The Psalter as Mirror: Reflecting on a Metaphor

The Psalter is not only full of rich imagery and metaphors, but throughout church history interpreters have used metaphors to try and capture what it is. One of the most valuable of these metaphors is that of a mirror. In modern treatments of the Psalms it is often John Calvin (1509–1564) who is cited for this metaphorical insight [1]. We will return to his use of this metaphor below. The application of such a metaphor, however, predates Calvin by more than a millennium.

As far as I am aware, it was Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296–373) who first applied such a metaphor to the Psalms:

And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and of the succor available to believers—how this kind of grace exists for him—he exults and begins to give thanks to God.
Athanasius, The Letter to Marcellinus [2]

Athanasius’ wonderful work known as The Letter to Marcellinus gives an account of the psalms, their value, and their use. He tells of them as though he learnt everything from an old master of the Psalms which I take to be a modest self-reference. In the quote above, we see Athanasius referring to a mirror in its most basic function, reflecting a person. He claims that in singing a psalm there is an emotional dynamic in which the singer perceives themselves with new insight. This is an active process in which unperceived emotions are made tangible, and positive change is actualised. The focus for Athanasius is specially connected with penitence.

Before we return to Calvin, we note that Martin Luther (1483–1546) also used this metaphor of a mirror for reflecting on the Psalms. There is both continuity with Athanasius, and novelty in his application of the image. Just as Athanasius’ insight was made in his major work on the Psalms, for Luther too the metaphor is employed in a major work—his fresh translation of the whole Psalter into German. Luther produced many works on the Psalms but it his translation of the Psalter into the vernacular that was a central achievement. This book was so popular it went through a huge number of print runs in short space of time. Luther saw fit to revise it twice. This quote comes from the second edition, as well as all subsequent editions to this day:

In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton [Know yourself], as well as God himself and all creatures.
Luther, Preface to the Psalter, second edition (1528) [3]

Here, for Luther, in addition to the Psalms reflecting their reader they reflect Christendom. This additional dimension owes much to Luther’s claim that the Psalms are a Bible in miniature. It is unclear whether Luther is consciously or unconsciously following Athanasius or coming afresh to a similar metaphorical insight.

Turning to Calvin, we find him using essentially the same imagery, also in his major work on the Psalms—the preface to his massive commentary on all 150 biblical psalms. It is worth quoting him at length:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandment which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.
John Calvin, Preface to Psalms Commentary [4]

Again, his dependence on Athanasius and/or Luther is unclear. Whatever the inspiration for Calvin, I judge that his claim is the richest. It has the pithy precise hermeneutical claim that we, as readers and singers of the Psalms, are reflected with an actualising clarity in this remarkable book. It also points to not only penitence, but salvation and virtue too.

This metaphor, whether in the hands of Athanasius, Luther, or Calvin, is hermeneutically rich. It makes a claim about the nature of the text, about us, and about how God works salvation and sanctification. Such a claim is vital in complementing modern critical insights. For all their rich detail we cannot get from their literary, religious, and cultic insights to substantiate the life-changing dogmatic claims implicit in the pre-critical work of the three interpreters above.

Taken together with modern criticism, the mirror metaphor brings us close to the insight of Brueggemann that in these ancient texts we find ourselves. Whether we read whilst in a state of orientation or disorientation they reflect our experience. Perhaps, unlike Brueggemann, we can look directly to God’s providence and grace through his Holy spirit for the actualisation of a new reflection or revelation—the reorientation that we so frequently need, and we are so often promised in this small Bible. These songs need to be sung regularly, for in Christ we need to be reoriented continually, even from the status quo of orientation that all too quickly loses its brightness as we look elsewhere than to the one on whom we should fix our eyes. On other occasions we need to own these words to perceive the crucified one amidst the brokenness that is our primary disorientation.

Whatever state we are in, we look at the Mirror to perceive ourselves so as to be changed. To look at this reflection is no narcissistic preoccupation, this is the beginning of our receding from the spotlight, our growing strangely dim, that we can see Christ who is in this book and who also lies behind both it and us.

 

References

  1. See for example, The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schutzer and David M. Howard Jr. (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013, pp.52–54 which plays on Calvin’s associated insight into the Psalms as a language of all seasons of the soul which is a corollary of the mirror metaphor. See also Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p.17.
  2. Athanasius, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Latter to Marcellinus, Robert C. Gregg (translator), Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980, p.111.
  3. Luther, ‘Preface to the Psalter’ (1528), in Luther’s Works Volume 35, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, pp.256–257.
  4. Calvin, Psalms Commentary Volume 1, James N. Anderson (translator), 1845, p.19.

Psalm 32: As Stubborn as a Mule

Dissecting Butterflies
Have you ever sat through someone else’s holiday photographs? It is rarely an edifying experience. Have you ever heard someone waxing lyrical about an event that you never experienced? It is difficult to draw any excitement from someone else’s experience. Something is lost in translation as we hear of experiences second-hand. Even as the person with first-hand experience of an exciting event we only have our memory.

Later we might struggle to remember the feelings, the emotion, pathos, or adrenaline, depending on the performance we are thinking of. This is of course part of the reason why Jesus uttered the words, “Do this in remembrance of me”.

The same challenge is true of the psalms. They are prayers, poems, and songs. Prayers function properly when prayed. Poems are at their best when performed. Songs are made for gathering together.

In this sense preaching a psalm is only an hors d’oeuvre, a starter, a taster, an invitation to do something with the psalm in question. Trying to distil the propositional truth from any psalm, or any piece biblical poetry—including the Prophets of the First Testament and Jesus’ teaching in the Second Testament—is akin to dissecting a butterfly to show how beautiful it was in flight.

The stakes are higher with the Bible. The power of praying goes beyond the best theatre, concert, or sport. As God-breathed, the Bible does not just work at an emotional level it has transformative potential. It works through the Spirit and in Christ to save, and to sanctify—to make us more like Jesus Christ.

Blessed and Happy
Psalm 32 as prayer, song, and poem, opens with two verses that start with the word ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, depending on the English translation. Or as the New Living Translation puts it:

Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!

Psalm 32:1–2, NLT

The very first psalm, the one that sets the ball rolling in the Book of Praises, starts with the same Hebrew word, ’ašrê. There the imagery of a tree planted by streams of water reminds us that not only are we blessed and happy in Christ, but we are places where God’s grace is at work, where others can find the living water that Jesus promised, and the fruitfulness of being rooted in Christ.

Psalm 119 also starts off with the same idea of double blessing as Psalm 32. There is an English saying about counting your blessings. There’s even a hymn that tells us to do this:

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done.

Johnson Oatman, 1897

Whilst counting our blessings, in one sense, is a sensible response to all the wonderful things that God has given us in creation and in our lives, the blessing in Psalm 32 is of a different level. The double blessing here is the most basic happiness, blessing, and joy, that we can experience, because it enables life to be lived to the full—here and now. More than that, it is the foundation of a relationship with the living God and therefore our future life too. It is the knowledge of sin and guilt taken away by God.

Most of us will remember the joy described here, that of our first taste of forgiveness. This joy, that comes from having no barriers between us and God, is not meant to be a one-off event. Such joy, that comes through faith and forgiveness, is the central plank of a relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ. If we do not have this forgiveness there is no relationship for us to deepen. As with a human relationship, trust and faith are essential not just for growth but for survival.

Illness and Sin
Before the psalmist experienced the blessing, happiness, and joy captured poetically on a scroll, they were in a dark place. The natural sense of this psalm is that the psalmist—the heading encourages us to see David as the psalmist—experienced illness. An illness summed up as ‘wasting away’ and experiences that led to ‘groaning’:

When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

Psalm 32:3–4, NLT

Perhaps it is metaphorical language? Is it possibly the language of anxiety or fear? Perhaps it is a psychosomatic illness arising from fear of God? Or is it old age or a virus? All of these are plausible when we look at other penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) as a group. It is also apparent that the psalmist links their emotional or physical illness with sin.

Sin can be the cause of both emotional and physical illness, but this is not the same as suggesting that all ailments can be explained in this way. Nor that we should be quick to make such judgements. The Book of Job warns against such missteps.

An important point is raised here—the same point raised by Hebrews 12. Do we moderns, or post-moderns, still have an openness to being disciplined as God’s children? Do we ever stop for a minute to ask such a question? The psalmist is in no doubt, on this occasion, that they learned the need to repent of sin from an experience of lack of blessing, happiness, and joy. The author of Hebrews tells us to learn discipline from God as his children:

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Hebrews 12:4–6, NIV [Quoting Proverbs 3:11–12 LXX]

Our first thoughts, and our first prayers, look to deliverance from every ill from the trivial to the severe. There is nothing wrong with this being our first thought and prayer, and of course God in his mercy can deliver. But what if there is something to be learned from our affliction?

I confess I do not entirely like this idea. It is, however, too much of the fabric of the Bible to be ignored. Paul has a struggle, a ‘thorn in his flesh’ (2 Cor. 12:7), that he wanted gone but God saw fit to discipline him through it. The beatitudes in Luke 6 and Matthew 5—sayings of happiness, blessing, and joy turn the notions of blessing on its head. The beatitudes celebrate being poor in spirit, weeping, and being persecuted.

Praying the Psalms
This is exactly why we need the psalms. In praying them we find ourselves praying differently to the one-dimension prayer we default to—the dreaded shopping list prayer.

The psalms are tantalising snapshots of all manner of the type of conversations that we can experience with God. We can find new things to say and we can hear new things in return, when we open up to them. Though they can appear to be hard work at times, they have famously been understood as a school of prayer by spiritual giants such as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, and more recently Eugene Peterson. If they are a school perhaps, we should not be surprised that they are hard work. Why would we be surprised that being a disciple should require discipline?

Learning prayer from the Bible helps us avoid two errors in prayer. One of these errors is the praise of self rather than God. This is what prayer becomes when it is the wish list, or shopping list, of what we want. The second error avoided by using the Psalms, and other biblical prayers, is the vacuum of no prayer which we sometimes find ourselves in.

As Stubborn as a Mule
One of the challenges of the psalms is how they switch between ideas, images, and moods. A good practice in praying a psalm is to ask the question, “Who is saying this verse?”. Verses 8 and 9 come across as being spoken by God himself. Now we might expect that God has some nice words with which the psalmist is inspired at the close of the psalm. Not so much. Instead God says:

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.

Psalm 32:8–9, NRSV

God is reminding us that we are as stubborn as mules, we are sinners despite also being saints through Christ.

We are all asses when it comes to walking with God, praying, and especially staying close to God by confessing our sin. Or perhaps it is just me?

As the proverb says, ‘You can lead a horse, or a mule, to water but you cannot make it drink’. So, it is over to you. What will you do with Psalm 32? How can you experience it for yourself?

Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

Penitential Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seven Penitential Psalms

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the biblical psalms will have wondered at how they might be grouped together. It is a natural desire to organise and describe any collection of things into categories. Even if we ignore this scientific desire, or tendency towards neatness and order, who has not wished for a psalm index to ‘home in’ on that special psalm as a prayer in a moment of crisis, need, or joy? Of course, the Psalter, and the ordering of its 150 psalms, resists any neat attempts at categorising. And it certainly does not have an index, unless one conducts a personal cut and paste exercise, so as to reorganise them to meet some personal whim.

In the early twentieth century it was the German scholar Hermann Gunkel, building on a hundred years of critical scholarship, who devoted much of his academic mission to classifying the psalms. His success was such that to this day no serious psalms scholar can get two hundred words into a discussion of the psalms without mentioning his name. Much ink has been spilt on the gains, but also losses, in this approach that privileges psalm genre. One of the negative points is worth mentioning here. It is self-evident that the final editors of the Psalter show little care for organising the psalms according to modern genres. If genre—either in its modern conceptions or in other forms, such as indicated by psalm headings—was important to the editors, it was at a level of nuance that has yet to be understood.

So far so bad for psalm categories. So why a post on a specific category? The Penitential Psalms are an ancient category. A category not defined, as far as we know, by the ancient psalmists nor one recognised, without many a caveat, by form critics (those that follow Gunkel’s approach). This category, or term, is often said to have originated with Saint Augustine (354‒430) who wrote the most influential work on the psalms in Church History (Enarrationes in Psalmos or Expositions of the Psalms). It is, however, more likely that the category emerged shortly after Augustine’s time, perhaps with those devoted to his Enarrationes. Cassiodorus (485‒585) refers to the seven Penitential Psalms as if they already existed as a group prior to his own work on the psalms. These seven psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 in most modern English Bible versions. Anyone following up Augustine should note that for him they are 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 because of the numbering convention of the Latin text, the Vulgate, which he used—this in turn follows the Greek Septuagint used by the Early Church. Others commentators followed Cassiodorus and the Penitential Psalms become so tightly bound as a group that they were reproduced together in books, and commentaries were written on them as a group.

There are all sorts of reasons why this grouping has proved robust, we might even say successful. Anyone reading them successively is left with the strong impression that they do indeed belong together as a similar type. We might quibble that they are not all concerned with penitence per se, but they have a mood which unites them, and motif-after-motif and idea-after-idea that makes them a dense web of like-minded theology. Their very number also adds something to their credibility—as in some sense ‘right and proper’—given the completeness associated with the number seven. They were even linked to the seven deadly sins and the seven Canonical Hours used in many monastic and liturgical traditions. This culminated in a medieval tradition, of a process of seven penitential steps. Here these steps are summarised after Snaith (1964):

Step 1, Fear of Punishment, Psalm 6:1
Step 2, Sorrow for Sin, Psalm 32:5
Step 3, Hope of Pardon, Psalm 38:15
Step 4, Love of a Cleansed Soul, Psalm 51:7‒8
Step 5, Longing for Heaven Psalm, 102:16
Step 6, The Distrust of Self, Psalm 130:6
Step 7, Prayer Against the Final Judgement, Psalm 143:2

By the late medieval period, variations on a book known as the Book of Hours, or Horae, become the most popular book of its time—even more copies being made than the Bible itself. The Book of Hours comprised the fifteen Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120‒134) followed by the seven Penitential Psalms. These were each accompanied by woodcut illustrations which helped make them accessible in an era of limited literacy.

The Penitential Psalms were used throughout Lent in the Medieval period and were especially associated with Fridays in that season. Doubtless one of the other reasons for this later ‘success’ of these psalms was the late medieval periods preoccupation with Penance. In our age we look back and all too easily misapprehend the medieval period. One, among many reasons, is arguable the flippancy with which we treat our frailty and failings before God. These seven psalms are a wonderful, and all too necessary, reminder of both our frailty and God’s graciousness.

Our church will be reflecting on them this Good Friday. Why not spend some time with these seven psalms and judge their veracity and cohesiveness for yourself?

 

References

Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, Notre Dame, Indiana: 2012.

Norman Snaith, The Seven Psalms, London: Epworth, 1964.

Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.

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

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

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

brazos

Background to the Two Volumes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Byassee, Psalms 101–150

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

Conclusion

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

 

 

 

Why do the Nations Conspire?

The Psalms as Psalter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Psalm 2—Coronation

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

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

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

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

A priest says:

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

Another priest says:

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

The king replies:

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

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

A third priest says:

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

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

Feeling Psalm 2—Subjugation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But of course these are still not our glasses.

Saying Psalm 2 – Expectation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Glimpse into Ian Stackhouse’s “Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter”

Ian Stackhouse, Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018

This brief post is not really a review, more of a preview, of this book. I know Ian, and I find it difficult to be certain of impartiality regarding a book written by someone I count as a friend.

There are so many books on the psalms; even narrowing the field to the more personal, devotional and reflective genres means there are still tens of rivals to this volume. So it is natural to ask: Does this book offer something fresh? A second sensible question is: Just who are the intended audience? I hope to answer both questions below by describing the form of this book.

IMG_3958

After a very brief Preface and some intriguing Acknowledgements, the book opens with a four-page introduction. Short though this is, it provides a helpful explanation of Stackhouse’s presuppositions and personal context for this personal journey with the Psalms. Despite the brevity of the Introduction, it becomes clear that two paradigms will inform the interpretation of the Psalms in this volume.

The first is something akin to Brueggemann’s typology of function approach which finds that psalms tend to fall into three categories; psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Whilst Brueggemann formalised this interpretive model in terms of modern hermeneutical theory, it is the testimony of psalm readers across three millennia that these poems come to life as the disciple’s life experience fuses with the ‘function’ of the composition. Later in Stackhouse’s book we catch glimpses of the challenging realities of the life of faith which motivated this book’s creation.

The second interpretive approach is less obvious in the book itself but will be important to Stackhouse’s readers. He testifies to the value of engaging with the psalms in canonical order, or seriatim. Anyone who has done just this can echo Stackhouse’s satisfaction with this discipline. Rather oddly, psalms scholars have rediscovered this afresh only in the last thirty years or so—of course the monastic orders never forgot this most natural of approaches.

A third interpretive method emerges in the body of the book, where from-time-to-time, Stackhouse uses David’s life as a lens through which to engage with a psalm—although this approach is only adopted for the small number of psalms that have biographical Davidic headings.

The bulk of the book follows a delightfully simple form. Each psalm has a single page entry. On each page the psalm’s numerical designation is given, along with the form-critical category as per Brueggemann and Bellinger. A selection of one to four verses are quoted from the NIV, although Stackhouse makes it clear he hopes the reader will read the whole of each psalm. This is followed by the real meat of the book, a reflection, typically around 200 words in length. Each reflection is rounded off with a very short prayer.

Once this form is appreciated it becomes apparent how the book is likely to be used. It is not designed to be read in large chunks, but to be savoured like the psalms themselves. In this way, it lends itself to supporting a personal devotional practice of reading one to five psalms per day. I have found it helpful in supporting my personal practice of one psalm per day.

An unexpected aspect of this book’s straightforward personal engagement with the psalms is the invitation to do something similar. These reflections offered by Stackhouse set the bar high for heartfelt articulate testimony to the life-changing ‘grappling in prayer’ that the psalms offer all disciplined disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Z is for Zion

Journey’s End

Zion is journey’s end. This is true for this A to Z project but also true for pilgrims of old who equated Zion with Jerusalem. It is also true today for pilgrims of a different sort who see life as ‘the life of faith’. For such modern day pilgrims, Zion is where God is and captures the hope and anticipation of resurrection and eternal life. As our journey’s end Zion is wholly positive. How could this be otherwise when Yahweh is there awaiting the pilgrim or disciple? The word Zion and especially the word Zionist, however, can have other more difficult connotations. The word Zionist and how one uses it can quickly be seen as taking sides in the complex issues of the Middle-East.

In this post Zion refers to (i) Jerusalem during the time of biblical events and the writing of the Hebrew Bible, and (ii) the eschatological destination mentioned above. Below we look at both of these in turn by considering the use of the word Zion in the fifteen psalms known as the Psalms of Ascents.

Psalms of Ascents and Zion

The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Psalms, or Psalter, has 150 psalms arranged in five books. For many years scholarship on the psalms focused so hard on the genre of the psalms that this led to the conclusion that the psalms were an anthology. More than that, it was assumed that little, if any, care had been given to the arrangement of the psalms for the editor or editors of the Psalter. This conclusion was odd for a number of reasons. One of the more obvious contradictions was the apparent existence of prior collections of psalms now demarcated by headings or opening phrases. These include:

  • The Asaph Psalms (50, 73–83).
  • The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88).
  • The Psalms of Ascents (120–134).
  • The Hallel Psalms (113–118, 146–150).
  • The ‘YHWH Malak’ Psalms (47, 93, 96–99).

The Psalms of Ascents stand out in particular as they are all consecutive and have a remarkable number of features that draw them together as not only as a collection but as a highly structured whole. Mitchell [1] helpfully explores the interconnectedness of these fifteen psalms.

The fifteen Psalms of Ascents have a strong focus on Zion. The words Zion and Jerusalem occur twelve times. The connection with Zion is greater than this word count, as the collection can be seen to be consistent with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In this way even those Psalms of Ascents which do not mention Zion or Jerusalem have this connection—and of course the very name Ascents refers either to the fifteen temple steps or the ascent into Jerusalem on ‘its holy hill’ (Mitchell [1] argues persuasively that it is both of these).

Zion and the Life of Faith

The Christian tradition has seen pilgrimage as a point of continuity with its Jewish roots. Sometimes this is a very physical reality analogous to travelling by foot to Jerusalem. For many Christians however pilgrimage is a powerful metaphor of what it means to be sojourners on the earth and travelling to a life in the hereafter with Yahweh. The Psalms of Ascents take on a different dynamic when seen from this perspective. Of course it is not just the nature of this journey that differs to that made by pilgrims to the earthy Zion. For the Christian journeying to the heavenly Zion, the Hebrew Bible itself is changed because of the new post-Easter lens. The Hebrew Bible is still the Hebrew Bible and yet as precious Scripture which points to Easter it becomes part of the Christian Bible. This Old Testament is not old in terms of being outmoded or surpassed but is old only in terms of chronology. Unless this First Testament is recognised fully as the Hebrew Bible there is a danger we damage that which to the pilgrim is God-breathed.

 

Reference

  1. David C. Mitchell, The Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem’s Temples, Newton Mearns: Campbell Publications, 2015.

Further Reading on the Structure of the Psalms

 

 

 

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.