The Psalms of David

By Rabbi Asher Block

Rabbi Asher Block was head of the Jewish Center of Great Neck, N.Y. and has contributed numerous articles to various journals on Jewish mysticism. This article was originally published in the March-April, 1970 issue of Vedanta and the West.

The first two Hebrew words in the Book of Psalms are: Ashre ha-ish—“Happy is the man;” then there follow the conditions to be fulfilled for a person to achieve true happiness. These two words set the tone of the entire book, for in effect they announce the two main characteristics that predominate in almost all the one-hundred and fifty psalms found in this book.

First, they announce that we are dealing here not with philosophy or theology (in the usual sense of that term), not with theory or speculation, but with a practical religious guide for attaining fulfillment in life. In Jewish tradition, for the last 2,500 years and more, these psalms have been the mainstay of both public worship and private devotion.

During the days of the Second Temple, psalms were chanted by the Levites—often accompanied by musical instruments. In all probability this custom began with King David himself, for seventy-three of the psalms bear his name. (Though the others have obviously come from a variety of sources, the entire collection has become associated with him.)

In post-Temple days, they were carried over into the synagogue. Solomon B. Freehof asserted in his introduction to The Book of Psalms: A Commentary: “The Jewish prayerbook…is almost an echo of the Book of Psalms…. In addition to their public use, it would be impossible to estimate what the psalms meant in the private life of the Jew. Regularly as a spiritual exercise,… the reading of Psalms was the chief mode of religious self-expression.” Surely these have brought deep spiritual joy to countless individuals.

The second characteristic announced at the very start, and then permeating these psalms, is their universality. “Happy is the man”—any man! He is the universal truth, which can be appropriated by anyone who is seeking religious guidance. There is so little that is parochial or sectarian in these writings.

“O Thou that hearest prayer, unto Thee may all flesh come.” [65:3]. The shortest psalm consists of only two verses, but it covers the globe. “O praise the Lord, all ye nations, laud him, all ye peoples; for his love is great toward us, and the truth of the Lord is everlasting.” [117]. And the very last verse of the final, 150th psalm affirms: “Let everything that hath breath, praise the Lord. Hallelujah.”

This universal element helps to account for the fact that the Psalms of David have been a staple of the Christian Church as well as the Synagogue. Passages from the psalms are quoted almost one hundred times in the New Testament. Christian authority W. Stewart McCollough wrote in his introduction to the Book of Psalms in the Interpreter’s Bible: “As scripture lessons for the services of the churches, as hymns for groups of worshipping people, as prayers for the devout amid the tribulations of this world, the Psalms have been unique. No other book of the Bible has exercised such a function in the church, and no other book, with the exception perhaps of the Gospels and some of Paul’s letters, has gone so directly to the heart of Christendom.”

Back in the early days of the Church, Augustine wrote (in his Confessions): “Oh, in what accents spoke I unto Thee, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those faithful songs and sounds of devotion … Oh… how was I by them kindled toward Thee.” In subsequent centuries, particularly in the monasteries, the Psalter was recited intensively and in a systematic way. In the Benedictine order of the Western Church, the whole of it was gone through once a week—and, in some instances, even daily.

Perhaps one may venture the analogy that, in terms of devotional use, what the Bhagavad-Gita—literally “song of God”—has been and is, to Eastern religion, the Book of Psalms (also, literally, “praises or hymns to God”) has been to Western religion. I know from the experience of many Jewish devotees that their attitude toward the Tehilim, the Psalms, is precisely that which is expressed toward the end of the Gita: “If anyone meditates on these writings, it is a form of direct worship of God. And even if one simply listens to these words with attentive faith, that person will be freed from sins, and will attain the world of the righteous.”

With these preliminary thoughts, let us now enter directly into the content of this book by examining the first Psalm in its entirety. “Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful. But whose desire is for the law of the Lord; and in that law doth he meditate day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf doth not wither, and in whatsoever he doeth, he shall prosper. Not so the wicked; they are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore, the wicked shall not stand when judgment comes, nor sinners last in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord regardeth the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish.”

Here—in six simple sentences—are set forth the major themes of the entire Book of Psalms, and in a broader sense, the major themes of all great religions. In substance, the Psalmist here declares: For those who want genuine happiness (some faiths will call this salvation, or enlightenment, or liberation), let them pursue four major paths; let them fulfill these four conditions.

  1. Let them know clearly the contrast between the way that leads to fulfillment and the way that leads to frustration (in both their gross and subtle forms—in walking, standing, sitting).
  2. Let them choose the ethical, godly path. Let them walk, stand, sit in the way of the righteous.
  3. Let their desire and delight be in coming ever closer to God.
  4. Let them strive to contemplate Torah—the Law or knowledge of God—unceasingly, day and night.

These four pathways are fundamental to all the great faiths of the world: a) discrimination or sensitivity between right and wrong; b) right activity; c) devotion, and d) contemplation. In Judaism, they are touched upon in the first tablet of the Decalogue, they are outlined in the Ethics of the Fathers, and, as we shall see, are clearly elaborated in these psalms (though not in any logical or formal manner).

In Christianity, they are intimated in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the peace-makers; Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness; Blessed are the pure in heart.” In Vedanta, they are the yogas of jnana, karma, bhakti and raja.

If one follows these religious paths diligently, the Psalmist assures us, one becomes “like a luxuriant tree beside streams of water.” That is to say, through these means, one establishes contact with a perennial source of strength, wisdom, and joy. Hardly anywhere in all scriptures do we find such glowing descriptions of tremendous strength, of supreme wisdom, and of superlative joy.

Here are a few samplings from various parts of the psalms. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … Wait for the Lord, be strong; and let thy heart take courage. Yea, wait thou for the Lord.” [27:1,14]. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth do change, and though the mountains be moved into the heart of the seas.” [46:2,3]. “God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” [73:26]. There is one sentence in which eight terms of strength are used. “The Lord is my stronghold, my fortress, my deliverer; my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield, my saving strength, my high tower.” [18:3].

In terms of wisdom and joy, we have excerpts such as the following: “All the paths of the Lord are love and truth, unto them that keep his covenant.” [25:10]. “My soul shall be joyful in the Lord … all my bones shall say: Lord, who is like unto thee?” [35:9,10]. “How precious is thy loving kindness, O Lord; the children of men … can drink of the stream of thy delights.” [38:8,9]. “O send out thy light and thy truth; they shall lead me.” [43:3]. “There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God.” [56:5]. “O God, in the abundance of thy grace, answer me with the truth of thy salvation.” [69:14].

In Psalm 19, we find three consecutive phrases which sum up beautifully the blessings of religion: “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” [8,9]. These are much akin to the Vedantic formulation of ultimate Reality as existence, knowledge and bliss absolute.

With so glorious a fulfillment in view, let us now consider, in turn, the various pathways that tradition prescribes to reach the goal.

First, the path of discrimination between right and wrong. The longest psalm in the Bible [119] has one hundred and seventy-six verses. Almost all of these extol the study of Torah, for the purpose of choosing Torah as a way of life. “Happy are they … that walk in the law of the Lord … that seek him with the whole heart.” [1,2]. “O God, open thou mine eyes that I may behold the wonders of thy Torah.” [18]. “Oh, how I love thy Torah! It is my meditation all the day.” [97]. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” [105]. “Great peace have they that love thy teaching and there is no stumbling for them.” [165]

Next is the pathway of ethics, or righteous behavior in the world. So many of the psalms inveigh against dishonesty, cruelty, jealousy, hatred, and pride. Sinfulness toward our fellow man is considered to be one of the major causes of human suffering. Here are a few, out of many selections, that stress such indispensable virtues as truthfulness or integrity, and noninjury or love:

“Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord, and who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who hath not taken God’s spirit in vain, and hath not sworn deceitfully.” [24:3, 4]. “Who is the man that desireth life, and loveth days, that he may see good therein? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil, and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.” [34:13-15].

Outstanding in this category is psalm 15. One commentary written by A. Cohen says: “Next to the 23rd psalm, this psalm is the most popular chapter of the Psalter. It is commonly known as ‘God’s Gentleman,’ and is descriptive of the Hebraic ideal of human character … and ‘the idealism of life.’ The qualifications for entry into the divine presence are here purely ethical and within the compass of all human beings. The Talmud remarked that the six hundred and thirteen commandments (of Judaism) are summarized in this one Psalm, meaning that their moral purpose is here crystallized.” Here are some verses:

“Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon thy holy mountain? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh truth in his heart; that hath no slander upon his tongue, nor doeth evil to his fellow. He that doeth these things shall never be moved.”

These psalms indicate that through perfect righteousness, one can enter into the presence of the Lord. When one can be utterly honest, without any self-interest, or when one can love one’s neighbor as oneself, then one has reached utter selflessness. All ego has been broken down. And it is ego which separates man from God.

Another way of achieving the same end is through perfect devotion, or selfless love of God. The difficulty here is that at first, and for a long time, God may be only an abstraction to us, and it is not easy to love an abstraction. There are different stages that we go through in making the presence of God more real in our lives. First there is God as perceived in nature; then God in history; and finally, God in holiness or in an actual personal experience. Each of these stages, or levels of experience, is reflected in various portions of the psalms.

The aspect of God in nature is graphically expressed in the first part of psalm 19 and also in psalm 104 (to mention but two examples): “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night declareth knowledge.” [19:1,2]. “Bless the Lord, O my soul; O Lord my God, thou art very great. Thou art clothed with glory and majesty. Thou coverest thyself with light as with a garment; thou stetchest out the heavens like a curtain; thou makest the clouds thy chariot, and walkest upon the wings of the wind.” [104:1-4]. From one point of view, this level is almost indistinguishable from the approach of the scientist, the artist, or the poet, except that for the religionist, nature is not an end or an entity in itself—only a vehicle for the manifestation of God.

Rising above nature, we come next to the level of history. Several psalms are wholly dedicated to this theme. “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching … I will speak parables concerning days of old … that ye might put your confidence in God, and keep his commandments.” [78:1, 2, 7]. “Remember His marvelous works that he hath done … O ye seed of Abraham, his servant, ye children of Jacob, his chosen ones. He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth. He hath remembered his covenant forever—the word which He commanded to a thousand generations.” [105:5-8].

Historical consciousness is an intermediate state in the development of religion. It is above nature consciousness in that we are dealing here with humanity and not just matter. On the other hand, inasmuch as humanity is here dealt with in the mass and in the past, it does not yet touch our own lives. Genuine religion begins when a person rises above the level of nature, and above the level of history, to what Judaism calls kodesh, the level of holiness.

At this level, instead of merely admiring and extolling nature, we pray: “Thou, O Lord, Who didst form the sun and the stars, do thou help us to be enlightened.” At this level, instead of merely having feeling or empathy for history, we pray: “Thou, O Lord, didst free many people, do thou help us to attain liberation.”

It is this graduation from sheer intellectualism and from sentimentality to a personal involvement with God which opens the doors to a vital and healthy mysticism that is the true hallmark of the Book of Psalms. One interpreter of this book, A. Maclaren in The Expositors Bible, wrote: “The Psalmist speaks the language of that true and wholesome mysticism without which religion is feeble and formal.”

That is so true. Most religion, as commonly practiced, is feeble and formal. God is in the skies or in the distant past. But consider these verses, for example, from psalm 8. The psalmist does begin with an appreciation of external nature, but immediately he draws the God of nature into human experience:

“When I behold thy heavens, O Lord, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast established, (I ask) What is man, that thou art mindful of him; What is a mortal, that thou shouldst think of him? Yet thou hast made him but little less than God, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the work of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet…. Eternal Lord, how glorious is thy name in all the earth!”

Similarly, we have an interlinking of history (or time-consciousness) with personal experience, in psalm 90, which is headed: A Prayer of Moses, the Man of God. “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God…. A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night…. The days of our years are three-score years and ten; or even by reason of strength four score years. Yet is their pride but travail and vanity, for it is speedily gone, and we fly away. So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”

Thus, all consciousness of nature and all awareness of history are intended by the psalmist to take us beyond nature and history—that is to say, beyond space and time, beyond ordinary thought, to a consciousness of the Infinite and the Eternal. Some of the noblest and most moving passages in the psalms pertain to this highest level of human experience.

Before we turn to these selections, it is well that we address ourselves briefly to a few difficulties that many people encounter when reading the psalms. One is the presence of a seeming lack of faith in certain bold expressions addressed to God. Another is the fairly frequent reference to “enemies,” whether in a personal or national context.

As an example of the former, we have the well-known outcry in psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” What is important to assess here is where the main emphasis lies. If a person should assert: “I am forsaken; I am forsaken,” then indeed that person may have lost faith. But here it is a worshiper who is calling: “My God, my God.” It is like a child pleading with a parent. Despite all the dangers, the child never forgets for a moment that the parent is there to be called upon.

This is also found true where the emphasis is in reference to enemies. At times there is a seeming exultation over the defeat of a foe (and perhaps it should be conceded that some passages have crept in that are not above personal bias); but, by and large, the stress is elsewhere. For God, as a rule, is associated not only with one’s victories, but also with one’s trials and sufferings. Hence, it turns out that every experience in life—success or failure, joy or sorrow—is an occasion for thinking of God and his rulership.

I remember that I personally used to feel perplexed that even in that glorious 23rd psalm there is a reference to “enemies.” However, when one considers the whole tone of that psalm, one sees that it is definitely positive and not negative. What it says, in substance, is: When we are in the pastures of the Lord our shepherd; when we dwell in the house (or spirit) of the Lord—the Lord is our gracious and bountiful host. He feeds us and protects us (“our cup runneth over”) and no danger or evil, whether natural or human, can intrude upon that. We fear not, even in the “valley of the shadow of death,” and God prepares his table for us, even in “the presence of enemies.” The primary awareness here is, unquestionably, of God—and that is the important thing.

A similar attitude applies to the lovely 145th psalm. This psalm is most frequently used in Jewish liturgy—in fact, three times each day. Somewhere I recall seeing the comment that this must be a prayer for “good meals,” since it is said thrice daily and especially since one verse reads: “The eyes of all wait for Thee, and thou givest them their food in due season.” Surely this is a very limited view on the part of those who overlook the other verses that have no intimation of food whatever, except it be spiritual food, or the grace of God.

Of this, there is evidence abundant! For in every sentence and, indeed, in virtually every phrase, there is mention of God. In this one psalm (of 21 verses) the name of God, or a pronoun of it, occurs more than fifty times! Most probably for this reason it became part of the regular spiritual menu. This psalm has in it such uplifting passages as:

“Every day will I bless thee, and I will praise thy name forever…. The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works…. Thy kingdom is a kingdom for all ages, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations…. The Lord is near unto all that call upon him; to all that call upon him in truth…. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord; and let all men bless his holy name forever.”

Thus far we have broadly outlined three paths of life alluded to in the first psalm:

First, the path of knowledge—to differentiate clearly between the life of the righteous and the life of the wicked; the Godly and the ungodly life.

Second, the path of activity—to live a moral life: to walk, stand and sit in the counsel of the righteous, and not in that of the sinners and the scornful.

Third, the path of devotion—viz., that one’s desire and delight shall be in the law of the Lord.

There remains now that fourth item, which speaks of “meditating upon God’s law day and night.” Actually, this is not so much a fourth path as it is a special intensity or earnestness that applies to whatever path one chooses.

For example, in the path of knowledge, one does begin by distinguishing between good and evil, between high and low, between light and darkness. But as the devotee advances in spiritual life, he or she must surely realize that, indeed: “The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all His works,” that ultimately God is omnipresent. His presence, however, is not discernible on the surface of things. On the surface we see the contrasts and multiplicity of heaven and earth, land and sea, day and night. It is only beneath and beyond outer appearances that there is an all-embracing unity.

Psalm 139 declares: “Whither can I go from thy spirit? Or whither can I flee from thy presence? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; and if I descend to the nether-world, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there would thy hand lead me, and thy right hand would hold me. And if I say: Surely the darkness shall envelop me, and the night shall shut me in … even the darkness is not dark for thee, for [with thee] the night shineth as the day; the darkness is as light.”

Or, when one considers the path of work, with all its striving to achieve something permanent, one does realize, sooner or later, that in the physical world things are constantly changing, and that one cannot hope to find enduring happiness there. Some of the finest insights of the psalms are along these lines:

“A mighty man is not delivered by great power. A horse is a vain thing for safety…. The eye of the Lord is toward them that wait for his mercy.” [33:16-18]. “Man heapeth up possessions, and knowest not who shall gather them.” [39:7]. “If riches increase, set not your heart thereon…. Strength belongeth unto God.” [62:11]. “As for man, his days are as grass; only as a flower of the field doth he flourish. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof knoweth it no more. But the grace of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.” [103:15-17]. “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal man in whom there is no help…. Happy is he whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Eternal, his God” [146:3-5].

When, therefore, the devotee fully realizes that all of nature is continually shifting and changing, and that life is utterly transient, he or she wants to go beyond them to what is changeless and deathless. This material life begins to appear like a parched desert, or like a prisonhouse, and the devotee’s yearning for God becomes concentrated and intense:

“One thing only may I seek after: to dwell in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life—to behold the grace of the Lord…. Yea, my heart doth say: ‘Thy face, Lord, will I seek.’” [27:4, 8]. “As the deer panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: ‘When shall I come and appear before God?’” (The literal Hebrew for the last phrase is: “When shall I come and see the face of God?”) [42:1-3]. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” [51:12]. “Unify my heart to revere Thy name.” [86:11]. “Out of the depths, do I call Thee, O Lord…. My soul waiteth for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning; yea, more than watchmen for the morning.” [130:1, 6]. “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto Thy name.” [142:8].

With such intensity, there follows a kind of reciprocal escalation in the coming together of God and the devotee. The relationship of God becomes more personalized. Trust in God and resignation to his will become more complete. And, finally, there is the actual realization of God in the life of the devotee.

In the beginning of the spiritual quest (as we have said), God may be only an abstraction, conceived of as power, light, or truth. But, as his influence is increasingly felt, he becomes guardian, shepherd, companion, father and mother.

Here is psalm 131, consisting of only three verses, but how much these few lines say! “A Song of Ascent, of David. Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in things too great, or in things too wonderful for me. For I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord, from this time forth and forevermore.”

Or consider these uninhibited expressions of trust in God. “I set the Lord always before me. Surely he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” [16:8]. (James Moffatt translates: “I keep the Eternal at all times before me; with Him so close, I cannot fail.”) “Into Thy hand I commit my spirit; Thou dost redeem me, O Lord, Thou God of truth.” [31:6]. “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He will sustain thee.” [55:23]. “In God do I trust, I will not be afraid. What can flesh do unto me?” [56:12].

“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.” [115:1]. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” [121:1,2]. “They that trust in the Lord are as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abideth forever. As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people.” [125:1, 2].

Finally—a few declarations of the fulfillment and joy promised at the very beginning of the psalms, to those who follow the ways of the Lord. “The fool says in his heart: There is no God…. But God looks … to see if there is any man of understanding seeking for God.” [14:1, 2]. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy is the man that takes refuge in him!” [34:9]. “God will redeem my soul from the grasp of the grave. He shall receive me.” [49:16]. “Come, and hearken, all ye that reverence God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul…. I cried unto Him…. Verily, God hath heard! He hath attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, Who hath not turned away my prayer, nor His grace, from me.” [66:16-20]. “I say: Ye are Divine! All of you are sons of the Most High, notwithstanding that ye die like mortals!” [82:6, 7]. “My heart and my flesh sing for joy unto the living God.” [84:3].

We close with psalm 63, which, in terms of the development we tried to follow, is probably the most climactic psalm of all. (There are three verses at the end, which are out of keeping with the rest, and no doubt are a later interpolation.) A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah:

“O God, thou art my God, earnestly do I commune with thee. My soul hath thirsted for thee, my flesh hath longed for thee in a dry and weary land, where no water was [then].—Yes, in holiness, I did see thee, beholding thy power and thy glory! Because thy love is better than life, my lips shall praise thee. Yea, I will bless thee as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call thy name. My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat, and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips. Whenever I recall thee upon my couch, and meditate on thee in the watches of the night—that thou hast been my help—I rejoice in the shadow of thy wings. My soul clingeth unto thee; thy right hand holdeth me fast.”

Transformation and Transcendence – Part 2
April 1, 2002
Knowledge and Understanding – Part 1
June 1, 2002
Show all

The Psalms of David