Psalm 32: As Stubborn as a Mule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 32:1–2, NLT

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

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

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

Johnson Oatman, 1897

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

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

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

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

Psalm 32:3–4, NLT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 32:8–9, NRSV

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

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

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

Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

Psalmody by Maria Apichella: A Review

Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016

How does one review poetry? The critical propositions of analysis seem ill at ease when juxtaposed with lyrical beauty. And yet review I must. How else can I have any chance of persuading another to imbibe this book? And like scripture it indeed deserves to be eaten.

Who would have thought that a collection of poems could mirror the psalms that are themselves a reflection of our own souls? And yet this is exactly what this collection does—as its name implies it is a Psalter. But do not think for a moment that this is some crass like-for-like echo of each-and-every psalm. No. These ninety-three poems are so similar and yet oh so different to canonical psalmody.

In one way they are much alike, for there is a narrative here, from beginning to end. Yes, a story. A story that is initially difficult to discern. But discern it the reader will as the hermeneutical circle spirals ever-on. Piece by elegant piece the unself-similar bricks fit together to work a greater synergy than any anthology of poems.

The attentive reader will delight as intertextual connections with the Psalter of Psalters are made. The faithful reader will share the psalmist’s journey betwixt failing and faith. The unpublished reader will wish they had such a psalmody in print. The trusting reader will understand that before Jehovah Jirah they are already themselves a Psalter as important to Adoni as that of King David.

Eat this book it won’t turn your stomach sour.

 

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as Midrash

Midrash is a complex type of Jewish exegesis that blossomed as Judaism become Rabbinic. One, and it is only one, of the tools of midrash is using diverse texts from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) to answer questions asked by hearers of the text. In this way a deep reverence for the text is combined with the poetic imagination—two things which in my view should unite to do justice to Scripture. I am personally convinced that Hallelujah in doing the latter echoes, either consciously or inadvertently, the former. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has become something of a key text in Western culture. Through its use in diverse cinematic contexts, covers by other artists and simply because of its innate qualities of profundity and yet ambiguity, it is known to many at some level. My fascination with it centres on my admiration of Cohen as a poet and the central role of the biblical psalms in the song. What follows here is not meant to be an analysis but only a meditation on this remarkable song. The very title of Cohen’s most famous song is a frequent refrain in the Biblical Psalms. The Psalter would be familiar to Cohen given his Jewish heritage. That this is the case is evident from any number of biographies about Cohen. The Psalter has two collections of psalms united by their use of the word Hallelujah, which means literally ‘Praise Jah’, the covenant God of Biblical Israel. One of these series of psalms, Psalms 146–150, have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah. They all end with the same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups-and-downs of individual and corporate experience. There is, in these five psalms, only cause for praise and its execution. In this way they are, therefore, all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the each of the parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter. This is echoed in Cohen’s Hallelujah which exclaims:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Of course, for much of the song the singer has anything but the certainty and stability captured at the end. Psalms 111–118 are sometimes referred to as Hallel Psalms or the Hallelujah Psalms. As with concluding five psalms of the Psalter they make extensive use of the word Hallelujah. They do this in a less systematic way than the closing five psalms. Psalms 111, 112 and 113 all start with the word Hallelujah. Psalms 113, 115, 116 and 117 all close with this word. Thus only Psalm 113 has the inclusio device we saw above where the entire psalm is caught between to exhortations to ‘praise the Lord’. Psalms 114 and 118 do not contain Hallelujah. A subset of this series, Psalms, 113–118, are known as the Egyptian Hallel. They are known by this name partly because of their content and especially because they are used liturgically in the Passover meal which takes place on the eighth day of the Passover celebrations. The six psalms are used progressively through the meal: Psalms 113 and 114 are read before the meal. The other four are said at the end of the meal, during the drinking of the fourth cup of wine. So what question might Hallelujah be a midrash on? Perhaps its concern is how King David with all of his failings could be the author of the Psalter? The narrative of the Tanakh says very little about David’s musical ability. The most important thread being his playing of the lyre before Saul (1 Samuel 16:23ff. and 19:9ff.). David’s musicianship variously quietens a demon and angers Saul. Perhaps the former ability makes use of Cohen’s ‘secret chord’? Referring to David as a ‘baffled king’ seems appropriate because his life was full of the most momentous ups-and-downs just like the life of faith recorded in the Psalter—for every Hallelujah there is an opposing problem. Cohen’s song makes a direct mention of a key episode in referring to David’s voyeurism on seeing the bathing Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2). Cohen’s mention of moonlight might refer to the text ascribing the event to the ‘late afternoon’ (NRSV) or it might hint at the madness that was to follow—in biblical times the moon was thought to be a source of mental illness (cf. Psalm 121:6b). The initial result of David’s lust for Bathsheba is that she does indeed draw a Hallelujah from his lips and this results in the conception of a child that dies shortly after his birth. Later they have another son, Solomon. Whether his dalliance with Bathsheba broke his throne, or not, is speculation. The problems David has with his son Absalom might well stem from Absalom’s jealousy over Solomon’s status. Less ambiguous is that the domestic imagery of kitchens and the cutting of hair hints at another leader in Israel brought down by lust for a woman, see Judges 16. Hallelujah  speaks of a Holy Hallelujah and a Broken Hallelujah. These two descriptions are true of the biblical psalms in more than one sense. At one level we have the question of how David, in spite of his immense failings, was chosen by God and indeed favoured by God. How did a broken king write a holy book? Of course David’s identification as the Psalter’s author are idealistic. The psalms are the product of many psalmists. But many of the most poignant are those redolent with the sort of lament that David must have voiced when things went wrong, and in particular his battle, both physical and political, with so many enemies. Such psalms declare the brokenness which is so often the experience of the life of faith. All of the psalms, those from David’s pen and all the others, are of course the work of frail human beings. Yet the mystery is that their collection and canonisation has indeed made them holy to Jew and Christian because their experience is that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’. Anyone seeking an explanation or a theology of Scripture would do well to meditate on the midrash that is Hallelujah. Having said this, they might be better off looking to that which is signified rather than only a sign.

T. S. Eliot and Reading the Psalms

I recently stumbled across an essay on Literary Criticism by T. S. Eliot.[1] A number of issues that Eliot explores in the paper resonate with how we might read the Psalms appropriately. I hope that looking at Eliot’s essay will bear fruit for our use of the Psalms today. I need to be clear from the outset that Eliot was specifically addressing Literary Criticism. In particular his eye was on poetry, which of course coheres with our interest in the Psalms. I think the parallel with our reading the Psalms today is fair, as Literary Criticism for Eliot essentially means reading correctly.

Eliot helpfully distinguishes between two aspects of literary criticism: enjoyment and understanding.[2] For Eliot both are essential for a legitimate reading of poem. Much of his essay revolves around how one, at the expense of the other is problematic. For example, this comes to the fore in his comments about life experiences that influence the poet. Eliot refers to some debate over the influence of Wordsworth’s love interests on the quality of his poetry. This includes the scholarly conjecture regarding how this might have impacted Wordsworth’s poetic output. Eliot is not convinced that such factors are an aid to engaging with Wordsworth’ work:

For myself, I can only say that a knowledge of the springs which released a poem is not necessarily a help towards understanding the poem: too much information about the origins of the poem may even break my contact with it.[3]

This is an example where understanding has been pursued, and attention has drifted from the poem to the poem’s life setting. This, in Eliot’s view, has a negative impact on enjoying the poem as a poem. This point seems to be echoed all too often in the twentieth century project of Form Criticism as applied to the Psalms. The endless identification of competing hypothetical Sitz im Leben tends to undermine a psalm’s, i.e. a poem’s, power as poetry rather than illuminating it.

Elsewhere in his essay, Eliot points to other ways in which understanding can eclipse enjoyment. One of these is the dissection of a text by examining its sources, so he argues that:

The explanation of poetry by examination of the process of its sources is not the method of all contemporary criticism by any means; but it is a method which responds to the desire of a good many readers that poetry should be explained to them in terms of something else.[4]

This point also resonates with another problem with Form Criticism. Eliot discusses a book of literary criticism which examines some well-known major poems, where the poems were analysed line by line with no reference to the author or their other work. He captures the negative impact this has on enjoying the poems:

For nearly all the poems in the volume were poems that I had known and loved for many years; and after reading the analyses, I found I was slow to recover my previous feeling about the poems. It was as if someone had taken a machine to pieces and it left me with the task of reassembling the parts. I suspect, in fact, that a good deal of the value of an interpretation is—that it should be my own interpretation.[5]

The point that we need to create our own interpretation is a vital one when it comes to the Psalms and indeed all Scripture. Scripture cannot be fed upon second hand—any more than poetry. However good they might be, a sermon, a blog or a commentary can only ever lead us to Scripture. If we only hear the three points, or the propositional truths of the passage, or tense and grammar, we have not experienced, or as Eliot would put it, enjoyed Scripture.

Elsewhere in his essay Eliot warns us of the potential danger of all types of critical reading:

For the tendency is so general, to believe that we understand a poem when we have identified its origins and traced the process to which the poet submitted his materials, that we may easily believe the converse—that any explanation of the poem is also an account of how it was written.[6]

Such an exploration of cause and effect is an inevitable part of understanding a poem, but only a part of the process. There is a real danger that the aspect of enjoyment which gives a poem its vitality is either forgotten or undermined. There is a danger that the attempt at understanding a poem can do violence to what a poem actually is. When the poems are the biblical Psalms what they are is poems, with all that normally means, and they also have a potential to transform. Enjoyment of the Psalms means seeing them poetically – marvelling at the language and metaphor, awakening to what they reveal and conceal about God, meditating on what they reveal about us. It also means being open to their work as Scripture which is entirely coherent and cogent with their poetic nature.

We conclude with some words of Eliot which encourage us about the vital connection we can have with the Psalms:

What matters is the experience which is the same for all human beings of different centuries and languages capable of enjoying poetry, the spark which can leap across 2,500 years.[7]

[1] T. S. Eliot, ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’, a 1956 lecture pp.111-31 in T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets, New York: Farrars, Straus and Giroux (1957).
[2] Passim, p.128.
[3] Passim p. 124.
[4] Passim, p.125.
[5] Passim, p.127.
[6] Passim, p.126.
[7] Passim, p.131.

What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 1: Poems, Prayers and Songs

The importance of taking the context of any text into account is an obvious part of interpretation. The notion of context with regard to biblical psalms is, however, a rather complex one. This post does not attempt any resolution of the matter, but rather aims to be a starting point for readers to rethink what is an interesting ‘problem’. The headings below perhaps stretch the meaning of the word context into, for example, questions of genre and function. Although, of course, genre and function cannot be separated from context. Which brings me to the first heading of poem.

1. Psalms as Poems
There is nothing controversial about seeing the Psalms as poems. The majority of psalms use the literary device of parallelism which is generally understood to be a defining feature of biblical poetry (although the distinction between poetry and prose is perhaps unhelpful in some other parts of the Old Testament). There are many other features of the psalms that make them poetic, the use of metaphor being especially dominant and important. This is not the place to explore Hebrew poetry, except to say that there is an essential dynamic for interpretation. The key issue is that whatever else we make of the psalms, their poetic nature means that we should not be hasty in equating their poetry to simple propositional truth. This is no lack of confidence in the Psalms as Scripture, rather the opposite. The truth conveyed by the Psalms is rich with emotion. The Psalmist is often speaking from a place of non-equilibrium and trying to find their way back to orientation before God. The poetic vocabulary of the excesses of joy and despair will often stray from straightforward theological description.

I am, however, convinced that the profoundest theological contribution of the Psalms is their doctrine of God. Yet for all this theological description of who Yahweh is, the Psalms seem to question their own claims. Yahweh is a shield, he is a rock, he is a fortress – so the psalmist claims, over and over again. Yet, other psalms by their persistent cries to Yahweh seem to challenge any naive simplicity in appropriating these descriptors. Yes, Yahweh is a fortress, but this claim is best left in its poetic form, along with the rich dynamic relationship it describes. Pinning down the meaning and certainly of our experience of Yahweh in these terms seems to risk straying from the psalms themselves.

Saying that the psalms are poems is not defining their context, as such, but it is ensuring that what we might recognise that understanding their context is tempered by an appreciation of their poetic nature.

2. Psalms as Prayers
Some psalms are clearly prayers. Many psalms do the things that prayers do. Some clearly praise Yahweh; Hallelujah, ‘praise Yah’, is frequently found in the Psalter. The word is also prominent in opening a large number of psalms (106, 111, 112, 113, 117, 135, 146, 147, 148, 149 and 150). This word is just one of many pieces of evidence that the psalms are meant to function as prayers of praise.

Similarly there are many ways in which the Psalms function as prayers of petition. For example, frequently the psalmist petitions God, with the question: ‘How long?’ (e.g. 4, 6, 13, 35, 62, 71 and 74). The psalms seem to be prayers that, as some expres it, are prayers for all seasons of the soul. For all the features that make so many psalms appear as prayers, there are other aspects and indeed whole psalms that do not make obvious prayers. Psalm 1 is a good example. If psalm 1 was encountered halfway through the book of Proverbs there would be no great surprise. If it were encountered there it would be seen as some sensible piece of wisdom literature, rather than a prayer. Because, however, this psalm is not part of Proverbs, its context, by association with what are prayers, suggests that it too can function as a prayer. But is it legitimate, as many Bible readers claim (including me), to see all of the Psalms as prayers? Seeing the psalms as prayers has implications for context. Are they prayers, that in their original form, can only be used in the context of Jewish worship? Are they prayers that can be fully appropriated for modern Christian use? When they are prayers about messianic hope can the risen Christ be an interpretive lens for Christians. How do these areas relate? Do they conflict? Which uses, contexts and interpretations are legitimate and why? We often have quick answers to such questions, but we would do well to ensure we honour these texts, and the God we claim gave them to us, by ensuring we are respecting what the Psalms actually are.

3. Psalms as Songs
As well as being poetic and being, at least in many cases, prayers, the Psalms are songs. Perhaps the very existence of the Psalms originates with a desire by the editors of the Psalter to collect and thus authorise a subset of the then extant psalms. Whilst the details of this enterprise are open to conjecture the fact that it happened is evident in how these specific 150 psalms came to be included, first in the Hebrew Bible and then in the Christian Scriptures. If the Psalms, as a Psalter, were chosen in this way, are they meant to be understood as an end in themselves? This is the understanding of, for example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, who use only biblical psalms for sung worship. Or are the biblical Psalms meant to provide a framework within which worship occurs? Or, for Christians, has the life, death and resurrection of Christ meant we need to go, in some sense, beyond the Psalms?

Having reflected on the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs we are ready to focus more explicitly on the issue of context.

Part 2 coming soon

An A-Z of Praise: Psalm 111

In looking at this specific psalm we shall see how the idea of an acrostic works and at the same time consider how this specific psalm raises some broader issues that any A-Z of the psalms must address. Here is this psalm laid out so that the acrostic device can be seen:

1. Praise Yah!
Aleph – I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart,
Beth – in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2. Gimel – Great are the works of Yahweh,
Daleth – studied by all who delight in them.
3. He – Full of honour and majesty is his work,
Waw – and his righteousness endures forever.
4. Zayin – He has gained renown by his marvellous deeds;
Heth – Yahweh is gracious and merciful.
5. Teth – He provides food for those who fear him;
Yodh – he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6. Kaph – He has shown his people the power of his works,
Lamedh – in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7. Mem – The works of his hands are faithful and just;
Nun – all his precepts are trustworthy.
8. Samekh – They are established forever and ever,
Ayin – to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9. Peh – He sent redemption to his people;
Sadhe – he has commanded his covenant forever.
Qoph – Holy and awesome is his name.
10. Resh – the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom;
Shih – All those who practice it have a good understanding.
Taw – His prise endures forever.

[the above follows the NIV but with Yahweh replacing ‘The Lord’.]

When scholars discuss Hebrew poetry they use the term colon to describe the small parts that in English usage might be referred to as lines. The reason why the term colon is used is that Biblical Hebrew has rather different principles of grammar and punctuation which leaves much greater ambiguity than conventional English verse. In each of verses 1-8 of psalm 111 the Hebrew text is readily translated into a bicolon. In other words each of these verses reads as two statements, with the second elaborating or building on the first in some manner. Importantly the recognition of this poetic device will lead to a different translation than if each colon is taken as a statement in its own right. In the case of psalm 111, modern translations and scholars all follow this bicolon structure. The same structure follows in verses 9 and 10, it is just that in these two verses three colons have been allocated to each verse, potentially obscuring the bicolon comprising v.9c and v.10a.

What different biblical translations and scholars do not agree upon is how this psalm might be put into, what we might call, paragraphs or verses (the technical term strophe is often used in Hebrew poetry). Interpreters of psalm 111 also disagree to an extent over the context in which psalm 111 originated and was used. Fortunately such disagreements, in this case at least, do not lead to significant differences in what the psalm is understood to be claiming. This difficulty of establishing the original circumstances for which a psalm was written is a topic on which a whole scholarly career might, indeed has, been founded. We will return to this matter later, but for now we can note that perhaps this ambiguity is part of the reason why the canonical psalms were preserved-people of faith wanted something which they could ‘make their own’, they were not about the task of preserving archaic texts.

Returning to psalm 111, it does not take a lot of attention to see that its acrostic nature has constrained the poet and this has played a key role in making the poem what it is. As an artistic device which constrains, the acrostic pattern has taken the poet where they might otherwise not have gone. Similar results occur when poetry is written to conform to say, the iambic pentameter of a Petrarchan sonnet or the traditional 5, 7, 5 syllabic pattern of traditional haiku. The result of the constraint of the acrostic device, in this instance, produces pithy statements about the psalmist’s and audience’s actions, and in particular about what Yahweh has done. Sometimes the individual colons are formulaic echoing, or restating, ideas from elsewhere. This is the case with verse 10’s ‘The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom’, which is very similar to Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10, and is a pervasive motif in the Hebrew Bible.

Whatever the uncertainties regarding the original setting of psalm 111, its opening implies use within the community of faith-the differences of opinion amongst scholars concerns whether its use was (a) generic, (b) specific to a given festival or (c) used during a pilgrimage. Whatever the specific occasion of use, the opening bicolon implies that the psalm would be read by an individual on behalf of those gathered together. Verses 2 to 9 then rehearse the most fundamental claims about Yahweh the God of Israel, namely that:

1. His deeds are great and worth meditating on.
2. His righteousness and faithfulness are unchanging.
3. He is a God who will honour the covenant he made with his people.
4. His deeds testify to the veracity of the other claims being made.

The focus on Yahweh’s covenant with Israel is perhaps greater than the NIV translation used above indicates. This arises because of the ambiguity of tense in Biblical Hebrew. For example, in v.5a we hear of Yahweh providing food for those who fear him. In the context of covenant (v.5b) it might well be better read as ‘He provided food for those who feared him’; referring back to the gift of manna and quail during Israel’s wilderness wanderings following the Exodus from Egypt. The very next verse refers to the end of the wanderings as Yahweh grants them the Promised Land.

The psalm, having rehearsed this story, or worldview, then concludes with an exhortation as to the right three-fold response: (i) fear of Yahweh, (ii) following his precepts and (iii) praising him. All three of these are central to the content and themes of the Psalter. In this way psalm 111 is a neat A to Z of the reasons to carry on being a faithful Jew (or Christian).

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.

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.