Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shoher Tov on Psalm 4:9, and Alma 33:4-11: Reflect in your heart

There is a time when the gates of prayer are open,
and there is also a time when the gates of prayer are shut--
but the gates of mercy are never shut
(Shoher Tov on Psalm 4: The Midrash on the Psalms, translated by William G. Braude [Providence, Rhode Island, Yale University Press, 1959], 67).


Few places in the Book of Mormon match the beauty found in its prayers. Consider the prayer of the Brother of Jared, the prayers over the sacramental bread and wine, Alma's baptismal prayer at the Waters of Mormon. Among these gems glistens the multi-faceted Psalm of Zenos, "the prophet of old," a psalm which, at every turn, reflects the light of the pre-exilic language of the Hebrews (Alma 33: 4-11). The psalm comes to us embedded in a sermon of the prophet Alma; sermons in the Book of Mormon show yet another type of self-contained discourse, but can we find anything Hebraic matching Alma and Amulek's long-winded preaching to the Zoramites (Alma 32-34)?

As every reader of the Book of Mormon observes, the beauty of Zenos's psalm lies in the sense of a turning from one scene of prayer to another, a movement in time, space, and intensity of feeling. Zenos turns from an expanse of wilderness to field, home, closet, followed by a re-turn to multitudinous urban congregations; then, sadly, to exile's empty wilderness again. Yet in every place God may be found, when the devout pray to be heard of him, and not of men.

Thou art merciful, O God,
for thou hast heard my prayer,
even when I was in the wilderness;
yea, thou wast merciful when I prayed
concerning those who were mine enemies,
and thou didst turn them to me.

Yea, O God, and thou was merciful unto me
when I did cry unto thee in my field;
when I did cry unto thee in my prayer,
and thou didst hear me.

And, again, O God, when I did turn to my house
thou didst hear me in my prayer.

And when I did turn unto my closet, O Lord,
and prayed unto thee,
thou didst hear me.

Yea, thou art merciful unto thy children
when they cry unto thee,
to be heard of thee
and not of men,
and thou wilt hear them.

Yea, O God,
thou hast been merciful unto me,
and heard my cries in the midst of thy congregations.

Yea, and thou hast also heard me
when I have been cast out
and have been despised by mine enemies;
yea, thou didst hear my cries,
and wast angry with mine enemies,
and thou didst visit them in thine anger
with speedy destruction.

And thou didst hear me
because of mine afflictions
and my sincerity;
and it is because of thy Son that thou hast been thus merciful unto me,

therefore I will cry unto thee
in all mine afflictions,
for in thee is my joy;

for thou hast turned thy judgments away from me,
because of thy Son
(Alma 33:4-11, http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/alma/33?lang=eng).

The unadorned beauty astonishes the reader: we sense no limit to what can be said about these words. To what may we, as seekers of beauty (shoherei tov, indeed!), compare all these things?

Consider the following midrash on Psalm 4:9 (verse 8 in the KJV), taken from the Shoher Tov (or Midrash Tehillim). Since that Midrash likely consists of material culled from old Jewish sermons, the homily on Psalms 4 duly reflects an original "full-length sermon" "concerning prayer or worship," exactly in the manner of Alma preaching to the Zoramites ("sermon," William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms, 1:xx; "concerning prayer," Alma 33:3).

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Jews:
I have said to you--
When you pray, pray in the synagogue in your city.
If you cannot pray in the synagogue, pray in your field.
If you cannot pray in your field, pray in your house.
And if you cannot pray on your bed, reflect in your heart (Braude, 1:73).

Amulek takes up Alma's burden:

Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks.
Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening. . .
But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.
Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full,
drawn out in prayer unto him continually.
(Selections from Alma 34:20-27).

All resolves into peace in the inner chamber of the heart:

Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy on me, and hear my prayer.
The Lord will hear when I call unto him.

Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.

Thou hast put gladness in my heart.
I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep:
for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety.
(Selections from Psalm 4: 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, http://www.lds.org/scriptures/ot/ps/4?lang=eng)


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