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Two candles

December 21, 2011

Nice or not nice? You decide.

All who have ever read the Book of Psalms – be it out of sheer interest, or be it as prayer, making the verses sing their song – will in all probability have found strange dissonance in several of its chapters.

Let us take Psalm 104 as an example.  The exultation of the spirit and wonderment at the work of creation, making one feel the beauty of its harmony, steadily build up to ever greater excitement over the perfection in God’s works.  Suddenly the idyllic mood in which this psalm puts us is disturbed by a passage that jars our senses.  We have just read, “May my meditation be pleasing to Him, for I rejoice in the Lord,” and without any preparation whatsoever and out of context, follows the verse, “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more!”…

This is not the only passage that leaves us with such a disturbing impression.  We see a similar phenomenon at the end of Psalm 63…. Rather than end on a note that is the main theme of this psalm, we read, again without warning, “But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth.”  Here also we ask ourselves, what purpose does the mention of evildoers serve at a point where they seemingly have no relation whatsoever to theme of the psalm?  Similarly, in Psalm 139, the deep feeling of attachment to God, of seeing His Presence fill the universe, and of the great thirst for coming closer to Him, all stand in sharp contrast to the strange and surprising ending:  “Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord?”…

When the psalmist looks upon the wonderful harmony in the world, when he examines all of God’s works, he is moved and impassioned by the mystical unity and by the order and perfection found everywhere.  Nevertheless, in this peaceful melody that encompasses the whole world, we do hear a grating sound – those people who do not live by His supreme and holy order, the evil doers.  The psalmist would have liked to end on a note of inner peacefulness, but he could not ignore those humans who are a blemish on the perfect beauty of this picture that is creation.  For that reason, out of a feeling of deep pain at seeing the conflict between the world in its perfect state and those who seek to disturb this perfection, the psalmist’s reaction is natural.  He curses and cries out against the evildoers, feeling that were only that blot erased, everything would return to its original state of perfection….

Adin Steinsaltz, The Strife of the Spirit, pp. 77-79

Previous posts:  One candle.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2011 3:51 pm

    Yes, it appears we cross-posted about very similar subjects. To your Two Candles post, I say “nice.”

    L’chaim, Theophrastus.

  2. December 21, 2011 8:33 pm

    I just was reading Alter on Psalm 104 – and his footnote on verse 35 is subjective. Alter (p 368) sets this verse as unconnected to the rest of the poem. Observation of recurrence show that verse 35 is strongly tied into the final stanza, 31-35. Verse 35 itself closes the opening three words of verse 1.

    My feeling on this is that we interpret quite subjectively. Only root recurrence is objective as to the patterns it creates. The question then is – is this recurrence significant? I just posted on Psalm 111 – it is marvelously integrated. Best seen than explained.

    The other psalms you cite also have this tension – I think we should be careful how we resolve it. I cite in my defense, Psalm 36:1 – an oracle like psalm 110, and itself followed by an acrostic. My thesis is that the 4 + 4 acrostics recall Lamentations placing the redaction of the Psalter squarely in the post-exile tradition. I also think one has to experience exile to appreciate these. Let me say that the individual can know such an experience of ‘coventry’ or ‘false accusation’ or ‘entrapment’ and that it is fair to pray shame on your enemies – recognizing of course the oracle of Psalm 36:1 נְאֻם פֶּשַׁע לָרָשָׁע בְּקֶרֶב לִבִּי

    I have not corrected the text of course – but followed the advice of Walt Kelly, the author of Pogo: “we have met the enemy and he is us”

    As for psalm 63 – see my excursus in draft on ‘foxes’ here

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