Monthly Archives: August 2018

PC: David the Ideal

J.R.R. Tolkien’s last book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is entitled Return of the King. One of the final chapters in the book portrays this episode—where the ranger Strider finally claims his destiny as Aragorn Elessar, the long-awaited king of Gondor. Tolkien describes his crowning like this:

“But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.” (Tolkien, Return of the King, 246).

Tolkien constructs Aragorn as the ultimate messianic king. He is not just a monarch, but an idealized figure who rules with almost supernatural qualities of wisdom, justice, and mercy. He is a healer, a sage; he is both a prophet and a subject of prophecy, promised to return at a crucial time. Aragorn is not the sole possessor of these characteristics in English literature; Tolkien, a medievalist, was thoroughly familiar with the legends of King Arthur. Of course, the lord of the Round Table and its mighty warriors, is said to be not dead but sleeping on the Isle of Avalon to return at the hour of Britain’s greatest need (apparently neither the Blitz nor Brexit).

Behind both of these figures and broader character of the messianic monarch in Western Literature is King David. He represents an ideal figure because he simultaneously embodies three deep archetypes: the king, the priest, and the prophet.

As king, David was the ultimate warrior. Slayer of Goliath and a mighty war leader, David became the target of Saul’s wrath because of the people’s celebration in song: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam 18:8). David was responsible for defeating the Philistines and taking Canaanite cities. While Saul had favored his fellow Benjaminites, David unified the tribes of Israel into a coherent unit around the tribally-neutral city of Jerusalem where he centralized both political and sacred power. This unification was a difficult task, almost proving too much for him, exploited as it was by the revolt of Absalom. Nevertheless, David was able to pass a united kingdom on to his son Solomon after whom it would splinter again into the two nations of Israel and Judah.

As priest, David was responsible for bringing the worship of Yhwh to Jerusalem and centralizing the worship of the God of Israel around the ark of the covenant. While he did not suppress the old shrines like Gilgal and Shechem, he identified the ark with the presence of God and tied its presence in Jerusalem to the royal court. In his day, royalty retained some priestly functions as it had in former days—remember that Melchizedek the king of Salem (Jerusalem) was both a king and a priest (Gen 14:17-24). Thus, when David brings the ark into Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6 he does so with dancing and sacrifice, performing the sacrifices himself while wearing an ephod, the distinctive garment of the priests (2 Sam 6:13-14, 17-19). Similarly, David offers atoning sacrifices to avert a plague from his people in 2 Samuel 24:18-25. The materials in 1 Chronicles further ties David himself to the Jerusalem Temple. David is identified as the mind behind the entire project and Solomon just the hands that carry it out, contradicting the Kings account where Solomon has the larger role.

As prophet, David’s is identified as a vessel of God’s Spirit twice. The first time is in connection with his anointing as king; Gods favor is transferred from Saul to David. When Saul was first anointed as king Samuel told him “the Spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with [a band of prophets] and be turned into a different person” (1 Sam 10:6). After Saul did not follow God’s directives Samuel was told to find and anoint David. As in Saul’s case, the anointing with oil is tied to the coming of the Spirit (as it is today in traditions that follow baptismal chrismation):

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed [David] in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah. Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him… (1 Sam 16:13-14)

Thus the giving of the spirit to David went hand-in-hand with its removal from Saul; it proceeded from the king-making ritual. In David’s case, though, it did not depart from him. While the Spirit operates in a prophetic frenzy for Saul on several occasions (1 Sam 10:10-13, 19:18-24), David never displays this kind of behavior. Rather, his oracular last words connect it with his poetry: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,/ his word is on my tongue…” (2 Sam 23:2). Later interpreters would pick up this theme. Second Temple literature including both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament routinely refer to David as a prophet or to the psalms as prophetic documents (see Matt 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 2:25; 2:31; 4:25; etc.).

As if all of this weren’t enough, there’s one more important piece of David’s legacy: the covenant that God makes with his house. In 2 Samuel 7, just after David brings the ark into Jerusalem with dancing and sacrifice, he considers building a house for the Lord. However, God sends a message through the prophet Nathan that completely flips this. David is not going to build a house for God; rather, God is going to build a house for David! A promise to place one of David’s sons on the throne becomes a covenant:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established” (2 Sam 7:12-16).

From a narrative perspective the initial lines of this passage refer to Solomon. As time went on, though, they were interpreted more broadly. David represents a godly king who rules a restored people of Israel with justice. God’s covenant with the house of David became both a challenge to the throne’s current incumbent (does he measure up?) and a promise that God would restore Davidic rule if this succession was ever broken. The Zion theology of Isaiah emphasizes this point: God will raise up and protect godly kings and, conversely, all kings of Judah are vassals of the true King, Yhwh. This brings us back to those psalms we discussed above, Psalms 45, 72, and 89 that sketch out the lines of an aspirational messianic figure.

The exile to Babylon and eventual restoration caused a theological crisis: how was God remaining faithful to the promise with David? How would God make good on this promise in the present situation? Thus, this post-exilic period became one of intense messianic expectation. The victories of Judas Maccabeus and the restoration of a line of priest-kings in Israel described in the books of the Maccabees seemed an initial answer, but the Roman occupation crushed the people’s hopes once again.

At the turn of the millennium and at the time of the birth of Jesus, this is what the faithful of Israel were hoping for: God’s Messiah (anointed one) who, like David, would be anointed with oil as a sign of his kingship, receive the Spirit of God with power, and act in a Davidic way by driving out the foreign oppressors, restoring the house of David, and ruling with justice and equity from Jerusalem. This is what it meant to be “Son of David” in the world that would birth the New Testament.

PC: David the Man

Of all of the figures of the Old Testament, David is the richest and most complex. His story begins in 1 Samuel 16 and extends through the remaining 15 chapters of 1 Samuel, though all 24 chapters of 2 Samuel, and even into 1 Kings where David’s death is recorded in 1 Kings 2:10. Through almost 1,200 verses, we get a deep and intimate portrait of this pivotal king of Israel.

On one hand, there are signs that certain portions of his story have the air of political propaganda: the image of the handsome young shepherd boy fighting the Philistine Goliath with just a sling is calculated to play well in its Ancient Near Eastern setting. Kings were referred to as “shepherds of their people” and were expected to be successful warriors. Emphasizing David’s youth and apparent naivety implies that it would take a (literal) miracle for him to win, and thus his victory is a demonstration of God’s favor, recalling other divinely sanctioned victories against overwhelming odds like Gideon’s (Judges 7). But contrary to this portrait (and every Sunday School illustration you have ever seen), David is described to Saul the chapter before the Goliath episode as already being a full-grown and accomplished figure: “One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen [David,] a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing [the lyre], a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence and the Lord is with him’” (2 Sam 16:18). Saul—already on the lookout for “any strong or valiant warrior” (2 Sam 14:52)—not only brings David into his household to play the lyre but also promotes him by the end of chapter 16 to be his own armor-bearer, a position of importance and trust. Thus, it’s odd that Saul barely recognizes him in chapter 17.

The fact that there would be this kind of idealization of David comes as no surprise at all. After all, he was the founder of a dynasty, the man who freed Israel from Philistine control, united the divided north and south, captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, and established it as the centralized capitol of his kingdom. Rather, what does come as a surprise is that we hear of so many things that David did wrong! From his days as a bandit captain to his sinful taking of Bathsheba to the revolt of his son Absalom, we hear of all kinds of things that could have been covered up and expunged from the historical record altogether—but weren’t. The picture we get is far more interesting because of the ways that it wasn’t sanitized by court historians. We are shown a fully human David, warts and all.

The David we meet in the books of Samuel and Kings is a shrewd, rakish fellow who lives by his wits, his sword—and also his faith. He is a complicated person: a canny opportunist, a lover of many (married!) women, a wise king, and a loving father who we see grieving the death of an infant son and the betrayal and subsequent death of another. He is a devoted follower of the God of Israel and—despite his many moral lapses—is nevertheless a man after God’s own heart. He is the only character in the Old Testament with such a complete emotional spectrum. After all, we don’t see Moses feeling a lot, and the only feelings we get from Job are bad ones! Add to this portrait the several references to David as a musician and it’s no surprise that not only is a large early collection of psalms named after him, but that they are interpreted through and connected with episodes in his life.

The David featured in 1 Chronicles adds a whole extra layer to our picture of the man. The two books of Chronicles are a post-Exilic rewrite of the history of Israel from a liturgical perspective. That is, it’s most interested in what’s going on with the Temple, who has been appointed to do what, and how all of the various priests and Levites are organized. In the book of 1 Kings, it’s pretty clear that Solomon was the ruler responsible for building the Temple in Jerusalem and setting up worship. In Chronicles, Solomon is simply carrying through on all of the detailed plans that his father David had orchestrated. David is the worship planner par excellence especially when it comes to establishing the rota the levitical singers and, by implication, what they ought to be singing. Chronicles is an interesting addition to David’s legacy. That’s not because it gives us any new, accurate, historical information about David (after all, it was written some six hundred years after his death!); instead, it shows us the reverence with which David was seen amongst the liturgical musicians, the pre-eminence given to him and his memory. This will only grow throughout the Second Temple period including into the time of Jesus and the early church. The Jewish liturgically-obsessed sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls attributes to David some 4,050 fifty songs which included 3,600 psalms as well as songs to be sung at temple worship every day of the year, and even 4 therapeutic songs of exorcism to be sung over the demon-possessed (hearkening back to his original role at Saul’s court in 2 Samuel 14).[11Q5, col. XXVII (Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, 309).]

This is David the man. But there’s more to the biblical picture of David than this—and that’s what we have to turn to next. We must reckon not just with David the man, but also with David the ideal.

PC: Hearing the Psalms in other Voices

Here we go again…

In this section, I’m tackling a key question about the way the Church Fathers read the Psalms. They heard them in the voice of Jesus. But can we do that? Is this an appropriate reading strategy based on what we know from modern biblical scholarship? This is the first of four sections on this topic.

Is this a legitimate way to read the Psalms? Coming from a modern perspective, grounded in the insights of the scientific study of the Scriptures, is this a means by which we can approach them?

There are a couple of angles we can use to think through this question. The first is to come at it from the perspective of the historical critical method, the method that was the centerpiece of the academic study of Scripture from the nineteenth century until the last quarter of the twentieth century. This approach privileges the idea of authorial intent—what was the  original author intending to communicate to the people they expected to be reading or hearing this material? Was the original author of any given psalm writing it with the idea that it should be heard in the voice of Jesus? The quick and simple answer to this question is no, of course not. Remember, a fundamental premise of the academic study of Scripture is that supernatural causes or authors are outside the realm of this form of research; we can’t assume or refer to supernatural knowledge on the part of the authors. Scholarship cannot make an appeal to the Holy Spirit to suggest that a psalmist of the ninth century BC was either consciously or unconsciously writing about Jesus. As a result, this form of biblical research must answer this specific question in the negative: no, the original authors did not have Jesus in mind as they wrote, nor would their original audience have thought of Jesus when they heard or read these psalms.

That having been said, even though this form of research would deny this kind of reading in its specific application, it may give it a cautious go-ahead based in its general application. Let me explain what I mean by that. Put simply, Jesus is not mentioned by name in the Psalms for obvious temporal reasons—his Incarnation occurred centuries after the last psalm was written. However, a key feature of the psalms is a studied generality. Think back to the psalms you know. Many of the lament psalms talk about the troubles that their authors were or are in. But what specifically are these troubles? Does any psalm refer to the threat of poverty because a band of Amorite raiders seized a caravan of goods coming up from Egypt that the author had spent his last shekels on? Does any psalm talk about the political danger the author is in because he knows that Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah have heard a false rumor about him and suspect him of disloyalty in the current difficulties with the Neo-Babylonians?  No—none of them do. One of the things that makes each psalm so hard to date is the lack of specificity within them. Rather, the psalms as we have received them speak in vague generalities about the trials, tribulations, and narrow escapes of the righteous. They are general enough that anyone can find themselves within their troubles. Everyone has experienced tribulations, and the laments are crafted in such a way that each of us can hear their situations through our own experiences. As a result, the psalms taken as a whole can be read as the praise and lament of the a righteous one—a righteous one who has suffered greatly yet still praises God.

Furthermore, royal figures appear frequently in the psalms. If we wanted to group the many references to kings, we would end up with three major groups: foreign kings, usually enemies of Israel;[See Psalm 2:2, 10; Psalm 48:4; Psalm 68:12, 14, 29; Psalm 72:10-11; Psalm 76:12; Psalm 89:27; Psalm 102:15; Psalm 105:14, 20, 30; Psalm 110:5; Psalm 135:10-11; Psalm 136:17-20; Psalm 138:4; Psalm 148:11; and Psalm 149:8.] Yhwh, the God of Israel who is also the true king of Israel;[See Psalm 5:2; Psalm 10:16; Psalm 24:7-10; Psalm 29:10; Psalm 44:4; Psalm 47, Psalm 48:2; Psalm 68:24; Psalm 74:12; Psalm 84:3; Psalm 93; Psalms 95-99; Psalm 145; and Psalm 149:2.] and the human king of Israel/Judah[See Psalm 2:4; Psalm 18:50; Psalm 20:9; Psalm 21:1, 7; Psalm 33:16; Psalm 45; Psalm 61:6; Psalm 72; Psalm 89; Psalm 119:46; and Psalm 144:10.]. And yet, despite all of these references in the first and third groups, only three kings are ever mentioned by name—David, Sihon of the Amorites, and Og of Bashan—and one by implication—the unnamed Pharaoh of the Exodus. There’s no Hezekiah or Joram or Manasseh or any of the other kings of Israel or Judah mentioned in the historical books. Too, the royal psalms 45, 72, and 89 speak in hyperbolic terms about the relationship between God and the king, portraying a set of expectations that seem far beyond what any human person and accomplish or achieve! These appear to portray less historical figures and more aspirational messianic figures, a future unnamed figure of the line of David who will bring peace, prosperity and security to God’s people. What would a reader of the time hear? Is this political propaganda exalting the current occupant of the throne, or an aspirational vision of who a king could be—who is, in any case, a client king of the Yhwh, the true king—that qualifies and challenges any current occupant of the throne?

As much as a scholar working within the historical method would deny that any of the psalms were written to be placed in the mouth of Jesus, it is nonetheless a true statement that the psalms were written (or edited) in such a way that they can be seen as the words of any suffering righteous person and that they refer to an aspirational messianic king of the line of David.

But the historical method is not the only approach that modern scholarship offers. In recent decades the historical method has been joined by other methods that expand our view on the text by asking different questions that complement the historical ones but open other lines of inquiry. Reader-response and reception history take seriously how readers would have heard these texts and look for evidence about how they were actually received, understood, and put into practice. These are particularly fruitful approaches for what we’re talking about. Again—these shouldn’t be seen as an either/or, either we use one approach or we use another; rather, the most edifying perspective is a both/and. There is no single right answer about what a biblical text means—there are a multitude of questions that can be asked, some questions are better than others, and taking the answers to the better questions together can help us gain clarity about what we see in the text and how we act as a result of it.

If we come at this question—is it legitimate to read the psalms in the voice of Jesus or the church—from the direction of reader-response and reception history, we will discover some fascinating material to put into the mix.  The first question we will tackle is whether it is appropriate to read individual psalms as the voice of a community. We’ll take this on first because it is the easiest to answer: according to the psalms themselves, the answer is a resounding yes! Specifically, in and amongst the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), there are psalms that invite all of Israel to hear themselves in the “I” and “we” of the psalms:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side —let Israel now say—If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, When our enemies attacked us… (Psalm 124:1-2)

“Often have they attacked me from my youth” —let Israel now say—“Often have they attacked me from my youth, Yet they have not prevailed against me. (Psalm 129:1-2)

The easy slippage between the singular “I,”  plural nouns like “tents of the righteous,” and collective nouns like “Israel,” “house of Aaron,” “those who fear the Lord” in a text like Psalm 118, supports the notion that even psalms written in the singular are intended to evoke the whole community’s experience. Moving outside the Psalter, Isaiah’s servant songs function in a similar way—although they are written about an exemplary individual, internal clues show that their author intended them to refer to the whole community as well: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,/ Israel in whom I will be glorified’” (Isaiah 49:3). Thus, the psalms themselves invite their readers to investigate plurals as singulars and singulars as plurals.

Next, let’s look at the more complicated question about hearing the psalms as the voice of a particular individual. The place to start is by turning our attention to the superscriptions—those brief taglines that appear before the psalms in most translations.[It’s worth noting that some liturgical translations of the psalms—like those found in the Books of Common Prayer—leave these out.] As we discussed in our initial look at the psalms back in chapter XX, there are a couple of different kinds of superscriptions. There are those that identify the collections that were edited into the final form of the Psalter. There are others that identify tune names or are directed to the leader of the Levitical choir. Then, there are contextualizing superscriptions—superscriptions that attempt to locate certain psalms within a particular event in the life of David or another biblical figure. These are the earliest examples of prosopological interpretation of the psalms: before the canon was even closed, the psalms have been interpreted by placing them in the mouth of a specific individual expressing that person’s thoughts and feelings in the midst of a given experience. Most scholars believe that the superscriptions were not original to the psalms; they were not part of the process of composition but rather are part of the editorial work of the unknown Levites or priests who gathered these poems into collections and wove those collections together into the book that we now have. An important piece of evidence that supports this is the freedom in the Septuagint to alter and add superscriptions in ways that other parts of the biblical text are not altered.

Thirteen psalms receive historical notes in their superscriptions connecting them to events in the life of David, most of which are described in the books of Samuel; a fourteenth (Psalm 30) is unclear:

We see a lot of these historical superscriptions at the beginning of the psalter—in that initial “Book of David” collection. Even though there are many connections between these superscriptions and events listed in the biblical books as we have received them, there are enough differences to make us wonder if the editors were looking at a different version of these books. Second, the connection between the psalms and the referenced events varies in quality amongst them. For instance, the connection between David’s repentance and Psalm 51 is a great one. Liturgically speaking, Psalm 51 is considered the penitential psalm par excellence, and is eminently appropriate for this episode in David’s life. The connection between the betrayal of the Ziphites and Psalm 54 is a bit more puzzling. Despite these curiosities, these superscriptions set a pattern that would be extended both farther and deeper. Farther in the sense that David was not the only biblical figure to whom specific psalms were assigned. (I leave aside here those referring to David, Asaph and the Korahites here because these superscriptions are best seen as referring to collections rather than being prosopological connections of the sort we’re discussing here.):

The anonymous figure in Psalm 102 is interesting because it suggests a process: read the psalm, construct a emotional profile based on the content, then consider who and where in the biblical records such a person might be found. For Psalm 102 at least, the first few steps have been accomplished, but the process as a whole has not been completed.

The Septuagint, though, that translation into Greek by Egyptian Jews in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, took this idea and added to it (The bolded words in this chart shows what is in the Hebrew; the regular type is what was added in the Septuagint’s psalter):

So—what do we make of all of this?

The evidence that we see here tells us that people started interpreting the Psalms prosopologically—hearing them in the voices of particular people at particular times—early in the collecting and editing of the Psalter. They were pre-eminently tied into the life of David, but other biblical figures received attributions as well. This trend only increased as time went on. The evidence of the Septuagint shows that the editors of that tradition were comfortable doing both things: connecting more psalms with events in the life of David, and connecting them to other people and events including post-exilic people (like Haggai and Zechariah) and situations (the resettlement of Israel).

The psalms themselves invite us to hear and pray them in our voices and in the voices of biblical figures. Understanding how the early church found Jesus within them requires us to take a deep dive into David which we’ll do next.

Liturgical Look Hiatus

I really don’t want to do this, but for the sake of my sanity, I’m taking a break from the Liturgical Look Forward series.

Two main factors are driving this. The bigger reason is life changes. As some of you know, I recently changed jobs. After a decade in the corporate IT world, I am going to be teaching Computer Science and Math to high-schoolers as my day job. (I’ll still be teaching Church History & Scripture to Master’s students in the evenings.) As the new semester approaches at rocket speed, I’m trying to wrap my head around five new class that I’ll be teaching in the Fall while tying up some loose ends like—finishing Psalming Christ and a big web site project that you’ll hear more about once it’s implemented.  As much fun as “The Liturgical Look Forward” is, I can’t commit the time to it until some of these other things get fully finished and I get my bearings in the new job.

The other factor is that I’m still not completely pleased with the format or the reception of LLF. I think I’m still missing some key elements, but I’m not entirely sure what they are. I believe the concept is sound, but it hasn’t connected with people in the way that it could or should. So, I need to do some thinking around that as well. In my spare time…