I’ve been musing on the 49th Psalm for some time. It’s one of the rarest birds in the Lectionary. It would have a two-parter next week, but for the advent of Lent. You’ll need to wait for a mostly annual appearance on a September Friday this year. Thankfully, due to the omnipresent nature of bound paper if not the trails of cyberspace, we can access it anytime for reflection.
The Psalmist begins with an introductory announcement, suggesting that pretty much everyone needs to pay attention.
1 Hear this, all you peoples;
give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high,
rich and poor together.
3 My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp. (NRSV)
So, we’re on the same page, this is poetry. It’s not tweeting or legal language. The lyrics compare in pairs, people and inhabitants, low/high and rich/poor, mouth and heart, speech and meditation, wisdom and understanding.
I’m interested in the original Hebrew (of which I’m ignorant) but the English pairing seems jarring in verse 4. One listens to a proverb, certainly. But solving a puzzle with music? Where is the Psalmist taking listeners with that expression?
I do think that great artists doing their best work don’t leave it all on show in the first view. In churches you sometimes get the simpler view. You’ve seen one catalog saint statue, you’ve seen them all. And indeed, the Pieta has been reproduced so many times, it holds no meaning other than a reference point. Jesus died; his mother cradles the body in her arms. We know that. Go to Rome, as a few friends have done. You see the work in person, in its context, and the believer, the prepared observer, is drawn into the experience. Good art takes us deep. The rest is just decoration. Buy it from a catalog or get it at a box store: it’s the same. It surrounds and comforts us.
If you take a peek at Psalm 49, you’ll see the intent is not to surround and comfort. Sure, we can read words of affirmation and hope and trust. But the circumstances of the Psalmist are dire: evil seems to be in ascendancy. What do we do about that? It’s a question for our own times, no?
You should consult interlinear sources for Scriptural vs vernacular renderings. While I have printed parallel Testaments from my time assisting on translation assessments in the pre-Internet days, the Internet offers a wealth of sources and concordances and commentaries. It may not be Rome, and the resources are not the same as dealing interactively with a master scholar or three, but they are far better than nothing. If for nothing else, to have a sense for the original syntax can alter how one receives a vernacular rendering.
As I am about to being my now annual journeying on each Lenten day through the Gospels (with the Revised English Bible as my primary text), I find myself diving into Greek several times a week (more rarely Hebrew if there’s a gloss to the OT), given the nature of the REB’s renderings that engage and arrest me more than others at the “what does this really mean?” level (and I gather were designed to do that when they were made over 30 years ago).
This is related to why it can be helpful to see how different parts of the current reformed liturgy were historically used in liturgical practice, and having those older ritual books and related materials is of immense value for that. Like the Psalms, these written resources have a lived history.