What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet. (NRSV 8:4-6)
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.
Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet. (KJV 8:4-6)
There's a natural hierarchy here: divine beings, humans, and finally animals. Poor animals. Humans though, are doing things up Spidey-style: they have both great power and great responsibility. God is the creator, but he's put quite a bit of trust in man.
Oh, and don't forget to check out the translation differences. The King James translators weren't so cozy with the idea of comparing mortals and God, so they added angels to the list.
The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Most High uttered his voice.
And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them.
Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils. (NRSV 18:13-15)
The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice; hail stones and coals of fire.
Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
Then the channels of waters were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils. (KJV 18:13-15)
This is fire and brimstone at its best. And while they're at it, the writers compare natural events (lightning) to weapons (arrows). How poetic.
God restores my soul.
He leads me in right path for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. (NRSV 23:3-4)
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. (KJV 23:3-4)
Look how much more jazzed-up the words are in the King James Version. And whether you like it or not, those are the words most of us remember: "I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" resonates way more with English speakers than "I walk through the darkest valley," right?
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. (NRSV 36:6)
Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O Lord, thou preservest man and beast. (KJV (36:6)
It's not just God's physical powers that are naturalistic—his mind is, too. This is some straight-up simile here.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. (NRSV 37:9)
For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. (NRSV 37:9)
Who owns the land? God or humans? And are we waiting for God or working for God? Yeah, Psalms raises quite a few questions.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (NRSV 46:1-3)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. (KJV 46:1-3)
Wait a second—who's making the earth tremble here? We thought that was God's job, but here it sounds like God is the refuge from all that craziness. What gives?
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy. (NRSV 65:13)
The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing. (KJV 65:13)
Who's responsible for the abundance of cultivation—God or the Israelites? What would the writers of Psalms say?
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
'I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.' (NRSV 2:4-6)
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.
Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.
Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. (KJV 2:4-6)
Who knew God had such a mean streak. Oh wait, all of Psalms did. So what's so funny? Thinking someone is powerful other than David.
Prolong the life of the king;
may his years endure to all generations!
May he be enthroned for ever before God;
appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him! (NRSV 61:6-7)
Thou wilt prolong the kings life: and his years as many generations.
He shall abide before God for ever: O prepare mercy and truth, which may preserve him. (KJV 61:6-7)
Clearly these writers want David to succeed. Why do you think the King James Version translators have turned "may be enthroned" into "shall abide"? What are some differences between the two?
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king's son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor. (NRSV 72:1-4)
Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the kings son.
He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.
The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.
He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor. (KJV 72:1-4)
What is the connection between the land, the king, and God? Was the writer playing favorites?
Make vows to the Lord your God, and perform them;
let all who are around him bring gifts
to the one who is awesome,
who cuts off the spirit of princes,
who inspires fear in the kings of the earth. (NRSV 76:11-12)
Vow, and pay unto the Lord your God: let all that be round about him bring presents unto him that ought to be feared.
He shall cut off the spirit of princes: he is terrible to the kings of the earth. (KJV 76:11-12)
If you were in charge of a city, would you put the temple (for God) next to the palace (for the king)? Where is the Davidic monarchy in this passage?
'I will not violate my covenant,
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
His line shall continue for ever,
and his throne endure before me like the sun.
It shall be established for ever like the moon,
an enduring witness in the skies.' (NRSV 89:34-37)
My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips.
Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David.
His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before me.
It shall be established forever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven. (KJV 89:34-37)
If God promises that he won't abandon the Israelites, the only way for the Israelites to explain their destruction is to acknowledge that they've violated the covenant. Yeah, God kind of backed them into a corner on this one.
You, O Lord, will protect us;
you will guard us from this generation for ever.
On every side the wicked prowl,
as vileness is exalted among humankind. (NRSV 12:7-8)
Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.
The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted. (KJV 12:7-8)
It sounds like you definitely want God on your side. After all, he protects the righteous both as a society and on an individual level.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (NRSV 16:5-8)
The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.
The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.
I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (KJV 16:5-8)
Here we get a much more personal vision of God's abilities: he's there whenever you need him, in the quietest and simplest of ways. Much different than the fire-breathing God we get in other psalms, right?
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. (NRSV 25:1-3)
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not mine enemies triumph over me.
Yea, let none that wait on thee be ashamed: let them be ashamed which transgress without cause. (KJV 25:1-3)
No one wants to look bad in the political schoolyard, and the Israelites trust that God will do the trick.
'I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket.' (NRSV 81:6)
I removed his shoulder from the burden: his hands were delivered from the pots. (KJV 81:6)
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. (NRSV 91:3-4)
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. (KJV 91:3-4)
God looks kind of like an angel, don't you think?
For there is no truth in their mouths;
their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves;
they flatter with their tongues.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you. (NRSV 5:9-10)
For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue.
Destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions; for they have rebelled against thee. (KJV 5:9-10)
The enemies of the Israelites are really good with words, but what they consider flattery is exactly what will kill them. Not exactly a pretty image.
If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and strung his bow; (NRSV 7:12)
If he turn not, he will whet his sword; he hath bent his bow, and made it ready. (KJV 7:12)
Who's doing the dirty work here? God, the Israelites, or the enemies of the Israelites? Things are getting a little sticky.
Let ruin come on them unawares.
And let the net that they hid ensnare them;
let them fall in it—to their ruin. (NRSV 35:8)
Let destruction come upon him at unawares; and let his net that he hath hid catch himself: into that very destruction let him fall. (KJV 35:8)
If you're an average Israelite, what do you need to do to defeat your enemies? According to this passage, not much. Well, there is that whole "remain loyal to God" thing….
Let their table be a trap for them,
a snare for their allies.
Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and make their loins tremble continually.
Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let your burning anger overtake them. (NRSV 69:22-24)
Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap.
Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake.
Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them. (KJV 69:22-24)
This is getting scary. God totally revokes the enemies' control over their lives. Or did the enemies of the Israelites lose their agency by praising other gods? Who has the agency here?
Put them in fear, O Lord;
let the nations know that they are only human. (NRSV 9:20)
Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men. (KJV 9:20)
God is immortal, and men are mortal—we get it. But here, the writers suggests that God remind people of this fact…by freaking them out. Are there people in Psalms who don't understand their mortality?
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. (NRSV 39:5)
Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. (KJV 39:5)
Why does the KJV translate "mere breath" as "altogether vanity"? Remember, there was no Heaven back then in the way many people conceive of it today. By the time the KJV came around (1611), though, the afterlife was a big deal, so it was probably less daunting to think of life as meaningless.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (NRSV 103:14-16)
For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.
As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. (KJV 103:14-16)
The imagery of death is characterized here in terms of the natural, the beautiful, and the peaceful. Is that consistent with the rest of Psalms?
The dead do not praise the Lord,
nor do any that go down into silence. (NRSV 115:17)
The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence. (KJV 115:17)
Why can't the dead praise God? Does that put more pressure on the living?
The enemies have vanished in everlasting ruins;
their cities you have rooted out;
the very memory of them has perished. (NRSV 9:6)
O thou enemy, destructions are come to a perpetual end: and thou hast destroyed cities; their memorial is perished with them. (KJV 9:6)
If God has destroyed these enemies so much that we don't even remember them, is the psalm itself all that's left of them? Is the destruction of memory worse than the original destruction of the people? What are the Psalms writers doing to ensure that Israel's memory isn't forgotten?
On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulphur;
a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. (NRSV 11:6)
Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and a horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup. (KJV 11:6)
Here you go, Shmoopers—an original fire and brimstone passage. Why is there no mercy?
They cried for help, but there was no one to save them;
they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them. (NRSV 18:41)
They cried, but there was none to save them: even unto the Lord, but he answered them not. (KJV 18:41)
God is definitely selective about whom he listens to. Is this a loyalty thing, or a cruelty thing? Or both?
You will destroy their offspring from the earth,
and their children from among humankind. (NRSV 21:10)
Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men. (KJV 21:10)
Who will populate the earth in place of the enemies—the Israelites?
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
People will say, 'Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.' (NRSV 58:6-11)
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord.
Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces.
As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath.
The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth. (KJV 58:6-11)
Yowza. It seems like the righteous are rewarded by becoming the only people left on earth. Why is the language and imagery here so brutal?
Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins;
the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.
Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling-place of your name,
bringing it to the ground.
They said to themselves, 'We will utterly subdue them';
they burned all the meeting-places of God in the land. (NRSV 74:3-8)
Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual desolations; even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary.
Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set up their ensigns for signs.
A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees.
But now they break down the carved work thereof at once with axes and hammers.
They have cast fire into thy sanctuary, they have defiled by casting down the dwelling place of thy name to the ground.
They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land. (KJV 74:3-8)
Ah, how the tables have turned. Now it's the Israelites who suffer total destruction.