A Poet on the Psalms

PAMELA GREENBERG (Poet and writer, The Complete Psalms): I began the translation at a very dark time in my life. I came to religion as an adult really as an act of desperation. I felt I needed to believe in something, and I struggled with depression. I had an intuition that in the psalms I would find something of the relationship to God that I was looking for.

The psalms are full of longing for God, a longing to experience God more intimately. I think mostly for Christians the psalms represent exactly what they do for Jews, which is the person of faith standing up in relation to God in a very honest and genuine way, and I think in that way they speak to all of us.

The great thing about the psalms is that they address really the whole spectrum of human emotion, from intense despair and feelings of abandonment by God, feelings of betrayal by humankind, fear of mortality, to great joy and jubilance.

(reading from translation of Psalm 23): “And when I walk through the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no harm, for you are with me.”

In translating Psalm 23, I was very aware that it is the psalm that people are most familiar with, and so I wrestled with it. It seemed to me to be a psalm that addressed the fear of mortality, and it’s about death but it’s really for the people who are living, and it’s also about the kind of spiritual death that we experience in our lives, distance from God.

The psalms are very important to people who are suffering, because illness can leave us feeling very distant and cut off from God, and for people to feel that there’s a way to talk to God, even from those periods of intense, almost unbearable torment was very transformative.

To my mind, anger at God is a part of religious life. In Psalm 39, for instance, the psalmist is saying, “I am getting ready to walk away from you. My interaction with you brings only pain and sorrow. Answer me before I leave.” And to me that’s religious speech.

I did wrestle with, I would say, particularly with the concept of the enemy in the psalms. Psalm 109, verse 8, which is a psalm that wishes destruction upon the enemy in very vivid terms, and that kind of thing terrifies me. You do find within the psalms wishes for revenge upon the enemy. In my understanding, those expressions are really meant to diffuse the kind of human anger that we experience by articulating them, by placing that revenge in the hands of God rather than in human hands.

The psalms are very much concerned with justice, while at the same time looking around the world and seeing the injustice of the world and crying out to God saying, “God, you who created the heavens and earth, why can’t you create justice on earth?”

The psalms that praise God are also important because they situate joy within the context of a relationship with God, which makes joy more than simply moments of happiness within a person’s life. But it sort of gives joy more of an eternal context.

The ending of the Book of Psalms is a crescendo of praise. The very last psalm, Psalm 150: “Praise God with cymbals that ring loudly. Praise God with cymbals that come crashing down. Let everything that breathes praise God. Shine forth your praises on God.”

  • Lin Jenkins

    … Although this is interesting, it doesn’t say much new to anyone who has read the Psalms (most of your audience?) and is more shallow than your usual reporting, alas.

  • Amanda Greene

    I was very touch by this video and Pamela’s genuine sharing her feelings of the Psalms.

    Thanks

  • Bruce Vincent

    Pamela’s overview encourgaed me to re-read several of the psalms and to share these with the sick and dying. Thank you for this segment

  • Lisa Garcia

    I understand her joy.. I believe this is why she is sharing with us. The psalms have touched me differently each time I read them.

    Thank You

  • Ann Marie Rhoades

    These are my thoughts as to why this segment was included in the program:

    1) Never underestimate the importance of discovery of faith, of that first outreach towards God, especially in moments of deep human distress. This makes the Psalms, as subject matter, always worth another look.

    2) “Reading” the Psalms, per se, is not necessarily experiencing the impact of the presence of God through them. Reading may only result in a shallow look at the reach of those Psalms into the spirits of humankind down through the ages. Consider making a more introspective, prayerful examination of the Psalms.

    3) Note the scope of the program, which encompasses many of other faiths, who may never have read a “Hebrew” or “Christian” writing, such as the Psalms, not just Christians and Jews who know them or know of them with some familiarity. Think of the impact upon those who have never read the Psalms, and who take a chance to check them out for the first time ever.

    In my opinion, which is neither fully informed nor officially qualified in any way to say what constitutes “shallow reporting”, I do find merit in reporting the works of this woman, whose coming to faith is based on her own experience of the Psalms as outcry to God through them, and whose researched writing about the Psalms is based on that discovery of faith. This segment is for all those who look for the face of God in their lives.

  • Ronald Kershaw

    The Psalms; along with Job and the Song, have got to be THE bridge between the Jews and the Christians. The Anglican book of Prayer does a good job of dividing the Psalms into morning and evening readings to be covered in one month. For many years I have followed this course of reading as a devotion. Ms. Greenberg has the right idea. I look forward to reading her translation. Yours in Christ, Ronald Kp.

  • Bernard Oppenheim

    Pamela Greenberg’s translations were interesting, but what impressed me most about the book was the illustrations. Researching it I discovered that the illustrations shown in the segment were not from Greenberg’s book but from the book of 36 illuminated psalms by Debra Band. The segment certainly created the misimpression that the illustrations were from Greenberg’s book. I watch Religion and Ethics Newsweekly every week, but this segment grossly misrepresented the nature of Greenberg’s book. Bad journalism.

  • Mohammad K. Hussein

    As many people know, particularly Jews and Christians, the book of Psalms is unique in its fascination. I use to read selections of it feeling that it would convey me far from my earthly world and made me adjacent to the celestial one. Although Arabic new translations of Psalms are not bad, they still suffer a kind of shortcoming. What Pamella has done is a gift to modern English and to its readers. She gave Psalms a new soul. Really I am reluctant to say that this great work of Pamella urges me to imitate her translating the Arabic classical translation of Pslams into a new one similar to Pamella’s splendid translation. Can I? I hope so.