The Psalms are unique in the Bible in that they are both God’s words to humanity and humanity’s words to God. Only in modern times have the Psalms lost this centrality in the heart and mind of the church. It was not so in former times. Indeed at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 C.E. it was agreed that:
Candidates for a bishop’s orders must know the Psalms by heart and must have read thoroughly, not cursorily, all the sacred Scriptures.”1
Imagine! Naturally to be a bishop you had to be well acquainted with the other sixty-five books of the Bible, but you also had to know all 150 Psalms by heart. Interestingly, this would suggest that in their view the Psalms were more important than the New Testament as a whole, and even the Gospels in particular.
In 1545, Martin Luther translated the Psalms into German and in the preface he wrote,
“It were well if every Christian so used (the Psalter) and were so expert in it as to have it word for word by heart, and could have it even in his heart as often as he chanced to be called to speak or act, that he might be able to draw forth or employ some sentence out of it”
In previous articles I’ve written about the incessant chatter in our heads which the Buddhists call our ‘monkey mind‘. The Buddhist solution is to replace that with silence, and that is a perfectly good approach (albeit difficult!). But perhaps another would be to replace that random chatter with something that serves us better. And what could be better than the Psalms? The entire book is dialog between human and God — what could be a better replacement for the random dialog of our monkey mind than inspired dialog with God?
Indeed, it has been a practice of the monastic monks since about the 4th century to chant all 150 Psalms once a week. That would be 52 times a year. Year in and year out. How could that incessant chanting of the Psalms (combining ‘ear-worm’ music with sacred poetry) not crowd out most everything else in your mind? Day after day, month after month, year after year the Psalms, the Psalms, the Psalms. Imagine what marvelous things that would do for your soul, to have the chatter of your monkey mind crowded out by the Psalms?
I for one am not in a position to memorize all 150 Psalms any time soon, or even chant all of them once a week. But perhaps the Ancients were on to something. And I for one badly need something to steady me as I navigate our Covid-Chaos.
For one thing, I’ve realized how permeable my psyche is in that 10-15 minutes when I’m waking up and falling asleep — my psyche is in a very liminal place. So it is now my practice to have nothing to do with the news for those first and last moments of my day. First thing in the morning I get my coffee, and curl up with the Psalms for at least 10 minutes. I have found making this good start on the day to be enormously helpful in withstanding the assaults of the news, etc. And as I nod off at night, I make sure I have something from the Psalms in mind. An entire verse is too much as I’m drifting off, so I choose some phrase: if my verse for the day was “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” a suitable phrase for nodding off could be “my shepherd, my shepherd…”, or “not want, not want…”. You get the idea.
For me personally, a way to engage with Scripture with a “beginner’s mind” is to engage it in its original languages. (Each of us must find their own way!) As familiar as I was with the Lord’s Prayer in English, for example, I can still remember the first time I read it in the Greek — it was like encountering it for the first time — which, in a sense, I was. Lectio Divina on crack!
So one way to engage the Psalms in the original languages would be to work through the Psalms in Hebrew. But something I’ve been wanting to do is to become better acquainted with the Septuagint…
Wikipedia has a fine article about the Septuagint (SEP-too-ah-gint), but the short version is that roughly 300 BCE a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek was made in Alexandria. In first century Palestine the two common languages for getting through life were Aramaic and Greek (the aftermath of the Persian and Roman conquests of the region respectively). The average Jew in 1st century Palestine might know enough Hebrew to phonetically pronounce the Text, but generally speaking they didn’t have a working knowledge of reading/writing/speaking Biblical Hebrew. A fair analogy might be Catholics before Vatican II, who would pick up enough of a smattering of Latin to manage the Mass, but certainly had no fluency speaking, reading or writing it. Consequently the Septuagint was the working version of the ‘Old Testament’ for most Jews and Christians in the first few centuries after Christ. In our New Testament, when the writer quotes from the ‘Old Testament’, generally they quote the Septuagint word for word. Indeed, in the Eastern Orthodox Church (which traditionally conducts its services in Greek in the same way Catholics have traditionally conducted theirs in Latin), the Greek Septuagint is still regarded as equally divinely inspired as the Hebrew Text.
In short, near as I can tell, the version of the ‘Old Testament’ bouncing around in the noggins of Peter and Paul was more likely the Septuagint than the Hebrew. So if I were to work through the Psalms in the Septuagint instead of the Hebrew, in some ways I would arguably be following in the footsteps of the first disciples — the Psalms with which they were most likely to be familiar. Works for me! Especially since the point of this exercise is devotional/pragmatically spiritual and not for scholarly purposes per se.
The long and short of it is that I’m working through the Septuagint Psalms anyway, and I want to do something meaningful and appropriate for the Music Box, and a ‘Psalm’ is a ‘song’, right? That’s musical, right? So for the time being I thought I would share my own translations of them, along with observations as appropriate.
I frequently find the Original striking and pungent, so in my translation I’ve tried to share that as best I can instead of smoothing it out into sofa English.
- See this article, look for ‘Canon 2’ in the list of canons