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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 Piety of the Psalmist

The psalms generally speak to God rather than about God. Although most of the important historical events of the nation, as well as the universal needs of women and men, are described or addressed somewhere in these prayers, the psalms are just that—prayers to God. If we look carefully at the sentiments expressed in these songs, we will be able to detect the major outlines of the piety of ancient Israel, a piety to which we are heirs. We have already seen that it is possible to classify the psalms according to literary form (lament, hymn, thanksgiving, etc.). A further look at these forms will show us that different types of psalms express different sentiments of devotion. Therefore it will be helpful to return to these classifications as we explore the piety of Israel contained in the psalms. (The reader is advised to consult the listings of the psalms belonging to each category. These listings are found under the heading Types of Psalms.)

Grief, Fear, Repentance, and Confidence

We all have a certain sense about how life is supposed to unfold. We learn this as we are fashioned in and by the various social groups of which we are a part. While societies may differ over values and lifestyles, all agree that basic to our nature as human beings is the desire to be happy. Our social groups train us in the acceptable ways of achieving and maintaining the happiness we seek. When we have not attained what we believe is our right, or when having once attained it, we lose it, we cry out in protest. We tend to balk at the unfairness of adversity regardless of whether we are in any way responsible for the loss. We do expect that life will be good to us. This natural human instinct, coupled with the conviction of God's special love and care, led Israel to expect security in a hostile world, success in its undertakings, and a life of serenity and prosperity for the nation as a whole and for each individual within that nation. Such a state of affairs is what the Bible refers to as shalom or peace. Psalms of lament grew out of the absence of just such peace.

The references in communal laments usually apply to some national disaster that has already taken place. Depending upon the dating of the particular psalm, this calamity could have been the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (about 722 BC), the Babylonian exile (about 586 BC), or the Maccabean conflict (about 167 BC). Allusions to the vulnerability of the nation would fit any one of these three emergencies. Any description of the destruction of the Temple, however, must be dated after the time of the exile and before the rebuilding of the Temple (515 BC; see Reading Guide to Ezra and to Nehemiah).

The fact that the psalmist cries out to God demonstrates Israel's belief that God has both the power and the will to intervene and deliver the nation from its present distress. Several psalms themselves indicate that this belief is based on former saving‐events in the history of the people (for example, Pss 44, 2–4; 74, 2; 83, 10 ). Israel believed that God's might was in no way exhausted by earlier feats. On the contrary, Israel held that the all‐powerful God was always ready to defend the nation whenever it was threatened with extinction. Even as the people cried out in complaint, they were proclaiming God's all‐encompassing power and declaring their trust in God's continued concern for them, a concern based on divine covenantal promises. An expression of confidence, then, is an important characteristic of the lament.

As there were times when Israel felt that it was the innocent victim of the aggression of another nation, there were also instances when it admitted that the straits in which it found itself were directly related to its own sinfulness. Suffering at the hand of another was seen as punishment from God for violation of the covenant. In some of the laments, Israel admits its guilt, pleads for forgiveness and for an end to its suffering, and promises to amend its ways. One of the communal laments recounts the nation's history as if it were no more than a series of offenses against a loving God (Ps 106 ). Others plead that God forgive the people for their sins and restore them to divine favor (Pss 80; 5–8; 90, 7–17 ). In these psalms, suffering is understood as recompense from a God who is just but also forgiving.

Many of the sentiments found in the communal laments are present in individual complaints as well. The authors of these prayers claim that they are physically or spiritually afflicted or that others are wrongfully oppressing them. In their distress they turn to God for release. They do not doubt God's ultimate control over the workings of nature or the social order. Nonetheless, they might, on occasion, question why God allowed them to be besieged in the first place. Their confidence in God rests on both the recollections of past blessing and reliance on God's own faithfulness to covenant promises.


Praise is that sentiment that wells up within us as we are overwhelmed by the wonders around us or by the provident concern afforded us by the events of life and by life itself. It is not so much something that we are taught as it is something that we experience. Praise of some sort is natural to human beings. Who has not been swept away by the extravagance of a sunset, by the delicacy of spring's reawakening, by the refreshment of a gentle summer breeze, by the magnitude of the ocean's horizon or the night sky's depth? We stand in awe before the splendor of creation—and we are drawn out of ourselves. If we are attentive to the religious tendencies within ourselves, we will be moved to praise. We discover this same sentiment in the hymns. The psalmist does not seem able to find words adequate to describe the grandeur of creation (Pss 8, 29, 104, 148 ), and so all the forces of nature are called upon to join the psalmist in glorifying God. Underlying such sentiments of praise is the belief that God is the creator of all things and that all that God has created is beautiful, deserving of our respect, and a reminder of the majestic creator.

Other hymns applaud God for the marvelous feats performed on behalf of the Israelites (Pss 105, 114, 135 ). Again and again the miraculous power of God intervened for them, thus saving them from certain extinction. Since the initial and preeminent experience of deliverance was liberation from the oppression of Egypt, the Exodus became for them the symbol of all liberation. In these psalms God is perceived as tireless savior, and the psalmist's praise is an acknowledgement of the nation's total dependence on God for its continued survival.

These hymns presume that nature is benign and that God is committed to the well‐being of the people. Such a view of life does not usually emerge spontaneously. It arises either from an experience of life that is basically untroubled or from a religious belief that God is indeed on our side and life should really favor us. Still, the biblical hymns are not the flights of fancy of people who have been protected from the hard realities of life or from the indifference of nature. They are also songs of praise of people who, despite misfortune, persist in their reliance on an all‐powerful yet attentive God.

The Lord is further acclaimed as the sole and eternal king over all nations. The God of Israel earned this title of Champion in the primordial struggle with chaos (Pss 96, 4f; 98, 1 ) by undermining the influence of the other gods and ascending the heavenly throne to reign with universal and undisputed authority. The concept of God as victor in the cosmic conflict embraces the notion of creator, for the initial understanding of primordial creation is the establishment of order out of chaos (see the creation narrative in Genesis 1 ). Unlike the hymns discussed above, the psalms lauding the kingship of the Lord acknowledge the threatening powers present in the universe. Chaos was conquered by the Lord, but not totally destroyed. Admission of this in no way detracts from the universal reign of God proclaimed in the psalms. Instead, it was a way that Israel dealt with the fact that creation is not always friendly and life does not always appear to be favoring us. In the face of this fact, Israel believed that the Lord was truly in charge, involved in creation while ruling from the divine throne in the heavens, controlling all of the forces of the universe and, therefore, deserving of our undivided allegiance.

The songs of Zion contain some of the same imagery found in the psalms in honor of the Lord‐King. Ancient Canaanite mythology, from which much of the Israelite imagery originated, recounts the cosmic battle described above. After the forces of evil were quelled, a palace was built for the victor on the summit of the highest mountain. From this vantage point the conquering hero holds sway over the entire universe. Israel revered Mount Zion as this sacred mountain and revered the Temple as the palace of the victorious creator‐God. A significant shift can be detected in these psalms. Zion and the Jerusalem Temple move the drama from the cosmic scene of primordial creation to the political and cultural world of Israel. The reality of God's divine creative power is now associated with one nation and, because of the close connection between Zion and David, specifically with the Davidic monarchy. These psalms depict God as unabashedly committed to the welfare of Israel over all other nations. The creator‐God who is praised in these psalms is not distant from this people but lives in their very midst, allowing them to approach the divine presence that somehow mysteriously dwells in the Temple. (There was an attempt to balance this apparent exclusivity by inviting all other nations to worship the LORD on Zion [see Is 2, 2f; Mi 4, 1f ].) Thus God is perceived as near and accessible, and Zion and the Temple command veneration.

The hymns provide us with several perceptions of God: the creator of the universe, national liberator, cosmic champion. At times these perceptions overlap, producing a collage of images intended to call forth praise. The psalmist extols God for the wonders of creation, for continued deliverance from destruction, for God's victory over the forces of evil, and for the fact of God's presence in the midst of the people. These are some of the sentiments voiced in the biblical hymns.


Little need be said about the expression of gratitude found in the psalms. Prayers of thanksgiving are similar to those of confidence in that the latter expect blessing and the former thank God for it. At times this gratitude flows from favors already received. At other times it anticipates the blessing that the psalmist is confident will come. The structure and content of the thanksgiving psalm resembles those of the hymn. There can be no thanksgiving until God has first been praised for the goodness that God has accomplished.

National Loyalty

The royal psalms emanated from national pride and spirit. Allegiance to the king was regarded as loyalty to the nation. Since the king was considered the representative of the whole people before God and as God's special envoy for the people, loyalty to the king and to the nation were seen as acts of devotion to God. These psalms originated out of various royal settings and they express sentiments appropriate to the respective occasion (for example, coronations, weddings, danger to the king during warfare, etc.). Despite their diversity, the sentiments of all of these songs flow from what today would be considered a type of patriotism.

An Understanding Heart

The wisdom poems generally do not address God. They are usually directed toward the community. The piety of the psalmist is not as explicit here as it is in the prayers we have already examined. Still, it can be discerned by looking carefully at the way the poet treats the themes that appear to be prominent. The problem of evil, the suffering of the righteous, and the justice of God are principal concerns of the wisdom tradition and are all facets of the same issue, namely, right order in the universe. It is clear that the wisdom psalmist presumes that there is an order to the world, and that there is a way in which we can live in this ordered world so as to be secure and prosperous. It is also evident that the psalmist sees God as the source and guarantor of this order. On the other hand, evil that clearly is not punishment can challenge the sovereignty of God. When this evil raises its head, God is expected to step in, subdue it, and restore the world to its former and appropriate state. When this does not happen, the power of God or the uprightness of God may be questioned. This might happen because either God cannot repress the evil or is unwilling to do so. While Job and Ecclesiastes live with the unanswered question of innocent suffering, and Job even demands that God take responsibility for it, the wisdom psalms do not challenge the prevailing situation. They seem to presume that the suffering of the righteous is for some legitimate purpose, which God will reveal at the appropriate time and will then correct.

The themes, language, and imagery of the wisdom poems depict God as creator of all. In this they resemble the hymns and the psalms of thanksgiving. In their insistence on justice, they are like the laments. These similarities explain why commentators classify the wisdom poems in different ways. These psalms may not be explicit expressions of Israelite piety, but they do reveal a trait that is characteristic of religious sentiment, that is, an understanding heart (see 1 Kgs 3, 9.12 ).

Enthusiasm, Humility, and Faithfulness

The processional psalms are charged with excitement and anticipation. They invite the observant Israelite to participate with heart and soul in various liturgical celebrations. The major festivals of ancient Israel (Passover or Unleavened Bread, Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks, Sukkoth or the Feast of Tabernacles) were all commemorated with pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Psalms were sung as the people approached the city. There were shouts of profound joy as well as humble acknowledgements of the need for pure hearts when approaching the holy city and the Temple of the Lord.

Prophetic psalms were also linked closely to the Temple. They embrace sentiments of humility and religious devotion and they summon the people to be faithful to their covenant commitment.

The wide range of religious sentiment found in the Psalter reveals the extent of Israel's piety. Every human emotion is tapped because Israel believed that God is involved in every aspect of life. It is no wonder that the psalms have touched the lives of women and men throughout the ages and that they continue to inspire the human spirit even to our own day.

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