Germaine Greer, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot, maybe a misguided one, once did a television programme on the Psalms. It was a slaughterhouse of a programme. I can’t remember her liking them for anything – neither their poetry, their power, their antiquity nor their mystery. They were evidence for her of man’s creation of a terrible God.
Her reading of the Psalms saw nothing in them other than weapons used by men to wield a terrible power over their fellowmen. What a pity. But then if you reject God and substitute him with your own fantasy, what have you left? You lose all sense of the unfathomable mystery of his goodness, mercy and fearsome power. You fail utterly to see that the fearsomeness of God is a radically different thing from the fearsomeness of man. Inevitably you end up concentrating on power as a terrible and terrifying thing, conjuring up all the images and memories of the deeds of any or all of the monstrous regiment of human beings who have been corrupted by too much power down through history.
But read God as he is, as the divinity that we can only comprehend as “through a glass darkly”, and our whole reading of the psalms becomes a totally different experience.
Take just the second song of the Psalter as an example, one singled out for special opprobrium by Ms. Greer. Read it as a mythological text and it will certainly confound you. At best it will be a text depicting an epic tribal struggle between ancient peoples. At its worst it will be a call to arms dangerously akin to a contemporary jihad. But read it as the Word of God, as the Word revealed to us in the total context of Sacred Scripture and Tradition and you have a text which speaks to all ages and speaks overwhelmingly of God as the loving Father from whom all fatherhood takes its name. It certainly reveals an all-powerful God to us. But with power to what end? It reveals a God who has the power to conquer the world – as in “the world, the flesh and the devil” – and power above all to make us sons of God, heirs to the kingdom of heaven. It is a song which every age needs to sing, for in every age – and in our own par excellence – there is the temptation that we are losing that battle.
The Church’s chosen antiphon opening the recitation of this psalm sets the tone of confidence which pervades it: His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him. The opening line then asks a question which never ceases to be relevant. Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring? This is followed by the familiar spectacle of folly we see around us every day: They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed.
Then comes the harder bit, the bit that gave Germaine so much trouble, the call to action. “Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke”. He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord is laughing them to scorn. Then he will speak in his anger, his rage will strike them with terror. “It is I who have set up my king on Zion, my holy mountain”. But what Germaine misses is that this is more than a text of its time, written in history and in the spirit of its time. It is that but it is more than that. It is a text for all time, about all time, and with a meaning that utterly transcends the spirit of its time, the spirit of monarchic conflict between ancient tribes in the Middle East. It is a text about the Messiah, the Saviour of the human race, coming to effect the adoption of all members of that race as children of his Father, God. I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me: “You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession. With a rod of iron you will break them, shatter them like a potter’s jar”. In truth we break ourselves when we indulge ourselves in all this useless murmuring and plot against the Lord and his Anointed. What, indeed, is all this talk about a “broken society” in modern Ireland, Britain and America, but a fulfillment of these ancient prophesies?
St. Josemaría Escrivá reads this Psalm as a profound expression of God’s paternity, God’s intervention in human history to save us from ourselves. “The kindness of God our Father has given us his Son for a king. When he threatens he becomes tender, when he says he is angry he gives us his love. You are my son: this is addressed to Christ — and to you and me if we decide to become another Christ, Christ himself. Words cannot go so far as the heart, which is moved by God’s goodness. He says to us: You are my son. Not a stranger, not a well‑treated servant, not a friend — that would be a lot already. A son! He gives us free access to treat him as sons, with a son’s piety and I would even say with the boldness and daring of a son whose Father cannot deny him anything.” (Christ Is Passing By, 185)
The psalm ends with a warning. If it is a warning which seems to contain a threat, it is one which we must again read in the context of all of Revelation and the history of our Redemption. Now, O kings, understand, take warning, rulers of the earth; Serve the Lord with awe and trembling, pay him with your homage. Lest he be angry and you perish; for suddenly his anger will blaze. Christ did make a whip of cords and did throw the traders out of the temple. But when those traders then turned on him later he went like a lamb to his death. Here is a mystery which we can only be in awe of but which the last line of the psalm gives us the key to: Blessed are they who put their trust in God. Without that trust we will remain in the muddle in which we found Germaine Greer when she attempted to interpret this great Messianic psalm without the help of its Author.