An Enarratio of Psalm 2: Behold God’s Anointed

This post follows on from an earlier post: An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man. This is therefore the second in what is an experiment which asks what we miss with modern biblical criticism and what we can gain by sympathy with some aspects of Augustine’s interpretive paradigm for reading the Psalms. It bears the name Enarratio to echo Augustine’s remarkable and massive Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. Like this great work this allusion is an exposition not a scientific exegesis. It reads the psalms through post-Easter spectacles; declaring that without such spectacles our reading will be short-sighted.

 

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? A rhetorical question? Well perhaps, but only because the answer is written so clearly across the pages of several thousand years of history. Even in prehistory, at Babel, the nations conspired with a skyscraper to reach to the heavens. In our days, skyscrapers mark the competition between nations—vanity projects that are also in vain. The question could be restated: When did the nations not conspire? Has there ever been a time when the leaders of the nations conspired not against God but for peace? Over millennia, projects and prospects of hope arise as nations gather to aspire to something good. Only for them to fracture into groups to conspire once again.

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ Why do they rebel? How can they know better than the almighty? Is it that they ‘know not what they do?’. God’s anointed have always been fragile because they are one-and-all, frail men and women. So frail that the first king anointed in Israel rose up against God. Saul never grew from the time we first see him in the scriptures—failing in his task of donkey hunting. In throwing off imagined constraints he was imprisoned by bad choices. He was replaced by a less likely anointed one—the least likely of eight sons. This anointed one founded a royal line of anointed ones. An anointed son, with a heart that God saw was committed to agape despite its proneness to unrestrained eros. This son, this first David, faced threats from would be kings in God’s own nation, as well as the kings of nations all around. This son was a foretaste of The Son—blessed David redux. For though David’s anointing was most obviously as king, on some occasions he was also priest. He also made both music and song. He turned out to be not just a poet inspired by the muses, but a prophet inspired by the Spirit.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. God’s first move is merriment and how could it be otherwise? The nations abuzz with plots are like angry bees, but in their mortality, they have no sting that can harm the immortal. The one in heaven’s laughter is not an attempt at provocation but just the uncontainable mirth at the ridiculous idea that there could ever be enough creatures to overthrow the Creator.

He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, not because of any churlishness or delight in such a sad reality. The freedom of God, rejected and misread as chains, gives all kings, indeed all people, a digital choice. Free to choose the way of delight in instruction, or the way of making new rebellious rival rules. How can God not be angry and wrathful? Though we struggle with such stark anthropomorphic metaphors. Why is it we question God’s right to wrath when in the same breath we decry that we cannot see his hand at work amidst the nations now? God’s hand is stayed at present because he has granted freedom, but a day must come when justice is done.

And yet, there is so much more before the day of anger because we hear him speaking not words of judgement and doom but saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ The first David meted out judgement but the ultimate incumbent on the throne of God’s holy mountain does something new. His installation was the antithesis of coronation splendour. His crown was of thorns. His robe was nakedness. His hands could grip no ruling rod of iron because they were held open with metal of a sharper form, to welcome one-and-all.

The first David, at his hard-earned investiture heard the priests recite this liturgy: I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, ‘You are my son;

    today I have become your father.

Other kings and other sons of this Davidic line heard the same words. Like a microcosm of all humanity some of them believed these words, some did not. For a time, the line appeared to be broken and the promise lay all but dead. But then came a voice of one calling in the desert who pointed at a man from Galilee. This stonemason, already destined to be a cornerstone, chose to be anointed in the river Jordan. He knew that his baptism there in water was but a foretaste of a baptism in blood when finally he would come to Zion’s holy hill. In days gone by, David’s line were proclaimed as kings by bearded priests. This final Son, who is both first and last, heard the Lord’s decree spoken from heaven by the Spirit: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Words of mission and purpose received with joy, whilst being anointed in river water.

Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. The first David and his son founded a nation which seemed to honour and fulfil these words—at least in their own eager eyes. David redux knew this promise too. So awesome was the awakening of his baptism that he went into the desert like his people of old. Once there, another promised him the ends of the earth as his possession, but he did not bow the knee to that ancient serpent.

You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’ Though there is an immense time between his anointing and his execution of full authority, that Day will come. Though such language might be misheard as a sign of pique this is instead the best balance of mercy and justice in a creation of freedom and of love.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. We can but hope they will hear and obey. O that they might Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. There are all too few signs that they will. No indication that they will hear this wise saying: Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. So finally, we are called to remember that this a song not just for kings. We can all heed its closing wisdom, for Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

 

Psalmtweets 21-30

The third of the new psalmtweets posts. These tweets are part of a set of 150 which aim to define the Psalter with a contribution from each psalm.

Psalm 21:
The Psalms often speak of the King.
These words have taken on new significance in Christ.

Psalm 22:
The Psalms show how desperate need should be turned into desperate prayer.

Psalm 23:
The Psalms are elastic; their words become Word in diverse situations.

Psalm 24:
The Psalms are a prequel to the Gospel; let Jesus the King of glory in.

Psalm 25:
The Psalms tell us that though we walk with God we also have to wait on Him.

Psalm 26:
The Psalms show us the centrality of gathered community worship in the life of faith.

Psalm 27:
The Psalms emphasise that we can dwell with the living God, our sanctuary.

Psalm 28:
The Psalms reveal that Yahweh is a rock, but that He is not silent.
#PsalmMetaphors

Psalm 29:
The Psalms instruct us about God’s word and its power.

Psalm 30:
The Psalms show us that continual thankfulness is a central plank of the life of faith.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 3

In this 3rd post we examine the first of the four themes of the spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez that we identified in the 2nd post.

Is Gutiérrez’s Biblical Interpretation Legitimate?

As Vanhoozer reminds us: ‘Perhaps no twentieth-century philosophers have done more on behalf of hermeneutics than Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur’.[1] Both are inextricably linked to the modern paradigm of the hermeneutical circle. Gutiérrez like many liberation theologians accepts the central premise of the hermeneutical circle.[2] For Gutiérrez, as for Gadamer and Ricoeur, the interpretation of the Bible is not a neutral or objective process. Throughout his work Gutiérrez not only acknowledges that we inevitably read from a place of preunderstanding but he argues that there is a need to actively cultivate the correct preunderstanding. Gutiérrez, as we have seen, privileges the experience of the poor for this task.[3]

Segundo is perhaps the most prominent Latin American proponent of the hermeneutical circle and he gives a fuller treatment of it than most other contextual theologians.[4] The hermeneutical circle is however commonly explicit, and always implicit, in all contextual and materialist theologies.[5] Having noted this use of the hermeneutical circle we can usefully enquire how critically it is used. Interestingly, Gutiérrez and others who employ the idea of the hermeneutical circle do so, I would suggest, in an ideological sense. What I mean by this is that they note that the starting point of a commitment to the poor is confirmed when the Bible is read in this light. They argue correctly that when reading from this commitment many biblical passages take on new depth and even fundamentally different meanings. That this is true is readily apparent but this does not offer proof of the legitimate hegemony of such readings. It is clearly the case that liberation theology in general, and Gutiérrez’s specifically, gives rise to readings that are at odds to those starting from other stances. That this is the case can be seen from the hostility between some Latin American theologians and the Vatican.[6]

This is not to say that the hermeneutical circle is not a valuable tool in evaluating the legitimacy of a reading of a scriptural text. Rather I am suggesting that it must be used in an open and self-critical way. Used in this way the hermeneutical circle can question initial presuppositions. Gadamer who made a large contribution to the modern understanding of the hermeneutical circle as involving the fusing of horizons is frequently misunderstood on this point.[7] What Gadamer was not advocating was the hasty identification of parallels between text and modern context, though that this frequently happens is of course true. That this happens in the sorts of contexts that Gutiérrez ministers in is also true. The sort of biblical interpretation that takes place in the base ecclesial communities often represents a premature fusing of horizons as any initial parallels between text and context are seized upon.[8]

For Gadamer, understanding (rather than preunderstanding restated) takes place when horizons are fused which had previously been appreciated as distinct from one another.[9] An example would be the Exodus story. Someone who was part of an oppressed community, effectively enslaved to a privileged ruling class who reads of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, might naturally and uncritically make a hasty fusion of horizons. This would be what we might call a naïve reading, i.e. a level of identification such that an expectation of the immanent intervention of God miraculously to liberate looks like the corollary of the Exodus story. A more critical examination of the story will raise other themes which don’t connect so obviously with the reader’s context. Questions like how does this fit into Yahweh’s relationship with his chosen nation? Why did Israel experience a distinct lack of liberation for such lengthy periods of biblical history? It can be noted just as appositely that a Western, middle-class, evangelical reading is all too likely to yield an understanding (in fact a reflected preunderstanding) consistent with the story being typological and speaking only about salvation of the soul.

The point is that there is always a very serious danger of a hasty fusion of horizons which gives back the preunderstanding that was put in. What can be absent from both liberation theology and some Western readings is two aspects of what Barth called the Sache of Scripture.[10] There are two serious dangers that face the reader of Scripture, both of which violate the very notion that the Bible is Scripture:

  1. By placing something in front of it, whether this is an ideological commitment (however apparently laudable), a key text or doctrine, i.e. a canon-within-the-canon[11] we get the same thing reflected back. We read something of our context in Scripture rather than allowing it to read us.[12]
  2. A prior commitment perceives an order to Scripture which is just not there. There is every danger that we constrain Scripture so that it is no longer the strange world that Barth refers to.[13] This complexity and dialogical nature of scripture is seen in much contemporary scholarship.[14] If we miss this reality of Scripture we hear it only selectively.

[1] Vanhoozer, Meaning, p.106.

[2] See, for example, Gutiérrez, Theology, p.26

[3] So, for example, in Gutiérrez, Task, pp.25-27, Gutiérrez, Wells, pp.30-32 and Gutiérrez, Power, pp.156-160.

[4] See Segundo, Theology, pp.7-38.

[5] Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man is a good example, see Myers, Binding, pp.4-5.

[6] See Hebblethwaite, Catholic, p.186.

[7] So Thiselton, New, p.412 and his strong criticism of Rowland and Corner, Exegesis, p.22.

[8] See, for example, Rowland and Corner, Exegesis, p.14.

[9] Gadamer, Method, p.305.

[10] See Burnett, Exegesis, pp.74-84.

[11] See Goldingay, Authority, pp.122-127 on the concept of a canon-within-the-canon.

[12] On the idea of Scripture reading us see Vanhoozer, Meaning, pp.405ff. and Thiselton, Hermeneutics, pp.8ff. on active texts.

[13] Barth, Word, pp.28-50.

[14] For example this is seen in two major contributions to Old Testament theology. Brueggemann, Theology, pp.xv-xvii argues for a dialogical approach to the Old Testament.

 

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 2

In this second post we identify and explore 4 key principles of Gutiérrez’s spirituality.

Principle One: The Use of Key Biblical Texts as Paradigmatic for Socio-Political Liberation

Escobar’s observation is surely correct, although somewhat polemical: ‘the Vatican II Council brought to Roman Catholicism the novelty of placing Scripture back at the heart of the theological task; the new theologies added the novelty of placing Scripture “from the underside”’.[1] In this way the agenda of Vatican II gave Latin American theologians the impetus to shape a movement. This impetus came from a new openness to socio-political issues as a context in which the Bible was being read by those who judged they were on the bad side of the socio-economic divide. Thus liberation theology has famously taken biblical texts and read them in ways that challenge traditional Western readings.

The Exodus narrative is arguably the most important text in this enterprise of reading ‘from below’. This is evident throughout Gutiérrez’s work and nowhere more so than in his A Theology of Liberation where it is central to his argument that liberation and salvation are intimately related to one another.[2] Gutiérrez’s biblical interpretation is not just concerned with an understanding of how God intervenes in history but with broader principles such as how we can speak about God. This theme is handled in a book which is a self-consistent and stimulating rereading of the book of Job.[3]

Principle Two: Solidarity with the Poor

We shall see that, for Gutiérrez, (re)reading Scripture relates very closely with this second key principle. The key hermeneutical underpinning of the readings of both Gutiérrez and the wider liberation theology movement is seeing the Bible from the perspective of the poor. The idea of solidarity with the poor is the key point of departure in Gutiérrez’s work;[4] it consistently pervades almost every page of his writings. It is also at the very centre of his book on spirituality, We Drink From Our Own Wells, whose title is a quote from Bernard of Clairvaux’s De consideratione. For Gutiérrez, the well from which we need to drink is the experience of the poor.[5] In Gutiérrez’s own words a practice of solidarity with the poor is ‘a profound and demanding spiritual experience and serves as the point of departure for following Jesus and for reflection on his words and deeds’.[6]

We note at this point that a hermeneutical principle has  power to both illuminate, and potentially constrain, our reflection on both the Bible and the world.

Principle Three: The Use of Socio-Critical Tools for Critical Thinking

Liberation Theology has consistently been accused of being synonymous with Marxism. Perhaps in some quarters such a simple equation would be fair. For Gutiérrez, however, as for the majority of Liberation Theologians, the indebtedness to Marx is strong but nuanced. We shall see that it is the socio-critical tools that Marx popularised and their use in what Gutiérrez terms critical thinking[7] that we need to assess and evaluate carefully. Gutiérrez makes use of other thinkers, in addition to Marx, who are sometimes considered to promote ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, including, for example Bloch and Freud.[8] We will need to consider whether such advocates of suspicion can also be self-critical.

Principle Four: A Realised View of Eschatology

The fourth and final principle is that of a realised view of eschatology. This connects with and, I suggest, develops Gutiérrez’s use socio-critical tools. Gutiérrez makes much of Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach especially the element cited at the beginning of Part 1 (previous post).[9] Thus for Gutiérrez there is a sense in which this age, is an age in which the kingdom can be grown by the effort of God’s people, what he calls ‘a favourable time, a kairos’.[10] Gutiérrez goes even further in arguing that Western theology has let down the poor by upholding a status quo in which heaven is awaited rather than socio-political change sought now.

The next post (part 3) will begin the task of examining and critiquing each of these four principles in turn.

[1] Escobar, Liberation, p.454.

[2] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.151-158.

[3] Gutiérrez, Job, passim.

[4] For example see Gutiérrez, Theology, p.1, Gutiérrez, Wells, p.1 and Gutiérrez, Job, p.xiv.

[5] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.5.

[6] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.38.

[7] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.47-59.

[8] See, for example, Gutiérrez, Theology pp.201-202 and pp.69-70 respectively.

[9] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.68,201-205.

[10] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.20.

Musing on Hermeneutics and Biblical Interpretation

Over the next few weeks I will be posting a short article each week on hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation. My interest in the Psalms is part of a broader interest in hermeneutics, so it is not a radical departure from what has gone before. But why a focus on hermeneutics? There are so many issues facing the Church today that require wise principles of biblical interpretation. If we want to understand Scripture for today, and to understand why we don’t always understand it to mean the same as other Christians, we need to be intentional in understanding our own hermeneutics and the interpretive principles of others.

My musings will in no way be a course in hermeneutics, nor will they look systematic in any sense. They will however, I hope, make a small contribution to helping those who read them be more intentional in reading Scripture.

The first handful of posts will reflect on the spirituality of a well-known Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Having read his major works, and some of the other work of Liberation Theologians, I did not become a Liberation Theologian myself. What did happen instead was that my eyes were opened to how theology and doctrine can be shaped by culture. Reading from a whole new perspective or world-view, challenges how much of our own beliefs, attitudes and hermeneutics are shaped not by Scripture but by history, culture and short-shortsightedness. Liberation Theology is no longer fashionable but its advocates are a wonderful resource in avoiding the very worst of modern heresies, gospels of prosperity. Among new movements and established denominations alike, these rivals to the true gospel of cross-carrying discipleship are often lurking. Sometimes they are all too visible. This is the case in different ways in South America, North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

If the project unfolds as I imagine, we will end up back at the Psalter with new insights into its efficacy and vitality as transformative Scripture.

Praying with Scripture: Some thoughts

The Strange New World of the Bible
Praying with the Bible is about having a confidence in the Bible, a confidence that it is Scripture. It is about owning Paul’s words to Timothy:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
I Timothy 3:16-17

Achieving this requires both imagination and discipline. Neither of these are straightforward. Karl Barth has a brilliant way of seeing Scripture which both helps us understand what Scripture is, and can fire our imaginations. He speaks of The Strange New World Within the Bible. The following short extracts capture some sense of his article:

‘We are to attempt to find an answer to the question, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open? . . .

We can but feel that there is something behind these words and experiences. But what? . . .

We are aware of something like the tremors of an earthquake or like the ceaseless thundering of ocean waves against thin dikes; but what really is it that beats at the barrier and seeks entrance here? . . .

There is a river in the Bible that carries us away, once we have entrusted our destiny to it . . .

And the invitation to dare and to reach toward the highest, even though we do not deserve it, is the expression of grace in the Bible: the Bible unfolds to us as we are met, guided, drawn on, and made to grow by the grace of God.’

Imagination
The suggestion that the Bible might be the world from which we need to see our lives and the more obvious world around us, requires imagination. The demands of the Information Age in which we live, and the instant nature of everything in our consumer culture can damage our imaginations. Finding space, and a suitable way to reflect on Scripture, is vital if we are going to gain a biblical perspective on anything (and everything). How we find time to spend with Scripture and how we can explore our imagination to make Scripture our own, is a very personal thing. Something I like doing is listening to popular songs and attempting to redefine them by association with a biblical story, event or idea. For me Abba’s SOS captures some dialogue during the failing relationship between Yahweh and Israel. When I hear REM’s Everybody Hurts I think of Job’s friends who failed to understand his predicament. When I listen to Tainted Love by Soft Cell I cannot help but think of the story of Cain and Abel. Perhaps more controversially when I hear Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I think of Jesus hanging on the cross. But that’s just me. We all need to find our own way to inhabit the strange new world within the Bible.

Praying the Bible, and I am thinking essentially of the Psalms, requires imagination. We need to not just read them, but to use our imagination to consider who is saying the words. For example psalm 2 can come to life by spending some time imagining it as words spoken at David’s coronation. Who is speaking? A priest? David? God? There is no simple answer and it varies from verse to verse. The key is that this psalm takes on life for us. Then we can ask the question: What do these words mean in the light of Easter? What do the claims of this psalm mean? What cosmic perspective does it assume; in apparent stark contradiction to so many world events?

Discipline
This is an even more important foundation to praying Scripture. Our everyday experience of having all we want waiting on a shelf, in a supermarket or in an on-line catalogue, places a burden upon the Bible of immediate spiritual refreshment. Sometimes that can be our experience, but not always. The value and transformative work of Scripture is not a quick fix, rather it is an organic gradual process. This often means that we can tire of our regular ‘quiet times’ because we measure them with the wrong criteria. If we measure our feelings, after praying Scripture, against watching an action film, sitting by a swimming pool or going down the pub, we are making a false comparison. Bible reading and especially praying Scripture is not about entertainment, therapy, stress management or even ‘having a friend’. Although, there are passing moments when it can feel like, and be, any of these. Reading Scripture is about being fed and being changed; it is about perceiving who we are, who God is and the nature of reality; all from a strange new-world perspective.

There is no way of escaping the very fundamental need to decide upon a way to encounter Scripture regularly. There are no firm rules about how, when or even how often. The how can include any combination of reading, reciting, purposeful re-reading, listening to a CD, memorisation, taking notes, answering questions from notes or our imagination. The when can be first thing in the morning, last thing at night or lunchtime. The frequency might be once a day, seven times a day or once a week? All the permutations of place, time and frequency have their own advantages and disadvantages. The key is to do something. If it does not work then try something else.

Two exercises
1. Read psalm 13, then listen to Elton John’s Sad Songs. Pray psalm 13 for yourself, or someone you know, as appropriate.
2. Read psalm 149, then listen to Bob Marley’s Jamming. Pray psalm 149 with the intention of owning this attitude through the rest of the day.

What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 2: David

In part 1 of this post we explored the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs. We noted that this threefold identity had more to do with their function than their context. Although it was clear that using the psalms as poems, prayers and songs requires some answers to the question of the context/s in which they were originally used. In this second part we turn more explicitly to the question of context. We will look firstly at David as a lens, or context, for understanding and interpreting the Psalms.

The Psalms of David
There can be no denial that the Psalms are in some sense Davidic. Quite what we mean by this is much more complex and potentially a matter over which Christians might differ. Some 73 of the 150 canonical psalms are headed as being ‘of David’. This is enough to make the importance of David clear. The precise significance of the designation, ‘of David’ is, however, far from clear. The Hebrew preposition so often translated ‘of’ can mean anything along the lines of: ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘at’, ‘referring to’, ‘belonging to’ as well as ‘of’. It has often been taken to simply imply that David was the author of these specific psalms, but the term need not imply authorship. It might be that they are in some sense dedicated to him, perhaps because of authorship by a particular school of authors. Many Christians of a more conservative background seem keen to hold onto Davidic authorship of the Psalms. Even if we see these 73 psalms as being authored by David, we must face the fact that many of the other psalms have other attributions (and thus possibly authorship) and some have none. Psalms ascribed in some sense to others are:

The Korahites: 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87 and 88.
Asaph: 50 and 73-83.
Solomon: 72 and 127.
Heman the Ezrahite: 88.
Ethan the Ezrahite: 89.
Moses: 90.

Psalm 88 is unusual in having a dual attribution to the Korahites and Heman the Ezrahite.

We can also see that many psalms date from much later than the time of David, in terms of both their language and the events which are referred to or implied. Most notable is the shadow cast over the Psalter by the exile, and thus the failure of the Davidic monarchy. Nevertheless David plays a unique and central role in that some of the psalms are specifically tied to events in his life by the use of biographical details, for example psalms 3, 7, 18, etc. Many scholars have argued, however, that such ascriptions are the later additions of editors. Without attempting to establish too precise a demarcation of the meaning of ‘of David’ or deciding upon whether and how many canonical psalms David authored, there are two key points which I think are not controversial.

Point 1: The Psalter is in a very real sense Davidic in its canonical form.
Many psalms take on a whole new life when they are read as if David is either the author or the person saying the psalm. Many of the psalms of lament focused on an individual make sense through this lens. We need get no further than psalm 3:1 to see this, ‘O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me’. The so-called Royal Psalms reflect on David and the Davidic line. In short the Psalter can make no sense without David.

Point 2: Seeing David as author cannot make full sense of the Psalter.
There are many reasons why seeing the Psalter through David as a ‘context’, or lens, cannot be all-encompassing. Not least of these is the post-Easter perspective through which Christians understand the Psalms. Using Jesus as an interpretive lens is examined in part 3. There we shall see that, whilst such a lens was alien to the original Jewish Psalter, Jesus the Messiah is naturally coherent with the Davidic lens we have just explored.

A Psalm for the 9th Anniversary of New Life Baptist Church

Today is the 9th anniversary of the constitution of the church where I am a member. The following psalm is a Midrash of parts of the Psalms of Ascent which have had a special significance to us over the past few weeks and months. The psalm was used to close our celebration service this morning. Can you recognise the specific Psalms of Ascent and the slight embellishments?

We lift up our eyes to the hills.
From where does our help come?
Our help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Behold, he who keeps New Life
will neither slumber nor sleep.

We have learnt that, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

We have learnt that, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of New Life.

We have learnt, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!
It is like a weekend spa treatment.

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let New Life now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us.
Then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us.

We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

​When the Lord restored the fortunes of New Life,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouths were filled with laughter,
and our tongues with shouts of joy;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the desert!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing their sheaves with them.

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

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.