Revelations, Books of Psalms and other scriptures

Last week we noticed some embarrassing corrections related to how newspapers described the Epistle to the Ephesians. In the comments, Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers wrote:

My paper today carried a Washington Post story about the memorial service for explosion victims in West, Texas, that said President Obama alluded to the “Books of Psalms.”

Could that be true? The Books of Psalms? Is Biblical illiteracy this bad? Literary knowledge at an all time low? Let’s check out the passage:

It was the second time in as many weeks that Obama had to console a grieving community after a tragedy, following a trip to Boston last week. Before he spoke, videorecorded eulogies quoted the tearful grandparents, parents, wives, relatives and friends of the fallen. At Baylor, the wails of crying babies and young children echoed through the Ferrell Center.

“I cannot match the power of the voices you just heard on that video,” Obama said. Alluding to the Books of Psalms, he said: “You have been tested, West. You have been tried. You have gone through fire. But you are and will always be surrounded by the abundance of love.”

Yikes. Or is it that bad? As commenter Brett responded:

Ann — What’s in our Bibles as the Psalms has been considered to be made up of five “books” or sections, each ending with a doxology or a benediction. The sections are Pss. 1-41; Pss. 42-72; Pss. 73-89; Pss. 90-106 and Pss. 107-150. Some Bibles will have headings like “Book 1″ or “Book 4″ to mark the groupings.

That being said, the division is not common knowledge and although it’s possible President Obama meant his construction in that way, I’d imagine it’s just one of those slips of the tongue that happen sometimes.

I didn’t watch President Obama’s comments, but I didn’t take it that it was his reference to the “Books” of Psalms but, rather, the Washington Post‘s. The commenter later noted:

Whoops, just reread Ann’s comment and realized she may have been talking about what the WaPo writer said and not the President. If it was the writer, then I’m agreeing with her that it’s the kind of omission from ignorance that also brings us “the Book of Revelations.”

Nothing makes me want to scream quite like people making the Revelation of St. John into “Revelations.” Anyway, for future reference, here’s the passage from which President Obama was riffing:

Oh, bless our God, you peoples!
And make the voice of His praise to be heard,
Who keeps our soul among the living,
And does not allow our feet to be moved.
For You, O God, have tested us;
You have refined us as silver is refined.
You brought us into the net;
You laid affliction on our backs.
You have caused men to ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;
But You brought us out to rich fulfillment.

The more you know, as they say.

Psalms image via Shutterstock.

More about Ray Lewis and his Psalms 91 t-shirt

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So, GetReligion readers, I am happy to report that the Baltimore Sun team noticed the scripture reference at the heart of one of the biggest moments in the recent history of sports here in Charm City. I am referring to the fact — click here for the previous GetReligion post — that when, after Ravens personnel had ripped the jersey off his back, superstar linebacker Ray Lewis faced national television cameras and ran a victory lap of the stadium while wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed “Psalms 91.”

The Bible reference was featured at the end of prominent story about Lewis’ volunteer work, often faith-based, in the community. More on that in a minute.

The t-shirt drew its own short Sun online story which I didn’t see in the dead-tree-pulp newspaper, unless it merely missed the edition delivered at my house near the Baltimore Beltway.

The key question, of course, was this: Why this particular Psalm?

That raises, for me, an interesting journalistic question. How, precisely, are journalists supposed to know which part of this famous and complex passage of scripture inspired Lewis’ symbolic act if they didn’t dare to ask him that question?

Well — DUH! — you choose the most controversial motive, in this case noting that parts of Psalm 91 fit into the whole image of Lewis living as an angry warrior still haunted by the enemies who doubt his words and acts of repentance for his serious, serious errors in the past.

Thus, Sun online readers read:

… Curious minds wanted to understand what point Lewis was trying to make as he took a victory lap around the stadium wearing this particular shirt.

The psalm is known as the “psalm of protection.” It has a lot to do with vanquishing various enemies with faith and treading upon beasts under one’s feet. Here’s a key passage:

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

Of course, the biblical reference to treading on lions and serpents led the Sun team to the obvious National Football League connection — the need to tread on Colts, Bengals, Lions, Eagles, etc. It’s the playoffs, you know.

The actual news report — “Fans praise Lewis’ efforts on and off the field” — touched on a number of different projects that have drawn support from Lewis, especially a project to fight the spread of AIDS among African-Americans.

The faith themes in the piece came together at the end, including a quote from the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, who is known for his work in tough, impoverished streets. At one point, he noted that the fact Lewis has spent a few days in jail does not offend many people on that side of the city.

Some observers find his speeches about redemption cloying and his over-heated rhetoric about leadership silly. Ravens fans eagerly awaited his dance before each home game; others mocked it. …

As Lewis left the field for the last time, he wore a shirt that read simply “Psalms 91.” Like other Bible passages Lewis has referenced, it is a vivid telling of triumph through difficult times. “You will trample the great lion and the serpent,” it reads.

“Ray’s story is ancient, and it is beautiful,” Witherspoon said. “It speaks to Baltimore.”

The reference to “triumph through difficult times” is solid, but, of course, frames Psalm 91 in sports-friendly terms. “Triumph” sounds better in the newspaper, perhaps, than more doctrinal words such as “repentance” and “salvation.”

But let me ask my main question again: How do journalists know what the Psalms 91 t-shirt was saying, for Lewis himself, without asking him?

Does this matter? Well, is he an angry, paranoid warrior or a thankful, repentant believer?

With that in mind, please read past the jump and note the full Psalm 91 text. If in the journalistic driver’s seat, which section of the psalm — speaking to journalists — would you have argued was most relevant as Lewis ran his farewell lap on Sunday?

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