I was reminded of one of my biggest challenges in writing about the psalms again today upon the appearance of Psalm 34 in Morning Prayer for the Feast of St. James: it makes everything sound so easy…
Psalm 34–just like Ps 91 with which I have a long-standing dispute–flat-out says that for those who believe in the Lord and place their trust in God, everything will be ok:
6 I called in my affliction and the LORD heard me *
and saved me from all my troubles.
7 The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him, *
and he will deliver them.(Ps 43:6-7, BCP)
The issue is that this is not the case. Life experience, history, Christian history specifically, the experience of Christ himself, all confirm that these statements are not true on the literal level.
Here’s the thing. If you just found yourself saying, “well, maybe, but you have to understand that what it’s really saying is…” then what you’re doing is a classic interpretive move in order to avoid the actual literal sense of the text. And that’s a perfectly normal and ok thing to do–the challenge in writing about it as a biblical scholar for lay people is helping people recognize that that interpretive move is even happening at all!
There’s a reason why the Early Church generally and specifically Origen–one of our first and best interpretive minds–determined very early on that reading spiritually/morally/allegorically were important tools in the Christian exegetical toolbox alongside and sometimes instead of reading literally. Reading and praying the psalms involves quite a lot of reframing and reinterpretation to shift them into a Christian mode… If you’re just praying them as an individual, a lot of that interpretive heavy-lifting can be by-passed, or hand-waved, or maybe even outright ignored. And indeed some very shallow and very damaging theology can be and has been built on such inattentive and dismissive readings.
Facile literalists often poke fun at the interpretive children of Origen who tie themselves into interpretive knots to explicate the biblical text. But as Origen laid out as far back as the second century, sometimes the only way to attend closely to the words on the page at both a macro and micro level, to believe sincerely that they contain self-revelatory truths from God, and to wrestle with them with integrity, means putting in a lot of hard work which ends up being a re-interpretation of the literal meaning of the text rather than a simple affirmation.
(My hot-take on Ps 34 is that it presents traditional Wisdom orthodoxy in poetic form: trust God, keep your nose clean, don’t do bad stuff, and things will go well for you. From a poetic perspective, I can even see it conveying the poet’s feeling of comfort and pleasure in the supernatural support of God. I can recognize and honor that feeling of being swaddled in divine grace, mercy, and assistance–it’s a lovely emotional state; but it tends to fall apart quickly when human events around you do too… It’s a classic example of the Just World fallacy which leads to very reductive thinking a la If good things happen, it’s because you’re good; if bad things happen, you must have done something wrong. For what it’s worth, this is the fallacy which gets so much air-time in the book of Job. Job’s friends assume he had to have done something bad for everything to go so wrong; Job protests that he didn’t do anything wrong so it’s not fair! God’s final speech is to note that chaos is inherent in the system; if you assume life, the universe, and everything are neat and tidy, you haven’t been paying attention from the beginning.)