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.

From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms

Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms, editor: Brent A. Strawn, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

This book is Brueggemann at his very best. Earlier this year I was disappointed with his long-awaited commentary on the Psalms, but this tome surpassed expectation. What makes this book so exciting is that it manages to be scholarly as well as approachable, engaging and lively. This makes for such a potent combination that the book defies easy classification in terms of its audience. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to think through what the Psalms are, and how they should be used holistically in worshipping communities. It is the latter concern that is at the forefront of Brueggemann’s thinking and passion.

Arguably, Walter Brueggemann’s most significant contribution to Psalms scholarship is his famous essay: The Psalms and the Life of Faith: A suggested Typology of Function. This essay is helpfully reproduced in an appendix. Readers new to Brueggemann on the Psalms might profitably start here. Although they should note that the rest of the book is a less demanding read in terms of the necessary scholarly background.

Whilst every chapter of the book is engagingly written and profitable in understanding various facets of the Psalter, the first two chapters are especially insightful. Both of these opening chapters covers a lot of ground. Chapter 1 is an Introduction to the Book of Psalms. The chapter opens with a masterful definition of the Book of Psalms, which the chapter first unpacks and then explores. I quote the definition here, to wet the appetite:

‘The book of Psalms, complex in its formation and pluralistic in its content, is Israel’s highly stylised, normative script for dialogical covenantalism, designed for many “reperformances”‘.

In this opening chapter, the emotional extremes of lament and praise are explored. Brueggemann argues that these two extremities of emotion, which are affirmed by the Psalms, ensure that faith cannot become either ‘rigorously moralistic, on the one hand’ or narcissistic on the other. This conviction of the Psalms’ transformative capacity typifies Brueggemann’s conviction as to their ongoing efficacy.

The second, and longer chapter, echoes the claims of Karl Barth and his ‘Strange New World of the Bible’. Brueggemann argues that the Psalms provide a counter-world to the world that others present to us. He works this out by suggesting seven underlying tenets of our ‘closely held world’. Those familiar with Brueggeman’s work will not be surprised at the issues highlighted here or the inherent critique of what might be termed Western values (my phrase). The second half of the chapter presents seven claims of the Psalms, which are variously a counter, antidote and denial of the seven worldly myths. The existence of this counter-world is reason enough to make time for the Psalms in their entirety.

The other fourteen chapters are an eclectic mix, and yet despite the fact that this is an edited collection it has cohesiveness in style and content. Throughout the whole collection, the same passion for hearing all the Psalms, and embracing their challenge and complexity is displayed. Although Brueggemann rarely refers directly to his orientation, disorientation and reorientation paradigm, of the Appendix, its consequences are there throughout.

Particular highlights include:

1. How Brueggemann brings the Enthronement Psalms (47, 93, 96, 97, 98 and 99) to life, something which traditional form criticism often fails to do.
2. An honest assessment of both the ‘glad’ and the ‘sad’ psalms on Jerusalem, showing that an appreciation of these competing dynamics prevents any naivety concerning modern Jerusalem.
3. An exciting proposal to reclaim psalm 137 for use in worship in a chapter on the Rhetoric of Violence.

I am pleased to recommend this book to anyone who who wants to engage with the Psalms seriously with a view to using all of them in worship. The book does assume some familiarity with theological ideas and terminology but is less technical than Brueggemann’s previous collection of Essays on the Psalms (The Psalms and the Life of Faith, edited by Patrick D. Miller). Whether you read this book, or not, do make sure you enter the counter-world of the Psalms.

David and the Psalms

This short post was inspired by some tweets I stumbled across which jarred with me. They implied either that David wrote all the Psalms or expressed surprise at the claim that he did not. No scholar has, to my knowledge, defended Davidic authorship of all 150 canonical psalms for well over one hundred years. Not all scholars are hard-nosed critics, there are many who serve Christ and hold the Bible as Scripture; if Davidic authorship of the whole collection could be defended someone would have done so recently. So why do so many Christians want to hold onto the idea that David authored all of them, or even feel that the Bible is under attack if this view is questioned?

Jesus, of course, famously refers to David as the author of psalm 110 as recorded in Matthew 22:43-45 (paralleled in Mark 12:36-37 and Luke 20:42-44). This is one of the 73 psalms that are described in their heading as ‘of David’. We can note three points here:

1. ‘Of David’ does not necessarily imply authorship. It might imply some other type of connection with David.
2. Jesus does imply Davidic authorship of psalm 110.
3. Many psalms are not titled as being ‘of David’ and some are clearly associated with other people or groups of people.

At this very cursory level the Bible seems to claim that the Psalms are in some sense associated with David, with David being the author (some might suggest the implied author) of a number of them, for example note the historical episodes from David’s life in some 13 psalm titles (although again some would see this in different terms). Many individual psalms are, however, not directly associated with him. This does not contradict the label of the Psalter as the ‘Psalms of David’, but simply that the meaning of this description is more nuanced than wholesale authorship by King David.

The psalm headings, which are part of the transmitted and preserved text, give us this more complex picture. Strangely those of a more fundamentalist Christian view tend to ignore the subtlety of the titles and the more critical of scholars also dismiss them as late and unhelpful additions to the Psalms. As a Christian I am compelled to take the psalm titles seriously, but I don’t want to rule out the possibility of editing, including some title additions. One of the aims of this blog is to draw attention to the idea that editing of the Psalms, rather than being hostile to understanding the Psalter as Scripture, opens up an exciting and dynamic view of how these songs and poems were cherished and used by the community of faith and thus became Scripture. To use an old fashioned theological concept we have God’s providence at work in a process of authorship, collecting and editing. This is an exciting and indeed incarnational way in which God’s Spirit worked amongst his people over centuries. Such a work seems more naturally coherent with a God who became a man that we might know him more fully.

To say that David did not write all the Psalms still means he wrote some. Maybe all those that are described as ‘of David’ or a subset, opinions will vary. David’s situation within Israel as the second king, but in a sense the first true king in founding a dynasty, is unique. This together with his role in setting in motion the Temple and thus Temple worship in many senses make the Psalms Davidic. It is the case, I think, that this influence of David is much more theologically interesting than simple authorship of the Psalter!

Some of the psalms date from the time of the first ceremonies in the temple, such as the enthronement of the kings and other royal celebrations. These psalms are the Royal Psalms. Their significance has changed and perhaps this even encouraged editing. Words that celebrated the impressiveness of David and Solomon as they reigned over Israel become hollow words later in the time of the monarchy’s failure. Unbelievable claims about kings in the present became expectations of a new David, a new anointed king, or in other words the hope for a coming messiah. Words that spoke of the grandeur of earthly kings at their enthronement were preserved because they captured the prophetic expectation of God’s people that there would be a return of the king.

This Davidic, and ultimately messianic, thread within the Psalms is important for our understanding and use of the Psalms. There are some words within the Psalms that only make sense when seen as the words of a king of Israel and/or those of the coming king. David is also an ideal in some ways. Like us he is beloved of God, and also shares with us a frailty that can lead to actions abhorrent to God and contrary to His instruction (Torah). The fact that David retained God’s favour is encouraging to us. Similarly we have the good news that the Psalms contain so many words of the most diverse emotional nature. This fits with a king who lived a life before God to the full. The Psalms can serve us well as we attempt to live life to the full with all the potential for blessing on the one hand and the possibility of mistakes on the other. The way of righteousness that the Psalms take us on is not one of dead self-obsessed obedience, but a life lived in honesty before the God who both instructs and yet can also show mercy. The day-and-night meditation on God’s law, or instruction (psalm 1:2), is not legalism. Rather this is devotion to the one who leads and shelters us on a journey which ultimately leads to encounter with the messiah, Jesus Christ.

‘Psalms – New Cambridge Bible Commentary’, by Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr.

Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2014).

Opening Remarks
It has seemed like a long wait for this commentary. Both authors have a strong track record with Psalms scholarship. Walter Brueggemann’s contribution to Psalms scholarship, in particular, is immense. He famously initiated little less than a new interpretive paradigm with his characterisation of psalms into psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation (see the Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed: Patrick D. Miller).

The commentary opens with a concise, but helpful, survey of key background information on the Psalms. The approach of the commentary is also explained, the use of four interpretive frameworks are singled out:

1. An attention to genre, along the lines of Gunkel’s seminal form-critical insights.
2. An awareness of cultic setting, although not with dependence on any overarching festival hypothesis.
3. Consideration of ancient near-eastern societal issues. This includes matters central to some aspects of Brueggemann’s concern with the dynamics of power within society.
4. Exploration of the placement of psalms within the Psalter during its editing.

There is nothing controversial about the choice of these four areas. They do however, indicate that the commentary’s strength will lie with its exploration of the ancient context rather than the modern use of the psalms. That this is the case is also flagged in a two sentence conclusion on page 8.

I want to confess that I have not read the whole commentary. What I have done is read the sections on specific psalms that (i) interest me, (ii) I know well and (iii) I judge to be especially important. Below I have summarised the findings of some of these forays into the main body of the commentary.

Psalms 1 and 2
Both of these psalms are flagged as being part of an introduction to the Psalter. This is a consensus of modern Psalms scholarship. What is highly puzzling, however, is that essentially nothing is done to explore the consequences of this, except for a short comment on page 34 (see below for more on the nature of this comment). Surely if something functions as an introduction, to a larger whole, care needs to be given in establishing the implications of this for the entire work?

Psalm 1 is ascribed a strong legal function in order to explain the ‘two ways’ described in the psalm. In this way the authors argue that the ‘wicked’, who are said to perish in the psalm, are in fact those in the community that have no place to stand in legal decisions. Such a reading, whilst not unheard of, does not seem convincing. As a poetic device, surely being blown away as chaff and perishing can’t just mean being on the wrong side of communal decisions? A lot of commentators do of course shy away from the traditional connotation of judgement. Yet, however uncomfortable such a topic is, the late date of psalm 1 and the poetic references to the harvest elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Jeremiah 51:33, Joel 3:13) make it difficult to defend anything other than the a reference to much starker judgement.

The exploration of psalm 2 in its cultic setting is very helpful for appreciating its origin and significance. I was however disappointed that the only mention of its Christian re-reading in Christological terms is a passing mention of seven New Testament passages which refer to this psalm. This, I guess, reflects an editorial decision regarding the New Cambridge Bible Commentary to ‘elucidate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures’. Such a choice means that the commentary needs to serve both confessions, but surely the use of the NRSV means that the volumes will be largely used by Christians, many of whom would expect a little more on how we are to use the psalms today. Enriching though it is to see psalm 2 as a coronation ritual, this will not be how it is used in devotion or liturgy by Christians, nor, of course, will it be used in this way by worshipping Jews. The ‘Bridging Horizons’ section singularly fails to bridge horizons as it points singularly points to psalms 1 and 2 as an exhortation to instruction. Many readers will be puzzled by the claim that these two psalms, and indeed the whole Psalter, are primarily a means of instruction. This is indeed one role of the Psalms, but this requires careful explanation, as well as complementing with other dynamics.

Psalms 22-24
The reservations expressed above do not apply to these three psalms. Each of these psalms is explored with verve and conviction in its ancient context and there are some helpful explorations of later Christian theology. For example:

A. Moltmann’s Crucified God is introduced along with the theme of the suffering of the righteous to round off the coverage of psalm 22.
B. Jesus as shepherd is explained in terms of a biblical trajectory.
C. The use of psalm 24 in celebrating the Triumphal Entry and the Ascension is mentioned.

The only disappointment with the treatment of these three psalms is that little is made of the relationship between the three them indicated on page 8.

The Psalms of Ascents (120-134)
The coverage of these fifteen psalms was a delight to read. Each of these songs is unpacked with clarity, and a care to see them in their societal context. This latter point is important for as is pointed out at the outset, these psalms of pilgrimage are, perhaps surprisingly, deeply concerned with community life. Not only are these psalms put into their original context eloquently, but attention is given to just how these songs address the societal challenges of Western culture imposed on those journeying on the Life of Faith. In this way there is helpful insight into topics such as:

Psalm 120 – homelessness (both literal and figurative),
Psalm 122 – a critique of ‘self-centred images of tribal and ideological futures.’,
Psalm 127 – a challenge to the culture of success.
Psalm 134 – carrying the ‘renewing power of the encounter with God in sanctuary worship into the rest of life’.

Conclusion
In summary this commentary has much to commend it. As a single volume manageable and affordable book it successfully covers the ancient context of the psalms with conviction, clarity and insight. In much of its coverage, within the limits of the series, it makes helpful connections with today.

However, I found it a little uneven in how well it re-read the psalms from an Easter perspective – in places this is handled well and in others there seems to be a little reticence to make such a re-reading. In particular I found coverage of a specifically Christian re-reading of the Royal Psalms disappointing, especially as Brueggemann’s previous commentary (The Message of the Psalms) on some fifty psalms did not include any Royal Psalms in it. In my view the issues of the microstructure of the Psalter, mentioned in the introduction to the commentary, is simple not considered fully enough.

This is not the definitive magnum opus from Brueggemann I was hoping for, but given its size I was always setting the bar rather too high!

‘A Journey of Two Psalms’ by Susan Gillingham

Susan Gillingham, A Journey of Two Psalms: The reception of Psalms 1 & 2 in Jewish & Christian tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2013).

Those who follow the more academic literature on the psalms will know that Susan Gillingham has already made some highly significant contributions to psalms scholarship. She is the author of The Poems and the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms Through the Centuries: volume 1. She has also edited Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms, as well as authoring a number of papers on diverse aspects of the psalms.

Her Journey of Two Psalms is important for two major reasons. Firstly, such a thorough attempt at exploring the reception history of biblical material has rarely been attempted. Secondly, Psalms 1 and 2 are increasingly seen as central to the very nature of the Psalter because of the new consensus that they are in some sense a purposeful introduction to the Psalter.

Some people of faith seem wary of reception history because of a largely groundless concern that readers born centuries after the appearance of a text impose an alien interpretation upon the text. Rather, we can turn to reception history as an aid to help prevent us from making precisely this error. By seeing how interpreters have understood and made use of a biblical text we can see what is illuminating and helpful on the one hand and what is perhaps anachronistic on the other. In so doing we can be more alert to our possible misreadings. Reception history also has the wonderful bonus of taking a wider collection of interpretive media than more traditional approaches. In Gillingham’s book, for example, the liturgical use, visual exegesis, musical interpretation and ‘imitation’ of these two psalms is considered. This ensures that a rounded interpretative range, beyond that of just the theological elite is considered. No one, least of all Susan Gillingham, is claiming that reception history replaces more traditional biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, but rather there is much to complement these approaches when we look at the psalms through the centuries.

In the first half of the book, Gillingham looks at the broad sweep of commentary on Psalms 1 and 2. This is broken down into chapters titled: ‘Ancient Judaism’, ‘Early Christianity’, ‘Rabbinic and Medieval Judaism’ and ‘From the Early Middle Ages to the Reformation’. Gillingham examines the evidence for these two psalms being viewed as, in some sense, a pair. She notes that in Jewish works of the earliest periods the two psalms are seen as being united by a concern with the Temple, whilst later they are unified by a concern with Jewish piety and identity against opposition from outside the community. Gillingham helpfully explores how different Christian contexts lead to the use of these two psalms to address the quite different concerns on diverse interpreters.

In the second half, Gillingham notes that psalms 1 and 2 play a very small role in either Jewish or Christian liturgy through the centuries. In visual exegesis, by contrast, these two psalms are prominent. In many cases, so Gillingham argues, the ‘two psalms are often illuminated in a connected, complementary way, with contrasting themes which together open up a visual gateway to the Psalter as a whole’. The selective musical interpretations, examined by Gillingham, almost exclusively focus on these two psalms as individual entities. As Gillingham notes, however, this probably has more to do with the nature of musical composition than a necessary disconnection between these two psalms. To a large extent the paraphrases and translations of these two psalms also tend to see them in their individual light, rather than making much of the literary or potential thematic links between them.

Gillingham’s conclusions are in three areas. The first concerns the importance of the theme of the Temple in Psalms 1 and 2. There are grounds for seeing this theme as important in both psalms, as well as the Psalter as a whole. Interestingly, reception history does not reveal as strong a role for this theme as I expected (and one wonders whether this might have taken Gillingham by surprise too). The second topic coheres with the first – how the theme of the Temple is handled might be perceived as a divisive issue for Christian and Jewish hermeneutics. This has indeed been the case for nineteen hundred years, but more recently there has been a more nuanced and constructive dialogue of this theme. Thirdly, and for this reader most interestingly, is the contribution to the debate over the possibility that Psalms 1 and 2 are a deliberate entrance to the Psalter. This possibility has reemerged over the last thirty years because of the emergence of a canonical hermeneutic to psalms interpretation which has seriously challenged the hegemony of the form-critical approach.

Gillingham should be commended on the clarity of argument in this work, and the shear volume and diversity of the necessary research. This study is essential reading for anyone who wants to keep abreast of the shifting consensus on interpretive paradigms for reading the Psalter.

Gillingham closes her book with a defence against those who suggest that reception history is ‘Biblical Studies on Holiday’. It seems to me that this study makes the case that the refreshment from such a holiday might well stimulate useful work in the study of the Scriptures shared by Jews and Christians.

Psalms of Ascents: Psalms 120-134

Psalm 119 comes as something of a surprise to anyone reading through the Psalter, because of both its vast length and single-minded focus on Torah. Immediately following this remarkable psalm are fifteen psalms, which in different ways are also rather unusual. Psalms 120–134 are known as the Psalms of Ascents because they all have the same heading, literally ‘song of the steps’. No other psalms have this heading. So, we have here a deliberate collection of psalms (see the earlier post on mesostructure). It is not just the common heading that unites these psalms as we shall see below.

Various traditions surround the origin and function of these psalms. They are often said to be connected with pilgrimage. The first three of these psalms, when read as a sequence support this idea. Psalm 120 might reflect the hostility faced by someone starting out on a pilgrimage as they temporary leave the everyday realities of life in their community. Psalm 121 uses language which resonates with a journey and Psalm 122 clearly articulates the joy of arriving in Jerusalem. These psalms are also linked by some interpreters with the steps leading up to the inner court of the temple: there being 15 songs of the steps to match these 15 steps. Whether these psalms were used in the autumn pilgrimage festival as is proposed by some remains inconclusive. That these psalms are intentionally placed together is more clearly demonstrable.

Their unity does not come from their common genre (or Gattungen), although more than half mention Zion (Psalms 122, 125, 126, 128, 129, 132, 133 and 134) and several could be identified as Songs of Zion. Their type is varied and includes Laments (psalms 120, 123, 126, 129 and 130) and Songs of Trust (psalms 121, 125 and 131). There are elements of wisdom too (in psalms 127, 128 and 133). Psalm 132 stands out as a Royal Psalm. When they are read sequentially their ordering often seems naturally developmental, for example, in how the lament of 120 develops into trust in 121 and is followed by the joy and celebration of 122.

So, what unites these psalms other than their common heading? Goulder (1998) helpfully builds on the work of other scholars and singles out four features that mark out these psalms (except 132 which we’ll return too below):

1. They are short psalms
These psalms are on average about 40% the length of other psalms in the Psalter. The exception being 132. All 15 together are shorter than psalm 119.

2. They use step parallelism
The psalms are known for their use of parallelism, but in the Psalms of Ascents this often takes on a style in which whole phrases carry over from one clause to the next. For example:

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Psalm 121:3-4 (KJV)

3. They repeat some short phrases
There are around six phrases that are repeated 2 or 3 times in this small group. For example:

a. Maker of heaven and earth (121: 2, 124:8 and 134: 3).
b. From this time forth and for ever more (121: 8, 125: 2, 131: 3).

4. The use a large number of positive similes
The psalms as a whole tend to favour metaphors over similes. When similes are used they are often militaristic in nature. Here in these psalms (except 132) there is a large density of similes and they tend to refer to everyday objects and events. They are also positive by nature, four typical examples being:

a. as the eyes of servants (123: 2)
b. as grass upon the housetops (129: 6).
c. as a child that is weaned of its mother (131: 2).
d. like precious ointment upon the head (133: 2).

So, what of all these features? Well they are evidence enough that these psalms are a coherent whole, except that Psalm 132 is marked out as exceptional. It is much longer, does not use step parallelism, does not have phrases that are common with the other 14 and does not contain any similes. In this way our attention is drawn to this Royal Psalm. What are we to make of these efforts to highlight this psalm?

The first issue of note is that at the time of collecting the psalms, and at the time of their use, if they indeed reflect the autumn festival, the Davidic kings were long gone. When we remember this, we see that this psalm takes the Davidic story and makes it into an eschatological promise par excellence. Despite Zion being a place of God’s dwelling, despite the pilgrimage to this city, there is something missing. There is no king of the line of David as was promised. There is no anointed one. This psalm, like a number of other prominent psalms in the Psalter, rewrites the promises of an earthly anointed ruler and transforms the meaning from ‘anointed’ to ‘messiah’. It is this hope that makes sense of pilgrimage. It is this expectation that ensures that Jerusalem is not just another earthly city. It is this future which is the horizon that the Psalms draw our attention to. Psalm 132 singled-out like this reminds the pilgrim ‘reader’ that pilgrimage is not just about the now it has a firm future eschatological dynamic too.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Return: Book V, Psalms 107–150, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

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.