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Joy, Despair and Hope: Reading Psalms

Fully more than half the psalms use the first person singular "I". Peter Berger, the sociologist of religion, once remarked that in Psalms we encounter the first moment in which Western literature gives expression to the individual self. When we read ancient literature, we are used to meeting the "I" of kings and heroes, figures found in epic poetry, but in the psalms we also meet the pleas of the ordinary, lonely person who is presented as the "stranger" in the land -- the voice of the disinherited, the lowliest, the abject, as well as that of the king. Here is the fulfillment of the promise of Genesis that all people are created in the image of God, for it is to the plea of the lowly that God will respond, a claim which the psalmist puts in God's own voice (Psalm 12:6: "From the despoilation of the poor, and the prayer of the lowly, I will rise up..."). These are the prayers not only of kings, of the elite, but of everyman, everywoman.

It is the introspective voice of the self which particularly comes to the fore in psalms and which makes the book especially appealing. These psalms express the cry of the heart and its opposite -- the joy of experiencing God's presence. A psalmic author can in one moment describe a sense of abandonment: "My God, my God, why have you deserted me?" and in the next moment incomparable wonder and thanksgiving as when an author imagines being led by a caring sheepherder to placid waters “Your staff and Your rod will comfort me,” and then joining in a meal at God's own table. In fact, the discerning editor of the book of Psalms has placed these two opposite expressions side by side -- in psalms twenty-two and twenty-three.

I believe that it is not necessarily those psalms which have entered the liturgy, or the ones most frequently quoted, which can speak to our age, rather the personal psalms, the ones in which the self of the author is plumbed, can be most consonant with the language our own souls wish to speak, and it is to them that I have primarily, though not exclusively, turned my attention. My wish is that you, the reader, will come to see in the book of Psalms a place where the soul manifests itself, where nourishment for your own spiritual life can be found. It may be that for a moment, you will be able to hear the heart's cry of people who lived thousands of years ago and find their words expressing concerns close to your own heart. When this happens, you will feel what generations have felt as they have found consolation in this book: the surprise that in giving voice to his or her own self, the biblical author, living thousands of years ago, expressed something which captures our own finite, painful and glorious human condition. I hope that my work will help in returning the book of Psalms to contemporary readers.

Joy, Despair and Hope is an attempt to see how ancient biblical authors dealt with and responded to the presence and absence of God, the contemplation of human finitude, loneliness, and fear and the possibilities of joy and redemption. These were the first people who wrestled with religious faith; perhaps their articulations will give direction to our own journey. Reading them, we might find echoes of our own struggles.