Afterword or After Z

I hope that readers of this blog have found the recent posts on the Hebrew Bible interesting and informative. My aim was twofold.

Firstly, for Christian readers of the Old Testament my aim was to highlight how the Old Testament is not in some senses the same as the Hebrew Bible. Although the texts are the same, they are arranged differently and even more importantly our presuppositions as a reader transform the texts in terms of their meaning and significance. In this way I regard the Old Testament as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible—in seeing it as such an already initiated trajectory for the texts is continued. This is because, even before Christ the very process of collecting the texts necessitated they be re-read.

Secondly, for the more casual reader with little familiarity with the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament I was hoping that the posts might point to the richness of the Hebrew Bible and the various writings found within. In this way I would be delighted if the reader left my blog in favour of the object which it hopefully signifies.

I hope that the above aims will have worked for some readers of this blog. Like all such enterprises it has various weaknesses. I am sure that the posts betray some of my idiosyncrasies. What is a bigger concern for me, and one I can see all too evidently, is what has been omitted. In putting together the posts with the rather poetic constraint of the A to Z motif, I was conscious that the Hebrew Bible’s Latter Prophets were largely absent. It is possible that I might attempt to remedy the absence of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve at a later date—perhaps another A to Z challenge beckons? For the coming months, however, this blog will return to the more infrequent and normal occasional posting of short contributions centered on the Psalter and the occasional pertinent book review.

 

 

What’s in a Name: Psalter or ‘the Psalms’

The words psalm and Psalter derive from the Greek word, psalmos, which refers to the playing of stringed instruments in support of singing. In the Septuagint translation of the Psalms this word translates the Hebrew word mizmor, which means a song accompanied by music. The Psalter tends to be referred to in Hebrew by the term tehillim which originated from the verbal root for praise (hll). Thus, Sefer Tehillim, used in Rabbinic literature means book of praises.

In the English language, the 150 songs and poems that we find in the Bible are known as ‘the book of Psalms, shortened to ‘the Psalms’ or alternatively as the Psalter. In many modern church contexts the term Psalter is either seen as redundant or archaic. Yet is has something to commend it. Its singular meaning has the benefit of emphasising the unity and wholeness of this collection of 150 songs/poems. Why is this important? Until recently scholarship tended to see the psalms as individual compositions, the canonical order of which was inconsequential. However, more recently it has become apparent in scholarly circles that this collection is ordered and organised with intent. This scholarly move has simply rediscovered what many people of faith have appreciated for more than two millennia, that there is purpose here; the Psalter has a beginning, a developing ‘story’ and an end.

With this in mind I think the word Psalter has much to commend it in reflecting what the Psalter actually is. The longer term ‘the book of Psalms’ conveys the unity but in a more cumbersome manner. The shorthand ‘Psalms’ inadvertently highlights plurality. The term Psalter coheres with the value of the individual psalms as Scripture as it echoes, not just their individual value but also, the thought and purpose that went into collecting and ordering them. In this way the word Psalter, despite its conciseness fits with the remarkable claim, that these 150 songs and poems are Scripture. As Scripture they are in some sense complete and definitive.

150 Days of Psalms

For almost a year now I have, on a daily basis, Tweeted a psalm. In my personal devotions I have focused on that psalm for the day, which sometimes has led to other Tweets. The plan has been to work from psalm 1 to psalm 150. I have now done this twice. Some of the Tweets garner more interest than others from those on Twitter. Below I have gathered the top 14 from the last 150. My aim was to sum the most popular in one place, but additionally to pause and reflect on just what I have done in shortening a canonical psalm to a Tweet.

So here they are, along with some brief commentary on some of them.

Psalm 2:
The age to come, and the promise of a messiah at its heart, is a key lens through which to read the book of Psalms.

This Tweet picks up on my personal interest in Psalms 1 and 2 as a purposeful introduction to the Psalter.
Selah

Psalm 6:
Pray for those who can own these words.
Pray that we too will know such confidence in Yahweh during such days and nights.
#psalm6

Sometimes the words of a psalm simply don’t connect with our current situation and feelings. But, psalms of lament like this can help us pray for our brothers and sisters in trouble.
Selah

Psalm 38:
When life makes no sense the psalmist teaches us to plead with Yahweh:
“Do not forsake me my God;
do not be far from me.”

Selah

Psalm 44:
A collective complaint.
Communal lament was done in biblical Israel frequently.
It still has a place in the Church.

The large number of psalms that are laments is a helpful corrective to the false expectations about the ‘life of faith’. The modern church finds it difficult to use communal lament, but it’s a wonderful antidote to the problem of individualism and is a way of growing, and defining what it means to be, a community of God’s people.
Selah

Psalm 46:
Being still before Yahweh & knowing his lordship is more challenging than it sounds.
But in this way we find refuge & strength.

Selah

Psalm 51:
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; renew a right spirit in me.

Sometimes words from a psalm seem the best way to capture its essence and sense.
Selah

Psalm 122:
For the sake of the house of Yahweh, our God, let me seek your shalom, O Yerushalayim.
#psalm122 #Psalter

The Psalms of Ascent are very popular. The brevity and strong imagery makes a powerful and memorable impact.
Selah

Psalm 123:
Yahweh, how your servants look to you in need.
We lift our eyes to you.
Grant us grace.
Lord, grant us grace.
#psalm123 #Psalter

This Tweet captures the key imagery of the psalm and mimics the repetitive lilt so often found in the Psalms of Ascent.
Selah

Psalm 126:
The Lord has done great things for us.
For our tears will turn to laughter.
We are children of the dream.
#psalm126 #Psalter

This psalm resonates for me as a promise of blessing for my own church.
Selah

Psalm 127:
Entrust your church to Yahweh in prayer and deed.
For unless the Lord builds the house, we labour in vain.

The longer I journey on the ‘life of faith’ the clearer this becomes to me.
Selah

Psalm 138:
Yahweh is a God to be praised:
He is high above all.
A God who notices His creatures.
Knowing Him completes us.
#psalm138

An attempt to capture the message of the psalm. Caution is needed of course because in the short space of a Tweet we have to miss as much as we capture!
Selah

Psalm 142:
When we feel alone & oppressed we can cling to the truth that one day we will be surrounded by the righteous.

Selah

Psalm 146:
Yahweh is . . .
Creator
Faithful
Just
Provider
Deliverer
Healer
Redeemer
Protector
Father
Judge
King
Eternal
Oh and praiseworthy!

I think this captures what this psalm is about. In the space of one poem/song we have a doctrine on God.
Selah

Psalm 148:
Everything that has breath should praise Yahweh.
Inanimate creation should praise the Lord.
This will happen on His Day.
#Psalter

This psalm has been by far my most popular Tweet. I am not exactly sure why. It’s an attempt to be faithful to the psalm, but it puts a very deliberate interpretation on the psalm.
Selah

Tweeting the psalms is fun, faith building and helpful. However, it can only ever be a pointer back to these canonical songs, poems and prayers.

It Started with a Tweet

The origin of this blog was a project to Tweet The Psalms. A project that was only 46 days old when this was posted. The blog is not an admission that 140 words is too restrictive, but rather a complementary exercise for those who might want to know the depth that lies behind the Tweets.

So why tweet the psalms? It’s a good question and a number of friends have asked this question in a tone of voice that suggested that they did not expect a convincing answer. I have to say that I was initially sceptical myself, but then saw a number of ways in which my interest in the psalms could form the basis of a regular series of Tweets.

The primary driver was a purely selfish one. I was looking for a way to give some freshness to my daily reading of the Psalter (why I was reading the psalms daily is something I will return to in a later article).

The second reason? Well it seemed a great challenge, could each psalm be distilled into 140 characters and the result still capture something of its meaning? If it could be, perhaps the process of grappling with each psalm would prevent laziness and it might also result in something memorable as an aid to remembering what-is-where in the Psalter.

Once I tried the idea it became clear that the idea worked at a number of levels. Of course the point is not to replace the psalms. My hope was that someone might read a specific Tweet and if they were familiar with the specific psalm it would recall and recapture something of that psalm. Or, perhaps more likely, the Tweet could be read before and/or after reading the specific psalm with the reader working through whether and how the Tweet worked at any level. Even a reader who disagreed with the Tweet would engage afresh with the psalm – and that’s really the point.

I also had a hope that the restrictions imposed by the form of a Tweet would in some way lend themselves to a more poetic content—surely this is appropriate for engagement with these God-given poems written by ancient Israelites. I am less sure that I’ve always succeeded on this count—a Tweet can be frustrating precisely because of its brevity. At one level I was keen to be faithful to one of the key ideas of Tweets—I wanted each one to be self-contained.

The backbone of the original project was a single Tweet per day on a psalm and this was done in canonical order (as per the numbering of the Masoretic text). This seemed nicely counter-cultural to the randomness and responsiveness of so many Tweets. This is not a judgement on the norm but rather a recapturing of a spiritual discipline of daily psalm-reading. This stable reliability has always been there complemented by a small number of retweets relevant to the psalms, or the theological issues they raise. Also, at least once a week, usually on a Sunday there is an extra Tweet – a ‘Pause’ reflecting on a broader aspect of the collection of psalms that form a book. This blog aims to explore these issues at somewhat greater depth.