. Zion has significance because the Lord chose it, not because it chose the Lord. Whenever Israel confused being elect with being elite, it faced prophetic condemnation (see the prophet's reprimand of Jerusalem and the Temple in Jer 7; 26 ). We today are not preserved from this same temptation. The songs honoring Zion must be understood for what they are—hymns in praise of God, not simply songs of national pride. In fact, long‐standing Christian tradition saw in the imagery of Zion, with its connection to Jerusalem and the Temple, a foretaste of the Church itself where God would dwell in the midst of his people.

Psalms of Thanksgiving

It is very difficult to be sincerely grateful when we think we deserve the good fortune that is ours. Psalms of thanksgiving help us to remember that whatever we enjoy has come to us from the hand of a gracious God. When these psalms are associated with laments, they serve as expressions of gratitude for deliverance. This suggests that Israel recognized that its own security and prosperity were blessings from God. Psalms of thanksgiving will be genuine prayer only when they spring from the conviction that our blessings also are gratuitous gifts from God. We cannot claim them by right, and so we would do well to be as generous with them with others as God has been with them with us.

Other Psalms

As with the songs of Zion, we must be on guard against national chauvinism when praying the royal psalms. Israel may have believed that loyalty to the king was an act of devotion to God, but the king was accountable to the same covenantal responsibilities as were the rest of the people. The law of the nation was an early attempt to guarantee protection and prosperity to each member of the community. (Since this was a patriarchal society, full membership was restricted to adult men.) Rather than exempting the monarchy from covenantal obligations, the royal psalms proclaim that the king was an agent through whom the blessings of fidelity were bestowed upon the people. These psalms provide us with language and imagery to celebrate the benefits we receive from God as citizens of our own country.

One of the characteristics of the wisdom poetry is its lavish use of nature imagery. The balance and regularity of the natural world are held up as examples after which society and human relationships should be patterned. This may help us understand why several “New Age” or “Creation‐Centered Spirituality” movements turn to the wisdom tradition of the Bible for inspiration. We can all benefit from the insights of these groups, for this dimension of our tradition has for too long been overlooked and reclaiming it can only enrich us. Still, we cannot allow reflection on the harmony in nature to hinder us from addressing the more challenging social issues of the wisdom psalms. These poems confront us with their interest in the problem of evil, the suffering of the righteous, and the justice of God. As these hymns become our own, their interests will become our commitments.

The excitement and enthusiasm that permeate the processional psalms reveal a nation that takes its liturgical celebrations seriously. There is unfeigned joy at the thought of approaching the throne of God, but there is also humble realization that only the pure of heart will be granted access. In many ways, our own access to the divine enjoys a kind of familiarity. In a society such as ours, which is so focused on human progress and accomplishment together with technological advances and secularization, many people have lost an appreciation of the transcendent. Processional psalms remind us that, while God is indeed in our midst and accessible to us, God is still God, holy and transcendent.

It should be clear from this consideration of the psalms that their real importance is not primarily in their literary meaning but in their religious nature. As believers, we cannot be uninterested in our study of the primary prayers of our tradition, for we come to the psalms not only with open minds but also with open hearts.

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