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.

Rereading the Psalms: The example of psalm 2

What is meant by rereading? It is a recognition that biblical texts take on a different meaning over time. Such a claim might make some a little nervous; how can Scripture change its meaning? I suggest that it need not undermine a doctrine of Scripture, but rather it can be a useful way of appreciating some Old Testament texts and in fact might cohere with a healthy doctrine of Scripture.

An example is a good place to get the measure of the idea of rereading. We will consider psalm 2 in this post. Many scholars suggest that psalm 2 originated as a piece of liturgy that was used either in the coronation of the king of Judah or in a rite celebrating, or perhaps renewing, Yahweh’s kingship over Judah. Whilst the details are contested, and are likely to ever remain unclear, the idea makes sense of the form and content of psalm 2. Such a meaning might seem alien to many twenty-first century Christian readers because we often, and indeed uncritically, reread the Psalms.

Returning to the idea that it was originally a piece of liturgy used in connection with the Davidic monarchy, we might well ask what happened when this psalm was ‘read’ after the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Davidic kings. It might be imagined that any liturgy involved with an obsolete practice would be marginalised and lost rather than treasured and preserved. It would appear, however, that the very claims of the psalm raised questions that gave rise to some interesting answers. These answers are a rereading that sees the psalm as speaking of a future messiah; an anointed king who will act on behalf of Yahweh. Whether or not psalm 2 was edited as part of this rereading is a complex question for another day.

The story does not stop there. The inclusion of psalm 2, along with psalm 1, as an introduction to Psalter placed its rereading at the heart of the Psalter (see earlier posts re psalms 1 and 2 and Whiting (2013) for a fuller treatment). The messianic hope of psalm 2 is not only a rereading of the psalm, but it also provides a lens for reading (rereading?) the whole collection. For those who acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as messiah the rereading trajectory continues. Psalm 2 is reread as fulfilled in part, yet also awaiting fulfilment too. This second rereading takes on a strong eschatological flavour distinct from its original Jewish one.

The example of psalm 2 is indicative of a broader phenomena. Rather than Old Testament texts being fossilised, their preservation and collection is part of their flexibility to have ongoing relevance. A value within new contexts was often achieved by rereading. Other texts less conducive to being reread were probably found wanting by the people of God and thus marginalised and eventually lost. Such suggestions of rereading of preserved and ultimately canonical texts is no denial of their nature as Scripture. Rather it is a dynamic view of God’s working in the midst of his people; God speaking in fresh ways by Spirit inspired insights that represent fresh revelation about the God of Israel. This may be more nuanced than a simplistic notion of divine dictation, but this creation bound frailty is typical of a God who works through incarnation and sacrament.

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

Some Initial Thoughts on Psalm 2

Psalm 2 is clearly very different to Psalm 1. If Psalm 1 is about personal piety, Psalm 2 is on a wholly different scale. Its concern is with the nations rather than with the individual in their local assembly (but note the individualistic final claim of v.12). Not only is the dynamic different, the whole form is different. If Psalm 2 is didactic, its teaching method is one of the ‘reader’ entering into some sort of grand drama rather than learning from wisdom metaphors and meditation on torah. Commentators frequently note this almost theatrical character to Psalm 2.

The different voices that speak in this psalm not only give rise to a sense of drama but it is frequently assumed that Psalm 2 was read as part of the real drama of the coronation of the Davidic kings of Israel or as part of a hypothetical festival in which the earthly king’s kingship was remembered, or as some suggest, as part of a celebration or enactment of Yahweh’s kingship. Even those that disagree that Psalm 2 dates back to the Davidic monarchy agree that its wording deliberately borrows and mimics such a setting.

So far we have recounted the form-critical consensus. What about the substance of the Psalm? Again commentators agree on the structure of the psalm—almost universally discerning a fourfold structure. Although commentators diverge a little on the precise nature and purpose of these sections the differences are fairly small. A number of commentators helpfully note that this fourfold structure follows an abb’a’ structure. This structure is indicated in the following four summative headings:

Verses 1–3 The nations and their kings conspire against Yahweh and his anointed.
Verses 4–6 Yahweh answers with scorn and anger, and points to the king he has anointed.
Verses 7–9 The anointed king recognises his authority, from Yahweh, to rule.
Verses 10–12 The kings of the nations are warned to fear Yahweh and his anointed.

This structure highlights two related types of question which are central to exegetical studies of this psalm:

1. How do the grand claims for God’s anointed relate to the actual history of Israel? More specifically what was the significance of these words in a time of failed monarchy?
2. Who is the anointed described in the psalm?

Collectively these sorts of questions raise questions about the ideology and eschatology of Psalm 2.

If we consider the opinion that Psalm 2 originated as a cultic psalm which was read and/or performed as part of either the coronation of the king or part of an annual festival celebrating either Yahweh’s or the king’s rule then what would it have meant?

For much of the period of the monarchy the claims of Psalm 2 were essentially hyperbole. Among the nations of the Ancient Near East, Judah (if we rule out the possibility of an origin in the Northern Kingdom as most commentators do) was hardly a dominant force and the claim that other nations were under Judah’s authority (note the chains and shackles of verse 3) seems laughable. Brueggemann doesn’t seem too far from the truth when he sees the psalm’s claims as ideological (p.606 of his Old Testament Theology). He seems to imply that like much civic ritual throughout history this psalm promotes an ideal of the ruling classes that keeps everyone in order as they imbibe the claims of the elite.

The ideology and the warlike language of Psalm 2 challenge the legitimacy of the hermeneutic of trust which we encouraged in our look at Psalm 1. However, we can note that despite this ideological nature, or mythopoetic dynamic, there are two softening aspects within the psalm. The first is the fact that in verse 8 there is something of the anointed’s authority still to be fully achieved at some future point (although this might be a consequence of the original use of the words at the start of the reign of a new king). The second and more certain softening of tone is the conclusion of the psalm: ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him’. Whilst the psalm rebukes the kings of the Earth this final sentence is surely meant either for the audience, if this sentence was part of the cultic version, or meant for the ‘reader’ if it is a later editorial addition or adaption. This brings us to the question of the later interpretation of the psalm and the possibility of editorial work.

If the psalm originated in the monarchical period its interpretation is likely to have changed when there was no monarchy and when the Temple in which the rite was originally performed was no more. What can this psalm mean when the nations appear to have conspired and plotted against the anointed of the Lord and wiped him from the Earth? Where is Yahweh’s wrath at their actions? Where is the king Yahweh installed on his holy hill? One answer to these questions would be to omit or remove the psalm from the collection (along with, of course, a number of other compositions). This was obviously not the response of the compilers of the Psalter. Its very inclusion prevents it from just being interpreted from the standpoint of the monarchy. Like many psalms it demands, simply by its existence, to be reread.

There is much speculation about minor editorial amendments to the text of Psalm 2. Most likely is the suggestion that the very last sentence was added or altered, but unless our intention is to recover the psalm for monarchical ritual use this is really besides the point. If we want to understand the first temple Cultus then such speculation might achieve something, but if we want to see this psalm as Scripture then it is the current text that is key. It seems beyond dispute that this psalm was a relatively late addition to the growing Psalter and as such was given a post-monarchical rereading by the editors. In other words the editorial intention is that it has a clear eschatological dynamic. Such an intention begs the question as to whether its position near the beginning of the Psalter is incidental or part of an overall design for the Psalter as a whole.

The use of both Psalms 1 and 2 as a deliberate introduction to the Psalter is a topic that we will return to shortly.