Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to Episode 4 of the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. Today we’ll be talking about Psalm 147:13-21, the psalm appointed for the First Sunday after Christmas which this year falls on December 27th, 2015.
Our reader today is Barbara who writes at chantblog and there’ll be a link there in the show notes.
|13||Worship the LORD, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;
|14||For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.
|15||He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.
|16||He sends out his command to the earth, *
and his word runs very swiftly.
|17||He gives snow like wool; *
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
|18||He scatters his hail like bread crumbs; *
who can stand against his cold?
|19||He sends forth his word and melts them; *
he blows with his wind, and the waters flow.
|20||He declares his word to Jacob, *
his statutes and his judgments to Israel.
|21||He has not done so to any other nation; *
to them he has not revealed his judgments.
The Lectionary Context
So, why is this psalm appointed here for this day? When I first looked at this psalm, I wasn’t entirely sure why it had been appointed for this day. I thought maybe we had some kind of a seasonal reference because of the cold weather imagery, but that only works for those of us in the northern part of the northern hemisphere. Looking at the other readings, though, quickly clarified what we have going on. Isaiah 61:1-62:3 is a hymn of rejoicing around the vindication of Jerusalem. Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7 talks about the coming of Christ to free us from the Law, and makes explicit reference to the birth of Christ. These are good fairly general Christmas texts, but what really clinches it is our Gospel. The Gospel appointed for this Sunday is John 1:1-18. This is John’s great prologue which I’m sure you know and which was read as the Last Gospel at the ends of masses in the Western Church for centuries: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being.” This reading gives us Jesus Christ, Son of God, as the Word of the Father, the Logos.
Suddenly, having that piece, the reason for having this psalm on this day makes a lot more sense. If you look at our psalm, you’ll see that the term “word” appears three times in this brief span of verses and that we have three other synonyms as well. Verse 16 in particular jumps out at us in this context: “He sends out his command to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” For an early Christian, in particular, reading this, it was an obvious no-brainer: In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was the Scriptures for the early church, the Greek word “logos” is repeated twice, and the word for “sent out” is apostoleí which is the same root from which we get the word “apostle” as one sent out by God. And, of course, in Gospels and Letters of John, this is the word used to describe how God sends out Jesus to humanity. So, an early Christian couldn’t read this psalm without seeing it use very heavily freighted language about God sending out his Word to the earth and the results of that Word. Not only that, verse 19 is almost unavoidably Trinitarian in the Greek: You have the Father who again, exact same words as verse 16, “aposteleī ton lógon autoū (he sends out his word)” but then also “pneúsei to pneūma autoū.” Do you hear the repetition there? The same root is being used as both the verb and the object, and the root is pneuma, which can mean wind, breath, or spirit but is the term used for the Holy Spirit in Greek when hagios is added to it. So, one way to render this as it would have been read is “He spirits his spirit.” Now “He breaths his breath” does the same thing with better English but loses the theological valence there.
So—there’s a very strong connection between the use of Word in the gospel and the reading and hearing of the term “word” in the psalm. It’s currently fashionable in some church circles to really emphasize the “lateness” of the Gospel of John and to suggest by means of this that the idea of Jesus as the Word is therefore a “late idea” and therefore one that we don’t have to put a lot of stock in and was a means by which the man Jesus was obscured by dogma and doctrine. I’d like to make a brief comment on that to give it some context. First, the idea of a “logos” as a philosophical thing, was already out there in Hellenistic thought in the first century, especially Stoic cosmology. So, Stoics used the word “Logos” to mean reason and spoke of it as a form or template or structure that underlaid all of Creation. Philo Judaeus, who was an important Jewish philosopher writing in Alexandria in the first century, born about 20 years before Jesus, in his vast commentaries on Scripture from a platonic philosophical perspective is all about the logos; he develops the notion of the logos being the image, the eikon, of God and an archetype of everything, and therefore as the instrument through which God creates all things. Third, this is exactly the same concept that Paul uses to talk about Christ in Colossians 1 when he says, “He is the image (eikon—same word Philo uses) of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” Doesn’t that sound like John’s Prologue? Yeah—not an accident… So—Paul, writing in the 60’s and giving us the first Christian writings that we have, is using the exact same concept that John will be using later. And, again, the payoff here is that Christians were saying Jesus wasn’t just a nice guy who taught good things but got himself killed by the state; instead, Paul and John are saying, look at this guy and how he acts—by giving himself up to death on the cross he wasn’t just showing us a bad way to die, but he was living out principles of justice, mercy, and love that are hardwired into the universe on a subatomic level. He wasn’t just a good guy who got killed, rather he was disrupting things, annoying powerful religious people, and pissing rulers off with his acts of love and mercy because he was demonstrating the very fabric of reality.
Now—to get back on track and to talk about the psalms again—which is what we’re actually doing here—one the reasons why the first Christians had this notion in mind is precisely because of psalms like this one that use “logos” in this way and connect that term deeply into both the creative action of God and the redemptive action of God. You can’t forget how important the psalms were to the early Christian concept of Jesus and how much the Gospels and Epistles draw on and from the psalms in reflecting on the story and meaning of Jesus.
So, to sum up, we get this psalm on Christmas, because it taps into our theology of the Incarnation, the Word sent from the Father to earth.
The Interpretive Context
Now, is there other information we need to help us understand what’s going on?
Psalm 147 sits within a distinct block of hymns at the very end of the psalter; Psalms 146-150 are a unit with a lot of common characteristics. One of which is that they don’t have any superscriptions in our Hebrew text, meaning there aren’t any context notes. However, the Septuagint does supply one which is very interesting: all the psalms from its 145 to Psalm 148 receive as a title “Alleluia, of Haggai and Zechariah.” Thus, it’s attributing this block to the prophets Haggai and Zechariah who were writing in the sixth century just after the Exile and in the time that the Temple was being rebuilt. And that makes a lot of sense. There is generally a post-exilic tone to these and there are a number of common themes between these psalms and what you find in the sections at the end of Isaiah that were also written at this time.
It’s worth noting too that the verses that we have for today, verses 13 through 21 in the numbering of the prayer book, were the full text of Psalm 147 in the Septuagint and then later in the Latin Vulgate as well. The first part was their psalm 146, this is how and why the numbering systems come back together at this point. So, they would have read this as the whole thing rather than being part of a whole.
Let’s talk for a moment about what I mean when I say that this psalm is a hymn and that it stands within a block with other hymns.
Remember, we have several different classifications that we use to categorize the psalms based usually on their content. So, we have laments, we have histories, we have a bunch of other types, and we have hymns.
Hymns are more common in the second half of the psalter and virtually all of the hymns in the last third of the psalter appear to be post-exilic in nature. So—that certainly fits for this one. These psalms tend to have a common three-part structure. The psalm opens with a call to praise, then the main part describes the motivation for the praise (often starting with the Hebrew word ki (because) or, in the Septuagint, hoti, then the final part end with a repetition of the call to praise which can be very brief. Thus, looking at our psalm, Verse 13 is our initial call to praise—“Worship the Lord O Jerusalem; * praise your God, O Zion;” Then verse 14 introduces the main part, the motivation for the praise, with the word “For…” (And, sure enough in the Hebrew that’s a ki). And then we get that final repetition of the call to praise with the “Hallelujah” at the end of 21 remembering that the English loan-word “Hallelujah” can also be translated as a phrase “Let us praise the Lord”; the root halal meaning “to praise” and “Jah” being a commonly found short form of the personal name of God.
If this whole discussion of the parts of a hymn reminds you at all of the structure of a collect, that’s not really an accident, there’s some definite overlap there. In a collect we address God, we use a describing clause where we name God and the aspects of God that connect to our petition—and that section there is kind of what the psalms are doing with hymns. We’ll touch on this thought a little more later…
In content, hymns tend to focus on either on God as creator of the world, God as redeemer of Israel, or both. And again, the fusion of these, the Creator of the universe as the One who cares for and redeems Israel from captivity and the One who watches over the rebuilding of Jerusalem, is a major theme in post-exilic prophetic thought—notably in the later sections of Isaiah.
To recap, this is a hymn, likely from somewhere around the year 500 when the Exiles had come back and were rebuilding Jerusalem, and—like a lot of hymns, it combines images of God as the one in control of creation with God as the one who cares for Israel.
Since we’re not the first Christians to read the Psalms, what insights have others found within this text before us? Cassiodorus breaks this psalm into two basic sections, the first one dealing with Jerusalem in 13-15, the second dealing with God’s gifts of grace in verses 16 to the end.
Jerusalem here is identified as the New Jerusalem, this is the end state, the consummation of the Christian hope. The best way to think of this is that Cassiodorus is reading this portion of the psalm through the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, when the Bridegroom comes, the bridesmaids enter, and the gates are shut and bolted. So the references to the bolts of the gates means that everyone is shut inside the city of God and that they have all they need in the vision of God and don’t need to go outside the city for anything. Then the reference to being satisfied with the finest wheat is a Eucharistic image. Just as the Eucharist feeds the Church now, the direct presence of God then will feed believers that much more. That’s the first section of the psalm.
The second section begins with the infamous verse 16 that we were talking about before; Clearly Cassiodorus sees this as a reference to the Incarnation. However, he also doesn’t stop there—he’s not satisfied with that being the end of the sending. The other verses that follow are also part of it. And now we’ve got a block of the cold weather imagery. Now—we have four lines that refer to snow, hoarfrost, and hailstones, then a general reference to coldness. He doesn’t have that. The Septuagint and the Romanum following that refers to snow, mist, and crystal. Jerome actually complains about this; he knows those are bad translations and so he clarifies what the Hebrew is referring to here but these word choices are also mitigated by the oddities of antique science—most interpreters mention that crystal is formed from ice that has hardened so hard over the course of many winters that it becomes permanently hard. Which—no, it doesn’t—but that’s ok, it means they’re reading the text with coldness in mind.
So, most of the Church Fathers go into spiritual interpretation mode here. In their view, since the word coming to earth is Jesus, then we can’t actually be talking about weather, we’ve gt to be referring to something else and how they decide to work this depends on how they deploy their readings. Throughout this psalm Cassiodorus tends to be working pretty closely off Augustine but, he doesn’t connect all of the dots that Augustine does. Because of that, I’m going to follow Augustine in particular because he makes a very interesting move.
The first thing I want to say is that Augustine and Cassiodorus are using a particular strategy of over-reading here. What do I mean by over-reading? Well, the three cold-weather images that we have here are straightforward similes, where you compare one thing with another thing by using the words “like” or “as”. Or the Latin word “sicut” which is equivalent. Here the similes all correspond to basic visual texture. Thus, the snow looks like how wool looks. Hoarfrost covers things like grey, burned out ashes. Hailstones drop down in little pieces the same size as little morsels of bread. So—these similes look to be based on simple visual comparisons. But that’s not how the fathers treat them! Instead, they bypass what you and I would see as the obvious interpretation. Why do they do this? First, they’ve already established in their own minds that the text has already pointed beyond itself to a different referent. Because Jesus is in the picture, the literal meaning of the rhetorical devices can’t be all there is here. But second, this is a form of intellectual play. And that’s a really important point that I don’t think modern readers and theologians appreciate sufficiently when we read the Church Fathers. This is a complex intellectual game. You don’t win by providing an easy answer, you win by constructing an elaborate rhetorical edifice that actually works. Augustine actually talks about this in his book On Christian Teaching. In Book 2, section 6, he says:
it is more pleasant in some cases to have knowledge communicated through figures, and that what is attended with difficulty in the seeking gives greater pleasure in the finding. . . . Accordingly the Holy Spirit has, with admirable wisdom and care for our welfare, so arranged the Holy Scriptures as by the plainer passages to satisfy our hunger, and by the more obscure to stimulate our appetite.
So, if some of these readings and techniques seem far-fetched, you have to understand why: they are using them as a means for restating things found elsewhere in Scripture that provides a logical coherence to how they’re reading the rest of the passage.
That’s not to say that patristic and medieval readers couldn’t read the text literally: After all, that’s what the Utrecht Psalter’s image gives us. Christ is standing quite firmly in the heavens giving a blessing to Jerusalem while angels fly about scattering baskets of snow and hail about. (I think he had Psalm 104 in mind while he was sketching)
But, instead of reading these as a simple simile, in this case the Church Fathers are over-reading in a particular kind of way. There may be a technical term for the strategy they’re using but if there is, I haven’t found it mentioned by the main classical authorities yet. Essentially, they’re using the cold weather image as the starting point, then the thing it’s being compared too as the transformation caused by Christ and the Holy Spirit. At the root of this, I think the interpretive key they’re working through is Ezekiel 36:26-27. That text is talking about God making a new covenant with Israel and part of that is this promise: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” So, the key image here is that the hard thing, the heart of stone, is being replaced by a soft thing, a heart of flesh, and with the removal of that hardness, the people—or person—will begin to pay heed to what the Lord says and wills. And this is where the Fathers go with it.
Snow refers to the hard and cold people who refuse to heed God’s ways. But transformation is coming. Wool is the material used to make garments, and this is the Church, Christ will clothe himself with the church and thus the hard, cold hearts will be transformed into the garment of Christ himself. In the same way the coldness represented by mist will turn to ashes which are a sign of penitence. So, by repenting God’s people will be transformed. Then, since crystal is this super-frozen hard substance, the love of Christ will not only melt and transform them, they will come to distribute morsels of bread and even the hardest of hearts can be transformed into those who spread the Gospel and, picking up that these are bread-crumbs, make another Eucharistic turn and suggest that not only can hard-hearted sinners be transformed into those who spread the message, but into priests and bishops as well. And Augustine connects these dots to make this into an image describing the Apostle Paul. He was the hardest-hearted of all. And (playing on that hardness language) was even there for the stoning of Stephen. But, through God’s transforming grace, even this hardest of hearts was melted by the blowing of the Spirit and became great among the apostles. Then Augustine runs with that to the final verse as well: truly God’s statues were given to Israel, and not the other nations, thus the Gentiles needed someone from Israel to take it to them and hence Paul, once the hard-hearted but now transformed becomes the apostle to the nations and takes the promises given to Israel and communicates them throughout the whole world, that all may learn of God’s favor and be saved.
So, moving from an image of the New Jerusalem to the moral transformation wrought by Christ, Cassiodorus and Augustine see this as a thoroughly Christocentric psalm.
In light of all of this, how do we read this psalm on this day?
Again, I prefer to read in accordance with a sensus plenior, meaning that we don’t have to pick one right reading. We can hold multiple meanings in our heads at the same time and be enriched by all of them. What I’m hearing right now out of these multiplicity of voices, is the fact that this is a hymn. It starts off with a classic example of that static synonymous parallelism—two lines that say the same thing in different ways: “Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion.” This is the call unto us just as much as it was to its original audience twenty-five hundred years ago and through all the successive generations from then down to now.
The basis for the praise is who God is—the identity of God. I didn’t see this in English, but when I looked at this text in the Greek and in the Latin, I noticed that there was a particular figure at work. As you look down the left side in the prayer book you’ll see a row of “He”s, so many of the lines start with “he.” But that’s not what you find when you look down the left side of the Latin text: it’s not “he” but “qui”—“qui” in Latin is a relative pronoun which means you’d translate it as “the one who” whatever… For me, this gives the psalm a different spin. We’re saying “praise God” ok—well, who is this God? And the psalm answers, the one has strengthened, the one who has blessed, the one who satisfies (notice that the first few are past tense, things that God has done, while that one is continuous? The one who continues to satisfy with the finest wheat?) The one who sends his word, and so forth. Because we have this repetitive string (we’d call this figure of speech an anaphora, a repetition of lines all begin with the same word or set of words) these are all identifiers, these are all telling us who this God is whom we praise, and, reading alongside and through the Fathers, we see this God as not only the one who created, not only the one who acted decisively in history to rescue Israel, to restore fallen Jerusalem within history, but also as the one who sends forth the Son and the Spirit, who gathers the church out of all nations, and who feeds us with Eucharistic bread now and the promise of an even more direct experience of his presence once we reach that final consummation and stand rejoicing with the Bridegroom.
So, we are called to praise, but also to wonder at the vast scope of God. Especially in this day and at this season, we wrestle with the great paradox of Christmas: that the one who created the vast expanse of interstellar space, who controls the universe and its elements, would take on our flesh and our nature and know what it feels like to be human—from the inside. And thus, with the psalmist, we lift our voices to praise God; we rejoice in what he has done, we look forward to what he will do, we marvel at the elements, at the wonders of creation and—with the Fathers—we look for his transforming grace to turn our coldness and hardened resistance into obedience and sharing the Good News and good gifts that we have been given.
Well, that’s all for today. I’ll take the next week off as I celebrate Christmas with friends and family. I’ll be back in the New Year with Psalm 29 for the First Sunday after Epiphany.
If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes to help more people find it. You can find more of my thoughts at www.stbedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter. Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions. The path you must follow is in the Psalms—never leave it.