The Asbury Theological Journal 46.1 (1991)  87-94.
Copyright © 1991 by Asbury Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.




                           A Question of Identity:

                      The Threefold Hermeneutic

                                    of Psalmody



                                                  JAMES L. MAYS




In his Confessions, Augustine tells how he used the psalms as his own

prayer: "What utterances I used to send up unto Thee in those Psalms, and

how I was inflamed toward Thee by them."1 Athanasius said of the psalms:

"They seem to me to be a kind of mirror for everyone who sings them in

which he may observe the motions of the soul, and as he observes them give

utterance to them in words."2 He was seconded by Calvin who wrote in the

introduction to his commentary: "I am wont to call them an anatomy of all

parts of the soul; for no-one will find in himself a single feeling of which the

image is not reflected in the mirror."3

            The historic comment on the psalms is strewn with such observations.

These remarks testify to a general and continuous experience. Christians

found themselves and came to expression in the language of the psalms.

Their own selves were identified with, and identified by, the self whose

voice speaks in these prayers.

            When Christians talked like that, they were referring especially to one

group of psalms, the prayers and songs composed as the voice of an indi-

vidual. It was these psalms in the first person that invited an awareness of

self and offered language to self. There are far more psalms of this genre in

the book of Psalms than hymns of praise and poetry of instruction. By the



James Luther Mays is Cyrus McCormick Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

Interpretation at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. He is a prolific author

and editor and has recently served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature.

In this article, based on a lecture delivered at Asbury Theological Seminary in the

Ryan series, Mays explores how hermeneutical issues encounted in the psalms

relate to contemporary practical concerns such as liturgy, pastoral care and

personal piety.


88                                                        Mays


weight of their number they dominate the Psalter and give a cast and tone to

the whole.

            The majority of the first-person psalms are the prayers of a person in

trouble. There are some fifty of them in the book. There is real variety in the

group in length, arrangement and content, but they are held together as a

group in two important ways. First, they are consistently composed of a

common set of elements. They name God and speak in direct address to the

Lord. They feature descriptions of trouble that is personal or social or theo-

logical in various combinations. Each is organized around a petition to be

heard and helped. Trust is avowed. A promise of praise and sacrifice to tes-

tify to the sought deliverance is made.

            The second common characteristic of these prayers is what may be

called paradigmatic openness. Those who speak in the psalms describe

themselves and their situations, but they do it in a way that draws a verbal

portrait of a set of types rather than a report about a specific person. The

language of description is formulaic and metaphoric. It creates types of per-

sons and predicaments. The descriptions offer roles which suit the continu-

ing structures of neediness in human experience. It is precisely this com-

monality and openness that have rendered this group of psalms so available

for the uses of corporate liturgy and private devotion. For nearly two mil-

lennia, Christians have sung, chanted and murmured these psalms as their

prayers. In acts of worship and devotion they spoke of God and self and

world with the words the psalms provided. They found and knew them-

selves through these prayers.

            It is, however, a fact that these prayers have become difficult and

strange for contemporary Christians. Where our predecessors in prayer re-

ceived and used this language with a sense of recognition, discovery and il-

lumination, it has become problematic for many in our time. We hear these

prayers of pain and anguish as coming from another quarter. This voice that

speaks so insistently, pleads and protests and even argues. This voice that

addresses an absent God directly as if God were there, a presence. This soul

riven by a desperate dependence for rightness and life. This pilgrim that

must make a way as if through a dark valley surrounded by foes to trust

and obedience. This human whose desire will not be satisfied by anything

less than the experience of God. This individual in the prayer psalms has

come to be different, a stranger, sometimes embarrassing.

            The public evidence for this sense of discontinuity with the tradition of

psalmody began to appear, I think, in the movement away from a complete

Psalter in communions that had always used one. Where selections of

psalms for singing and reading were made, it was psalms of this particular

group that were omitted. Those that were included were frequently edited

to omit portions felt to be difficult. The first version of the contemporary

Common Lectionary was sparse in its use of the prayers for help. Emphasis

on worship as celebration made them sound incongruent in liturgy. Under-

standings and fashions of prayer that do not easily accommodate the stance

   A Question of Identity: The Threefold Hermeneutic of Psalmody                   89


and mood of psalmic prayers are widespread. The prayer psalms visibly lost

their place as the canonical core of corporate liturgy and private devotion.

            What brought about the rupture between the self evoked in the psalms

and the self-awareness of believers? The problem is more than simple his-

torical and cultural distance. After all, the correlation had lasted nearly two

thousand years. What are the reasons? A liberal optimism about the human

condition? A stolid technical literalism that lost the feel for the poetic, meta-

phorical, mythic as media of reality? Theologies that obscured the face of a

God who could (or would) answer the cry, "Hear me, help me"? Surely,

various related reasons exist, sometimes gathered up under the sign of mod-


            There is currently a revival of interest in this sector of psalmody. In part

the interest has been stimulated by the liturgical renewal with its concern to

restore the psalms to their traditional role in the materials of worship. The

latest version of the Common Lectionary uses far more of the prayer psalms

than the earlier one did. There seems to be a feeling of canonical guilt at

work in this and a determination to be more inclusive. In part, the interest

expresses the realization of pastors and pastoral care disciplines that these

psalmic prayers give people language to express the distresses that press

against the limits of our customary banal, trivial, deceptive talk. Rage, frus-

tration, depression, grief and failure all can find a voice here not available in

the usual confines of liturgy or the normal circumspection of pastoral en-

gagement. These are positive and promising moves toward the recovery of

psalmic prayer.

            But, one must entertain serious doubt whether these moves get at the

central alienation between people and psalms. It probably will not work

simply to put these prayer psalms back in the service. They will likely re-

main the utterance of some person unknown and not understood. It will not

do to employ them simply as a resource of counseling and therapy, a tool of

catharsis that uses them to express a sell-consciousness that is already there.

The authentic use of the psalmic prayers in the tradition has involved not

just the expression of the self through the psalms, but also (and most impor-

tant of all) a self-realization that comes with using these prayers.



            What was the nature of the transaction between these psalms and those

who prayed them? With that question on my mind I came upon a comment

in the Mishnah Tehillim on Psalm 18: "R. Yudan taught in the name of R.

Judah: all that David said in his Book of psalms applies to Himself, to all Is-

rael and to all the ages." That is, the identity offered by the psalm is not

simple but complex, not singular but threefold. Whoever prays Psalm 18,

said these rabbis, assumes a self constituted of a relation to David and the

people of God and mortal humanity.

            One recognizes the parallel to early Christian interpretation. Augustine,

commenting on Psalm 3, provides a typical illustration. Here are some

90                                                        Mays


phrases culled from his discussion about who speaks in the prayer: "Christ

speaks to God in his human nature...both the Church and her head...cry out

with the lips of the prophet...which of the faithful cannot make this lan-

guage their own?"4 Again, the hermeneutic of a threefold identity. The indi-

vidual in the psalm is constituted of an interrelation between Christ, Church

and Christian.

            It would be easy to dismiss this transaction as a hermeneutical artifact,

the practice of allegory or typology. I do not, however, think it is fair to the

matter to assess this understanding as merely the result of a theory of read-

ing applied in a somewhat technical way. It is, rather, an account of what

happened when the psalms were used as Scripture and liturgy—that is,

when in the synagogue the prayers of David were read as liturgy of the con-

gregation and meditation of the pious; and when in the church, the psalms

were read under the direction of their use by Christ in the Passion as the lit-

urgy of worship and the prayers' of believers. Hermeneutical theory, to the

degree that was important, was generated by practice rather than the other

way around.

            It may be important for our history-oriented mentality and its concern

about original meaning to bring yet another matter into consideration. This

approach did not originate in the synagogue and churches of the first centu-

ries of our era. It is a continuation of what happened in making the book of

Psalms.  To put the development in a sentence: Prayers written to provide

individuals with appropriate typical languages became corporate liturgy

and were related to the scriptural narrative of David. The semantic horizon

of the redaction and collection of the psalms was this literary process.

            As I have thought about this testimony of the rabbis and Augustine it

has begun to dawn on me what is at issue here—a way of prayer far more

profound than the one I practice, one learned because the communities of

faith prayed these psalms in an awareness of the three selves of which their

identity was constituted.


            A way of prayer that is Christological, not just autobiographical.

                        A reading of these psalms as words that witness to the

                        identification of Christ with our humanity.

            A way of prayer that is corporate, not just individual.

                        A use of these first-person psalms as the voice of the

                        community and of others in it in vicarious representative


            A way of prayer that is typical, rather than subjective.

                        A saying of these psalms to create a consciousness of who

                        and what we are, rather than as expressions of a

                        consciousness already there.


            I want to reflect on each of these ways of construing the first-person

prayers in the psalms in the form of questions—questions because this three-


A Question of Identity: The Threefold Hermeneutic of Psalmody          91


fold hermeneutic of prayer involves habits of consciousness that are difficult

to acquire in our time.



            The first question: Can we, should we, find in these prayers of derelic-

tion and trust an evocation of the Passion of our Lord? I am not proposing

that we understand them as prophecy in the specific sense that term has in

the classification of literature. These psalms were not composed aforetime to

predict events and experiences of suffering that would come true in the life

of Jesus. There is a nod toward this approach in the New Testament (John

19:28). There is a long and important tradition of reading psalms as proph-

ecy in the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation, but that approach

is not underwritten by what has been learned about the character and pur-

pose of the psalmic prayers.

            They are, rather, the literary deposit in the Scriptures that testifies to the

range and depth of anguish that can and does come to those who are mortal

and vulnerable and undertake to live unto God. They are the classics of life

that undergoes the worst in faith and for the faith. They are the paradigms

of the soul that uses affliction, alienation, pain and even dying as occasions

to assert the reality and faithfulness of God. As such they can show us in

detail the mortality that belongs to Christ in His identity with us.

            The Gospels draw on the psalms to tell the story of Jesus more than on

any other sector of the Old Testament. Particularly, the narrative of the Pas-

sion of Jesus uses language and motifs from them extensively. Features from

Psalms 22 and 31 and 69 appear recurrently in the narrative. These psalms

are not used as prediction and fulfillment, but as elements of the story itself.

The self-description of those who pray in the psalms becomes a scenario

which Jesus enacts. He identifies himself with and through them, assumes

their afflictions, speaks their language.

            The way that the Gospels use the psalmic prayers to tell the story of Je-

sus, the way that Jesus enters into the identity of the voice and experience

heard in the psalms, must mean that these prayers are meant to be a major

commentary on the meaning of His affliction. The relationship advises that

the sufferings of Jesus were not unique. Their significance does not lie in the

amount or measure but in the typicality. The identification of Jesus with the

self who speaks in the psalms is the sign of the representative and corporate

reality of His Passion. He suffers and prays with all those whose suffering

and praying is represented by such prayers. He enters into their predica-

ment. The hurt and cry of that great choir of pain is gathered into His life

and voice. Henceforth the voice of affliction in these psalms is inseparable

from the voice of Jesus. They are the liturgy of His incarnation, the language

of His assumption of our predicament.

            He is one of us and one with us in our mortal humanity. Yet, can we

rely on our own experience, our self-consciousness, our language to grasp

what His Passion, His identification with the human predicament involves?

92                                                        Mays


We are too petty in our complaints, too limited in our empathies, too inhib-

ited in our language. We will usually trivialize, but these psalmic prayers for

help do not trivialize. Indeed, they seem one vast exaggeration until read

toward His life. When we ask with Gerhardt's great hymn on the Passion,

"What language can I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy

dying sorrow?" can there be any other answer?

            Can we learn to say these prayers as a way of hearing Christ pray in and

for our humanity? Can we say them as the voice of His unending passion in

and for our mortality?



            The second question: Could the problem of our relation to the persons

praying in these psalms lead us to a different understanding of how we use

the first-person pronoun when we pray, the meaning with which we say "I/


            The use of the first-person psalms in Christian liturgy and devotion is

complicated by a difference between Israel and contemporary Christians in

consciousness of self and social group. The first-person pronoun had a dif-

ferent content and structure then. The Jews received identity and signifi-

cance from identity with the group. To say "I" meant to speak of one's

group as well as one's person. We bring our identity to a group, differenti-

ate ourselves within it, join it, accept its ways and opinions, expect the

group to nurture the individual and to justify itself to the individual.

            In Israel, there was a real corporate identity which could say "I" authen-

tically. And the individual said "I" in congruence with and not in distinction

from the group. So the use of the first-person psalms by individuals today

will work differently. We contextualize them in our identities. We wonder at

the disparity between our experience and the experience described in the

psalms because we don't think of ourselves typically or corporately.

            Can we learn to say these prayers in liturgy and in devotion as an act of

empathy and sympathy, as an expression of solidarity with others? Could

we give voice to their pain and need, make these supplications serve as

intercessions for them as one with us, as the body of Christ, as the totality of


            The psalmic prayers come to us from the history of their use with the

"I" already expanded to "we." It helps us to use our imaginations and re-

member how many countless thousands in all the ages have left their marks

on these prayers: Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul and Augustine and Calvin

and Wesley and the highlanders of Scotland and the Huguenots

complete the list. Know that history, and you cannot say and sing them

without hearing the echoing chorus of "all the Saints from whom their la-

bors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed."

            But our corporateness is a fact not only of yesterday but today. Could

the use of these prayers remind us and bind us to all those in the world-

wide Church who are suffering in faith and for the faith? All may be well in

A Question of Identity: The Threefold Hermeneutic of Psalmody          93


our place. There may be no trouble for the present that corresponds to the

tribulations described in the psalms. But do we need to do more than call

the roll of such places as El Salvador, South Africa and China to remember

that there are sisters and brothers whose trials could be given voice in our

recitation of the psalms? The Early Church believed that it was all the mar-

tyrs who prayed in their praying the psalmic prayers.

            Would it be possible to say them for the sake of and in the name of the

fellow Christians known to us? We do make intercessions for them, but per-

haps these psalms can help us do more than simply, prayerfully 'wish grace

and help for them, help us to find words to represent their hurt, alienation,

failure and discouragement.

            Then there is the whole world of humanity beyond the Church known

and unknown to us who have neither the faith nor the language to hold

their misery up before God. In the day-to-day course of events they may be-

come simply part of the scenery of life, features in the newspaper, in the

evening news. These prayers are so poignant and vivid that they give con-

creteness and personal actuality to what is happening beyond the range of

our personal experience.

            The Apostle said, "If one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Cor.

12:26). He also said, "Bear one another's burdens." Can these prayers be-

come a way of doing that?



            The third question: Could the problem of our relation to the person

praying in the psalms lead us to a deeper, truer, more ultimate-awareness of

who/what we are, why and that we need to pray for help?

            The problem is certainly there. We live and think and feel as part of

modern Western culture. It is true of our culture that it is not informed with

the active consciousness of mortality that was characteristic of earlier ages,

and is still characteristic for much of the rest of the world. But these psalmic

prayers give the clear impression that they were composed in a culture and

out of a consciousness structured by a sense of life's vulnerability.

            In recent years the Israelis have been conducting an archeological exca-

vation of a cemetery at a location near the walls of Jerusalem called Giv'at

ha-Mivtar. The burials in the cemetery are dated to the second and first

centuries B.C. As the archeologists have cataloged and identified the remains

in the cemetery, they have learned that about sixty percent of the people

who were buried there had died before they reached the age of twenty-five.

Only six percent were sixty years old or older. It doesn't take much imagina-

tion to grasp what that meant for the sense of life.

            The change from that kind of situation is very recent. A few years ago a

professor at the University of North Carolina published a book titled Chil-

dren of Pride. It is composed of a collection of letters which he found and ed-

ited, letters that had been written between the members of a family who

lived in the early 1800s just south of Savannah, Georgia. The letters are filled

94                                                        Mays


with the news of sickness and dying as part of the normal scene. The regular

occurrence of illness and death created such a regular part of the texture of

life that it is difficult for a contemporary to imagine what it must have been

like. As I read the book I remembered the dying of my grandfather who ac-

quired an aerecipilis infection in 1928 for which there was no help. Today,

treatment for that illness is a fairly simple matter of several antibiotics. Now

the old outnumber the young and the problems we ponder are the problems

of people being kept alive.

            But, is it the truth about us that we are not still essentially needy—that

is, mortal, limited in our competence to manage what happens to us, vulner-

able to events and to others—that we do not need divine help? In the long

view, ultimately speaking, there is no technical or scientific solution to the

reality of human finitude and sinfulness. To be human is to desire life and

right-ness, and because we cannot autonomously secure either, to be essen-

tially needy.

            Could we use these prayers to learn that, admit that, learn from them to

nurture a consciousness structured by an honest sense of our finitude and

fallibility? The Jewish novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer, once said, "I only pray

when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time."5



            The answers to these questions—for each of us and for the contempo-

rary community of faith—can be found only in the practice and experience

of prayer. Can we discover through these psalm-prayers an identity that is

Christological, corporate and typical? Can they break up and break into our

preoccupying subjectivity and imperious individualism? Can their use bring

us intimations of the consciousness the apostle spoke of when he wrote

such sentences as: "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this

body of death?" (Rom. 7:24); "You are the body of Christ and individually

members of it" (1 Cor. 14:27); and "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ

who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20)?



1. Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. W. J. Oates (New York: Random House,

    1948), 1:132.

2. Athanasius as quoted in A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, Cambridge    

    Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: University Press, 1930), p. ciii.

3. John Calvin, Commentary on The Book of Psalms, trans. J. Anderson

    (Edinburgh: Printed for The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 1:xxxviii.

4. The Works of The Fathers by Translation, Ancient Christian Writers, ed. J.

    Quasten and W J. Burghardt, no. 29 (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman

    Press, 1960).

5. E. H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms As Tools For Prayer (Harper and

    Row, 1989), p. 99.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Asbury Theological Journal

Michele Gaither Sparks (Asc. Editor)

Asbury Theological Seminary

Wilmore, Kentucky  40390

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