About this Recording
NA435212 - Psalms (The) (Unabridged)
English 

The Psalms

 

The Psalms represent in poetic form one of the most profound expressions of faith and spirituality. They cover a wide range of human emotions and experiences, from joy and celebration to anger and despair. The Book of Psalms, originally written in Hebrew, is found in the Jewish Scriptures. However, this recording of the Psalms refers to their use in the Christian tradition, within the classic English translation of the Bible known as the King James or Authorized Version.

The Psalms are traditionally associated with King David, who is introduced in the first book of Samuel as a talented musician. The story is told of how David used to calm the temper of King Saul by playing the harp.

David went on to succeed Saul as King of Israel, and many of the Psalms are given the title ‘Psalm of David’. Whilst some of the Psalms may indeed be compositions of King David, many appear to have their origin in the worship of the people of Israel and in later periods of Israelite history.

The final collection that we know as the Book of Psalms probably emerged by the end of the third century BCE, which means that the Psalms were written and collected over a period of six or seven hundred years.

For the people of Israel, worship was centred for much of this period on the Temple in Jerusalem and seems to have focussed on a number of festivals. It is likely that many of the Psalms originated and were used in this cultic setting: as people came to the Temple to pray and offer sacrifice, the Psalms gave them a vehicle for expressing their praises and their prayers to God.

An illustration of this occurs in Psalm 24, which seems to represent part of a processional liturgy accompanying the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem and to the Temple. As the Ark approaches, the cry goes up:

Lift up your heads, O ye gates;
and be lifted up ye everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

The response then comes in the form of a question:

Who is this King of glory?

And all reply in the great affirmation of faith:

The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.

This is essentially a Psalm of praise to God, but others focus much more on lamentation and the expression of sorrow or despair. Psalm 137, for example, comes from a later period, after the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE and the exile of many Israelites to Babylon. This Psalm laments the plight of the exiles, and the difficulty of singing praise to God in such an alien setting:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows…
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

One of the best-known Psalms, 121, is thought to be a pilgrim’s Psalm. It begins with a statement expressing fear at what a journey, most probably to the Temple, might involve:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills…

On the roads leading to Jerusalem, perhaps dangers might lie in store in the hills surrounding the vulnerable traveller. And so the Psalmist asks:

…from whence cometh my help?

The Psalm goes on to speak reassuringly of the presence of God with the pilgrim: He will act as his or her keeper, a minder on this dangerous and intimidating journey.

Many of the Psalms touch at the heart of human experiences that are universal. They question the meaning and purpose of life’s events, representing the desire to understand God’s ways. They plead for God’s help and intervention amidst the pain of illness or the suffering of persecution.

They describe all manner of hardships and pull no punches in expressing their anguish and confusion before God. Perhaps most notable among these is Psalm 88 which, uniquely, contains no concluding expression of hope in God. It is an honest cry of complaint, described by some as the saddest Psalm in the whole collection.

More frequently, the cry of questioning despair gives way to hope and confidence in God, often as the Psalmist remembers better days or reflects upon the story of God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel in past generations. Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus from the Cross, is one such Psalm:

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me,
and from the words of my roaring?…
But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.
Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted
and thou didst deliver them.

Psalms of penitence and bleak remorse are mixed with Psalms that soar high in praise and thanksgiving to God: the whole gamut of human emotion is contained in this wonderful collection. They are inspired by faith and their purpose is to stimulate and encourage faith. Perhaps one of the most profound is Psalm 139, which speaks of the Psalmist’s sense of God’s presence through every experience, from birth right through life, such that the Psalmist cannot find any place in which to escape the divine presence. Some read this as a wonderfully reassuring description of God’s care and concern for the individual through all that life may bring, whilst others find it a haunting Psalm, a suffocating image. But halfway through, it contains this verse relating to God’s presence even through the darkest hour, a verse that has brought hope and comfort to many:

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.

The Book of Psalms is a collection of poems that takes us through the darkest human experiences and into places where all is light: the assertion that emerges eloquently and forcefully is that God is with us, through all.

Notes by Dr Alan Winton

 

The music on this recording taken from the NAXOS catalogue

HANDEL The Messiah
8.550667–68

The Scholars Baroque Ensemble

WEELKES Anthems
8.553209

Oxford Camerata
Jeremy Summerly, conductor

GIBBONS Choral and Organ Music
8.553130

Oxford Camerata
Laurence Cummings, organ
Jeremy Summerly, conductor

Psalms for the Soul
8.554823

Choir of St John’s, Elora
Noel Edison, conductor

Early English Organ Music Volume 2
8.550719

Joseph Payne


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