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- Background Information
- Book review
- Leonard Cohen
- Popular culture
- Psalm 1
- psalm 111
- Psalm 117
- Psalm 119
- psalm 13
- psalm 149
- Psalm 2
- Psalm 3
- Psalm use
- Psalms of Ascents
- Psalter's Introduction
- The Life of Faith
- The Psalter's Structure
The Strange New World of the Bible
Praying with the Bible is about having a confidence in the Bible, a confidence that it is Scripture. It is about owning Paul’s words to Timothy:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
I Timothy 3:16-17
Achieving this requires both imagination and discipline. Neither of these are straightforward. Karl Barth has a brilliant way of seeing Scripture which both helps us understand what Scripture is, and can fire our imaginations. He speaks of The Strange New World Within the Bible. The following short extracts capture some sense of his article:
‘We are to attempt to find an answer to the question, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open? . . .
We can but feel that there is something behind these words and experiences. But what? . . .
We are aware of something like the tremors of an earthquake or like the ceaseless thundering of ocean waves against thin dikes; but what really is it that beats at the barrier and seeks entrance here? . . .
There is a river in the Bible that carries us away, once we have entrusted our destiny to it . . .
And the invitation to dare and to reach toward the highest, even though we do not deserve it, is the expression of grace in the Bible: the Bible unfolds to us as we are met, guided, drawn on, and made to grow by the grace of God.’
The suggestion that the Bible might be the world from which we need to see our lives and the more obvious world around us, requires imagination. The demands of the Information Age in which we live, and the instant nature of everything in our consumer culture can damage our imaginations. Finding space, and a suitable way to reflect on Scripture, is vital if we are going to gain a biblical perspective on anything (and everything). How we find time to spend with Scripture and how we can explore our imagination to make Scripture our own, is a very personal thing. Something I like doing is listening to popular songs and attempting to redefine them by association with a biblical story, event or idea. For me Abba’s SOS captures some dialogue during the failing relationship between Yahweh and Israel. When I hear REM’s Everybody Hurts I think of Job’s friends who failed to understand his predicament. When I listen to Tainted Love by Soft Cell I cannot help but think of the story of Cain and Abel. Perhaps more controversially when I hear Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I think of Jesus hanging on the cross. But that’s just me. We all need to find our own way to inhabit the strange new world within the Bible.
Praying the Bible, and I am thinking essentially of the Psalms, requires imagination. We need to not just read them, but to use our imagination to consider who is saying the words. For example psalm 2 can come to life by spending some time imagining it as words spoken at David’s coronation. Who is speaking? A priest? David? God? There is no simple answer and it varies from verse to verse. The key is that this psalm takes on life for us. Then we can ask the question: What do these words mean in the light of Easter? What do the claims of this psalm mean? What cosmic perspective does it assume; in apparent stark contradiction to so many world events?
This is an even more important foundation to praying Scripture. Our everyday experience of having all we want waiting on a shelf, in a supermarket or in an on-line catalogue, places a burden upon the Bible of immediate spiritual refreshment. Sometimes that can be our experience, but not always. The value and transformative work of Scripture is not a quick fix, rather it is an organic gradual process. This often means that we can tire of our regular ‘quiet times’ because we measure them with the wrong criteria. If we measure our feelings, after praying Scripture, against watching an action film, sitting by a swimming pool or going down the pub, we are making a false comparison. Bible reading and especially praying Scripture is not about entertainment, therapy, stress management or even ‘having a friend’. Although, there are passing moments when it can feel like, and be, any of these. Reading Scripture is about being fed and being changed; it is about perceiving who we are, who God is and the nature of reality; all from a strange new-world perspective.
There is no way of escaping the very fundamental need to decide upon a way to encounter Scripture regularly. There are no firm rules about how, when or even how often. The how can include any combination of reading, reciting, purposeful re-reading, listening to a CD, memorisation, taking notes, answering questions from notes or our imagination. The when can be first thing in the morning, last thing at night or lunchtime. The frequency might be once a day, seven times a day or once a week? All the permutations of place, time and frequency have their own advantages and disadvantages. The key is to do something. If it does not work then try something else.
1. Read psalm 13, then listen to Elton John’s Sad Songs. Pray psalm 13 for yourself, or someone you know, as appropriate.
2. Read psalm 149, then listen to Bob Marley’s Jamming. Pray psalm 149 with the intention of owning this attitude through the rest of the day.
These Psalmtweets try and capture something of the essence of the 15 Psalms of Ascents (120-134). The purpose of these tweets is to draw attention to the actual psalms, not to circumvent them.
I sojourn in a strange land.
Living, breathing, but not at home.
I journey to a new place.
Yahweh, you are my peace.
I look to the hills.
Where is the help I need?
Yahweh is my shade.
And he is your shield.
In his presence;
At Yahweh’s dwelling.
We seek shalom;
I pray for peace.
I look upon Yahweh;
In humility I seek his face.
Lord I am in need of grace;
Yah, you are merciful and mighty.
Yahweh was on our side during our trial.
The Lord was with us.
Our help is in him.
He made heaven & earth.
Those who trust in Yahweh are as firmly rooted as Mount Zion.
As the hills surround Jerusalem, so Yahweh surrounds his people.
The return from captivity;
a dream come true.
Sowing for Yahweh in tears;
but the Lord reaps for all-round joy.
Lord, build your Church;
Yahweh, watch over us.
Prosper your children;
May you be honoured through your people.
Happy all who fear Yahweh.
His blessings are food and family.
These fruit are a foretaste of future shalom.
Persecution is the lot of the faithful;
some are ploughed into the ground.
Those who farm in this way will not reap.
Out of the depths I cry.
Yahweh does not mark where I am.
My soul awaits the Lord,
as a watchmen anticipates the dawn.
Yahweh, I look to you in humility.
I cannot fathom the mysteries of this world.
I am your child.
I depend on you.
A prayer for the line of David.
This prayer was answered in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.
Unity among brothers and sisters is a blessing.
It is health.
It is vitality.
It is life-giving.
Conclusive proof that 24/7 prayer was invented well over two millennia ago.
Elsewhere on these pages other Psalms of Ascents Psalmtweets can be found, as well as a look at the character of these psalms. Please use the categories or tags to access these posts.
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.
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
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).