Even as we enter the late stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is going to take years to process the impact it has had on us both individually and collectively. We must think not only about how to live in the pandemic right now, but also how to understand it even after it someday ends.
With the right-now and someday in mind, we turn to God’s word. Specifically, to the compassionate, ardent, and faithful book of poetry in the middle. What have the Psalms to say about times of darkness, where light may be too far down the tunnel, or not visible at all? What do they call us to remember when we’ve lost our way? What empathy do the psalmists effuse, that give us comfort in the cold?
We have recently published an ebook, Poetry in the Pandemic: Reflections on the Psalms for a Time of Uncertainty, which is a collection of freshly translated psalms with accompanying reflections and prayers. These are designed to be a resource and refreshment to you, and a new, enlivening way to engage with perhaps familiar passages. You can download the full eBook here.
What follows are two selections from Poetry in the Pandemic. We hope that you find in these psalms a pillow for your head, a sword to meet difficulty, and an encouragement to check out the entire resource.
For the Director. According to Jeduthun.
A Psalm of David.
Yes — for Elohim my soul is still;
from him is my deliverance.
Yes — he is my rock and my deliverance,
my fortress; I am not greatly shaken.
How long will you attack someone,
will you crush, all of you,
as if a leaning wall,
a toppling fence?
Yes — they scheme to oust him from prominence;
they delight in falsehood:
with the mouth they bless,
but inwardly they curse. Selah
Yes — for Elohim be still, O my soul,
for from him is my hope.
Yes — he is my rock and my deliverance,
my fortress; I am not shaken.
On Elohim is my deliverance and my glory,
the rock of my strength;
my refuge is in Elohim.
Trust in him every moment, O people;
pour before him your heart;
Elohim is our refuge. Selah
Yes — mortals are a breath,
humans a delusion set in scales:
altogether they are less than a breath.
Trust not in oppression,
and inbreathe not robbery:
should wealth bear fruit,
pay no mind.
One thing Elohim spoke,
two have I heard:
that strength is Elohim’s.
And yours is faithfulness, O Adonai,
for you repay each one according to their work.
 The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.
“Yes — he is…”
There are days when faith comes easily. There are other days when faith is difficult to maintain. And then there are the other days, those days when you hold onto faith because that’s all you have left. You’re exhausted and broken, but you hold on. Almost out of instinct, muscle memory seems to take over, and you hold on. Though it may seem preposterous, you almost don’t know what else to do. So, you maintain a defiantly confident faith that clings to something greater because it’s grounded in something profoundly true.
At first glance, this Psalm exudes confidence, declaring God’s role as deliverer and protector. But scratching just under the surface, you can see that there is more at play. The psalmist doesn’t speak boldly with a fake religiosity that masks the difficulties in life. He freely admits that he’s about to crumple like a toppling fence. Life is a struggle, but the psalmist keeps saying, Yes, God is my deliverer! Yes, God is my protector!
And then as the psalmist starts the second stanza, he nearly repeats what he said at the beginning of the Psalm. But something’s different. The tone is softer. Having begun the Psalm by declaring that his soul is still with God as his deliverer, the psalmist makes a turn. His soul isn’t still; he commands it to be so. It’s as if he’s reminding, or even encouraging, his unsettled soul to be still. It doesn’t come naturally, and his temptation is to look to other forms of comfort to pacify his inner turmoil. But fortunately the psalmist doesn’t end there, because he goes on to say why stillness, calm, and ease are a possibility: God is his hope. Much stronger than wishful thinking, this is a profound expectation based in God’s character as deliverer. And so in spite of any worries or natural inclinations or struggles, he confidently and defiantly says, Yes, God is my deliverer! Yes, God is my protector!
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray you, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 832
For the director. According to Jeduthun.
Of Asaph. A Psalm.
My voice to Elohim — I call;
my voice to Elohim — may he listen to me.
In the day of my grief I sought Adonai;
my hand, nightly stretched, would not weary;
my soul refused to self-soothe.
I recall Elohim and moan;
I ponder and my spirit faints. Selah
You stayed the lids of my eyes;
I was distraught and could not speak.
I considered days of old,
years of antiquity.
I recall taunts at night:
with my mind I ponder,
and my spirit examines.
Will Adonai forever detest,
never again to take pleasure?
Has his devotion ceased forever,
his exhortation extinguished for ages?
Did El forget to show pity,
confine his mercies in anger? Selah
And I said: “This is my scourge:
the right hand of Elyon has changed.”
I recall the acts of Yah,
yes, I recall your wonders of old,
and I meditate on all your works,
and on your actions I ponder.
Elohim, your way is holy.
What god is as great as Elohim?
You are The God, one who does wonders;
you made known your strength among the peoples.
You redeemed with might your people,
the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
The waters saw you, Elohim;
the waters saw you — they writhed;
even the deeps trembled.
Clouds streamed water;
storms gave thunder;
even your arrows flashed.
The sound of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your way was through the sea,
and your paths through great waters,
but your footprints were not known.
You led your people as a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
“I recall your wonders of old”
Biblical lament Psalms typically share a similar structure that goes from addressing God to lamenting a situation to petitioning God to expressing confidence in God. It’s clean and tidy, and one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that life mirrors this pattern. But lamenting is not a linear progression. You don’t simply go through a checklist and declare that you’re done. The process is full of fits and starts, progress and regress, confidence and doubt, hope and despair.
The lament Psalms occasionally break from the structural mold and give us another picture that more closely resembles our own. In Psalm 77, the psalmist cries out with an outstretched hand that refuses to return to his side and with a soul that refuses any pacification. In this state, he remembers what he’s heard about the ancient days with a degree of hope. But as he briefly stops his cry, questions flood his mind. Is his own situation going to last forever? Has God used up every ounce of devotion on those previous generations? Is God mad at him? But then he switches back once again to hope as he centers on God’s acts.
His hope doesn’t rest on God alone, but on what God has done, his actions and wonders on behalf of his people. He focuses on those actions of ancient memory that showcase God as a redeemer, a deliverer from difficulty. These events — particularly the exodus from Egypt — are not events of his own life, but they are paradigmatic events of the collective memory of God’s people, a people he belongs to. He allows himself to imagine how he fits into that grand story of redemption. And as he does so, he’s filled with the hope that God can accomplish one more deliverance.
O God, whose wonderful deeds of old shine forth even to our own day, you once delivered by the power of your mighty arm your chosen people from slavery under Pharaoh, to be a sign for us of the salvation of all nations by the water of Baptism: Grant that all the peoples of the earth may be numbered among the offspring of Abraham, and rejoice in the inheritance of Israel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 289