Psalm Structures Old and New Part 1

Part one of his three-part exploration reflects on the challenge of discerning structure within the Psalter. It then explores the spiritual significance of two very different structures that have been found within the Psalms.

For much of Church history various scholars, lay people, clergy, religious, and theologians have been obsessed with the structure of Psalter and/or the grouping of the psalms. Recent scholarship has followed a particular variation on this since work by Brevard Childs (late 1970s) and Gerald Wilson (early 1980s). In short, Wilson argued that the Psalter had more than just a structure. He found an overall story arc concerning King David. This proposed metanarrative become a focus of what is sometimes termed the canonical approach to Psalms interpretation. This idea has been refined at every level as scholars have (a) continued to search for links between adjacent psalms (microstructure), (b) sought to establish the connections between collected psalms such as the Psalms of Ascents (mesostructure) and (c) discern variations on the David metanarrative (macrostructure).

Those who pray the Psalter in canonical order have readily discerned hints of structure—most readily microstructure—on the journey through the Psalms. The canonical approach formalises, even crystallise, some aspects of this structure. In doing so this recent scholarship sometimes focuses on the final collection of the Psalms. This is as a synchronic approach with a literary emphasis on the final form of the Psalter. Other scholars give much attention to the formation of the collection with a diachronic method that goes beyond literary concerns. Some see value in considering form and formation as two sides of the interpretive endeavour.

I have found there to be value in discerning the structure of the Psalter. There are undoubtedly features of the Psalter at the microstructural level where neighbouring palms often connect or complement each other in terms of motifs, key words, mood, voice, and heading. At the mesostructural level some collections are readily delineated by their distinct features and more tentatively their function. Again, the Psalms of Ascents come to mind. At the macrostructural—overarching story—level the various proposals have merit as a lens with which to read the Psalms. Nevertheless, there are important caveats to the value of the canonical endeavour.

Critical scholarship has, over some two centuries or so, provided much insight into the biblical text by using an immensely diverse array of methods. Its weaknesses also loom just as large. Both the gains and problems of critical scholarship have been rehearsed many times, and with immense insight. I have found Hans Frei [1], Francis Watson [2] and Michael Legaspi [3] to be stimulating in this regard. One immense problem is the provisionality of critical scholarship which does not sit comfortably with the notion of Scripture. Of course, some would argue that I am muddling chalk and cheese in making such a claim. A second issue is that scholarship is subject to faddism. I suggest that this is found in extremis with the Psalms. In Psalms’ scholarship three paradigms have dominated the last 100 years as scholars have attempted to understand formation, form and nature of the Psalter. Firstly, there was form criticism with twin foci on literary genre and their use in specific situations. This gave rise to new questions about ancient Israelite psalm use. Cult criticism arose partly in response to these questions. Then came canonical criticism, mentioned above, partly in response to the inability of the former method to explain many literary features of the Psalter.

Each of the three methods has been found problematic when developed to the exclusion of other methods. Each raises related yet distinct issues of how these paradigms might relate to contemporary psalm use by the community of faith. All three, however, offer valuable insight when tempered by an openness to other parallel paradigms. The canonical approach has reached, in my view, the end of the road in that ongoing proposals are either (i) such minute variations on a plethora of existing proposals as to add little or no further insight, or (ii) in seeking additional insight are often so speculative as to provide untestable hypotheses rather than fresh data.

The next two post are more positive as we turn now to two valuable structures within the Psalter. The first is demonstrably part of the Psalter’s fabric and the second a later construct. I will argue that both have abiding spiritual value as they enable fruitful faithful engagement with Scripture, albeit in two rather distinct ways.

1. Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics, Yale University Press, 1974.
2. Francis Watson, Text, Church, and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective, Continuum, 1994.
3. Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Peace in Our Time

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6, NIV

Before we get to the Prince of Peace. I want to share a mystery with you. I have often been puzzled by the rail bridge that lies between junctions 16 and 17 on the M25 near Uxbridge. It carries the Chiltern Main Line Railway over the M25 motorway. And the mystery is that it bears the immortal line “Give Peas a Chance”.

Who does these things? Why would you risk life and limb to hang off the side of a bridge over the M25 to paint, in a reasonably interesting font, “Give Peas a Chance”?

I guess it’s a play on the song “Give Peace a Chance” by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. It has no doubt raised a wry smile from hundreds of thousands of motorists, because it is funny when we swap peace with peas.

As a child I had tonsillitis and blocked ears every winter. I remember being confused at Infant School, at a Christmas assembly, when I heard that Jesus was the Prince of Peas. I was less than impressed because peas in the 1970s, at least in my home, were a very singular variety, known as tinned.

It clearly makes little sense to view Jesus as Prince of Peas. But when we look at the world today, we might question what it means that Jesus is Prince of Peace. His first arrival around 2,000 years ago did not usher in a time of peace. Jesus himself did not expect that either; whatever Isaiah had said. When speaking of his return he pointed out that war, rather than peace, would continue. Jesus said this:

You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.
Matthew 24:6, NIV

So, what does it mean that the promised child, according to the Prophet Isaiah, will be Prince of Peace? Is Isaiah guilty of over promising? Or did Isaiah get it plain wrong?

Part of the answer is the need to understand what Isaiah meant by peace. The word he used is shalom. This word can refer to the absence of war, corresponding to our English word peace. But it means more than this, as we will see in just a moment.

But to be fair to Isaiah, elsewhere in the Bible, the absence of war brought about by Jesus—Isaiah’s Prince of Peace—is promised and explained further. The question is ‘when will there be peace?’, rather than if there will be peace.

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s sentiment is a wonderful ideal:

All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will bring an end to war, but only after his return—in what we might call the beginning of the age to come. Whilst in faith we should be grateful, in our impatience and horror at the reality of war we want this now. Who does not want an end to war right here, right now?

Isaiah’s Prince of Peace—Jesus born in a manager—can bring peace of a different sort, both here and now.

Shalom is a rich word and the foundation of the Bible’s good news. It is about wholeness, about healthiness, about happy relationships and most fundamentally of all it is about peace with God. This latter meaning—peace with God—is a possibility here and now through Jesus our Prince of Peace.

Jesus was sent to this tiny, and otherwise unremarkable planet, by God his Father to make peace with men, women, and children. The brokenness we see that haunts this world is explained in the Bible in the story of how paradise was lost in the garden of Eden. This accounts for our lack of peace, our broken relationship with God.

Whatever we might make of a primeval garden, the broken relationships it describes are self-evident all around us. Humanity in taming the Earth has created untold damage. Men and women struggle to live in harmony under the same roof. Inequality is worked out in our daily choices and can feel hard-baked into reality.

Evidence of all this brokenness, frailty, and that old fashioned idea called sin, is self-evident truth. It is broadcast in the news. Written large in newspapers. Worked out in social media. Is not every person, community, and neighbourhood on this planet blighted by weakness, frailty, bad choices, and that old fashioned addiction called selfishness?

A broken world, and the frail people who broke it, need a peacemaker. Someone who can bring humanity and God to the table to speak of peace. Until that relationship knows peace, shalom in all its other forms cannot begin. Peace with God is what Jesus brought with him in his journey from heaven to earth that first Christmas, and worked out in his life and ministry, and finally in his cross and resurrection.

That the Christmas child is the Prince of Peace is a remarkable claim. It took me eleven years from hearing that Jesus was Prince of Peas to knowing his peace personally. Why not take some time this Christmas to reflect on the possibility that peace with God might be a genuine possibility? You might just find the only present that goes beyond the advertising.

Many Christmas adverts seem to promise that this Christmas will be paradise on earth. But I’m not convinced that Tesco or Waitrose supermarkets, Chanel or Paco Rabane perfumes, Baileys Irish Cream or even Jack Daniel’s whiskey can give us ‘heaven on earth’ or bring ‘peace on earth’. But through Jesus Christ I believe we really can have peace in our time.

Everyone saw the big clock tickin’, nobody knew the time: Habakkuk 2

Habakkuk’s Watch
I am not one for dinner parties, but I often wonder who the famous or infamous people are I’d enjoy meeting over a meal. People who could share something of their passion, wisdom, or expertise. My list frequently changes but there is one constant and that’s David Attenborough. I have been watching David Attenborough’s TV output for many years—way before he became the national treasure and world champion for environmental issues he is today. I remember the 1979 TV series Life on Earth when so enchanted I wanted the book for Christmas. But even before that, David Attenborough was teaching me about fossils in a 1975 children’s programme called Fabulous Animals.

I admire him as he is so focused, passionate, single-minded and tireless in his passion for creation. You might say he is a prophet. Behind his programmes there lie same patient and equally tireless people. People who wait for weeks, even months, to get 30 seconds of footage. What sort of patience and singlemindedness must you need to watch day-after-day for that perfect shot? What single-mindedness must you need to be David Attenborough? Watching not just the world but noticing first-hand the warning signs that things are not right.

Habakkuk was single-minded like this. He watched, as we see at the start of Habakkuk 2. He sought God’s answer to his prayers. He was a true prophet. False prophets ignore the signs and celebrate a happy status quo in the face of the impending judgement. Prophets read the time properly, false prophets are in a different time zone. As the singer Sting recognised of Jeremiah’s time:

It was midnight, midnight at noon
Everyone talked in rhyme
Everyone saw the big clock tickin’,
Nobody knew, nobody knew the time.

Habakkuk, like Jeremiah, in late 7th century Jerusalem, was watching, seeking, and hearing. As true prophets they saw the big clock was ticking. At the start of Chapter 2 we read:

I will stand at my watch
    and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
    and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
Habakkuk 2:1, NIV

Habakkuk’s watching is poignant because the very ramparts of Jerusalem where he stands as prophet will be destroyed by the Babylonians.

Yahweh’s Five Alarm Bells
Habakkuk is given five woes by Yahweh. Every prophet hopes to have some blessings to bestow, but here Habakkuk only gets woes that ring in his ear like the shrillest of alarm bells. Some 600 years later, Jesus would also have the job of imparting similar woes in Matthew 23. The five timely woes that Habakkuk hears belong together. There is a disturbing repeating refrain that unites them:

For you have shed human blood;
    you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.
Habakkuk 2:8b and 2:17b, NIV

The judgement in these alarm bells is aimed fair and square at the Babylonians, the very nation that Yahweh has raised up to judge his people and Jerusalem. Yet they also act as a warning for anyone who promotes such injustice.

Woe 1 is for those who are made wealthy by extortion and violence. Alarm bell 2 is about feathering your nest at others expense. Taking things, even from the poorest, so as to become wealthy to the point of heedless excess. Woe 3 is for those who show indifference for right and wrong. The ability to serve one’s own needs without recourse to a higher authority of justice or fear of the living God. Woe 4 seems to be concerned with leading the nations astray, seducing them to their detriment. This is Babylon at its most insidious—breaking nations as a voyeur not caring for their being stripped bare of their assets of wealth, culture and even people. The fifth and final alarm bell is that most insidious problem of nations and people: idolatry. The stupidity of swapping fear of the living God for a deaf stick or a blind stone.

Babylon-the-arrogant will sweep in and so will judge injustice. But she like Judah, will know judgement.

The Metronome of Faith
Whilst woes dominate this passage in terms of length, for us on the brighter side of Easter, verse 4 dominates in terms of theological weight:

“See, the enemy is puffed up;
    his desires are not upright—
but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.
Habakkuk 2:4, NIV

The desires of Babylon make it God’s instrument of judgement for seven decades, but those same desires make it a passing ‘failed state’ like countless other regimes whose fate is as certain as their injustice. It is the second half of this verse that lies at the heart of Paul’s account of the Good News of Jesus as he quotes Habakkuk:

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:17, NIV

It was this same part-verse that lay at the heart of Martin Luther’s bombshell in the Reformation. His 95 theses had words written through them like those in a stick of rock. Those words were The righteous will live by faith.

For Luther, as for Paul, it is not the Church, not any commandment, no practice, no works, and certainly no money that can buy new life. This is purchased solely by Christ on the cross. Only faith in the Son of God’s person and actions is necessary for salvation.

In a time of darkness Martin Luther recovered the metronome of faith that was there all along. God’s mercy is made effective via our faith. An Old Covenant truth made firm through Jesus Christ as Paul explains in Romans. The metronome of God’s heart beating as God’s grace is worked out through his people who live by faith.

Telling the Time Today
We are all prophets. We might not share Habakkuk’s, Jeremiah’s, or Martin Luther’s fame. But we are called like them to tell the time. We are to wait and watch for the living God:

I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NIV

Waiting means discipline in this age of distraction. Waiting requires patience. It requires the singlemindedness of faith. It is prayer rightly understood as persistence.

The Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth be silent before him.
Habakkuk 2:20, NIV

This verse invites the action of faithfulness. Faith is imbibing God’s word. Faithfulness is living it. Faithfulness is bringing God’s word to people desperately in need of life and love. It is bringing Good News. Not the shallow good news ‘There, there, all will be fine’ but the richer news that amidst darkness we await the dawn of a day ‘when all will be well’. Not the sickly sweet, good news that people want to hear, but the savoury wholesome good news that sin and injustice will be judged and dealt with once and for all in Christ.

The Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth be silent before him.