Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

Poetry is an art and not a science. Rather than existing by virtue of agreed rules, or laws, it has conventions. The art of poetry is to obey and, at times, break these conventions. Over time, these conventions evolve and change. Some fossilise and are admired at a distance or honoured by the homage of modern poets.

The biblical psalms are many things. Above all they are poems. This comes first, ahead of any other claim on their form and content. I recently explored the implications of this for the preacher, in a short article [1]. Others have explored a psalm’s poetic nature to a fuller extent, and in a more scholarly manner [2].

The Psalms have, at times, had modern poetic conventions foisted upon them. This unhappy situation largely ended with the work of Robert Lowth (1710–1787) [3]. Lowth mercifully rescued the psalms from the anachronism of applying Graeco-Roman poetic ideals to them. This welcome outcome still left the question open as to how we moderns might inhabit and celebrate these ancient poems, given our quite different notions of poetic form. One obvious way in which the psalms are contemporised is through being set to music for corporate worship. This is generally not just a process of translation but a process of transformation too. It is commonly the case that such works not only provide rhythm but also make use of rhyming. A notable recent and accomplished example of this is Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era [4].

Such work is essential for the ongoing recovery and rediscovery of the Psalms. Valuable though this is, it is not enough. Poetry is polysemic and as such, one transposition cannot capture all its possibilities. Given these poems are Scripture we should welcome multiple translations, transpositions, and responses. Even those fluent in biblical Hebrew and culture could not leave these texts fossilised, for they inhabit the modern world, as well as the world of Second Temple Judaism (cf. Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ interpretive paradigm [5]). To make interpretation even more complex we should note that there is not even a singular ancient horizon—the psalms were written, collected, arranged, selected, and edited over hundreds of years [6].

Every translation and every setting of a psalm is a response to that psalm. They vary in freedom depending on the aims of the new poet. There is increasing freedom from strict literal translation, such as that of an interlinear, to readable translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, to paraphrases, such as The Message. The poetic freedom continues as interpreters and poets seek new poetic forms. This trajectory continues as the interpreter breaks free of any notion of representation to aim for re-presentation. Of course such responses can differ in both form and use. They are for study, prayer, sung worship, meditation, or reflection. All such attempts look to the original, and pay homage in different ways—this might range from a meaningful bow to a knowing nod.

Three examples of such responses, in alphabetical order by surname, are:

1. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody [7]. This is a response in the form of poems describing a relationship, between a secular man and a Christian woman, in which aspects of the Psalms and the Life of David are echoed.
2. Edward Clarke’s A Book of Psalms [8]. This is a personal response to each psalm. Sometimes the poetry is very close to that of the original text, sometimes beautifully and even provocatively distant.
3. Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown [9]. Which we refer to below.

The diagram below captures something of the nature of the ‘responsorial’ freedom in translating and presenting the psalms. The scale is not meant to be linear and is presented to enable readers to reflect for themselves. The diagram reminds us that the English Bible versions, even those that are not metrical, are a step away from the original Hebrew. This is true of all attempts to translate, such as the LXX which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. Even today’s critical Hebrew text is a reconstruction using multiple manuscripts, of what is the best effort to match the unknowable autograph produced by the ultimate editors of the Psalter.

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

Once an effort is made to not only translate but to set to music then the freedom of interpretation increases so as to make the task possible. The three responses to the psalms mentioned above are also shown on the diagram. Whilst it is easy to argue that Apichella’s work is the one that has the most freedom, and therefore distance from the biblical Psalter. There is room for debate with the other two. Let the reader make up their own mind.

To conclude this post, we turn to Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown. This is in one sense a live project. Every few days Malcolm posts the next poem on his Blog [9]. On the day of writing he has reached Psalm 29. The complete work will be available as a full response to the Psalter when published by Canterbury Press, hopefully in early 2021. In Malcolm’s own words:

So I have begun a new series of short poems, responding freely to the daily psalms, and drawing on their leading images, as a starting point for Christian reflection. My hope is to weave these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic. [10]

His poems are indeed woven together just like that first crown of thorns. The delightful play on words links not only Christ’s suffering and Covid-19 but additionally they allude to a poetic convention. I had not heard of this convention until his project began. The convention is simply stated, but rather more challenging to deliver. Each poem in a corona, or crown, of sonnets is linked to its neighbours. This is achieved, as Guite explained above, by the closing line of one poem being identical to the opening line of the next. Fifteen sonnets linked in this way can be termed a heroic crown. I am not sure what term might be given to 150!

This remarkable project sublimely conveys the idea of convention and convention-breaking in poetry. In the first instance there is immense discontinuity in this response to the Psalter and the entity that inspired it. Each and every psalm response has the same literary form. This is clearly not the case with the original psalms. Indeed, scholars still spill ink on their categorisation. The continuity is found in some rich connections between the defining convention of a corona and some features ubiquitous in the Psalter.

The intertextual link, of identical closing and opening lines of adjacent psalm responses, is a reminder of the parallelism that is so characteristic of biblical poetry. The richness of parallelism, which goes beyond the three proposed ideals of Robert Lowth [3], is still the subject of analysis to this day [11]. This link also echoes another feature of the psalms. The biblical psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours. This pairing takes on many forms. Sometimes it is simply through the use of headings or repeated opening and closing words. The Hallelujah Psalms, Psalm 111 to 118, exemplify this with their propensity to open or close with Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). Sometimes chiasmus is employed. A good example of this is how Psalms 1 and 2 are linked with a macarism, or blessed/happy saying, see Psalms 1:1a and 2:12. Phrases can also be used. For example, ‘holy hill’ in Psalms 2:6 and 3:4. This linking of psalms forms a continuous chain and has therefore been termed concatenation [12].

The precision of the parallelism in Guite’s project also reflects a peculiar feature of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134) which have the poignant convention of making the same statement twice. Perhaps most famously in Psalm 130:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NRSV

I hope that many readers will join me in waiting for the complete Corona Spina that echoes not only David’s crowning glory, the Psalter, but the glory of the one who bore the crown of thorns for us all and today bears a better crown.

 

References

  1. Mark Whiting, ‘Singing a New Song’, pp.3–5, The Preacher, 178, July 2020.
  2. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Poetry of the Psalms’, pp.79–98 in The Oxford Handbook the Psalms, William P. Brown (editor), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  3. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, G. Gregory (translator), Andover: Codman Press, 1829 [Latin original 1753].
  4. Adam Carlill, Psalms for the Common Era: Hebrew Psalms in Modern Metrical English for Individuals, Choirs and Congregations, Independently Published, 2018.
  5. H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (translators), New York: Continuum, 1989.
  6. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macron: Mercer University Press, 1997.
  7. Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016.
  8. Edward Clarke, A Book of Psalms, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  9. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/corona-spina-the-crown-of-thorns-and-the-crown-of-glory-psalm-21/
  10. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/beatus-vir-a-reflection-on-psalm-1/
  11. Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.
  12. David M. Howard, Jr, ‘Editorial Activity in the Psalter: A State-of-the-Field Survey’, pp. 52–70 in Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, J. Clinton McCann (editor), Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, p.54.

Penitential Wisdom

Introduction
Perhaps the above title jars? In a way I hope that it does, as when we find something odd or ill-fitting it can be the start of learning something new. Of course, it might just be a fleeting move away from, and the, back towards the status quo of our understanding.

This short post arose from simultaneously questioning the very idea that biblical wisdom literature is a genuine genre and some extensive of the penitential psalms. So, where do we begin?

The Puzzle of the Penitential Psalms
The seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—are something of a puzzle to us today, when judged by modern genre definitions. Harry Nasuti has explored this collision of old categories with modern genres in his Defining the Sacred Songs, with helpful attention to the details of interpretative practice that span more than two millennia [1]. One insight he has is that the ancient seven psalms are more coherently defined by external factors than their content.

It is evident that the seven psalms are not of one genre in the modern sense. Two of them—Psalms 51 and 130—might be ‘penitential’ in the strictest sense if we consider a single-minded focus on asking for forgiveness from sin. In this manner Psalm 51, as is often recognised, becomes the penitential psalm par excellence [2]. Psalms 6, 38, 102 and 143 are understood today as individual laments, with other influences in some cases. Some might allow that they contain varying degrees of evidence that the psalmist is penitent. Uniquely, Psalm 32 arguably looks back on past penitence. The biggest problem for modern penitential genre is that in these psalms, the psalmist’s enemies often appear on the scene, muddying any singular concern with penitence.

This presence of enemies is just the most obvious challenge. A less stark issue, but a complexity none the less, is the difficulty in distinguishing between the psalmist’s spiritual and physical afflictions. This might be compounded by the potential for anachronism in wanting to differentiate angst from illness, based on modern distinctions. It is further obscured by what seems to be the deliberate attempt by the psalm collectors and editors to make the psalms malleable for later singers, readers, and poets to inhabit.

Luther is one interpreter who sees all afflictions, whether spiritual, health-related or enemies, as a reminder of the need for an attitude of penitence and as an opportunity for being trained in righteousness [3]. Luther’s acute interest in these psalms coheres with his profound fear of God, or anfechtungen, and a connection between Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the seven penitential psalms.

The connection between Romans and the seven psalms is essentially a reading of these psalms from the perspective of an aspect of Pauline theology. Romans has sometimes been noted as something of a locus maximus for God’s wrath in the Second Testament. Psalms 6, 38 and 102 all refer to God’s wrath explicitly:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
Psalm 6:1, NIV

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me.
Psalm 38:1–2, NIV

For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NIV

The other four penitential psalms are all quoted or alluded to in Chapters 3 and 4 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A case could be made that Saint Paul created the tradition that gave rise to the crystallisation of these seven psalms as penitential. This tradition that can be traced from Paul through possibly Augustine (mediated by his biographer, Possidius [4]), to Cassiodorus (c.490–c.583) who identified the seven psalms explicitly [5], through connections with penance, Lent, Indulgences, and praying for dead, in the medieval period, then finally jettisoned of much baggage by Luther to arrive at the present day.

Wisdom as Fear of the Lord
When the seven psalms are read through an Pauline/Augustinian lens, or simply from the expectation they are penitential which arises from the traditional designation, then all of the ills of the psalmist are rendered as an opportunity for chastisement. In this way every angst, ailment and experience of opposition can be an opportunity for growing in spiritual maturity. This is not only an intertextual reading but by its very nature it becomes a worldview. This is a specific example of the general problem facing us moderns as we read the Bible as Scripture. How much of a space do we have for providence over scientific cause-and-effect? Do we eclipse the authors of Scripture in unseemly haste with our supposedly sophisticated view of God? This post will not answer such questions, only pose them.

Those writings that are generally termed wisdom literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job—are often characterised with a call to fear Yahweh, as seen in an earlier post. Does this fear connect with the stance of the awareness of both our sinfulness and God’s wrath—in other words penitence? Our modern sensibilities cry no, as do the years of softening the ‘fear’ required to call faithfully to the Lord. The very notion jars like our title. Indeed, the title captures this notion. Just because something makes us uncomfortable does not make it right or true of course. But surely the stakes are high enough that it merits further meditation. Maybe, just maybe, our discomfort is a necessary first step in finding comfort in Jesus Christ, who now sits are the right hand of the God of holy love.

Bibliography
1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume 2—A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2018) p.304.
3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 14: Selected Psalms III, Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.) (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1958).
4. Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012) p.4.
5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Three Volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

An Enarratio of Psalm 2: Behold God’s Anointed

This post follows on from an earlier post: An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man. This is therefore the second in what is an experiment which asks what we miss with modern biblical criticism and what we can gain by sympathy with some aspects of Augustine’s interpretive paradigm for reading the Psalms. It bears the name Enarratio to echo Augustine’s remarkable and massive Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. Like this great work this allusion is an exposition not a scientific exegesis. It reads the psalms through post-Easter spectacles; declaring that without such spectacles our reading will be short-sighted.

 

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? A rhetorical question? Well perhaps, but only because the answer is written so clearly across the pages of several thousand years of history. Even in prehistory, at Babel, the nations conspired with a skyscraper to reach to the heavens. In our days, skyscrapers mark the competition between nations—vanity projects that are also in vain. The question could be restated: When did the nations not conspire? Has there ever been a time when the leaders of the nations conspired not against God but for peace? Over millennia, projects and prospects of hope arise as nations gather to aspire to something good. Only for them to fracture into groups to conspire once again.

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ Why do they rebel? How can they know better than the almighty? Is it that they ‘know not what they do?’. God’s anointed have always been fragile because they are one-and-all, frail men and women. So frail that the first king anointed in Israel rose up against God. Saul never grew from the time we first see him in the scriptures—failing in his task of donkey hunting. In throwing off imagined constraints he was imprisoned by bad choices. He was replaced by a less likely anointed one—the least likely of eight sons. This anointed one founded a royal line of anointed ones. An anointed son, with a heart that God saw was committed to agape despite its proneness to unrestrained eros. This son, this first David, faced threats from would be kings in God’s own nation, as well as the kings of nations all around. This son was a foretaste of The Son—blessed David redux. For though David’s anointing was most obviously as king, on some occasions he was also priest. He also made both music and song. He turned out to be not just a poet inspired by the muses, but a prophet inspired by the Spirit.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. God’s first move is merriment and how could it be otherwise? The nations abuzz with plots are like angry bees, but in their mortality, they have no sting that can harm the immortal. The one in heaven’s laughter is not an attempt at provocation but just the uncontainable mirth at the ridiculous idea that there could ever be enough creatures to overthrow the Creator.

He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, not because of any churlishness or delight in such a sad reality. The freedom of God, rejected and misread as chains, gives all kings, indeed all people, a digital choice. Free to choose the way of delight in instruction, or the way of making new rebellious rival rules. How can God not be angry and wrathful? Though we struggle with such stark anthropomorphic metaphors. Why is it we question God’s right to wrath when in the same breath we decry that we cannot see his hand at work amidst the nations now? God’s hand is stayed at present because he has granted freedom, but a day must come when justice is done.

And yet, there is so much more before the day of anger because we hear him speaking not words of judgement and doom but saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ The first David meted out judgement but the ultimate incumbent on the throne of God’s holy mountain does something new. His installation was the antithesis of coronation splendour. His crown was of thorns. His robe was nakedness. His hands could grip no ruling rod of iron because they were held open with metal of a sharper form, to welcome one-and-all.

The first David, at his hard-earned investiture heard the priests recite this liturgy: I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, ‘You are my son;

    today I have become your father.

Other kings and other sons of this Davidic line heard the same words. Like a microcosm of all humanity some of them believed these words, some did not. For a time, the line appeared to be broken and the promise lay all but dead. But then came a voice of one calling in the desert who pointed at a man from Galilee. This stonemason, already destined to be a cornerstone, chose to be anointed in the river Jordan. He knew that his baptism there in water was but a foretaste of a baptism in blood when finally he would come to Zion’s holy hill. In days gone by, David’s line were proclaimed as kings by bearded priests. This final Son, who is both first and last, heard the Lord’s decree spoken from heaven by the Spirit: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Words of mission and purpose received with joy, whilst being anointed in river water.

Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. The first David and his son founded a nation which seemed to honour and fulfil these words—at least in their own eager eyes. David redux knew this promise too. So awesome was the awakening of his baptism that he went into the desert like his people of old. Once there, another promised him the ends of the earth as his possession, but he did not bow the knee to that ancient serpent.

You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’ Though there is an immense time between his anointing and his execution of full authority, that Day will come. Though such language might be misheard as a sign of pique this is instead the best balance of mercy and justice in a creation of freedom and of love.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. We can but hope they will hear and obey. O that they might Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. There are all too few signs that they will. No indication that they will hear this wise saying: Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. So finally, we are called to remember that this a song not just for kings. We can all heed its closing wisdom, for Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

 

Ian J. Vaillancourt’s ‘The Multifaceted Saviour of Psalms 110 and 118’: A Book Review

Ian J. Vaillancourt, The Multifaceted Saviour of Psalms 110 and 118: A Canonical Exegesis, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019

Given this book’s subtitle it will come of no surprise that the canonical approach is at the heart of this book. What might be less obvious is just how wide-ranging this work is given its apparent focus on just two psalms. The central aim of this review, therefore, is to highlight its importance to anyone interested in the ongoing development of canonical criticism of the Psalter.

The early pages of this book rehearse a story that will surely be familiar to anyone choosing to read this volume. This account of the origins of canonical criticism is told concisely and with refreshing clarity. The genesis of the ‘new’ interpretive paradigm for psalms studies, with the work of Brevard Childs, is explained along with an acknowledgement of others who pointed in a similar direction before him. The work of Gerald Wilson who explored ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Masoretic Psalter, and more fully unpacked so many of the areas that Childs highlighted, is introduced with equal verve. Vaillancourt focuses on a key aspect of Wilson’s understanding of both the formation and form of the Psalter—the distinction, at the macrostructural level, between Books I, II, and III of the Psalter, on the one hand, and Books IV and V, on the other (pp.19–24). It is not that Vaillancourt fundamentally disputes that there are both diachronically and synchronically-based distinctions between these two ‘halves’. Rather, the disagreement lies over whether the editors of Books I, II, and III had distinctly different conceptions of the future role of the king than those who edited Books IV and V. These different views make for different readings of the significance of Psalm 89, which closes Book III. Wilson famously saw Psalm 89 as the final death knell for a hope in a future Davidic king. For Wilson, at least in the majority of his work, Books IV and V tell a story that side-lines the Davidic king in favour of a return to pre-monarchical reliance on Yahweh and his torah (pp.21–24). Vaillancourt wants us to reconsider this—to be open, as it were, to a further plot twist in the story of the promised anointed one.

Vaillancourt considers a raft of scholars who have built on Wilson’s approach. He singles out J. Clinton McCann Jr., Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Erich Zenger, Bernard Gosse, Martin Leuenberger, Egbert Ballhorn, James Luther Mays, David M. Howard Jr., and Michael K. Snearly. He helpfully distinguishes their different assessments of the nature of the human saviour figure portrayed in Book V of the Psalter. His assessment culminates in the conclusion that there are essentially five distinguishable conceptions of this figure in Book V. These five views are held by eleven (Childs and Wilson are added to the other nine) major scholars of the canonical approach. The nuance and complexities are such that four of these scholars see the key figure conceptualised in two of the five categories concomitantly. This provides the context in which Vaillancourt develops his hypothesis that Psalms 110 and 118, viewed in canonical context, provides an array of evidence that there is still an expectation within Book V of the Psalter of a future salvific figure—Vaillancourt’s point is that previous scholars have missed his multifaceted nature. One, of the many, interesting points made by the author as he unpacks Psalms 110 and 118 is that form criticism’s inability to perceive Psalm 118 as a royal psalms has been a barrier to appreciating just how important is the eschatological expectation of the anointed figure to the theology of Book V (p.130).

A large part of Vaillancourt’s argument centres on his claim that confusion has arisen because of the variety of facets that belong to this one figure. It might be argued that the Qumran community made the same mistake as some of Vaillancourt’s interlocutors given their expectation for more than one anointed one, each embodying different characteristics. This matter is interest for its wider interpretive implications. Why did the final editors of the Psalter combine the promise of a Son of David (cf. 2 Samuel 7) and a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18) into a single figure and the Qumran community hold to more than one anointed eschatological figure? To be fair this lies outside the clearly defined scope of this book.

There is much to commend in this book. Throughout, the reader is firmly signposted as to where they are in this interesting journey with Psalms 110 and 118. Vaillancourt pays head to the interplay between the Psalter’s macrostructure and microstructure. This is vital, as although we always know the working hypothesis that is being tested, the underpinning presuppositions are always made clear. Those who wish to consider the author’s work in detail are helped enormously by Appendix B which details the key word links for Psalms 110 and 118 with other texts. The extensive array of literature and information provided in the footnotes is also helpful for those wanting to go beyond simply reading this work. Appendix A, on other readings of Psalms 110 and 118, is also useful. I would have preferred it to have been integrated into the opening sections of this monograph. The book also provides five tables at key points in the argument. This might not sound like a big deal but such aids, seldom used in biblical scholarship, make for convenient summaries of what is obviously a complex problem. On the point of clarity there is only one disappointment. Clearly many readers of this book are likely to have knowledge of NT Greek, biblical Hebrew, French, and German but to assume that every reader has all four to technical fluency seems a little optimistic. Whilst clearly the technical discussion needs to be in the primary languages, an author’s translation in some places would have been helpful to this reader at least.

I will leave other readers to make their own judgement as to whether Vaillancourt’s canonical reading of Psalms 110 and 118 is compelling in describing the role of ‘the anointed’ in Book V, and thereby the Psalter as a whole. Of course, as Vaillancourt briefly notes, the authors of the New Testament were in little doubt that Psalms 110 and 118 both firmly attest to the future coming of the messiah at another level of canonical story (pp.160 and 182).

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

The enarratio (exposition or setting forth) of Psalm 1, below, is not an effort at modern exegesis. It does not progress from distinct and careful assessment of textual, canonical, or theological context and then move on to drawing some spiritual lessons for today. It is of the same ilk as Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. The psalm is read wilfully in the light of Christ and the Rule of Faith—recognising that we are ‘his body’, the Church, and he is ‘our head’. It is also read by using Scripture to understand Scripture. In this way, the meditation is not afraid to recognise that if the Scriptures are inspired by the one Spirit then they have an illuminating and meaningful intertextuality. This echo of Augustine is presented as an experiment—a case that asks us the questions: What have we gained in modern exegesis? And, more importantly what have we lost? The NKJV has been chosen in order to ensure the use of ‘man’ in verse 1—most contemporary translations use inclusive language obscure the word. I normally welcome inclusive translation, but here there is a danger of losing some of the remarkable theological potential of this psalm if the Hebrew word ha’ish is not rendered ‘man’ but as ‘the one’ (as in the NIV), ‘those’ (so the NRSV), or similar.

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

Blessed is the man. Who is this man we meet at the beginning of the Psalter? In this beginning, this opening of the Book of Psalms, there are rivers and a tree. A choice is presented between obeying God or ungodly council. Is this an echo of the Eden story? Is this man Adam? Or, perhaps we have here the Second Adam? A man presented boldly at the outset of the Psalter—itself a great work of the words of life and salvation. Who better than Jesus Christ, our saviour, to set us on the path ahead? As we start our journey is he the man we should behold? Or do we find ourselves here? Christ came to live the life of every-man, and in Adam all men find their mould. Is this man the first Adam, the Second Adam, and every Adam fashioned from the earth? For we know from the Apostle Paul that all men, and women, are united in both Adams (Rom. 5:12–17; 1 Cor. 15:45). In one we have tasted sin and death, and in the other we are put to death so that we might have life. This psalm most certainly concerns two possibilities: the way of nature in the First Adam, and the way of grace in the Second Adam.

And yet, is this not the Book of David? Even though there is no title mentioning David, is this not his book? But, the Second Adam is the Son of David. And so, we have all these men at work. The first Adam in which we died, David who had a heart that God loved and yet a sinner, and the Second Adam who defines being blessed as being sinless and passing on this blessing to others. It is in him that we are made whole.

Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; . . . In that glorious garden, named Eden, Adam received the counsel of the ungodly. The ancient serpent counselled Eve directly against God’s instruction: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam lamely followed the deceiver’s counsel, through his wife, without hesitation according to the Scriptures. In a moment, in the blinking of an eye, the first man becomes a sinner set on a new path. This path would take him from Edenic blessing into a world were all his progeny would have to choose who to walk with, who to stand with, and who to take to their table. In this fractured world, journeying away from God can happen without even the effort of placing one foot in front of another. Yet God in his mercy still allows for a path on which he accompanies anyone who would know him—the way of grace. But how can man decide between grace and his own nature? What can help us keep to the path?

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, . . . It is God’s instruction, his torah or law, in which we can see the proper path. The first Adam strayed from this path. He had but one prohibitive instruction and yet could not obey it. His delight strayed from God’s instruction to a piece of fruit, a fruit we tend to imagine as an apple, at least in the Western world. Who has not put more delight in ‘other fruit’ than God’s torah? Augustine famously tells us of how it was pears that lead him astray. He, together with other youths, stole the fruit not out of hunger but just because they wanted to taste forbidden fruit. Just as Adam had Eve for company, as a companion in disobedience so we too go astray with others. Terrence Malick tells a story in the Tree of Life, of another youth—Jack O’Brien—who leads his fellows astray. They break things in their neighbourhood including a window. Only frail humanity would break the very things that let light in. Jack has made the wrong choice, the way of nature he has learnt from his Father, rather the way of grace by which his Mother lives. Only the Second Adam consistently found delight in the instruction of his Father, The Father of all humankind.

And in His instruction he meditates day and night. From the lips of Jesus, we hear words shaped not only by prayerful listening but attentive meditation on the law. Jesus found this law in The Law, and the words of the Prophets, and in the other Hebrew writings. He meditated and from his heart these words spilled out and gave rise in turn to new God-given wisdom and instruction. He would rise early to listen (Mk. 1:25), and when needs must he stayed awake into the night chewing over God’s promises (Mk. 14:32–42) and plans. And the result of such meditation by day and night?

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, . . . Cause and effect plain and simple. The first Adam distracted by one tree lost sight of the Tree of Life. He lost the chance to be a tree, fed by the Spirit’s water. He wandered away from God, though God hoped for him to remain rooted in paradise where he had placed him. It is the way of humanity’s nature that we stray like sheep. Sometimes we not only walk away from God, we run (Jonah 1:3; Luke 15:13). Why would we reject the gracious refreshing waters given to us by God? Only one man has remained planted firmly were God wanted him. The second Adam remained planted in God’s plan though it took him to another tree. A terrible tree of agony, suffering, and death. He was himself a faithful planted tree, his hands had shaped wood in life, but were now nailed to the cruellest of trees.

That brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. Where is the fruit in dying on a tree? Did not the second Adam wither? In what sense can this be named prosperity? And yet the Second Adam said for all to hear: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24–25). In this way the First Adam lost his life and the Second Adam bore much fruit, bringing others eternal life. We too, both men and women, can gain our lives. But only in him as we join one another to be his body. Like Jack in the Tree of Life we can turn from the wrong path. The way of grace remains open to us all, that is the nature of grace. As for Jack in the film, the Tree of Life is always available, it pops up everywhere. This is the nature of grace. It is on our doorstep. It can be found even in the wilderness. The way of grace is knowing that we can be a fruitful tree by being grafted into a bigger tree that goes by the name of the Church. For we are the body and the Second Adam, he is our head (Acts 9:4; Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 1:24).

The ungodly are not so but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Some want to see the ungodly’s step-by-step journey away from God as synonymous with being blown away. And yet this humbling image seems to cohere with a sadder fate on the path away from God. For we know that chaff speaks of the Day of Days (Hosea 13:3), the Day of the Lord.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. What is more tragic than a creature who does not know their Creator and so never lives the full life that was put before them? Those that do not join the blessed man, who are not flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, bear not the fruit of forgiveness; sin and death are still theirs as they live in union with the First Adam, a legacy that cannot be healed other than by the Second.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish. So, it is confirmed there are two paths though an infinite number of twists and turns on these two ways. Those who know the Lord taste his way of grace. Those that are strangers to him can only follow nature’s instruction. In this way a psalm that opens with the word blessed must close with the word perish. And this a reminder that we should praise the one in who we are found, the blessed man who carries us home so we will not be carried hither and thither on the wind in this life or the next.

Reading the Psalter with Captain America

Yes, an odd title to be sure. It was last summer that I found myself reflecting on the character Captain America in the films collectively known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I know these films well, in part due to my previous publication on the fictional material vibranium [1]. In my moment of reflection I wondered at the similarities between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and the psalmist. This started simply with the thought that both are often judged harshly because of a thirst for righteousness that is all too easily misunderstood as arrogance. Today some readers of the Psalter react negatively to Psalm 1’s call to meditate on God’s torah or instruction. Due to a misunderstanding of torah and its relationship to righteousness as framed in the Bible. This is especially problematic given Psalm 1’s hermeneutical importance at the opening of the Psalter [2] and the psalmist’s ongoing self-understanding as being righteous before God.

Shield

This led to significant further reflection that culminated in a paper. This paper can be downloaded below. Whilst the paper will hopefully interest some readers of this blog (please add a comment below if this proves to be the case) it turned out ill-suited for more formal publication. Importantly for me it has seeded something bigger. It has galvanised some ideas for a book on the Psalter that I have been grappling with for around 5 years, or so. I hope to have more news about this later in 2019.

For now I hope some readers might persevere and see what can happen when we read the Psalter with Captain America. Please click on the text below to download the paper as a pdf.

Rereading the Psalter with Captain America 23rd March 2019 PsalterMark

 

References

  1. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Is it a Ceramic? Is it Graphene? No it’s Vibranium’ pp.93‒110 in The Secret Science of Superheroes (Eds: M. Lorch and A. Miah), London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017.
  2. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (3), 246‒262, 2013.

 

Brad Pribbenow’s ‘Prayerbook of Christ’: A Review

Brad Pribbenow, Prayerbook of Christ: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Interpretation of the Psalms, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018

PrayerbookThis book will appeal to those interested in several different aspects of Christian history, theology, biblical interpretation, the Psalms and doctrine. All these different areas intersect when Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Psalter is explored. Although there has been immense interest in Bonhoeffer’s life, theology and ethics for several decades, the centrality of the Psalms to his devotional life and thinking has not been fully appreciated. This book sets out to provide a thorough analysis of Bonhoeffer’s use and understanding of the Psalms in order to remedy this deficit. Right at the outset Pribbenow makes the surprising claim that ‘the literature we have from Bonhoeffer provides convincing evidence that his treatment of the Psalms yields an interpretation that is, in certain key aspects, new in the history of Psalms interpretation’ (p.xix). One of the purposes of this review is to evaluate the extent to which this claim is substantiated.

The book comprises three parts. The first section considers the different ways in which the biblical psalms have been interpreted Christologically, across two millennia, in order to provide a context for Bonhoeffer’s approach. The second part considers Bonhoeffer’s early writings—i.e. those from the period of his formal theological education and his preparation for ministry—in order to understand how his approach to the Psalms took shape. The third section examines the period of his life in the Finkenwalde community to his time in prison and untimely death.

The first section opens with the briefest of sketches of the paradigm shift that the earliest Christian interpretations of the Psalms represented compared to First Century Jewish approaches to the Psalter. As Pribbenow points out, the New Testament authors read the Psalter with Jesus Christ as the focus. He goes on to show how this trajectory evolved into Augustine’s totus Christus hermeneutic in what was African Bishop’s thirty-year project, the Enarrationes in psalmos. Pribbenow makes it clear that Augustine’s approach became a central plank of interpreting the Psalms up until the Reformation. Luther’s understanding of the Psalms is then examined. Pribbenow outlines how Luther’s interpretation of the Psalms underwent a dramatic shift. His earliest work on the Psalms places a strong emphasis on Augustine, tempered with the fourfold sense of interpretation that emerged in the medieval period. The content of Luther’s later work is however distinctly different in that Christ is no longer the initial foundation for interpretation. Luther became open to understanding the Old Testament on its own terms, i.e. as prior to Christ. This enables him to take the psalmist seriously rather than simply equating him with Christ. In this way Luther reads the Psalms such that the experience of the contemporary Christian is analogous to that of the psalmist. The first section closes with a very brief survey of the impact of historical critical approaches on interpreting the Psalter. Here, Pribbenow argues that the very possibility of Christological interpretation is eclipsed by the focus on an individual psalm’s Sitz im Leben (life situation) or cultic setting.

In section two, Pribbenow opens with a brief survey of the place of the Old Testament in German Christian theology at the time of Bonhoeffer’s formative theological education. He presents the stark choices made by German scholars around this time between (i) a rejection of the Old Testament (OT), (ii) a limited retention of the OT, or (iii) an acceptance of the OT. Bonhoeffer clearly adopted the third stance. Further than this, he was part of a small, but growing, group who challenged the modern critical methods that had became the basis for so many other theologians adopting stances (i) and (ii). In this way he marks one way in which both pre-critical and critical insights can be combined. Pribbenow traces something of the development of Bonhoeffer’s thinking in this regard—based on early sermons he argues that there was an early shift from encountering specific psalms in terms of the psalmist’s Sitz im Leben, to seeing the incarnate Jesus as the context. As Bonhoeffer’s theology matured, he placed increasing emphasis on Jesus praying the Psalms and the church community’s need to pray these same prayers. He goes further in claiming that Jesus not only prayed the Psalms in his earthly ministry but continues to pray them as the Risen Christ. In Pribbenow’s words: ‘The Psalms are not just the prayerbook of the church, given to fill the mouths of the faithful as they make petition and cry out to God. The Psalms are fundamentally the prayerbook of Christ who prayed these prayers in his humanity and continues to pray them now on behalf of and in union with his church’ (p.65). Bonhoeffer’s relationship with pre-critical interpretation of the psalms is a complex one. Pribbenow suggests that despite (i) having typological elements, (ii) an understanding of David as a prophet, and (iii) sympathy with Augustine’s totus Christus, he eventually tends to articulate a consistent figural approach: ‘where he recognizes the “mystery of Christ” crucified’ (p.95).

The third part of Pribbenow’s study starts by considering Bonhoeffer’s love for Psalm 119. This psalm played an increasingly important role in his thinking after visits to various monasteries in England in 1935. This psalm was, for Bonhoeffer, special in terms of its unceasing commitment to God’s word. This commitment provided a lens through which the Psalms could be understood as of vital importance to the prayer life of believers. Bonhoeffer’s incomplete commentary on Psalm 119 is examined with a view to any evidence as to his understanding of the nature and role of the Psalter. Implicit within this short work is the understanding that the faithful disciple will use the Psalms in regular prayer. In his commentary, Christ’s relationship with this psalm is as the one who has made it possible for the disciple to pray the Psalms, rather than as the one who prays. Pribbenow presents Bonhoeffer’s use of the Psalms in a number of organised schemes in order to both substantiate his argument and provide a helpful summary of key material for those wishing to conduct their own study of Bonhoeffer and the Psalms. These include considering the use of Psalms by the genre in which he cites and uses them, by theme and by date. Pribbenow explains that during his time in prison, Bonhoeffer, ‘seems to place greater emphasis on the original context of the psalm, oftentimes a Davidic context. The connection Bonhoeffer then makes to the psalm is by means of analogy, not so much Christology’ (p.170). The reasons for this shift, if it is one, remain unclear as there is ambiguity given Bonhoeffer’s context and the necessary changes in the genres of his writings as a result of imprisonment.

In the conclusion to this book, Pribbenow examines the strengths and weakness of Bonhoeffer’s Christological interpretation of the Psalms. One of his concerns is that Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the historical critical method in favour a Christological hermeneutic is an overreaction in its singular nature. He argues that attention needs to be paid to the original historical context as well as the Christological lens. Another concern is that Bonhoeffer’s Christological lens is essentially ‘a Good Friday’ one, and neglects Christ’s resurrection and second coming.

I found the overall argument to be a compelling one—Pribbenow does do what he set out to do; demonstrating that Bonhoeffer’s approach does indeed offer something new to the interpretation of the Psalms. For Bonhoeffer the Psalter is ‘the prayerbook of Christ’ hence the name of this volume. Pribbenow has also laid out his work meticulously, and his compilation of tables summarising Bonhoeffer’s use of the Psalms is a helpful starting point for those wishing to either test Pribbenow’s conclusions or to take the work forward in the other directions suggested at the conclusion of this book. Sometimes the clarity was actually a little overdone, in that the closing and opening ‘signposting’ in some sections was rather repetitive. I was also a little disappointed with the first three chapters. I would have like to have seen a little more detail and therefore nuance in the coverage of the interpretive methods that have been applied to the Psalms over the last two millennia. There also appears to be a mistake in the section title on p.26 which mentions interpretation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but discusses Gunkel and Mowinckel, both of whom did their scholarly work in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps this title hints of material that was removed at some stage? These are minor niggles with what is a valuable contribution to the study of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and interpretation of the Psalms. I very much hope the publishers are able to print a more reasonably priced paperback in due course, to open up this book to a wider audience than specialist scholars and/or those with a specialist theological library on their doorstep.

A Review of the Two Psalm Volumes in the Brazos Theological Commentary Series

Jason Byassee, Psalms 101–150, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Ellen Charry, Psalms 1–50: Sighs and Songs of Israel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.

brazos

Background to the Two Volumes

Rather unusually this review concerns two books. The reason for reviewing both current volumes on the psalms in the Brazos Theological Commentary series together will become apparent as the review unfolds.

The Brazos Theological Commentary series has been around for just over a decade. There are a little over twenty volumes now available which means that the project is around fifty percent complete. The series is, in my view, very welcome. Many commentaries admirably fulfil the textual work expected of what might broadly be termed historical criticism, but few offer anything of help in the next step for those who see the Bible as Scripture and want to see it efficaciously at work in the Church. Whilst this commentary series is committed to such a stance of faith, it is also broadly ecumenical. The Series Preface, found in each volume, makes is very clear that the contributors have been given immense freedom by the editors regarding the approach they adopt and the version of the Bible they use. This welcome ethos does inevitably mean that the series will be both stylistically and theologically uneven—very much more  than most over series, given its deliberate theological intent. This unevenness is especially acute for the Psalter because of the multi-author approach adopted for this book. For understandable reasons the Psalter is not being authored by a single author. Rather more surprising is the singling out of Psalm 119 in its own volume, although it is covered in outline in Byassee’s volume. The other two forthcoming volumes are:

  • Psalm 51–100, written by Lauren Winner.
  • Psalm 119, written by Reinhard Hütter.

The two published books on the Psalter adopt very different approaches. In their respective volumes the authors justify their chosen hermeneutical methods. Ellen Charry, like many Christian Old Testament scholars, avoids christological interpretive approaches. Her introduction concisely, but clearly, sets out the rationale for this hermeneutical agenda. Jason Byassee’s approach could not be more different, as he puts it: ‘I offer here what we might call a “christologically maximalist” interpretation of the psalms’. This will not be a surprise to anyone who is familiar with his Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine published by Eerdmans in 2007.

Such is the diversity in the two approaches that some readers might anticipate wanting to read one and not the other. This reader, however, has found both books to be delightfully profitable in spite of their distinct differences. One reason why what appears to be a problem is only a minor issue is the very richness of the biblical material. Neither Charry nor Byassee come anywhere close to even outlining the immense theological riches of the fifty psalms they cover. Both, albeit in very different ways, examine the psalms theologically to help their readers on the way to appropriating the psalms. Neither aims at providing a final theological word on the psalms they explore.

Ellen Charry, Psalms 1–50: Sighs and Songs of Israel

Charry adopts a very consistent and structured approach as she examines Psalm 1 to 50 in turn. Each psalm s examined under three headings. The opening section for each psalm considers their Canonical Context and Themes. This is especially welcome in the light of recent scholarly developments. It has become clear over the last thirty years that the Psalter is purposefully edited and such an appreciation has significant implications for any theology of the psalms. The importance of this is evident at the outset as in the opening sentence on Psalm 1 Charry states that ‘The canonical authority of the opening poem of the Psalter is vast’ [p.1]. This is a breath of fresh air, as some older commentaries all but dismiss Psalm 1 as having no theological significance. Only a few more recent commentaries pay attention to the canonical setting of each psalm. The second section for each psalm Is headed Structure and Dynamics. Importantly, in these sections Charry does far more than look at the literary structure. Her concern is unpacking the rich interplay of the literary and theological dynamics of each psalm—each literary unit is explored in turn so as to discern its theological claims and significance. The third and final section is Theological Pedagogy. In this, usually short, section the overall theological implications of the psalm are outlined. In this way Charry leads her readers to the further work they need to do to appropriate the psalms for themselves. This works well given the inevitably wide range of perspectives, presuppositions and purposes that readers are likely to bring to the commentary. The book also pays fruitful attention to whose voice speaks the various psalms and subsections. Charry’s approach does mean that she stops short of seeing the psalms as ‘spoken’ by Christ or the reader.

Jason Byassee, Psalms 101–150

Byassee’s approach is far less systematic than Charry’s. He does not see the need for approaching each psalm in the same consistent manner—so gone are the headings and sub headings that Charry uses. Pointing out this stark difference is not a criticism but simply the acknowledgement that this is a wholly different enterprise. Some prospective readers might be deterred by Byassee’s commitment to christological maximalism. There are two reasons why such a hasty decision should not be made. Firstly, it is important to remember that until the last two centuries to a large extent all Christian interpretations of the psalms were highly Christological. Secondly, despite the Christological self-designation Byassee adopts, he has no desire to pursue the more allegorical approaches that have made modern interpreters so wary of pre-critical interpretation. In simple terms Byassee brings the Rule of Faith to the Psalter and expects to find Christ there—he leaves it to the reader to judge the success of some of the more imaginative interpretive choices. The real strength of Byassee’s volume will be for the preacher and teacher of Scripture who wants to use the psalms through a Christological lens. As I read the majority of chapters I felt like I was reading something akin to an excellent sermon or teaching outline—in this way reading this volume was a rich devotional experience. Byassee writes in such a way that his approach invites the reader in and leaves them wanting to run further with the rich intertextual and theological gems he presents.

Conclusion

I recommend both volumes despite the immense difference in the approaches they adopt. Given their respective hermeneutical choices, and the space limitations of the series, they both do an admirable job of encouraging the reader to continue to grapple with the theology and theological implications of the Psalter. One final comment is worth making; the immense freedom granted by the editors is, I think, a strength of this series, permitting works that are rich and stimulating, each from a coherent scholarly and theological tradition. Nevertheless, some readers will want to check the approach adopted before buying any one volume.

 

 

 

Why do the Nations Conspire?

The Psalms as Psalter

The Psalms have been called an anatomy of the soul. The reformer Calvin said, in the opening of his commentary on The Psalms, that:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.

He goes on to point out that the Holy Spirit has inspired the capture in the psalms of griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares and perplexities. Luther, another reformer, had in some ways an even more remarkable view of the psalms:

It seems to me as if the Holy Ghost had been pleased to take on himself the trouble of putting together a short Bible, or book of exemplars, touching the whole of Christianity or all the saints, in order that they who are unable to read the whole Bible may nevertheless find almost the whole sum comprehended in one little book … the Psalter is the very paragon of books …

For both Luther and Calvin this collection of 150 psalms is complete in some sense. I therefore prefer the term Psalter to Book. The term Psalter normally refers to an illuminated book of psalms or a collection written specifically for sung worship. But i recommend the term for the biblical ‘book’ to remind us this not just any old anthology by is an intentional complete literary unit.

The Monastic Traditions agree with such a view in that all of the biblical psalms are read and/or sung weekly in canonical order, that is the whole Psalter in a week. In some Reformed Churches, to this day, the only sung worship is the singing of biblical psalms. In Church History the Psalms have been to the fore of Christian worship and devotion as a complete corpus.

In the modern Western churches, however, the centrality of the Psalms is not now the norm. Many churches and Christians do not encounter every psalm in a year. There are many reasons for the demise of the biblical psalms.

  1. Contemporary music preferences can eclipse the Psalms. The Psalter has the idea of singing a New Song (e.g. Psalms 96 and 98) but this is not a proof text for their demise but a pointer to their generative centrality.
  2. In an age of science and technology propositional truth is often preferred to poetry. And yet the psalms abound in imagery, poetic devices and mystery.
  3. Our modern sensibilities play a part too. We might want whitewash over Psalm 137’s uncomfortable reference to infants being dashed on rocks.
  4. We sometimes mistake the Psalmist’s passion for being holier-than-thou. For example, we misapprehend Psalm 1’s “Blessed is the one . . . whose delight is in the law of the Lord” for legalism rather than seeing it as passion and desire for God’s precious instruction.

Perhaps another force is at work too, the conspiring nations mentioned in Psalm 2. Our modern world means that worst of the bad news emerging from the nations bombards us daily, perhaps even hourly. The drip feed of the bad news undermines the veracity of the good news. Psalms 1 and 2 as they open the Psalter have a certainty and positivity that is at odds with the dripping tap of the nation’s horrors. But the Psalms should be our worldview not the news from the nations.

The Psalms are rich, complex, mysterious, challenging in an age which celebrates caricature, oversimplification and shrillness. This devotion will look at Psalm 2 in all its richness, complexity, mystery and challenge. At the same time, I am hoping to offer a way to pray for the nations of this tragic world in which we live in. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll persuade some readers to make the Psalter a greater part of your walk with Jesus Christ.

Seeing Psalm 2—Coronation

Psalm 2 has had several lives—this might well come as news to you. This is one reason why the psalms can seem like hard work, but also why they are so rich. One way of looking at these ‘lives’ is the question: “What is the context of a psalm?”. There are many answers:

  • The life of David—The biographical headings of twelve psalms make this claim.
  • The life a worship leader—the headings which mention Asaph and the Sons of Korah indicate this.
  • A national event—some psalms have a historical context, either implied or explicitly stated.
  • Temple worship—the Psalter was a songbook as indicated by the centrality of musical instruments in many psalms.
  • The life of the reader—how else can we explain their universal appeal, the extreme example being Psalm 23 which seems to ‘work’ in any experience of the soul.
  • The life of Jesus—being this side of Easter provides a new dynamic.
  • A future prophetic context—the New Testament uses them like this a lot.

We don’t need to choose one context, but we do need to reflect on the variety of possibilities.

We start with the drama that we can feel in Psalm 2. Imagine a scene like Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation but with a king in Israel. You can see a throne, the king’s rich clothes, priest’s in equally fine regalia. You can hear music. Rich strings, as fine a string quartet, deep trumpeting creating a hush. You can smell incense and your eyes sting a little with the fragrant smoke. A hush falls and now the liturgy will follow—various figures have their lines ready for the drama.

A priest says:

Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.’

Another priest says:

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
‘I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.’

The king replies:

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’

A third priest says:

 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is not how we normally read Psalm 2, but this is something like the original use of this psalm. We must put new glasses on to see it in this light. In this light it looks to Israel as a theocracy imposing power over the conspiring nations.

Feeling Psalm 2—Subjugation

We’ve tried to see Psalm 2. Now we’ll try and feel this psalm.

There came a time when Psalm 2 seemed ridiculously over the top. A day came when the nation was punished by the nations rather than leading those nations. The nation of Israel was a power in the days of David and Solomon. But power games behind the throne soon ended the golden age. The temple was destroyed along with the royal palace, the best people were taken into captivity, the king was blinded and dragged away in chains.

How hollow, or impossible, did Psalm 2 sound then?

Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.

A subjugated people would make something very different of this psalm. And they must have made something of it otherwise it would not have survived to take pride of place with Psalm 1 at the head of the Psalter. The nations had not only conspired together they has succeeded in subjugating God’s people.

Psalm 2 did not go on being read at coronations as there were no kings to crown. But despite the beauty of the pomp that gave it life it now helped the nation to rediscover their place amongst the nations. Israel did not have a king, but they perceived that one day this would change. The coronation and anointing of the king became a way of seeing that God would send his anointed one, or Messiah. What had been an image of the king as God’s son, raised the possibility of the new anointed as God’s Son.

These are different lenses with which to read this psalm – the glasses that come with subjugation are those of hope and trust in God against the odds. A trust and hope that defy the realities and horrors of being subject to the nations – whether Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans. Psalm 2 transforms the crushing boot of the nations into the hope of being first among the nations.

But of course these are still not our glasses.

Saying Psalm 2 – Expectation

We have new glasses. Not because we have been to SpecSavers but because we are living after Easter. We have an expectation of the Risen Jesus’ return and our own resurrection in the Age to Come. The Incarnation of the Son, the life of Jesus, his death, his resurrection and his ascension mean that we read this psalm and indeed all of the Old Testament with Jesus vision- with our eyes fixed on the author and perfector of our faith.

The words of Psalm 2 take on even greater drama. First, they spoke of Israel and the Near-Eastern nations and the king of the line of David. Now these same words speak of God’s people founded in Christ a people from all nations and our King Jesus.

The sense of frailty we have as broken humanity finds an end in the expectation of this Psalm. Whatever appearances to the contrary such as the bad news on our TVs and in our Newspapers,  God has a plan for the nations.

Jesus has already shown the completion of the kingdom in the cross and resurrection:

‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’

The second coming of Jesus will bring this to fruition. This will be a time of reward and judgement:

You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’

Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction.

What about praying Psalm 2? When the news overwhelms us when it all seems like the disorder of this world denies the living God. Why not pray Psalm 2 and in trust and faith call to mind that glorious day when people from every tribe and nation will join the Lamb in his Kingdom. Such prayers of trust feed our souls nourishing further faith, trust and hope. If the whole seem seems to much, why not start with a simple prayer to our Father: ‘Why do the Nations Conspire?’.

Job and Hitching to Wisdom

The Old Testament has been in the news in the last few weeks. Andy Stanley, a gifted preacher and Senior Pastor at North Point Community Church, argued in a series of sermons (Aftermath #1, #2 and #3) that Christians should unhitch from the Old Testament. Having listened to the sermons concerned, more than once and having read a follow-up interview, I am still not clear just what he actually means by ‘unhitching’. What I am clearer about is that Andy Stanley makes a number of unhelpful assumptions and steps in arriving at his conclusion. These include:

  • The notion that atheists object to the Old Testament but are quite willing to accept the New Testament’s claim about the resurrection of Jesus.
  • A misrepresentation of the Reformation idea of sola scriptura; divorcing it from the Rule of Faith.
  • Equating ‘the law’ with the whole of the Old Testament.
  • An understanding of Old Testament law as legalism, a notion that has been thoroughly discredited since E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism.
  • A failure to recognise that Paul worked very hard to stay hitched to the Old Testament, as evidenced in the whole Pauline corpus, given his experience of the resurrected Jesus. Paul remained a Pharisee committed to the Law (Philippians 3:5).
  • The failure to acknowledge the fact that not a single chapter of the New Testament can make sense without reference to the Old Testament. This includes the very chapters Stanley preached on.

Here in the UK, part of the incredulity at his suggestion of ‘unhitching’ might come from the fact that most Christians this side of the pond are not wedded to the incredibly unhelpful notion of Scripture’s inerrancy (most famously part of the Chicago Statement). I have a high view of Scripture, informed by 2 Timothy 3:16, but have found inerrancy to be a slippery and alien notion for describing Scripture. It represents the on-going and unhelpful tendency to make Scripture what it is not—history, science, biography and other modern categories. ‘God-breathed’ works better. And why would anyone want to unhitch from something that is God-breathed? Rather ironically Stanley says he agrees with the Chicago Statement’s view of Scripture in the same breath as attempting to deal with the problems introduced by this conservative straitjacket.

But what about Job? Despite the fact that I don’t agree with Stanley, we must acknowledge that Christian frustrations, of one sort or another, are not a new issue. Perhaps it is cheap to mention Marcion? Perhaps not. In any case, any Bible-reading Christian will have had challenging encounters with the Old Testament. Anyone who hasn’t is really not paying attention to its claims, worldview, ethics and God. Job raises one subset of the wider and very legitimate question: ‘What are we meant to do with the Old Testament?’. We certainly can’t see it as a monolith. The books of which it is comprised are of very different categories, although we could do worse than start with the Jewish categories of Torah (instruction rather than plain law), Prophets (this includes what we often call history books—Joshua to Kings—as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve) and the Writings. The Writings, where Job belongs, are akin to DVD extras. They complement the story that is unfolded in Genesis to Kings.

Job is often said to answer the question of suffering. But it does not. If we read it only to address this question we will ultimately be disappointed. If we think it might answer the question of the origin of evil we will be perplexed. So why do we have (i)  a narrative about God and Satan agreeing to let Job suffer, (ii) chapter-after-chapter of poetic dialogues with subtle, and sometimes less than subtle differences of opinion, and (iii) an epilogue in which Satan makes no appearance?

Well this post won’t entirely answer such questions. But a plausible and partial answer is that although we do not find theological certainties about suffering and evil, we find something far more biblical. We find, written large, the dangers of being hasty in narrowly pinning down answers to the biggest questions in a broken creation. All of Job’s friends think they have answers. In so doing, they make the twin mistakes of thinking (i) they know Job better than he knows himself, (ii) they know the mind of God. Job has questions. They have answers. Whilst it would be overstating Job’s case to say that God speaks to him with approval—he does not. Nevertheless, he receives from God. He receives nothing less than revelation (Job 38:1–42:6). What do Job’s friend get? Nothing except the text’s occasional play on words—wordplay that implies they are full of wind (ruach) rather than God’s Spirit (ruach), see for example Job 16:3.

Can we tell the difference between the wisdom of questions, and the foolishness of wrong answers and false certainties? Job, the book, exists to help us learn just this.

Job might have foreseen his resurrection (Job 19:26). We certainly have that hope (1 Corinthians 15:12). But, this side of resurrection, we cannot make Scripture what it was never meant to be. Scripture answers where salvation and the Universe’s future is to be found, and also founded—that is in Christ. It also, in texts such as Job, helps us learn to speak wisely about the mystery that is our God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and to know when we should just put our hands over our mouth (Job 40:4).