The biblical book of Psalms contains 150 poems or praises (151 in the Orthodox Church) and has often been referred to as the songbook of the Church. Indeed, in some times and places, the psalms were the only songs in the Church’s repertoire.
The Psalms have fired the imaginations of artists and musicians. Bach used lines from the Psalms in at least thirteen cantatas. In what is arguably Yeats’ best work, the poet makes extended use of the Psalms and other biblical passages. Shakespeare frequently alludes to the Psalms, and lines like “out of the mouths of babes” and being “at wit’s end” have made their way from the Psalms into common usage.
Psalm 19 begins famously with the line: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” This psalm’s author, King David, goes on to identify three fields of study: the heavens, the “law of the Lord,” and humanity. Today we might label them astronomy, biblical studies and psychology.
The first two fields of study, astronomy and biblical studies, are easier grasped than the last, human psychology. The heavens, the psalmist tells us, speak eloquently: “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” And the message they tell is all about God.
The English physicist Paul Davies read that message. In “The Mind of God” he wrote, “I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation.”
The great American astronomer Allan Sandage has likewise written, “I was practically an atheist in my childhood. Science was what led me to the conclusion that the world is much more complex than we can explain. I can only explain the mystery of existence to myself by the Supernatural.”
These men, and many more like them, reached this conclusion by reading the message of the skies. Others have come to the same conclusion by reading the message of “the Book” – the Bible. The benefits of this second field of study are stated this way: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.”
Because he understood the Bible’s unique ability to “make wise the simple,” President Woodrow Wilson once told an audience, “I have a very simple thing to ask of you. I ask every man and woman in this audience that from this day on they will realize that part of the destiny of America lies in their daily perusal of this great Book [the Bible].”
St. Paul, regarding the Scriptures, writes that they are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Untold numbers of people, from all walks of life and every level of education, have again and again found the Bible to be “useful.”
The most difficult field of study the psalmist mentions is human psychology or, to be more precise, one’s own psychology: “But who can detect their errors?” he asks. Discerning others’ errors is child’s play. Discerning one’s own exceeds the ability of both scholar and saint, which is why a person must go outside himself to friends and to God, to truly see himself.
If we refuse to see ourselves, we will find that we are gradually robbed, in a kind of reverse myopia, of the ability to clearly see other things. Acuity will deteriorate, beginning with what is nearest us and working outward, until all our vision is clouded. The skies and the Book will continue to declare God’s glory, but we will neither see it nor join in their praise.
But God, it is said, is able to restore sight to the blind and speech to the mute. Even, we may hope, those who have blinded themselves and exhausted their own voices.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/15/2015