Tag Archives: Psalms

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.

PC: The Psalms and the Wisdom Literature

Following on the heels of the previous post that introduces the idea that reading more Bible helps you interpret better, here’s an exploration of how reading the wisdom literature in the Bible can help you pray the psalms better.

Wisdom literature is an ancient genre, older than the biblical writings. We possess Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom texts from the third millennium BC—some two thousand years before King Solomon and his scribes. Originating in early scribal circles at royal courts, wisdom literature offers advice on how to live life best including how to survive the complexities of court intrigue. Often a mix of ethical instruction and sound moral philosophy, its authors traced its source back to two related sources. The first was, of course, the wisdom of the gods, but the second was the order and patterns perceived in the natural world: revelation of the gods’ divine ordering of things. To be a successful sage, then, was to observe the natural world and to draw from it lessons for how the gods intended humans to behave. Wise living and righteous living went hand in hand. When wisdom arrived in Israel—initially brought by the scribes Solomon attracted to himself—it came from these international sources; the section entitled “Sayings of the wise” in Proverbs 22:17-24:22 appear to be a Hebrew translation of the Egyptian “Instructions of Amenemope” written during the times of the Ramsesside pharaohs (roughly 1300-1075 BC). In the early Solomon collections, Proverbs 10-22:16, we see the same themes appearing as in the Egyptian and Babylonian sources. As it matured, the wisdom tradition adapted to the Israelite religious environment and took on some new themes relating to God of Israel.

Stylistically, it’s worth noting how the proverbs were written. The early maxims appear in a very familiar format—a two-line thought where the second line either restates the first, states the contrary of the first, or continues the thought of the first.

Restating (Proverbs 19:8) Contrary (Proverbs 15:1) Continuation (Proverbs 16:4)
“To get wisdom is to love oneself;
To keep understanding is to prosper.”
“A soft answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.”
“The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
Even the wicked for the day of trouble.”

If this looks familiar, it should! This is the exact same kind of poetic structure and parallelism that appears in the psalms.

The two-line form means that there is no room for gray area in the contrary statements: “A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers” (Prov 15:20); “Folly is a joy to one who has no sense, but a person of understanding walks straight ahead” (Prov 15:21); “The righteous are delivered from trouble, and the wicked get into it instead” (Prov 11:8); With their mouth the godless destroy their neighbors, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered” (Prov 11:9). The result is that wisdom literature features a lot of rhetorical binaries: the righteous/the wicked; the righteous/the godless; the wise/the foolish. The terse structure gives no opportunity for nuance. There are no “wise but misguided” or “people making hard choices” or “basically good people who made a few dumb mistakes” in these two-line maxims: you’re either wise or foolish, righteous or wicked. The psalms are going to share this characteristic—remember it, it’s going to be important later on.

Another feature of these maxims is a clear but simple moral code: do what is righteous and things will go well for you; do what is wicked and you will face the consequences: “The righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight,/but the wicked fall by their own wickedness./The righteousness of the upright saves them,/but the treacherous are taken captive by their schemes” (Prov 11:5-6). “The perverse get what their ways deserve,/and the good, what their deeds deserve” (Prov 14:14). In one sense, this is common sense borne out of observation of human nature playing itself out in societies with a healthy belief in retribution. If you kill or defraud someone, his family is going to come looking for you and things won’t end well for you! This retributive justice doesn’t necessarily come from a divine source—it’s just the natural course of things playing themselves out. However, the principle is also expressed theologically: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place,/ keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov 15:3). “The Lord is far from the wicked,/ but he hears the prayers of the righteous” (Prov 15:29).

From these brief couplets it is not hard to extract a pair of simple principles: 1) the righteous will receive a reward for how they act; 2) God rewards the good. The fusion of these two gets expressed in a number of proverbs: “Misfortune pursues sinners;/ but prosperity rewards the righteous” (Prov 13:21). “The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite,/ but the belly of the wicked is empty” (Prov 13:25). “In the house of the righteous there is much treasure,/ but trouble befalls the income of the wicked” (Prov 15:6). “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord/ is riches and honor and life” (Prov 22:4). On one hand this makes a lot of sense: keep your nose clean, work hard, and you will earn the rewards of your labors. Act like an idiot, be lazy, cheat and defraud people, and you’ll get what’s coming both in retribution and from shirking honest labor. On the other hand, this can set up a theologically treacherous premise based on simplistic logic: if you are righteous, God will reward you with wealth; if you are wealthy you must therefore be righteous. Or, if you do good, good things will happen to you; if bad things happen to you, you must have done something wrong.

It’s worth noting that there’s push-back against this notion in Proverbs itself, recognizing that wealth isn’t always the fruit of righteousness and holds its own dangers: “Better is a little with righteousness/ than large income with injustice” (Prov 16:8). “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,/ but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 11:4). “Those who trust in their riches will wither,/ but the righteous will flourish like green leaves” (Prov 11:28). “The rich and poor have this in common:/ the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2)  “Better to be poor and walk in integrity / than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich” (Prov 28:6).  These maxims qualify and question an easy equation between righteousness and wealth.

This notion presented by the maxims that God rewards the righteous with riches and ease and punishes the wicked with poverty and problems has been labeled “wisdom orthodoxy” by modern scholarship. Not all wisdom literature is packaged in these two-line maxims, though. There are also hymnic structures present in the wisdom literature. The opening chapters of Proverbs (Proverbs 1-9) are in poetic hymn form. While the two-line thought structures still show up in some of the hymnody, the longer format allows for more nuanced theological thought. That’s what leads to a direct challenge to this wisdom orthodoxy.

The book of Job is a wisdom book that tackles the simplistic wisdom orthodoxy, challenging it by constructing a hypothetical situation. A folk-tale like frame introduces us to Job, the prototypical righteous man. He is rich, he is righteous, he does all the right things and has all of the material benefits that wisdom orthodoxy promises. He is a cartoon figure of “the good guy.” But then, through no fault of his own, everything is taken away from him: his wealth, his family, and his heath. His three remaining friends come to console him. After sitting in silence together for seven days and seven nights, the cartoony introduction comes to an abrupt end as Job breaks out in a stylistically and theologically complex wisdom hymn describing his woe and proclaiming his innocence. His friends respond by insisting that he had to have done something wrong for so much ill to befall him. They go back and forth until finally God steps in with some poetic splendor of his own. God reveals that the problem is their paradigm; both Job and his friends are stuck in the same narrow, wrong-headed framework. Returning to the wisdom theme of observing the principles of creation, God directs Job to observe the presence of chaos within the creation, both in the natural world as well as in human affairs. If chaos is created into the fabric of things, no easy or trite formulations—like a simplistic wisdom orthodoxy—will ever be able to account for the complexities of real life. A final return to the cartoonish frame almost blunts the power of the poetry by having God restore all of Job’s riches.

Along with Job, Ecclesiastes likewise challenges wisdom orthodoxy by casting doubt on its easy equations. More skeptical and pessimistic in outlook, Ecclesiastes warns against any attempts to correlate actions too neatly with results. At the end of the day it advocates an appreciation of the simple joys of life accompanied by virtue—not because of any divine benefits thereof, but because virtue is the better path. Taken together, Job and Ecclesiastes represent a stance of “wisdom in revolt” that offers a canonical alternative to wisdom orthodoxy potentially extracted from Proverbs.There’s further development to the wisdom tradition that is important for its connection with the Psalms.

The Apocrypha—those books related to the Old Testament known to the early church in Greek and not Hebrew—contains two later wisdom texts, the Wisdom of Solomon and The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach (also referred to as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus). If you remember, the earliest wisdom literature identified the initial source of wisdom as the gods or God and its secondary source as the observation of creation. These later books, composed by Jewish believers around 180 BC (Sirach) and between 100 BC and AD 50 (Wisdom of Solomon), identify that initial source of divine wisdom with the Old Testament generally and the Torah specifically. If you want to know what “righteousness” ought to look like, study the Torah and its legal and ethical demands. Study the prophets and the histories, and see how the wise leaders of the past acted in accordance with God’s will.

Reading through the wisdom literature will help you pray the psalms better for several reasons. First, there is a deep relationship between the wisdom hymns and the psalms. Indeed, some psalms are best understood as free-floating wisdom hymns. Consider the start of Psalm 49:

Hear this, all you peoples;
give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
And boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it. (Psalm 49:1-7)

This is clearly rooted in the wisdom tradition. It uses the technical terminology of wisdom found in such writings: “wisdom,” “meditation,” “understanding,” “proverb,” and “riddle”. It also addresses familiar themes, the rich and the poor, the righteous and the wicked, putting one’s trust in God rather than wealth. Another wisdom psalm starts like this:

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the LORD, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday. (Psalm 37:1-6)

Do you notice the difference between them just from the few verses of each that I have cited here? The second, Psalm 37, appears to represents a wisdom orthodoxy perspective in line with the general stance of Proverbs. As you continue through the psalm you will find this initial suspicion confirmed by verses like these:

Our steps are made firm by the LORD,
when he delights in our way;
though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
for the LORD holds us by the hand.

I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
They are ever giving liberally and lending,
and their children become a blessing. (Psalm 37:23-26).

I live in urban Baltimore. Every morning when I drive my daughter to school we pass through at least four intersections where I know there will be homeless people on each corner, walking the lines of traffic, begging bread. I could assume that they are “the wicked,” that their condition is their fault because of laziness, addiction, or unrighteous life choices. While those assumptions might hold true in some cases, another alternative is to see this psalm borrowing the simplistic aphorisms of wisdom orthodoxy. Wisdom orthodoxy is not wrong to state that the way of righteousness—living life in accordance with wisdom, virtue, and God’s will—is a better path than competing alternatives. But we can also recognize that the promises of divine assistance for the righteous are part of a rhetorical strategy designed to make this way look more attractive rather than a value-judgment upon the poor and afflicted.

Psalm 37 is rightly read against the context not only of the wisdom orthodoxy of Proverbs, but also the wisdom in revolt tradition of Job, Ecclesiastes—and its canonical cousin Psalm 49. The riddle that Psalm 49 promises to address in verse 4 is precisely the question of wealth. Echoing themes from Ecclesiastes, it observes the fleeting nature of riches and all human possessions:

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish. (Psalm 49:10-12)

The fact of mortality renders wealth existentially irrelevant. Fidelity to God, on the contrary, is of enduring value.

Reading the breadth of the wisdom literature helps us pray the psalms better because it helps us recognize some important things about language and rhetoric.  First, binary language in the psalms—good/bad, righteous/wicked, rich/poor—is the rhetorical heritage of the wisdom literature. It is inherently simplistic and reductive. We need to acknowledge that just because binaries are required by a scheme of two-line parallels does not mean that either our thinking or theology need to be similarly simplistic. Second, assertions based in wisdom orthodoxy (“The righteous shall be kept safe forever,/ but the children of the wicked shall be cut off” Psalm 37:28b) should be read for what they are: hyperbole intended to encourage us to lives of godly virtue. They are not, however, the only biblical perspective. The wisdom in revolt tradition both in and outside the Psalter is a biblical witness that stands against this problematic notion that seeks to intertwine faithfulness and wealth.

PC: The Psalms and the Old Testament

One of the big arguments I’m making in Psalming Christ about how the Church Fathers prayed the psalms and what we can learn from them is the basic concept that the single best way to get better at reading Scripture is to read more Scripture. Since I’m also approaching this from the standpoint of modern biblical scholarship and how and why it reinforces the patristic wisdom, I’m spending some time talking about the relationship between the Psalms at the Old Testament in order to build the case that you be able to pray the Psalms better the better you know the Old Testament. In service of that, here’s a discussion of the relationship between the Psalms and the Old Testament as we know it.

I realize that I’m covering a lot of ground fairly quickly in this section. What are parts that don’t make sense or connections that don’t click?

When I learned the faith as I was growing up, I inherited a fairly simple model of understanding how the Bible came together. As it’s laid out, it moves in roughly chronological order: Genesis talks about the beginning of things, Revelation talks about the ending of things and everything more or less falls in line from there. The main historical thread moves through the first seven books (the Heptateuch) which gets the Israelites into the Promised Land and up to the point of having kings, then the books of Samuel & Kings take up the thread until the Exile in 587 BC, then Ezra and Nehemiah take over with the apocryphal Maccabees as the bridge between the Old Testament and New.

My general unconscious assumption was that the order that was followed was more or less the order that things were written in.

I didn’t worry much about the question of authorship. I had been told that Moses wrote the Torah—the first five books—on the strength of Deuteronomy (“When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end…” Deut 31:24). I assumed that the prophets had written their prophetic books, and that was that.

As I got older, though, a thought occurred to me. I knew that the Israelites were a group of nomadic herdsmen; I couldn’t see them carrying libraries of books lashed onto the backs of donkeys as they moved from one pasture ground to another. As I started exploring and learned more about cultures, technologies, and the development of the Bible, I realized that my simplistic model need to be revisited and revised.

In the Ancient Near East (and most other places too!) the technology of writing is tied to two other technologies: agriculture and the monarchy. It makes perfect sense if you think about it—herdsmen can count their cattle just fine, but once you start having crops that are stored and a governmental structure that requires formal taxation, you need to be able to keep written records. Once you start using writing to keep track of who owes what when, it makes sense to start writing down other things too, gathering the collective wisdom of what works and what doesn’t so you are not constantly reinventing the wheel (whether metaphorically or literally!).

The historically plausible way to understand the composition of the Bible takes the social and technological factors into account and connects them with clues in the biblical account itself. King Solomon’s reputation for wisdom makes a lot more sense when you recognize that the biblical account itself identifies him as responsible for a wave of technological, engineering, and social innovations learned from Israel’s neighbors. Modern scholarship suggests that a scribal school established at Solomon’s court was likely the beginning of formal record-keeping and literacy in ancient Israel. Hence, the wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs may be some of the earliest biblical material committed to writing. Once the Temple was constructed—under Solomon—material regarding temple policies and sacrificial practices were likely written down as well. We know that historical records were kept from this point too: there are scattered references to some texts that were incorporated into the Samuel-Kings accounts like “the book of the Acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41) and, once the kingdom split into two after the death of Solomon, “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:19) and “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:29).

Thus, the beginning of the writing of what would become our modern Bible likely started in the reign of Solomon (960-930 BC?) with some of the wisdom literature, some of what would become legal material, and the start of the histories. What makes this even more complicated is that we know there was a significant amount of oral tradition being handed down as well in parallel. After all, that’s how nomadic herdsmen actually do carry their collective memory around—through stories and songs, not bookshelves perched on donkeys! The stories of the patriarchs and the judges would have been told and memorized around campfires. Legal practices and community norms would likewise have been handed down verbally. Last but certainly not least for our purposes, songs would have been composed and transmitted that combined many of these different things together. It’s no accident that the lost books that describe historical events before the reign of Solomon—the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14) and the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13)—are poetic; every time they are cited, they give a snippet of a song.

By the time of the prophets (the 8th through the 6th centuries BC), some of the legal material was written, but some of it was still oral. When they reflected on the “law of God” and on God’s covenant, it was likely this mix they were referring to. That’s the irony here—some of the prophetic reflection on the Law likely pre-dates certain portions of it actually being written down! We know that these traditions were documented more fully as time went on; Proverbs refers to “the officials of King Hezekiah” (Prov 25:1) which reflects some active scribal work during his rule (715-687 BC), and the “Book of the Law” found in the temple at the time of Josiah (640-609 BC) strongly parallels sections of Deuteronomy.

Most scholars see the Exile in Babylon (597-538 BC) as an incredibly formative time for the written Old Testament as we know it. This is likely when the oral traditions were captured and written down lest they be forgotten forever, and the scattered written accounts were collected and edited into something more like the books we have today. We get a sense of everything coming together in the Book of Nehemiah. After the return from Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple, Ezra gathers the people together and reads to the whole populace the “book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel” (Neh 8:1-8). We then get a prayer to seal the renewed covenant from Ezra that summarizes the contents of the book in Nehemiah 9:6-38. The narrative begins with creation and continues through the prophets and the Exile down to their present day (444 BC). At this point we can say that most of the Old Testament was in the form that we know it.

Ok—so what does all of this have to do with the Psalms and how we pray them? A couple of points.

First, the psalms are poems. Poetry is capable of being passed down a long time before it is committed to writing. When a poem or psalm was composed and when it was written down may be two very different dates.

Second, David is thoroughly connected with poetry, singing and the psalms, both in the text of the Psalter in its final edited form and in the historical books which refer to him as musician (1 Samuel 16:14-23) and a divinely-inspired poet (2 Sam 23:1-2). We know that some compositions attributed to him were preserved in the lost Book of Jashar (2 Samuel 1:18). This suggests that a collection of his songs were likely written down in Solomon’s time in that first flourishing of Hebrew literacy. (This is probably the source of the “Songs of David” collection that form the core of the first parts of the Psalter.)

Third, many of the psalms are connected to the Temple in some way. Because the Levites were in charge of singing psalms during the sacrifices there had to be a body of material for them to sing. Furthermore, other psalms were composed in or for the Temple: some are probably the written accounts of vows of thanksgiving promised to God if he would get their author out of a tight spot; this seems to be the impetus for Psalms 66 and 116, telling of God’s deeds that accompanied a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Fourth, it’s entirely possible that some of the psalms reflect religious oral traditions that were captured first
in their psalm form before they found written expression in the Law or the histories or other places. The prophets—many of whom were both priests and poets (like Isaiah and Ezekiel)—may have been more influenced by the psalms which they had and knew rather than the form of the Law and Histories as we know them which were written after their time.

The bottom line is this: the Psalms are a collection of religious poetry that contains all of the same genres to the Old Testament does—legal material, wisdom material, prophetic material, historical material. We should think of the psalms as being composed in a dynamic relationship with the emerging books of the Old Testament. Some of the later psalms are riffing off of written material; some of the earlier psalms pre-date the finished books that we know. (This is obviously the case with Psalm 18 which is incorporated completely in 2 Samuel 2-51!) The psalms contain unsystematic crystallizations of bits of the religious tradition that stretch from the beginning of the Temple and written Hebrew culture in the days of Solomon down to the return from Exile and the building of the new Temple a span of roughly 600 years. Just as there are both relationships and tensions between certain biblical genres (sometimes the prophets enforce the Law; sometimes they appear to critique it) so the psalms contain some of these relationships and tensions between one another and with the larger biblical material.

PC: Theological Challenges in the Psalms 1

I’ve been furiously writing since I’m coming up on a deadline for Psalming Christ. I put up a section on Patreon yesterday for those who support me, but I thought I’d put this up here too, because I need some feedback. I’m tackling a touchy issue—how to address some of the theological challenges that modern Christians are bound to encounter in the psalms. Here, at the risk of offending many, I tackle what may be a favorite psalm, discuss my problems with it, then how I come to terms with praying it.

Please—let me know what you think.  Does it bother you? Does it offend you? Or, conversely, does it help you? Let me know!

(The next Liturgical Look Forward will follow later today…)

After years of negotiation, Psalm 91 and I have finally come to an arrangement. I promise to pray it faithfully when it comes around in the psalm cycle; it—in turn—has agreed to be about feelings.

The reason why this accord was necessary is because I find Psalm 91 to be one of the hard psalms in the psalter to pray. I realize that this may well be an unusual psalm to have problems with; there are no babies getting their heads bashed in (Ps 137), no calls to slay the wicked or a desire to hate with a perfect hatred (Ps 139), nor even a wish to bathe my feet in the blood of my enemies (Ps 68). No—my issue is the picture it paints of the divinely-charmed life. Consider the first several verses:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked. (Ps 91:1-8)

The picture it paints is of the blissful protection of the faithful by God, whatever may come.

I have dutifully read this psalm for years. It is one of the standard psalms for the Compline office (Night prayer) which means that I sometimes pray it several times each week. Now, I’m certain that there are people who love this psalm deeply—and I’m not trying to take that away from anyone. It is beautiful; it is comforting. Perhaps it’s due to my own issues and temperament, my own lack of absolute trust, but I take exception to the literal sense of the text: trust in God, and you will be protected from all harm. That faith in God will act as some kind of magic charm that will save you from all adversity.

In the Episcopal tradition, the psalms can be prayed through every month with set psalms assigned for morning and evening prayer of each day; Psalm 91 is appointed for use at Morning Prayer on the 18th of each month. On the night of July 17th, 2015, a White Supremacist hoping to spark a race war opened fire at a Bible study inside Mother Emanuel Baptist Church in Charlotte, murdering nine and wounding three others. The next morning, the lectionary forced me to pray Psalm 91.

I couldn’t.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation. (Ps 91:14-16)

While I respect the literal sense of the biblical text—the basic meaning of the words on the page—I do not know a way to pray this psalm in its literal sense and to believe it. Because, to take this psalm literally means one of two things: either God failed those nine people in his promise to protect them, or that they were not faithful enough, not good enough, not loving enough for God to honor that promise—and I simply refuse to believe that.

Psalm 91 is just one of a number of psalms that promise tangible, material benefits to the faithful. Some psalms promise physical safety and security to devotees who keep God’s covenants. Alternatively, other psalms request such aid and protection, often promising vows of sacrifices or praise of God in the midst of the assembly in return.

What do we do with these? How do we understand these promises and requests?

Part of the art of biblical interpretation, the work of hermeneutics, is figuring out how to hear these words for the up-building of our faith and those around us. Do we try to take these texts literally—at their word—and how do we understand the results when the hoped-for outcome does not happen?

One approach to hermeneutics uses the image of a three-legged stool: that Christian understanding of God’s ways is rooted in Scripture, tradition, and reason—and that all three are necessary. (A formulation attributed to Methodist founder John Wesley—the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—includes “experience” as a fourth part.) Sometimes this “three-legged stool” is invoked in order to discount the importance of Scripture, suggesting that if our experience doesn’t match what we read in the text, Scripture can and should be jettisoned and our own reason (or experience) should become our primary guide in the spiritual life. But that’s not what this phrase means, and is not how it was intended to be used. Rather, Scripture is always the foundation, and the other two (or three) help us as we wrestle with it: tradition (how the Church has read this text in the past) and reason (how we think through the text as informed by our own God-given mental faculties and assisted by the Holy Spirit) guiding our encounter with the Word of God.

When we read these psalms alongside the Church, we read them with and through the Christian experience of martyrdom. The nine faithful gunned down in Charlotte that dreadful night were neither the first nor the last to be killed for their faith or in its exercise. Every Christian sanctoral calendar recognizes the presence of martyrs through the centuries: those witnesses who would rather die than betray the faith. The formative years of the church in the first few centuries of its existence were scarred by persecution and death which did not hinder its growth but, paradoxically, accelerated it leading Tertullian to proclaim “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.[Paraphrase of Apology 50.13. Technically the line just says “the seed is the blood of Chistians” but the common expanded version conveys what Tertullian intended.]” Indeed, in those early days martyrdom was seen as a primary means of imitating Christ. Let’s not forget the very origins of our faith—the confession of a crucified Messiah by twelve apostles who, according to church tradition, all likewise suffered martyrdom with the exception of John who died in exile.

Speaking of Jesus himself, it’s not an accident that Psalm 91 plays a central role in the stories of his temptation as told by both Matthew and Luke (Matthew 4:1-11|Luke 4:1-13). The way I read these stories, not only is Jesus rejecting the temptations directly offered by Satan—sustenance, safety, and power—but also the literal meaning of the psalm itself. Jesus turns his back on a reading of the psalm that promises security and protection to those who align themselves with God’s will; instead he calls his followers to daily take up their cross and follow him. If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God—and Christianity insists that he is—then we cannot read the psalms in a way contrary to the experience of Jesus, the righteous sufferer.

Since this is the grounding of the Christian tradition and experience, we have to be able to read the language of this psalm in more than literal ways. Be careful here: I’m not suggesting that we ignore the literal sense. I do believe that God helps and protects those who call on him. But I also acknowledge that that’s not always the way things work out, and that such a result should not be attributed to a lack of faith or integrity on the part of the fallen. It’s not our place to judge the fidelity of others. Rather, we need to be open to other ways to hear these texts, and understand God’s faithfulness towards us.

The way that I’ve made peace with Psalm 91 is to hear it as a description of how the experience of faith can make us feel—has made me feel. There are times in our religious experience where we feel so completely covered by the love of God that we feel as if nothing in the word can touch us, when we experience so directly Paul’s words that nothing can sever us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). I hear Psalm 91 not as a contract—believe in God and God will keep you safe—but as a description of the way that faith can make us feel—intoxicated with the love and presence of God.

Christological Controversy and the Psalms

I’ve been doing a lot of work on my books on Cassiodorus and the psalms. So far, most of my effort has gone into the first volume. The first volume is a more-or-less straightforward historical and exegetical description of what Cassiodorus does when he reads the psalms and transmits the patristic tradition to his readers. The second volume is the “where do we go from here?” book that tries to explain what the Cassiodoran perspective (and the perspective of the rest of the Church Fathers) has to do with us and our spirituality. Here’s a snippet from the second book. To set this in context a little, I’m writing these books in a non-linear fashion, that is, they’re outlined, but I’m not starting with chapter 1 of the first and writing to the end, then starting chapter 1 of the second and so on. Rather, since I know the big picture, I’m writing chunks and fitting them into place, and will smooth over the cracks later in the process.

This was a chunk that popped into my head last night as we were driving home from NYC after dropping the older daughter off at Joffrey for a week of ballet camp.

For readers familiar with my discussions of Trinitarian theology, some of this stuff will likely seem familiar. However, it’s still important especially in relation to the psalms.

Cassiodorus spends quite lot of time finding theological concepts in the psalms, particularly things relating to Trinitarian theology and Chalcedonian Christology. Indeed, modern readers may find it odd the amount of time that he spends harping on these issues. Our first thought may be to wonder why he would work so hard to find find doctrine in the Scriptures—why go to this effort? One reason is because he would not have seen “doctrine” as being something separate and distinct from “biblical interpretation.” For those used to the modern university or the way that seminaries divide up subjects, there is a great gulf between the study of the Scriptures and instruction in theology or doctrine. In the world of the Church Fathers, however, the two topics were intimately related to one another: doctrine flowed from Scripture and doctrine was identified in Scripture even if the connections being drawn seem strained to us.

Trinitarian and christological theology shows up so frequently in Cassiodorus’s psalm commentary for a couple of reasons. One of the great controversies of his time revolved around the way that God the Father and God the Son related to one another and what kind of being Jesus was. While an ecumenical council held at Chalcedon had defined the orthodox Church’s understanding of the matter, the rival Arian position was still quite common within and—more importantly—outside of the empire. The main difference here was whether Jesus was God or whether Jesus was a creature. The position of Chalcedon insisted that Jesus was both fully God and, at the same time, fully human. The Arian position argued that while Jesus was the first and greatest of all of God’s creations, he was just that—a creature (albeit a really important creature!). To sort out why this matters and why it matters for the psalms, we need to dip into this debate for a minute, going through the theological to the real heart of the matter—the pastoral difference.

For too many people, theology is a bad word. It conjures up notions of doctrines and rules, and tortured intellectual arguments about things that no one can really ultimately prove on this side of heaven. Theology is seen as something abstract and speculative. But it shouldn’t be… Good theology, important theology, matters because it has practical implications: it helps us understand how we correctly live out our lives. Real theology is connected to real life. Trinitarian theology in particular gets a bad rap, usually because it is taught as a system of ideas without reference or recourse to why and how it matters for us.

Here’s a key point around which you need to orient everything about Trinitarian theology and its various christological controversies: The doctrine of the Trinity and the Natures of Christ didn’t grow out of theological speculation. That is, a bunch of old guys didn’t sit themselves down together and just make this stuff up (and that is one of dominant images we have thanks to Dan Brown novels and other misinformed media…). Indeed, if people had sat down and thought all of this up it would make a whole lot more sense and be much easier to understand! Rather—and this is the key—Trinitarian theology grew out of the attempt to wrap words around Christian spiritual experience. The first followers of Jesus, as proper Jewish believers and God-fearing Gentile converts, would have known the Sh’ma, the Jewish creed, and recited it three times a day: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). So they knew there was only one God, the God they knew revealed in the Scriptures as the God of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth. However, based on their experiences of resurrection power, they believed that Jesus was somehow God too. Furthermore, their charismatic experiences of the Spirit’s inspiration led them to confess that the Holy Spirit was also tied up in this God thing as well! If, as Scripture said, there was only one God, how could they explain what they were feeling and experiencing? The theology, then, grew out of the attempt to wrap words around this experiential phenomenon in a way that people could agree on.

Generally speaking, the approach that gained favor is the one that lived best, that is, directed people to lead their lives in the manner most consistent with Scripture and the example of Jesus, was the definition that came out of the four great councils of the Church and that favored holding up the mystery of God’s inter-relation rather than settling for a more philosophically plausible approach. Thus, they upheld the idea that God is one Being that is made up of three distinct but inter-related and equal Persons and that Jesus is, at the same time, fully human and fully divine. Most of the various Trinitarian and Christological errors arise when somebody comes up with a scheme to try and make this formula make more sense.

So why does any of this matter? Why would the Chalcedonian solution make more sense and live better than the Arian answer? The reason is simply this: Does God—the grand omnipotent Creator of the Universe—know what it feels like to be you? The Arian position says “no.” This position which makes Jesus the oldest and greatest of God’s creations draws a line of divinity between Jesus and God. The best that God has to go on, then, is to imagine what it would be like to us. The Chalcedonian formula on the other hand—that Jesus is fully God and simultaneously fully human—answers: “yes.” God does know what it means and feels like to be human. He knows it from the inside. He knows exactly what you are going through when you feel happy or sad or betrayed or angry—because he’s felt it too. In the person of Jesus, God has felt every human emotion and lived through a great swathe of human experiences including (let’s not forget) being betrayed, imprisoned, and executed. God doesn’t have to imagine anything here: he’s felt it. God knows what it feels like to die. And, furthermore, God knows exactly what it feels like to lose a child.

This is what gets lost in the Arian formulation: the intimate knowledge of just what it’s like to be us and to really know from the inside what it is to be one of us.

Now, I came of age in the eighties and early nineties, and every time I go through this theological logic, I hear a Joan Osborne song floating through my head… The lyrics go, in part, like this:

“What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

Just tryin’ to make his way home
Like back up to heaven all alone
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome”

Here’s the thing—whether she knew it or not, Joan (and the songwriter, Eric Bazilian) created the perfect song to explain the heart of Chalcedonian orthodoxy against the Arian position! Because the Chalcedonian definition believes that they’re right on: God does know what it feels like to be one of us! The theology that they reject—of a distant sterile God divorced from the nitty-gritty of human experience—is simultaneously the doctrine that Cassiodorus, the Church Fathers, and the church councils rejected as well.

Now, at this point, it must feel like we’ve gone pretty far afield from the psalms. But that’s actually not the case at all—we’re just looping around to them from the back side. Instead, the upholding of the Chalcedonian definition is at the heart of how Cassiodorus and the Fathers read and understand the psalms. Remember what Athanasius wrote about the whole expanse of human emotion being revealed in the psalms? This is where we see it: if we read the psalms in and through the mouth of Jesus, this is where we hear and feel the whole span of human emotion uttered from divine lips, where we see God incarnate expressing everything from the pain to the joy we feel. This is God at home in the feelings we know.

The pastoral implication, then, of Trinitarian theology and this means of reading the psalms is the assurance that God knows exactly what it feels like to be us and that, in the psalms, we hear his own divine expression of what it feels like to be human.