Thursday, August 31, 2023

Psalm 151: The Luthier Who Waylaid Lions

Have you ever been going through a box from a closet—whether looking for something or just cleaning out junk—and found something that made you say, What is this?

It is for some reason in your home, but nonetheless defies explanation. You stand there, scratching your head. You ask your spouse. You try to ask your former self, who must have stuck this thing in the box. No one knows. It could be part of an old pack-n-play, or just as easily for securing the spare tire under a car you sold years ago. That's how I felt when I first saw Psalm 151.

Hey, boy, don't you know there's just 150 psalms in Psalms? That's true, unless you're looking at the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. And, because the Septuagint includes Psalm 151, you'll find it in some Bibles that include the Apocrypha.

Let's take a look. Here's my own paratranslation. (It's a paraphrase, with poetic license, but I did consult the Greek.)

I was the little one

The baby boy

They left me with the sheep

With my hands I made this instrument

With my fingers, crafted song

And who was there to sing to,

But the Lord, himself?

The Lord, who hears from dusk till dawn

His messenger called me

Took me from the flock

He anointed my head with oil

My older brothers, strong and bold -

Rejected one by one

Till I remained, and I alone

I heard the giant swearing

He cursed me by his gods

I drew his sword

I took his head

And Israel came out from the rocks

Hey, you know that story! Do they make a Children's Apocrypha? Maybe it includes Psalm 151. Anyhow, here are some observations.

Firstly, does any other text tell us David made his own musical instrument(s)? Perhaps it goes without saying. There was no Guitar Center in Bethlehem. It seems he made a harp while out with the sheep, with so much time on his hands between fighting off predators. While Psalm 151 has a handmade harp, it’s missing another Davidic icon.

Where is the sling? Isn’t that perfect shot—one smooth stone sunk into Goliath’s head—the real bragging point? But, this omission jives with 1 Samuel 17. When David tells Saul of his prowess over lions and bears (vv. 34–37), he recalls close-range-beard-grabbing-hand-to-paw combatwithout mentioning the sling. Maybe he doesn’t like to talk about it. He does, however, like talking about his brothers.

David begins by telling us he’s the youngest. They left me with the sheep comes more from how I hear it than from the text, in part because 1 Samuel tells us the three oldest brothers were already with Saul and the army. Later in the poem, David comes back to his brothers, pointing out just what Samuel noticed, that the older ones looked better suited for leadership. Jesse must have thought the same, since he doesn’t mention David until Samuel asks, Are these all your sons?

The poet reminds us that the one more son was the only one chosen, and the three sent off to battle had done nothing about Goliath. David arrives on the scene like a mysterious artifact from your closet. King Saul stands there, scratching his head. Who is this guy? He asks the commander of his army. "As your soul lives, O king, I do not know."

Unlike the thing from the closet—either thrown out or restashed to be discovered anew in five years—David can identify himself. And, while Psalm 151 isn't in our Bible, we can take from it the reminder that God has in his storehouse all manner of things we don't remember, things we can't explain—all at the ready for just the right need at the just right time.