Making melody unto the Lord, the God of Mercy – Introduction

I’ve decided to share some of my reflections that I put into my major assignment! I’ve tried to bring together some of my reflections on the tour using the vehicle of the Psalms.

It is the duty of Christians to praise God publicly, by singing the psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family. In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord [1](1645 Directory of Public Worship of God).

This paper presents a reflection on aspects of the impact of the Bible Lands Study Tour, though reference to the theology that emerges from the psalms and is re-worked in modern Christian liturgical song. The Psalms reveal a theology of a God of mercy, in a covenant with His people. ‘The Psalms constitute a singular song of praise for God’s mercy’.[2] Singing has been an integral component of the religious expression of Judaism and later Christianity.[3] Religious expression engages the mind, the spirit and the senses; poetry and song have the capacity to express love, longing, grief, joy, praise, triumph and defeat. The act of singing itself has the capacity to bring us closer to the divine in ways that some other forms of expression cannot. ‘My heart is ready God – I mean to sing and play. Awake, my muse, awake, lyre and harp, I mean to wake the Dawn! YHWH, I mean to thank you among the peoples, to play music to you among the nations’ (Psalm 108:1-3).

The tour of Bible Lands brought the imagery of the Psalms into sharp focus, and provided opportunities to sing the songs proclaiming the steadfastness of God’s love for his people and to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.[4] ‘The ‘Psalms above all provide compelling proof against the continually raised assertion that the God of the Old Testament is a jealous God of vengeance and wrath. Rather, the God of the Old Testament, from the book of Exodus to the book of Psalms is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.[5] The Psalms also speak of the identity of the people of the covenant – in a sense the Psalms both construct and articulate their identity, though their simple honesty and powerful imagery.

This journal explores some of the significant sites visited, both traditional sites of veneration and authentic sites, and links them to the Judaic and Christian tradition of liturgical song, principally the Psalms.[6] At the outset of the tour, I had determined that I was a pilgrim, as well as a student of the theology of this God of mercy, rather than a tourist. There is a saying that ‘the tourist passes through the land, while the pilgrim lets the land pass through them’.[7] This was my aim and my experience – to let the land, along with its literature and tradition of song, get into my soul. I wished to learn more about the identity of this Israelite/Jewish people, their understanding of themselves and their relationship with their God. This journal then is a multi-layered text, using the words of scripture, commentary, photographs and modern texts to convey an integrated response to the tour.

The structure of this journal moves loosely from the Hebrew scriptures to the Christian scriptures, rather than using the chronology of the tour[8]. This will assist with the understanding the theology of the psalms revealed in performative poetry and song. As the tour proceeded, and I took notes of the various sites, annotated with phrases from hymns or psalms; allowing the words of ancient Israel to seep into my consciousness of the land and its ancient peoples. The wider application of this work will be as a contribution to the formation of leaders of Catholic ministries in the Mercy tradition.[9]

‘I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations’ (Ps 89:1 NRSV). The Judaic expression of the people’s relationship with God is captured in the Psalms. The Psalms provide both a reflection and commentary of the history of the people of Israel and a theology, developed over a long period of time. The Psalms cover many themes, but the prevailing image of God that emerges is that of a god willing to continue to protect his people as part of a covenant with them. He will shelter you with his wings; you will find safety under his wings. His faithfulness is like a shield or a protective wall (Psalm 91.4). Through their stubbornness and failure, the God of mercy continues to call them back into relationship. This reflects the theology of much of the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Deuteronomic tradition.[10]

Theologically, the Hebrew Scriptures reflect the nature of the covenant the people had with this merciful God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Psalm 105 enthusiastically proclaims this relationship. God ‘makes a new beginning in Abraham, so to speak – a counter history begins, that is, the actual history of human salvation by God. In Abraham, all generations, all families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:13).[11] According to Kasper, this notion of mercy is related to the understanding of the sovereignty of God and the concept of justice.[12] The history of Israel outlined in the Old Testament is ‘a history of blessing, graciousness, salvation’.[13] ‘Again and again God calms his righteous holy wrath and shows mercy to his errant people, despite their infidelity, in order to give them another chance for repentance and conversion. He is their protector and preserver of the poor and those without rights’.[14]

A further theme that emerges in the Hebrew Scriptures, and reflected in the Psalms is the responsibility of Israel to pass on the relationship to all generations. Along these lines is the idea that God ‘has not abandoned his hereditary people’ (Psalm: 94). Psalm 16 also speaks of this heritage ‘YHWH, my heritage, my cup, you, and you only, hold my lot secure; the measuring line marks out delightful places for me, for me the heritage is superb indeed’ (Ps 16:5-6).

The imagery prominently weaving through this theological history of the people is the topographical features of the land: mountains, water, fruitful plains and desert and wilderness. This imagery is central to the Psalms and images are used as similes and metaphors to describe the people’s experience of their God. The images are made alive and vibrant through a pilgrimage in the land, deepening the experience of the Psalms.

The archaeology of Israel has revealed many examples of the historicity of ancient Hebrew writings, and the Psalms attest to the ways in which the people reflected on and reminisced about the events in their history. Christianity has used the Psalms in much the same way – to link the Old Testament God of mercy to the Christian tradition – as liturgical song to express the nature of God.

The Psalms became a significant vehicle for prayer and liturgical expression for Christianity. The Christian writers, steeped in the Judaic scriptures and the Judaic temple liturgy of the Second Temple period sought to link Jesus to the messianic hopes of their audiences. Luke particularly quotes extensively from the Psalms and by using the genre of the Psalms in songs such as the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis links the birth of Jesus to the fulfilment of the messianic promise of God to his people. Later, Augustine incorporated the Psalms into his theology in what is called the Totus Christus. [15] For the modern Christian, as recipients of the tradition, the Psalms are incorporated into formal prayer and liturgy of the Church and serve as the basis of many hymns. Furthermore, Christians are encouraged in our own day to explore and pray the Psalms. Pope Benedict notes that:

In the Psalms are expressed and interwoven with joy and suffering, the longing for God and the perception of our own unworthiness, happiness and the feeling of abandonment, trust in God and sorrowful loneliness, fullness of life and fear of death. The whole reality of the believer converges in these prayers. The People of Israel first and then the Church adopted them as a privileged mediation in relations with the one God and an appropriate response to God’s self revelation in history.

Since the Psalms are prayers they are expressions of the heart and of faith with which everyone can identify and in which that experience of special closeness to God — to which every human being is called — is communicated. Moreover the whole complexity of human life is distilled in the complexity of the different literary forms of the various Psalms: hymns, laments, individual entreaties and collective supplications, hymns of thanksgiving, penitential psalms, sapiential psalms and the other genres that are to be found in these poetic compositions.[16]

[1] David Gambrell, Singing the Psalms, Liturgy, 27:3, 1-2, Routledge, London, DOI 10.1080/0458063X2012.666454 p 1

[2] Walter Kasper, Mercy, the Essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian Life, Paulist Press, NY, 2014

[3] This of course is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps being fundamental to all religious expression.

[4] Gambrell, Singing the Psalms, p1

[5] Kasper, Mercy, p 60

[6] Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures provide ‘songs’ at key moments that are like the Psalter, or draw on the Psalter for their provenance. Some of these will be touched on in this journal.

[7] unknown, but sourced from Geraldine Doogue, Compass, 5 April,

[8] It must be remembered however that some sites bear hundreds of generations of settlement and are therefore part of the Old and New Testament stories. Some sites, such as BetShean were still inhabited in Jesus’ time, while others such as Hazor were probably not, but their identity would be known.

[9] Mercy Partners, an apostolic PJP with responsibility for ministries in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy, undertakes the formation of lay leaders, focussing on understandings of mercy as they emerge from the scriptures.

[10] Marko Marttila, The Deuteronomstic Heritage in the Psalms, in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Vol 37, 1 pp 69071(2012), p 69

[11] Walter Kasper, Mercy, p 45

[12] Kasper, Mercy, p 45

[13] Kasper, Mercy, p 45

[14] Kasper, 60

[15] The Totus Christus is the theology of Augustine that links the Word made flesh (Jesus) to the Church as its head, in interprets the scripture from that perspective: Jesus as the fulfillment of the scriptures.

[16] BENEDICT XVI, GENERAL Audience, St. Peter’s Square, Wednesday, 22 June 2011, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20110622.html

About Judith Gardiner

I'm a pilgrim, a traveller, a tourist! I'm on a journey of life, and my life is like a rich and varied garden, with new growth, blooms and even some weeds which I keep trying to eradicate! I'd like people to read my blog and feel positive about life and the earth we share. The world is a place of good news stories and experiences we can share.
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