Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

U is for Ugaritic

Ugaritic is a Semitic language which shares many lexical and grammatical features with biblical Hebrew. 1929 saw the first of a long series of Ugaritic textual discoveries in the remains of the city of Ugarit, which was the capital of the kingdom of Ugarit in the second millennium BCE. To date, more than 1,300 texts in Ugaritic have been collected from the site of ancient Ugarit and its environs. These texts date from around the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. They provided a wealth of new information about the religious beliefs, mythology and culture of the inhabitants of Ugarit at this time. The discovery of this large range of Ugaritic texts has a number of implications for students of the Hebrew Bible. We will consider just two of them here:

  1. The close relationship between Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew has enabled some gaps in our understanding of Hebrew and Hebrew texts to be filled. Some scholars such as Mitchell Dahood, famous for his Anchor Bible commentary on the Psalms [1], have probably gone too far in amending the Hebrew Bible at thousands of points. Contemporary scholarship displays a more balanced assimilation of the new insights but they are valuable in bringing clarity to the meaning of obscure words and in some cases identifying minor textual errors.
  1. The Ugaritic texts provided fresh background information about the god Baal—the same Baal that features in the Hebrew Bible. There are many references to Baal in the Hebrew Bible which treat the worship of Baal as a serious temptation for the tribes settling in the land of Canaan. Some of the Ugaritic texts are known as the Baal-Anat cycle, although the term cycle is controversial as some scholars argue they are collection of disparate texts rather than a literary whole, see [2] for more information. In this ‘cycle’, Baal is clearly portrayed as god of the storm and Anat is both his sister and his wife. In the background of the ‘cycle’, playing no real narrative role is El, head of the Ugaritic pantheon, along with his wife Asherah.

To round off this post we consider a proposal about a psalm which brings these two threads together. It has been claimed that some of the most ancient of Psalms might be appropriated from outside of Israel. Psalm 29 is the classic case. Here are some verses from Psalm 29:

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;

    the God of glory thunders,

    the Lord, over mighty waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;

    the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;

    the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,

    and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.

Psalm 29:3‒7 (NRSV)

Some interpreters have noted that if the occurrences of ‘the Lord’ (i.e. Yahweh) are replaced by the name Baal then a number of alliterations appear. As Holladay says ‘the present Hebrew text of the psalm has so great a number of occurrences of the consonants b and l and of the syllable ‘al as to lead us to suspect that the original form of the psalm was a hymn to the god Baal’ (my emphasis, see [3]).  This possibility seems even more plausible when we note that the thunder, lightning and storm manifestations so central to this psalm are typical of those attributed to Baal in the Ugaritic texts.

Some people of faith find such proposals disturbing as it is far from the simple tradition of the psalms being inspired by David. Such an adaption of a pre-existing text can however be seen as Yahweh’s hand at work in a most remarkable and providential way—the worship of other gods is transient and Yahweh emerges triumphant as the true God of not only of the storm but of history too.

 

References

  1. Mitchell Dahood, Psalms I, II and III, The Anchor Bible Commentary, volumes 16, 17 and 17A, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966, 1968 and 1970.
  2. D. Pardee and Pierre Bordreuil, ‘Ugarit: Texts and Literature’, in volume 6, pp.760‒721 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed: David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  3. William L. Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.