The Psalms, like any great literature or poetry, are both rooted firmly within their historical context and yet timeless and eternally contemporary. Reading the Psalms, then, is simultaneously an intensely personal experience and one that allows the reader to, in a sense, share in experiences which are entirely foreign to him. This is especially true for a person of faith, for whom the Psalms are both the word of God as well as his own words to God.
One example of this simultaneous immediacy and distance exhibited by the Psalms is the martial imagery which runs throughout many of them. As a former soldier who experienced combat, psalms like the 18th present many images that are vivid and intimate to me. Verse 9, for example, “the earth heaved and shuddered, / the mountain’s foundations were shaken,” which Robert Alter identifies as describing an “artillery barrage” evokes my own memories of experiencing artillery attacks. The perception of being surrounded by enemies who want to destroy you which is referenced in many Psalms is also an experience with which I am familiar. In Psalm 3:7, for example, the psalmist describes “myriads of troops / that round about set against me.” The imagery being used here in the Psalms is imagery that is very real to me. As I read each Psalm and consider each verse, my mind most frequently turns to memories of my combat experiences.
This martial imagery, though, is not limited in its applicability only to events of my past. Though I am no longer a soldier and am far from a combat zone, the imagery, through its vividness for me, provides a powerful metaphor for the Christian life more generally. The experience of warfare between people informs my understanding of the spiritual warfare in which all Christians are engaged. In this sense, then, my own experience of warfare, viewed through the lens of the Psalms, informs my approach to my relationship with God. The real battle, though, is not against flesh but against sin.
Psalm 51 presents an example of a psalm which much more clearly focuses on this battle against sin, deploying no allegories of warfare but instead providing the words of a soul directly addressing God and imploring his mercy and forgiveness. This psalm is by far the one with which I feel the greatest connection. Given the prominent position this psalm has been given, as perhaps the most recited psalm, in both Jewish and Christian prayer, it seems this connection is one that many others throughout history have shared as well. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this psalm is recited at some point in nearly every church service and is often included in the daily prayers of individuals, including myself. I believe this is because it is such a pure expression of the absolute humility a repentant sinner feels when standing in the presence of God. It is hard to be human and not relate to this psalm.
The same is true of the desperate pleas to a God who is “hidden” that recur throughout many of the psalms, such as Psalms 69:18 and 13:2. The idea of God hiding from a person perfectly captures the feeling of utter desperation and aloneness which any one of us feels when in the midst of dire trouble. The note of enduring hope upon which nearly all of the psalms end, including even those that express the greatest despair, however, confirm the unfailing faith of the psalmist that God will ultimately intervene in spite of his apparent hiddenness.
The overall message of the psalms is summarized in the first psalm, which Alter identifies as a kind of introduction to the Book of Psalms. Aristotle, rightly, I believe, identified the greatest desire of all human beings as happiness because this, he said, is the only thing we seek for its own sake rather than for some other end. It is fitting, then, that the first word of the first psalm is “happy” and that this psalm goes on to describe the path to happiness. As Aristotle identified the means to happiness as virtue, the psalmist describes the means similarly. For the psalmist, the path to happiness, to what every human being seeks, and certainly what I seek, is to obey and follow God. If this psalm accurately summarizes the message of the entire book, as I believe it does, the psalms are, ultimately, about how to live a truly and fully human life.
The question that I encounter every day and that I believe each person encounters, though many perhaps avoid answering, is one of how we should live our life, which is the only life we have, as human beings in the truest sense of that term. The Psalms teach us a great deal about the answer to that question. All great literature, in fact, teaches us a great deal about how to answer that question. Both because and in spite of the historical context in which each work falls, each provides us with a new insight into the eternal questions of humanity. The Psalms, however, as a book that is both thoroughly human and divinely inspired, surpasses nearly all of them. For me, the experience of reading the psalms cannot be separated from my experience of them as a Christian participating in the liturgical life of the Church. The psalms, then, are, for me, a dialogue between my soul and God, with the script provided by God through my forbears in faith.