From Plight to Praise

TIM GRAY

Israelís immediate response to Godís mighty deeds was to sing a song of praise to God (cf. Ex. 15). This pattern from the Exodus, of plight to praise, characterizes the nature of Israelís liturgical worship. Many of Israelís sacred songs are either laments or songs of praise. But even the lament psalms anticipate praise, as the psalmist pours out his grief to the Lord so that he may be delivered and thus praise God.


Israel's immediate response to God's mighty deeds was to sing a song of praise to God (cf. Ex. 15). This pattern from the Exodus, of plight to praise, characterizes the nature of Israel's liturgical worship. Many of Israel's sacred songs are either laments or songs of praise. But even the lament psalms anticipate praise, as the psalmist pours out his grief to the Lord so that he may be delivered and thus praise God (e.g., Ps. 88). In addition to songs of lament and praise, there are also songs of thanksgiving that include elements of both the lament and praise psalms. The thanksgiving songs often begin with the recounting of the psalmist's affliction and then moves to praise and thanksgiving for deliverance (e.g., Ps. 118). This movement from plight to praise is also found to some degree in the final form of the Psalter. The final form of Israel's hymnbook reflects the experience of the Exodus — Israel moves from perilous plight to grateful praise.

A remarkable example of this dramatic movement of plight to praise is found in Psalm 22. Let's take a closer look at the structure and content of the psalm.

An important key to Hebrew poetry is parallelism. The Hebrew poets set things in relationship. Thus, the style of poetic parallelism fits the sacred songs of Israel since it invites the reader, or listener, to contemplation. Most commonly, Hebrew poetry uses parallelism between consecutive poetic phrases or lines. For example, Psalm 22:20 has two parallel phrases:

(A) Deliver my soul from the sword,

(B) my life from the power of the dog!

Here, "life" in phrase B parallels "soul" in phrase A, just as "the power of the dog" is subsequently paralleled with "the sword." There is usually some kind of relationship or connection between the two parts of a poetic line. This connection is not always a synonymous relationship, as the above example. Oftentimes phrase B, in its relationship with phrase A, does more than simply restate A — it supports it, expands it, defines it, carries it further, completes it, or even contrasts with it. In addition, the second phrase, B, by being in the final position often has an emphatic character. In a sense, the position of B means "what is more . . ."

Take for instance the parallelism in Psalm 22, verse 2:

(A) O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;

(B) And by night, but find no rest.

The relationship between phrases A and B is set up by the sharp contrast between "day" and "night," but this contrast serves to show how the suffering servant cries out at all times. Phrase A ends with the lament that there is no "answer," while phrase B concludes with the complaint that the psalmist finds no "rest" — an image that fits the night motif of phrase B. The lack of an answer in A progresses in B to the lack of rest. The juxtaposition of the two suggests that God's failure to answer brings about the psalmist's lack of sleep.

Parallelism can also frame sections of a psalm or even the entire psalm itself. Psalm 22 may be divided into two primary parts, each of which is marked out by a parallelism. The first part of the psalm (vv. 1-21) is the lament, which is framed by key words that are repeated at the beginning and end. At the beginning the psalmist complains to God, "Why art thou so far from helping me?" (Ps. 22:1). The word for "far" is repeated in the imperative of verse 19, "But thou, O Lord, be not far off!" Verse 21 opens with the imperative to save, echoing the opening complaint in verse one that God was far from "helping me," which literally in the Hebrew reads "his salvation is far from me." In verse 2 God has not yet "answered," and the rest of the lament follows from that fact. This problem is finally resolved in the last verse of the lament when the psalmist states that God has "answered me," as is clearly seen in the Hebrew text (v. 21). The three key words, "far," "help," and "answer" create a parallelism between the opening and close of the lament. The assertion that God has "answered me" in verse 21 is the point at which the psalm hinges, for once the psalmist is sure of God's answer, he moves from lament to praise.

The second half of the psalm, the hymn of praise, reveals an ever-expanding audience to praise God. Verse 22 begins with a parallelism:

I will tell of thy name to my brethren;

In the midst of the congregation I will praise thee:

The movement from "brethren" to "congregation" is an intensification, just as "telling of thy name" is carried forward by the parallel promise to "praise thee." One thing that characterizes the hymn of praise that runs from verse 22 to the end of the psalm is the ever-expanding audience that is called upon to praise God. Verse 23 addresses those who "fear the Lord," that is, the sons of Jacob and Israel. Verse 25 speaks of the "great congregation." Verse 26 is ambiguous in its designations, referring to the "afflicted" and "those who seek him." Given the many different names used for Israel in the previous verses — congregation, sons of Jacob, and those who fear him — the afflicted and those who seek Him of verse 26 are most likely from Israel.

Compared with verses 22-26, verse 27 radically broadens those addressed from the sons of Jacob and Israel to all nations. Note how the parallelism makes this point emphatic:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;

And all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

To "turn to the Lord" refers to repentance, whereas the notion that the nations will come to "worship" the Lord takes this thought a step further.

Surprisingly, verse 29 goes beyond even the radical notion of Gentiles worshipping God and speaks of how the dead — "all who go down to the dust" — shall worship God. But even this is not enough for the psalmist, for he claims that posterity and "people yet unborn" will recount the Lord's praise (vv. 30-31).

It is striking that the hymn of praise spills out far beyond the sons of Israel to include the entire world, both living and dead. What accounts for this irrational exuberance of the psalmist that his deliverance would bring about universal praise? The radical call for praise is matched in intensity only by the psalmist's poignant lament. The depth and pathos of the account of his suffering is well known: "I am poured out like water" and "I can count all my bones" are just two illustrations (vv. 14, 17). Indeed, the psalmist's sufferings are so overwhelming that his death is assumed: "thou dost lay me in the dust of death" (v. 15). This suffering to the point of death is matched only by the praise found in the second half of the psalm, where even those who "go down to the dust" are to praise the Lord (v. 29). In other words, the lamentation of the first half claims that suffering has reached as far as death, and so the psalmist's vindication and salvation is nothing less than life from death. No wonder, then, that the dead are called to praise God!

Is Psalm 22 a psalm of lament or praise? It is both. Indeed, the type of psalm that encompasses both lament and praise is the thanksgiving psalm. The thanksgiving psalms embody the movement of God's people from plight to praise. This movement belongs to the heart of Israel's experiences and its songs of worship, but, even more, this pattern prepared God's people for the ultimate revelation of Jesus' Paschal Mystery. Jesus, too, must move through plight in order to reach praise. This is at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, for it moves from death to Resurrection.

It is no accident that the earliest Christians saw in Psalm 22 a prophetic lens from which to view Jesus' death on the Cross. John the Evangelist, although he cites only one verse of Psalm 22 in his account of the Passion of Christ, wants his reader to know how Jesus fulfills in a completely unexpected way the suffering of the psalmist, that He has complete trust in God's faithfulness, and of the psalm's prediction of universal worship of God (cf. Jn. 19:24, citing Ps. 22:18). In addition, Jesus' cry from the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:34), which is taken from the opening line of Psalm 22, is not a cry of despair. Rather, Jesus invokes the experience of the suffering servant of Psalm 22, and as the servant was vindicated and saved from death, so too Jesus asserts that He will move from plight to praise, through His Paschal Mystery, which was prefigured in Psalm 22.

Clearly, discerning parallelism is crucial for reading Hebrew poetry, but such parallelism is also a device used by the ultimate author of both Scripture and history. The Lord has paralleled the suffering servant's experience of lament and anguish (cf. Ps. 22) with that of His Son Jesus. But whereas the psalmist poetically went from death to life, Jesus actually goes into the dust to rise again. And precisely because of Jesus' death and Resurrection, all the families of the world have brought praise and worship to God. Typology is God's poetic parallelism written in time. As Mark Twain once observed, history does not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Tim Gray. "From Plight to Praise." Lay Witness (September 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

THE AUTHOR

Tim Gray is assistant professor of Scripture and catechetics at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College in Front Royal and Alexandria, VA. He holds a master of theological studies degree in Scripture from Duke University and a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville.

This ten-part series offers tips for reading Scripture, drawing upon the Church's rich history of harvesting the vineyard of God's Word. This is the seventh installment.

Copyright © 2001 LayWitness
 


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