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Talk: Praying the Psalms - Canon Martyn Neale

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Martyn Neale
Thursday 10th March 2016
Lent Series 2016
Download Recording (MP3, 34.8M) Download


When young, I had plenty of aunts.  Tempus fugit and I don’t have so many now.

One aunt won a prize for Competence in Scripture in 1933 in her mid-teens.  When I was nine, she gave it to me, a King James Bible.  I have it here.  I treasured it and read it every night before going to sleep.  I loved it because it was gift and I loved it for the stories it told.

Another aunt, the other’s sister, was of a different ilk.  The Bible was not for her.  In fact, she told me, with sharp relish, it was not a ‘Good Book’ at all.  It was full of filth!  1 Kings 21.21! she declaimed; Genesis 38.9!  That was all that was needed to be said.

I have to say that what men did up against walls was of more fascination to a nine-year-old boy than the sin of Onan!


Neither verse above features much (if at all) in public worship.

But what of more familiar passages?

Occasionally asked for 1 Cor 13 at a Funeral rather than a wedding I try to be careful not to use the version which refers to ‘even give my body to be burned’ at the Crematorium.

And at a sailor’s funeral, ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’, is fine but should I omit ‘and there was no longer any sea? when Rev 21 is requested?

Do I not feel some anxiety when the Sunday Mass Gospel reading proclaims that those who marry following a divorce commit adultery, knowing the situation in which a number of my flock find themselves?

What if on the morning of the vote for women bishops the lectionary had provided as the Epistle 1 Timothy 2 (I do not allow a woman to teach) or 1 Cor 14 (Women should stay silent in church) for the General Synod morning Eucharist?  Might a quick change of readings have been requested or appropriate?

Canon Andrew wants to add ‘a time to wake and a time to sleep’ to Ecclesiastes 3.  Rather a good idea!

But as an aside, rather than a textual change, surely.

Scripture challenges us not just by what it says, but by how it cuts across our daily life and work as encountered in the liturgy.  We all have our favourite bits – we may have our least favourite bits – a liturgical church with a published lectionary serves the bulk of it up for us to chew on, even if some morsels are more palatable than others.  But for this to work we have to be regular and thorough in our attendance at public worship or private devotion.


I do my ironing to the strains of Homes Under the Hammer or Woman’s Hour.  Recently, on the latter, I heard a report that most home cooks’ repertoire runs to no more than half a dozen recipes, not quite enough to see the week out.  I suspect many of us are in the same boat where psalms are concerned.  Psalm 23, of course.  100 and 150 probably.  22 and 84 maybe.  121?  After that we might begin to struggle.  But no-one, surely, hugs closely 58!


Having completed my studies for Bishops’ Requirements for Ordination before I left for California back in 1980, I was free to select any of the courses across the General Theological Union at Berkeley that I chose.  The Starr King seminary (for Unitarian students) offered the most outlandish prospects, so I signed up for ‘Iconography Today’.  The ‘set text’, so to speak, was to knit or embroider or otherwise render in some non-traditional medium an abstract icon which would draw in and store the power of God before releasing it into the life and soul of the next person who saw it or held it.  So far, so normal.  The ‘live presentation’ at the end of the module could be anything we chose, anything at all.

I’d studied John Cage, the 20th century minimalist American composer, and was quite taken by his book, Silence.  It’s something of a stream of consciousness but peppered with enough words of ostensible wisdom to maintain interest.

Here are a few:

“If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.”

“The emotions - love, mirth, the heroic, wonder, tranquillity, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust - are in the audience.”

“I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing.”

Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.”

I amassed a couple of dozen of these and jotted them down on as many scraps of paper and folded these over.  I asked the course tutor to rummage through her collection of slides and select, as randomly as possible, the same number of images (she did not know why I was asking).  On the day for presentations, I asked one of my fellow students to insert the slides in the projector in any order and another to select at random a quotation and read it out as the picture was displayed.  I hadn’t seen the slides and didn’t know the order in which the quotations would come, so I couldn’t predict the combination.  As it happened, the result was extraordinary: of course, some were total mis-hits but most seemed to have a conversation between quote and image producing laughter, shock or intrigue.  It was the easiest ‘A’ I ever got.

Katherine reminded us that the Psalms fall on their respective days because Cranmer chopped them up into 60 sections, 30 for the morning and 30 for the evening.  They don’t reflect the readings or the seasons.  They come because it’s the second morning or the twenty-second evening.  The lessons might be gloomy and the psalms full of praise.  You might get a psalm of praise followed by one of lament.  You might be sorrowful but the psalm full of joy.  You might have arrived on a high but invited to cry to the Lord out of the depths.  Neither John Cage nor I have anything to teach Cranmer.

But both Cranmer and Cage might have something to teach us.

Listen to those quotes again but in the context of Psalmody:

(repeat quotes).

How we might appreciate our need to re-evaluate our approach to the psalms; to allow them to speak to us before we presume to dictate what they say; to recognise that one psalm may provoke a quite different response in one person from another, or even in ourselves depending on the attitude we bring to them that day; to try to come to them fresh as if for the first time; to be open to new insights in old familiar words.


I mentioned psalm 58.  It’s the one psalm in the whole psalter that’s usually omitted in public worship in its entirety. [Of course, Cranmer didn’t omit it - it’s set for the 11th morning month by month].

Theological college students are forever told that the Psalms as we have them are the ‘Hymn Book of the Second Temple’ a sort of Hymns and Ancient and Modern of the Jewish people.   Although compiled over a period of seven or so centuries, and reflecting the gamut of liturgical observance and devotion, historical recollection, Divine attributes and human emotion they have come to ‘belong together’, and to have an integrity about them, rather like the disparate elements of our own CofE (we find it hard to live together sometimes but somehow we can’t live apart).

All hymn books have songs you sing over and over again, and those you might only sing occasionally. Some hymns are overlong and you miss out the starred verses.

But some hymns have the odd verse or two you choose not to sing: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate ….

Some might attract a local ban for one reason or another: Jerusalem, I vow to thee my country, Onward Christian Soldiers, From Greenland’s Icy Mountains, you know the ones.

Same with the Psalms:

14 Imprecatory Psalms – 8 of which have verses recommended for omission and one psalm (58) entirely bracketed off.

Some are no more offensive than ‘honi soi qui mal y pense’ – shame on him who thinks evil of it.

So Ps 70: Let them be put to shame and confounded who seek my life: let them be turned back and disgraced who wish me evil.

Others a little stronger:

Ps17 v 14: Slay them by your hand, O Lord, slay them that they perish form the earth: destroy them from among the living.

Ps59 v6: Awake to punish all the nations: have no mercy on those who so treacherously do wrong.

v14: For the curses and lies that they have uttered, O consume them in your wrath: consume them till they are no more.

A few are red-blooded in their calls for vengeance:

Ps 109 vv5-19, including Let his days be few; Let his children be made fatherless and his wife become a widow; let no-one have pity on his fatherless children; he loved to curse – let curses fall upon him.

Ps137 vv8,9: O daughter of Babylon, you that lay waste: happy shall he be who serves you as you have served us; happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones.

Ps 140 vv9-11: Let not those that beset me lift their heads but let the mischief that is on their lips bury them; let hot burning coals be poured upon them, let them be plunged into that miry pit from which they shall never arise; let no man of evil tongue find footing in the land, the evil the violent man let him be hunted to the end.

And finally, Psalm 58! All of it.  [allow people to read it themselves].

I’m now going to quote from The Psalms: a new translation for worship Introduction p10:

‘When Christians read the Psalms, they meditate and share the thoughts and varied emotions of the people of God in the Old Testament, the people to whom God made himself known, and they share in Israel’s experience of God.  The God of the Psalms is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The coming of Christ has, however, made a difference, and Christians cannot make their own everything in the Psalter, at least not in its original sense.  We cannot, for example, identify ourselves with the author of Ps 137 when he blesses those who will dash Babylonian children against the rocks, however well we may understand the Psalmist’s reaction to the murder by Babylonian soldiers of Jewish children.  There are many parts of the Psalter that Christians must read with detachment. Many Christians feel they must go further and refrain from the use of such passages, at least in public worship. Nevertheless, although there are verses in the Psalter whose sentiments Christians must not share, there remains much more which they can wholeheartedly make their own.’ (italics mine)

We might not like some of the content of some of the psalms but we cannot deny that these sentiments, strong, sinful, even evil as they be, are not part of human experience, even our own.  If they are part of the reality of our existence, can we really not bring them into our life of prayer, our devotion, our worship at all?

The preface I’ve just quoted says we cannot identify with dashing children against rocks – not literally.

But if anyone has ever shared a six-hour flight with someone else’s screaming infant we may have imagined all manner of methods for stopping the noise.  We’re told by our Lord that we can commit adultery with just a glance – might we not be able to commit murder with a mere passing thought?


As a late teenager, I took a couple of retreats at one of the daughter houses of the Sisters of the Love of God.  The Priory in Burwash is a private house again now, the sisters having long died or welcomed back to the Mother house at Fairacres at Oxford.  Although a withdrawn and contemplative community, speaking only when absolutely necessary [and at the communal Sunday afternoon tea when conversation poured forth like an overtopped dam], I was allowed some time each day with one of the sisters.  I had noticed that even without a television the sisters were well informed as to all the goings on in the world.  How so, sister? I enquired.  We get the newspapers delivered, she replied.  My favourite’s the News of the World. I hadn’t then learned the great gift of inscrutability.  Noticing my stunned reaction she went on: You see, our work here is a work of prayer.  We pray for all we read about, especially those things where evil is most at work.  Nothing, no-one, is beyond prayer.  We’re like the water works down the road: we take all the sewage of the world and pray it through us until it’s purified and made clean again.

[only she didn’t use the word ‘sewage’]

I wonder if this might be one of the ways in which we can approach those objectionable verses in the imprecatory psalms; to appreciate that they are sentiments held by others and to bring them before the Almighty in prayer for purification.  The authors of these thoughts might not give a monkey’s, but we Christians do.  Even if it matters not to them, it does to us. We can bring it and them to the Lord in prayer.

Another way, and I think even more important, is to recognise that we too have fallen into the temptation of unworthy thoughts and intentions even though they have not actually been consummated into action.  The imprecatory verses are not so foreign to us, not things a million miles from ourselves.


Canon Hazel spoke about the Psalms ‘telling it as it is’.

‘Telling it as it is’ is a crucial part of our honesty with each other and before God.

And ‘telling it as it is’ is no harder, nor more rewarding, than in Confession.

Church of England people are prone to having a ‘thing’ about Confession, just as they do about Incense or Sharing the Peace.  Safety in numbers seems to be the order of the day.  So long as we can mumble something about being sorry for our sins in unison with the banker and the nurse either side of us, we think we’ve done our duty.  Nothing specific, mind; generalities will do quite nicely, thank you.

‘Proper’ confessions, as I’ll call them, are much misunderstood.  Hollywood makes them things of high drama and scandalous revelation.  Perhaps some really are. But in my experience, confessions are not full of tales of murder or child abuse as members of the General Synod seem to believe (remember: few of them have even heard a confession or made a confession, though they are, of course, all them experts on the matter) – and let me make my own little confession now: as one who has heard confessions over a number of years, I thirst to hear an ‘original’ sin.  It’s breaking no confidence to say it’s the mundane, the prosaic, sad and sorry little sins that are rehearsed over and over again.  I’m not belittling them: they matter, they are important, they need to be confessed and absolved, and in some ways it’s rather reassuring.

But murders and the rest of it are out there – and the thought of them perhaps within us.

If we’re not moved to make our own personal confession, might we not find an opportunity to own up

to our own guilt and acknowledge our shame in the words of these imprecatory verses?

Unpalatable and unsuitable might they be for public worship?  Perhaps.  We’ll have to come one

11th morning to Cathedral Matins and see if we’re treated to Psalm 58 or not!

Part of our necessary devotion and honesty before God in our private prayer?  Most certainly.

As essential corrective to our pride and vainglory?  Of course.

Name it, own it, confess it.

Quieten your conscience.

Defend against ‘ill dreams’ of the night.

These verses throw pretence out of the window.

There’s an honesty waiting there for us to make our own.

We shouldn’t seek to ‘no platform’ the darker parts of our personality or deny who we really are deep down before the God ‘who knows what is in a man’.  We’re not so different from the people who wrote these verses.

God, after all, knows us better than we know ourselves.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid:

Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy holy name.  Through Christ our Lord.  AMEN.