On Singing New Songs

Anyone who spends time reading the Psalms will notice the common refrain to sing a new song to the Lord. There are six occurrences of this exhortation in six individual psalms. In all but one case (psalm 144) it either opens the psalm or is a central part of the psalm’s opening. All six occurrences are reproduced, from the ESV, below:

Psalm 33:1-3
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 40:1-3
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 96:1-3
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!

Psalm 98:1-2
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

Psalm 144:9-10
I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
who gives victory to kings,
who rescues David his servant from the cruel sword.

Psalm 149:1-3
Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the godly!
Let Israel be glad in his Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!

Psalm 33 is often classified as a hymn. It is a straightforward call to praise Yahweh for both who he is and what he has done. It is, in Brueggemann’s terms, very much a psalm of orientation-the psalmist is in a place of equilibrium where all is well in the life of the psalmist and in their relationship with God. Psalm 40 is a more complex psalm. The opening reflects on an occasion when the psalmist found a new place of orientation from a place of disorientation (the miry bog). So already from these two uses of ‘new songs’ we see that it is appropriate in the context of the steady life of faith or in moments of more extreme experience where life has been transformed.

Psalm 96, like psalm 33, is a hymn, a call to celebrate Yahweh’s person and deeds from a place of communal certainty in the truths being proclaimed. Similarly, psalm 98 is also a hymn focusing on Yahweh’s salvation of Israel and his future righteous judgement of the world. Psalm 144 and 149 are also both hymns, although the former is perhaps not fully a song of orientation as it seems to look forward to singing a new song at a later date, rather than actually doing so (see verse 11).

Many readers, singers and scholars of the Psalms will simply see these references to new songs as a poetic way for the author to refer to his action in writing a psalm. The reason behind the need for a new song has variously been connected with a festival or military victory. Psalms 144 and 149 especially seem to have something of this militaristic feel about them. Either or both of these occasional needs might well be the inspiration for a new song. However, I want to suggest we might be missing the point if we assume that a new song is primarily a matter of novelty within the psalm itself. Many of us live in a culture where new songs appear weekly and even in popular Western Christian culture there is an industry of musical innovation. Perhaps some of those in this industry might even claim a biblical mandate of promoting new songs! I want to suggest that this is not what singing a new song is about. Rather singing a new song is more about the act of being in a new place before God. Whether it is about military victory for a king or the nation, an individual’s recovery from illness (the miry bog?) or recognition of God doing some other new work, this is the focus not the novel words of praise and song that follow.

How do I come to this view? The first piece of information supporting this view is something peculiar about psalm 96. After reading its threefold exhortation to sing a new song to Yahweh, the reader (or perhaps more aptly, the singer) expects something fresh and innovative. What else might a new song be? Psalm 96 is remarkable for the way in which it is anything but a new song. It is a hodgepodge of verses and ideas from other psalms. As Robert Alter puts it:
‘In point of fact, it is a weaving together of phrases and whole lines that appear elsewhere.’

This lack of originality or innovation is not a failure, rather it is precisely the point of a new song – it is newly composed, but informed by what has been there all along.

This alone is rather minimal evidence. In addition to this reuse or recycling (or in more scholarly terms, Midrash), the Psalter contains some other examples of psalm reuse. The two most obvious and extensive cases are:

1. Psalms 14 and 53 are almost identical to each other.
2. Psalm 108 combines large parts of psalms 57 and 60 (verses 2-6 strongly parallel 57:8-12 and verses 7-14 are virtually identical to 60:6-14).

These canonised examples of reuse encourage us to do the same. On the basis of Psalm 96 being anything but a new song in terms of originality and the two examples above, I suggest that the Psalter encourages us to sing and pray new songs; songs and prayers reflecting newness before God, whose words are informed by the Psalms themselves. I am not suggesting that all songs and prayers will simply be a mishmash of psalm verses. Rather I am hoping that we can see that the canon itself demonstrates that the Psalter is a vocabulary and resource for our prayers and worship, not a rigid ruleset. In this way the Psalter is instructional as psalm 1 indicates. Importantly this vocabulary goes beyond just the words to the experiences of the life of faith that underpin them. We are not meant to construct new songs which are just a one-dimensional pastiche of the bits of the Psalter we like. Let’s sing new songs which reflect the movements of the life of faith as we experience all of its offerings of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.

Robert Alter (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, New York: W. W. Norton.

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord

Liel Leibovitz, A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2014.

Liel Leiovitz, assistant professor of Communications at New York University, argues that his book on Leonard Cohen is not a biography. In a similar vein this post is not a book review. Whatever else Leibovitz’s book is, it is certainly a sympathetic account of Cohen. Throughout reading it, the reader is continually reassured that the author has a concern and warmth for his subject. In the preface we read that:

“You feel the same hum at a Cohen concert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too can somehow transcend.”

We soon learn that Cohen is not a simple traditional religious type, however, given the fact that rock and roll, and orgasms, make up, along with theology, the three core themes of his canon. After the brief Prelude, the rather lengthier Preface portrays Cohen as the the only person with a sense of perspective and wisdom in a massive Festival (the first Isle of Wight one) gone seriously bad. The account has all the marks of a Legend, yet like all the best legends it has that ring of truth that gives you confidence that Cohen is in a somewhat special league of popular musicians, or indeed human beings.

The story of Cohen’s Jewish upbringing is warmly described, perhaps working especially well given our narrator is also a Jew. A Gentile would have found difficulty in expressing some of the captivating perspective given here:

“It’s a terrific cosmic joke, but it makes for great theology, too. Exiled for millennia, scattered across all corners of the world, the Jews have survived as a nation, outliving so many of antiquity’s proudest peoples, because they had the strange question to ponder: Why us? And what now?”

Cohen’s Jewishness is the key reason what I was drawn to this book. I wanted to find out more about a singer/songwriter whose lyrics exuded the Psalms of Israel, which are a passion of mine. I am still convinced that, Hallelujah, Cohen’s truly iconic song, is a profound meditative reflection on the Biblical Psalter. Surely this is a Holy and yet broken Hallelujah; the words of ‘men’ become the word of God in this treasured collection. Like Cohen’s work they are both poems and songs. Whether my reasons make sense, or not, I have certainly a greater knowledge of, and I hope insight into, Cohen. The reader like myself, who knew little of Cohen, will not be surprised to find out he was a poet long before he was a songwriter. Those like me who have enjoyed the echoes of the soul of the Psalms will find support for their experience in Leibovitz’s claim that duende (a Spanish term for ‘deep song’, similar to the concept of blues) is a key force behind his poetry and songs. For those that know the Psalms this is of course the thread of Lament, or Complaint, so prevalent there.

Throughout the book there are some cameos from major figures of popular culture from the 1960s to the 1980s. Two stand out in particular. When Bob Dylan enters the story you can’t help but feel for Cohen who discovers that Dylan write’s his songs in minutes, whilst Cohen trims and refines over years. When Phil Spector crosses Cohen’s path to work on an album, the reader is moved again. Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ was always going to being incoherent with Cohen’s minimalism. Why did on one realise this at the outset?

At one point I felt that the episodic nature of Leibovitz’s account yields a picture of Cohen as a intellectual Forrest Gump. For it is not only the big players like Dylan and Spector who arrive on stage, but big world events too. Cohen was the only Westerner in Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs debacle who could claim he was just there on a prolonged holiday. Some twelve years later he spent months touring for the Israeli armed forces engaged in the Yom Kippur War.

When the reader reaches the final chapter, A Secret Chord, they are surprised that Cohen’s most infamous song was written as recently as 1984. This song is so many things, not least it is perhaps the most explicit vehicle for the quest for redemption that, Leibovitz suggests, underpins Cohen’s ongoing critique of Jewish and Gentile culture through poetry, novel and song.

I am grateful to Leibovitz for this book, and I commend it to anyone with a passing interest in Cohen as well as those already familiar with this unique artist. On the 23rd September 2014, 2 days after his 80th birthday, he will release his 13th album. Lucky for us.

Exposing the Psalms

Exposing the Psalms: unmasking their beauty, art, and power for a new generation, Milton Keynes: Authentic Media (2014).

There are a lot of books available on the biblical Psalms. So do we need another? Is a book that aims to expose them, claiming too much? I am pleased to say that this book fulfils a real need and it is a genuine expose. Nevland’s premise is straightforward: In our day the Psalms have fallen into disuse and something needs to be done about this. As the subtitle indicates this is about unmasking the beauty, art and power of the Psalms for a new generation.

‘Exposing the Psalms’ provides a creative and reflective way in which to engage with 30, or so, of the Biblical psalms. I found that this book achieved what all books on the Psalter should, it made me want to engage with the Psalms themselves. In my view, and experience, this is not a book that is best read in just a few sittings. I found each engagement with a psalm meant that I wanted to pause, reflect and pray before progressing to the next. I have heard from others who have found this too. This is a key strength of the book. It has the potential to make a lasting impact rather than simply be a ‘nice quick read’.

One of the most attractive features of this book is that it does not attempt to be the last word on each psalm. Instead it typically explains some of the ‘strangeness’ of the psalms and then quickly proceeds to a creative exploration of the psalm or issue/question which arises from the psalm. There are stories and poems here which are creative and imaginative ways to bring the Psalms alive. They invite the reader to attempt their own creative engagement with these ancient songs and prayers.

Some readers might wonder why the psalms have been tackled in what appears to be a random order. The intention appears to be an engagement with all the psalms as the project unfolds. Whilst I am personally a fan of reading the Psalms in order and as a book, this book has made the right choice in tackling them in a more ad hoc manner. If they had been tackled in canonical sequence the book might have been misunderstood as a commentary in the strictest sense, and it is not that. The more ‘random’ order enables the author to introduce diverse creative insights in a way that covering the first 30 psalms would have made tricky.

Another reviewer has questioned the lack of solid scholarly works cited in the bibliography. As a reader who has read widely on the Psalms and their interpretation, I don’t see that Nevland’s approach requires scholarly footnoting. Indeed his creative insights, which bridge the gap between ancient context and faith today might be stifled by some scholarly approaches. This book is a book that exposes the Psalms for the reader who wants to be creative and prayerful in their engagement. Many other books exist which cover the more technical aspects of psalms interpretation, very few attempt anything like ‘Exposing the Psalms’. Nevland has chosen to ‘dive into’ the Psalms and this is to be commended. His project aims is revive interest in the Psalms, and scholarship, however vital, is not what is needed in the first book of Nevland’s project.

I found the sections on psalms 45, 71 and 88 especially engaging. I wholly recommend this book and the wider project of which it is the start.

David and the Psalms

This short post was inspired by some tweets I stumbled across which jarred with me. They implied either that David wrote all the Psalms or expressed surprise at the claim that he did not. No scholar has, to my knowledge, defended Davidic authorship of all 150 canonical psalms for well over one hundred years. Not all scholars are hard-nosed critics, there are many who serve Christ and hold the Bible as Scripture; if Davidic authorship of the whole collection could be defended someone would have done so recently. So why do so many Christians want to hold onto the idea that David authored all of them, or even feel that the Bible is under attack if this view is questioned?

Jesus, of course, famously refers to David as the author of psalm 110 as recorded in Matthew 22:43-45 (paralleled in Mark 12:36-37 and Luke 20:42-44). This is one of the 73 psalms that are described in their heading as ‘of David’. We can note three points here:

1. ‘Of David’ does not necessarily imply authorship. It might imply some other type of connection with David.
2. Jesus does imply Davidic authorship of psalm 110.
3. Many psalms are not titled as being ‘of David’ and some are clearly associated with other people or groups of people.

At this very cursory level the Bible seems to claim that the Psalms are in some sense associated with David, with David being the author (some might suggest the implied author) of a number of them, for example note the historical episodes from David’s life in some 13 psalm titles (although again some would see this in different terms). Many individual psalms are, however, not directly associated with him. This does not contradict the label of the Psalter as the ‘Psalms of David’, but simply that the meaning of this description is more nuanced than wholesale authorship by King David.

The psalm headings, which are part of the transmitted and preserved text, give us this more complex picture. Strangely those of a more fundamentalist Christian view tend to ignore the subtlety of the titles and the more critical of scholars also dismiss them as late and unhelpful additions to the Psalms. As a Christian I am compelled to take the psalm titles seriously, but I don’t want to rule out the possibility of editing, including some title additions. One of the aims of this blog is to draw attention to the idea that editing of the Psalms, rather than being hostile to understanding the Psalter as Scripture, opens up an exciting and dynamic view of how these songs and poems were cherished and used by the community of faith and thus became Scripture. To use an old fashioned theological concept we have God’s providence at work in a process of authorship, collecting and editing. This is an exciting and indeed incarnational way in which God’s Spirit worked amongst his people over centuries. Such a work seems more naturally coherent with a God who became a man that we might know him more fully.

To say that David did not write all the Psalms still means he wrote some. Maybe all those that are described as ‘of David’ or a subset, opinions will vary. David’s situation within Israel as the second king, but in a sense the first true king in founding a dynasty, is unique. This together with his role in setting in motion the Temple and thus Temple worship in many senses make the Psalms Davidic. It is the case, I think, that this influence of David is much more theologically interesting than simple authorship of the Psalter!

Some of the psalms date from the time of the first ceremonies in the temple, such as the enthronement of the kings and other royal celebrations. These psalms are the Royal Psalms. Their significance has changed and perhaps this even encouraged editing. Words that celebrated the impressiveness of David and Solomon as they reigned over Israel become hollow words later in the time of the monarchy’s failure. Unbelievable claims about kings in the present became expectations of a new David, a new anointed king, or in other words the hope for a coming messiah. Words that spoke of the grandeur of earthly kings at their enthronement were preserved because they captured the prophetic expectation of God’s people that there would be a return of the king.

This Davidic, and ultimately messianic, thread within the Psalms is important for our understanding and use of the Psalms. There are some words within the Psalms that only make sense when seen as the words of a king of Israel and/or those of the coming king. David is also an ideal in some ways. Like us he is beloved of God, and also shares with us a frailty that can lead to actions abhorrent to God and contrary to His instruction (Torah). The fact that David retained God’s favour is encouraging to us. Similarly we have the good news that the Psalms contain so many words of the most diverse emotional nature. This fits with a king who lived a life before God to the full. The Psalms can serve us well as we attempt to live life to the full with all the potential for blessing on the one hand and the possibility of mistakes on the other. The way of righteousness that the Psalms take us on is not one of dead self-obsessed obedience, but a life lived in honesty before the God who both instructs and yet can also show mercy. The day-and-night meditation on God’s law, or instruction (psalm 1:2), is not legalism. Rather this is devotion to the one who leads and shelters us on a journey which ultimately leads to encounter with the messiah, Jesus Christ.

Psalmtweets

Around one year ago I decided to tweet once a day on the Psalms. The idea was to work through the Psalms, one-by-one, starting with psalm 1 and working through them in canonical order. The main reason I decided to do this was to give me a focus each day for engaging with Scripture as a spiritual discipline. I have missed eight days, one day in sympathy with a twitter boycott and seven days as a mark of respect after the sudden death of a close friend.

Having done the whole Psalter almost two and a half times, I am still fascinated by the task of capturing a psalm in a tweet. What criteria does one go for? There are a number of possibilities and questions behind the enterprise:

1. Do you try and capture the whole psalm in the tweet?
2. Do you home in on a key aspect which many readers will be familiar with?
3. Might you focus on something more obscure in the psalm? Perhaps to ensure your reader goes to the psalm?
4. Could you use captivating and inspiring poetic language?
5. Do you use some key words, or even actual text, from the psalm?
6. Might you just choose a representative verse?
7. Perhaps you should just give a title to the psalm?
8. Should the tweet offer a challenge or ask a question?

Of course none of these are right or wrong, they have different value for different people in the twitter-sphere.

One of the great things is that there are a number of people who are doing this. Many of them adopt #psalmtweets to make their tweets easy to find. Below I have cited some examples to illustrate what can be done with a psalmtweets.

Ben Myers@FaithTheology:
Psalm 1: The bad life is a busy life, full of bluster and bustle; the good life is a reading life, full of the joy of Torah #psalmtweets

This tweet captures much of the point of psalm 1 and what makes it special is that its language echoes that of the original. The bluster and bustle connects with the wind blown chaff of the original, and the ‘reading’ parallels the static rootedness of the tree in psalm 1. If there was a prize for bringing poetic life to psalmtweets @FaithTheology would receive it.

Mark Wagner@DrMarkWagner:
Where’s God when life’s tough?
Bad guys get out of jail free?
Seems so. But God sees.

#haiku #Psalm10
#GodsLoveChats

How to make the enterprise really tricky, write your tweet as a haiku. @DrMarkWagner’s tweets tend to capture the heart of the psalm with clarity and verve.

Patrick Hoffmann@HoffmaNomad4:
I lift my voice–in songs of praise and songs of lament. My voice breaks with the effort, passion, and emotion. Until… Silence. #psalm28

This is a great example of a thought provoking tweet when read in conjunction with the original psalm. The tweet ends were the psalmist in psalm 28 has asked not to be, but the silence of the tweet is not the consequence of a deaf deity.

Steven Robertson@OtisRobertson:
Psalm 45: The Warrior-King reigns and rejoices in majesty; He welcomes His glorious Bride into His joy. #psalmtweets

This simple tweet captures what is a tricky psalm with wonderful conciseness, to the point of being a commentary for the confused. It even preserves the two strophes of the original text!

Ben Myers@FaithTheology:
Psalm 56 (for Philip Seymour Hoffman). You seek me in my wanderings. You have counted all my tears; You keep them in a bottle #psalmtweets

They can also be timely; here reflecting on the tragic death of a great actor and a wonderful man. He was in my favourite film Magnolia (not all Christians will be comfortable with this film, but it is ultimately profoundly theological).

Marc La Porte@mlaporte74:
Psalm 21: Look back: celebrate past victories. Look ahead: anticipate future victories. Look up: exalt the LORD of victories #psalmtweets

This tweet recasts the whole psalm in a new and memorable light. This is a good reason for psalm tweeting, a good one can make a psalm memorable.

Robert W Moore@robmoore0330:
Psalm 105 “Seek the Lord and his strength: seek his face continually.” Entering the #Easter season, let’s cling to him daily. #eveningprayer

These psalmtweets can be, not only timely, but can also be an exhortation to prayer. This is sensible as surely the whole point of the Psalms is to help us pray.

Why not join in tweeting the Psalms. Reflect on and retweet those that you find rewarding. Have a go at writing your own. It has to be blessing to meditate on the Psalms day and night.

Psalms of Ascents: Psalms 120-134

Psalm 119 comes as something of a surprise to anyone reading through the Psalter, because of both its vast length and single-minded focus on Torah. Immediately following this remarkable psalm are fifteen psalms, which in different ways are also rather unusual. Psalms 120–134 are known as the Psalms of Ascents because they all have the same heading, literally ‘song of the steps’. No other psalms have this heading. So, we have here a deliberate collection of psalms (see the earlier post on mesostructure). It is not just the common heading that unites these psalms as we shall see below.

Various traditions surround the origin and function of these psalms. They are often said to be connected with pilgrimage. The first three of these psalms, when read as a sequence support this idea. Psalm 120 might reflect the hostility faced by someone starting out on a pilgrimage as they temporary leave the everyday realities of life in their community. Psalm 121 uses language which resonates with a journey and Psalm 122 clearly articulates the joy of arriving in Jerusalem. These psalms are also linked by some interpreters with the steps leading up to the inner court of the temple: there being 15 songs of the steps to match these 15 steps. Whether these psalms were used in the autumn pilgrimage festival as is proposed by some remains inconclusive. That these psalms are intentionally placed together is more clearly demonstrable.

Their unity does not come from their common genre (or Gattungen), although more than half mention Zion (Psalms 122, 125, 126, 128, 129, 132, 133 and 134) and several could be identified as Songs of Zion. Their type is varied and includes Laments (psalms 120, 123, 126, 129 and 130) and Songs of Trust (psalms 121, 125 and 131). There are elements of wisdom too (in psalms 127, 128 and 133). Psalm 132 stands out as a Royal Psalm. When they are read sequentially their ordering often seems naturally developmental, for example, in how the lament of 120 develops into trust in 121 and is followed by the joy and celebration of 122.

So, what unites these psalms other than their common heading? Goulder (1998) helpfully builds on the work of other scholars and singles out four features that mark out these psalms (except 132 which we’ll return too below):

1. They are short psalms
These psalms are on average about 40% the length of other psalms in the Psalter. The exception being 132. All 15 together are shorter than psalm 119.

2. They use step parallelism
The psalms are known for their use of parallelism, but in the Psalms of Ascents this often takes on a style in which whole phrases carry over from one clause to the next. For example:

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Psalm 121:3-4 (KJV)

3. They repeat some short phrases
There are around six phrases that are repeated 2 or 3 times in this small group. For example:

a. Maker of heaven and earth (121: 2, 124:8 and 134: 3).
b. From this time forth and for ever more (121: 8, 125: 2, 131: 3).

4. The use a large number of positive similes
The psalms as a whole tend to favour metaphors over similes. When similes are used they are often militaristic in nature. Here in these psalms (except 132) there is a large density of similes and they tend to refer to everyday objects and events. They are also positive by nature, four typical examples being:

a. as the eyes of servants (123: 2)
b. as grass upon the housetops (129: 6).
c. as a child that is weaned of its mother (131: 2).
d. like precious ointment upon the head (133: 2).

So, what of all these features? Well they are evidence enough that these psalms are a coherent whole, except that Psalm 132 is marked out as exceptional. It is much longer, does not use step parallelism, does not have phrases that are common with the other 14 and does not contain any similes. In this way our attention is drawn to this Royal Psalm. What are we to make of these efforts to highlight this psalm?

The first issue of note is that at the time of collecting the psalms, and at the time of their use, if they indeed reflect the autumn festival, the Davidic kings were long gone. When we remember this, we see that this psalm takes the Davidic story and makes it into an eschatological promise par excellence. Despite Zion being a place of God’s dwelling, despite the pilgrimage to this city, there is something missing. There is no king of the line of David as was promised. There is no anointed one. This psalm, like a number of other prominent psalms in the Psalter, rewrites the promises of an earthly anointed ruler and transforms the meaning from ‘anointed’ to ‘messiah’. It is this hope that makes sense of pilgrimage. It is this expectation that ensures that Jerusalem is not just another earthly city. It is this future which is the horizon that the Psalms draw our attention to. Psalm 132 singled-out like this reminds the pilgrim ‘reader’ that pilgrimage is not just about the now it has a firm future eschatological dynamic too.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Return: Book V, Psalms 107–150, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

Psalm 119: A misunderstood psalm

This psalm has not always been held in high regard by bible commentators. Many have seen its 176 verses, eight beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in turn, as dull and unimaginative. Others have equated the thought of the poet with self-indulgent legalism.

Few readers of this post will perhaps go quite so far in criticising this psalm. However, even amongst psalm readers unused to being critical of Scripture it is perhaps all too rarely a favourite. It is my hope, in this brief post, to look to some reasons why this psalm should be valued highly by psalm ‘users’.

The first point that I think is helpful is to dispel any idea that the poet is a self-righteous legalist. To be sure the psalm does feature God’s word and God’s law in virtually every verse! The word Torah, or instruction, and seven other near synonyms are meant to be seen as portraying a multi-faceted truth; that Yahweh has provided rich instruction to those willing to pause and pay attention. This is no dry dull legalism, but a reflection of something which is more remarkable than a set of rules. God’s law, or Torah, was always more than regulation and here it is seen as essential in its life-giving efficacy. It is not the case that the law must be obeyed, or else, rather if life is going to be lived to the full then listening to God’s instruction is wise.

The author of the psalm is also not someone who is claiming to have a superior ‘holier-than-thou’ position of obedience to judge from. From our perspective, however, this might be exactly what we read into the psalm. Our modern sensibilities are informed, at least in part, by a caricature of Pharisaism such that any talk of law smacks of dead legalistic piety. We can also easily miss that the writer is actually writing from a perspective of lament, see for example verses 5, 18, 82, 107, 123, 169 and 176.

Another problem we sometimes bring to the psalms is an inability to take them as the reflective poems they are meant to be. If we go to Psalm 119 to receive propositional truth we will be disappointed, finding that it can be distilled into just a handful of clauses. Of course this would entirely miss the point of why this psalm exists in the canon! What if instead we see this psalm as a prayer to be read and savoured; life-changing verses to be meditated on? Such an approach puts faith in this psalm as God’s word, giving rise to an expectancy of its transformative potential. In making space to pray these words attentively we can allow God to shape us and enable us to find delight in a God who speaks his instruction and wants us to be nourished to find life in all its fullness.

Acrostic Psalms

Nine of the biblical Psalms are acrostic poems. The general idea is a simple one: they comprise a sequence of uses of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. So, for example, in the two shortest complete acrostics, psalms 111 and 112, half a verse or less of material starts with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph through tav in turn. In psalms 25 and 34 there is one verse beginning with each of the 22 Hebrew letters in turn. In psalm 119 there are famously 8 verses beginning with each of the Hebrew letters, giving the 176 verses that make this by far the longest of the canonical psalms.

These nine (or eight, see below) psalms are not alone in Scripture. Proverbs 31:10-31, the book of Lamentations and Nahum 1:2-8, all use the same acrostic device.

The acrostic psalms are not of a specific genre (or Gattungen). They can variously have strong elements of thanksgiving (34, 111), wisdom motifs and style (34, 37, 112), they can praise (9, 145), they can lament (10, 25, 119?) or there can be a focus on Torah (119). So what is the point to this literary device, one that in many cultures appears as something of a poetic oddity?

There are probably a number of interrelated ideas going on.

1. There is something here about convention and order. The biblical Psalms obey a number of conventions like all poetry rooted in a linguistic tradition. The acrostic form is one additional convention which gives a further constraint for the poet to work with. One of the challenges of poetry is to achieve something special within a set of rules that provide a framework. The idea of order takes on an especially poignant dynamic in the acrostic poems found in Lamentations 1-4 because of the horrors depicted there. The ordered response to the disorders experienced by Israel is the poets attempt to both highlight the dire nature of events and at least in language terms a step towards order, at least in defining the problem.

2. There is also a sense of completeness, just as in English we think of an A to Z as a compendium on a subject. A particular poem has in this sense made a complete point, argument or appeal. If this is so, then psalm 119 takes on almost manic proportions of completeness. Psalm 119 actually goes further still with its use of eight synonyms for God’s word or instruction. In nearly every verse one of these eight words appears.

3. Convention and completeness of this type also support the memorisation of the Psalms and this seems to have been important to the psalmist as Gordon Wenham has argued in a couple of recent books (Psalms as Torah, The Psalter Reclaimed).

A couple of final points are worth mentioning. Psalms 9 and 10 are not individual acrostics but they actually form a single acrostic. The fact that they belong together is further indicated in their being a single psalm in the LXX and in psalm 10 having no heading in the main Hebrew manuscripts. What is puzzling is why they have been separated and why the perfection of the acrostic has been lost in a couple of places by editing. There is also some disruption of the acrostic pattern in a couple of other cases. For example, in psalm 145 there is no clause corresponding to the ‘letter N’. Perhaps this is a deliberate disruption of perfection to make a theological point about the impossibility of perfection before the eschaton. As with many other aspects of the Psalter we can learn much, but also find some mysteries. It probably shouldn’t be any other way!