Suffering in the Psalms
In the previous installment I stressed that the Psalms are first and foremost a collection of prayers.* As such they inescapably reveal the general themes which are uppermost in the minds and hearts of those who pray: Concern about present suffering and a better future, the thirst for God and the desire to understand His will, and our own ultimate end. Since the Psalms are part of Divine Revelation, we should not be surprised that they incorporate messages of Divine love and Divine justice, hints of God’s plan of redemption, and even some fairly specific references to Christ, which we can understand fully only since His coming.
I’ve already highlighted the references to Christ (see The Psalms: Deep questions, with only hints for answers). Today I propose to explore the understanding of suffering in the Psalms.
The dilemma posed in the preceding Book of Job was that Job suffers deeply yet claims before God to be innocent. Unlike Job’s friends, the Psalms most often (but not always) avoid the presumption that personal suffering is the direct and immediate result of personal sin, or that national suffering is the direct and immediate result of national guilt. More frequently, there is an eschatological element in play, a conflation of our time with God’s time. Observe, for example, how quickly the time horizon shifts in Psalm 9:
The nations have sunk in the pit which they made;
in the net which they hid has their own foot been caught.
The LORD has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.
For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
and the hope of the poor shall not perish for ever.
Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail;
let the nations be judged before you!
Put them in fear, O LORD!
Let the nations know that they are but men! [9:15-20]
This chronological ambivalence about the way sin is punished lies at the root of many Psalms. At one and the same time, they show anguish in the face of suffering and evil, a resurgence of confidence in God’s deliverance, and yet a serious fuzziness about how that will happen—in an immediate vindication, in the long-term success of the Jewish people, or only after death (when “the wicked shall depart to Sheol”).
Kinds of suffering
All kinds of suffering are called to God’s attention in the Psalms, from personal illness to national calamity. Without equating all suffering with God’s chastisement, the Psalms do often betray that awareness of the role of sin which so often troubles devout souls:
There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. [38:3-4]
But there is also an acute awareness of the suffering we must endure because of the evil done by those around us. Psalms 42 and 43, for example, express the distress of living among those who lack faith in God, while Psalm 94 reflects the suffering of so many over the centuries at the hands of those in power:
My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me continually, “Where is your God?”…
As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” [42:3,10]
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
from deceitful and unjust men deliver me! [43:1]
Can wicked rulers be allied with you,
who frame mischief by statute?
They band together against the life of the righteous,
and condemn the innocent to death. [94:20-21]
The Psalms sometimes suggest a relatively primitive understanding of evil and victory over evil. For example, Psalm 58 tells us that evil men go astray from the time of their birth, and the Psalmist thirsts for vengeance on the part of the righteous, which he regards as a proper lesson. But in general, these prayers are neither so simplistic nor so naïve concerning the interplay between good and evil in every human heart. Nor do they forget the constant need for trust in God:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore. [131:1-2]
Again and again the Psalmist urges us to “wait for the LORD” or “hope in the LORD” (these exact words appear in Psalms 27, 31, 37, 130, and 131, while many similar forms of expression are used elsewhere). Taken together, these sentiments form the dominant response to suffering both in the Psalms themselves and in the Christian heart at prayer. This spirituality is especially evident in the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120 through 134), which scholars think were traditionally sung as the Jewish people ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three major annual festivals.
These Psalms have passed very thoroughly into the prayer of Christians, especially in the Divine Office. I will close with one of the best examples, Psalm 130:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
that you may be feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is mercy,
and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
All of these texts relate to the problem of suffering, and the deeply felt human need for a definitive solution to it. Next time we will try to discern what the Psalms tell us about this “plenteous redemption”.
* A note on variations in the numbering of the Psalms:
Unfortunately, there is a discrepancy in the numbering of the Psalms in the two ancient texts, the Hebrew and the Greek. I use the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, which follows the Hebrew numbering. Some other translations, such as the Douay-Rheims, follow the Vulgate, which follows the Greek.
Psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew are conflated into Psalm 9 in the Greek. Similarly, Psalms 114 and 115 in the Hebrew are conflated into Psalm 113 in the Greek. Then, Psalms 114 and 115 in the Greek are conflated into Psalm 116 in the Hebrew. And finally, Pslams 146 and 147 in the Greek are conflated into Psalm 146 of the Hebrew. Therefore, a comparison of the numbering between my citations and the Douay Rheims would look like this:
RSVCE Douay-Rheims 1 – 8 1 – 8 (same) 9 and 10 9 11 – 113 10 – 112 (i.e., DR is one number lower) 114 and 115 113 116 114 and 115 117 – 145 116 – 144 (DR is one number lower) 146 146 and 147 148 – 150 148 – 150 (same)
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