In this book, Stephen Mitchell has selected and adapted the fifty greatest Psalms from the Hebrew Bible. Some of his versions are fairly close translations, but he has also paraphrased, expanded, contracted, deleted, and freely improvised on the themes of the originals. As in his widely praised version of the Book of Job, Mr. Mitchell has here recreated the dense, supple music of Hebrew verse. The result is that for the first time the Psalms truly sing in the language of today.
The Hebrew word for psalm is mizmór, which means a hymn sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. But when the ancient rabbis named the anthology that we know as the Book of Psalms, they called it séfer tehillím, the Book of Praises. That is the dominant theme of the greatest of the Psalms: a rapturous praise, a deep, exuberant gratitude for being here.
The mind in harmony with the way things are sees that this is a good world, that life is good and death is good. It feels the joy that all creatures express by their very being, and finds its own music in accompanying the universal rapture.
Let the heavens and the earth rejoice,
let the waves of the ocean roar,
let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains rumble with joy,
let the meadows sing out together,
let the trees of the forest exult.
Thus the Psalmists, in the ardor of their praise, enter the sabbath mind and stand at the center of creation, saying, “Behold, it is very good.” This is the poet’s essential role, as Rilke wrote in a late poem; when the public wonders, “But all the violence and horror in the world — how can you accept it?” Rilke’s poet says simply, “I praise.”
The praise is addressed to whom? to what? When gratitude wells up through our whole body, we don’t even ask. Words such as God and Tao and Buddha-nature only point to the reality that is the source and essence of all things, the luminous intelligence that shines from the depths of the human heart: the vital, immanent, subtle, radiant X. The ancient Jews named this unnamable reality yhvh, “that which causes [everything] to exist,” or, even more insightfully, ehyéh, “I am.” Yet God is neither here nor there, neither before nor after, neither outside nor inside. As soon as we say that God is anything, we are a billion light-years away.
How supremely silly, then, to say that God is a he or a she. But because English lacks a personal pronoun to express what includes and transcends both genders, even those who know better may refer to God as “he.” (Lao-tzu, wonderfully, calls “him” “it”:
There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.)
In the following adaptations, I have called God “him” for lack of a better pronoun. You should, of course, feel free to substitute “her” if you wish.
“Sing to the Lord a new song.” My primary allegiance in these psalms was not to the Hebrew text but to my own sense of the genuine. I have translated fairly closely where that has been possible; but I have also paraphrased, expanded, contracted, deleted, shuffled the order of verses, and freely improvised on the themes of the originals. When I disregarded the letter entirely, it was so that I could follow the spirit, wherever it wanted to take me, into a language that felt genuine and alive.
The Psalms speak as both poetry and prayer. Some of them are very great poems. But as prayer, even the greatest poems are inadequate. Pure prayer begins at the threshold of silence. It says nothing, asks for nothing. It is a kind of listening. The deeper the listening, the less we listen for, until silence itself becomes the voice of God.
Blessed are the man and the woman
who have grown beyond their greed
and have put an end to their hatred
and no longer nourish illusions.
But they delight in the way things are
and keep their hearts open, day and night.
They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,
which bear fruit when they are ready.
Their leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.
Even in the midst of great pain, Lord,
I praise you for that which is.
I will not refuse this grief
or close myself to this anguish.
Let shallow men pray for ease:
“Comfort us; shield us from sorrow.”
I pray for whatever you send me,
and I ask to receive it as your gift.
You have put a joy in my heart
greater than all the world’s riches.
I lie down trusting the darkness,
for I know that even now you are here.
God acts within every moment
and creates the world with each breath.
He speaks from the center of the universe,
in the silence beyond all thought.
Mightier than the crash of a thunderstorm,
mightier than the roar of the sea,
is God’s voice silently speaking
in the depths of the listening heart.
My mind is not noisy with desires, Lord,
and my heart has satisfied its longing.
I do not care about religion
or anything that is not you.
I have soothed and quieted my soul,
like a child at its mother’s breast.
My soul is as peaceful as a child
sleeping in its mother’s arms.
Lord, you have searched me and known me;
you understand everything I do;
you are closer to me than my thoughts.
You see through my selfishness and weakness,
into my inmost self.
There is not one corner of my mind
that you do not know completely.
You are present before me, behind me,
and you hold me in the palm of your hand.
Such knowledge is too awesome to grasp:
so deep that I cannot fathom it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I take the wings of the morning
and fly to the ends of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me
and your spirit will give me strength.
If I rise to heaven, I meet you;
if I lie down in hell, you are there:
if I plunge through the fear of the terrorist
or pierce through the rapist’s rage,
you are there, in your infinite compassion,
and my heart rejoices in your joy.
You fashioned my inward parts;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
My soul was not hidden from you
when I was being formed in secret,
woven in the depths of the world.
How can I keep from praising you?
I am fearfully and wonderfully made,
and all your works are marvelous.
Your eyes saw all my actions;
they were written down in your book;
all my days were created
before even one of them was.
How measureless your mind is, Lord;
it contains inconceivable worlds
and is vaster than space, than time.
If ever I tried to fathom it,
I would be like a child counting
the grains of sand on a beach.
Search me, Lord; test me
to the depths of my inmost heart.
Root out all selfishness from me
and lead me in eternal life.
I’ve been referring to Stephen Mitchell’s A Book of Psalms, citing them, teaching them, giving copies to special friends. I like, first, the voice, fresh, sparkling, clear, and one that merges happily with the psalmist’s voice; the wisdom — the sense of transience, of being here fully in the moment — all of it imparted with such joyful innocence, and so simply, that one is not immediately aware of its true depth. This is a noble work, and one to make Mr. Mitchell proud, now and for years to come.
Mitchell has responded to the old poems with a contemporary spirit that values peace, economic and political justice, and personal integrity… He has so well succeeded in his restorative task that he makes our delight in praising God through the Psalms seem not dutiful but inevitable.