The Valleys Sing: Joy and the psalms

One of my favorite sources of laughter is the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Briefly put, the British comedy is based on the story of King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. Like all the Monty Python movies, “Holy Grail” is a mashup of surprising erudition (it hews closely to the legend of Arthur) and sublime silliness (it features a “killer rabbit”). It may be the funniest movie ever made.

At one point Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are visited by a dazzling vision of God, who appears in the heavens framed by fluffy white clouds and wearing a bejeweled crown.

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“Arthur, Arthur, King of the Britons!” he thunders. When King Arthur bows down, God reacts in an unexpected manner.

“Oh, don’t grovel!” says God. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling!” Apparently God doesn’t like people apologizing either. “Every time I try to talk to someone, it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that’ and ‘I’m not worthy.’”

In response, King Arthur adopts a reverent pose.

“What are you doing now?” shouts God.

“I’m averting my eyes, O Lord,” says Arthur.

“Well, don’t!” says God. “It’s like those miserable psalms. They’re so depressing!”

Yes, those miserable psalms. So depressing. That is a popular conception of the psalms: always lamenting some woe that has befallen the people of Israel, mourning over the sad days, repenting of sinfulness and weeping “by the rivers of Babylon.” There is, in fact, an entire category of psalms called psalms of lament.

There are, however, several other categories of psalms. Some scholarly commentaries note a variety of types: royal psalms, in which the king speaks; wisdom psalms, which are connected with wisdom literature from the Old Testament and offer advice and counsel; liturgical psalms, which played a role in ancient worship services; and historical psalms, which recount narratives about the people of Israel.

‘They Shout and Sing for Joy’

But there is another important category: praise psalms. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary suggests three basic parts to a psalm of praise: first, an introduction that sets a tone of praise; second, the body of the text, in which the reasons for praising God are listed; third, a conclusion, which often includes a wish or blessing.

Central in most of the praise psalms is joy. Indeed, finding joy in the psalms is not hard at all: the very first word in the very first psalm is “happy.” “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,” says Psalm 1, “but their delight is in the law of the Lord.” You do not have to look hard in the psalms for joy, happiness and delight, which flow naturally from gratitude to God.

One obvious example of this is the relatively straightforward Psalm 65, which most scholars identify as a prayer of thanksgiving for an abundant harvest (or, say a few scholars, a prayer for rain). Let us look at this passage in greater detail, as a way of revealing its joyful undertones.

Psalm 65 praises God for three things: first, for making Zion a place for the holy people, where their sins are forgiven; second, for overcoming the primordial waters (water could be a terrifying thing for ancient peoples, connected as it was with floods and drownings) that had covered the earth and made it an inhospitable place for people; third, for the abundance of those same waters, which make the plants grow and the earth bear fruit.

In that final part, the psalmist includes some of the most vivid imagery in the Old Testament. God visits the land with water and enriches it, “softening it with showers, and blessing its growth,” so that people may enjoy its harvest of grain and fruit. In response to this wonder, the earth itself exults in joy: “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.”

Why do the hills “gird themselves with joy”? One possible answer: The earth puts on a mantle of happiness in response to the Lord’s blessing. In the Anchor Bible series volume Psalms II: 51-100, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., a Scripture scholar, translated that same line as follows: “Visit the earth, make her skip with mirth.” The visitation of God leads to joy (as it will for Mary and Elizabeth in the Gospel of Luke’s story of the Visitation). This is why the hills gird themselves in joy and the valleys sing: in praise of God’s blessing, of God’s visitation.

Is there a more joyful passage in the psalms? The earth cannot contain its joy over the wonders of the God who created it. It is hard to read this without feeling a little of the happiness that the psalmist must have felt when he wrote it around the time of King David, 1,000 years before Christ.

Preceding those beautiful lines is this one: “You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.” Father Dahood offers a more playful translation: “Make the twinkling stars of dawn and dusk shout for joy!” He notes that in ancient times the stars were thought of as the source of rain. Thus, the exaltation of the stars sends forth showers on Israel. It is strange, and strangely wonderful, to think of the earth and the heavens shouting for joy, and in their joy nourishing humanity.

A Happy Earth

Now, you may live nowhere near a meadow or a valley or a pasture. (When I look out my window in New York, for example, I do not see any meadows, valleys or pastures. I cannot even see any trees or grass, just the brick wall of a neighboring building!) But I will bet you know something of that feeling the psalm described. That is, it may not be all that strange for the psalmist to write of the earth having human feelings. How else could the psalmist speak not only of what he was seeing around him (the glorious vision of the earth’s richness) but also of what he felt inside of him (gratitude)?

Sometimes when you are happy, you feel that you might burst—in song, in praise, in thanksgiving. You feel covered in delight. You “gird yourself with joy.” And when a happiness-inducing event occurs in your life the world around you seems changed, transformed. Things around you look different. The earth itself feels happier.

A few years ago, I found myself on an eight-day retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, Mass. The retreat house is located right on the Atlantic Ocean and is also only a few hundred yards away from a freshwater pond. It is one of the most beautiful spots you could imagine. The place teems with wildlife and all manner of trees and flowers.

For several days I was praying about a difficult problem in my life. Suddenly I had a wonderful insight that cleared everything up. This I ascribed to the working of grace. After I spoke about it with my spiritual director, I walked outside the house to get a little fresh air. As I walked I noticed that things seemed to look different. On that cold and clear winter’s New England day, the sky seemed bluer, and the snow whiter, than they had been just a few hours before. The earth seemed, well, happier.

In reality, of course, there was no physical change in my surroundings. The weather had not altered at all. (I had been outside not long before my meeting.) Nor had someone scrubbed the sky or bleached the snow. Rather, I was able to notice the beauty around me more easily. My happiness enabled me to focus less on myself and more on the world around me. My surroundings seemed girded with joy. Perhaps the writer of Psalm 65 once had a similar experience.

Sometimes the earth even seems to share its joy. Now I realize I am, like the psalmist, anthropomorphizing the earth, but so be it. There are few things that cheer me up as much as seeing the countryside. When I am out of doors, or even catch sight of trees or flowers from the window of a car or train, I am filled with a strange sort of joy. Sometimes I wonder if we are hard-wired to respond to the sight of nature. Seeing a flowering field or autumn leaves or the winter sky has an immediate calming effect on me. And a “joying” one, too.

By ascribing the human experience of joy to the earth, the psalmist may be describing several experiences at once: first, his gratitude for the abundance of the land; second, his idea of the gratitude that the earth, a divine creation, must have for God; third, his gratitude for the blessings of his own life. So along with him, and the land, we “shout and sing together for joy.”

The psalms of praise, like Psalm 65, which have nourished believers for thousands of years, are filled with joy, delight and gratitude. Even happiness.

So, in the end, many of the psalms are not so depressing after all. They are songs of joy. And maybe Monty Python’s God did not know his Bible as well as he should have.

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