I am a pastor charged with, among other things, teaching people to pray. To pray honestly. It’s not easy.
Faced with the prospect of converse with a holy God, with a God who speaks worlds into being, it is not surprising we have trouble; we feel awkward, out of place: “I’m not good enough for this. I’ll wait until I clean up my act and prove that I am a decent person.” Or we may try to excuse ourselves from the task on the grounds that our vocabulary is inadequate: “Give me a few months or years to practice prayers polished enough for such a sacred meeting; then I won’t be so stuttery and afraid.”
My usual response when presented with these difficulties is to put the Psalms in a person’s hand and say, “Go home and pray these. You’ve got wrong ideas about prayer; the praying on display here will help get rid of them.” When I next meet the person I expect a reaction. I can predict the surprise. “Did you think these would be the prayers of nice people?” I ask. “Did you think the psalmists’ language would be polished and polite?”
I ask people to pray these psalms so they get exposure to the immense range and terrific energies of prayer. The church’s primary text for teaching men and women to pray is the Psalms. Untutored, we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best. It is not. Inexperienced, we suppose there must be an “insider” language that must be acquired before God takes us seriously in our prayers. There is not. Prayer is elemental, not advanced, language. It is the means by which our language becomes honest, true, personal. And it is harder to forget that while reading the Psalms.
Yahweh! Look! Enemies past counting!
Enemies sprouting like mushrooms,
Mobs of them, roaring their mockery:
“No help for him from God.”
But you, Yahweh, shield me on all sides.
You ground my feet, you lift my head high.
With all my might I shout up to Yahweh.
Answers thunder from the holy mountain.
I stretch myself out. I sleep.
Then I’m up again, tall and steady,
Fearless before the enemy mobs
Coming at me from all sides.
Up Yahweh! My God, help me!
Slap their faces: first
This cheek, then the other;
your fist hard in their teeth!
Real help comes from Yahweh.
Your blessing clothes your people!
But even with the Psalms in their hands and my encouragement, the people often don’t get it. In English translation, the Psalms sound smooth and polished. Elizabethan rhythms and diction dominate. And as literature, they are beyond compare. But as prayer, as the utterances of men and women passionate for God in instants of anger and praise and lament, these English translations miss something. Grammatically they are accurate. The scholarship undergirding the translations is superb and devout. But as prayers they are not quite right: The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couched in cultured language. And so in my pastoral work of teaching people to pray, I have for a long time wanted to translate the Psalms into what I think of as “American.”
Two years ago I started. The start felt unplanned but it was preceded by years of anticipation and, as I was soon to realize, extensive unintentional preparation. On impulse I went to my study one evening, opened my Hebrew Bible, and read Psalm 1 aloud. I read it again, and again. Then I tried to write it in the rhythms and idiom of American speech. I went on to Psalm 2, then 3, then 4. I brought them out and read them to my wife. She confirmed that I was onto something, that “pastor” and “poet” were yoked to a plow that was turning over furrows of “American” prayer.
Listen, Yahweh! Pay attention!
Can you make sense of these ramblings,
my thunder-clap cries?
King-god, I need your help.
you’ll hear me at it again.
I lay out the pieces of my life
on your altar
and watch for fire to descend.
You don’t go to parties with Wicked,
you don’t invite Evil as your houseguest.
Hot-Air-Boaster collapses in front of you,
you hate Mischief-Maker.
Yahweh destroys Lie-Speaker,
Blood-Lusty and Truth-Bender disgust you.
But I, your invited guest,
am full of awe.
I enter your house, here I am
prostrate in your inner sanctum,
Waiting for directions
to get me safely through enemy ranks.
Every word they speak is a land mine,
their lungs breathe out poison gas.
Their throats are gaping graves,
their tongues slick as mud slides.
Pile on the guilt, God!
let their so-called wisdom wreck them.
Kick them out! They had their chance,
and used it to kick you out.
Will you welcome us with open arms
when we run for cover to you?
Let the party last all night!
Stand guard over our God-zest.
You are famous, Yahweh, for taking in God-seekers,
for decking us out in delight.
I returned to the work and have been at it ever since. There are times when I feel that 30 years of praying the Psalms, using the Psalms as the textbook for prayer in my congregation, and writing about them all converge in a turn of phrase, an idiom, a rhythm; it gives me a feeling of mature harvest.
Other times I feel youthful, like I did when I was an adolescent who binged on poetry, the Psalms providing a biblical cover of legitimacy to my excesses. (I liked the rhythms; I liked the metaphors. They gave me access to both prayer and imagination.) The Psalms became my home country, which I have explored and delighted in ever since.
An Exegetical Compost
Only after doing this translating for a couple of months did I remember something that happened 30 years ago that had prepared me even more surely for the translating.
I had just completed graduate studies in Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University and had joined the faculty of the Biblical Seminary in New York. I had no intentions in those days of being a pastor; I was on my way to being a scholar and professor in my field of the biblical languages and Old Testament.
Then one of those lucky moments occurred when one is standing in the right spot at the right time and something like lightning strikes: A publisher was beginning a new commentary series and was looking for writers. My professor recommended me for the volume on the Psalms.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Full of Semitic lore and poised on the threshold of a life of biblical scholarship, I was handed the enviable assignment of writing a commentary. Most scholars wait decades for this. I had moved in a single day from a sandlot pickup game of baseball to the starting lineup in Yankee Stadium.
I went to work, studying the text, familiarizing myself with the great commentators of the past, assembling notes and comments. And then I wrote. I was well on my way when the project collapsed and my assignment was cancelled. The only evidence remaining of that two years of immersion in the Psalms is a file drawer that is full of exegetical notes.
Bravo, Yahweh, bravo!
Gods and angels shout “Encore!”
In awe before the glory,
in awe before the might.
Stand at attention!
Dress to the nines!
Yahweh thunders across the waters,
Streaming brightness, he blows his ram’s horn,
Yahweh across the flood waters.
Yahweh’s thunder tympanic,
Yahweh’s thunder symphonic.
Yahweh’s thunder smashes sequoias,
Yahweh smashes the giant sequoias.
The Appalachians skip like spring colts,
The Sierras like wild kid goats.
Yahweh’s thunder spits fire.
Yahweh thunders, the wilderness quakes.
The Arkansas wilderness quakes.
Yahweh’s thunder sets the oak trees dancing—
A wild dance, whirling, shaking off their leaves.
We fall to our knees, we call out “Glory.”
Yahweh descends on the floodwaters.
Everything’s under control.
Yahweh makes his people strong.
Yahweh gives his people peace.
Shortly after that I became convinced I had taken a wrong vocational turn in becoming an academic. I recognized my true vocation as a pastor and woke up to the parish as my field for ministry. It was a radical change for me, and it took a year to accomplish; but once I exchanged the sanctuary for the classroom I never looked back. I left off lectures and exams and took on worship and prayer. In the excitement of discovering my calling in the rough-and-tumble of parish life, the high-density traffic in sin and salvation, the disappointment of the failed commentary quickly disappeared. I never opened the file drawer again. I gave no more thought to the commentary. Until, that is, my translating started picking up momentum.
I was up to Psalm 5 and realized—a tricky textual variant triggered the recall—that I was working out of an exegetical compost that had been ripening for 30 years. The painstaking work of long ago had been subtly, quietly at work as I prayed the Psalms and gave spiritual counsel.
Cutting To The Bone
Even though I was experiencing a great deal of convergence and spontaneity in the work, the revisions seemed endless. I knew that if I persisted it would take at least five years, maybe more, to complete the translations. I needed assurance that I wasn’t indulging a whim, that this was worth something. I sent a batch of the translations to some writer friends for evaluation and criticism, asking if they thought there was any merit in continuing.
I’ve already run for dear life
straight to the arms of Yahweh.
So why would I run away
when you say,
“Run to the mountains, the evil
bows are bent—the wicked arrows
Aimed to shoot under cover of darkness
at every heart open to God.
The bottom’s dropped out of the country;
good people don’t have a chance.”
But Yahweh hasn’t moved to the mountains,
his holy address hasn’t changed.
He’s in charge as always, his eyes
taking everything in, his eyelids
Unblinking, examining Adam’s unruly brood
inside and out, not missing a thing.
The good and the bad get the same test;
if anyone cheats, Yahweh’s outraged.
Fail the test and you’re out,
out in a storm of firestones
Drinking from a canteen
filled with hot desert wind.
Yahweh’s business is putting things straight,
he loves getting the lines straight,
Setting us straight. Once we’re standing tall,
we can look him straight in the eye.
The first, a poet, wrote back, “I think you’re onto something. I’ve always thought the Psalms should be translated by a poet, a kindred spirit of the psalmists. This stuff doesn’t lend itself to scholarly translation—it’s too earthy, too emotional, too full of the rawness of life and the fragmentation of a soul often in crisis.”
Another writer responded, “I got home yesterday to discover your psalms in the mail. It was like reading the Psalms for the very first time. They cut to the bone. What I like most is the passion that they convey. I think those smashing-up psalms, full of vengefulness, bring that reaction home to a contemporary audience that is prone to dismiss such reactions as primitive. The ‘roughness’ of the Hebrew translates to the roughness of twentieth-century American as though they were made for one another.”
A third friend, this one an editor, wrote, “Is this how the Psalms really sounded to the Israelites? And did they actually read this stuff in church? Out loud? Your translations are strong medicine for those who think the Psalms are mostly benign poems about sheep.”
Bland and bloated they gas:
“God is gone.”
It’s poison gas,
they foul themselves, they poison
the rivers and skies,
thistles are their cash crop.
Yahweh sticks his head out of heaven.
He looks around.
He’s looking for someone not stupid,
one man, even, God-expectant,
just one God-ready woman.
He comes up with zilch, a string
of zeroes. Useless, unshepherded
Sheep, taking turns pretending
to be Shepherd.
The ninety and nine
follow the one.
Don’t they know anything,
all these imposters?
Don’t they know
they can’t get away with this,
Treating people like a fast-food meal,
over which they’re too hurried to pray?
Night is coming for them, and nightmares,
for God takes the side of victims.
Do you think you can mess
with the dreams of the poor?
You can’t, for God
makes the dreams come true.
Is there anyone around to save Israel?
God is around, God turns life around.
Turned-around Jacob skips rope,
Turned-around Israel sings laughter.
That was enough: a green light. I’ve been at it ever since. Mostly I do it at the edge of other things—waiting for red lights, walking in the woods, mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, hearing American speech and listening for the Hebrew original beneath it. I’m up to Psalm 47. And the intensity of these raw, ancient prayers still shakes my praying to the roots.
Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.
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