Monday, 7 March 2011

Shakespeare's favourite Psalm

Last night I wondered which psalm, out of a total of one hundred and fifty psalms,  William Shakespeare's was most drawn to?

We all have our favourite psalms. These are psalms which, though Hebrew hymns, seem to reflect something deep in our own experience of life and faith. Shakespeare quotes from sixty two psalms in his writings. But there is a clear winner and I am pleased today to be able to announce it.

I half expected it to be mighty and poetic Psalm 46: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help". Some people think Shakespeare left his hidden 'signature' in the King James Bible's version of Psalm 46, because 'shake' is the 46th word from the start and 'spear' is the 46th  word from its end. Biographers have created fanciful stories about how he met a translator of the Bible around 1610 in a London tavern and offered to polish the Psalm, while sipping ale. But at that period the Poet was living in Stratford most of the year.

I am not convinced by this idea. If you check the wording in the Protestant 'Geneva Bible', the Bible of the Jamestown settlers in America, which was translated before Shakespeare was born (and which he used), almost exactly the same phenomenon occurs. "Shake" is 47th word from the start and "spear" is 45th word from the end.  It may even be that "shake" and "spear" are the 46th words from the start and end in the Hebrew of King David.

I thought Shakespeare might love Psalm 150, about instruments and music or Psalm 23, which has such a mysterious power:  the power to revive the dying, faint and sick. I recited it over a friend once, who later said she was "definitely dying" and she rallied. I was fainting away once, too. A nurse recited it over me and the power of the words infused me with consciousness and healing. Psalm 23 is an adrenalin shot in the arm, or rather in the spiritual heart of a Christian.

Actually, Shakespeare's  favourite psalm was Psalm 18, which starts: "The Lord is my Rock, my fortress and my deliverer". There are eleven quotations from Psalm 18 noted in his works. If one also counts five quotations assigned to 2 Samuel 22 (which is Psalm 18), there are a total of sixteen quotations in Shakespeare's works from this one Psalm.

Psalm 18 is one of my favourite psalms. It tells the story of David remembering a miraculous recovery from a ghastly situation, through the compassion of God. It is about divine rescue, from utter despair.   It attributes all that one ever does, and achieves, to God, and has the immortal lines "You stoop down to make me great".  How apt for a great writer too, particularly one whose own work had such as rich hidden undergirding of God's word.

I also like the image of the nimble deer:

"He enables me to stand on the heights".

The Geneva Bible is at:

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