Redemption and Salvation in the Psalms
If so many different kinds of suffering are the subject of prayer in the Psalms*, it is impossible not to wonder how salvation is perceived by their authors. Is the saving power of the LORD invoked for personal health and prosperity in this life, for the ultimate freedom and peace of the Jewish people through an historical triumph, or for holiness followed by life with God beyond the grave?
In a universal human sense, of course, the answer is “all three”. Every society—indeed, probably every mentally normal adult person—worries about present problems, hopes for a better future, and wonders about their own immortality and what will happen when the bodily existence they know comes to an end. Certainly everyone reading these words prays about all of these things. All of us also pray, at least sometimes, about the concerns of this life without asking whether God is calling us to embrace our suffering.
Consider, in comparison with the ancient Jews, that we have the teachings of Christ and the Church, and many spiritual writings which teach us how to make sense of suffering within God’s plan. If we can be forgiven for crying out in prayer over our sufferings without suggesting that this indicates a lack of faith, so too can the Jews, who at the time of the composition of the Psalms had no clear idea of a future life with God.
When it comes to suffering of any kind, we are all prone to act like children: Cry first, and ask questions when the initial shock wears off. But we Christians know, at least, that God will understand, for He is “Abba”. He is “Daddy.” If the ancient Jews had any sense of this at all, it was not nearly as well defined. We should not be surprised to find in the Psalms a considerable ambivalence about the nature of salvation.
The future of Israel
Setting aside prayers for salvation from personal suffering—in hopes of health, long life, a large family, and prosperity—the first larger conception of salvation for the Jews was bound up with their future as a people, as a nation. Consider Psalm 102:
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion;
it is time to favor her;
the appointed time has come…
The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
their posterity shall be established before you. [11-13; 28]
Other psalms—such as numbers 103 through 106—tend to praise God’s mighty deeds, acknowledge His punishments for Israel’s faithlessness, and ask for mercy. So once again there is a salvific emphasis on the whole people. This should actually interest us as Christians, because too often we think of salvation in a purely individual way. The Church is the new Israel, and we ought to be mindful of its character as a chosen people, a people set apart. Like the ancient Jews, we should acknowledge God’s punishment of the Church for the infidelity of so many of her members, and beg for mercy on the Church as a whole.
Hints of a definitive redemption
Beginning with Psalm 1, we see that the righteous person “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (3), whereas the wicked “are like chaff which the wind drives away” (4). The Psalms wrestle with the temporality of this reality, often expressing surprise and distress that it so often appears to be untrue in the present moment. But a deeper understanding is not infrequently suggested, as also in Psalm 1:
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. [5-6]
Here the Psalmist is looking forward to an ultimate future, not a passing one. It is interesting to see the emphasis on God’s “knowing” as a kind of key to some sort of eschatological continuation, as opposed to the perishing of those things that are not “known” by God. (Philosophically, we might say that evil is the absence of good. Insofar as it lacks being, it is not “known” or held in existence by God.)
Psalm 34 also demonstrates a lively mix of earthly deliverance and ultimate redemption in a period before there was much clarity about all this. Compare “I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears” (4) with “The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (22). Something eschatological seems to be in play, and it clearly includes the concept of “redemption”—the idea that God somehow will buy us back from the consequences of our evil, so that we will not perish but will belong to Him.
In another example, despite a mixing of present hope, future hope, immediate and ultimate deliverance, it is easy to interpret parts of Psalm 37 eschatologically. There is this: “The righteous shall possess the land, and dwell upon it for ever” (29). This cannot refer merely to future generations here on earth. It envisions an eternity for all those who are faithful to the commands of the LORD. Suggesting an even stronger conviction, Psalm 46 makes no sense at all unless it is read in light of a future glory in which God saves all who make Him their refuge: “Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change” (2).
Finally consider these verses, drawn from several different psalms, as indicated:
Truly no man can ransom himself,
or give to God the price of his life,
For the ransom of his life is costly,
and can never suffice,
That he should continue to live on for ever,
and never see the Pit….
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me. [49:7-9,15]
“Mark this, then, you who forget God,
lest I tear, and there be none to deliver!
He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me;
to him who orders his way aright
I will show the salvation of God!” [In God’s own voice, 50:22-23]
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant,
I was like a beast toward you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory. [73:21-24]
Truly, we should pray the Psalms often, pray them with Christ, pray them to learn of redemption, and pray them to rejoice in the salvation of those who trust in God. No wonder these beautiful texts urge us again and again to wait for the LORD!
* 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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