The last word

Endings matter. The beginning of a story has to be compelling enough to keep you reading or watching, but the end must satisfy. Many of us have read novels that led us to care about what happened to the main characters — only to let us down at the end. I remember one whose plot could be summarized as follows: John and Mary had to move to another country because of his work. They struggled to adapt to the culture, and it put a strain on their marriage, exposing the cracks that were already there. But they began to understand themselves and each other better, and the relationship began to improve.

Then Mary found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was shot to death during a robbery. John was left to pick up the pieces of his life. The End.

Maybe some people enjoy stories like that, or find them “deep.”

Personally, I felt cheated, abandoned, like someone drove me out to the middle of a literary desert and left me there.

Truth be told, some psalms read like that (Psalm 137 comes to mind). But that can’t be said about the Psalter as a whole.

. . .

Several months ago, I began this series of reflections on the Psalms, appropriately enough, with Psalm 1. The Psalter is not a haphazard jumble of songs and poems. Psalm 1 doesn’t just happen to be first, any more than the first chapter of a book is placed there at random. The psalm sets the tone for the rest of the collection, laying out a vision of life as a choice of which road to follow: do we walk the way of the righteous, or the way of the wicked? The first is the way of blessing and prosperity; the second is the way of destruction.

That straightforward vision, however, is complicated by the lament psalms. And even that statement is too simple: though we can easily distinguish words of lament from words of praise, it’s not as if every psalm is only one or the other. As we’ve seen, many psalms that would be classified as psalms of lament contain words of trust or praise. The psalmist begins by complaining to God, but by the end, has either been rescued or given the promise of rescue, and the psalmist gives thanks. Even the most vehement of cursing psalms can turn to praise (e.g., Ps 109); even the most depressing laments (e.g., Ps 88) have an element of faith and trust, feeble though it may be.

It would probably be better, then, to not try too hard to classify psalms into categories, but to recognize instead that there is an ongoing tension between lament and praise that runs through the entire Psalter, a tension that is often left unresolved.

That tension is itself the domain of faith.

That’s where we live.

. . .

Having said that, again, endings matter. If Psalm 1 sets the tone by being placed first, something similar can be said about Psalm 150, which is placed last. In fact, one could say that Psalms 146 through 150 as a group send a common message. Every single one of those psalms begins and ends with the same two Hebrew words.

We know these words as hallelujah or alleluia — a shout of joy or thanksgiving that can occasionally be heard even outside of a religious context. Sometimes, it’s uttered with a touch of sarcasm, as in, Well, hallelujah. It’s about freakin’ time.

But literally, the words mean Praise the LORD.

The Psalter begins with a vision of God’s design for life: we are meant to follow his Instruction and walk the way of righteousness. Along the way, we discover just how complicated life can be. The Psalter is filled with laments about how much the righteous suffer and how the wicked seem to prosper instead. What’s going on here, God? the psalmists want to know. Their writing is unflinchingly honest about their struggles to remain faithful in the face of it all, about how they reach out plaintively to a God who seems to be deaf to their prayers.

And yet…the last word is and must still be Hallelujah!

The praise of God is the end to which faithful lament points, even if that end is yet many chapters away.