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.

Exposing the Psalms

Exposing the Psalms: unmasking their beauty, art, and power for a new generation, Milton Keynes: Authentic Media (2014).

There are a lot of books available on the biblical Psalms. So do we need another? Is a book that aims to expose them, claiming too much? I am pleased to say that this book fulfils a real need and it is a genuine expose. Nevland’s premise is straightforward: In our day the Psalms have fallen into disuse and something needs to be done about this. As the subtitle indicates this is about unmasking the beauty, art and power of the Psalms for a new generation.

‘Exposing the Psalms’ provides a creative and reflective way in which to engage with 30, or so, of the Biblical psalms. I found that this book achieved what all books on the Psalter should, it made me want to engage with the Psalms themselves. In my view, and experience, this is not a book that is best read in just a few sittings. I found each engagement with a psalm meant that I wanted to pause, reflect and pray before progressing to the next. I have heard from others who have found this too. This is a key strength of the book. It has the potential to make a lasting impact rather than simply be a ‘nice quick read’.

One of the most attractive features of this book is that it does not attempt to be the last word on each psalm. Instead it typically explains some of the ‘strangeness’ of the psalms and then quickly proceeds to a creative exploration of the psalm or issue/question which arises from the psalm. There are stories and poems here which are creative and imaginative ways to bring the Psalms alive. They invite the reader to attempt their own creative engagement with these ancient songs and prayers.

Some readers might wonder why the psalms have been tackled in what appears to be a random order. The intention appears to be an engagement with all the psalms as the project unfolds. Whilst I am personally a fan of reading the Psalms in order and as a book, this book has made the right choice in tackling them in a more ad hoc manner. If they had been tackled in canonical sequence the book might have been misunderstood as a commentary in the strictest sense, and it is not that. The more ‘random’ order enables the author to introduce diverse creative insights in a way that covering the first 30 psalms would have made tricky.

Another reviewer has questioned the lack of solid scholarly works cited in the bibliography. As a reader who has read widely on the Psalms and their interpretation, I don’t see that Nevland’s approach requires scholarly footnoting. Indeed his creative insights, which bridge the gap between ancient context and faith today might be stifled by some scholarly approaches. This book is a book that exposes the Psalms for the reader who wants to be creative and prayerful in their engagement. Many other books exist which cover the more technical aspects of psalms interpretation, very few attempt anything like ‘Exposing the Psalms’. Nevland has chosen to ‘dive into’ the Psalms and this is to be commended. His project aims is revive interest in the Psalms, and scholarship, however vital, is not what is needed in the first book of Nevland’s project.

I found the sections on psalms 45, 71 and 88 especially engaging. I wholly recommend this book and the wider project of which it is the start.

My Favourite Psalms of Ascent Tweets

Pause:
The Songs of Ascents (psalms 120-134) are pilgrimage songs.
Why not make your own 15 day ‘pilgrimage’ with them?

Psalm 120:
The Life of Faith is often opposed by lying lips.
It is the way of peace in the midst of hostility.

Psalm 121:
Yahweh is with us on our pilgrimage.
Look to him on the journey and you will not stumble.

Psalm 122:
Pilgrims arrive with joy in Jerusalem.
How much more will this be true when we enter the heavenly city?

Psalm 123:
Yahweh, how your servants look to you in need.
We lift our eyes to you.
Grant us grace.
Lord, grant us grace.

Psalm 124:
The Lord is for His people.
We are like birds that can tweet in freedom, having escaped captivity.

Psalm 125:
Stirred not shaken!
Trusting in Yahweh means not being shaken.
Looking to Yahweh means being stirred to do his work.

Psalm 126:
The Lord has done great things for us.
For our tears will turn to laughter.
We are children of the dream.

Psalm 127:
Both God’s house and our homes need to be built by God.
Both can be broken by human vanity.

Psalm 128:
Blessed is everyone who fears Yahweh; those who walk in His ways.
The Lord bless you from Zion.

Psalm 129:
A reminder to pray for those ploughed into the earth by others.
The ploughed will reap, rather than those who plough.

Psalm 130:
Cry, wait, hope.
Heard, loved, redeemed.

Psalm 131:
A content weaned child.
The ultimate goal of intentional Christian spirituality.

Psalm 132:
The Psalms contain many themes.
David and Zion are key and in this psalm their stories intertwine.

Psalm 133:
Living together as God’s united people is good.
It is the pleasant way into Yahweh’s blessing from Zion.

Psalm 134:
Praise the Lord.
Lift your hands.
May Yahweh bless you from Zion.

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.

Brueggemann’s Typology of Function Paradigm

Walter Brueggemann’s essay Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function [1] initiated nothing less than a new paradigm of psalms interpretation. It has much to commend it. In particular it has been adopted by others because of its strength in bridging the often wide gap between scholarship on the Psalms and their contemporary devotional and liturgical use. What Brueggemann aims to do from the outset is to ask questions about the function of the Psalms. He considers the parallels between their original context in ancient Israel and in faith communities today. Much scholarship from the last century has focused largely on questions of literary form and ancient setting. Brueggemann sees no a priori antagonism between his method and the form-critical and cult-critical approaches, like those of Gunkel and Mowinckel. Rather, he suggests that there is ‘a convergence of a contemporary pastoral agenda with a more historical exegetic interest [original emphasis].’ [2] His guiding assumption is a positivistic hermeneutical one; that anthropologically the differences between humanity, across the ages, are narrowed by the extremes of joy and despair.

Whilst others have gone on to use his approach at a subjective, perhaps almost pre-critical level, e.g. [3], Brueggemann attempts to substantiate his convergence of contemporary and ancient function with reference to the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur argues for ‘the dynamic of life as a movement, dialectic but not regular or patterned, of disorientation and reorientation.’ Brueggemann argues that key form-critical categories of psalms seem to match contexts of disorientation and reorientation. In the case of disorientation most notably we have the categories of personal and communal laments. For reorientation we have songs of thanksgiving and those hymns classified by Westermann as declarative hymns. Brueggemann posits orientation as the place to and from which the dialectic movement of life shifts. Here the hymns, which are termed by Westermann as descriptive praise, are placed in this scheme. Other categories of psalms also fit under these three headings, for example, Brueggemann draws attention to Psalm 1 as a psalm of orientation. This aspect of Psalm 1 is something which will hopefully be explored in a later post.

Brueggemann’s typology of function proposal is undoubtedly highly attractive in that it offers a serious attempt at closing the gap between scholarly consideration of the Psalms that has centred on form-critical approaches which have a tendency to focus so strongly on the ancient form and Sitz im Leben (situation in life) so as to create a gulf with much historical and contemporary liturgical, pastoral and devotional use of the Psalter. It is also broadly convincing in its analysis of the two poles of disorientation and reorientation (what Ricoeur refers to as “expressions of limit”) in terms of texts which offer a means to respectively a hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of recovery.

At one level Brueggemann’s approach legitimises what has been the practice of people of faith since the formation of the Psalter. Having a scholarly approach, that can bridge ancient and modern horizons is a vital complement to some academic approaches which offer no way forward from ancient text to life giving Scripture. This is not to suggest that approaches, such as form-critical approaches are illegitimate, but rather a recognition of what is an obvious limitation to appropriation if the Psalms for the life of faith today. Brueggemann is to be commended for addressing this problem.

Other approaches have challenged the domination of form-critical approaches which had prevailed into less than 30 years ago. In particular recent scholarship has drawn attention to the purposeful editing of the Psalter. When such editing is taken seriously this has implications for how the Psalms are read. The Psalter functions as a whole. Such a view not only complements form-critical approaches and their fragmentation of the book of Psalms into individual psalms, but it also complements Brueggemann’s approach too, which also has the potential to break-up the Psalter into a collection from which psalms are selected in a consumerist manner to address an identified need.

A future post, or two, will in due course carry forward this consideration of the strengths and limitations of Brueggemann’s exciting approach to the Psalms.

1. Brueggemann, W., ‘Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function’ in P. D. Miller (ed.), The Psalms and the Life of Faith, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, 3-32.
2. Page 6 of 1.
3. Firth, D. G., Hear, O Lord: A Spirituality of the Psalms, Calvert, Derbyshire: Cliff College Publishing, 2005.

‘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!

Lessons from The Wall and The Psalter

This short post was inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. You might be wondering, at this point, if you are reading the right blog. Please trust me for just a little longer! The Wall is a concept album that was released in 1979. It is the story of a life, a sad narrative of decline. It deals with an experience of abandonment and loneliness, and in exploring these aspect of Western culture, it asks profound questions about:

1. Life after death. For example, in the song Vera a question is asked:

“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn? Remember how she said that we would meet again some sunny day?”

The implication is that any hope for a satisfactory conclusion to the pains of life, perhaps more specifically any eschatological hope, is a naive fallacy.

2. Authority. The famous refrain from Another Brick in the Wall part 2: “We don’t need no education”, is just one line, of many, which questions where authority comes from. In this song the inference is that the protagonist, Pink, has experienced an education system in which the figures in authority had sinister motives of their own, that had little to do with the nurture and teaching of those in their charge.

3. The ethics of life. Much of the album questions: ‘Just where are we meant to find direction in this life?’. Various aspects of hedonism, including drug use and extra-marital sex, are explored, but all are found wanting.

4. Judgement. In the penultimate song, The Trial, Pink is subjected to a courtroom trial. It is perhaps meant as a parody of the Last Judgement. In a universe in which there is no God, Pink is charged with “showing feelings . . . of an almost human nature”.

The very title of the album summarises the disturbing premise of the album: some of us go through life, like Pink, in a way that experience after experience builds a barrier between us and others. For Pink these events include the death of his father in the Second World War, a stiflingly protective mother, a failed marriage and the sadistic attention of teachers.

When compared with the concept album that is The Psalter we see that The Wall presents an alternative Way, a rival eschatology and a denial of the possibility of a faithful God. What it gets broadly right is a negative anthropology – as it portrays a convincingly lucid picture of some people’s experience of the human condition.

Likes the Psalter, The Wall, is a holistic whole. It is a work written to be experienced from beginning to end. When The Wall is heard in a single sitting, the power of its claims build-up into a disturbing whole. The Psalter in contrast, in its journey from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, provides a vocabulary and a theology for dealing with the trials of life, such that their power over us is broken. This journey also provides the right vision with which to see the blessings of Yahweh, which abound in His Word, His actions in history and His glorious creation.

We live in an age in which the concept album and the Psalter have both been reduced to a 3 minute quick fix. Both The Wall and The Psalter, when heard/read/experienced add up to much more than their component parts. One of them portrays the dangers of building a wall, from behind which we cannot relate to others or our creator, the other is a lifelong companion of prayer which ensures we can build on the creator’s instruction and wisdom. Rather than building a wall we end up ‘rebuilding’ ourselves as a flourishing tree (Psalm 1:3).

The Wall concludes with Pink’s wall being torn down, though the significance of this is unclear. The faithful reader of the Psalms knows that the wall that separates us from God has been demolished by our Father through His Son, with no need for artistic poignant ambiguity. The Psalter, thus in stark contrast to The Wall, ends with emphatic praise, as will those who travel the Life of Faith with the living God named Yahweh.

In memory of the dearest of friends, Roy Jephson, who ended the Life of Faith 7th March 2014.

Some Initial Thought on Psalm 1 and Psalms Scholarship

At the outset it might appear that Psalm 1 is a relatively simple text. After all it is reasonably short as biblical psalms go and it makes no historical reference. Though it contains metaphors these do not appear to be too obscure to the contemporary reader. Notwithstanding these observations, it will become clear that this apparently simple psalm takes on a much more complex dynamic when broader issues are considered.

Eaton’s Psalms of the Way and the Kingdom provides a useful insight into the plurality of interpretation of Psalm 1. Eaton helpfully surveys ten commentators from the period 1859–1978 who he judges to be the most influential. He draws attention to four key areas on which there is disagreement: (i) dating, (ii) textual criticism, (iii) form criticism and (iv) the thought and piety of Psalm 1.

The proposed date for the authorship of Psalm 1 varies widely because of the lack of clear data. Views on date tend to be made on the basis of presuppositions about the nature of the wisdom teaching found in the psalm. Of course in texts like this any attempt at dating is dependent on conclusions regarding meaning and vice versa—the interpretative circle is just that, a closed circle, due to the lack of firm data.

Many commentators make significant emendations to the text on the assumption that they can detect later glosses or copying errors. Sometimes these are based solely on philological grounds such as comparisons with other Semitic languages. On other occasions it is on aesthetic grounds, for example, Briggs and Briggs make metrical symmetry a priority, so much so that they dismiss verse 3 and thus the tree metaphor as a late editorial gloss.

The discussion in the commentaries surveyed by Eaton regarding the piety of Psalm 1 depends on an exegetical decision regarding the meaning of torah in verse 2. Torah in verse 2 is taken, by some interpreters, to be a reference to legalism in the sense of the application of the Pentateuch to the minutiae of daily life by some. Others see the term in a much broader sense of ‘instruction’—this is its simple meaning in Hebrew. This exegetical decision has arguably more to do with judgements about the nature of the development of Judaism (and of course date). Gunkel, for example, is credited by Nogalski (in the preface to the English translation of Gunkel’s Introduction to the Psalms) with the view that the ‘Israelite religion climaxed in the works of the great prophets, and then degenerated into a legalistic religion overly influenced by the law’.

Closely connected with any decision about the meaning of torah is the understanding of the judgement referred to in verse 5. It might refer to judgement in the present upon both individuals and nations. Others argue that it refers to an eschatological expectation.

This initial focus on the views of critical scholarship until c.1978 regarding Psalm 1 indicates a plurality of views regarding the date of the psalm, its textual integrity, its main subject (what is torah in this context?) and the nature of the blessing and judgement which is the key motivational aspect of the psalm if it is rightly identified as being didactic in purpose. Historical-critical scholarship is, by its very nature, based on the proposal of rival hypotheses and testing their success in explaining the data. This sounds scientific and yet there are some questionable presuppositions inherent in much of the work reviewed by Eaton. Unless the presuppositions are made clear there is little hope of choosing between the plethora of proposals.

For example, Gunkel and several other interpreters held a very negative view of late Old Testament period Judaism which colours their view of the meaning of the word torah and the nature of the piety that is being advocated in Psalm 1. I suggest that Barth had a point when arguing for a ‘hermeneutic of trust’ against the hermeneutics of suspicion of some historical-critical work. This is not to suggest a return to pre-critical interpretation but rather in this specific case to:

1. Hear the text’s spirituality rather than assuming a priori that we have a deficient piety at work.
2. To examine the imagery and metaphors without assuming that we can create a better poetic aesthetic by altering or deleting parts of the received text.

Some aspects of modern scholarship cohere with such an approach. It is no longer the case that historical-critical goals must dominate interpretation—literary and theological aspects of interpretation are no longer an optional extra. For our purposes an open presupposition that our text is Scripture is acknowledged. What do we find if we attempt such a hermeneutic of trust rather than one of suspicion? Is such an approach fruitful? Most importantly of all, is it not that case a hermeneutic is the central claim of Psalm 1 itself?

Some commentators do of course pay close attention to the metaphors and their interplay. Thus Delitzsch, for example, notes the interesting contrast between the static tree and the highly mobile chaff in the wind and is commended by Eaton for his care. The text itself, if it claims anything about interpretation, anticipates that the correct method is lengthy, i.e. day and night meditation. It is often argued that hegeh means a meditative murmuring of scripture. Although interestingly a more ‘negative’ interpretation sees this murmuring as mindless legalism. If we follow the positive trajectory the psalm would appear to commend reflective and imaginative interpretation. This would appear to make the metaphorical language and didactic purpose cohere with reflective readings. Is this perhaps condoning intratextual connections, rather than either naïve devotional readings or modern linear systematic analysis?

It is also important to note at this point that Psalm 1 makes claims (e.g. ‘whatever he does prospers’) that contradict both ‘the life of faith’ and the passionate cry of the psalmist elsewhere in the Psalter. In this sense Psalm 1 needs to be tempered in some way by some sort of intertextual context or dialogue unless we want to argue either that it is paradigmatic in teaching a ‘prosperity gospel’ or it is wrong in its claims.

There is little controversy over Psalm 1’s identity as a Wisdom Psalm. As such it has a clear didactic purpose. Its claims regarding the centrality of meditation upon Yahweh’s instruction beg the question over whether its claim is to worked out in the 149 compositions that follow. Such a view is natural (though not necessarily proven) once we recognise the collection as Scripture, but was this the understanding of the editors of the Psalter? Further, to what extent does the role of editors define our interpretation of the psalms? We will return to these questions in a later post, once we’ve had a preliminary look at Psalm 2.

 

C. A. Briggs and E. G. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms: Volume 1, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1906.

F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms: Volume I, translated by Francis Bolton from the second German edition, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1871.

J. H. Eaton, Psalms of the Way and the Kingdom: A Conference with the Commentators, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.

H. Gunkel, An Introduction to the Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel, completed by J. Begrich, translated by J. D. Nogalski, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998.