Psalms 1 and 2 as an Introduction to the Psalter

The idea that the first two psalms are an intentional introduction to the Psalter is not new. A lot of recent scholarship on the Psalms has recognised this possibility and for centuries it was natural to read the Psalms sequentially as a book and so recognise a beginning to the Psalter. Despite the very different style (technically Gattungen) of these two psalms there are a number of literary links between them. These include:

1. They are both untitled, something which is unusual in the first book of the Psalter.
2. There is an inclusio which uses the word happy/blessed at the start of Psalm 1 (1:1) and end of Psalm 2 (2:12).
3. Both refer to ‘the way’ (Hebrew derek)—verses 1:1 and 2:12 again.
4. Both use the Hebrew word hagah in a manner central to the psalm’s ‘argument’. In 1:2 it is often translated meditating and in 2:1 as muttering. In both places it could be translated as murmuring ; in the former case the positive murmuring of torah and in the latter, negative language as in the English idiom of ‘under one’s breath’.

Even the difference between the two psalms might be deliberately complementary in that the first is clearly focused on the individual in the community of faith and the second on Israel and her king among the nations. More can be said on the literary links, see, for example, Whiting (2013) for an outline and Cole (2013) for a full treatment.

Over the last few years I have found it helpful to see Psalms 1 and 2 as a gateway into the Psalter. They raise a number of themes that are developed in later psalms and also raise questions which are addressed subsequently in the Psalter.

A key theme of the Psalter, and indeed much of the rest of Scripture, is the idea that there are two ways to live life. There is a way of blessing which involves devotion to Yahweh, including delighting in his torah or instruction. Conversely there is the alternative of not living in keeping with Yahweh’s teaching. One way leads to blessing often, portrayed in metaphors of fruitfulness like the tree in Psalm 1, and the other judgement often with negative metaphors like chaff blowing in the wind. Such metaphors tend to be ambiguous as to whether the consequences are ‘in this life’ or in the future. This question ‘of when’ is returned to at various points in the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 37 and 73).

That torah is central to following Yahweh is probably implicit in the fivefold division of the Psalter reflecting the nature of the Law—i.e. the Pentateuch. More explicitly the second half of Psalm 19 and the massive Psalm 119 leave little doubt about the importance of law/torah (see the previous post).

Psalm 2 considers the king as God’s anointed, and at the same time the authority of Yahweh over the nations is introduced. These two interrelated themes are found throughout the psalms. The nations are like a recurring character in the psalms. Though the nations rebel, their salvation is a concern of the Psalms (see the next post for more on this). The role of the king is central and if the psalms are read from an post-exilic viewpoint (when the psalms were collected) or from a New Testament perspective then the king, because of his designation as ‘anointed’, becomes the Messiah or Christ. Many of the psalms can be helpfully read as the words of the king or Messiah, including Psalm 1.

Worship is obviously central to the psalms nature and purpose as they are, among other things, a collection of songs. Though the individual roles of psalms in worship is still a much debated issue, that they were used in individual and corporate worship is clear. Psalm 1 focuses on an individual who finds his place amongst the corporate worshipers by opposing other rather less God-centered groups. Psalm 2 is itself very likely, first and fore-most, a liturgy used in the context of a coronation service or celebration of Yahweh’s kingship. It also indicates that the gathering of the people of God marks them out in contrast to the scoffing nations.

A more complex idea that there is a Zion Theology that connects Psalms 1 and 2 and which is found throughout the Psalter. Those interested can refer to Gillingham (2007) and Whiting (2013). A future post will look at the idea of Zion Theology in more detail, when we shall see that such a theology is a key agenda of the psalmist—this doesn’t mean we will be Zionists in the modern sense. What it does mean is that we must take seriously how we interpret the psalmist’s preoccupation with Zion today.

 

R. L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, (2013).

S. E. Gillingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the editing of the Psalter’, in J. Day (ed.), Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, T&T Clark, (2007): pp.303ff.

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

Psalm 119: A misunderstood psalm

This psalm has not always been held in high regard by bible commentators. Many have seen its 176 verses, eight beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in turn, as dull and unimaginative. Others have equated the thought of the poet with self-indulgent legalism.

Few readers of this post will perhaps go quite so far in criticising this psalm. However, even amongst psalm readers unused to being critical of Scripture it is perhaps all too rarely a favourite. It is my hope, in this brief post, to look to some reasons why this psalm should be valued highly by psalm ‘users’.

The first point that I think is helpful is to dispel any idea that the poet is a self-righteous legalist. To be sure the psalm does feature God’s word and God’s law in virtually every verse! The word Torah, or instruction, and seven other near synonyms are meant to be seen as portraying a multi-faceted truth; that Yahweh has provided rich instruction to those willing to pause and pay attention. This is no dry dull legalism, but a reflection of something which is more remarkable than a set of rules. God’s law, or Torah, was always more than regulation and here it is seen as essential in its life-giving efficacy. It is not the case that the law must be obeyed, or else, rather if life is going to be lived to the full then listening to God’s instruction is wise.

The author of the psalm is also not someone who is claiming to have a superior ‘holier-than-thou’ position of obedience to judge from. From our perspective, however, this might be exactly what we read into the psalm. Our modern sensibilities are informed, at least in part, by a caricature of Pharisaism such that any talk of law smacks of dead legalistic piety. We can also easily miss that the writer is actually writing from a perspective of lament, see for example verses 5, 18, 82, 107, 123, 169 and 176.

Another problem we sometimes bring to the psalms is an inability to take them as the reflective poems they are meant to be. If we go to Psalm 119 to receive propositional truth we will be disappointed, finding that it can be distilled into just a handful of clauses. Of course this would entirely miss the point of why this psalm exists in the canon! What if instead we see this psalm as a prayer to be read and savoured; life-changing verses to be meditated on? Such an approach puts faith in this psalm as God’s word, giving rise to an expectancy of its transformative potential. In making space to pray these words attentively we can allow God to shape us and enable us to find delight in a God who speaks his instruction and wants us to be nourished to find life in all its fullness.

Imprecatory Language in the Psalms

Many psalms contain language which seems at odds with Jesus’ instruction that believers should love their enemies. The same language stands in contrast too with basic modern ethics of tolerance, as well as common-sense morality. Because of this apparent incoherence between the Psalms and New Testament teaching, some interpreters use the Psalms selectively. In some cases whole psalms are omitted from official liturgical worship. In other cases psalms are edited whereby the ‘offending’ verses are omitted; effectively deleting them from the canon. What appears to be a solution to modern or Christian sensibilities, however, creates new, and I would suggest ultimately insurmountable, problems for seeing the Psalms as Scripture.

Whatever our detailed theology of Scripture, surely it is meant to be authoritative. How can we preserve its normative role if we allow ad hoc omission of parts of the whole? Once we employ criteria from outside Scripture to limit it we reject its authority over us.

Is there another way? Can we account for the imprecatory nature of some psalms language in a manner which does not deny New Testament teaching or modern, and in this case commendable, sensibilities.

Perhaps our starting point should be to note that there is no necessity to see every word the psalmist utters as entirely just and correct. Though the psalmist appears to claim righteousness, we aren’t naive enough to believe that this was actually always the case! Might it not be plausible to give priority to seeing the language of the psalms as being emotionally honest rather than ethically ideal?

Psalm 137’s call to have infants dashed against rocks is undoubtedly abhorrent, as much as it is perhaps understandable emotionally in the context of the sort of national tragedy described in for example the book of Lamentations. Does our use of Psalm 137 mean that we own the psalmist a wishes? I don’t think so. Can it not instead be seen as an honest recognition that in the most dire of circumstances it is better to commit our darkest and most unsavoury wishes to God rather than suppress our emotions. The articulation of such wishes is perhaps a psychological necessity for dealing with such emotion and allowing God to begin a healing process. Is it perhaps the case that only comfortable Western world-views that inform a spirituality where emotional honesty is suppressed beneath intellectual niceties?

Another useful point that needs to be noted us that the psalmist nearly always looks to Yahweh to carry out his dark wishes. This is ultimately a placing of what we want in God’s hands, thus recognising the provisionality of our wishes as we attempt to align ourselves with God’s wishes.

These initial thoughts are probably not very original and they don’t offer a complete solution to the imprecatory words of the Psalms. They do, however, I hope offer a starting point for more nuanced views on using using language that tends to jar against our attempts to domesticate Scripture.

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.

The Psalms have a Structure – So What?

In some previous posts we have explored the structure of the Psalter. We have seen that although much scholarship has denied there is a structure within The Psalms there has more recently been recognition that there is evidence of structure at a number of levels. The combination of an overarching structure (macrostructure), the uncontroversial recognition of groups of psalms (mesostructure) and the long-recognised pairing of psalms (microstructure), begs the question ‘so what’? For the moment, we will set aside the question of the motivation of those who collected and edited the psalms and simply think through the implications for using the psalms.

If at every level, the psalms have been selected, ordered and probably edited to give coherence, this implies that the structure needs to be appreciated as part of the reading process. In other words to use a psalm in isolation, whilst not wrong, runs the risk of missing something. For example, Psalm 1 can give a very different impression if viewed in isolation compared to a reading that notes its role at the opening of the Psalter. We will return to Psalm 1 in a later post, but for now we note two observations that temper the stark claims of Psalm 1.

Firstly, the personal certitude displayed in Psalm 1 is immediately questioned by the difficulties and challenges facing the psalmist in the sequence of psalms 3–7.

Secondly, the simplistic (but eschatologically true) view of the righteous and wicked portrayed in Psalm 1 is questioned and revisited in psalms that use the same language and ideas as Psalm 1, for example Psalms 37 and 73.

In short, what is being suggested is that engaging with the psalms is best done by reading them sequentially. This is of course a recognised practice in many different traditions of spirituality. Virtually all religious orders sing/chant the psalms sequentially in an on-going cycle. Many denominations used to, or still do, practice daily psalms singing in services at various times of the day. Regular psalm reading is also part of many formal and less formal Bible reading programmes, old and new.

Such regular and on-going use of the psalms gets to the heart of the central point of Scripture itself. The Scriptures obviously contain useful information, the sort that is essential for defining the Christian faith. More fundamentally, the psalms remind us that to engage with God’s word is an on-going even demanding practice. The point being that they don’t primarily provide information but they enable transformation. A regular reading through the Psalter enables an honesty of emotion and acknowledged life experience, articulated before God. Surely handling our emotional life before God must be central to any mature spirituality? The psalms also, because of their emotional and ‘real’ dynamic, touch our very being so the truths they contain become embedded in our daily beliefs and actions.

These seem to be reasons enough for reading, praying and/or singing regularly through these God-inspired poems and songs.

If the claims above are correct, this is also a challenge as to how we interpret Scripture (hermeneutics). Many modern approaches to hermeneutics function at the level of information, when reading Scripture is more fundamentally about transformation. This might well be a matter we return to in later posts.

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.