What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 2: David

In part 1 of this post we explored the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs. We noted that this threefold identity had more to do with their function than their context. Although it was clear that using the psalms as poems, prayers and songs requires some answers to the question of the context/s in which they were originally used. In this second part we turn more explicitly to the question of context. We will look firstly at David as a lens, or context, for understanding and interpreting the Psalms.

The Psalms of David
There can be no denial that the Psalms are in some sense Davidic. Quite what we mean by this is much more complex and potentially a matter over which Christians might differ. Some 73 of the 150 canonical psalms are headed as being ‘of David’. This is enough to make the importance of David clear. The precise significance of the designation, ‘of David’ is, however, far from clear. The Hebrew preposition so often translated ‘of’ can mean anything along the lines of: ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘at’, ‘referring to’, ‘belonging to’ as well as ‘of’. It has often been taken to simply imply that David was the author of these specific psalms, but the term need not imply authorship. It might be that they are in some sense dedicated to him, perhaps because of authorship by a particular school of authors. Many Christians of a more conservative background seem keen to hold onto Davidic authorship of the Psalms. Even if we see these 73 psalms as being authored by David, we must face the fact that many of the other psalms have other attributions (and thus possibly authorship) and some have none. Psalms ascribed in some sense to others are:

The Korahites: 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87 and 88.
Asaph: 50 and 73-83.
Solomon: 72 and 127.
Heman the Ezrahite: 88.
Ethan the Ezrahite: 89.
Moses: 90.

Psalm 88 is unusual in having a dual attribution to the Korahites and Heman the Ezrahite.

We can also see that many psalms date from much later than the time of David, in terms of both their language and the events which are referred to or implied. Most notable is the shadow cast over the Psalter by the exile, and thus the failure of the Davidic monarchy. Nevertheless David plays a unique and central role in that some of the psalms are specifically tied to events in his life by the use of biographical details, for example psalms 3, 7, 18, etc. Many scholars have argued, however, that such ascriptions are the later additions of editors. Without attempting to establish too precise a demarcation of the meaning of ‘of David’ or deciding upon whether and how many canonical psalms David authored, there are two key points which I think are not controversial.

Point 1: The Psalter is in a very real sense Davidic in its canonical form.
Many psalms take on a whole new life when they are read as if David is either the author or the person saying the psalm. Many of the psalms of lament focused on an individual make sense through this lens. We need get no further than psalm 3:1 to see this, ‘O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me’. The so-called Royal Psalms reflect on David and the Davidic line. In short the Psalter can make no sense without David.

Point 2: Seeing David as author cannot make full sense of the Psalter.
There are many reasons why seeing the Psalter through David as a ‘context’, or lens, cannot be all-encompassing. Not least of these is the post-Easter perspective through which Christians understand the Psalms. Using Jesus as an interpretive lens is examined in part 3. There we shall see that, whilst such a lens was alien to the original Jewish Psalter, Jesus the Messiah is naturally coherent with the Davidic lens we have just explored.

On Singing New Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms

Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms, editor: Brent A. Strawn, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

This book is Brueggemann at his very best. Earlier this year I was disappointed with his long-awaited commentary on the Psalms, but this tome surpassed expectation. What makes this book so exciting is that it manages to be scholarly as well as approachable, engaging and lively. This makes for such a potent combination that the book defies easy classification in terms of its audience. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to think through what the Psalms are, and how they should be used holistically in worshipping communities. It is the latter concern that is at the forefront of Brueggemann’s thinking and passion.

Arguably, Walter Brueggemann’s most significant contribution to Psalms scholarship is his famous essay: The Psalms and the Life of Faith: A suggested Typology of Function. This essay is helpfully reproduced in an appendix. Readers new to Brueggemann on the Psalms might profitably start here. Although they should note that the rest of the book is a less demanding read in terms of the necessary scholarly background.

Whilst every chapter of the book is engagingly written and profitable in understanding various facets of the Psalter, the first two chapters are especially insightful. Both of these opening chapters covers a lot of ground. Chapter 1 is an Introduction to the Book of Psalms. The chapter opens with a masterful definition of the Book of Psalms, which the chapter first unpacks and then explores. I quote the definition here, to wet the appetite:

‘The book of Psalms, complex in its formation and pluralistic in its content, is Israel’s highly stylised, normative script for dialogical covenantalism, designed for many “reperformances”‘.

In this opening chapter, the emotional extremes of lament and praise are explored. Brueggemann argues that these two extremities of emotion, which are affirmed by the Psalms, ensure that faith cannot become either ‘rigorously moralistic, on the one hand’ or narcissistic on the other. This conviction of the Psalms’ transformative capacity typifies Brueggemann’s conviction as to their ongoing efficacy.

The second, and longer chapter, echoes the claims of Karl Barth and his ‘Strange New World of the Bible’. Brueggemann argues that the Psalms provide a counter-world to the world that others present to us. He works this out by suggesting seven underlying tenets of our ‘closely held world’. Those familiar with Brueggeman’s work will not be surprised at the issues highlighted here or the inherent critique of what might be termed Western values (my phrase). The second half of the chapter presents seven claims of the Psalms, which are variously a counter, antidote and denial of the seven worldly myths. The existence of this counter-world is reason enough to make time for the Psalms in their entirety.

The other fourteen chapters are an eclectic mix, and yet despite the fact that this is an edited collection it has cohesiveness in style and content. Throughout the whole collection, the same passion for hearing all the Psalms, and embracing their challenge and complexity is displayed. Although Brueggemann rarely refers directly to his orientation, disorientation and reorientation paradigm, of the Appendix, its consequences are there throughout.

Particular highlights include:

1. How Brueggemann brings the Enthronement Psalms (47, 93, 96, 97, 98 and 99) to life, something which traditional form criticism often fails to do.
2. An honest assessment of both the ‘glad’ and the ‘sad’ psalms on Jerusalem, showing that an appreciation of these competing dynamics prevents any naivety concerning modern Jerusalem.
3. An exciting proposal to reclaim psalm 137 for use in worship in a chapter on the Rhetoric of Violence.

I am pleased to recommend this book to anyone who who wants to engage with the Psalms seriously with a view to using all of them in worship. The book does assume some familiarity with theological ideas and terminology but is less technical than Brueggemann’s previous collection of Essays on the Psalms (The Psalms and the Life of Faith, edited by Patrick D. Miller). Whether you read this book, or not, do make sure you enter the counter-world of the Psalms.

David and the Psalms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Psalms – New Cambridge Bible Commentary’, by Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr.

Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2014).

Opening Remarks
It has seemed like a long wait for this commentary. Both authors have a strong track record with Psalms scholarship. Walter Brueggemann’s contribution to Psalms scholarship, in particular, is immense. He famously initiated little less than a new interpretive paradigm with his characterisation of psalms into psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation (see the Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed: Patrick D. Miller).

The commentary opens with a concise, but helpful, survey of key background information on the Psalms. The approach of the commentary is also explained, the use of four interpretive frameworks are singled out:

1. An attention to genre, along the lines of Gunkel’s seminal form-critical insights.
2. An awareness of cultic setting, although not with dependence on any overarching festival hypothesis.
3. Consideration of ancient near-eastern societal issues. This includes matters central to some aspects of Brueggemann’s concern with the dynamics of power within society.
4. Exploration of the placement of psalms within the Psalter during its editing.

There is nothing controversial about the choice of these four areas. They do however, indicate that the commentary’s strength will lie with its exploration of the ancient context rather than the modern use of the psalms. That this is the case is also flagged in a two sentence conclusion on page 8.

I want to confess that I have not read the whole commentary. What I have done is read the sections on specific psalms that (i) interest me, (ii) I know well and (iii) I judge to be especially important. Below I have summarised the findings of some of these forays into the main body of the commentary.

Psalms 1 and 2
Both of these psalms are flagged as being part of an introduction to the Psalter. This is a consensus of modern Psalms scholarship. What is highly puzzling, however, is that essentially nothing is done to explore the consequences of this, except for a short comment on page 34 (see below for more on the nature of this comment). Surely if something functions as an introduction, to a larger whole, care needs to be given in establishing the implications of this for the entire work?

Psalm 1 is ascribed a strong legal function in order to explain the ‘two ways’ described in the psalm. In this way the authors argue that the ‘wicked’, who are said to perish in the psalm, are in fact those in the community that have no place to stand in legal decisions. Such a reading, whilst not unheard of, does not seem convincing. As a poetic device, surely being blown away as chaff and perishing can’t just mean being on the wrong side of communal decisions? A lot of commentators do of course shy away from the traditional connotation of judgement. Yet, however uncomfortable such a topic is, the late date of psalm 1 and the poetic references to the harvest elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Jeremiah 51:33, Joel 3:13) make it difficult to defend anything other than the a reference to much starker judgement.

The exploration of psalm 2 in its cultic setting is very helpful for appreciating its origin and significance. I was however disappointed that the only mention of its Christian re-reading in Christological terms is a passing mention of seven New Testament passages which refer to this psalm. This, I guess, reflects an editorial decision regarding the New Cambridge Bible Commentary to ‘elucidate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures’. Such a choice means that the commentary needs to serve both confessions, but surely the use of the NRSV means that the volumes will be largely used by Christians, many of whom would expect a little more on how we are to use the psalms today. Enriching though it is to see psalm 2 as a coronation ritual, this will not be how it is used in devotion or liturgy by Christians, nor, of course, will it be used in this way by worshipping Jews. The ‘Bridging Horizons’ section singularly fails to bridge horizons as it points singularly points to psalms 1 and 2 as an exhortation to instruction. Many readers will be puzzled by the claim that these two psalms, and indeed the whole Psalter, are primarily a means of instruction. This is indeed one role of the Psalms, but this requires careful explanation, as well as complementing with other dynamics.

Psalms 22-24
The reservations expressed above do not apply to these three psalms. Each of these psalms is explored with verve and conviction in its ancient context and there are some helpful explorations of later Christian theology. For example:

A. Moltmann’s Crucified God is introduced along with the theme of the suffering of the righteous to round off the coverage of psalm 22.
B. Jesus as shepherd is explained in terms of a biblical trajectory.
C. The use of psalm 24 in celebrating the Triumphal Entry and the Ascension is mentioned.

The only disappointment with the treatment of these three psalms is that little is made of the relationship between the three them indicated on page 8.

The Psalms of Ascents (120-134)
The coverage of these fifteen psalms was a delight to read. Each of these songs is unpacked with clarity, and a care to see them in their societal context. This latter point is important for as is pointed out at the outset, these psalms of pilgrimage are, perhaps surprisingly, deeply concerned with community life. Not only are these psalms put into their original context eloquently, but attention is given to just how these songs address the societal challenges of Western culture imposed on those journeying on the Life of Faith. In this way there is helpful insight into topics such as:

Psalm 120 – homelessness (both literal and figurative),
Psalm 122 – a critique of ‘self-centred images of tribal and ideological futures.’,
Psalm 127 – a challenge to the culture of success.
Psalm 134 – carrying the ‘renewing power of the encounter with God in sanctuary worship into the rest of life’.

Conclusion
In summary this commentary has much to commend it. As a single volume manageable and affordable book it successfully covers the ancient context of the psalms with conviction, clarity and insight. In much of its coverage, within the limits of the series, it makes helpful connections with today.

However, I found it a little uneven in how well it re-read the psalms from an Easter perspective – in places this is handled well and in others there seems to be a little reticence to make such a re-reading. In particular I found coverage of a specifically Christian re-reading of the Royal Psalms disappointing, especially as Brueggemann’s previous commentary (The Message of the Psalms) on some fifty psalms did not include any Royal Psalms in it. In my view the issues of the microstructure of the Psalter, mentioned in the introduction to the commentary, is simple not considered fully enough.

This is not the definitive magnum opus from Brueggemann I was hoping for, but given its size I was always setting the bar rather too high!

‘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.

Psalms of Ascents: Psalms 120-134

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 121:3-4 (KJV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rereading the Psalms: The example of psalm 2

What is meant by rereading? It is a recognition that biblical texts take on a different meaning over time. Such a claim might make some a little nervous; how can Scripture change its meaning? I suggest that it need not undermine a doctrine of Scripture, but rather it can be a useful way of appreciating some Old Testament texts and in fact might cohere with a healthy doctrine of Scripture.

An example is a good place to get the measure of the idea of rereading. We will consider psalm 2 in this post. Many scholars suggest that psalm 2 originated as a piece of liturgy that was used either in the coronation of the king of Judah or in a rite celebrating, or perhaps renewing, Yahweh’s kingship over Judah. Whilst the details are contested, and are likely to ever remain unclear, the idea makes sense of the form and content of psalm 2. Such a meaning might seem alien to many twenty-first century Christian readers because we often, and indeed uncritically, reread the Psalms.

Returning to the idea that it was originally a piece of liturgy used in connection with the Davidic monarchy, we might well ask what happened when this psalm was ‘read’ after the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Davidic kings. It might be imagined that any liturgy involved with an obsolete practice would be marginalised and lost rather than treasured and preserved. It would appear, however, that the very claims of the psalm raised questions that gave rise to some interesting answers. These answers are a rereading that sees the psalm as speaking of a future messiah; an anointed king who will act on behalf of Yahweh. Whether or not psalm 2 was edited as part of this rereading is a complex question for another day.

The story does not stop there. The inclusion of psalm 2, along with psalm 1, as an introduction to Psalter placed its rereading at the heart of the Psalter (see earlier posts re psalms 1 and 2 and Whiting (2013) for a fuller treatment). The messianic hope of psalm 2 is not only a rereading of the psalm, but it also provides a lens for reading (rereading?) the whole collection. For those who acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as messiah the rereading trajectory continues. Psalm 2 is reread as fulfilled in part, yet also awaiting fulfilment too. This second rereading takes on a strong eschatological flavour distinct from its original Jewish one.

The example of psalm 2 is indicative of a broader phenomena. Rather than Old Testament texts being fossilised, their preservation and collection is part of their flexibility to have ongoing relevance. A value within new contexts was often achieved by rereading. Other texts less conducive to being reread were probably found wanting by the people of God and thus marginalised and eventually lost. Such suggestions of rereading of preserved and ultimately canonical texts is no denial of their nature as Scripture. Rather it is a dynamic view of God’s working in the midst of his people; God speaking in fresh ways by Spirit inspired insights that represent fresh revelation about the God of Israel. This may be more nuanced than a simplistic notion of divine dictation, but this creation bound frailty is typical of a God who works through incarnation and sacrament.

M. J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly 85 (2013): 246-262.

Democratisation – Psalms for Everyone

The Psalter is the result of a complex process of collecting psalms, probably in the 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. There were probably hundreds, or even thousands, of other psalms written over the same period as the 150 psalms we find in the Bible. The psalms that have made it into the canon must have stood out in order to have been valued and to have ‘survived’.

Some scholars have suggested that the canonical psalms are often those with some real ambiguity in their context—to be valued as a prayer, a psalm needs to be ‘plastic’ enough to be used, or inhabited, by another person or community in worship or prayer. This is termed democratisation, meaning that these poems and songs become the words for anybody and everybody. It illuminates why it is that so many cases the individual psalms have defined attempts to identify their context.

Each psalm will of course have had a context. Some may well have originated with David, as tradition suggests, although scholars debate the titles that ascribe psalms to certain points in David’s life. Some, perhaps even the majority, originated as songs and/or liturgy for worship in the Temple. Some capture a life-changing experience of a now anonymous individual.

Scholars legitimately explore and debate these various contexts. The problem is that such scholarship is subject to both on-going change and the whims of the latest theories. Such discussion is, of its very nature, provisional. The worshiping community and the individual worshiper cannot wait for clarity! The Church and the faithful individual must see this difficulty of discerning context as an invitation to do what followers of Yahweh have done for more than two millennia. In a sense we have permission to make the Psalms our own. This goes against the grain of what we are to do with the rest of Scripture where context is vital in ensuring we do not read into the text ideas, or even doctrines, that are not there.

The key outcome of this line of thinking is that we need to engage with the psalms imaginatively in prayer as a means to transformation. Imagination is required to make these prayers our prayers and it is necessary to ensure we engage at an emotional level rather than just a cerebral one.