Journeying through the Psalms

This weekend I planned some teaching on The Book of Psalms for a staff and postgraduate Christian fellowship lunchtime meeting at the University of Surrey—this is my place of work. I have realised that the handout I have prepared is self-contained enough to be useful for a wider audience and so have lightly adapted it below.

Getting Started
What role do the Psalms play in your church?

What role do the Psalms play in your life?

The Psalms and the Last One Hundred Years’ of Scholarship
Scholarship on the Psalms in the twentieth century was a complex journey through very different approaches. A German scholar, Hermann Gunkel, initiated a literary approach which still informs scholarship today. His approach was valuable in exploring the various types of psalm found in the Psalter. It was inadvertently unhelpful for the Church in that its focus on individual psalms undermined The Book of Psalms. A Norwegian scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel, built on Gunkel’s work and sought to understand the use of the psalms in Ancient Israel. This sounds promising but the result was built on a historical hypothesis with scant support from the Old Testament.

More recently, scholars have recognised the limits of placing the psalms firmly in the past. Since around 1980 a large number of scholars have explored what many Christians have known for two millennia that the Psalter is a book (Judaism has recognised this for even longer of course). If the Psalter is a book, rather than a disordered anthology of songs and poems, then we might well expect (i) an introduction, (ii) evidence of structure, (iii) a conclusion. We will briefly consider these three things.

The Psalter’s Opening: Psalms 1 and 2
Scholars like Gunkel and Mowinckel largely ignored Psalm 1 because it is unusual and did not fit either a literary form or pattern of worship that interested them.[1] Psalm 1 is a call to study Yahweh’s torah, or instruction. We should ensure we do not make the mistake of seeing this as a call to legalism. Surprisingly, given their very different forms, there are links between Psalms 1 and 2. In Figure 1 their parallel usage of some Hebrew words is shown.

Psalms 1 and 2 comparison

Figure 1 Some of the more obvious literary links between Psalms 1 and 2.

Anyone unconvinced by the suggested literary links between these two psalms should note that there are two other reasons for seeing these two psalms as a pair. Firstly, they are unusual in that they both lack a heading. Secondly, there is a Jewish tradition that links these two verses as a single psalm.[2] If these two psalms are in some sense an intentional introduction to the Book of Psalms, this has some implications:

  • Perhaps the Psalms are meant to be a source of instruction.
  • The idea of ‘the way’, or a journey, might be a key concern.
  • The king/Yahweh’s anointed (= messiah) might be central to the book.

 

The Structure of the Psalms
There are many different features within the Psalter that can be viewed as evidence of structure. Many of them raise puzzling questions. Here we just scratch the surface. One obvious feature is the fivefold structure of the Psalter—the psalms are broken into five books:

Book I: Psalms 1–41

Book II: Psalms 42–72

Book III: Psalms 73–89

Book IV: Psalms 90–106

Book V: Psalms 107–150

It has been suggested that this fivefold structure deliberately echoes the Pentateuch (the five books of the torah). If this is the case Psalm 1’s call to meditation on the torah/law might point to the Book of Psalms as much as the Law of Moses.

Each of the five books in the Psalter ends in what is called a doxology or a call to praise:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting,

Amen and amen. (41:13)

 

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,

Who alone does wondrous deeds.

Blessed be his glorious name forever;

May his glory fill all the earth.

Amen and amen. (72:18-19)

 

Blessed be the Lord forever.

Amen and amen. (89:52)

 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting.

And let all the people say, “Amen.”

Praise the Lord. (106:48)

 

Let every breathing thing praise the Lord!

Hallelujah! (150:6)

 

The attentive reader will also note that the psalms that close and open the five books tend to be especially important in terms of the wider theological issues they address and/or the role of the king.

Perhaps the Psalter’s structure encapsulates a journey that mirrors the journey of so many of the pilgrims and disciples who have found sustenance and encouragement there? Anyone who reads through the Psalter, psalm-by-psalm, will perceive a journey. There is a decisive development through the Book of Psalms. Some have described this as a journey from ‘Plea to Praise’ and others as a journey from ‘Duty to Delight’.

A journey through the Psalter reaches a puzzle when Psalm 53 is reached because it appears to be so close to Psalm 14 as to be the same. The main difference between these two psalms is the words they use to refer to God. This is part of a wider puzzle in the Psalter shown in Figure 2.

Elohistic

Figure 2 The number of occurrences of the words Yahweh and Elohim in two groups of psalms.

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to a journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words in the Table below.

Table 1 Occurrence of words (NRSV) related to a journey motif in Psalm 119.

WORD VERSE/S

 

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage—most obviously Psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimages to Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith.

The Conclusion of the Psalms: Psalms 146–150
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, i.e. ‘Praise the Lord’. They all end with this 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 only cause for praise and its execution. Therefore, in this way they are 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 five parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter.

What better way to end a book of songs and poems than with a crescendo of praise? If we have prayed through the Psalms, the cycle of Hallelujahs is the only way it could close. If the Psalter is symbolic of the life of faith, how else should it end—but with an end echoed by David in Cohen’s Hallelujah: ‘and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah’. For those that use the Psalter repeatedly in a cycle from beginning to end, there is a foretaste of closure, ahead of the start of a fresh journey of troughs and peaks.

Conclusion
Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating a journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way.

More on the Psalms
If you have found some value in our journey through the Psalms you might like to read some short posts from my blog. Please see PsalterMark.com and in particular the post titled The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture. You can also find me on Twitter as @PsalterMark in what is usually a daily attempt to promote The Book of Psalms.

If you want to know more about the recent rediscovery that the biblical psalms are a book see the following:

Nancy deClaissé-Walford (1997), Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macon: Mercer University Press.

Palmer Robertson (2015), The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology, Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing.

[1] Gunkel went so far as to suggest its piety was deficient.

[2] The relationship between these two Psalms is explored in Mark J. Whiting (2013), Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246 and in Robert L. Cole (2013), ‘Psalms 1 and 2: The Psalter’s Introduction’ in The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers.

‘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.

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.

Acrostic Psalms

Nine of the biblical Psalms are acrostic poems. The general idea is a simple one: they comprise a sequence of uses of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. So, for example, in the two shortest complete acrostics, psalms 111 and 112, half a verse or less of material starts with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph through tav in turn. In psalms 25 and 34 there is one verse beginning with each of the 22 Hebrew letters in turn. In psalm 119 there are famously 8 verses beginning with each of the Hebrew letters, giving the 176 verses that make this by far the longest of the canonical psalms.

These nine (or eight, see below) psalms are not alone in Scripture. Proverbs 31:10-31, the book of Lamentations and Nahum 1:2-8, all use the same acrostic device.

The acrostic psalms are not of a specific genre (or Gattungen). They can variously have strong elements of thanksgiving (34, 111), wisdom motifs and style (34, 37, 112), they can praise (9, 145), they can lament (10, 25, 119?) or there can be a focus on Torah (119). So what is the point to this literary device, one that in many cultures appears as something of a poetic oddity?

There are probably a number of interrelated ideas going on.

1. There is something here about convention and order. The biblical Psalms obey a number of conventions like all poetry rooted in a linguistic tradition. The acrostic form is one additional convention which gives a further constraint for the poet to work with. One of the challenges of poetry is to achieve something special within a set of rules that provide a framework. The idea of order takes on an especially poignant dynamic in the acrostic poems found in Lamentations 1-4 because of the horrors depicted there. The ordered response to the disorders experienced by Israel is the poets attempt to both highlight the dire nature of events and at least in language terms a step towards order, at least in defining the problem.

2. There is also a sense of completeness, just as in English we think of an A to Z as a compendium on a subject. A particular poem has in this sense made a complete point, argument or appeal. If this is so, then psalm 119 takes on almost manic proportions of completeness. Psalm 119 actually goes further still with its use of eight synonyms for God’s word or instruction. In nearly every verse one of these eight words appears.

3. Convention and completeness of this type also support the memorisation of the Psalms and this seems to have been important to the psalmist as Gordon Wenham has argued in a couple of recent books (Psalms as Torah, The Psalter Reclaimed).

A couple of final points are worth mentioning. Psalms 9 and 10 are not individual acrostics but they actually form a single acrostic. The fact that they belong together is further indicated in their being a single psalm in the LXX and in psalm 10 having no heading in the main Hebrew manuscripts. What is puzzling is why they have been separated and why the perfection of the acrostic has been lost in a couple of places by editing. There is also some disruption of the acrostic pattern in a couple of other cases. For example, in psalm 145 there is no clause corresponding to the ‘letter N’. Perhaps this is a deliberate disruption of perfection to make a theological point about the impossibility of perfection before the eschaton. As with many other aspects of the Psalter we can learn much, but also find some mysteries. It probably shouldn’t be any other way!