“He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names”

January 26, 2008 | 18 comments
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A nadir of correlated Old Testament study arrives in Week 25, when the Sunday School manual directs all of one week’s attention to the book of Psalms. Even this attention is focused largely on a handful of bright pearls — the comforting lines of The Lord is My Shepherd, for instance; and an array of creative, not always convincing Messianic parallels in Psalm 22. The rest of the book remains criminally unexplored.

The Psalms are often beautiful; sometimes alarming; at times hard to make out. At their best, they dazzle, they delight, they disquiet.

Consider the 137th Psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

The first portion contains lines of incredible beauty and overwhelming longing.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

And then, the poem turns suddenly, to end on the jarring note: Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

The mixture is a patriotic, parochial, tribal: Praise for Yahweh; longing for life in Zion; and sociopathic glee in the vengeful anticipation that Babylonian children will someday be smashed against the rocks. What do we do with that mix?

It raises a number of interesting questions. Should we condemn the bloodthirsty desires of the Psalmist? (Heavens, I hope we do.) How much of our own spiritual self-definition is tied into ideas of tribe and community? Do Mormons sometimes seem to express our own glee at the possibility of other tribes having their children dashed against the stones? How can we worship our own God, without excess of jingoistic zeal?

Or consider the remarkable Psalm 147, a list of praises that seems to double as an exercise in soft teleology (that is, the idea that we can know God’s existence through the wonder of His creations).

Praise ye the LORD: for it is good to sing praises unto our God; for it is pleasant; and praise is comely.
2 The LORD doth build up Jerusalem: he gathereth together the outcasts of Israel.
3 He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.
4 He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.
5 Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.
6 The LORD lifteth up the meek: he casteth the wicked down to the ground.
7 Sing unto the LORD with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God:
8 Who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains.
9 He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry.
10 He delighteth not in the strength of the horse: he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.
11 The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy.
12 Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise thy God, O Zion.
13 For he hath strengthened the bars of thy gates; he hath blessed thy children within thee.
14 He maketh peace in thy borders, and filleth thee with the finest of the wheat.
15 He sendeth forth his commandment upon earth: his word runneth very swiftly.
16 He giveth snow like wool: he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes.
17 He casteth forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold?
18 He sendeth out his word, and melteth them: he causeth his wind to blow, and the waters flow.
19 He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel.
20 He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them. Praise ye the LORD.

The language is wonderful, the descriptions striking:

He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.

His understanding is infinite.

A God who counts the stars is both impressive, and approachable. I like to count the stars, too. I can’t tell you their number, though, or all of their names. I love the idea that God can. It highlights what we mean when we talk of the infinity of God. (And of course, Psalm 147 is just a small slice of the teleology of the psalms, which as a whole towers over the more familiar and straightforward Mormon teleology of Alma 30.)

If you’ve never seriously read the Psalms, you should start. It’s easy enough to do. You can read them and meditate in a quiet room in church, for instance. Or, you may find them more accessible if you take your scriptures to a beach, or to a favorite spot in the mountains; or perhaps, light a candle or three for an evening at home, and sit and read psalms with a loved one.

These millenia-old expressions of praise and joy and triumph — and sometimes fear and hatred — are remarkable and beautiful. It’s impossible to read more than a few pages without finding a wonderful new surprise. (And read them in various translations, if possible. Translating poetry is a tricky endeavor, and different translations will highlight the beauty of different portions of the book.)

What are some of your own favorite chapters or verses from the book of Psalms?

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18 Responses to “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names”

  1. Susan M on January 26, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Psalm 40.

  2. Ardis Parshall on January 26, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    What are sme of your own favorite chapters or verses from the book of Psalms?

    You nailed my favorite, Kaimi, with the first part of 137. Even more than “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,” I miss “By the River’s Verdant Side” from the old hymnbook. Although we hardly ever sang it in church, I used to play it on my flute when I was a teenager, from memory because I always cried so hard I couldn’t see the printed music /g/ — these don’t seem to be quite the exact words I remember, but close enough:

    1. By the river’s verdant side, By the solitary tide,
    While the peaceful waters slept, Pensively we sat and wept:
    And on the bending willows hung, Our silent harps through grief unstrung.

    2. For they who wasted Zion’s bowers, And laid in dust her ruined towers,
    In scorn their weary slaves desire, To strike the chords of Israel’s lyre;
    And in their impious ears to sing, The sacred songs of Zion’s king.

    3. How shall we tune those lofty strains, On Babylon’s polluted plains?
    When low in ruin on the earth, Lies the place that gave us birth,
    And stern destruction’s iron hand, Sways our desolated land.

    4. Oh! never shall our harps awake, Laid in the dust for Zion’s sake,
    For ever on the willows hung, Their music hushed, their chords unstrung.
    Lost Zion! city of our God, While groaning ‘neath the tyrant’s rod;

    5. Still mould’ring lie thy levelled walls, And ruin stalks along thy halls,
    And brooding o’er thy ruined towers, Desolation sternly lowers;
    For when we muse upon thy woe, Fast the gushing sorrows flow.

    6. And while we toil through wretched life, Drinking the bitter cup of strife;
    Until we yield our weary breath, And sleep, released from woe, in death,
    Will Zion in our memory stand, Our lost, our ruined native land.

    Another favorite is Psalm 121. Ever felt lost, or scared of the dark?

    1. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
    2 My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.
    3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
    4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
    5 The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.
    6 The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
    7 The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
    8 The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

  3. Adam Greenwood on January 26, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    Great post, KW. Its probably the lawyer in me, but I started wondering about the elements of the crime of criminal unexploration, and the defenses thereto.

    Anyway, I don’t have a problem with Psalm 137. I read it as poetic hyperbole. Whether the psalmist meant it that way, I don’t know and don’t care.

  4. Ray on January 26, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    147 is my favorite, especially verses 10-11.

    I also love the fact that there are gems hidden in otherwise harsh chapters. 9 is a good example – focusing on judgment and vindication and even Hell, but including:

    9 The LORD also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.
    10 And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek thee.

    and

    18 For the needy shall not alway be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever.

    I belief nearly every psalm has at least one of these gems.

  5. Ray on January 26, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    #3 – That has to be the funniest un-funny comment I have ever read.

  6. Julie M. Smith on January 26, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    Knowing something about Hebrew poetry is a big help to appreciating the psalms; a good place to start is:

    Kevin L. Barney, “Understanding Old Testament Poetry,” Ensign, Jun 1990, 51.

  7. Kevin Barney on January 26, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    My favorite is Psalm 24:

    The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof;
    the world, and they that dwell therein.
    For he hath founded it upon the seas,
    and established it upon the floods.
    Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD?
    or who shall stand in his holy place?
    He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart;
    who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity,
    nor sworn deceitfully.
    He shall receive the blessing from the LORD,
    and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
    This is the generation of them that seek him,
    that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.
    Lift up your head, O ye gates;
    and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors;
    and the King of glory shall come in.
    Who is this King of glory?
    The LORD strong and mighty,
    the LORD mighty in battle.
    Lift up your heads, O ye gates;
    even lift them up, ye everlasting doors;
    and the King of glory shall come in.
    Who is this King of glory?
    The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah.

    It starts with the theme of creation, then talks about the worthiness necessary to approach the temple. Then there is a processional bringing the ark of the covenant [presumably from battle] from without into the temple. A choir without the walls requests entry, and a choir within the walls responds, upon which the ark, representing the LORD, is ushered in to the temple.

  8. Ardis Parshall on January 27, 2008 at 12:56 am

    I understand that the Psalms are songs, but it still surprises me to see how many of our favorites have been set to music in relatively modern times. I’ve had “He is the King of glory …” running through my mind for the past half hour. Are they set to music because they’re everybody’s favorites, or are they our favorites because we know them with music and not as poetry alone?

  9. Gilgamesh on January 27, 2008 at 2:06 am

    One of my favorites is the 56th from mthe NRSV

    “You have kept my tears in a bottle, are they not in your record?”

    “In God whose name I praise, In the Lord whose name I praise. In God I trust. What can a mere mortal do to me?”

  10. Jacob M on January 27, 2008 at 7:05 am

    Kaimi,

    Great post. I do need to look at the Psalms again.

    I must point out, however, that it is not very pleasing to know that God takes no pleasure from my legs. That seems to be an observation shared by most single ladies that I know.

    4 – On a more serious note, I will never forget Elder Eyring quoting the scripture in Psalm 9 during the general conference right after 9/11.

  11. Kevin Barney on January 27, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Ardis, the libretto for Messiah is indeed a big part of the reason I love Ps. 24, so I think modern music can be a big influence on our perceptions.

  12. Ellis on January 27, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Ardis: If the basis for all musical appreciation is repetition, then they must be our favorites because they are set to music. Setting something to music makes it much easier to remember.

  13. Ardis Parshall on January 27, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I can believe that, Kevin and Ellis — still, there has to be *something* special about many of the verses chosen for musical settings. Weird Al Yankovich, and maybe Mozart, could set my shopping list to music quite cheerfully, but Handel could, I think, only have selected passages that were already remarkable … making them, in turn, even more memorable.

  14. Susan M on January 27, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Also:

    Be still, and know that I am God.

  15. Zinka on January 27, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
    7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
    8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
    9 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
    10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me

    (Old Testament | Psalms 51:6 – 10)

  16. anonymous on January 27, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    President Hinckley has passed away….story developing

  17. Harold Curtis on January 27, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    Sorry………. this is a threadjack…………………

    President Gorden B. Hinckley passed away this evening, Sunday, at 7Pm MST. Cause of death was incident to age. He was 97 years old. Family was gathered around him……..

    Deseret Morning News.

  18. diego on January 29, 2008 at 3:03 am

    i remember being surprised the first time i read Psalm 137 that the great Sublime song \”rivers of babylon\” was quoting scripture. it turns out that through all those years as a rebellious youth i was listening to the psalmist.