Psalms for the New Year

The Christian life has many challenges. One of the common problems encountered, in our devotional life, is a lack of passion and enthusiasm for finding time to spend in prayer and Bible reading. This malaise rarely appears overnight. More usually it is a slow process helped by a self-deception that does not want to admit that all is not right in our relationship with God.

One way of addressing such a problem is to attempt something new. I cannot claim that the Psalms are in any sense a panacea to address spiritual malaise, but they are a sensible choice. If is not without reason that so many believers have found comfort and sustenance in these songs, prayers and poems.

This New Year why not try something new with the Psalms? It might be worth making the psalms the centre of your devotions, or simply to supplement a more established devotional pattern. The attraction of the Psalms is that they can just as well be used for a season or for a longer period.

Some might find it refreshing to read and reflect on the whole Psalter in a month, or so. This is perhaps rather demanding and not to be undertaken unless a serious amount of time can be given over each day. Others might want to take a more leisurely 150 day pilgrimage. A psalm a day for 5 months. It sounds like a long haul, but it passes with surprising speed. I am strongly of the opinion that reading the Psalms in canonical order has a number of advantages, not least because it seems that there is some purpose in their order (see some previous posts here). The slow journey of a psalm a day is perhaps too slow for those unfamiliar with the Psalms. If you are new to the Psalms then three a day might be better.

My experience with the Psalms has been that ongoing cycling through them is rewarding. Rather than ‘familiarity breeding contempt’ they become a world, a series of familiar prayers and poems. They also retain vitality; frequently a fresh insight is gained or a new depth encountered.

The advantage of starting out with the Psalms afresh in the New Year is of course the simplicity of keeping an eye on ones progress. Whilst legalism is not the normal recipe for escaping the spiritual doldrums, self-deception and a lack of personal accountability are no friends to spiritual recovery either.

Psalms 1 and 2 are both, in very different ways, marvellous prayers to start the New Year. They are arguably nothing less than central parts of the worldview of the Psalter. This worldview will stretch our mind, heart and spirit so that we might learn to see freshly and aright this creation in which we dwell before our gracious creator who imparts life through His word.

‘The Case for the Psalms: Why they are essential’ by Tom Wright

Tom Wright is well known as a prolific author of Christian books. For example, he is working on a massive scholarly project, of which three volumes are in print and a fourth is imminent, on nothing less than the whole of the New Testament and its implications for Christian doctrine. Thus his academic expertise includes first-century Jewish history, the Gospels, the Pauline corpus and biblical hermeneutics. So some might be surprised that a New Testament scholar should publish a book on the Psalms.

The book is not meant to be a piece of Psalms’ scholarship, although Wright is clearly informed regarding diverse recent work on the Psalms. Rather this book is aimed at a popular audience. For this we should be grateful, because Wright’s central plea is a correct one. He argues, as the title indicates most clearly, that much of contemporary Christianity has, to its detriment, neglected the Psalms. I found the book to be both convincing and compelling. His thesis needs to be heard by the Christian community and there is a real need for Christians to champion the Psalms in their local Church setting.

The sheer clarity of the title might seem to indicate that the book’s argument be too clear cut, either in attacking the contemporary Christian songwriting ‘industry’ or promoting a monolithic approach to singing and using the Psalms. I am delighted to say that any such claims are groundless. For sure, Wright has some concerns (in my view entirely legitimate) about today’s Christian songwriting, however, Wright warmly acknowledges the genuine life and vitality in this movement and hopes that there is potential therein to champion the Psalms. Wright’s biographical material, which is presented as a helpful Afterword, recognises the traditional Anglican experience of the Psalms that Wright has enjoyed for his whole life. Having experienced this only to a very limited extent myself, I found this intriguing. I was also pleased to see Wright’s openness to, and recognition of, diverse ways in which the Psalms can be imbibed by the individual and the worshipping community.

If you’ve read this far you can tell I am rather appreciative of this book. The best, however, is yet to come. I expected to find myself broadly in agreement with Wright’s agenda – of, putting it bluntly, promoting the use of the Psalms. What I had not expected was the insightful way in which Wright made his case for what the Psalms contain and teach. I have read a lot about the Psalms over the last few years and have found them rewarding on a daily basis, as a central part of my personal devotions during this period. I have not previously met such a concise yet helpful overarching statement of the Psalter’s content which does justice to both their Jewish origin and use by followers of the risen Jesus Christ.

The heart of Wright’s book are three chapters, which account for around two-thirds of the content, the rest being essentially introductory and concluding material. Don’t get me wrong these parts are helpful, and indeed necessary, too. Yet it’s the three key chapters, and their overall thesis, that make this book not only compelling in its claim but an ideal way into understanding the Psalms. It’s helpful to outline the argument of these three chapters:

At the Threshold of God’s Time
Wright opens with the claim that the ‘Psalms invite us, first, to stand at the intersection of the different layers of time’. He reflects on how our mortality compares rather starkly with Yahweh’s time, and how this connects with the Psalter’s strong eschatological flavour. This is then developed into another key concern found throughout the Psalter: the kingship of God. This theme in turn explains the present context of the reader/singer of the Psalms in terms of the past, and God’s people Israel, and the future restoration of creation. This is what makes the Psalms such a powerful resource. They remind us that whatever is going on here-and-now, Yahweh is a faithful God who started a restorative work long ago in ancient Israel and will bring that work to fruition in the future restoration of all things. Or, as Wright says: ‘Past, present, and future belong to him. We are called to live joyfully and painfully, in the story that is both his and ours’.

Where God Dwells
In this chapter Wright reminds us that all too often we avoid the strangeness of the claims that the Psalms make about where God resides. Many of the Psalms quite unashamedly, without any care for our modern baggage, look to Jerusalem and what might be termed the Temple Mount as the dwelling place for the creator of the space-time universe. To pretend they claim anything else would be dishonest. It is this claim that is so central to other key themes in the Psalter. The nations are referred to many times, from 2:1 through to 149:7, in such a way that only makes sense with reference to Yahweh dwelling in Zion, i.e. Jerusalem (cf. 2:6 and 149:2). Yet despite this central, and vital claim, God can be found in other places too. The same psalms look to heaven as Yahweh’s dwelling place, e.g. 2:4. It is this claim that makes sense of the former. For the story is rich and complex, involving an ‘anointed one’ who is a steward over God’s people (2:6), the departure of God’s presence at the exile and the eschatological hope of his return. It is within this understanding of the divine presence that the frequently misunderstood Jewish understanding of Torah took shape. As Wright puts it: ‘By prayerful and obedient study of the Torah, the blessings that one might have had through the “sacred space” of the Temple could be obtained anywhere by all’. There can be little doubt of this theme in the Psalter when one notes the introductory psalm 1 and the entity that is psalm 119 (see previous blog entries).

All the Trees of the Forest Sing for Joy
In this chapter Wright builds on concerns he has discussed at length elsewhere about Western modernity’s inability to see the physical universe as a creation in which the Creator is living and active. As Wright argues this means that Christians too can miss the biblical affirmation of the essential ‘goodness’ of matter. Despite this chapter’s focus on a key concern for Wright as a theologian and interpreter, there is nothing forced in his claim that the Psalms celebrate creation. Indeed he shows, with ample reference to the Psalms themselves, the beautiful and rich ways in which the Psalter reflects on creation and thereby speaks of the Creator.

Wright’s three-fold use of time, space (place) and matter as a framework for unpacking the Psalms is commendably straightforward and yet doesn’t straight-jacket the Psalter’s rich diversity of form and content. For this insightful approach, as well as the timely message of our need to recover the Psalms, I hope many in the contemporary church will be truly grateful.

The Long and the Short of it: Psalms 117 and 119

Psalms 117 and 119 stand out for being respectively, unusually short and remarkably long. If there is any sense of editorial purpose behind the Psalter it seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that these two psalms are so close together. Their odd length also means they must have been selected with good reason. Despite the fact that Psalm 119 is almost 100 times longer than Psalm 117 they are both equally singular in their focus.

Psalm 119, as was seen two posts ago, focuses on Torah. This focus was also that of Psalm 1. Some scholars have suggested that on its way to completion the Psalter opened with Psalm 1 and closed with Psalm 119. If this was the case this would have given a key place to Torah in the Psalter, however, the final form of the Psalter still places a strong emphasis on Torah, with Psalm 119 dominating Book V because of its massive size and prominence before the Songs of Ascents. In this way, Psalm 119 picks up a key aspect of the Psalter’s opening – delight in God’s Torah or instruction.

Interestingly Psalm 117 also effectively picks up on a key aspect of the opening too. It is worth quoting Psalm 117 in full:

O praise The Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise ye The Lord.

Compared to Psalm 2 something has happened, in Psalm 2 the question raised was: ‘Why do the nations rage, . . . .?’ (2:1). The nations appear many times in the Psalter and here in a positive light. Psalm 2 articulates the problem of particularity, the good news comes first to Israel and then the nations. Psalm 117 in all is simplicity anticipates the gospel having gone out to all the nations. This is the nature of the psalms, they are concerned with ‘the now’, but then there are glimpses forward. The psalms are eschatological and in this context articulate a simple worldview where all is resolved. This is what we find in Psalms 1 and 117. In other places the questions of now are at the fore. Such questions are there in Psalm 2: why do the nations reject Yahweh? Why have the kings of Israel failed. Psalm 119 for all its focus is still asking questions: is devotion to God’s Torah enough? Will the faithful find vindication in the end?

In a way this is what we have in the Psalter, a twofold blessing: (i) permission and language to deal with the troubles and challenges of the life of faith, (ii) glimpses of that perfect future when all has been set right.

Praise ye The Lord.

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.

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.

The Psalter’s Structure – Microstructure

In the previous two posts we have seen that there are reasons to think that the whole book of Psalms has an overall structure, sometimes referred to as a macrostructure. We’ve also considered the various collections of psalms that were incorporated into the Psalter, what we have called mesostructure. The finest scale of structure in the book of Psalms is the least controversial of all and we can refer to is as microstructure.

At the outset we should note that the term microstructure is a modern one and we use it simply to make clear our conviction that the Psalter is organised at all scales (although this is not to suggest that all these levels of organisation were made at the same time or in a simple fashion). For millennia those who read the psalms have often noted the many, and varied, connections between neighbouring psalms. Sometimes this is referred to as pairing of psalms—others refer to it as concatenation. This latter term literally means ‘to form into a chain’. One of the challenges of exploring the idea that psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours is the subjectivity of the data. The way in which psalms are said to be paired or linked is varied. Often an unusual word, or an important word, is found in two adjacent psalms. On other occasions psalms are paired by a similar theme of interest. On other occasions a whole phrase may be repeated. Let’s look at an example of each.

1. Word pairs. Psalms 1 and 2, despite being at first glance quite dissimilar, are paired by the use of some keywords. A Hebrew word general translated ‘blessed’ is the first word of Psalm 1 and occurs in the last verse of Psalm 2. The Hebrew word hegeh occurs in both Psalm 1 (verse 2) and Psalm 2 (verse 1) and is central to the theme of each of these psalms. This can be missed in translation as in Psalm 1 the word is generally translated as ‘meditate’, ‘murmur’ or similar. In Psalm 2 it is translated as ‘plot’, ‘scheme’, etc. Finally both psalms use the word derek meaning ‘way’.

2. Common theme. Both Psalms 50 and 51 have a common theme of sacrifice. This theme is not frequently found in the Psalter.

3. Repeated phrase. Both psalms 2 and 3 make mention of the phrase ‘holy hill’ or ‘holy mountain’.

These three examples indicate the variety of these pairings, but also the fact that any one example could be down to coincidence. It is suggested that whilst any single example can’t be seen as evidence of clear intent, the shear number of examples supports the view that the psalms have often been deliberately placed next to each other and possibly some editing has been carried out too.

The next post will explore the implications of the identification of structure within the Psalter as the micro, meso and macro scales.