Book Review, Part 2—The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre

This is the second, and final, part of this review of The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre, Dennis Tucker, Jr. and W. H. Bellinger, Jr. (editors), Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017. 216pp. hb. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4813-0556-3

Part 2: Theological Themes in the Psalms

Human Transience, Justice and Mercy: Psalm 103, Johannes Schnocks

In this contribution Schnocks uses a combination of approaches which consider both the shape of the Psalter (synchronic methods) and the shaping of the psalms (diachronic approaches) to explore the nature of divine mercy in Psalm 103. He does this by considering the theme of human transience raised in Psalm 90 (the first psalm of Book 4). Psalms 102 and 103 are seen to deepen the intermediate position proposed in Psalm 92. This ongoing dialogue provides a firm context within which Psalm 103 articulates the nature of the forgiveness of sins offered by YHWH. Schnocks shows how the three strophes (vv.6–10, vv.11–13 and vv.14–18), at the heart of the psalm, present a theology of divine mercy which is a rich reflection on God’s nature and his covenant relationship with Israel. This chapter is not only interesting in its own right but it also provides a helpful illustration of the potential for exploring the dialogue between the psalms made visible by synchronic approaches which recognise the shape of the Psalter.

 

The God of Heaven in Book 5 of the Psalter, W. Dennis Tucker Jr.

Zion Theology has long been recognised as a central theme of the Psalter. Zion Theology is explored helpfully in terms of its key motifs and with awareness that it underwent a shift in emphasis, albeit not a straightforward linear one. The spatial nature of the language in Book 5 which refers to YHWH is explored. Tucker also examines the fivefold use of the phrase ‘maker of heaven and earth’ in Book 5, noting that it is not found in the other four books. The use of this term, almost an appellation, is part of a shift in Zion Theology necessitated by the destruction of the First Temple. The evidence in Book 5 is shown to point to the term ‘God of Heaven’ becoming increasingly important in the light of defending the inviolability of Zion. Interestingly, despite YWHW’s identification as ‘God of Heaven’ the psalmists who wrote and edited Book 5 testify to the nearness of God. Indeed the motif of ‘God of Heaven’ is used in a manner consistent with YHWH as ‘Divine King [who] will intervene into the history of his threatened people’ [pp.98–9).

 

The Theology of the Poor in the Psalter, Johannes Bremer

Bremer opens by identifying what he sees as five threads of thought that run through the Psalter from a synchronic perspective. One of these is a theology of the poor. It would have been helpful at the outset for more to be said concerning what features of the psalms can be said to constitute a theology of the poor. Notwithstanding this point, Bremer shows that a theology of the poor is a key concept within the first David Psalter (Pss.3–41) in that each of the recently recognised four sections concludes with a psalm (Pss. 14, 24, 34 and 41) within which various elements constitute a theology of the poor. With reference to the work of Hossfeld he argues that the second Davidic Psalter mirrors this theology of the poor. He also points out that all of these Davidic psalms are from a perspective of close familiarity with the poor. This is not the case, however, with the Asaphite psalms in which there is a clear distance between the psalmist and the poor. The theology of the poor in Book 5 is rather uneven. The theme is all but absent from the Psalms of Ascents but important in the various Hallelujah/Hallel psalms (Pss. 104–106, 111–113, 115–117 and 146–150). The chapter closes with a brief outline of the diachronic explanation of the synchronic whole with which the chapter has been largely concerned.

 

The Elohistic Psalter: Formation and Purpose, Frank-Lothar Hossfeld

The chapter commences with a helpful reminder that Herman Gunkel was not only concerned with form criticism but devoted some attention to the formation of the Psalter. In particular he attempted to explain the existence and nature of the Elohistic Psalter (Pss. 42–83) with which Hossfeld is concerned. Hossfeld suggests that Gunkel was unwise to attempt to account for the shape of the Psalter by giving so much attention to its middle. Hossfeld briefly sketches the legacy of Gunkel’s account of the Elohistic Psalter before favouring some recent studies that have provided alternative explanations for the use of divine names in the Elohistic Psalter. He concludes that the Elohistic Psalter is part of the middle of the story of the shaping of the psalms as well as the middle of the Psalter. More specifically he suggests that its origin lies with the activities of the Asaphites who edited the second Davidic Psalter, as well as some of the Korahite psalms, namely Pss. 42–49. The chapter concludes by building on this with the very specific evidence from (i) two parallel psalm pairs: Pss. 14/53 and 40:14–18/70 , (ii) the inclusion of the second David Psalter (Pss. 69–71), (iii) the content of the second part of the Korahite Psalter (Pss. 84–85, 86–89). By way of conclusion the argument is drawn together with regard to the implications for an understanding of the formation of the Psalter.

 

The Elohistic Psalter: History and Theology, Joel S. Burnett

This chapter functions as something like a sequel to the previous one. Burnett considers three theological emphases of the Elohistic Psalter. The first, and most obvious, is the preference for the divine name Elohim which seeks to shroud YHWH in mystery whilst simultaneously identifying him as the deity behind other divine names. The second is the clear presentation of the supremacy of Israel’s God among the other gods. Burnett argues that this is not just a static theme, but one that culminates climatically in the penultimate Elohistic psalm (Psalm 82), in the portrayal of the divine council and Elohim’s superiority over its members. The third emphasis is the portrayal of divine judgement on earth as in heaven. In this way a hope is described whereby the calamitous events of Exile can be reversed. With these three themes in mind, Burnett considers how the first Korahite collection (Pss. 42–49) provides a lead-in to the Elohisitc Asaph-David collection and the second Korahite collection (Pss. 84–85, 87–88) cogently follows this literary unit. At a later stage he suggests that Psalms 2 and 89 were added to foster the joining of  the first Davidic Psalter to the Elohistic Psalter.

 

Part 3: Genre and Theology

The Psalter as a Book: Genre as Key to its Theology, Egbert Ballhorn

Ballhorn starts by recognising both the innovation, and yet also the limits, of Gunkel’s form criticism (Gattungskritik). In particular he laments the effort of some commentators in the 1920s to reorder the psalms. The revolution created by the recognition of the literary character of the psalms as a Psalter is celebrated before he moves on to consider the Psalter’s ouverture. Psalms 1–3 are explored as this ouverture, although rather surprisingly there is no mention of Robert Cole’s 2013 monograph on these psalms: Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter. Ballhorn helpfully adds further insight as to how these first psalms function as a hermeneutical lens by recognising how Psalms 1 and 2 connect with the language of the Pentateuch (Psalm 1) and that of the Latter Prophets (Psalm 2). Psalm 3 is also singled out as the first of the psalms that conforms to the expectation of what constitutes a typical psalm. In this way Ballhorn sees the first three psalms as teaching readers that addressing God in prayer is only possible by building on the twin pillars of torah and trust in the promise of God’s anointed seated in Zion.

 

Genre, Theology, and the God of the Psalms, Rolf Jacobson

This final chapter, rather appropriately, considers what sort of God it is that the psalms testify to. More specifically the ‘prayers of help’ (individual laments) and Royal Psalms are used to answer this question. Jacobson is aware that some scholars, such as Gerstenberger, view such an enterprise as impossible; decrying the possibility of a singular theology of the psalms—Gerstenberger famously speaks of theologies of the psalms, in no small measure because for him the pursuit of Sitz im Leben eclipses more recent canonical endeavours. In examining the ‘prayers for help’, God’s impassibility and immutability in terms of his being, character and election of Israel is first recognised. At the same time the psalms also assert, however, that when it comes to  more specific actions for Israel and for the individual, God ‘is far from impassible’ [p.175]. The election of Israel in the Royal Psalms is considered by first noting the rich semantic field within the Hebrew Bible which is not fully echoed in the psalms. What the psalms do is rather more specific. They focus on the election of specific people, most notably David. These two threads come together in witnessing that YHWH is a God of  relationships—he hears the cries of the weak and is in covenant with Israel, releasing his people’s divine purpose.

 

Final Comments

Edited books of this type can often feel rather haphazard but here the twelve contributions have been shaped together well. This results in a sense of common endeavour among the twelve contributors to collectively advance the canonical approach. For me two of the contributions stand out because they not only make the most of the new canonical consensus but they have wider theological promise too. The first is Brack Reid’s paper which offers some interesting possibilities and potential for reading the psalms Davidically in terms of a theology of suffering. The second is Bremer’s contribution on a theology of suffering. These two also cohere in terms of their focus. Several other contributions remind the reader that a theology of the poor is a key concern of the Psalter.

So to conclude this volume is highly recommended to advanced students and scholars with either an interest in the Psalter or the interplay between synchronic and diachronic approaches to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. A knowledge of Hebrew is necessary to get the best from most of the contributions and the collection. This contribution indicates that the synchronic approach has reached a level of genuine maturity and consensus. Undoubtedly scholars still have much to explore. There is also a vital need to ensure that the broad insights of the new consensus can be appropriated within the Church to enable the Psalter to function fully as life-transforming Scripture.

 

 

T is for Torah

The Hebrew word torah is frequently translated as law or The Law, meaning the Pentateuch. In Western culture law does not tend to have a semantic range which is entirely positive. Most people in stable countries are grateful to live in a society governed by the rule of law. In contrast, however, legalism, lawyers and judgement all have negative connotations. When we encounter the word law translating torah, as it does in so many translations, we can often think of a stereotype which eclipses the genuine nuance that the word torah has in Hebrew. The problem is especially acute for many Christian readers who may well be oblivious to the problem.

Many Christians will have heard repeated stark contrasts drawn between the freedom and grace of Christ contrasted with the rigid legalism of the Pharisees. Whilst the gospels abound with stories of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, a shrill opposition is not what the gospels reveal. The problem is that these stories are read from an ingrained perspective which originated in the Reformation. Luther, in reacting against the abuses of the Church, read into the Pharisees’ position all that he despised in the Church of his day. Read with an open mind the gospels reveal a Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees but also a Jesus who knows torah (cf. Matthew 4:1‒11) and speaks positively about it (Matthew 5:17‒20).

Returning to the Hebrew Bible we would do well to not read the word law in a negative sense and to also note that the literal meaning of torah is ‘instruction’, ‘teaching’ and ‘guidance’. We are likely to bring less baggage to the text with the word instruction. Such teaching and guidance takes many forms and sometimes this is law, i.e. written instruction which has some element of authority associated with it. When seen as instruction, teaching and guidance from God, even when encompassing law, a richer, thicker and more positive view is possible.

That the Hebrew Bible sees torah as positive is evident throughout. For example we read:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law
[=torah] of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law
[=torah] day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Psalm 1:1‒3 (NIV)

It is very likely here that the concept of torah or instruction is being deliberately extended from the first five books of the Hebrew Bible the torah to the five books of the Psalms.

It is interesting to note that a similar positive exhortation opens the Former Prophets too:

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law [=torah] my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law [=torah] always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

Joshua 1:7‒8 (NIV)

To be fair there is a sense in which law keeping is an important, indeed central, part of the Hebrew Bible. The above verses are picking up where Deuteronomy left of with its call to obedience so that covenant blessings would be maintained. A healthy respect for God’s instruction is to be expected if God is God. This does not have to equate to dry legalism. Readers are encouraged to read the Hebrew Bible and come to their own views as to what extent either Pharisaical Judaism, Early Christianity, contemporary Judaism or modern Christianity embody the serious intent and delight abounding in Yahweh’s torah.

 

P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

Journeying through the Psalms

This weekend I planned some teaching on The Book of Psalms for a staff and postgraduate Christian fellowship lunchtime meeting at the University of Surrey—this is my place of work. I have realised that the handout I have prepared is self-contained enough to be useful for a wider audience and so have lightly adapted it below.

Getting Started
What role do the Psalms play in your church?

What role do the Psalms play in your life?

The Psalms and the Last One Hundred Years’ of Scholarship
Scholarship on the Psalms in the twentieth century was a complex journey through very different approaches. A German scholar, Hermann Gunkel, initiated a literary approach which still informs scholarship today. His approach was valuable in exploring the various types of psalm found in the Psalter. It was inadvertently unhelpful for the Church in that its focus on individual psalms undermined The Book of Psalms. A Norwegian scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel, built on Gunkel’s work and sought to understand the use of the psalms in Ancient Israel. This sounds promising but the result was built on a historical hypothesis with scant support from the Old Testament.

More recently, scholars have recognised the limits of placing the psalms firmly in the past. Since around 1980 a large number of scholars have explored what many Christians have known for two millennia that the Psalter is a book (Judaism has recognised this for even longer of course). If the Psalter is a book, rather than a disordered anthology of songs and poems, then we might well expect (i) an introduction, (ii) evidence of structure, (iii) a conclusion. We will briefly consider these three things.

The Psalter’s Opening: Psalms 1 and 2
Scholars like Gunkel and Mowinckel largely ignored Psalm 1 because it is unusual and did not fit either a literary form or pattern of worship that interested them.[1] Psalm 1 is a call to study Yahweh’s torah, or instruction. We should ensure we do not make the mistake of seeing this as a call to legalism. Surprisingly, given their very different forms, there are links between Psalms 1 and 2. In Figure 1 their parallel usage of some Hebrew words is shown.

Psalms 1 and 2 comparison

Figure 1 Some of the more obvious literary links between Psalms 1 and 2.

Anyone unconvinced by the suggested literary links between these two psalms should note that there are two other reasons for seeing these two psalms as a pair. Firstly, they are unusual in that they both lack a heading. Secondly, there is a Jewish tradition that links these two verses as a single psalm.[2] If these two psalms are in some sense an intentional introduction to the Book of Psalms, this has some implications:

  • Perhaps the Psalms are meant to be a source of instruction.
  • The idea of ‘the way’, or a journey, might be a key concern.
  • The king/Yahweh’s anointed (= messiah) might be central to the book.

 

The Structure of the Psalms
There are many different features within the Psalter that can be viewed as evidence of structure. Many of them raise puzzling questions. Here we just scratch the surface. One obvious feature is the fivefold structure of the Psalter—the psalms are broken into five books:

Book I: Psalms 1–41

Book II: Psalms 42–72

Book III: Psalms 73–89

Book IV: Psalms 90–106

Book V: Psalms 107–150

It has been suggested that this fivefold structure deliberately echoes the Pentateuch (the five books of the torah). If this is the case Psalm 1’s call to meditation on the torah/law might point to the Book of Psalms as much as the Law of Moses.

Each of the five books in the Psalter ends in what is called a doxology or a call to praise:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting,

Amen and amen. (41:13)

 

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,

Who alone does wondrous deeds.

Blessed be his glorious name forever;

May his glory fill all the earth.

Amen and amen. (72:18-19)

 

Blessed be the Lord forever.

Amen and amen. (89:52)

 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting.

And let all the people say, “Amen.”

Praise the Lord. (106:48)

 

Let every breathing thing praise the Lord!

Hallelujah! (150:6)

 

The attentive reader will also note that the psalms that close and open the five books tend to be especially important in terms of the wider theological issues they address and/or the role of the king.

Perhaps the Psalter’s structure encapsulates a journey that mirrors the journey of so many of the pilgrims and disciples who have found sustenance and encouragement there? Anyone who reads through the Psalter, psalm-by-psalm, will perceive a journey. There is a decisive development through the Book of Psalms. Some have described this as a journey from ‘Plea to Praise’ and others as a journey from ‘Duty to Delight’.

A journey through the Psalter reaches a puzzle when Psalm 53 is reached because it appears to be so close to Psalm 14 as to be the same. The main difference between these two psalms is the words they use to refer to God. This is part of a wider puzzle in the Psalter shown in Figure 2.

Elohistic

Figure 2 The number of occurrences of the words Yahweh and Elohim in two groups of psalms.

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to a journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words in the Table below.

Table 1 Occurrence of words (NRSV) related to a journey motif in Psalm 119.

WORD VERSE/S

 

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage—most obviously Psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimages to Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith.

The Conclusion of the Psalms: Psalms 146–150
Psalms 146-150 have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah, i.e. ‘Praise the Lord’. They all end with this same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups and downs of individual and corporate experience. There is only cause for praise and its execution. Therefore, in this way they are all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the five parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter.

What better way to end a book of songs and poems than with a crescendo of praise? If we have prayed through the Psalms, the cycle of Hallelujahs is the only way it could close. If the Psalter is symbolic of the life of faith, how else should it end—but with an end echoed by David in Cohen’s Hallelujah: ‘and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah’. For those that use the Psalter repeatedly in a cycle from beginning to end, there is a foretaste of closure, ahead of the start of a fresh journey of troughs and peaks.

Conclusion
Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating a journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way.

More on the Psalms
If you have found some value in our journey through the Psalms you might like to read some short posts from my blog. Please see PsalterMark.com and in particular the post titled The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture. You can also find me on Twitter as @PsalterMark in what is usually a daily attempt to promote The Book of Psalms.

If you want to know more about the recent rediscovery that the biblical psalms are a book see the following:

Nancy deClaissé-Walford (1997), Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macon: Mercer University Press.

Palmer Robertson (2015), The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology, Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing.

[1] Gunkel went so far as to suggest its piety was deficient.

[2] The relationship between these two Psalms is explored in Mark J. Whiting (2013), Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246 and in Robert L. Cole (2013), ‘Psalms 1 and 2: The Psalter’s Introduction’ in The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers.

The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture

Introduction
Human beings have, since prehistory, attempted to explain life as a journey. In a physical sense life is a journey from the helplessness we display at birth to the lifelessness of death. The physical nature of ‘the end’ is all too tangible. Science can probe it and concludes it is indeed journey’s end. Many world religions claim that this is not a final end, but there is something beyond our earthly voyage. The proposals vary from a hope of paradise to ideas of reincarnation. Orthodox Christianity testifies to an afterlife in terms of two poles: (i) bodily resurrection, and (ii) the New Heaven and New Earth.

The common experience of being frail beings together with diverse religious claims, contribute to a pervasive theme in culture, what I refer to here as the Journey Motif. It is found in a huge variety of cultural expressions such as novels, poems, cinema, everyday idioms and poetry. The examples I will use below will undoubtedly be culturally bound and limited by my experience and likes. Nevertheless, this will I trust be a helpful journey about journeys. Our destination is the Psalms and the blessing they are on the Life of Faith.

Everyday Idioms
There are numerous idioms and sayings in the English language which make use of a journey motif. I am not suggesting that these phrases are thoroughgoing metaphysical reflections or conscious nods to religious expectation. The point is simply that our language is riddled with such turns of phrase which collectively hint at the bigger picture of the journey of life. On a daily basis we understand such language without any effort. This is the case even when it relates to a context which is not a journey. For example:

  • “The business venture was going nowhere” means that the enterprise concerned is not successful, it is self-evident that it would not be expected to physically move.
  • “Her career was really going places” might be true even if the career was based in the same physical location. The same person might be said to have a successful career path.
  • “After years of study it was finally the home stretch”. Again the person concerned might have sat in lecture rooms, a library and their study but the idea of a journey ‘works’.
  • “Despite having it all he had itchy feet”. We know that this is not some fungal infection but that someone is thinking about changing their circumstances. This might, or might not, be an actual journey.
  • In times of crisis people often choose places to stay or new relationships that might otherwise be undesirable and we sagely note that they have settled for “any port in a storm”.
  • Someone making hasty life choices might soon discover that the “wheels fall off”.
  • Those who are more successful are often said to be ‘way ahead’ or ‘leading the way’.

Popular Music
George Harrsion’s Any Road, is a conscious reflection on the journey motif. In the song he has fun with the very idea that life as a journey is purposeful: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there’. Other popular songs portray relationships in the language of a journey. One example, among many, is Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time:

Sometimes you picture me –
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said –
Then you say – go slow –
I fall behind –
The second hand unwinds

Some popular music goes further with the journey motif by means of the concept album. In a concept album a narrative unfolds. Sometimes the story can be difficult to discern with the artist/s storytelling in a manner which leads the listener unsure of the details. In other examples the story is portrayed with sustained intentionality and clarity. Such a narrative is told in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There the entire life of the protagonist Pink is unfolded, from birth to death and then beyond. This work is a self-conscious reflection on the potential reality that lies behind the journey that is our lives. One of Pink Floyd’s latest works, The Endless River, reflects on the journey motif using mostly instrumental music. Rather poignantly the album which was released in 2014 uses work recorded prior to the death of band member Richard Wright in 2008, and it seems to consciously reflect on his absence. The album cover and the album title work to this end before the music is even encountered. It is almost as if they hope that there is an endless river but have little confidence in the possibility of life beyond death.

Literature
Many of the novels of the nineteenth century were also explorations of the journey of their hero or antihero through a large part of their life. The journey for Dickens is often one through social standing in Victorian society, such as Pip in Great Expectations and the eponymous and hapless hero of Oliver Twist. Such works typically see the end of the journey as settled existence in a place of social standing. Looking beyond life’s physical journey was the preserve of other types of art and later novels.

Some works of literature capture a journey motif very literally. The two best known works of J. R. R. Tolkien do this. The Hobbit which tells of the adventures of the Halfling Bilbo Baggins is even subtitled There and Back Again. Bilbo is fortunate enough to benefit from his adventurous journey and arrive home, changed for the better. In The Lord of the Rings Bilbo’s adopted nephew Frodo departs on his own dramatic adventures and eventually returns home. For Frodo, however, things are not better back home. Frodo has to leave his life in his homeland of The Shire and journey over the sea prematurely to the blessed lands.

Tolkien’s work is rich with the journey motif often with a poignant depth behind it, redolent with transcendent mystery. See my earlier post on Tolkien’s poem The Road Goes Ever On which is found in both of his Hobbit-centred works. The same motif, with the same haunting depth, is found in a poem, Bilbo’s Last Song, which Tolkien gave to his secretary, Joy Hill, in 1966. This is beautifully captured in the BBCs 1981 radio adaption of The Lord of the Rings, in which the now ancient Bilbo sings the song as he and Frodo depart Middle-Earth with a number of other key protagonists from the War of the Ring. Here is the middle of three verses:

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Such language undoubtedly echoes Tolkien’s Catholic faith. This is one of the reasons why his writing has a mythical authenticity so often absent from work of the same Fantasy genre. Much post-Tolkien Fantasy literature has a central story which is defined, like Tolkien’s famous works, around a journey motif. Very often these fail to live up to anything like Tolkien because there is no conscious depth behind the motif.

Poetry
Epic poetry from the ancient world was very often themed around journeys. In many cases reality was explored as gods enter the story or mysterious objects are collected from uncharted parts of the world. More modest modern poetry also makes significant use of the journey motif. Perhaps the most famous example is Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken. Here is just one verse:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
 
Interestingly Frost’s poem is often misunderstood with readers making more of it than Frost ever intended. Frost wrote the poem to suggest that indecision in life was undesirable. So ingrained, however, is the journey motif that this poem has been invested with religious and metaphysical freight by many readers.
 
Cinema
The journey motif has arguably proven even more dominant in cinema than in literature. There is a whole genre of film known as the Road Movie. There are numerous examples, Thelma and Louise is arguably one of the most well-known. A Road Movie of this type is typically one where the protagonists go on a journey which removes them from their ordinary life. There is an expectation that if they survive they will return to life as changed people.

There are other films in which the journey motif takes on greater scale because the journey is central to understanding something bigger than the protagonists’ lives. Such films have been produced for years but there has been a recent spate, for example: The Road (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), The Maze Runner (2014) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

All these examples are what can be termed post-apocalyptic in that we see the aftermath of a disaster which has destroyed the world and human society as we know it. The story generally revolves around understanding some aspect of the disaster or how humankind can respond in some new dynamic way.

The Way
The Bible is full of examples of what I have called the journey motif. The most important is the reference in both testaments to ‘the way’. Proverbs captures it so:

I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
Proverbs 4:11

There are other similar references in the Wisdom books and many Psalms (see below) which have a wisdom theme. In the New Testament ‘the Way’ takes on new depth of meaning. In the gospels, first as Jesus is anticipated to be part of its redefinition and then because he goes even further and redefines it around himself:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’
Mark 1:3

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

In the book of Acts we find that the Jewish renewal movement that became Christianity is frequently labelled as ‘the Way’. For example:

About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way.
Acts 19:23

The Bible takes the pervasive journey motif and makes some very clear claims as to how the idea coheres with the reality centred on the God of Israel and the Risen Christ. In short ‘the Way’ is what we call a faithful life lived before God. In the Hebrew Bible this way is followed in obedience to the Torah; a wise response to Yahweh’s instruction. In this manner those following the way are the righteousness. In the New Testament these ideas remain but are transfigured as a result of the self-revelation of Yahweh as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Psalms
The overall biblical testimony is that this life that we experience now is a journey; what is helpfully termed the Life of Faith. Its actual goal lies beyond what we can see, or test, here and now. The journey continues after death with the resurrection of God’s people. Those found in Christ will be given new bodies and made whole. Their dwelling will be with God in the New Heaven and the New Earth. The Psalms are no exception to this overarching metanarrative. As they are part way through the trajectory of understanding of the Way it is anachronistic to read the New Testament back into them to hastily. So, for example, Zion is the language of dwelling with God and the destination beyond physical death, but we should be slow to eclipse its broader significance and role as a key aspect of First Testament faith.

The importance of the language of journey is central to the Psalter. It is there at the very outset in a verse which rounds off a series of rich metaphors describing the ‘two ways’:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1:6

It is mentioned again in Psalm 2:12 as a reminder that at the outset of the Psalter following ‘the way’ is a key theme. The Way, and other journey language, occur frequently throughout the Psalter, so for example:

  1. The idea of a way, or the ways, is found in 5:8; 10:5; 17:4; 18:21,30,32; 25:4; 25:9,12; 27:11; 32:8; 35:6; 36:4; 37:5,7,23,34 and 39:1 in Book I alone.
  2. The idea of a journey along a path is seen in 1:1; 16:11; 17:5; 23:2; 25:4; 25:10 and 27:11 in Book I. It appears essentially as a synonym for the idea of a way or ways.

In some cases the idea seems to be part of intentional design of the Psalms. Psalm 25, for example, brings together a number of questions and themes raised earlier in the Psalms (see 15:1,2 and 24:3,4):

Who are they that fear the Lord?
    He will teach them the way that they should choose.
Psalm 25:12

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to the journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words (in NRSV) in the Table below.

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage. Most obviously psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimage to the Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals. The Psalms of Ascents are explored in a couple of previous posts.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was very often no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith. Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating the journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way. As the psalmist knows from the outset of the journey we should be delighting in this instruction and meditating on these words (1:2). The result of this practice is that our life’s journey will crystallise into a remarkably static blessing:

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Psalm 1:3

What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 1: Poems, Prayers and Songs

The importance of taking the context of any text into account is an obvious part of interpretation. The notion of context with regard to biblical psalms is, however, a rather complex one. This post does not attempt any resolution of the matter, but rather aims to be a starting point for readers to rethink what is an interesting ‘problem’. The headings below perhaps stretch the meaning of the word context into, for example, questions of genre and function. Although, of course, genre and function cannot be separated from context. Which brings me to the first heading of poem.

1. Psalms as Poems
There is nothing controversial about seeing the Psalms as poems. The majority of psalms use the literary device of parallelism which is generally understood to be a defining feature of biblical poetry (although the distinction between poetry and prose is perhaps unhelpful in some other parts of the Old Testament). There are many other features of the psalms that make them poetic, the use of metaphor being especially dominant and important. This is not the place to explore Hebrew poetry, except to say that there is an essential dynamic for interpretation. The key issue is that whatever else we make of the psalms, their poetic nature means that we should not be hasty in equating their poetry to simple propositional truth. This is no lack of confidence in the Psalms as Scripture, rather the opposite. The truth conveyed by the Psalms is rich with emotion. The Psalmist is often speaking from a place of non-equilibrium and trying to find their way back to orientation before God. The poetic vocabulary of the excesses of joy and despair will often stray from straightforward theological description.

I am, however, convinced that the profoundest theological contribution of the Psalms is their doctrine of God. Yet for all this theological description of who Yahweh is, the Psalms seem to question their own claims. Yahweh is a shield, he is a rock, he is a fortress – so the psalmist claims, over and over again. Yet, other psalms by their persistent cries to Yahweh seem to challenge any naive simplicity in appropriating these descriptors. Yes, Yahweh is a fortress, but this claim is best left in its poetic form, along with the rich dynamic relationship it describes. Pinning down the meaning and certainly of our experience of Yahweh in these terms seems to risk straying from the psalms themselves.

Saying that the psalms are poems is not defining their context, as such, but it is ensuring that what we might recognise that understanding their context is tempered by an appreciation of their poetic nature.

2. Psalms as Prayers
Some psalms are clearly prayers. Many psalms do the things that prayers do. Some clearly praise Yahweh; Hallelujah, ‘praise Yah’, is frequently found in the Psalter. The word is also prominent in opening a large number of psalms (106, 111, 112, 113, 117, 135, 146, 147, 148, 149 and 150). This word is just one of many pieces of evidence that the psalms are meant to function as prayers of praise.

Similarly there are many ways in which the Psalms function as prayers of petition. For example, frequently the psalmist petitions God, with the question: ‘How long?’ (e.g. 4, 6, 13, 35, 62, 71 and 74). The psalms seem to be prayers that, as some expres it, are prayers for all seasons of the soul. For all the features that make so many psalms appear as prayers, there are other aspects and indeed whole psalms that do not make obvious prayers. Psalm 1 is a good example. If psalm 1 was encountered halfway through the book of Proverbs there would be no great surprise. If it were encountered there it would be seen as some sensible piece of wisdom literature, rather than a prayer. Because, however, this psalm is not part of Proverbs, its context, by association with what are prayers, suggests that it too can function as a prayer. But is it legitimate, as many Bible readers claim (including me), to see all of the Psalms as prayers? Seeing the psalms as prayers has implications for context. Are they prayers, that in their original form, can only be used in the context of Jewish worship? Are they prayers that can be fully appropriated for modern Christian use? When they are prayers about messianic hope can the risen Christ be an interpretive lens for Christians. How do these areas relate? Do they conflict? Which uses, contexts and interpretations are legitimate and why? We often have quick answers to such questions, but we would do well to ensure we honour these texts, and the God we claim gave them to us, by ensuring we are respecting what the Psalms actually are.

3. Psalms as Songs
As well as being poetic and being, at least in many cases, prayers, the Psalms are songs. Perhaps the very existence of the Psalms originates with a desire by the editors of the Psalter to collect and thus authorise a subset of the then extant psalms. Whilst the details of this enterprise are open to conjecture the fact that it happened is evident in how these specific 150 psalms came to be included, first in the Hebrew Bible and then in the Christian Scriptures. If the Psalms, as a Psalter, were chosen in this way, are they meant to be understood as an end in themselves? This is the understanding of, for example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, who use only biblical psalms for sung worship. Or are the biblical Psalms meant to provide a framework within which worship occurs? Or, for Christians, has the life, death and resurrection of Christ meant we need to go, in some sense, beyond the Psalms?

Having reflected on the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs we are ready to focus more explicitly on the issue of context.

Part 2 coming soon

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.

The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul

The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

With an edited collection like this the reader will probably look at who the contributors are as their first engagement not with the book. The list of contributors is encouraging indeed. Whilst all the contributors are based in North America they are some of the very best Old Testament scholars of the Evangelical tradition. Many have already made highly significant contributions to psalms scholarship. Importantly there is also the right balance of some newer voices here too.

Such collections are prone to be somewhat uneven. In my view this is very much the case here. Some of the papers contribute little that is new, with very similar material available elsewhere. This is not necessarily a major problem as the book, quite naturally aims to capture something of a snapshot of the latest consensus on psalms scholarship and thus some overlap with previous work is inevitable. What I found more problematic was the idiosyncratic or cursory nature of a small number of the contributions. I will single out two which I found less helpful, before making some more positive comments on what I found to be the strongest chapters in this collection.

The collection opens with a contribution from Bruce K. Waltke titled Biblical Theology of the Psalms Today: A Personal Perspective. This chapter certainly achieves its subtitle, it is a highly personal account, indeed the word autobiographical springs to mind. I am not sure I’ve encountered something quite like this before in a serious work of this type. The personal approach would not be a problem if it lived up to its main title. Putting the matter bluntly it really does not leave the reader with a clear appreciation of what a Biblical Theology of the Psalms looks like today. Given the very nature of the consultation, of which this volume is the fruit, it is puzzling that so little is made of the canonical approach to the Psalter by Waltke. Michael K. Snearly’s contribution on Book V as a Witness to Messianic Hope in the Psalter is problematic for quite different reasons. His paper is a highly intriguing proposal and yet the use of the five keywords in book V, critical to his argument, occupies less than half a page! The interested reader will have to obtain a copy of his thesis.

I am pleased to say that this book has far more good contributions than idiosycratic ones. Chapter 2 by Willem A. Vangemeren is an excellent overview of some key contributions to the more literary aspects of Psalms scholarship. Anyone embarking on serious engagement with the Psalms would do well to heed his selection and evaluation of some key scholars. His call to an appreciation and use of the imagination in theological interpretation is in my view also of vital importance. Both the older form-critical approach and the more recent canonical approach, championed in this book, can lead to a distancing between biblical text and the present without such an awareness. Appropriate use of the imagination in theological interpretation enables the Bible to be used as Scripture and ensures that the word of the academy is coherent with the life of the Church. Although of course as Vangemeren makes clear some scholars, such as Barton, would see such an approach or goal as illegitimate.

The five chapters on the Psalms of Lament are diverse in nature, and together highlight just how central these psalms are to the Psalter. Each of these chapters contribute to emphasising that any account of the Psalms for today must enable a fuller engagement with the more difficult seasons of the soul. The theme of lament is also ably picked up later in the volume by David M. Howard Jr.’s examination of that most peculiar of psalms, psalm 88.

For me, the two highlights of the book both focus on the Psalter as a book. Robert L. Cole, who has written a magisterial monograph on psalms 1 and 2 (reviewed in my previous post), convincingly explores the role of these two psalms as an introduction to the Psalter. He helpfully highlights how the two psalms have been meticulously integrated and yet remain distinct in their specific introductory roles. The list of verbal parallels is especially helpful for those who are not familiar with Hebrew and would otherwise find it difficult to spot this intentional linking of the two psalms in English translation.

Cole’s chapter leads very helpfully into David M. Howard Jr.’s examination of how the motifs of Divine and human kingship are central concerns of the Psalter. Although a short contribution it demonstrates the importance of the motif of kingship within the Psalter. He shows that the theme goes beyond being just pervasive and, as the title of his chapter indicates, is a key organisational principle. In this way he points back to the seminal contribution of Gerald Wilson, who in a sense initiated the movement of which the current volume is one outcome. Unlike Wilson, however, Howard captures a more convincing overall narrative of the development of the theme of kingship in the Psalter. Indeed Howard helpfully captures the messianic expectation which was so prevalent in Israel at the time of the Psalter’s final editing. In this way the motifs of divine and human kingship understood aright help establish a bridge between the Testaments, rather than the gulf opened up by some adherents of form-criticism.

Coles’ chapter and Howard’s two contributions in this volume, in particular, have made me go back to the Psalter afresh, and what more could a book on the Psalms hope to do for its readers?

Psalms 1 and 2: Gateway to the Psalter by Robert Cole

Robert L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

This monograph, I must confess at the outset, is of very special interest to me. I have been convinced for a number of years now that the first two psalms are in some sense a deliberate introduction to the Psalter. Such a view was thought to be ridiculous by many scholars until quite recently. Over the past couple of decades, however, it has been discovered (perhaps rediscovered is more appropriate) that the Psalter is not a random anthology, but has been edited with purpose and intent. Last year I published a paper to this effect: Mark J. Whiting, 2013, Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246. This paper was written before the publication of Cole’s book.

Cole’s work is a meticulous study and is written for the Academy. Fortunately, for those who want to understand Cole’s concerns without all the technical evidence, discussion and indeed cost inherent in this study, he has written a chapter in The Psalms: Language for all Seasons of the Soul, edited by Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard. The non-expert will find this book challenging but also rewarding. Challenging, because of the discussion of the Hebrew text, but rewarding too, because of the fruit yielded in seeing scholarly work which ‘feels’ like a meditation on the text. In this book review, it is not my intention to examine Cole’s technical argument in detail. This is not least because I do not have the requisite grounding in Biblical Hebrew.

Cole’s monograph has a straightforward structure, comprising four chapters whose headings reveal all, 1: Introduction, 2: Psalm 1, 3: Psalm 2 and perhaps more surprisingly 4: Psalm 3. In the first chapter, Cole starts by demonstrating that the idea that Psalms 1 and 2 function as an introduction to the Psalter is hardly novel. His survey covers textual variants of Acts, the works of numerous Church Father, the Babylonian Talmud before moving on to evidence from medieval Jewish commentators. He notes that the Reformation and Enlightenment periods represent something of a hiatus on this topic. Most of the chapter explores nineteenth-century and especially twentieth-century discussion of the role of these two psalms within the Psalter. His survey, and critical appraisal, of this material highlights how Gunkel’s major contribution to scholarship, i.e. form criticism, in Cole’s words, had a ‘stultifying effect’ on the exploration of the Psalms in their canonical order. He follows the well-known story of how first Childs, and then Wilson, challenged the hegemony of form criticism in the academy. More unusually he paints a fuller picture of the important roles played by Westermann, Zimmerli, and others, in asking profound questions about the nature and value of form-critical approaches to the Psalter.

Having thus prepared the ground, Cole works through the text of Psalm 1. He firstly considers the literary shape of the psalm, and then proceeds to commentate on its content. Cole shows a full awareness of the diverse literature on this psalm, from commentators, both ancient and modern, to the important contributions of a wide range of recent scholars. Where his study excels is in considering the rich intertextual links between Psalm 1 and other biblical texts. Cole finds that this psalm has a strong eschatological flavour, an interpretation which seems convincing to me, but has not always been in favour with modern commentators.

Chapter 3, on Psalm 2, differs slightly in structure in that between the exploration of the psalm’s structure and the commentary element, there is a section on its canonical function. Anyone who is familiar with the Psalms will, I think, agree with the case put forward by Cole concerning the reverberations of Psalm 2’s ideas and language throughout the Psalms. In the commentary section Cole carries forward his argument that there is diverse literary evidence in these two psalms which points to the purposeful juxtaposition of these two psalms as a gateway to the Psalter.

In the final, and shortest chapter, Cole continues to argue for purposeful editing of the Psalter as he shows that the concerns and topics of the first two psalms are developed and furthered in Psalm 3. In a sense the monograph then just stops dead. Cole’s thesis has been made clear, but as he recognises he can hardly complete what he has initiated for all 150 psalms. His conviction is that if careful attention is given to the individual texts, then unlike Gunkel we will find that the Psalter is a purposeful work rather than some potpourri of poems and songs. As to the fruit of this new scholarly paradigm for the Church we can only pray that it will be more fruitful in, and sympathetic to, promoting personal devotion and corporate worship than the form-critical approach. For opening up this potential, this reader is most grateful to Robert Cole.

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.