Tenth in a series on the Book of Psalms.
In our last column we saw that “covenant” is the key to understanding the psalms. But this does not invalidate any of our other ways of reading the “Psalter.” It confirms them.
The “Psalter” moves from predicament to praise. Man finds himself in predicaments because of unfaithfulness, but the suffering that follows has a remedial purpose. That taste of “death” calls to mind the terms of the covenant, which can be restored.
Yes, the “Psalter” tracks the growth of the soul in virtue. We may even define virtue as the habitual keeping of the terms of the covenant.
Yes, the “Psalter” is the story of the House of David — its rise and fall, and Yahweh’s enthronement over Israel. But that story is unthinkable without the covenant. Only the covenant can account for the rise of David. Only the covenant can account for the fall precipitated by the sins of Solomon. Only the covenant can account for the restoration of the kingdom in Jesus Christ.
The covenant also helps us to comprehend the “Psalter’s” most difficult passages — those that wish evil upon the psalmists’ enemies (see, for example, Psalms 69 and 109).
Well, in the universal vision of David’s covenant, all the enemies of Israel — even the Babylonians — are potential brothers. The only true enemies are the unconvertible powers of evil. Inasmuch as Babylonians oppose the will of God, they stand in the psalms as symbols of the sin we must rout from our lives and from the world. Inasmuch as the Babylonians act as puppets of the devil, Israel can wish for temporal afflictions that will lead to their earthly enemies’ conversion.
Nor is this attitude incompatible with the Gospel. We find the same principle at work in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul speaks of a man who is living a wicked life and urges the Church to cut all ties with him. Paul has “already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man” (5:3-4). Indeed he urges the Corinthians: “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
Remember, the covenant always sets both blessings and curses before us, and then lets us do the choosing. But we should not look upon the curses as mere punishments. God intends them to be restorative. The suffering of the curses serves as means to humility and repentance, and an occasion to return to covenant faithfulness. And that’s exactly how it worked for Paul and Corinth. The offender repented and was reconciled.
All the meanings of the “Psalter” come together if we discern this one uniting principle: the covenant. It’s not that we can’t enjoy the “Psalter” in parts. But how much richer our experience will be when we see the parts more clearly in relation to the whole. There’s something profoundly theological about the “Psalter’s” meaning, and there’s something profoundly historical about its realization.