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.

O is for Old Testament

A few posts ago the term Hebrew Bible was explored with a view to appreciating why the label is more than just an alternative to the Christian term of ‘Old Testament’. In this post the idea that the existence of the Old Testament can be understood as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible is considered. In order to appreciate this idea two other points need to be introduced:

  1. The relationship between a community and its authoritative texts will be outlined.
  2. The idea of re-reading will be considered and shown to have been part of the Hebrew Bible before there ever was an Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible was not handed down from heaven although the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, were written by God, according to Deuteronomy 5:22.  The majority of the Hebrew Bible is the result of selecting texts and by corollary not choosing others.

In recent times, scholars have given a lot of attention to how a religious community arrives at an authoritative set of texts that they know as Scripture. With the Hebrew Bible there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the texts of the Hebrew Bible grew gradually over time. This is not just about adding books one-by-one, but even some of the books went through a process of addition and editing. Critical scholarship has attempted to discern the earlier literary units of biblical texts (source criticism) and the work of those who combined sources and edited them (redaction criticism). Much of these efforts are today viewed with some scepticism. This is not to suggest that such things did not happen, but rather the hope of unpicking such a complex literary history with any certainty is unrealistic. Even if earlier texts could be recovered and later additions identified, it is far from clear what a Jewish or Christian believer would do with such information. Whilst, such scholarship is of interest for historical, religious and cultural reasons, those who believe these texts have abiding religious significance look to the texts in their final form. In the last two decades, scholarship has also tended to focus on the received text too.

Despite this focus on the final form of such texts, it is still necessary to see how the text could have been read differently over time. This change in understanding and significance of a text can be termed re-reading. Psalm 2 provides an interesting example. It can be quite instructive to imagine an enthronement ceremony in which the various sections of this psalm were read by different people as part of a ritual act. That such a use was the origin of this psalm is especially clear in sentences like these:

“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”  
(verse 6)

And

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
(verse 7)

When we consider that this psalm was collected and preserved as part of a collection of praises, i.e. songs used in wider contexts of worship, it can be appreciated that its original reading cannot have been fossilised. A sobering way to reflect on this is to imagine what singing this as a song would have meant in a time after the Fall of Jerusalem when there was no king at all, let alone one with the full power and majesty of God behind him. In this way the collection and later use of Psalms, and other texts too, means that they are read in a new context. It can be argued that it is likely that texts that can be re-read are more likely to be preserved as their current value is more evident.

This idea means that the jump from Hebrew Bible to Old Testament is nothing like the giant leap that might otherwise be imagined. Psalm 2 is again a case in point as four stages in re-reading can be discerned, from the perspective of Christian faith:

  • Living liturgy for the coronation of a new king.
  • Historical liturgy remembering God’s promises of old.
  • Prophetic word regarding a messiah (anointed one) who will come from the line of David to restore the nation.
  • Christological statement fulfilled in part by Christ’s incarnation and to be completed at his second coming.

In this way a Christian reading of Psalm 2 is a continuation of a trajectory begun during its selection, editing and inclusion in the Psalter. This can be a useful perspective in understanding the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament.

K is for King David

K is for King David

This post will take some lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s legendary song Hallelujah as its framework. The second verse of Hallelujah reflects on an infamous scene of adultery:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

The second verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

These verses, either coincidentally or intentionally, highlight a couple of highly distinctive features of the Hebrew Bible which Christian interpreters have often failed to handle appropriately. The first of these is the tendency to portray heroes of the faith with painful honesty. Despite David being someone after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) he is portrayed as someone who does terrible things. One of the most memorable is his lust for Bathsheba which causes him to immediately commit adultery with her (2 Samuel 11:2‒4). To make matters worse David successfully conspires to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:15‒17). There is little interest in whitewashing the stories concerning the heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible—although we will consider in a later post why this story is absent from the account of David’s reign in Chronicles. All of the key figures in the life of Israel fail spectacularly at various points.

David’s failure regarding Bathsheba has captured the imagination of artists over hundreds of years, see [1] for an examination of this in religious painting. Cohen is not alone in finding this episode worthy of consideration. The way he does this is reminiscent of a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible known as midrash. One of the features of midrash, and there are many others, is looking for parallels between diverse biblical narratives. In the verse quoted above it appears that Cohen is drawing a parallel between Bathsheba’s impact on David and the impact of Delilah on Samson—she famously seduced him and cut his hair in events which lead to his death (Judges Chapter 16). Cohen’s midrash perhaps implies that it was lust for a woman which led to both David’s problems and to Samson’s.  The story of David’s life makes it clear that the conflict in his house was a result of God’s displeasure with his adultery and ‘murder’—poetically Bathsheba broke his throne, although the biblical narrative lays this firmly at David’s feet. That lust and sexual desire are the uniting thread between the stories of broken thrones and cut hair is echoed in the reference to sex later in the verse: ‘from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’.

 

  1. David Lyle Jeffrey, ‘The Hebrew Bible in art and literature’, pp.426‒446 in The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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.

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 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.