Psalms For Jews, Christians And Muslims – OpEd


The title “Psalms” comes from the Septuagint (a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), where it originally referred to stringed instruments (harp, lyre, lute etc.), then to songs sung with their accompaniment. The traditional Hebrew title is tehillim (meaning “praises”); and the second verse of of the first chapter of the Qur’an states “all praise is due to Allah” However, Prophet David’s Zabur, the Book of Tehillim, the Gospels and the Qur’an contain much more than simple praise of God. The Psalms are impassioned, vivid and concrete; they are rich in images, in simile and metaphor. 

Of the 150 psalms, only 34 lack musical superscriptions of any kind. The individual psalms are all different from each other: there are psalms devoted to praise, thanksgiving, lament, sorrow, illness, desperation, wisdom, Jewish history (Psalms 104–106) and yearning for rescue and redemption. Likewise, Torah and Qur’an have many different subjects, including history, law, advice, warnings of destruction, promises of Paradise and of course, praise for God. Psalms is for the most part a book of petition and praise where faith speaks to God in prayer and of God in praise. But there are also psalms that are explicitly instructional in form and purpose (teaching the way of morals and holiness). 

The final editors obviously knew that many voices from many times spoke here, but none that in their judgment was incompatible with the Torah and the Prophets. At the core of Psalms is a conviction that the center of Jewish life is trust, hope, justice, morality, adoration and covenant loyalty, plus Jewish history and awe for nature, all based on the one and only God (Yahweh, “the Lord”;

The opening of Psalms is similar to the opening of the Qur’an (hence its name, “the opening”).

Sura 1 starts: “In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds. The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment. It is You we worship, and upon You we call for help. Guide us to the straight path. The path of those You have blessed, not of those against whom there is anger, nor of those who are misguided.”

And Psalm 1 starts: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in God’s Torah, and who meditates on God’s Torah day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding its fruit in season, whose leaf does not wither—and  they prosper.

“Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.”

We can see that both of these introductory poems advise humans to take the path of other righteous people; while avoiding the road of the misguided. The idea of picking the best way forward is important to both the Bible and to the Qur’an. Both books recognize that life is filled with choices, and that we are better off when we choose to study and follow God’s ways while rejecting the ways of people who do not respect the One and Only God of unending space and time.

Although Prophet Solomon’s wealth built the Jerusalem Temple, it is his father Prophet David’s musical songs and chants that made the services very special. The Psalms/Zabur of David (Qur’an 4:163, 17:55, 21:105) often refer to the Jewish worshipper’s love of the Jerusalem Temple, first as a sacred tent with Sakina in the desert, and later as the courtyards of God’s house on the holy mountain of Zion. 

For example some scholars think that the words of Psalm 15 were inscribed on the doorposts or lintels of the Jerusalem Temple courtyards:

A psalm of David.

1 Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?
2 One whose walk is blameless, who do what is righteous,
    who speaks truth from their heart;
3 whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor,
    and casts no slur on others;
4 who despises a vile person, but honors those who fear the Lord;
    who keeps an oath even when it hurts,  and does not change his or her mind;
5 who lends money to the poor without interest;
    and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. 
    Whoever does these things will never be shaken.

The Qur’an teaches us about Prophet David and his Book (Zabur): “And your Lord is most knowing of whoever is in the heavens and the earth. And We have made some of the prophets exceed others [in various ways], and to (Prophet) David We gave the book [of Psalms]. (Qur’an 17:55)

And the Qur’an informs us: “We subjected the (Zion) mountains to exalt [Us], along with David and [also] the birds.” (Qur’an 21:79)  “And We certainly gave David from Us bounty. (saying), ‘O (Zion) mountains, repeat praises (of Uplift) with him (David’s songs), and the birds [as well].’ (Qur’an 34:10)

The Qur’an also states: “And We have preferred some prophets over others, and We gave (Prophet/King) David, Psalms.” (17:55) and “David! We did indeed make you a vicegerent [khalîfah] on earth: so judge [rule] between men in truth [and justice]…” [38:26] and Qur’an 4:163 again states “and to David We gave Psalms”

The Zabur/Book of Psalms is the third of the five longest books in the Hebrew Bible: Jeremiah (33,002 words), Genesis (32,046 words), Psalms (30,147 words), Ezekiel (29,918 words) and Exodus  (25, 957 words). Of the 150 psalms almost half, 73 are by David, plus 12 by Asaph, David’s worship leader, and 11 by three repentant descendants of Korah’s family (Torah Numbers 16:1-50), 5 by other writers and about 50 nameless inspired Psalms. 

The Talmud names David and ten other authors: “David composed the book of Psalms with ten other elders (the first two of them non-Jews): Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heiman, Yedutun, Asaph, and three sons of Korach.” (Bava Batra 14b.)

Thus the book of Psalms has more authors than any other single book in the Bible, which is only to be expected because every Christian, Muslim and Jew needs the ability to express and articulate both supplication and thanksgiving, from those desperately seeking help from the one God of all humanity; to those expressing joy and gratitude to the one God who created the universe. These varied prayers have over the centuries frequently flowed from faithful hearts and minds. 

The book of Psalms is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that actually expresses the words written to God from God inspired men and women, together with words from God speaking to us, and also words from God giving us a way to speak to him. Prophet Jesus quoted the Psalms more often than from any other book in the Hebrew Bible. So there were as many as 50-60 different prophetic authors included in the Book of Psalms; as the Qur’an states (40:78): “We already sent messengers before you (Prophet Muhammad). We have told you the stories of some of them, while others We have not.”

It is narrated from Abu Dharr that one day he asked the Messenger of Allah: How many prophets are there in all? He replied: One hundred and twenty four thousand. He then asked: How many of them were messenger prophets? He replied: Three hundred thirteen from the above group. He asked: Who was the first of them? He replied: Adam…The first prophet among Bani Israel was Musa and the last of them was Isa; and they were in all six hundred (Jewish) prophets.” (Biharul Anwar, Vol. 11, Pg. 32.)

The Zabur (Arabic: زبور) according to Islam is the holy book of Dawud (David), one of the three holy books revealed by Allah before the Quran, alongside the Tawrat (Torah) of Musa (Moses) and the Injil (Gospel) of Īsā (Jesus). (Qur’an 4:163, 17:55 and 21:105)

The Zabur’s collection of 150 Hebrew hymns and songs are often called Dawud’s Zabur (Psalms of David). Not because Prophet David wrote all of the Zabur, because the Zabur itself names several other Jewish prophets and holy men as having contributed to it; but because more of the Zabur is attributed to David than to any other prophet.

In Psalm 138 Prophet David professes the future influence of Christianity and Islam in spreading monotheism throughout the world. 

1 I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart; before the “poly-gods” I will sing your praise.
2 I will bow down toward your holy temple (in Jerusalem and Mecca) and (I) will praise your name for your ongoing love and your faithfulness,for you have enlarged your speech (to Christians and Muslims) so that it surpasses your (specific Jewish) name.
3 When I called, you answered me;   you greatly expanded my spiritual vision.
4 May all (non-Jewish) kings of the earth praise you, Lord, when they hear what you have decreed.
5 May they sing of the ways of the Lord, for the glory of the Lord is unending.
6 Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly;  though lofty, he sees them (the lowly) from afar.
7 Though I (every person) walk in the midst of trouble,    you preserve my life.You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes;    with your right hand you save me.8 The Lord makes (good) things happen for me; your love, Lord, is ongoing, (you) do not abandon the works of your hands.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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