A Psalm for the 9th Anniversary of New Life Baptist Church

Today is the 9th anniversary of the constitution of the church where I am a member. The following psalm is a Midrash of parts of the Psalms of Ascent which have had a special significance to us over the past few weeks and months. The psalm was used to close our celebration service this morning. Can you recognise the specific Psalms of Ascent and the slight embellishments?

We lift up our eyes to the hills.
From where does our help come?
Our help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Behold, he who keeps New Life
will neither slumber nor sleep.

We have learnt that, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

We have learnt that, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of New Life.

We have learnt, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!
It is like a weekend spa treatment.

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let New Life now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us.
Then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us.

We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

​When the Lord restored the fortunes of New Life,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouths were filled with laughter,
and our tongues with shouts of joy;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the desert!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing their sheaves with them.

What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 1: Poems, Prayers and Songs

The importance of taking the context of any text into account is an obvious part of interpretation. The notion of context with regard to biblical psalms is, however, a rather complex one. This post does not attempt any resolution of the matter, but rather aims to be a starting point for readers to rethink what is an interesting ‘problem’. The headings below perhaps stretch the meaning of the word context into, for example, questions of genre and function. Although, of course, genre and function cannot be separated from context. Which brings me to the first heading of poem.

1. Psalms as Poems
There is nothing controversial about seeing the Psalms as poems. The majority of psalms use the literary device of parallelism which is generally understood to be a defining feature of biblical poetry (although the distinction between poetry and prose is perhaps unhelpful in some other parts of the Old Testament). There are many other features of the psalms that make them poetic, the use of metaphor being especially dominant and important. This is not the place to explore Hebrew poetry, except to say that there is an essential dynamic for interpretation. The key issue is that whatever else we make of the psalms, their poetic nature means that we should not be hasty in equating their poetry to simple propositional truth. This is no lack of confidence in the Psalms as Scripture, rather the opposite. The truth conveyed by the Psalms is rich with emotion. The Psalmist is often speaking from a place of non-equilibrium and trying to find their way back to orientation before God. The poetic vocabulary of the excesses of joy and despair will often stray from straightforward theological description.

I am, however, convinced that the profoundest theological contribution of the Psalms is their doctrine of God. Yet for all this theological description of who Yahweh is, the Psalms seem to question their own claims. Yahweh is a shield, he is a rock, he is a fortress – so the psalmist claims, over and over again. Yet, other psalms by their persistent cries to Yahweh seem to challenge any naive simplicity in appropriating these descriptors. Yes, Yahweh is a fortress, but this claim is best left in its poetic form, along with the rich dynamic relationship it describes. Pinning down the meaning and certainly of our experience of Yahweh in these terms seems to risk straying from the psalms themselves.

Saying that the psalms are poems is not defining their context, as such, but it is ensuring that what we might recognise that understanding their context is tempered by an appreciation of their poetic nature.

2. Psalms as Prayers
Some psalms are clearly prayers. Many psalms do the things that prayers do. Some clearly praise Yahweh; Hallelujah, ‘praise Yah’, is frequently found in the Psalter. The word is also prominent in opening a large number of psalms (106, 111, 112, 113, 117, 135, 146, 147, 148, 149 and 150). This word is just one of many pieces of evidence that the psalms are meant to function as prayers of praise.

Similarly there are many ways in which the Psalms function as prayers of petition. For example, frequently the psalmist petitions God, with the question: ‘How long?’ (e.g. 4, 6, 13, 35, 62, 71 and 74). The psalms seem to be prayers that, as some expres it, are prayers for all seasons of the soul. For all the features that make so many psalms appear as prayers, there are other aspects and indeed whole psalms that do not make obvious prayers. Psalm 1 is a good example. If psalm 1 was encountered halfway through the book of Proverbs there would be no great surprise. If it were encountered there it would be seen as some sensible piece of wisdom literature, rather than a prayer. Because, however, this psalm is not part of Proverbs, its context, by association with what are prayers, suggests that it too can function as a prayer. But is it legitimate, as many Bible readers claim (including me), to see all of the Psalms as prayers? Seeing the psalms as prayers has implications for context. Are they prayers, that in their original form, can only be used in the context of Jewish worship? Are they prayers that can be fully appropriated for modern Christian use? When they are prayers about messianic hope can the risen Christ be an interpretive lens for Christians. How do these areas relate? Do they conflict? Which uses, contexts and interpretations are legitimate and why? We often have quick answers to such questions, but we would do well to ensure we honour these texts, and the God we claim gave them to us, by ensuring we are respecting what the Psalms actually are.

3. Psalms as Songs
As well as being poetic and being, at least in many cases, prayers, the Psalms are songs. Perhaps the very existence of the Psalms originates with a desire by the editors of the Psalter to collect and thus authorise a subset of the then extant psalms. Whilst the details of this enterprise are open to conjecture the fact that it happened is evident in how these specific 150 psalms came to be included, first in the Hebrew Bible and then in the Christian Scriptures. If the Psalms, as a Psalter, were chosen in this way, are they meant to be understood as an end in themselves? This is the understanding of, for example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, who use only biblical psalms for sung worship. Or are the biblical Psalms meant to provide a framework within which worship occurs? Or, for Christians, has the life, death and resurrection of Christ meant we need to go, in some sense, beyond the Psalms?

Having reflected on the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs we are ready to focus more explicitly on the issue of context.

Part 2 coming soon

An A-Z of Praise: Psalm 111

In looking at this specific psalm we shall see how the idea of an acrostic works and at the same time consider how this specific psalm raises some broader issues that any A-Z of the psalms must address. Here is this psalm laid out so that the acrostic device can be seen:

1. Praise Yah!
Aleph – I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart,
Beth – in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2. Gimel – Great are the works of Yahweh,
Daleth – studied by all who delight in them.
3. He – Full of honour and majesty is his work,
Waw – and his righteousness endures forever.
4. Zayin – He has gained renown by his marvellous deeds;
Heth – Yahweh is gracious and merciful.
5. Teth – He provides food for those who fear him;
Yodh – he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6. Kaph – He has shown his people the power of his works,
Lamedh – in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7. Mem – The works of his hands are faithful and just;
Nun – all his precepts are trustworthy.
8. Samekh – They are established forever and ever,
Ayin – to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9. Peh – He sent redemption to his people;
Sadhe – he has commanded his covenant forever.
Qoph – Holy and awesome is his name.
10. Resh – the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom;
Shih – All those who practice it have a good understanding.
Taw – His prise endures forever.

[the above follows the NIV but with Yahweh replacing ‘The Lord’.]

When scholars discuss Hebrew poetry they use the term colon to describe the small parts that in English usage might be referred to as lines. The reason why the term colon is used is that Biblical Hebrew has rather different principles of grammar and punctuation which leaves much greater ambiguity than conventional English verse. In each of verses 1-8 of psalm 111 the Hebrew text is readily translated into a bicolon. In other words each of these verses reads as two statements, with the second elaborating or building on the first in some manner. Importantly the recognition of this poetic device will lead to a different translation than if each colon is taken as a statement in its own right. In the case of psalm 111, modern translations and scholars all follow this bicolon structure. The same structure follows in verses 9 and 10, it is just that in these two verses three colons have been allocated to each verse, potentially obscuring the bicolon comprising v.9c and v.10a.

What different biblical translations and scholars do not agree upon is how this psalm might be put into, what we might call, paragraphs or verses (the technical term strophe is often used in Hebrew poetry). Interpreters of psalm 111 also disagree to an extent over the context in which psalm 111 originated and was used. Fortunately such disagreements, in this case at least, do not lead to significant differences in what the psalm is understood to be claiming. This difficulty of establishing the original circumstances for which a psalm was written is a topic on which a whole scholarly career might, indeed has, been founded. We will return to this matter later, but for now we can note that perhaps this ambiguity is part of the reason why the canonical psalms were preserved-people of faith wanted something which they could ‘make their own’, they were not about the task of preserving archaic texts.

Returning to psalm 111, it does not take a lot of attention to see that its acrostic nature has constrained the poet and this has played a key role in making the poem what it is. As an artistic device which constrains, the acrostic pattern has taken the poet where they might otherwise not have gone. Similar results occur when poetry is written to conform to say, the iambic pentameter of a Petrarchan sonnet or the traditional 5, 7, 5 syllabic pattern of traditional haiku. The result of the constraint of the acrostic device, in this instance, produces pithy statements about the psalmist’s and audience’s actions, and in particular about what Yahweh has done. Sometimes the individual colons are formulaic echoing, or restating, ideas from elsewhere. This is the case with verse 10’s ‘The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom’, which is very similar to Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10, and is a pervasive motif in the Hebrew Bible.

Whatever the uncertainties regarding the original setting of psalm 111, its opening implies use within the community of faith-the differences of opinion amongst scholars concerns whether its use was (a) generic, (b) specific to a given festival or (c) used during a pilgrimage. Whatever the specific occasion of use, the opening bicolon implies that the psalm would be read by an individual on behalf of those gathered together. Verses 2 to 9 then rehearse the most fundamental claims about Yahweh the God of Israel, namely that:

1. His deeds are great and worth meditating on.
2. His righteousness and faithfulness are unchanging.
3. He is a God who will honour the covenant he made with his people.
4. His deeds testify to the veracity of the other claims being made.

The focus on Yahweh’s covenant with Israel is perhaps greater than the NIV translation used above indicates. This arises because of the ambiguity of tense in Biblical Hebrew. For example, in v.5a we hear of Yahweh providing food for those who fear him. In the context of covenant (v.5b) it might well be better read as ‘He provided food for those who feared him’; referring back to the gift of manna and quail during Israel’s wilderness wanderings following the Exodus from Egypt. The very next verse refers to the end of the wanderings as Yahweh grants them the Promised Land.

The psalm, having rehearsed this story, or worldview, then concludes with an exhortation as to the right three-fold response: (i) fear of Yahweh, (ii) following his precepts and (iii) praising him. All three of these are central to the content and themes of the Psalter. In this way psalm 111 is a neat A to Z of the reasons to carry on being a faithful Jew (or Christian).

On Singing New Songs

Anyone who spends time reading the Psalms will notice the common refrain to sing a new song to the Lord. There are six occurrences of this exhortation in six individual psalms. In all but one case (psalm 144) it either opens the psalm or is a central part of the psalm’s opening. All six occurrences are reproduced, from the ESV, below:

Psalm 33:1-3
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 40:1-3
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 96:1-3
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!

Psalm 98:1-2
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

Psalm 144:9-10
I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
who gives victory to kings,
who rescues David his servant from the cruel sword.

Psalm 149:1-3
Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the godly!
Let Israel be glad in his Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!

Psalm 33 is often classified as a hymn. It is a straightforward call to praise Yahweh for both who he is and what he has done. It is, in Brueggemann’s terms, very much a psalm of orientation-the psalmist is in a place of equilibrium where all is well in the life of the psalmist and in their relationship with God. Psalm 40 is a more complex psalm. The opening reflects on an occasion when the psalmist found a new place of orientation from a place of disorientation (the miry bog). So already from these two uses of ‘new songs’ we see that it is appropriate in the context of the steady life of faith or in moments of more extreme experience where life has been transformed.

Psalm 96, like psalm 33, is a hymn, a call to celebrate Yahweh’s person and deeds from a place of communal certainty in the truths being proclaimed. Similarly, psalm 98 is also a hymn focusing on Yahweh’s salvation of Israel and his future righteous judgement of the world. Psalm 144 and 149 are also both hymns, although the former is perhaps not fully a song of orientation as it seems to look forward to singing a new song at a later date, rather than actually doing so (see verse 11).

Many readers, singers and scholars of the Psalms will simply see these references to new songs as a poetic way for the author to refer to his action in writing a psalm. The reason behind the need for a new song has variously been connected with a festival or military victory. Psalms 144 and 149 especially seem to have something of this militaristic feel about them. Either or both of these occasional needs might well be the inspiration for a new song. However, I want to suggest we might be missing the point if we assume that a new song is primarily a matter of novelty within the psalm itself. Many of us live in a culture where new songs appear weekly and even in popular Western Christian culture there is an industry of musical innovation. Perhaps some of those in this industry might even claim a biblical mandate of promoting new songs! I want to suggest that this is not what singing a new song is about. Rather singing a new song is more about the act of being in a new place before God. Whether it is about military victory for a king or the nation, an individual’s recovery from illness (the miry bog?) or recognition of God doing some other new work, this is the focus not the novel words of praise and song that follow.

How do I come to this view? The first piece of information supporting this view is something peculiar about psalm 96. After reading its threefold exhortation to sing a new song to Yahweh, the reader (or perhaps more aptly, the singer) expects something fresh and innovative. What else might a new song be? Psalm 96 is remarkable for the way in which it is anything but a new song. It is a hodgepodge of verses and ideas from other psalms. As Robert Alter puts it:
‘In point of fact, it is a weaving together of phrases and whole lines that appear elsewhere.’

This lack of originality or innovation is not a failure, rather it is precisely the point of a new song – it is newly composed, but informed by what has been there all along.

This alone is rather minimal evidence. In addition to this reuse or recycling (or in more scholarly terms, Midrash), the Psalter contains some other examples of psalm reuse. The two most obvious and extensive cases are:

1. Psalms 14 and 53 are almost identical to each other.
2. Psalm 108 combines large parts of psalms 57 and 60 (verses 2-6 strongly parallel 57:8-12 and verses 7-14 are virtually identical to 60:6-14).

These canonised examples of reuse encourage us to do the same. On the basis of Psalm 96 being anything but a new song in terms of originality and the two examples above, I suggest that the Psalter encourages us to sing and pray new songs; songs and prayers reflecting newness before God, whose words are informed by the Psalms themselves. I am not suggesting that all songs and prayers will simply be a mishmash of psalm verses. Rather I am hoping that we can see that the canon itself demonstrates that the Psalter is a vocabulary and resource for our prayers and worship, not a rigid ruleset. In this way the Psalter is instructional as psalm 1 indicates. Importantly this vocabulary goes beyond just the words to the experiences of the life of faith that underpin them. We are not meant to construct new songs which are just a one-dimensional pastiche of the bits of the Psalter we like. Let’s sing new songs which reflect the movements of the life of faith as we experience all of its offerings of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.

Robert Alter (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, New York: W. W. Norton.

In Store Now: “Psalms” by Tremper Longman III

Originally posted on Baker Book House Church Connection:

This week we received a new commentary on the Psalms by Tremper Longman III in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (TOTC) series. I know what some of you are thinking. Didn’t Derek Kidner write the commentary on Psalms in that series? Yes, he did. Is it out of print? No, it’s not. And I’m very thankful for that since I love Kidner on the Psalms. Kidner’s commentaries are now part of the “Kidner Classics Commentaries” along with his commentary on Jeremiah. This is certainly a win-win situation. The TOTC gets a nice updated edition on the Psalms and the classic set by Kidner is still available for those who have grown to love him and, like me, enjoy introducing him to others.

Here’s an excerpt from Longman’s commentary on Psalm 23.

“Verse 4 envisions God’s guidance through a time of utmost distress. Continuing the path metaphor, the psalmist imagines…

View original 415 more words

Reading the Psalms: An Appeal for Help and Information

If you have read this blog regularly you will already know that I have an interest in reading the Psalms in their setting within the canon. In particular, I am interested in the impact of the discipline of reading the Psalms daily, in their canonical order.

The Church has, in various ways, treated the Psalms like this, almost since its birth. In particular, in many liturgical traditions, especially in monastic practise, the Psalms are used extensively. Some orders and individuals even sing the whole Psalter each week.

Much scholarship over the past century has examined the Psalms in ways which tend to isolate them into individual texts. At the same time many churches have moved away from giving the Psalter prominence in corporate worship. Additionally, use of the Psalms is often subject to a sort of censorship, whereby certain psalms and certain verses are omitted from the approved liturgy.

More recent scholarship has recognised that the The Psalms are in fact a book, a Psalter. Many of my earlier posts explore this. It is, however, doubtful that this change in scholarship has had any observable impact on either Church practice or personal devotions.

I am attempting to write a book about the value of reading the Psalter as a spiritual discipline. I would really like to hear from anyone who has experience of disciplined reading and/or singing of the Psalter. I am keen to hear about both positive and negative experiences. If you do use the Psalms regularly it would be great to hear why you do, what you do, and how long you’ve done it. If you belong to a monastic order, or know someone who does, I would really like to hear about the pattern of psalm use there.

Please feel free to leave a comment below, contact me at @PsalterMark or email m.j.whiting@icloud.com.

From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Particular highlights include:

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

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