PSALM 151

I was small among my brothers, and the youngest in my father’s house… [Psalm 151:1a (NRSV)]

ground orchidOn the last day of 2017, the liturgist at church read Malachi 4, Revelation 22, Proverbs 31, and Psalm 150 – the last chapters of the Old and New Testaments, Proverbs and Psalms. It seemed fitting on the final day of the year to hear the final words in Scripture. It was only later that I learned there is one more psalm, but don’t look for it in your Bible. Unless you are Greek Orthodox, it probably won’t be there. Although both the traditional Hebrew and Christian Bibles have only 150 psalms, the Greek translation known as the Septuagint includes Psalm 151. We have to go back a bit in history to understand why the discrepancy.

By the 4th century, Latin was replacing Greek as the common language and Pope Damascus commissioned a young priest named Jerome to translate the Gospels into Latin. Once done, Jerome turned to translating the Old Testament. Not wanting to depend on the earlier Greek translations of what originally had been written in Hebrew, the gifted linguist translated from the original language. Finding Psalm 151 only in Greek translations and not in the Hebrew Scriptures, he omitted it from the Psalter.

Much of what we call the Old Testament is based on the work of a scholarly group of rabbis called Masoretes who worked between the 6th and the 10th centuries. They corrected any errors that crept into the text of the Hebrew Bible following the Babylonian captivity and wanted to prevent any future alterations of the text. Like Jerome, they only found Psalm 151 in Greek translations so they, too, did not consider it to be part of the Psalter. They did, however, place it in the Apocrypha with other works of unknown origin or doubtful authorship.

When a copy of this disputed psalm was found in a Hebrew psalter among the Dead Sea Scrolls some sixty years ago, scholars had to rethink their exclusion of the psalm. The Hebrew Psalter in which it was found dates back to between 300 BC and 50 AD.  Originally two psalms in Hebrew, the Greek translators had condensed them into the one found in the Septuagint. Psalm 151 is now found in some expanded versions of the NRSV (and some other translations) with the notation that it is ascribed to David “though it is outside the number.”

A first-person account of both his anointing by Samuel and his defeat of Goliath, the psalm certainly could have been written by David. It’s a bit like a Reader’s Digest version of 1 Samuel 16 and 17. Perhaps, however, it should be renumbered; rather than being the last of the psalms, this should the first in the Psalter. These seem to be the words of a young David, with a hint of boyish braggadocio, fresh from his victory over Goliath. Little did the confident young man know of the weight of kingship—the joy and sorrow, love and loss, friendships and betrayals, or the great and terrible things that lay in his future. Yet, even then, he knew the most important thing—he had been called by God to be His servant.

I was small among my brothers, and the youngest in my father’s house; I tended my father’s sheep. My hands made a harp; my fingers fashioned a lyre. And who will tell my Lord? The Lord himself; it is he who hears.  It was he who sent his messenger and took me from my father’s sheep, and anointed me with his anointing oil. My brothers were handsome and tall, but the Lord was not pleased with them. I went out to meet the Philistine, and he cursed me by his idols. But I drew his own sword; I beheaded him, and took away disgrace from the people of Israel. [Psalm 151 (NRSV)]

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