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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 Theology in the Psalms

The expressions of piety found within the book of Psalms give us insight into the theology of ancient Israel. Although much of this theology has already been noted, it will be helpful to look at it in a more systematic fashion.

The God of Israel

The portrait of God that is sketched in the psalms draws together all of the divine faces found in the rest of the Israelite tradition. This God is the creator of the universe (Ps 8, 4 ) and the source of all life (Ps 36, 10 ), enthroned in heaven (Ps 47, 6 ) yet dwelling in Jerusalem (Ps 76, 3 ). Initially the LORD may have been perceived as Israel's exclusive liberator (Ps 66, 6 ), but the universal scope of God's power and protection came into view as the nation moved closer and closer to a monotheistic faith. Although uniquely committed to Israel by means of the Mosaic covenant (Ps 114, 2 ), and to the monarchy through the royal covenant with David (Ps 132 ), God is envisioned as concerned about the well‐being of all people (Ps 117 ).

This majestic God inspires both fear (Ps 89, 8 ) and confidence (Ps 23 ), is both demanding (Ps 75, 8 ) and forgiving (Ps 85, 3 ). Above all else, the God of Israel is “merciful and gracious … slow to anger, abounding in kindness” (Ps 103, 8 ; see Ps 86, 5 ). The key characterization is that God is Israel's covenant partner. Everything that is important to Israel flows from this perception of God.

The Image of God

The human person is held in high regard in the psalms. (It must be noted that the psalms come from a society where the male person was the norm for what is human. The language and imagery that issued from this fact have caused great distress for many. Without perpetuating this male‐preferred situation and by making appropriate substitutions while reading or meditating, we can still value the psalms for their religious insight and sentiment.) Honored as a unique manifestation of God's creative ingenuity, humanity is given responsibility for the other living creatures of the earth (Ps 8; see Gn 1 ). Again and again the psalmist marvels at this singular work of divine artistry. Why should God be personally committed to such an insignificant being (Pss 8, 5; 144, 3f )? As extraordinary as they are, humans live a fleeting life (Ps 39, 5f ) and then perish like the flowers of the field (Ps 103, 15f ). Realization of the impermanence of life becomes even starker when we remember that the psalmist did not have any clear notion of life after death. Human dignity was related to life in this world.

There is no doubt in the mind of the psalmist that human beings are thoroughly understood by and totally dependent upon God (Ps 139 ). God provides for their basic physical needs (Ps 65, 10–14 ) and protects them from harm (Ps 121 ). In a special way, God is the guardian of the poor and afflicted (Ps 40, 18 ), the defenseless widows and orphans (Ps 68, 6 ), and the anawim or lowly ones (Ps 147, 6 ). The psalmist goes to great lengths to show that what appears to be the insignificance of the human creature is, in fact, the occasion for the solicitude and tender care of God.

Natural Creation

The psalms reveal a special regard for natural creation as the handiwork of God (Ps 104 ). This may well have originated from a polytheistic belief that the mysterious powers in nature are really manifestations of various deities. As Israel's understanding of God developed, expanded, and incorporated within itself reverence for these extraordinary manifestations, these powers came to be seen as expressions of the Lord. God is revealed in the thunderstorm (Ps 29 ) and in the design of the natural world (Ps 65, 7 ). Creation was thus no longer seen as a rival for the homage of the people. Instead, it became a partner in the praise of God (Ps 148 ).

The Future

Ancient Israel was interested in both the future of the nation and the fate of the individual. The positive view that it takes on this issue, which is called eschatology, stems from its faith in the goodness of God toward all creation. Despite the struggles that the nation faced in its attempts to survive and to flourish in a contentious world, Israel believed that the final victory would be the Lord's and that through God's triumph it too would prosper. Individuals also looked to God to remedy the injustices of a burdensome life. They clung to the conviction that God would eventually right all wrongs, and they would then enjoy the happiness that was their due.

The psalms that praise the kingship of the LORD and describe God's defeat of the forces of evil, also promise the restoration of the nation (Ps 14, 7 ). When this happens, the gods of the other nations will be recognized as the empty idols they are (Ps 96, 5 ), and all the peoples will join in praising the LORD ( 96, 7–10 ). According to some of the royal psalms, this decisive turning point in history will be brought about through the agency of a “messiah” (Ps 2, 7–9 ).

Great attention is paid in the psalms to the fate of the individual. Although earlier theology taught that reward and punishment would be worked out within the community or down through the generations (see Ex 20, 5 ), the postexilic prophets maintained that retribution would be meted out according to one's own deeds (see Ez 18 ). In the face of this new perspective, the prosperity of the wicked challenged the theory of retribution. In response, the psalmist claimed that such prosperity would not last and so the upright should not envy sinners (Ps 37, 1 ). Still, the apparently peaceful death of those who were wicked and prosperous, and the unmerited suffering or adversity of the righteous, remained an unresolved problem.

The psalms say very little about life beyond the grave, but they frequently mention the shadowy existence known as Sheol (Ps 49, 15 ). This was not a place of retribution; it included neither reward nor punishment. It was simply a place of darkness and dust. It probably referred to nothing more than the grave, the abode of the dead. Still, it suggests that while Israel did not have a clear idea of life after death, it entertained the possibility that the dead did not cease to exist.

The Psalms and the New Testament

We may not always appreciate the specific theological importance of the psalms because today we tend to distinguish between explicit theological statements on the one hand and prayer on the other. In many ways, this is a false distinction. Statements of faith may well be the reflection on or development of theological thought, but prayer is theology as it is experienced. It is quite clear that the early Christians seldom made such distinctions. For them, the psalms were not only vehicles of prayer but they also contained important statements of faith, statements that found their fulfillment in the person and mission of Jesus (see Lk 24, 44 ).

The New Testament both alludes to and specifically cites various psalms. Five of them seem to be referred to more than the rest. They are the messianic psalms 2 and 110 ; the individual laments 22 and 69 ; and the communal psalm of thanksgiving 118. The first two are cited in discussions of Jesus’ messianic preeminence (see Acts 13, 33; Heb 1, 5 ). Motifs from the two laments are used in accounts of his passion and death, interpreted by some as evidence that the psalmist was really foretelling Jesus’ suffering. Psalm 118 speaks of the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone (v. 22; see Mt 21, 42 ) and the blessedness of the one who comes in the name of the LORD (v. 26; see Mk 11, 9 ), themes that the New Testament writers see fulfilled in Jesus. Thus the early Christian theologians developed the theology of the psalms in ways that would enhance their own understanding of Jesus the Christ.

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