No book of the Bible is more familiar to Catholics than the Book of Psalms. It is the one book that’s read (or sung) at almost every Mass. Its poetry is the lyric foundation for many of our most popular hymns, like “Taste and See,” “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” and “Shepherd Me, O God.”
Scholar John Bergsma wants Catholics to enjoy a still richer relationship with the Psalms. So he’s written “Psalm Basics for Catholics: Seeing Salvation History in a New Way” (Ave Maria Press, $16).
Bergsma has emerged as a premiere resource for Catholics who want to begin Scripture study. In recent years, he’s written “Bible Basics For Catholics” and “New Testament Basics for Catholics” (both from Ave Maria Press).
This year will see the publication of his college/seminary textbook, “A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament” (Ignatius Press). He’s also published a memoir of his conversion to the Catholic faith, “Stunned by Scripture: How the Bible Made Me Catholic.”
Bergsma grew up the son of a Dutch Calvinist pastor and followed his father into Protestant ministry. He converted while pursuing a doctorate in Scripture.
Today he teaches at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
He spoke with Angelus News about the Psalms.
Mike Aquilina: It seems you’re gradually tightening your focus. You wrote a book about the Bible in general, and then one about the New Testament, and then another about the Old Testament. Now you wrote a whole book about one book of the Bible. Why the Book of Psalms and not any other?
John Bergsma: Well, after getting a perspective on the whole Bible and the New Testament, I think the Psalms are the next in order of importance. They are the most important Old Testament book.
Oftentimes, when publishers want to make a pocket Bible for folks to carry around with them, they’ll print the New Testament and the Psalms bound together. Why is that? Why not the New Testament and Leviticus? It’s because the Psalms are almost the “New Testament” of the Old Testament.
They provide us with prayers and songs that so look forward to Jesus that we can take them over unchanged into the New Covenant and keep praying and singing them to God. The Church Fathers and medieval Doctors considered the Psalms to be a kind of summary of all of Scripture: all the other parts of the Bible are reflected in some way in the Psalms.
They are a “balanced meal” of divine revelation. That’s part of the reason the Church has always based her daily rhythm of prayer on the Psalms.
Aquilina: What is a Psalm? What’s distinctive about it in world literature and world religion?
Bergsma: A Psalm was originally a sacred song sung to God accompanied by a stringed instrument, like a lyre. In ancient times they were described both as “prayers” (see Psalm 72:20) and as “praises” (Psalm 46:6-7).
The whole tradition of writing, singing, and praying Psalms goes back to David, the great king of Israel. The Bible says he was filled with the Holy Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13) and was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). We take the Psalms for granted, but the kind of intimacy they show between the believer and God the Creator is quite unique.
Ancient and modern religions have intimate prayers to lesser deities, but the close relationship David had with the Creator God is remarkable. David invites all people to share the close relationship he enjoyed with the true God, and we learn to have this relationship by praying David’s prayers after him.
Aquilina: How has the reading of the Psalms changed since they were written?
Bergsma: The significance of various Psalms has grown and matured with the people of God. For example, the force of the royal Psalms has shifted over time. Royal Psalms like Psalm 2 and Psalm 89 were once prayed as expressions of confidence that God would never let the kingdom of Judah and its king, the son of David, be defeated.
But in 587 B.C. they were defeated, the kingdom was destroyed, and the people were exiled. Then, for a long time, it was painful to recite these Psalms, as they were a reminder of the glory that once was, but no longer.
But after generations, the people of God sensed that these Psalms were not dead letters: God would restore the kingdom and raise up a new Son of David. That was the beginning of what we call the “messianic” reading of the Psalms: reading them as prophecies of the coming Christ.
Well, Jesus Christ did come, and that created yet another shift in the reading of the Psalms: no longer as prophecies of someone yet to come, but prophecies of someone who had come and established God’s kingdom on earth. That’s how we continue to sing them at almost every Mass.
Aquilina: Many passages of the Psalms are inspiring and elevating — but some are shocking and even scandalous. What are we to make of the cursing and the exhortations to extreme violence?
Bergsma: I think the best way to understand some of the harsh verses in a few of the Psalms is as a form of honesty with God. The truth is, when we have been traumatized by evil, our heart cries out for natural justice, for the evil we have suffered to be inflicted on our abusers.
That’s natural, not strange, and the point of these is that God is big enough for us to be honest with him in expressing our pain. Trauma victims need to vent, and God’s people have often been abused and will continue to be so. We don’t have to hide our emotion from God and only pray when we are calmed down and become “philosophical” about things.
We can say to God what’s on our heart, even when it’s not pretty. But of course, we don’t want to stay there indefinitely; we want to let God move us to a better place.
Aquilina: How can — or how should — the Psalms figure in the spiritual life of an ordinary Catholic?
Bergsma: Prayer and meditation on the Psalms should be a daily part of every sincere Catholic’s life. That can take many forms. Simplest is to just meditate on the Psalm for that day’s Mass.
Every several years, every Catholic should take a month and just read through the Psalter, five Psalms a day for 30 days. That’s good to just refresh our memory of these great prayers and how they are ordered. We should also all memorize some of the short but important Psalms (like Psalm 8 or Psalm 23) and parts of the longer ones, to use as part of our own prayers to God.
A good practice can be to read every 30th Psalm based on the day of the month: so on October 1, read Psalm 1, 31, 61, etc. This ends up with five Psalms a day, from several different parts of the Psalter. This can help our prayer life.
And finally, there is the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office, which incorporates almost all the Psalms at some point in its four-week structure. Many lay people try to pray some or all of the Office, especially Morning and Evening Prayer.
Aquilina: Has your own approach to the Psalms changed over the course of your life? In what ways and why?
Bergsma: I grew up using the every-30th-Psalm reading method I described just now. I kept that up, more or less, through high school and college. Looking back, I realize that meditating on the Psalms played a big role in keeping me spiritually and psychologically healthy.
Later in life, when I had stopped regularly meditating on the Psalms, I did have a breakdown and needed God’s help, through his body the Church, to get back to a healthy place. Years later, after becoming Catholic, the Psalms started taking on new life for me, because of their connection to the Mass.
Things John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Scott Hahn, and especially Michael Barber had written about the Psalms helped me see the pattern and message of the whole Psalter, not just individual Psalms. I should give credit to Michael Barber: folks that like “Psalm Basics for Catholics” (Ave Maria Press) will probably want to pick up his “Singing in the Reign” (Emmaus Road), which is a great book.
Aquilina: Anything you’d like to add?
Bergsma: If your prayer life isn’t what you’d like it to be, try to get into the Psalms. There we learn from one of the greatest “prayer warriors” in world history, King David. There’s nothing like learning from a master!
Mike Aquilina is a contributing editor to Angelus and the author of many books, including “A Joyful Noise: Praying the Psalms with the Early Church” (Emmaus Road, 2017, $20).
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