LEIBNIZ

In his own words…and in mine!

When several predicates are attributed to a single subject and this subject is attributed to no other, it is called an individual substance (monad).

Monads must have…qualities, otherwise they would not even be beings…there would be no way of perceiving any change in things…and they would be indiscernible from one another.

There must be a plurality of properties and relations in the simple substance, although it has no parts…It is also necessary that each monad be different from each other.

Change is continual in each thing…the monad’s natural changes come from an internal principle, since no external cause can influence it internally.

There is no external cause acting on us other than God alone, and he alone communicates himself to us immediately in virtue of our continual dependence.

Universe consists entirely of monads, a virtual infinity of created monads and one uncreated monad, God. Though monads are simple substances and have no parts, they nonetheless have ‘a plurality of properties and relations’ and they are continually in a process of change.

No two monads are the same; if they were the same, they would be just one monad. Therefore, each monad is necessarily unique.

 God has power…knowledge…and finally will…and these correspond to what, in created monads, is the subject…the perceptive faculty and the appetitive faculty.

The passing state which involves and represents a multitude in the unity…is nothing other than what one calls perception…The action of the internal principle which brings about change…can be called appetition…this is all one can find in the simple substance (monad) – that is, perceptions and their changes.

Like God, created monads have three aspects. First, they are their own subjects (power); second, they are constituted by their perceptions of essences (knowledge); third, they become what they become by virtue of their desires (will).

Souls act according to the laws of final causes, through appetitions. Bodies act according to the laws of efficient causes (through perceptions). And these two kingdoms, that of efficient causes and that of final causes, are in harmony with each other…According to this system, bodies act as if there were no souls…and souls act as if there were no bodies; and both act as if each influenced the other.

The same monad can be described equally well in any one of three ways: solely in terms of its perceptions, or solely in terms of its appetitions, or as if its perceptions and its appetitions influenced one another. All three descriptions are exhaustive and ultimately identical. We shall untangle this riddle later. But first, we must hear more from Herr Leibniz.

Since something rather than nothing exists, there is a certain urge for existence or (so to speak) a straining toward existence in possible things or in possibility or in essence itself; in a word, essence in and of itself strives for existence.

We also see that every substance has a perfect spontaneity (which becomes freedom in intelligent substances)…Monads…have in themselves a certain…sufficiency (autarkeia) that makes them the sources of their internal actions…

Universe is characterized by what the 20th Century British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, called “creativity”…a primal urge to be (which is also the urge to be unique). Out of that urge, subjects (monads) naturally emerge and these subjects are characterized by ‘spontaneity’ (freedom) and ‘sufficiency’ (identity).

One can even say that God…is the originator of existences; otherwise, if he lacked the will to choose the best, there would be no reason for a possible thing to exist in preference to others.

God is not only the source of existences, but also of essences insofar as they are real, that is, or the source of that which is real in possibility…Without him there would be nothing real in possibles, and not only would nothing exist, but also nothing would be possible.

 For if there is reality in essences or possibles, or indeed, in eternal truths, this reality must be grounded in something existent and actual, and consequently, it must be grounded in the existence of a necessary being, in whom essence involves existence, that is, in whom possible being is sufficient for actual being.

The ultimate reason for the reality of both essences and existences lies in one thing, which must of necessity be greater than the world…through it not only existing things, which make up the world, but also possibles have their reality.

“Essence in and of itself strives for existence.” In God, essence is existence. Therefore, God is the one perfect being. Without God, subjects (monads) would not exist; neither existence (subject) nor essence (predicate) would be real.

Essences by themselves are mere ideas; they do not become real possibles until they participate in a real entity. Therefore, if there is a world, and there seems to be, then there must necessarily be a real entity (God), logically prior to that world, in whom all real essences participate.

By the same token, no entity (not even God) can exist unless there are real essences (values) according to which one entity can come to exist in preference to another entity. Otherwise, the existence of all theoretically possible entities would be equally probable…which means that the existence of any actual entity would be impossible.

God is the ordering of all essences and all possibles according to their values. Therefore, God is the source of the real essences that make his own existence possible just as it is his existence that gives reality to those same essences. How can this be? Only if in God, existence and essence logically coincide; only if in God they are one. Therefore, God is the Being whose essence entails his existence and whose existence (perfection) entails his essence.

Beyond the world, that is, beyond the collection of finite things, there is some One Being who rules…for we cannot find in any of the individual things, or even in the entire collection and series of things, a sufficient reason why they exist.

We will never find…a complete explanation (ratio) for why, indeed, there is any world at all, and why it is the way it is…Therefore, the reasons for the world lie hidden in something extramundane, different from the chain of states, or from the series of things, the collection of which constitutes the world.

It must be the case that the sufficient or ultimate reason is outside the sequence or series of this multiplicity of contingencies.

 There are contingent beings, which can only have their final or sufficient reason in the necessary being, a being that has the reason for its existence in itself.

Divine nature needs only its possibility of essence in order actually to exist…it is a simple consequence of its possible existence.

 God is an absolutely perfect being.

We say that God is ‘causa sui’. In other words, the essences that become real possibles through God also ensure that God exists. And they ensure that God is ‘sumum bonum’ since real essences determine what exists in preference to what does not exist and God is defined by the real essences that characterize his being. Therefore, God who exists primordially and eternally must exist in preference to any other possible entity and therefore God must be ‘an absolutely perfect being’.

The excellence of God’s works can be recognized by considering them in themselves…it is by considering his works that we discover the creator…Thus when we see some good effect or perfection occurring or ensuing from God’s works, we can say with certainty that God had proposed it.

God is the solution to the “Problem of Good”: how is it that anything good exists? Why aren’t all things morally or aesthetically neutral…or worse? The answer is God. When we see Good, we see God.

Thus God alone is the primitive unity or the first simple substance; all created or derivative monads are products, and generated so to speak, by continual fulgurations of the divinity.

Every substance bears in some way the character of God’s infinite wisdom and omnipotence and imitates him as much as it is capable. For it expresses, however confusedly, everything that happens in universe, whether past, present or future…

Every effect expresses its cause and thus the essence of our soul is a certain expression, imitation or image of the divine essence, thought, and will, and of all the ideas comprised in it. It can then be said that God is our immediate external object and that we see all things by him.
We come to be solely in relation to God and it is through God that we come to relate to everything else.

Yet we think immediately through our own ideas and not through those of God…it is inconceivable that I think through the ideas of others.

It also follows that creatures derive their perfections from God’s influence, but that they derive their imperfections from their own nature.

The urge to be is both an urge to imitate God and an urge to be unique. Therefore, every created monad reflects in part, but only in part, God’s essence. (If a created monad imitated God perfectly, then it would be God and not a created monad.) Therefore, we can be certain that every created monad imitates God imperfectly. (This is akin to the doctrine of ‘The Fall’ or ‘Original Sin’.)

The Gospel of Mark (7: 22-23) quotes Jesus saying something quite similar: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

Created substances depend upon God who preserves them and who even produces them continually by a kind of emanation…he views all the faces of the world in all ways possible…The result of each view of the universe, as seen from a certain position, is a substance which expresses the universe in conformity with this view…

Because of the infinite multitude of simple substances, there are, as it were, just as many different universes, which are, nevertheless, only perspectives on a single one, corresponding to the different points of view of each monad.

Every substance is like a complete world and like a mirror of God or of the whole universe, which each one expresses in its own way…Thus the universe is in some way multiplied as many times as there are substances…

There is one Universe and one God who perceives (or reflects) that Universe. God does not perceive Universe from a particular vantage or perspective; God reflects Universe wholly and simultaneously. God and Universe exist outside of space and time.

Space and time characterize the internal structure of Universe but not Universe itself just as ‘properties and relations’ characterize the internal structure of created monads but not the monads themselves.

In fact, Universe may be perceived internally from a virtually infinite number of space-time perspectives. Each such perspective, at least potentially, gives rise to a unique actual entity (monad).

Each such created monad perceives Universe from a specific vantage point which allows it in turn to be unique. But this begs a question: do created monads emerge in space-time…or is space-time an emergent property of created monads? It would seem that the limited perspective imposed on created monads might be ontologically substructural but it also appears that the expression of those perspectives as ‘space-time’ might be epiphenomenal.

Our soul expresses God, the universe, and all essences, as well as all existences…We have all these forms in our mind; we even have forms from all time, for the mind always expresses all its future thoughts and already thinks confusedly about everything it will ever think about distinctly.

And since every present state of a simple substance is a natural consequence of its preceding state, the present is pregnant with the future.

The notion of an individual substance includes once and for all everything that can ever happen to it…If I were capable of considering distinctly everything that happens or appears to me at this time, I could see in it everything that ever will happen or appear to me. This would never fail…provided there remained only God and me.

God exists outside of space-time and each monad is a reflection of God. Therefore, each monad by itself exists outside of space-time. Space-time is an emergent property of the multiplicity of monads.

Everything that is, was or will be, everything that might be or might have been (real possibles), is reflected in some way in each created monad. The perpetual change that characterizes all monads pre-exists in each monad…but only insofar as there is just the one created monad and God.

Each substance is like a world apart, independent of all other things, except for God; thus all our phenomena, that is, all the things that can ever happen to us, are only consequences of our being…And God alone…makes that which is particular to one of them public to all of them; otherwise, there would be no interconnection.

A substance, which is of infinite extension insofar as it expresses everything, becomes limited in proportion to its more or less perfect manner of expression. This, then, is how one can conceive that substances impede or limit each other and…act upon one another and…accommodate themselves to one another…

God alone brings about the connection and communication among substances and it is through him that the phenomena of any substance meet and agree with those of others and consequently there is reality in our perceptions.

Each monad relates to God and God alone. But God is also a medium through which the unique ‘properties and relations’ that characterize each monad are shared with every other monad. Therefore, each monad relates to every other monad, albeit only through God.

Each monad reflects everything that is real (above); but no monad (except God) expresses everything that is real with equal precision and clarity. Therefore, our picture of the world, in so far as it is derived from created monads, requires a contribution from each such monad. Once we have assembled all of those unique contributions, we will have reconstructed God’s perfect image (reflection) of Universe.

God alone operates on me…the other substances contribute only…because God…requires them to accommodate themselves to one another.

 The creature is said to act externally insofar as it is perfect and to be acted upon (patir) by another insofar as it is imperfect…but in simple substances the influence of one monad over another can only be ideal, and can only produce its effect through God’s intervention, when in the ideas of God a monad rightly demands that God take it into account in regulating the others from the beginning of things.

It is in this way that actions and passions among creatures are mutual. For God, comparing two simple substances, finds in each reasons to adjust the other to it.

This interconnection or accommodation of all created things to each other, and each to all the others, brings it about that each simple substance has relations that express all the others, and consequently, that each simple substance is a perpetual, living mirror of the universe.

Everybody is affected by everything that happens in the universe, to such an extent that he who sees all can read in each thing what happens everywhere, and even what has happened or what will happen, by observing in the present what is remote in time as well as space.

Our body receives the impression of all other bodies, since all the bodies of the universe are in sympathy.

“All things conspire,” said Hippocrates.

The unique contribution of every monad is essential, first because each monad reflects Universe from a unique vantage, and second because each monad undergoes a process through which its content is adjusted to the content of every other monad. Therefore, each monad is unique but each monad also templates in a unique way all other created monads. Ultimately, no two monads conflict, but every two monads contrast.

In the language of Quantum Mechanics, monads might be seen as universally ‘entangled’ (John Bell). Measuring one local quantum can immediately reveal information about another, remote quantum. Ultimately, this model of Universe is holographic. The whole is immanent in each of its parts (David Bohm) but with less and less definition as the ratio of the part to the whole grows smaller.

No substance perishes, although it can become completely different… Where there are no parts, neither extension, nor shape, nor divisibility is possible…there is no conceivable way in which a simple substance can perish naturally…there is no conceivable way a simple substance can begin naturally…they can only begin or end all at once, that is, they can only begin by creation and end by annihilation.

Minds…are to persist as long as the universe itself does, and they express the whole in a certain way and concentrate it in themselves, so that it might be said that they are parts that are wholes.

God had ordered everything in such a way that minds not only live always, which is certain, but also that they preserve their moral quality, so that the city does not lose a single person, just as the world does not lose any substance.

We may say that although all substances express the whole universe, nevertheless the other substances express the world rather than God while minds express God rather than the world.

Thus one can state that not only is the soul (mirror of an indestructible universe) indestructible, but so is the animal itself.

A mind cannot perish because it is, in a sense, the whole. This whole is reflected in God and reflects God and God is imperishable. Therefore, the whole must be imperishable, and so since the whole is imperishable, the minds that reflect the whole must also be imperishable.

Leibniz appears to make a distinction between mental monads (minds) and physical monads (bodies). Alfred North Whitehead (referenced earlier) takes a different approach: every actual entity has both a “mental pole” and a “physical pole”.

Now at last we are equipped to untangle our earlier riddle: “The same monad can be described equally well in any one of three ways: solely in terms of its perceptions, or solely in terms of its appetitions, or as if its perceptions and its appetitions influenced one another.”

How can this be so? First, each monad perceives essences that inhere in God primordially and existences (other monads) that are reflected in God. There is nothing else. Therefore, each monad perceives only God and the ‘properties and relations’ in God. Therefore, what each monad perceives is God.

Second, every monad aims to imitate God but in a unique way. The hunger to imitate focuses on God directly while the hunger to be unique focuses on the other monads, as they are reflected in God. The monad projects itself into the community of created monads in order to play a certain role vis-à-vis the other monads in that community.

God is both the primordial essences that define him and the created monads that are reflected in him; in God essence and existence are one. Therefore, a monad’s projection of itself into the community of monads, and its contribution of a contrast, is the same thing as that monad’s perception of those other monads along with God’s primordial essences. The monad’s contribution of a functional contrast is ontologically equivalent to the monad’s conformation to God’s values (essences). Projection of a contrast into the world is the objective expression of subjective conformation to God’s values.

In the New Testament, the Letter of James puts it this way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows.” (Jas. 1: 27)

Further, the monad’s appetitions influence its perceptive selections just as much as the monad’s perceptions help form and define its appetitions. We can learn everything there is to know about a monad simply by focusing on the dialectic that occurs between those perceptions and those appetitions. Tracing their dance of mutual modification is equivalent to articulating either the perceptions or the appetitions completely.

Finally, we know that through God’s agency, monads are adjusted to other monads. Since a monad consists only of perceptions and appetitions, these adjustments must be reflected in those perceptions and appetitions…and nowhere else. Therefore, describing a monad in terms of the modifications it undergoes with respect to external monads is equivalent to describing the internal influence of perceptions and appetitions on one another.

The life of a monad is pretty amazing. On the one hand, it is a reflection of God and of Universe. It comes from God and returns to God. Yet it is spontaneous (free) and self-sufficient and thinks for itself. While it is in the perpetual process of change, everything it ever was, everything it might have been, everything it is, and everything it might become is present in it at all times. It exists eternally or at least co-extensively with Universe.

On the other hand, it is massively self-referential. Its perceptions, its objectives, its process of internal modification and its process of external modification all turn out to be are one and the same thing.

It turns out that there are two paths to God and, no surprise, they are ultimately equivalent. The essences that inhere in God and are primordially valued by God are God. The set of created monads, once completely harmonized with one another, also constitutes God.

 Alfred North Whitehead (above) owes much of his cosmology to Leibniz. According to Whitehead, God consists of a Primordial Nature (essences…and their valuations) and a Consequent Nature (existences…and their harmonized contrasts). In the end thought, there is but one God, understood conceptually through essences but physically through realized contrasts.

Remarkably, Leibniz discovered these principles 300 years before Whitehead!

PSALM 151

“The Book of Psalms consists of 150 songs praising or exhorting God” – (Psalms, another essay in this collection). This essay, however, will suggest that there may be at least one more Psalm in Judeo-Christian scripture. We’ll call it ‘Psalm 151’…but you’ll recognize it as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.

Even though Jesus gave us this prayer half a millennium after the majority of the Psalms were composed and complied,  the Lord’s Prayer has all the defining elements of a Psalm. It praises God, it petitions God and it celebrates God’s action in the world.

The Old Testament Psalms praise God for being God and, what amounts to the same thing, exhort God to be God. Prayers of thanksgiving meet prayers of petition! When we read the Psalms, we seek nothing less than to uncover the mind of God (his values) and discover his will. When we pray the Psalms, we seek to conform our values to God’s values and so our actions to his will.

The Lord’s Prayer occurs twice in the New Testament, once in ‘Matthew”, once in ‘Luke’. While the two versions have much in common, there are differences. Furthermore, the form of the prayer most of us recite today is not a literal translation of either scriptural version.

But none of that matters! Psalms are meant to be liturgical. The version of the Lord’s Prayer that we recite as part of our various Christian liturgies is the version that concerns us here:

Our Father,

Who art in Heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

On Earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses,

As we forgive those who trespass against us,

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing God, our Father…Yahweh. We praise God for his transcendent role (“who art in heaven”) and for his immanent role (“hallowed be thy name”). Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality) points out that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is not God’s postal address; it’s who God is, transcendentally, i.e. outside space-time, outside history.

Likewise, the ‘name’ of God is not just something he’s called; it is who God is, immanently, i.e. inside space-time, inside history. The ‘name of God’ is the role God plays in the world. This is why, when Moses asks God his name (Exodus), God responds, “I AM”. First and foremost, that is how we know God…as Being itself.

The Lord’s Prayer begins by praising God for who he is, transcendentally and immanently. From praise, the prayer turns to petition. In fact, the Lord’s Prayer includes three distinct types of petition, all found throughout the Book of Psalms. The first petition is eschatological, the second is social (concerning justice and peace) and the third concerns our own personal salvation.

The petitioner is certainly not bashful.  Why ask for anything less than everything?

The first petition is delivered on behalf of the entire universe: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

In the language of Whitehead, the Kingdom of God will ‘come’ when all entities conform their ‘subjective forms’ to God’s Primordial Nature (values) and their ‘subjective aims’ to God’s Consequent Nature (will). When our values conform to God’s values and our actions conform to God’s will, then has the Kingdom of Heaven ‘come’, then is God’s will ‘done’. At that moment Earth and Heaven become one (I Cor. 15: 24 – 28).

The second petition concerns justice and peace, two major themes in Psalms.  “Give us this day our daily bread.” Here we are not praying for some private or transitory advantage (“O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.” – Janice Joplin). Rather we are praying for ‘bread’, the precondition of all life, not just for ourselves but for all of ‘us’ and not just for today but for every day.

Implicit in this petition, but unstated, is our commitment to do nothing to prevent the universal distribution of this ‘bread’ that we have prayed for and that God has given. By implication, we agree as part of this petition not to engage in any activity that might deprive another of the ‘bread’ that God provides. We have conformed our values to God’s values, so we will conform our wills to God’s will.

God’s advocacy for the poor and the oppressed, his obsession with justice, permeates the Book of Psalms. The Lord’s Prayer echoes this insistence that everyone’s basic human needs be satisfied. A society that follows God’s titular commandments but does not provide adequately for the legitimate needs of all its citizens will find itself very far indeed from God.

In fact, nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer is there even a mention of obeying God’s commandments. Psalms generally celebrate God’s law but they invariably go further: they strive to discover his will. And his will, what God wants for the world, is only hinted at in the law.

In the Gospels, much of Jesus’ criticism of his fellow Pharisees is based on this distinction between God’s law and God’s will. This baffles many of his hearers: how can you separate the two? Psalms show us the way: begin by uncovering God’s values, then cultivate an appreciation for his law, but finally discover his will.

The physical petition concerned with justice but it is paired with a spiritual petition concerned with peace: “And forgive us our trespasses.” Our physical survival is dependent on ‘bread’; our spiritual survival is dependent on ‘mercy’ or forgiveness. If ‘bread’ is a pre-condition of justice, ‘forgiveness’ is a pre-condition of peace; and justice and peace are both pre-conditions for the full realization of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

“Feed us and forgive us!” Isn’t this the baseline prayer that children everywhere direct toward their biological fathers? Why then not all creatures toward their ontological Father? Theology just doesn’t get any more concrete than this!

With forgiveness, the social compact, implicit in the matter of bread, becomes explicit. We specifically add to our petition, “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Passively avoiding unlawful action may be enough to foster justice but it is not enough to foster peace.  Here we must actively project God’s will into the world; we must be God’s ‘change agents’.

When we pray Psalms we first and foremost seek to discover and interiorize the mind of God; secondarily, we seek to learn God’s will and project that will into the world through our actions. If compassion is a value in the mind of God, if mercy is an act of God that we praise, then it is imperative that we also practice mercy. We must forgive those who trespass against us in the same way God forgives us who trespass against him.

We prayed first for the coming of God’s Kingdom, the union of Heaven and Earth. Then we prayed for the twin Judeo-Christian values of Justice and Peace.  Everything is going so well. We are praising the God of Heaven and Earth. We are conforming our minds to his mind, our hearts to his heart. We have agreed to treat no man unjustly and to forgive all trespasses. What could possibly go wrong?

Temptation! It is temptation that throws us off our game. We see an opportunity for some private power or profit or pleasure that we can only realize at the expense of another. Perhaps we just don’t care; but more likely, we find a way to rationalize our actions. In either case, we undermine the foundations of justice and peace we just laid down.

“And lead us not into temptation.” Our penultimate petition is for God to shield us from such temptations, knowing that we are weak and normally can’t fend them off for ourselves. Note that this petition, and the next, are more personal. We acknowledge our weakness and plead with God as individuals.

Now the climax! “Deliver us from evil.” At the end of the day, all evil comes down to one thing: ‘privation of being’. Lying, stealing, injuring encroach on the being of others; and the ultimate deprivation of being is death itself, mortality! The Old Testament Psalmist is obsessed with mortality, whether it be the risk of personal death in battle or the existential realization that “everyman is but a breath (Ps. 39)…his days are like a passing shadow (Ps. 144)”.

It does no good for God to feed us and forgive us…or for God to share with us his values or teach us his will…if we’re all destined for the ontological scrapheap. The last thing we ask of God, the one thing we MUST ask of God, is not to allow our existence to be erased. Our final plea can be nothing other than “Deliver us from evil!” It sums up all the others. “Does dust give you thanks?” (Psalm 30)

The final “Amen”, not found in either scriptural version of the prayer, completes the cycle. We began with “Our Father”. The Father is the ground of all Being, the source of all potentiality, “I AM”. It is from the Father (through the Son and by the Holy Spirit) that everything that is comes to be. When we say, “Our Father”, we celebrate the potentiality of the world.

When we close with “Amen”, we celebrate the actuality of world…the world, not just as pure potential, but as a completely realized matter of fact. God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Justice (‘bread’) and mercy (‘forgiveness’) do suffuse the entire world, and our futile, temporal lives are transformed and incorporated into God’s eternal life.

Psalm 151 is not just one Psalm among others, it is the prototypical Psalm. It summarizes the 150 Psalms that went before it into one, single, simple theological statement, one universal prayer. That is why the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most important collection of words ever written.

PSALMS

The Book of Psalms consists of 150 songs praising and exhorting God. While Psalms of praise and Psalms of exhortation arise out ot very different circumstances and project very different tones, the fundamental content is the same. As we shall see, some Psalms praise God for being God while others exhort God to be God. In either case, the focus of the Psalm is on God’s nature and, of course, we know that God is God and cannot be otherwise.

Almost half of the Psalms are attributed to King David but in fact the Book probably consists of smaller anthologies (e.g. Ps. 120 – 134) and individual entries collected and integrated into the master text over a period of several hundred years.

The Book of Psalms is organized into 5 books, each ending with a doxology. For example, the 4th book ends with the closing verse of Psalm 106: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Let all the peoples say, Amen! Hallelujah!”

While there are many similarities and even overlaps among the Psalms, there is also great thematic and stylistic diversity. Plus, the Psalms span a wide range of theological and philosophical sophistication.

Notes prefacing the Book of Psalms in the New American Bible divide the Psalms into 3 major categories:

(1)   Psalms of Praise

(2)   Psalms of Thanksgiving

(3)   Psalms of Lament

And several minor categories:

(4)   Royal Psalms (Ps. 20, 21, 72)

(5)   Wisdom Psalms (Ps. 37, 49)

(6)   Torah Psalms (Ps. 1, 19, 119)

(7)   Historical Psalms (Ps. 78, 105, 106)

(8)   Liturgical Psalms (Ps. 15, 24) (All Psalms are ‘liturgical’ but these Psalms may be self-contained liturgies in themselves.)

Rather than separate Psalms according to their stated purpose or style of composition, I would prefer to identify the major currents that run throughout the entire text. Instead of slicing the Book of Psalms vertically into categories and I would prefer to slice the text horizontally into its primary themes.

For example, the very first Psalm begins, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked…the law of the Lord is his joy and on his law he meditates day and night.” This theme, delight in the law of the Lord, recurs many times throughout the Psalms:

  • The law of the Lord is perfect…the decree of the Lord is trustworthy…the precepts of the Lord are right…the command of the Lord is clear…the fear of the Lord is pure…the statutes of the law are true, all of them just. (Ps. 19)
  • I delight to do you will, my God; your law is in my inner being (Ps. 40)
  • In your statues I take delight…my soul is stirred with longing for your judgments…lead me in the path of your commandments for that is my delight…my heart is set on fulfilling your statues, they are my reward forever…your law I love. (Ps. 119)

Delight in the law of the Lord leads naturally to a desire to understand better God’s will:

  • Lord, guide me in your justice…make straight your way before me (Ps. 4)
  • Make known to me your ways, Lord; teach me your paths (Ps. 25)
  • Teach me, Lord, your way that I may walk in your truth, single-hearted and revering your name (Ps. 86)
  • I am a sojourner in the land; do not hide your commandments from me. At all times my soul is stirred with longing for your judgments. (Ps. 119)

Why does the Psalmist delight in the law of the Lord and seek a better understanding of his will? Psalm 9 sums it up: “The Lord is revealed in making judgments”, and it is precisely that revelation we seek when we pray the Psalms.

Surprisingly, the Psalms offer few details about the content of God’s law and will. Perhaps the Psalmist assumes his hearers know these details by heart; but there is one remarkable exception to this generalization. The Book of Psalms is infused throughout with a concern for and a dedication to the poor. God’s law and will are all about the welfare of the disadvantaged:

  • The Lord is a stronghold of the oppressed (Ps. 9)
  • You win justice for the orphaned and the oppressed (Ps. 10)
  • They would crush the hopes of the poor, but the poor have the Lord as their refuge (Ps. 14)
  • O God, give your judgment to the King; your justice to the King’s son, that he may govern your people with justice, your oppressed with right judgment…that he may defend the oppressed among the people, save the children of the poor and crush the oppressor… (Ps. 72)
  • He raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor form the ash heap (Ps. 113)
  • I know the Lord will take up the cause of the needy, justice for the poor (Ps. 140)

Indeed, the Book of Psalms cites justice for the poor as one of the three marks that Yahweh is the one true God. In all, the Psalms offer three testimonies to the universal sovereignty of Yahweh. First, he is the creator of the heavens and the earth:

  • When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place… (Ps. 7)
  • The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. (Ps. 19)
  • The heavens praise your marvels, Lord…Who in the skies ranks with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the sons of the gods?…Yours are the heavens, yours the earth; you founded the world and everything in it (Ps. 89)

Second, he intervenes in history, preeminently to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, but also to rescue each of us from life’s every day perils:

  • God, when you went forth before your people, when you marched through the desert, the earth quaked, the heavens poured… (Ps. 68)
  • Graciously rescue me, God! Come quickly to help me, Lord! (Ps. 70)

Third, and most radically, he is consistently concerned for the poor and the oppressed; it is this more than anything else that sets Yahweh apart from other gods and from mortal rulers:

  • For he rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help. He shows pity to the needy and the poor and saves the lives of the poor. From extortion and violence he redeems them, for precious is their blood in his sight (Ps.72)

In fact, the Psalms exhort all temporal rulers to follow Yahweh’s example and to govern according to his will:

  • And now kings, give heed; take warning judges on earth, serve the Lord with fear… (Ps. 2)
  • Do you indeed pronounce justice, O gods; do you judge fairly you children of Adam? No, you freely engage in crime…O God, smash the teeth in their mouths; break the fangs of these lions, Lord!…Let them wither like grass. (Ps. 58)
  • How long will you judge unjustly and favor the cause of the wicked?…Defend the lowly and the fatherless; render justice to the afflicted and needy. Rescue the lowly and the poor; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Ps. 82)

While there are three testimonies to Yahweh’s sovereignty, there is only one God. The God who made heaven and earth is the same God who intervenes in history and the God who intervenes repeatedly in history is the same God who loves justice and advocates for the poor. Somehow, these very different aspects of God’s nature are connected and the Book of Psalms does a good job of connecting the dots:

  • The Lord is king, the peoples tremble, he is enthroned on the cherubim, the earth quakes…O mighty king, lover of justice, you have established fairness; you have created just rule in Jacob…Moses and Aaron were among his priests…from the pillar of cloud he spoke to them (Ps. 99)
  • The Lord is on high, but cares for the lowly (Ps. 138)
  • The maker of heaven and earth…secures justice for the oppressed…the Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind. The Lord raises up those who are bowed down…the Lord protects the resident alien, comes to the aid of the orphan and widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked. The Lord shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah! (Ps. 146)
  • The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem and gathers the dispersed of Israel…He numbers the stars and gives to all of them their names…The Lord gives aid to the poor (Ps. 147)

What is it about God that makes these three seemingly disparate roles expressions of a single nature? Love. God is Love. Therefore God creates, therefore God intervenes, therefore God redeems. Out of love God made the world, out of love God diverts its course and out of love God ensures that all creatures will ultimately be citizens of a just Kingdom where the needs of the least are fully satisfied.

Although the Book of Psalms pre-dates the Christian doctrine of Trinity by at least 500 years, the ideas behind that doctrine are already nascent in this text. Yahweh as creator of heaven and earth suggests the Trinitarian Father. Yahweh’s intervention in history presages the Incarnation, the Trinitarian Son. Finally, God’s dedication to justice and his active concern for the poor reflect the Trinitarian Spirit, the eschatological Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven, the realm of eternal justice.

When God creates the heavens and the earth, he sets the initial conditions necessary for the ultimate realization of his Kingdom. History, the spatiotemporal realm, is the evolution of the actual world, gradually but freely, toward that Kingdom.

We learn from the Nicene Creed that it is through the action of the Holy Spirit that God is Incarnate in the world. The Holy Spirit is the eschatological Christ projected back into history. Temporal justice is a foretaste of the Kingdom to come when “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing (Ps. 34).”

These ‘initial conditions’ are God’s values. The Psalms seek to discover those values and manifest them. By praying the Psalms we seek to make God’s values our own. God’s values are who God is and according to the Book of Psalms

  • He is refuge, security, comfort, shield, shelter and peace
  • He is fair, just and righteous
  • He is trustworthy and faithful
  • He is compassionate and merciful
  • He is a lover and defender of the humble, the needy, the poor, the oppressed.

God’s values are his guidebook for the evolution of history and they are his blueprints for the Kingdom of Heaven:

  • The plan of the Lord stands forever, the designs of his heart through all generations (Ps 33)

In sum, we can say with the Psalmist, “The One who fashioned together their hearts is the One who knows all their works.” (Ps 33) The God of creation is also the God of redemption.

When we pray the Psalms we seek to synchronize our minds and hearts with God’s. We strive to make the world’s initial conditions our own ‘initial conditions’. We seek to set in motion our own spiritual evolution toward our own personal realization of God’s Kingdom; but at the same time we know that that realization must translate into just acts and charitable works which we project back into the world to encourage the universal evolution toward Kingdom.

The Law of the Lord is a projection of God’s heart and mind, values and will, into the historical world. It is in that sense that Jesus, God incarnate, can say, in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Therefore, the values of the Psalms and the statutes of the Torah are opposite sides of the same tapestry. When we pray the Psalms, we become like the ‘blessed man’ of the first Psalm: the law of the Lord is our joy; we meditate on it day and night.

Psalm 15 translates God’s values translate into law; it exhorts us to walk without blame by…

  • Doing what is right
  • Speaking truth
  • Avoiding slander
  • Doing no harm to a friend
  • Never defaming a neighbor
  • Disdaining the wicked and honoring those who fear the Lord
  • Keeping oaths no matter what the cost
  • Lending no money at interest
  • Accepting no bribe

We learn the will of God by praying the Psalms; we conform our lives to that will by following his commandments; and by our deeds of justice and charity we project his will back into the evolving history of the world. Psalm 15 (above) ends, “Whoever acts like this shall never be shaken.”

In this, we ourselves are imitators and agents of God. We conform ourselves to God’s heart and mind by adopting his values, the initial conditions through which the world was made. We make God’s will incarnate in the world by obeying his law. We project the eschatological Kingdom of God back into the world when we act out of a real concern for the poor and the oppressed.

And what do we know of this ‘eschatological Kingdom’?

  • …The poor will inherit the earth…the righteous will inherit the earth and dwell in it forever (Ps. 37)
  • I know the Lord will take up the cause of the needy, justice for the poor. Then the righteous will give thanks to your name; the upright will dwell in your presence (Ps. 140)

When we pray the Psalms, we praise God by celebrating his values and delighting in his law; but as we noted initially, that is only one aspect of praying the Psalms. In addition to praising God we also exhort God. Out of our darkest moments, our times of physical danger, emotional despair and existential angst, the Psalms call out to God for salvation and, ultimately, for redemption:

  • Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are shuddering…I am wearied with sighing; all night long I drench my bed with tears…the Lord will receive my prayer (Ps. 6)
  • Like water my life drains away; all my bones are disjointed. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me. (Ps.22)
  • My life is worn out by sorrow…my bones are wearing down…terrors are all around me…Let your face shine on your servant, save me in your mercy (Ps. 31)
  • Rescue me from my enemies, my God; lift me out of the reach of my foes. Deliver me from evildoers; from the bloodthirsty save me (Ps.59)
  • Lord of hosts, restore us; light up your face and we shall be saved (Ps. 80)
  • In your great mercy rescue me. For I am poor and needy; my heart is pierced within me. Like a lengthening shadow I am gone, I am shaken off like a locust (Ps. 109)
  • Out of the depths I call to you, Lord; Lord hear my cry!” (Ps. 130)

Of course, the root of all our fear and anguish is the dreadful knowledge of our own mortality. The Psalmist is often concerned with mortality at a very concrete level:

  • What gain is there from my lifeblood, from my going down to the grave? Does dust give you thanks… (Ps. 30)
  • Oppose, O Lord, those who oppose me; war upon those who make war upon me (Ps. 35)

But at other times, the Psalms rise to an existential appreciation of the human condition:

  • Every man is but a breath (Ps. 39)
  • Mortals are mere breath, the sons of man but an illusion; on a balance they rise, together they weigh nothing. (Ps. 62)
  • As for man, his days are like the grass; he blossoms like a flower in the field. A wind sweeps over it and it is gone; its place knows it no more (Ps. 103)
  • Man is but breath, his days are like a passing shadow (Ps. 144)

But the God of the Psalms promises salvation from the numbing futility of mortality:

  • He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days forever (Ps. 21)
  • I will dwell in the house of the Lord for endless days (Ps. 23)
  • I believe I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living (Ps. 27)
  • Into your hands I commend my spirit; you will redeem me, Lord, God of truth (Ps. 31)
  • Our God is a God who saves; escape from death is the Lord God’s (Ps. 68)
  • I will establish his dynasty forever, his throne as the days of the heavens (Ps. 89)
  • What is man that he should live and not see death (Ps. 89)
  • The Lord has decreed a blessing, life for evermore (Ps. 133)

To understand God’s promise of eternal life, it is helpful to understand the contrary. What becomes of evil acts and evildoers? First, understand that evil is its own punishment:

  • He digs a hole and bores it deep, but he falls into the pit he has made. His malice turns back upon his head; the violence falls on his own skull (Ps. 7)
  • By the deeds they do the wicked are trapped (Ps. 9)
  • Let the snares they have set catch them; let them fall into the pit they have dug (Ps. 35)
  • Their idols are silver and gold…they have mouths but do not speak…ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell…hands but do not feel, feet but do not walk…Their makers will be like them, and anyone who trusts in them. (Ps. 115)

God does not need to punish evil; he can afford to remain consistently compassionate and merciful. Evil is not consistent with the ‘initial conditions’ God established for the world. Evil is not compatible with God’s values. Therefore,

  • The wicked will not arise at the judgment (Ps. 1)
  • The future of the wicked will be cut off (Ps. 37)
  • The desire of the wicked comes to nothing (Ps. 112)

By contrast, obeying the law of the Lord is its own reward:

  • He is like a tree…that yields its fruit in season; its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers (Ps. 1)
  • There is a future for a man of peace. (Ps. 37)
  • My heart is set on fulfilling your statutes; they are my reward forever…your law I love. You are my refuge and shield; in your word I hope. (Ps. 119)

Compassion and mercy may rescue the sinner…but never the sin. If a person consisted of nothing but sin, then his self, though rescued, would be empty. Justice, charity and peace, foretastes of the Kingdom of God, are what fills us.

Accordingly, the Psalms do not so much call for the punishment of wrongdoing and as they celebrate its inevitable annihilation. Ultimately, all evil, no matter how terrible, comes to nothing:

  • The Lord’s face is against evildoers to wipe out their memory from the earth (Ps. 34)
  • Like grass they wither away quickly; like green plants they wilt away…Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more; look for them and they will not be there (Ps. 37)
  • They are like a dream after waking, Lord, dismissed like shadows when you arise (Ps. 73)
  • My God, make them like tumbleweed, into chaff flying before the wind (Ps.83)
  • May his posterity be destroyed, their name rooted out in the next generation…May their guilt be always before the Lord, till their memory is banished from the earth (Ps. 109)

Notice how much this language sounds like the language used to describe mortality itself (above). We are tempted to compare the passive mortality of the human condition (‘original sin’?) with the active mortality of evil. They have much in common.

It is as true to say that mortality is evil as it is to say that evil is mortal. A world without God is a hopeless, futile, vacuous place. According to the Psalmist, those who claim to find value in a world without God are sorely deceived:

  • The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Ps. 14)

Now compare this with the fate of the just:

  • The Lord is just and loves just deeds; the upright will see his face (Ps. 11)
  • I am just – let me see your face; when I awake, let me be filled with your presence (Ps. 17)
  • For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light (Ps. 36)
  • May God be gracious to us and bless us; may his face shine upon us. (Ps. 67)
  • Your years last through all generations. Of old you laid the earth’s foundations, the heavens are the work of your hands. They perish but you remain, they wear out like a garment; like clothing you change them and they are changed, but you are the same, your years have no end. May the children of your servants live on; may their descendants live in your presence. (Ps. 102)
  • The dead do not praise the Lord…it is we who bless the Lord, both now and forever. Hallelujah! (Ps. 115)

The Psalms consistently describe eternal life in terms of Presence. We are filled with God’s presence, we live in God’s presence, in his light we see light, we bless the Lord, and most importantly, we see his face and his face shines upon us.

These are all simply different ways of describing our reciprocal relationship with God. When we gaze on God’s face and he on ours, we are co-present to one another; we are no longer ‘ships passing in the night’. Our relationship transcends time and space; and when we enter into a reciprocal relationship with an eternal being, we ourselves necessarily participate in eternity.

  • You are my son; today I have begotten you (Ps. 2)
  • You are my Lord, you are my only good (Ps. 16)
  • Your face, Lord, do I seek! Do not hide your face from me (Ps. 27)

To do evil is to reject such a reciprocal relationship and thereby to condemn oneself to ‘terminal mortality’. At the time we don’t realize what we’ve done. Life seems long and time stretches out ahead of us. But eventually, we see with the Psalmist that our lives are but breath, a wind, without weight and having no place in the world. To the extent that we have lived evil lives, we have simply chosen not to live at all.

Of course, we are not by ourselves capable of entering into a reciprocal relationship with God. We need his grace to do so and that grace is founded on mercy:

  • Remember me according to your mercy, because of your goodness, Lord (Ps.25)
  • Let your face shine on your servant: save me in your mercy (Ps. 31)
  • We are overcome by our sins; only you can pardon them (Ps. 65)

Psalm 150, the final Psalm, closes with what might be considered a complete summation of the Book of Psalms…and of this essay:

  • Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord! Hallelujah!

Breath is the Psalms’ primary metaphor for mortality. Everything that has breath is mortal. But if a mortal turns that breath to praising God, conforming to his values, obeying his law, witnessing to his Kingdom, then God enters into a reciprocal relationship with that mortal, bringing him into his Presence and ensuring him eternal life. This is the great hope of the Psalms!