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.”