Blessed Are They: Finding happiness in the psalms

How do we find happiness? The answer to this question is very much a scriptural one, though we do not usually think of the Bible as concerned with happiness. We imagine it to be devoted to a whole different set of issues. And yet happiness—our happiness—is very much a part of what the Bible and, indeed, the psalms are about. We are pointed in this direction by no less than John Donne (1572-1631), the English poet most famous for his line “no man is an island.” In addition to being a poet, Donne was also a preacher. And in one of his sermons, Donne leads us to the subject of happiness by the indirect route of a mistranslation of Psalm 1.

The first word of Psalm 1—and thus of the entire Book of Psalms—is ashrei, probably the same word that Jesus used in the Beatitudes (Mk 5:3-12 and Lk 6:20-22). The translation Donne read renders this word as “blessed.” And thus Donne writes in his sermon:

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How plentifully, how abundantly is the word Beatus, Blessed, multiplied in the Booke of Psalmes? Blessed, and Blessed in every Psalme, in every Verse; The Booke seems to be made out of that word Blessed, And the foundation raysed upon that word, Blessed, for it is the first word of the Booke.

Donne argues that the very character of the book as a whole is suggested in the very first word. And he might well be right. But interestingly, the correct meaning of that first word is really not “blessed” at all, with all of its theological connotations. Today most translators would render ashrei as “happy.” So today we might paraphrase Donne’s words to suggest that “the book seems to be made out of that word happy, and the foundation raised upon that word, happy, for it is the first word of the book.”

John Donne is right in reminding us that ashrei/happy runs like a bright thread throughout the entire book. In these verses we find a wonderful image of the situation of a happy person. That person stands like a proud tree, luxuriant and abundant by a continual source of nourishment. Perhaps we hear this image amplified in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, too:

Like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit. (Jer 17:8)
 

We hear an evocation of a similar image elsewhere in the psalms: “But as for me, I am like a leafy olive tree in the house of God/ I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever (Ps 52:10).

Who would not want to live in such a condition? And who, living in it, would not consider themselves happy indeed? And how, according to this psalm, can we become planted by those streams of water? By walking our lives on the paths of goodness. By avoiding evil companions. By not counting ourselves among the congregation of the wicked or the destructive. Our own conduct determines our happiness, not the diversions and blandishments that are continually presented to us; not wealth nor possessions, nor even power. Only our own integrity plants us like a well-watered tree that needs not fear the time of heat. This sounds a little like the sentiments expressed in a verse of yet another psalm. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses/ But we will make mention of the name of the Lord our God” (Ps 20: 8).

Trust in God and happiness seem closely aligned in many of the Psalms. This is the thread Donne might have us find running through the entire book. Indeed we read of ashrei from the beginning of the book to the end: “Happy are all they that take refuge in Him” (Ps 2:12). And “Happy is the one that hath made the Lord his trust” (Ps 40: 5). And

Happy are they that are upright in the way

Who walk in the law of the Lord

Happy are they that keep His testimonies

That seek Him with the whole heart

(Ps 119: 1–2)

And “Happy is the people whose God is the Lord” (Ps 144: 15). Closeness to God and happiness are aligned throughout the psalms.

And yet the state of happiness that comes from a close and trusting relationship with God, and that comes from singing God’s praise, also finds expression in the way we relate to our fellow human beings. So other instances of ashrei remind us: “Happy is the one that considereth the poor” (Ps 41: 2). And “Happy are they that keep justice/ That do righteousness at all times” (Ps 106: 3).

There is the happiness we experience in our own nearness to God. And then there is the happiness we find in extending ourselves to others—treating them in the way we would have God treat us. Our happiness in the presence of God is echoed in the happiness we experience when we behave in a God-like way, showing love to those around us.

Happiness is not a negligible thing in the psalms. As John Donne reminds us, it finds expression from the very beginning of the book, illumines the entire text and shines undimmed at the very end.

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Richard Murray
2 years 1 month ago
One thing: the word “Blessed” as a translation of "ashre" is perfectly fine. As is “Happy,” which the author prefers. The verb BRK, another word of “Blessing,” is a wonderful verb. Humans bless God, and God blesses humans. It is an activity that all can engage in. At any time, without any necessary building up of ourselves or the Other, we are free to bless God and anyone in Creation. With ashre, however, there is a sense of interior development that is crucial. Psalm 1 presents us with ashre, “Blessed/Happy,” as the first word of the Psalter, and as a promise. It is not instantly attainable. It asks us to engage in a journey. This journey involves truth, growth, and change. (Regression is not allowed.) If we follow the journey, we will arrive at Happiness. For Everyone. One of my favorite cognates of ashre is 72:17, just before the closing doxology of Book II of the Psalter. The just ruler of Israel will be spoken of as ve-ashruhu, “blessed/happy.” Why? Because the just ruler makes justice for all people his priority. The poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the indigenous people. The leader of Israel is aflame with mercy, compassion, and a keen sense of justice. He even searches out the areas where injustice is secretly lurking, and moves to correct those injustices! Some examples: He judges the poor with “justice.” (72:2) “May he judge the poor of the nation, may he save the children of the destitute, may he crush the extorter/oppressor.” (72:4) “For he will deliver the destitute who cry out, and the poor with none to help them. He will have pity on the impoverished and destitute, and the souls of the destitute he will save. From fraud and from violence he will redeem their soul, for precious is their blood in his eyes.” (72:12-14) The earth itself, Creation, will know that her children—all of us—are happy. We are all made out of earth, with God’s Spirit in us, for we are all children of God. As Pope Francis knows, and begins to reveal in Laudato Si’, then the earth, eretz, will herself respond with bounty as she knows that her children are loved and cared for by all: “Then abundant grain will be on earth, even on the mountain tops; rustle like the cedars of Lebanon may its fruit. May people blossom in the city, like grass of the earth.” (72:16) The Psalm ends with the word, “All will consider him Happy.”

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