Over the last couple of years, I have been re-reading the Psalms. I was brought up in a Church of England family, and went to Church of England and Roman Catholic schools, so I am familiar with the psalms from church liturgies. However, I don’t think I have ever read the psalms straight through before. And although I’ve been a Christian for much of my life, I wouldn’t call myself one now – theist, yes, but not a Christian.
I don’t know why I decided to re-read them again, but there is sufficient distance from the Christian that I once was for me to be able to read them afresh.My reading copy of the Psalms is this nice little cloth-bound and gold-tooled copy which I bought for £1 in a second-book shop in Hay-on-Wye on one of our summer holidays in the 1990s – so it has been with me for some time!
It has the benefits of both including a Latin translation and red rubrics. Don’t know what red rubrics are?! My mother was obsessed with them! – no prayer book or Bible came up to scratch unless it had red rubrics. They are the red letters denoting the titles and numbers at the beginning of each psalm – and actually my mother’s phrase “red rubrics” is a tautology because the word rubric is also a reference to the redness of the script.
They do look nice – perhaps my mother was right to place so much importance on them.
As for the Latin – well, in my youth I was a student of Latin, and I still find it a helpful gloss on places where the English text is curious.This is a very old English translation, and it is salutary to remember what it cost some brave and very principled men to give us a translation in the vernacular. Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) is credited with this version but his translation was based on those by William Tyndale, Martin Luther and others. Some of these men died for the principle of providing a Bible that everyone could understand; others experienced long periods in exile and many trials and tribulations. It is almost beyond our modern comprehension that some five hundred years ago, you couldn’t hear the texts of your own religion in your own language (nor read them either, but then most people couldn’t read anyhow).There are all sorts of treasures to be found in the Psalms.
Firstly, there is great honesty with the human condition. The psalmist knows how shitty life can be and truly excels in recapturing how absolutely miserable one can feel: “I am feeble and sore smitten: I have roared for the very disquietness of my heart.” (Psalm 38)
The psalmist is also good on how nasty one can feel when things are going well for everybody else, and just rotten for you. How spiteful is this: “… it shall come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones…Let it thus happen from the Lord unto mine enemies…” (Psalm 109)
But the psalmist is also good on comfort: “Thou tellest my flittings; put my tears into thy bottle: are not these things noted in thy book?” (Psalm 56) What an exquisite image of our tears being so valued that they are bottled!
Evocative language just flows from Coverdale’s pen, and one of my favourite psalms (and I think the most beautiful) is Psalm 121. A psalm of great comfort, it is commonly read at funeral services because of the last verse: “The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in: from this time forth for evermore.”It is the first line of this psalm that intrigues me most (of perhaps all the lines in the psalms). I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills: from whence cometh my help. Some years ago we found it engraved on the window of a small church of Capel-y-ffin in Wales. The trees were a bit overgrown, but you could just see the hills behind that the little window looked out on. What a beautiful use of the psalm! So comforting, so reassuring – but why? What is there in the hills that is so full of help?
“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion. As for our harps, we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein. For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody in our heaviness: Sing us one of the songs of Sion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land?”
Perhaps, like me, you have Boney M’s version in your ears now?!
It’s the story of the Jews in exile, of course, who cannot muster their spirits to sing as their Babylonian captors demand – a despair shared with other captives, at other times, in other places. In the Iliad, Homer wrote poignantly of Andromache lamenting to her husband, Hector, about the treatment she could expect as a captive when he was dead. In recent times, we have heard the heartbreaking stories of Yazidi women taken into slavery and Nigerian girls stolen from their land. This Jewish lament in the psalms is the song of all these captives. The beauty of the lament moves us just as much the anguish expressed.
Small phrases crafted by the psalmist and his translator (they were all men) are just wonderful. You don’t have to be spinner to enjoy “He shall come down like the rain into a fleece of wool: even as the drops that water the earth.” (Psalm 72). or know confusion to recognise “For I am become like a bottle in the smoke: yet do I not forget thy statutes.” (Psalm 119)
What I am left with above all else after my re-reading of the psalms is that these are the musings and poetry and songs of a people looking for answers to the human condition – just as we all are. Who could not sympathise with the exasperation with which this psalm addresses God: My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled; and at the last I spake with my tongue: Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days …” (Psalm 39)
There is great and deep comfort – similar to that a mother might offer when she croons over her crying child and reassures the baby that it’s alright. She doesn’t, of course, know that things will always be alright for her child, but in that moment – yes, things are alright, and she is being completely honest. Psalm 121 again: The Lord himself is thy keeper: the Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand; so that the sun shall not burn thee by day: neither the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil…”
Now – there’s something else in this little book – something that I missed until now, and I can’t think why I didn’t see it before!There is a purple stamp on the front page. Researches on the internet reveal that it is the permission stamp for the prisoner-of-war camp at Bad Colberg in Saxony where captive British officers were housed during the First World War.Look at the front page. I reckon that there are four hands here. Somebody has printed J.H.Goodall at the top of the page in pencil. There is a £1 marker below that. Then somebody has written JHHGoodall in ink – this looks like a signature of ownership. Below that is my name, and my notes on where I acquired the book. We can account for the £1 price marker too as it is linked with my acquisition of the book.
But the printed pencil name and inked name are the same and it has always puzzled me why there is this duplication.
Further searches on the internet, using the London Gazette website and the ICRC records of POW camps, reveal that a Captain J.H.H.Goodall was seconded from the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment to the Royal Flying Corps in March 1917. But in June 1917 he was listed as missing, and then just a month later he was reported as being a prisoner in German hands.(Bad Colberg sanatorium/POW camp, courtesy of the Great War Forum)
It is likely that the ICRC supplied small religious books as well as letters and parcels to POWs. This would explain the pencilled name at the top of the page, and the personal signature below.
I just hope this little psalter was a comfort to him.
Extraordinarily, I even found a photo of Captain J.H.H.Goodall – aah, the miracles of the internet! (He is standing at the very back – he was nearly 6 foot tall – , and his brother, Marcus, who died in the fighting on the Somme, is in the row just in front of him. This photograph, taken on April 13th 1915 on the steps of York Baths, courtesy of the Yorkshire Film Archive.) Finally – and almost by chance – I happened upon the full story of Captain John Humphrey Herbert Goodall and his courageous war service on the Hazlewood School Great War Roll of Service webpage.