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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

brazos

Background to the Two Volumes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Byassee, Psalms 101–150

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

Conclusion

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

 

 

 

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

‘The Case for the Psalms: Why they are essential’ by Tom Wright

Tom Wright is well known as a prolific author of Christian books. For example, he is working on a massive scholarly project, of which three volumes are in print and a fourth is imminent, on nothing less than the whole of the New Testament and its implications for Christian doctrine. Thus his academic expertise includes first-century Jewish history, the Gospels, the Pauline corpus and biblical hermeneutics. So some might be surprised that a New Testament scholar should publish a book on the Psalms.

The book is not meant to be a piece of Psalms’ scholarship, although Wright is clearly informed regarding diverse recent work on the Psalms. Rather this book is aimed at a popular audience. For this we should be grateful, because Wright’s central plea is a correct one. He argues, as the title indicates most clearly, that much of contemporary Christianity has, to its detriment, neglected the Psalms. I found the book to be both convincing and compelling. His thesis needs to be heard by the Christian community and there is a real need for Christians to champion the Psalms in their local Church setting.

The sheer clarity of the title might seem to indicate that the book’s argument be too clear cut, either in attacking the contemporary Christian songwriting ‘industry’ or promoting a monolithic approach to singing and using the Psalms. I am delighted to say that any such claims are groundless. For sure, Wright has some concerns (in my view entirely legitimate) about today’s Christian songwriting, however, Wright warmly acknowledges the genuine life and vitality in this movement and hopes that there is potential therein to champion the Psalms. Wright’s biographical material, which is presented as a helpful Afterword, recognises the traditional Anglican experience of the Psalms that Wright has enjoyed for his whole life. Having experienced this only to a very limited extent myself, I found this intriguing. I was also pleased to see Wright’s openness to, and recognition of, diverse ways in which the Psalms can be imbibed by the individual and the worshipping community.

If you’ve read this far you can tell I am rather appreciative of this book. The best, however, is yet to come. I expected to find myself broadly in agreement with Wright’s agenda – of, putting it bluntly, promoting the use of the Psalms. What I had not expected was the insightful way in which Wright made his case for what the Psalms contain and teach. I have read a lot about the Psalms over the last few years and have found them rewarding on a daily basis, as a central part of my personal devotions during this period. I have not previously met such a concise yet helpful overarching statement of the Psalter’s content which does justice to both their Jewish origin and use by followers of the risen Jesus Christ.

The heart of Wright’s book are three chapters, which account for around two-thirds of the content, the rest being essentially introductory and concluding material. Don’t get me wrong these parts are helpful, and indeed necessary, too. Yet it’s the three key chapters, and their overall thesis, that make this book not only compelling in its claim but an ideal way into understanding the Psalms. It’s helpful to outline the argument of these three chapters:

At the Threshold of God’s Time
Wright opens with the claim that the ‘Psalms invite us, first, to stand at the intersection of the different layers of time’. He reflects on how our mortality compares rather starkly with Yahweh’s time, and how this connects with the Psalter’s strong eschatological flavour. This is then developed into another key concern found throughout the Psalter: the kingship of God. This theme in turn explains the present context of the reader/singer of the Psalms in terms of the past, and God’s people Israel, and the future restoration of creation. This is what makes the Psalms such a powerful resource. They remind us that whatever is going on here-and-now, Yahweh is a faithful God who started a restorative work long ago in ancient Israel and will bring that work to fruition in the future restoration of all things. Or, as Wright says: ‘Past, present, and future belong to him. We are called to live joyfully and painfully, in the story that is both his and ours’.

Where God Dwells
In this chapter Wright reminds us that all too often we avoid the strangeness of the claims that the Psalms make about where God resides. Many of the Psalms quite unashamedly, without any care for our modern baggage, look to Jerusalem and what might be termed the Temple Mount as the dwelling place for the creator of the space-time universe. To pretend they claim anything else would be dishonest. It is this claim that is so central to other key themes in the Psalter. The nations are referred to many times, from 2:1 through to 149:7, in such a way that only makes sense with reference to Yahweh dwelling in Zion, i.e. Jerusalem (cf. 2:6 and 149:2). Yet despite this central, and vital claim, God can be found in other places too. The same psalms look to heaven as Yahweh’s dwelling place, e.g. 2:4. It is this claim that makes sense of the former. For the story is rich and complex, involving an ‘anointed one’ who is a steward over God’s people (2:6), the departure of God’s presence at the exile and the eschatological hope of his return. It is within this understanding of the divine presence that the frequently misunderstood Jewish understanding of Torah took shape. As Wright puts it: ‘By prayerful and obedient study of the Torah, the blessings that one might have had through the “sacred space” of the Temple could be obtained anywhere by all’. There can be little doubt of this theme in the Psalter when one notes the introductory psalm 1 and the entity that is psalm 119 (see previous blog entries).

All the Trees of the Forest Sing for Joy
In this chapter Wright builds on concerns he has discussed at length elsewhere about Western modernity’s inability to see the physical universe as a creation in which the Creator is living and active. As Wright argues this means that Christians too can miss the biblical affirmation of the essential ‘goodness’ of matter. Despite this chapter’s focus on a key concern for Wright as a theologian and interpreter, there is nothing forced in his claim that the Psalms celebrate creation. Indeed he shows, with ample reference to the Psalms themselves, the beautiful and rich ways in which the Psalter reflects on creation and thereby speaks of the Creator.

Wright’s three-fold use of time, space (place) and matter as a framework for unpacking the Psalms is commendably straightforward and yet doesn’t straight-jacket the Psalter’s rich diversity of form and content. For this insightful approach, as well as the timely message of our need to recover the Psalms, I hope many in the contemporary church will be truly grateful.

The Long and the Short of it: Psalms 117 and 119

Psalms 117 and 119 stand out for being respectively, unusually short and remarkably long. If there is any sense of editorial purpose behind the Psalter it seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that these two psalms are so close together. Their odd length also means they must have been selected with good reason. Despite the fact that Psalm 119 is almost 100 times longer than Psalm 117 they are both equally singular in their focus.

Psalm 119, as was seen two posts ago, focuses on Torah. This focus was also that of Psalm 1. Some scholars have suggested that on its way to completion the Psalter opened with Psalm 1 and closed with Psalm 119. If this was the case this would have given a key place to Torah in the Psalter, however, the final form of the Psalter still places a strong emphasis on Torah, with Psalm 119 dominating Book V because of its massive size and prominence before the Songs of Ascents. In this way, Psalm 119 picks up a key aspect of the Psalter’s opening – delight in God’s Torah or instruction.

Interestingly Psalm 117 also effectively picks up on a key aspect of the opening too. It is worth quoting Psalm 117 in full:

O praise The Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise ye The Lord.

Compared to Psalm 2 something has happened, in Psalm 2 the question raised was: ‘Why do the nations rage, . . . .?’ (2:1). The nations appear many times in the Psalter and here in a positive light. Psalm 2 articulates the problem of particularity, the good news comes first to Israel and then the nations. Psalm 117 in all is simplicity anticipates the gospel having gone out to all the nations. This is the nature of the psalms, they are concerned with ‘the now’, but then there are glimpses forward. The psalms are eschatological and in this context articulate a simple worldview where all is resolved. This is what we find in Psalms 1 and 117. In other places the questions of now are at the fore. Such questions are there in Psalm 2: why do the nations reject Yahweh? Why have the kings of Israel failed. Psalm 119 for all its focus is still asking questions: is devotion to God’s Torah enough? Will the faithful find vindication in the end?

In a way this is what we have in the Psalter, a twofold blessing: (i) permission and language to deal with the troubles and challenges of the life of faith, (ii) glimpses of that perfect future when all has been set right.

Praise ye The Lord.

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.