The Prayers of the Psalter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Wansbrough

 

 

 



Foreword

 

The studies which follow were written for the seventh annual course for monks and nuns during the Easter Vacation at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, at the instigation of the Union of Monastic Superiors and in particular of Sister Zoe, the Prioress of Turvey. I am grateful to her and to those who have so loyally attended the courses, each time pushing me to do one more. I am particularly grateful to the artists at Turvey who have provided the pictures which do so much to enliven these booklets.

 

Countless Christians, and especially monastic communities, centre their public prayer on those prayers of Israel which we call the Psalms. They are ancient, pre-Christian prayers, from an era and in an idiom which is far from contemporary. They attract immediately by their heartfelt devotion, and yet they also contain elements which can puzzle and even repel. Poetry is all very well, and prayers are all very well. But why did the Church choose, and why do so many individuals choose, to pray by means of poems, often bloodthirsty and vindictive, drawn from a tradition which is now foreign to us? Is it simply that the psalms provide a large body of material which can be used as a sort of prayer-wheel? It is important to face these issues.

 

The prayer-wheel approach is not to be despised. It was, after all, current in the Church for a number of centuries when the psalms were recited in Latin with little or no understanding. For those with no understanding of Latin it was an exercise in quiet meditation against the background of the murmur of the psalms. For those with a little Latin it was possible to pick up some of the key words and concepts hallowed by Christian usage and theology, such as Dominus, amor, justitia, misericordia. The recitation of the psalms could be made very fruitful and prayerful by picking up on these terms and meditating on them during the reading or recitation of the psalm. The communal recitation of the psalms was in itself an exercise in community, and often an expression of joy and unity. At other times it might of course be an exercise in patience, self-restraint and tolerance, perhaps all the more valid as a prayer!

 

Even when the psalms were not understood, their use in prayer had at least two great values. Firstly, these prayers were hallowed by use among God’s people for many centuries. Already in the time of the first and second Temples they were the prayers of our forebears among God’s people in preparation for the Messiah, prayed through the vicissitudes and triumphs of monarchy, of exile, of return, and of pilgrimage from the Diaspora to Jerusalem. Even the least instructed would know that Psalm 109 (Dixit Dominus Domino meo) celebrated the kingship of David, and Psalm 136 (Super flumina Babylonis) mourned the loss of Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Later they became the prayers of our forebears in the Church, sung in the liturgy from the earliest times. Memorable is the account in the Peregrinatio Egeriae of that lady finding the psalms being sung in Jerusalem on her pilgrimage from Gaul in the fifth century. Similarly, nearer home, St Patrick’s use of Psalm 19 (‘Some trust in chariots or horses...’) in his confrontation with the pagan Celts is well known. On countless fabled and famous occasions in Christian history the psalms have provided the apt quotation or prayer in need, the perfect demonstration of their familiarity, springing to the lips of Christians in moments of crisis.

 


Secondly, the psalms were hallowed by the use of Jesus himself. The psalms were no doubt the staple of Jewish public prayer in the assemblies of his time, whether in the Temple or elsewhere. The Passion Narrative in the gospels is shot through with allusions to Psalm 21, so that the evangelists almost see the story of the Crucifixion through the filter of that psalm, keyed in - so to speak - by its intonation by Jesus himself, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. It is surely permissible in Christian meditation on the psalms to assume that he must have enriched them by using them all at various times in the diverse needs and moods of his life.

 

Since the liturgical use of the psalms has become current in the vernacular these values have not disappeared, but have been joined by others. It is here that the understanding enters in which this booklet attempts to mediate. The following pages represent an attempt to make the use of these ancient hymns not necessarily more scholarly, but rather more prayerful.

 

Luther’s view of the Psalms sets a fine tone for the study. The Psalter, says Luther,

might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible. It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook. In fact I  guess that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble personally to compile a short Bible and a book of examples of all Christendom or all saints, so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book. (Werke, 35.254).

 

The psalms provide a way into biblical history, and cannot be understood without some knowledge of the history of Israel. There will often be historical glimpses in the pages which follow, but a more thorough and continuous knowledge of the history of Israel will contribute greatly to the appreciation of the psalms. Similarly, as Luther says, they often provide a sort of summary of theological themes and preoccupations which are seen at greater length and fuller expression in other biblical writings[1]. The brief indications given in the following pages may therefore most profitably be filled out by use of a biblical dictionary[2]. In the questions for study I have presumed to refer frequently to my ‘Study Guide’, an commented index to the chief notes in the study edition of the New Jerusalem Bible (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1994); this provides ample scope for personal study and reflexion..


The Numbering of the Psalms

 

In this booklet the numbering of the Psalms follows general liturgical practice in using the number of the LXX Greek translation of the Psalms, rather than that of the Hebrew.

 

Greek Septuagint            Hebrew

1-8                                           1-8

9                                              9/10

10-112                    11-113

113                                   114/115

114/115                                   116

116-145                            117-146

146/147                                   147

148-150                            148-150

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Contents

 

 

1. The Psalter - an Open-Ended Collection                                                  7

 

1. What is a Psalm?

2. Parallelism

3. Metre

4. Word-thrift

5. Imagery

6. Psalms found elsewhere

 

2. Types of Psalms                                                                                         17

 

 

3.The Liturgical Setting of the Psalms                                                          19

 

 

4. Psalm Commentaries

 

         Psalm 1 An Opening Blessing                                                                23

Psalm 8 The Crown of God’s Creation                                                  26

Psalms 14 and 23 - Entrance Liturgies                                                    30

Psalm 17 A Hymn of David                                                                   34

Psalm 21 The Servant of the Lord                                                          40

Psalm 28 The God of the Storm                                                             45

Psalm 33 Confident Shelter in God                                                        51

Psalm 38 A Mere Breath                                                                         56

Psalm 45 The Lord of Hosts is with Us                                                  60

Three Historical Psalms - Psalms 77, 104, 105                                        62

Psalm 86 Jerusalem, Mother of Nations                                                 68

Two Psalms of David’s Kingship - Psalm 88 and Psalm 131                  71

Psalm 92 The Lord of the Seas                                                               77

Psalm 94 The Word of the Lord                                                   83

Psalm 109 A Royal Coronation                                                    86

Psalm 118 The Law and Love                                                                92

Psalm 126 Song of Ascent                                                                     96

Bibliography                                                                                                    99

Index of Psalms commented                                                                            100

Index of Matters principally discussed                                                             101


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

The Psalter - an Open-ended Collection

 

The prayers and hymns which constitute our Hebrew psalter must be seen as a collection of poems and prayers from among the treasury of poems and prayers in the biblical tradition. The biblical tradition contains many other similar prayers, some of which are contained in the canonical books of the Bible, and some of which have been adopted into the Christian liturgy. There are, however, yet others, such as Psalm 151, the Psalms of Solomon and the Hodayoth of Qumran (see pp. 14-16). This in turn poses the intriguing question of how and by whom the Psalter itself came to be built up.

 

1. What is a ‘Psalm’?

 

A first attempt at definition of a psalm might be ‘a prayerful poem’ or ‘a poetic prayer’. It is obvious enough to us that the psalms are poems, though the characteristics of Hebrew poetry need to be analysed. The Hebrew Book of Psalms is entitled mylht, which means ‘praises’. The Greek title is yalmoi,, or ‘hymns’, a title which over a third of the psalms bears individually. Another title for them is twlpt, or ‘prayers’, which occurs in the headings of seven psalms and at the end of Ps 72, ‘the  twlpt of David are ended’. However it must always be considered that the collection of 150 psalms may be to some extent a historical accident, and the genre of ‘psalms’ is not in itself clearly delineated, since many similar poetic prayers appear in the Bible outside our psalter of 150 psalms, and many more within the Hebrew religious tradition also outside the Bible. The New Testament further contains canticles, such as Luke’s canticles of the Benedictus, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, not to mention the hymns of the Pauline corpus (Philippians 2.6-11; Colossians 1.15-20; 1 Timothy 3.16) and the hymns of the Book of Revelation (7.12; 15.4-5), all of which are impregnated with language, sentiments and rhythms familiar from the Book of Psalms.

 

What, then, is a Hebrew poem, and what makes the psalms poems? What constitutes a poem is no less difficult to determine for Hebrew than for English poetry. Much of classic English poetry was discernible by rhymes in various patterns at the end of rhythmical lines. This is, however, much less frequent in modern compositions which are nevertheless clearly poetry. The classic saying of Wordsworth, ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (Preface to Lyrical Ballads) is more adapted to the Victorian poetic sentiment than to the powerful and often aggressive poetry of the Hebrew Bible.


Parallelism, or binary rhythm, perhaps takes in Hebrew poetry the place held in European poetry by rhyme. But it is a feature of much Hebrew and semitic writing. It should be accounted a feature not so much of poetry as of all elevated Hebrew writing, so that it hardly suffices as a criterion of what is poetry and what is not. Without rhyme and a set metre it is often difficult to determine whether a passage should be set out in continuous form or broken into lines, according to the conventions of European poetry. So the solemn promise of Genesis 22.17 may plausibly be set out as poetry, just as Genesis 12.3, although in many Bibles only Genesis 12.3 is so set out:

 

Gen 12 I shall bless those who bless you

and shall curse those who curse you

and all clans on earth

will bless themselves by you.

 

Gen 22 I will shower blessings on you

and make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven

and the grains of sand on the seashore.

Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies

all nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants

because you have obeyed my commands.

 

So, for that matter, may the story of the birth of Moses in Exodus 2.1-7 be set out as poetry. The same rhythm and parallelism would justify the same judgement of the ancient Canaanite victory inscription of King Mesha known as the Moabite Stone (ANET, p. 320). In some passages of Jeremiah (e.g. chapters 20-23) the writing slides imperceptibly between prose and poetic forms. The merging of the two forms is notable also in such writings as John 3-4. Indeed, Kugel rejects the whole distinction between prose and poetry. He points out that there is no Hebrew word corresponding to ‘poetry’, which suggests that there is no such concept. It is preferable, therefore, he maintains, to speak of ‘common speech on its best behaviour’ (p. 87).

 

The distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’ is, as noted, not native to the texts; it is a Hellenistic imposition based, at least originally, on the faulty notion that parts of the Bible were metrical... To see biblical style through the split lens of prose or poetry is to distort the view (p. 85).

 

 

2. Parallelism

 

 

The most obvious characteristic of Hebrew poetry, which holds a place corresponding to rhyme in English poetry, is parallelism. It has, however, a quite different function to rhyme. Rhyme, for example in the heroic couplets of Pope or Dryden, is primarily pleasing to the ear, secondarily giving a sense of completion. Repetition is a function of oral writing, and the psalms were clearly written to be heard rather than read, so that the repetitions serve the purpose of easing comprehension. It also gives a sense of intensification, for the second member either intensifies or echoes the first.

 


The parallelism of Hebrew poetry was first extensively investigated by Robert Lowth in his lectures at Oxford in 1741. He divided such parallelism into three categories:

 

1. Synonymous parallelism, when both paired lines say more or less the same thing, e.g.

O God, come to my assistance,

O Lord, make haste to help me.

In fact there is often, as in this case, an intensification or completion in the second line. In this case the second prayer is not simply for assistance but for speedy help.   

 

‘For they wither quickly like grass,

they fade like the green of the fields’ (Ps 36.2)

In the second line the image is more precise and opens up wider vistas.

 

‘But the humble shall own the land

and enjoy the fullness of peace’ (Ps 36.11)

The second line adds to the first, because in it the way of owning the land and its benefits are indicated.

 

Sometimes more complicated balances may be seen, such as the double balance in Ps 71.1-2:

‘ O God, give your judgement to the king, // your justice to a king’s son

that he may judge your people with justice // and your poor with judgement.’

where italic corresponds to italic, heavy type to heavy type, ‘comic’ to ‘comic’ and ‘technical’ to ‘technical’. There is both balance within each couplet and chiastic balance (judgement-justice-justice-judgement) between them.

 

2. Antithetical parallelism, when the positive sentiment in one line is echoed by a negative sentiment in the other[3], e.g.

‘Calm your anger and forget your rage,

do not fret, it only leads to evil’ (Ps 36.7)

Again here, not only is the first line built on a positive command and the second on a negative, but  the second adds to the first because in it the result of ill-temper is expressed.

 


‘O Lord, you will not withhold your compassion from me,

Your merciful love and your truth will always guard me’ (Ps 39.12)

 

‘The wicked man borrows and cannot repay,

but the just man is generous and gives’ (Ps 36.21)

In these examples  the first line is negative, the second positive. The second line is stronger than the first: not merely will God’s compassion not be withheld, but, more, God’s hesed will guard me. The just man does not merely not fail to repay, but goes positively beyond wiping out a debt.

 

3. Synthetic parallelism (that is, joining two elements together) - this is a sort of rag-bag of all the other kinds of parallelism, of which there are many. Some of them may be listed.

 

Paired genders (masculine and feminine nouns) or paired words, like day-night, heaven-earth:

‘He covers the heavens with clouds // he prepares the rain for the earth’ (Ps 146.8).

By day the Lord will send his loving-kindness // by night I will sing to him...(Ps 41.9)

 

A whole series of verbal pairs occurs in Psalm 32.2, 6-11:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give thanks to the Lord upon the harp // with a ten-stringed lute sing him songs.

By his word the heavens were made, // by the breath of his mouth all the stars.

He collects the waves of the ocean, // he stores up the depths of the sea.

Let all the earth fear the Lord, // all who live in the world revere him.

He spoke and it came to be, // he commanded, it sprang into being.

He frustrates the designs of the nations, // he defeats the plans of the peoples.

His own designs shall stand for ever, // the plans of his heart from age to age.

 

Another variation is characterised by Kugel as ‘A is so, and what’s more, B’ (p.8) or by S.E. Gillingham[4] as ‘A<B’. The second element strengthens or outbids the first:

‘The Lord sat enthroned over the flood; // the Lord sits as king for ever’ (Ps 28.10).

‘The Lord is the strength of his people, // the stronghold where his anointed find salvation

(Ps 27.8).

 

The reverse of this also occurs (‘A>B’), where the second element is a mere echo or confirmation of the first:

‘He drew me from the deadly pit, // from the miry clay’ (Ps 39.3).

‘He put a new song into my mouth, // praise of our God’ (Ps 39.4).


It is rewarding to notice that this same balance and parallelism persists into the New Testament, not only in the Lukan canticles, but in many of the Jesus-sayings, such as the neatly-balanced chiasmus

‘The sabbath was made for man // not man for the sabbath’ (Mk 2.27).

These are most highly developed in Matthew, where this kind of creative genius is seen at its fullest development:

Forgive us our debts // as we too forgive our debtors (Mt 6.12),

My yoke is easy // and my burden is light’ (Mt 11.30),

 

 

 

3. Metre

 

The metre of Hebrew poetry is extremely difficult to judge. It is determined neither by number of syllables (like the classical Alexandrines or Hendekasyllabics) nor by length of syllable (like Greek or Latin metres), but by stressed syllables separated by varying numbers of unstressed syllables, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Binsey Poplars:

 

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,

Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,

All felled, felled, are all felled;

Of a fresh and following folded rank

Not spared, not one

That dandled a sandalled

Shadow that swam or sank

On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

 

But there are further difficulties in the corrupt state of the Hebrew text, which in innumerable examples makes it impossible to be sure exactly what was the original wording. Still further difficulties spring from our ignorance:

How was the poetry (and especially that of the psalms) performed?

Was there a limit to the number of unstressed syllables between stresses, or did a subsidiary stress intrude when a certain number of unstressed syllables was exceeded? Hopkins here never has more than 3 at a time, and in the brutal third line there is only one unstressed syllable.

Could a single word could ever bear two stresses?

Did little particles (yk and l, meaning roughly ‘to’ and ‘as’) count?

Was a regular number of stresses required? The Hopkins verse above has 5-5-5-4-2-2-3-5 stresses per line.

 

Despite such obscurities we can discern that the most common rhythms are lines of two-plus-two (an energetic rhythm, like the 4:4 of a modern march - Ps 28) or three-plus-three (especially frequent in psalms of praise - Ps 150), or less frequently four-plus-four (most of Ps 45), stresses each. A frequent rhythm, normally associated with mourning, is the plaintive, qina-rhythm of 3 stresses followed by 2, in which the second line echoes and falls away from the first (so frequent in psalms of lament - Ps 27).

 


4. Word-thrift

 

A feature of poetry most difficult to reproduce in a foreign language, and most easily lost in pedestrian translations, is economy of language. It requires a poet to bring out the full richness of a language, and few translators are poets; it is therefore not to be expected that a translation will give a fair impression of the linguistic richness of any poem. This is particularly so in the case of a lapidary language like Hebrew[5], which is rich in imagery and few in words, resembling finely carved blocks of masonry. The impression of the language can often be similar to that of gnomic popular wisdom, ‘Faint heart ne’er won fair lady’, in which all superfluity is pared down. A similar impression is given by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins who often seems to throw out great blocks of sense without concessions to the continuity-words of prose. For example, the opening lines of Harry Ploughman:

 

Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldish flue

Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank

Rope-over thigh; knee-nave; and barrelled shank -

Head and foot, shoulder and shank -

 By a grey eye’s heed steered well, one crew, fall to;

Stand at stress. Each limb’s barrowy brawn, his thew

That somewhere curded, onewhere sucked or sank...

 

By contrast, a phrase like ‘he has made you great’, which in English requires several little auxiliary words, is expressed in Hebrew by a single word. This adds dignity and solemnity to the language. The first stanza of Psalm 28 has 29 words in the Grail English translation, but only 16 in the Hebrew, four in each line. The first stanza of Psalm 27 has 23 words in the Grail English, 11 in the Hebrew.

 

 

 

 

In poetry, especially, the dignity of the language is further enhanced by the omission of little auxiliary words such as ‘the’, so that Psalm 81.3 reads more literally

 

‘Justify            weak,               orphan //         defend    afflicted,       needy’

(‘Do justice for the weak and the orphan // defend the afflicted and the needy’).

 

or ‘which’, so that Psalm 117.22 reads more literally (and clumsily in English)

 

‘Stone builders           rejected //        become           corner stone’.

(‘The stone which the builders rejected // has become the corner stone’)

 


Here each word has its own accent, and the effect is clearly one of great strength - again as in the third line of the Manley Hopkins poem quoted above, where all the words but one have their own accent. In Hebrew the inflections of the words which knit the sentence together and provide the sense are given by modifications to the words themselves, so that in Psalm 110.1 the six strong words

 

‘Thank Yahweh           full-hearted  // in-meeting       of-just         and-assembly’

provide ‘I will thank the Lord with all my heart     //  in the meeting of the just and their assembly’.

 

Another example is the opening of Psalm 23, the ‘Good Shepherd Psalm’. In the Hebrew the first couplet has just four words (seven syllables): Yahweh ro‘i, lo ehsah, yielding a translation:

‘The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.’

 

The feeling of the Hebrew poetry is powerfully rendered by the psalms of the old Latin breviary, where the translator’s reverence for the sacred Hebrew text has led him to reproduce the Hebrew words and concepts in a way which often yields very awkward, ‘chunky’ Latin and is sometimes almost unintelligible without knowledge of the Hebrew original.

 

5. Imagery

 

A very special feature of the psalms is the imagery, drawn largely from the countryside of the land of Israel, especially in such splendid nature-poems as Psalm 103. Here again a specialised knowledge helps greatly to enrich this symbolism. The dryness of the country is constantly brought to mind by the imagery of life-giving water (v. 10; see p.59-60). The image of Yahweh as a rock of refuge or stronghold immediately recalls the precipitous escarpments of black basalt or threatening grey granite, often still crowned with a proud Crusader fortress or even a ruined stronghold of King Herod. Young lions no longer roar for their prey (v. 21), but the hunter will still occasionally fall in with a leopard in the desert valleys. The ‘wine to cheer man’s heart and oil to make his face shine’ (v. 15) conjure up the fertile little vineyards and olive-groves of the valleys in the hill country, which made Moses’ desert-parched messengers see Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey. But, except in the great oases like Jericho or on the banks of the Jordan, a small flock of birds (v.12) is very noticeable in the spindly and sparsely-leafed trees. Only on the mountains of the Lebanon (v. 16, and see p. 50 on the cedars) are the trees big enough for nesting storks.

 


Just one couplet, ‘the goats find a home on the mountains, and rabbits hide in the rocks’ (v. 18) can be brilliantly evocative of such clefts in stark rock as Nahal David, a quiet valley, cut into a steep ravine, where a little stream appears mysteriously out of the rock and flows into the Dead Sea, a mile away. The valley stands out from the surrounding marl as a green ribbon. There the visitor can imagine himself to be completely alone until a stone tinkles from the barren, buff hillside into the almost dry stream bed, and then he notices that the hillside is covered with ibex, that delicate, sure-footed mountain goat. Walking down the valley the visitor may have the luck to come across a bush from which peer dozens of eyes, before a bevy of brown, furry creatures scuttles out of the bush to hide in the clefts of the rock; these are hyrax, intensely inquisitive and yet timid, inaccurately translated as ‘rabbits’. Sheep are so ubiquitous in the valleys leading down from the hill country that they become a natural image for many uses; but they are grey, scraggy, cross-grained and harassed, rather than white-fleeced little darlings; happy is the shepherd who finds for them green pastures and restful waters amid the rocky outcrops of the uplands.

6. Psalms found Elsewhere

 

The Liturgy of the Hours makes use of a many psalm-like hymns of Old and New Testament. To show that this is far from being the full treasury of the genre we quote a couple of others.

 

1. Psalm 151.

According to the title, it was written by David himself when he had engaged in single combat with Goliath. It is given only in the Septuagint version of the Bible and gives the impression of having been written originally in Greek, rather than translated into Greek from Hebrew. There are several characteristically Greek turns of phrase. This rules out Davidic authorship.

 

I was smallest among my brothers, and youngest in my father’s house.

I was herding my father’s flocks.

My hands made an instrument,

my fingers fashioned a harp.

Who will give the message to my Lord?

 

He is the Lord, he himself hears.

He himself sent out his messenger,

and took me from my father’s flocks,

and anointed me with the oil of his anointing.

 

My brothers were handsome and tall,

but the Lord took no pleasure in them.

I went out to stand against the foreigner,

and he cursed me by his idol-gods.

But I drew the sword from his side,

I beheaded him

and rid the sons of Israel of their curse.

 

2. The Psalms of Solomon, 17

These 18 psalms were probably written in the middle of the last century before Christ, rather than by Solomon himself. This particular psalm is not especially rich in thought or imagery (indeed, it is somewhat repetitive, especially towards the end). However, it does show a yearning for God’s Messiah, no longer linked to the dynasty of David. It is a valuable indication of the messianic hope which was budding at this time, and of the awareness of a need to be cleansed.

 

Lord, your mercy on the work of your hands endures for ever,

your goodness with rich gifts for Israel.

Your eyes are fixed on them and will not fail them,

your ears listen to the prayer of the poor made in hope.

Your judgements over all the earth are merciful,

your love for the seed of Abraham, the sons of Israel.

You train us as a first-born, only son,

to turn an obedient soul from the darkness of ignorance.

 


O God, cleanse Israel in blessedness for the day of mercy,

for the blessed day when your Christ arises.

Blessed are they who are alive on that day,

to see the good things of the Lord, which he will do in that generation,

under the training-rod of the Christ of the Lord, in the fear of God himself,

in wisdom of spirit and justice and strength

for a man to direct them in works of justice, in fear of God,

to present them all before the Lord’s face,

a good generation in the fear of God, in the day of kindness.

 

Great is our God, and living in glory in the highest,

who day after day arranges the stars in plenty for the moments of the hours,

and they do not swerve from the path he lays down for them.

Their path is in fear of the Lord each day,

from the day God created them till eternity,

and they have not wandered since the day he created them,

from ancient generations they have not left their path

unless God instructed them by the command of his servants.

 

3. The Hymn Scroll from Qumran (1QH)

This scroll yielded 25 psalm-like hymns, probably dating from the first century before Christ. This is the fourth hymn. The form is not so closely parallel as many of the canonical psalms. The imagery is interesting: it combines some vivid images of seafaring with standard apocalyptic imagery of the Pit, Hell and the Abyss. What of the child-bearing? Is that an image or the basic reality of the hymn, which is being imaged? Is the messianic child, the mighty Counsellor (who immediately recalls Isaiah 9.5), a symbolic figure or a real person?

 

They made me like a ship in the depths of the sea,

like a fortified city before the aggressor,

like a woman in travail with her first-born child,

upon whose womb have come pangs and grievous pains,

filling with anguish her child-bearing crucible.

 

For the children have come to the throes of death,

and she who bears a man labours in travail.

For amid the throes of death she shall bring forth a child,

and amid an agony of pain shall spring forth from her child-bearing crucible

a marvellous mighty Counsellor,

and a man shall be delivered through her throes.

 

Those who conceive vanity shall be prey to terrible anguish,

the wombs of the Pit shall be prey to all the works of horror.

The foundations of the wall shall rock like a ship upon the face of the waters.

The heavens shall roar with a noise of roaring,

and those who dwell in dust, and those who sail the seas,

shall be appalled by the roaring of the waters.


 

 

 

All their wise men shall be like sailors on the deep,

for all their wisdom shall be swallowed up in the midst of the howling seas,

as the abysses boil above the fountains of the waters.

The towering waves and the billows shall rage with the voice of their roaring.

And as they rage Hell and Abaddon shall open, and all the flying arrows of the Pit

shall send out their voice to the abyss.

And the gates of Hell shall open on all the works of vanity,

and the doors of the Pit shall close on the conceivers of wickedness.

cf. G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (41995), p. 196.

1. In the psalter find a couple of examples of each type of parallelism described on pp. 5-7.

2. Find an example of qina-rhythm (see p. 11) other than Ps 27. Write out a couple of verses, underlining the stressed syllables.

3. Choose a short modern religious poem (5 to 15 lines); compare and contrast it to a similar psalm.

 


 

 

Chapter Two - Types of Psalms

 

The division of the psalms into different categories was basically the work of Hermann Gunkel. He wrote his great commentary on the Psalms in 1925-6, and his Einleitung in die Psalmen was published posthumously in 1933. Since then details have been the subject of scholarly controversy and some modifications to the schema proposed by Gunkel have become generally accepted. A useful categorization (based on S.E. Gillingham, The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (O.U.P., 1994), especially p. 231) is here proposed. Psalms explicitly discussed later in this booklet are given in heavy type.

 

1. Hymns of Praise

 

These hymns normally begin with a call to praise God. The bulk of the psalm is concerned with giving the reasons for praising him. They conclude with a further call to praise. Within this structure the details vary widely.

 

General Hymns of Praise: 8 28 32 77 99 102 103 104-105 110 112 113 116 134 135 145-150

of these some are especially concerned with God as Lord of creation: 28 (92)103

others with God as guiding the history of Israel: 77 104 (105) 135

Hymns of praise to God in Sion: 45 47 75 83 86 121

Hymns of God’s kingship: 46 92 95-98

 

2. Laments

 

The characteristic of these is an opening cry of distress, then a description of the trouble, leading into a prayer for help, and finally a declaration of confidence that God has power to save the suppliant. Some are laments for a national disaster, such as a defeat in battle (43) or the destruction of the Temple (73) or of Jerusalem (78, 136). Others are more difficult to classify. It is often difficult to say whether these are the laments of a single person for a personal difficulty, or a single person meditating on and praying about public grief, often using the plural (‘Revive us now, God our helper!’ 84.5) and singular (‘I will hear...’ 84.9) interchangeably.

Another untidiness of the classification is that the declaration of confidence in God’s power to save is, in some psalms, in the form of praise, so that it is tempting to classify the whole psalm as a hymn of praise.

 

Individual laments; 3 5-7 11-12 16 21 24 25 27 30 34 35 37 38 41-42 50 54-56 58 60 62-63 68-70 85 87 101 108 119 122 129 139-142

 

Communal laments: 43 59 73 76 78 79 81 82 84 89 93 (105) 107 125 136

 

 

 


3. Miscellaneous Psalms

 

Royal Psalms about a king of David’s line: 2 17 19-20 44 71 88 100 109 131 143

Several of these seem to be attached to a specific occasion, such as a coronation (2, 109), a royal wedding (44), the installation of the Ark in the Temple (131)

 

Individual thanksgivings: 9 29 31 33 39 40 91 106 115 138

 

Communal thanksgivings: 64-67 117 123

 

Individual psalms of confidence: 4 10 15 22 26 61 83 90 120 130

 

Communal psalms of confidence: 114 124 128 132

 

Psalms on the occasion of a Public Liturgy: 14 23? 133

This is the usual classification of these psalms. The discussion of the individual psalms will, however, cast doubt on its exactitude. Psalm 133 could be used for any evening prayer.

 

Prophetic Exhortations: 13 49 51 52 74 80 94

 

Didactic or Wisdom Psalms: 1 18 36 48 72 111 118 126 127 138

So classified are psalms which show the concerns of the Wisdom Literature, the latest section of the Bible, about how the Israelite should lead a life faithful to God. There are sections in other psalms which show the same concerns (e.g. 31.8-10). Since the psalms were used and re-used constantly, it is not surprising that such concerns should have crept into psalms which were not originally centred on these matters.

Look up psalms listed under ten different headings in this chapter, and write a few lines on each, justifying or disputing their classification under this heading. Would any of them be better classified differently?

 


 

 

 

Chapter Three - The Liturgical Setting of the Psalms

 

 

1. A Cultic Background

 

It is continuously obvious that at least some of the psalms presuppose a liturgical setting of some kind. There is frequent mention of processions, trumpets and other musical instruments, going up to ‘God’s house’, walking around the altar. Sometimes there are refrains which appear to be a response to a verse-form, as though there were interchange between a solo singer and a chorus or congregation, particularly when these responses are short and frequently repeated (‘for his great love is without end’). The ‘we’ of the psalms  presupposes some sort of public gathering. In other psalms the singular ‘I’ similarly seems to stand for a public personality, speaking in the name of the people. The subject-matter of the psalms is often some national occasion - victory or defeat - which would call for a public celebration or lamentation.

 

The question is, however, complicated by the dating of the composition of the psalms. The cultural background will differ widely in function of the date at which a psalm was composed. It is difficult to be certain of the date of composition of many of the psalms. Some of the psalms presuppose a reigning king and an established cult in the Temple.  Others clearly presuppose and mention the events of the Exile.

 

In the course of the relevant centuries the circumstances of the nation underwent changes which would show their effects in any national liturgy. David was responsible for the beginnings of the kingship and the importance of Jerusalem. But before the time of Solomon there was only an embryonic royal court, and worship at Jerusalem was centred on the Ark. Solomon’s building of the Temple initiated a considerable expansion of cult, liturgy and priesthood. The reforms of Josiah three centuries later were aimed at centring all the cult on Jerusalem, abolishing the more-or-less idolatrous mountain shrines and developing even the family festival of the Passover into one great central festival at Jerusalem.  All this was rudely annihilated at the Babylonian exile. Then again, after seventy years of exile, the Jews returned to a more impoverished and fragile existence in and around a reduced Jerusalem and a more simply rebuilt Temple. Only in the last century before Christ, probably after the end of the composition of our psalter, was there any attempt at renewal of the kingship. The political and national setting of the psalms will therefore differ widely according to the period in which they were composed.

 

Similarly with imagery and language, some of the psalms use the imagery current in Canaanite and Ugaritic poetry early in the first millenium before Christ, while others show the influence of Babylonian ideas (presumably most influential during the Babylonian Exile in the middle of the millenium), and still others reflect the Aramaic language which became current in the area only in the last three or four centuries before Christ. These cultural and historical changes may, therefore, be expected to show in the different psalms composed at different dates.

 


2. The Psalms of the Kingship of Yahweh

 

Three factors have focussed the quest for a background and setting of the psalms espcially onto the royal psalms celebrating the kingship of Yahweh. The first is the repeated expression malak Yahweh, roughly translated ‘Yahweh is king’(46.8; 92.1; 95.10; 96.1). The second is the analogy with Babylonian liturgy. The third is indications elsewhere in the Bible of a great annual festival of Yahweh’s kingship. The argument that many of the psalms reflet a great annual festival of the kingship of Yahweh was advanced most forcibly and famously by Sigmund Mowinkel (Psalmen-Studien, 1912-1924, and The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 1951, translated into English 1962). Mowinkel maintained that very many of the psalms, including the psalms of the kingship of Yahweh, were composed for a great annual cultic festival of Yahweh’s kingship.

 

1. The chief question is the exact meaning of the expression ‘malak Yahweh’. Does it mean ‘Yahweh is king’ in a static and permanent sense, or ‘Yahweh has become king’ with the sense of a new event? Mowinkel claims that, by analogy with other uses of the same word, it must have the latter sense. Certainly in 2 Sm 15.10 of Absalom, in 1 Kgs 1.11 of Solomon, and in 2 Kgs 9.13 of Jehu, it is an acclamation used of someone who has just become king. Elsewhere it is used in another sense, of someone who was king in the past, who ruled for a certain number of years, but not of someone who is king. This would suggest that in the psalms it is an acclamation to be used at some ceremonial re-enthronement of Yahweh as king, at which it would be appropriate to cry out ‘Yahweh has become king’. However, it remains questionable whether it is correct to restrict the sense of the Hebrew word so narrowly. Other Hebrew verbs have this static sense, indicating a permanent condition which lacks any claim to novelty. The expression could perfectly well mean ‘Yahweh is king’.

 

2. The great difficulty is that if Yahweh has become king, this seems to imply that at some time he was not king. Can Yahweh cease to be king? The second factor in the claim that these psalms belong to a festival of the kingship of Yahweh is therefore an analogy with Babylon. In Babylon there was an annual festival at the new year (which began in what we consider the autumn) of the re-enthronement of the god Enlil or Marduk, although there is no indication that the god was ever felt to cease to be king. The god - and his representative, the king - was a symbol of the life forces in the universe and especially in the    agricultural cycle. The annual celebration was centred on the annual death and rebirth of vegetation. This was symbolised by a ritual death and re-coronation of the king. In Israel also the New Year Festival was (and still is) in the autumn, allied to the end (and so also the beginning) or the annual crop-cycle. Yahweh as creator is, of course, responsible for the continuation of the seasons and of the cycle of fertility of the earth. Mowinkel argued that Yahweh’s creative work was conceived principally as a triumph over the forces of chaos (the flood-waters, which might break out again at any moment, unless restrained by Yahweh), and that his creative work and his kingship were celebrated anew each year at this feast of Yahweh’s triumph over the forces of nature. Each renewal of this cycle is, therefore, a triumph for Yahweh, at which it would be appropriate to cry, ‘Yahweh has become king’. There is, admittedly, no evidence that in Israel the autumn festival included the re-enthronement of Yahweh or a renewal of his  kingship, but it would not - claim the proponents of the theory - be unreasonable to assume that there was a similarity to the Babylonian festival.


 

One of the difficulties with this thesis is the chronological relationship of these psalms to the Babylonian Exile. It is therefore important to date the kingship psalms. On the one hand, the Temple liturgy was surely formed before rather than after the exile. On the other hand, influence from the Babylonian festival is obviously more likely to have occurred in the course of Israel’s experience of Babylon during the exile than before that period. A critical factor in this is the relationship of the kingship psalms to the exilic prophet who is responsible for the second part of the Book of Isaiah. In many respects there is a close link between these psalms and the poetic and psalmic forms of Deutero-Isaiah, especially in his prophetic descriptions of the return of Israel across the desert as a royal triumph for Yahweh (‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger announcing peace, who proclaims salvation and says to Sion, “Your God is king”’, Is 52.7). Nevertheless, of the two sets of texts it seems likely that the psalms are earlier, for their monotheism is less absolute. It was only through reaction to their experience of the rampant polytheism in their land of captivity that Israel reached the full conviction of monotheism. Until then Yahweh was seen as the God of Israel without absolute rejection of the possibility of other gods. Certain of the psalms, including the psalms of Yahweh’s kingship, still admit the possibility of other gods existing, subordinate to Yahweh (‘A mighty god is the Lord, a great king above all gods’, Ps 94.3; ‘The Lord is great and worthy of all praise, to be feared above all gods’, Ps 95.4). This is an indication - disputed, to be sure - that these psalms are pre-exilic. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a wholly new festival, or a wholly new angle to an existing festival, would have been introduced into the annual cycle after the exile.

 

3. A third factor is the likelihood that at some time there was in Israel a great festival of the kingship of Yahweh. The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth) occurs in the autumn at about the time of the celebration of the New Year. Among other things, it seems to have been a celebration of the kingship of Yahweh. In the great eschatological celebration of Zechariah 14 (certainly post-exilic) all the nations are to go up to Jerusalem to celebrate Yahweh’s kingship on the feast of Tabernacles. This would have been a most suitable occasion for the singing of the psalms of Yahweh’s kingship, though it need not necessarily have been the occasion for which they were originally composed. Even this, therefore, does not demand an ancient cultic festival dedicated primarily to the kingship of Yahweh.

 

The contrary arguments therefore convinced C. Westermann (e.g. The Praise of God in the Psalms, 1965) that Mowinkel was mistaken, and that there is insufficient evidence for an ancient cultic festival of the kingship of Yahweh attached to the celebration of the New Year. If such a festival, dependent on Babylonian influence during the exile, did not exist there may have been a somewhat similar festival of the kingship of Yahweh in Israel associated with a festival of the Ark. Psalm 131 clearly celebrates (whether at the time or in a commemorative celebration) the return of the Ark from Kiryat-Yearim to Jerusalem in the time of David. Psalm 23.7-10 has frequently (though probably incorrectly, see discussion of that psalm) been associated also with the ceremonial entry of the Ark into the Holy Place. Psalm 98.1 sings of Yahweh ‘throned on the cherubim’, those great winged creatures represented in gold on top of the Ark. But here again the fact that the Ark figured prominently in Israel’s devotion and public worship does not mean that there was a special annual festival of the Ark, unmentioned in the Bible, or that a festival of Yahweh’s kingship was associated with it.  In short, it does not, therefore, seem compelling to associate the psalms of the kingship of Yahweh with any particular cultic festival.


The theory has now been largely abandoned, though it can still be found in many books. A barometer of its decline may be seen in two recent discussions. It still earns a mention in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) but does not feature in 15 pages of the article on the Psalms in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992).

Having read this chapter, check out the theory with reference to all the psalms mentioned. Is the theory the most likely explanation of these features? Write a short essay (2-3 pages) giving your own reactions.

 


 

 

 

Chapter Four - Psalm Commentaries

 

 

 

 

 

Psalm 1 An Opening Blessing

 

 

1. Genre

 

This psalm suits admirably to begin the psalter. It begins abruptly, without any title. It outlines two possible approaches to the whole of life, passing on in a strong conclusion to the outcome of these two ways. It is an optimistic statement, putting all the accent on the positive side, mentioning the negative only enough to provide the contrast. It is a Wisdom-Psalm, like many others in the psalter, especially Ps 118, meditating on the requirements for sensible and wise living.

 

Indeed, it could well be that at a certain moment these two psalms bracketed an earlier and partial collection of the psalter, bolting  the collection together as a statement about wise living, for a new set of psalms (the gradual psalms, 119-133) starts after Psalm 118. Psalm 1 could then be considered as a brief, imaged, opening sketch, of which Psalm 118 is a much longer, expansive and meditative concluding statement. There is a strong argument that the first three books of the Psalms have royal psalms at their seams[6]. Since Psalm 2 is a royal psalm, this would constitute the initial ‘seam’, with Psalm 1 placed before the whole collection.

 

The psalm contrasts two ways of living, accompanied by promise and threat. Such paired promises and threats occur frequently in the Bible, notably Deut 30.15-20, at the end of the giving of the Law:

 

Look, today I am offering you life and prosperity, death and disaster. If you obey the commandments..., but if you turn away....

 

Another important passage is Prov 4.18-19. Most familiar is probably the alternatives offered at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew lays before his readers the broad way that leads to perdition and the narrow gate which leads to safety (Mt 7.13-14).

 

 


 

2. Structure

 

The contrast between the blessed and the wicked is brought out in various ways.

 

a. There is a chiasmus running through the psalm:

a. (v.1-2)         the blessed

b. (v. 3)           image of firmness, the fruitful tree, successful and thriving

b. (v. 4)           image of impotent instability, insubstantial chaff, wafted away by any breath of wind

a. (v. 5-6)        the wicked.

 

b. This main chiasmus is reinforced by several means. The Grail translation has lost the Hebrew particles which reinforce the structure: v.2 begins ‘rather, his delight...’, and the final stanza also begins ‘rather, they like winnowed chaff’, and vv. 4 and 5 begin respectively ‘not so’ and ‘just so’. These give what Robert Alter calls ‘an exact moral calculus’, sewing the whole neatly together, stage by stage.

 

c. At the end of the second line comes ‘the wicked’; answering it comes the same word in the last line. The blessed will not sit in the company of scorners (v.1); the wicked shall not stand (v. 5).

 

d. In the last verse there is a stark contrast between the strong statement ‘the Lord knows the way of the just’ (and, since the verb is used of intimate, often sexual knowledge, ‘embraces’ or ‘hugs’ might be a suitable translation; this is, in addition, the only place in the psalm where God is the subject of a sentence, so the only place where God actually takes action), and the evanescence of the wicked, who don’t even manage to stand up to being a subject of the verb. The verse makes a really strong conclusion, to which the chiasmic structure contributes: verb - ‘way of the just’ - ‘way of the wicked’ - verb. By the grammatical structure itself God takes charge of the way of the just, whereas the godless way of the wicked simply blows away into nothingness.

 

e. Another neat balance disappears in the Grail translation: in the LXX (which is often a useful guide to the earlier Hebrew version) the same word is used in v. 1b, ‘does not walk in the counsel of the wicked’ and in v. 5b ‘join in the counsel of the just’. The Greek word in each case means the gathering where people join to discuss plans and make decisions, and so also the plans and decisions themselves. The two gatherings are contrasted, and the plans made there.

 

 

 

3. Beatitudes

 

The figure of pronouncing certain people or qualities blessed by the Lord occurs frequently in the wisdom literature of the Bible. For Christians the best known is Matthew’s set of Beatitudes (Mt 5.3-10), but very similar is Ben Sira 14.1-2:


Blessed is anyone who has not sinned in speech

and who need feel no remorse for sin.

Blessed is anyone whose conscience does not reproach him,

and who has never given up hope.

 

A similar figure has been found at Qumran (4Q525), which also, as the Psalm and as Luke’s set of four Beatitudes and four Woes, yields the contrast between the blessed and the wicked:

 

Blessed is anyone who speaks the truth from a pure heart

and makes no calumny in speech.

Blessed those who cling to his decrees

and do not cling to perverse ways.

 

Another memorable exchange of this kind of compliment is featured in the gospel story of the woman in the crowd who cries out, ‘Blessed the womb that bore you and the breasts that fed you!’, to which Jesus replies, ‘More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (Lk 11.27-28).   

 

 

1. What is meant by calling this Psalm a Wisdom-Psalm? What is the Wisdom Literature of the Bible and why is it so called? (Read e.g. the Introduction to the Wisdom Books in the NJB [study edition, p.749])

2. How is the Beatitude-form used in the Bible? (You will need some biblical dictionary. Look up all the beatitudes you can in both OT and NT. See NJB note Mt 5.3c)

 

 


Psalm 8 The Crown of God’s Creation

 

 

1. Genre

 


This is one of the creation-psalms, celebrating God’s power as continuing creator. Of these there is a wide variety in the psalter, spanning by their origin all the periods of Israel’s history, and drawing on the culture of other nations. So Psalm 18.2-7 resembles Babylonian hymns to the sun-god. Psalm 28 celebrates the power of God in nature as the storm-god, controlling the mighty powers of nature, a concept inherited from the Canaanite culture which preceded Israel in their land. Psalm 32.6-11 celebrates creation from a different point of view, in this case relying on a less pictorial conception: God creates by his word, and the thought is closely allied to that of God’s wisdom and his ordering of the world. The same concept will be used of the Word in the Prologue to John’s Gospel. Psalm 103 has clear reminiscences of a lovely fourteenth-century BC hymn to Aton, the Egyptian sun-god[7]. Psalm 81.1 (‘God stands in the divine assembly, in the midst of the gods he gives judgement’) reflects the Mesopotamian concept of an assembly of gods, presided by a chief god, in one case the moon-god[8]. The same conception perhaps stands behind verse 6 of this psalm.

 

 

2. Formal

 

The psalm has a certain lightsome and brilliant quality about it. It is uniquely praise, without any hesitations or complaints, and the subject-matter is elemental and uncomplicated. To this end serves also an alluring repetitiveness. Not only is the opening verse repeated at the end as a refrain, but throughout the psalm there are paired expressions:

Lord                our God

earth                heaven

children           babes

foe                   rebel

moon               stars

man                  son of man

glory                honour

hand                 feet

sheep               cattle

birds                fish

air                    waters.

 

The sequence of thought is not immediately obvious: why should it pass from the majesty of God (vv. 2b-3) to the exaltation of humanity in creation (vv. 4-9)? The link is in the praise of God’s name by children and babes. The astonishing thing is that weak and transitory human beings should be raised to such a position, and it is because even the most insignificant of human beings,children and babies, have this power that humanity is placed over creation. Thus the key-verse is the central v. 5, which interrupts the sequence in every way: not only is it an exclamation rather than a statement, as all the others are (the ‘what is...!’ makes more sense as an exclamation than as a question), but it breaks the sequence of progression between the halves of the verses. In all the other verses there is a progression between the first and the second half of the verse, whereas in this case we have a mere repetition, and an exactly patterned one at that:

what is             man                              that you remember       him

and                  the son of man that you care for          him.

 

The psalm circles round two principle theological ideas, creation and the Name of God.


 

3. Creation

 

The psalm may be seen as a sort of meditation on the first creation narrative (Gn 1). The heavens, the moon and the stars, and the animal creation come in the same order in the psalm as in Genesis. Only two points need to be noted. First, the sun is not mentioned; the psalmist is looking at the night sky for a panoramic view of the divine splendour. Secondly, the order within the animal kingdom is abruptly changed. We do not come to the animals and then to Adam. The central point of the meditation is made clear because the separate creation of the animals is omitted and the thought skips immediately to the position of Adam in ruling over creation, giving their names to the animals, and so having power and authority over them (Gn 1.28; 2.19-20). The animals, then, for all the loving detail lavished on them[9], have importance only as showing the extent of human sovereignty. It might be worth noticing that even in the division of the animals there is an echo of the creation narrative: these are the classes of creatures produced, namely animals successively on land, air and water.

 

It is also important to observe that the human authority over the animal creation is an extension of that of the creator. Man is little less than a god, and endowed with the divine gifts of glory and hdr (‘awesome splendour’, see on Psalm 29). So human authority over the animal creation is authority only to continue, conserve and care for the divine work of creation, not to destroy it arbitrarily. This was already indicated in the creation narrative: when God leads the beasts to Adam to see what he would call them, and Adam gives them all names (Gn 2.19-20), by so doing Adam gives them definite natures and therefore completes the work of creation which God has begun.

 

 

4. The Name of God

 

The name of God in the ancient world had a special place. In magical prayers and rites throughout the ancient world it was crucial to employ the right name and title for a god. To have a deity’s or a demon’s name was already to have some power over the deity or demon. Even today to refuse to give my name is normally a sign of mistrust or of distancing myself; if I give my name it makes me vulnerable. This was why the revelation of the divine name in Exodus was a manifestation of friendship and trust - and why it is not to be bandied around unnecessarily. To give someone a new name is to give a new nature, or a least a new function: so Adam naming the animals, Abraham (Gn 17.5), Jacob renamed Israel (Gn 32.29; 35.10), Simon renamed Peter (Mt 16.18). The one who gives the name has a certain creative power and propriety over the named.

 


The sanctity of the Name of God receives a special dimension at the time of the Exile. By its failure, by its hypocritical sacrifices and its foul idols, and especially by compelling God, the protector of Israel, to allow the Sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple - that dwelling-place of his holiness - Israel had profaned God’s holy name among the nations (Ezek 20.39).  He was seen by the nations as incapable of protecting his people, and so of living up to his Name of being the protector of Israel. The restoration of Israel will put an end to this profanation of his holy name, and will display its holiness:

 

The Lord Yahweh says this, ‘I am acting not for your sake, House of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I am going to display the holiness of my great name, and the nations will know that I am Yahweh. For I shall take you from among the nations and gather you back from all the countries, and bring you home to your own country’ (Ezek 36.22-24).

 

Such thinking provides the context for our psalm. The use of the creation-narrative in Genesis already shows that it cannot have been written before the Exile. Its purpose, therefore, could well be as a hymn of reassurance of human dignity in the dark days of the Exile.

 

In the Christian dispensation the Name receives a new dimension. In the Acts of the Apostles, Christians are defined as those who call upon the name of Jesus, and followers are baptised into the name of Jesus, that is, into the power of Jesus. The significance of the Name reaches its high point in the Pauline (or, more likely, pre-Pauline but adopted and adapted by Paul) hymn in Phil 2.6-11. Here Adam and Jesus are compared, that is, the first and second Adam. Both were created in the likeness of God. As Adam sought to be like God, so Jesus did not see in this something to be exploited. As Adam was disobedient, so Jesus was obedient. As Adam sought to escape death, so Jesus faced death. As Adam was brought low, so Jesus was lifted high and given the name which is above all other names. Therefore, to the glory of God the Father, he receives the divine homage of all creation and the divine name of Ku,rioj or Lord.

 

 

1. Compare this psalm to any other poem or hymn you know about the beauty of the world around us. What is special about the psalm? How does it differ from your poem?

2. Write a couple of pages on the theology of names and the Name of God in the Bible. Use NJB study edition (p. 2092) on note to Gn 2.19, Is 1.26, Jn 17.6.

 


Two Entrance Liturgies: Psalm 14 and Psalm 23

 

 

Psalm 14

 

1. Structure

 

The structure of the psalm is straightforward. It begins with a question, to which verses 2-5 provide the answer, the last line summing up with a blessing. Over the exact arrangement of the elements of the answer there is room for dispute: is it a Hendecalogue (a list of eleven commandments - one per line in the Grail arrangement) or an Ennealogue (a list of nine commandments) preceded by two all-embracing conditions?

 

I would incline to the latter. The answer begins with two general conditions, walking in wholeness and doing justice, each expressed in Hebrew by a participle, which separates them from the detailed conditions. In any case, these two are very general qualities: wholeness, faultlessness, expresses the whole condition of moral approbation. ‘Justice’ is the same; the Greek translates it by the very general word dikaiosu,nh, used so liberally by Paul in Romans and Galatians. The other conditions in this little examination of conscience can perhaps be paired - with a final trio:

speech:                        speak the truth - no slander

neighbourliness           no evil to a neighbour - no slur on a companion/colleague

God’s values               reverence for the Lord - wariness of those who lack it

honesty in business      security in handling money - no usury - no bribery.

 

 

2. Occasion

 

The question-and-answer formula suggests some sort of dialogue, perhaps a liturgical one. Since each half of v. 1 indicates the Temple (for the holy mountain see comments on Psalm 86), the occasion of the psalm could be a question put to the custodians of the Temple in the name of the Lord.

 

 

 

Psalm 23

 

 

1. Structure

 

Traditionally Psalm 23 has been seen as occasioned by a liturgy of the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem or into the Temple. It was attached to different occasions according to the scholar’s estimate of its date. Thus it could be the liturgical hymn to accompany any of the following occasions:

 


1. David’s bringing the Ark up to Jerusalem (2 Sm 6), the great occasion which first consecrated the city to the Lord, turning it from David’s private fiefdom into the Lord’s own capital city. The event is related with more liturgical splendour in 1 Chr 13.

 

2. Solomon’s placement of the Ark in the Temple when the building was completed (1 Kgs 8). There was a magnificent occasion when there was great stress on the coming of the glory of the Lord to his Temple. This would accord with the frequent mention of ‘glory’ in vv. 7-10.

 

3. The restoration of the Temple under Zerubabbel after the Babylonian Exile (Nehemiah 12.40-43). Ezekiel had written movingly about the departure of the glory of the Lord by the east gate of the Temple at the time of its destruction (Ezek 10.18-20), and had prophesied its return in the same way (Ezek 43.1-5). Again the element of the ‘king of glory’ in vv. 7-10 would be most suitable.

 

4. The re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration in Maccabaean times (2 Mc 10.1-8).

 

There are two difficulties about all these interpretations. The first and minor difficulty is that the psalm is obviously composite, knit together from three elements. After the first two introductory verses there is a certain unity provided by the question-and-answer schema of the second and third parts (v. 3 corresponding to verses 8a, 10a; vv. 4-5 corresponding to verses 8bc and 10bc). The major difficulty is provided by the third element, vv. 7-10.

 

vv. 1-2 A cosmic introduction, praising God as lord of creation. It uses the ancient Canaanite myth of God as controlling the seas, but in a more modern way, referring to God as lord of all the peoples. This fits the enriched theological concepts after Israel’s horizons had been expanded by the exile and the events which followed it.

 

vv. 3-6 The short dialogue with examination of conscience, familiar from Psalm 14 and very similar to it, beginning with a question, continuing with moral conditions and concluding with a blessing. Such an examination is suited to a quieter and more personal occasion than the great festivals pinpointed above. These verses could perfectly well stand as an independent peice on their own.

 

vv. 7-10           Here the difficulty is the refrain, ‘Grow higher, ancient doors’. This is not a suitable way, even in poetry, of describing the opening of monumental gates. Such gates are not drawn upwards for opening[10]. Two clues suggest an alternative scenario. Firstly, ‘ancient doors’ (vv. 7, 9) renders the literal ‘doors of eternity’, an expression which is used of the gates of the underworld abode of the dead in both Egyptian mythology and Qumran (1QH 3.18). Secondly, ‘lift high your heads’ also has the sense of ‘stand tall’,’stand proud’. There are many stories in both Egyptian and Mesopotamian myth of a god (Osiris and Ishtar respectively) gaining admission to the underworld. As they attempt to enter they are challenged by the gate-keepers of the underworld. This little fragment of four verses makes perfect sense, then, if it was originally a poetic version of just such a challenge:


v. 7      The attendants of the king of glory call on the gates to be proud that he should enter.

v. 8a    The gate-keepers challenge for identification.

v. 8bc  Identification is given.

v. 9      Repeated call to the gates to be proud of his entry.

v. 10a  Repeated, more aggressive (almost ‘Who then, who on earth is he?’) challenge for identification.

v.10bc Identification given with the title Yahweh Sebaoth, literally ‘Yahweh of Hosts’, probably referring to Yahweh’s lordship over the hosts of lesser deities, the Canaanite deities which Yahweh has subdued.

 

In its use in the psalm this fragment is best understood as re-interpreted of Yahweh’s final entry into the eschatological holy city[11]. The whole psalm was surely, therefore, in its present state, understood of an eschatological enquiry about who should accompany the Lord on his final entry into the eschatological holy city. In the later, eschatological parts of Isaiah Yahweh is often represented as a triumphant warrior: ‘See how Yahweh comes in fire, his chariots like the whirlwind’ (Is 66.15, cf. 63.1-6), and the title ‘Yahweh Sebaoth’ is used six times. In Isaiah 33.10-15 just such a list of moral requirements as Ps 23.4 is given for those who will keep company with him at his eschatological coming:

 

‘Now I shall stand up,’ says Yahweh, ‘now I shall rise, now draw myself up.

The peoples will be burnt up as though by quicklime.’

The sinners in Zion are panic-stricken and fear seizes on the godless,

‘Which of us can survive the devouring fire, which survive everlasting burning?’

The one who acts uprightly and speaks honestly, who scorns to get rich by extortion,

who rejects bribes out of hand, who refuses to listen to plans involving bloodshed,

such a man will live on the heights.

 

 

2. A Christian Perspective

 

This eschatological understanding of the psalm is mirrored also in Christian tradition, though no direct link has been traced to explain how this Christian eschatological understanding of the psalm came to be. The fifth-century so-called ‘Gospel of Nicodemus’ gives for the first time the detailed legend which became so popular as The Harrowing of Hell, cf. J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 200-202, or in shorter form in the same author’s The Apocryphal Jesus (OUP, 1996), p. 100:

 

Hades and the gates of death trembled. And then was heard the voice of the Son of the Father most high as if the voice of great thunder and loudly proclaiming, he thus charged them, ‘Lift up your gates, you princes; lift up the everlasting gates; the King of Glory, Christ the Lord, will come up to enter in’.

 


Satan and Hades then fall to terrified consultation about means to ward off the incursion. The saints hear their wrangling and join in, first Adam, then Isaiah, then John the Baptist, then David being gradually recognised.

 

And again there came the voice of the Son of the Father most high like great thunder, saying, ‘Lift up your gates, you princes, and be lifted up, you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory will come in.’ Then Satan and Hades cried out saying, ‘Who is the King of Glory?’ And the voice of the Lord answered them, ‘ The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle’. Then holy David, inflamed with anger against Satan, cried out aloud, ‘Open your gates, most vile wretch, that the King of Glory may come in.’ In like manner all the saints of God also rose up against Satan and tried to seize him and tear him in pieces. And again the cry was heard within, ‘Lift up your gates, you princes, and be lifted up, you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.’  Hades and Satan at that clear voice again asked saying, ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ And that wonderful voice replied, ‘The Lord of hosts, he is the King of Glory’.


Psalm 17

 

 

 

1. David and the Psalm

 

This psalm occurs also, with minor textual variations, in 2 Samuel 22, one of the additional chapters at the end of the story of David. Both there and in the title of this psalm the prayer is attributed to David himself ‘when Yahweh had delivered him from the clutches of all his enemies and from the clutches of Saul’. It is certainly possible to understand it in the light of those circumstances, and J-L Vesco has recently given a detailed reading of it as a Davidic psalm (‘Le Psaume 18, lecture davidique’ in Revue biblique 94 (1987), pp. 5-62). There are good reasons to doubt the value of the ascription of as many psalms to David as the titles of the psalms claim[12]. But these ‘Davidic’ psalms do show a striking similarity of vocabulary, as though they were all the work of one author. For example all the 42 occurrences of ‘enemy’ (which occurs six times in this psalm) are in Davidic psalms; 16 of the 18 occurrences of ‘set above’ (which occurs three times in this psalm) are in Davidic psalms. However, the argument may be circular: psalms may have been attributed to David precisely because they deal with such topics, and these topics themselves generate a certain vocabulary. Nevertheless, the final verse of the psalm, with its mention of ‘his anointed’ and its allusion to the promises of God made to David by Nathan in 2 Sm 7, at least focusses the psalm on David’s royal line. In God’s name the prophet Nathan promised that he would grant a royal house to ‘David and his sons for ever’ - a promise which was never far from the mind of Israel, and became the basis of the messianic hope, echoed in the Benedictus (Lk 1.69).

 

2. Structure

 

The psalm clearly falls into three parts:

1. Deliverance from enemies by a cosmic theophany (vv. 4b-20)

2. David’s innocence and God’s own integrity (vv. 21-31b)

3. God’s care of David in battle (vv. 33-49).

 

The opening cry of confidence (v. 3) sets the scene by a magnificent series of seven images of security. God is           a crag - an unassailable place of refuge

a mountain-fastness or stronghold

a deliverer - the next-of-kin who must come to help in crisis (see p. 28-29)

a place of escape

a shield

a horn of salvation (the expression occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, but a horn is a symbol of strength. The expression is, however, used of John the Baptist in the Benedictus, Lk 1.69)

a secure height or citadel.

 

Around and between the three parts come the general themes and reflections, in vv. 2-4a, 31c-32 and 50-51. The three major concepts here, which recur also throughout the psalm, are


love (vv. 1, 20, 26, 51)

praise (vv. 4, 50)

salvation (vv. 4, 20, 28, 36, 42, 44, 47, 49).

 

 

 

3. Two Major Concepts: Love and Salvation

 

a. Love

 

The three different words used for ‘love’ invite comment. The word used in v. 1 is a very tender word. It is normally used for the love of the stronger for the weaker, a gentle compassion or pity (‘Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne?’ Is 49.15, cf. 13.18). The root of the word is indeed related to the word for ‘womb’, and it is frequently used for God’s maternal love. It is the first word used for God’s love in Ex 34.6 (see below).Only here in the Bible is it used to express human love for God, but this is perhaps the more apt in the context of the opening verses, stressing the gentleness which relies on God for strength and protection. The second word for ‘love’, in v. 20, really means ‘take pleasure in’, ‘take delight in’. God takes no delight in the death of a sinner nor in blood sacrifices, but in mercy and justice; most clearly, the name of the new, restored, perfected Jerusalem is to be ‘my-delight-is-in-her’ (Is 62.4). Finally in v. 26 and 51 the word used is hesed.

 

In human relationships hesed denotes primarily an act of kindness which normally creates or expresses a bond. The use of the idea in v. 26 of this psalm expresses perfectly its reciprocal force. Jonathan’s help to young David creates such a bond, so that David must always show hesed to Jonathan and his family (1 Sm 20.14). When Hushai, David’s friend, deserts him, Absalom reproaches him for failing in hesed (2 Sm 16.17). It is the prime quality of true worth in a friend, ‘Hesed is what people look for in a person; they prefer the poor to a liar’ (Prov 19.22). It is no mere feeling of friendship, but always issues in active and even costly response to need. This vibrant concept of love is the major characteristic of God’s attitude to his people. Three passages must suffice to illustrate its importance:

 

Exodus 34.6-9 Having revealed his name to Moses as hwhy at the burning bush, but not the meaning of the name, the Lord at last, after the covenant has been speedily broken, gives this further sign of his forgiving trust and intimacy to his people by proclaiming its meaning as a God of love (hesed) and fidelity. This passage echoes down the Bible, being quoted and mentioned again and again. It forms the vital background to Israel’s whole conception of God.

 

Then Yahweh passed before him and called out, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining his faithful love to thousands.

 

Hosea 2.21 The prophet’s inspiration consists in seeing that God’s undying love for his erring people is an image of his own undimmed passion for his faithless wife, and that God will always pursue his people and draw Israel back to himself.

 


I shall betroth you to myself for ever,

I shall betroth you in uprightness and justice and faithful love and tenderness.

 

(Isaiah 54.7-10)

 

During the Babylonian exile God again protests his fidelity and the enduring nature of his love, more lasting than the hills:

 

In a flood of anger for a moment I hid my face from you,

but in everlasting love I have taken pity on you.

For the mountains may vanish and the hills may totter

but my faithful love will never leave you.

 

It is significant that this concept did not exist among the Greeks, so that, when the Bible was translated into Greek, no current Greek word was felt to be adequate to express it, and a little-used word was taken and filled with new meaning, avga,ph. In the New Testament this word is used for the love which unites the Father and the Son, passes from the Son to his followers, and unites them to one another.

 

b. Salvation

 

God is the saviour of Israel, as is proclaimed by the names ‘Joshua’ in the Old Testament and ‘Jesus’ in the New. These are different forms of the same name Yehoshua, which means ‘God saves’. The salvation is conceived primarily in terms of liberation from external oppression, so principally at three great moments:

 

the liberation from extermination in Egypt, when Moses and his people were threatened with genocide (Ex 15.2),

liberation from the attacks in the early days of settlement in Canaan which threatened to annihilate or cripple the tender, nascent nation (Jg 3.31)

and liberation from the Babylonian exile, which is so ecstatically predicted in the hymns of Deutero-Isaiah, often in terms of a second liberation from Egypt (Is 45.8; 62.11).

 

But the idea comes often also, in less specific contexts, of liberation from any threat, military or other, as in this psalm. Nor is the idea confined to external liberation. There is a further dimension which includes peace, justice and closeness to God (Is 60.16-19):

 

You will know that I, Yahweh, am your Saviour,

that your redeemer is the Mighty One of Jacob.

I shall make peace your administration and saving justice your government.

You will call your walls ‘Salvation’ and your gates ‘Praise’.

No more will the sun give you daylight, nor moonlight shine on you,

but Yahweh will be your everlasting light, your God will be your splendour.

 

 

 

 


Especially Ezekiel sees salvation from the Babylonian exile not merely as a deliverance from oppression, but as a moral renewal (Ez 36.25-29):

 

I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all you filth and of all your foul idols. I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws. I shall save you from everything that defiles you.

 

The concept of God as saviour is closely linked to that of God as go’el. In Hebrew family law the nearest male relative was obliged to undertake certain duties to save his family members from dire distress. If financial disaster forced someone to sell his ancestral land, the nearest male relative must buy it back for him. If a man died without fathering a son to continue his line, the nearest male relative must marry his widow and father a son in his name. These were regarded as the binding obligations of hesed or family love - quite apart from any emotion of affection. By binding himself in the Covenant God has taken on such family obligations towards Israel, so that in the depths of his despair Job can cling to the hope

 

I know that my go’el lives

and that he will rise up last, on the dust of the earth.

After my awakening he will set me close to him,

and from my flesh I shall look on God (Job 19.25-26).

 

In the New Testament there is of course a development. In the miracle-stories when Jesus says, ‘Your faith has saved you’ it is often unclear exactly how far this salvation goes. Is the beneficiary merely saved from the disease or brought closer into the Kingship of God? In any case during most of the New Testament it is God who is conceived as the Saviour, just as in the Old Testament, though God is acting through Jesus: ‘Jesus said to him, “Go home to your people and tell them all that the Lord in his mercy has done for you”’ (Mark 5.19). It is only in the later writings of the New Testament, especially the Pastoral Letters, that the title of ‘Saviour’ is transferred from God to Jesus.

 

 

4. Deliverance from enemies by a cosmic theophany (vv. 4b-20)

This first part of the psalm is a chiasmus, centring on v.11, the majestic intervention of Yahweh:

 

4b        I am saved from my foes

5                      waves of death rose about me

7                                  I called to the Lord... he heard my voice

9                                              scorching fire from his mouth

10                                                        a black cloud under his feet

11                                                                    He came enthroned on the cherubim

He flew on the wings of the wind

12                                                        the dark waters of the clouds

13                                            hailstones and flashes of fire

14                                the Most High let his voice be heard

17                    he drew me forth from the mighty waters

20b      He saved me because he loved me.


The poem is rich in the ancient Canaanite imagery of the storm-god, which is perhaps clearest in Psalm 28 (see p. 45), clouds, smoke, earthquake, threatening waters, thunder and lightning, the cherubim, control over the ocean. In the Hebrew two powers are even personified: the Grail ‘torrents of destruction’ (v. 5) translates the Hebrew ‘torrents of Belial’. Belial is the personification of the forces of evil, ‘Wickedness’. In the inter-testamental literature and especially at Qumran Belial is the Angel of Wickedness, a sort of Satanic figure, spreading evil in the world. In v. 6 the Grail ‘snares of the grave’ translates the Hebrew ‘snares of Sheol’, the underworld, conceived as an evil power grasping at the living to bring them down to the powerless, half-life of the dead as it was envisaged at that time. In this sparkling mythological account the details of the historical event are without importance and all the concentration is on the all-powerful and effortless intervention of God to overcome such powers, enthroned on the cherubim and flying on the wings of the wind.

 

 

5. David’s innocence and God’s own integrity (vv. 21-31b)

 

Between the two descriptions of divine rescue comes an interlude on the reasons for the divine protection, almost a little Wisdom passage, in which the psalmist concentrates on faithful observance of the commands (a) and on God’s own reciprocal fidelity (b).

 

a. The faithful observance of commands is again presented in a little chiasmus, the three paired elements expressing respectively a general, a positive (‘kept’) and a negative (‘not’, ‘never’) aspect of careful observance:

 

v. 21    I was just and my hands were clean

v. 22a              I have kept the way of the Lord

v. 22b                          I have not fallen away

v. 23                            I have never neglected his commands

v. 24                I have kept myself from guilt

v. 25    I was just and my hands were clean.

 

b. God’s reciprocal fidelity is expressed more neatly and insistently in the Hebrew than in the English, with five parallel formulations, each beginning with the same preposition. Characteristically, it begins with the crucial reciprocal concept of hesed (see p. 35), the other four are merely applications of this.

 

v. 26a  With the loving...

v. 26b  With the perfect...

v. 27a  With the sincere...

v. 27b  With the cunning...

v. 28a  With the humble...

 

 

6. God’s care of David in battle (vv. 33-49)

 


The third part of the psalm is a more practical account of God’s training and care for the triumphant warrior. It is finely built up. First (vv. 34-37) his general athletic training of physique - swift feet and unerring stance - and arms drill[13]. Next (vv. 38-43) the warrior advances to individual combat, comprehensively reducing his opponents to dust. Finally (vv. 44-46) he progresses as king to be head of the nations. His empire extends beyond the bounds of his mere military might, and concludes with a swift and willing submission, neatly expressed (literally, ‘in the hearing of the ear they obey me’, v. 45a). The extent of the empire (‘people unknown to me served me’) is perhaps due to the exaggeration of court language. For Christians it is a reminder of the extent of empire of David’s messianic successor, for so much of the exaggerated court language about the Davidic king can be understood either as poetic and flamboyant convention about an earthly monarch or in a theological sense about the kingship of Christ.

 

Finally the psalm returns to the praise of God with which it began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1.Read again the story of David (1 Sm 16 - 2 Sm 20; 1 Kgs 1-2). What points of contact are there between this psalm and David’s mentality? Is the psalm aptly ascribed to him?

2. Write a short piece on ‘salvation’ in the Bible. Use NJB index on ‘redemption’, ‘reconciliation’, The New Jerome on the work of Christ (article 82, #67-80), McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible, under ‘salvation’.

 


Psalm 21 The Servant of the Lord

 

For the Christian this psalm has a special position because of its use in the Passion Narratives of the Gospels. However, it must first be examined for itself and its place in the Hebrew Psalter. Firstly, it is a typical example of an individual lament. Secondly, it has close parallels to other laments in the prophetic literature, notably that of the Suffering Servant.

 

1. A Psalm of Lament

 

a.. The Relationship of Trust

 ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The initial invocation already gives the clue which separates the psalms of lamentation and all the prayers of Israel from the prayers of the surrounding nations. The covenant relationship, which is at the heart of all Israel’s thinking about God, gives a completely different tone to their prayers. There is not, in the many contemporary prayers which have come down to us from Egypt and Mesopotamia, anything corresponding to the trust and intimacy of the prayers of Israel. The god is addressed as a distant, often hostile deity, who needs to be flattered by titles and appeased by sacrifices.

 

It is the invocation with its many titles, which is all-important, as in this Egyptian prayer:

Hail to thee, Amon-Re,

Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, presiding over Karnak,

Bull of his mother, presiding over his fields,

Far-reaching of stride, presiding over Upper Egypt,

Lord of the Madjoi and ruler of Punt [Ethiopia], etc, etc.(ANET, p.365)

 

or this Sumerian hymn to the Moon God:

O Lord, hero of the gods, who in heaven and earth is uniquely exalted,

Father Nanna, lord Anshar, hero of the gods,

Father Nanna, great lord Any, hero of the gods,

Father Nanna, lord Sin, hero of the gods, etc                          (ANET, p.385)

 

 

These prayers express none of the sense of mutual belonging familiar from Israel, and no sense that help from the deity is somehow due to the suppliant. By contrast Israel has a unique relationship, which enables them to pray ‘my God’ (v.2), ‘my strength’ (v. 20), expressing the sense of belonging. This sense of belonging is dependent on that fundamental claim, ‘What nation has its gods as near as Yahweh our God is to us whenever we call to him?’ (Dt 4.7).

 

There are, of course, prayers in distress, but lacking any intimacy or sense of a family bond or covenant which engages the deity to rescue the suppliant. They are appeals, so to say, from the outside rather than the inside. An example is this Babylonian prayer to Ishtar:

I have paid heed to you, my Lady; my attention has been turned to you.

To you have I prayed, forgive my debt,

forgive my sin, my iniquity, my shameful deeds, accept my prayer,

loosen my fetters, secure my deliverance,

radiantly, like a hero, let me enter the streets with the living...           (ANET, p. 385)

 


The profound difference in the prayers of Israel, of which this psalm is a striking example, is in the sense of trust, founded on the long-term family relationship:

 

In you our fathers put their trust (v.3-4)

It was you who took me from the womb, entrusted me to my mother’s breast (v. 10)

He has never despised nor scorned the poverty of the poor (v. 25).

 

In the background of all this is the relationship of hesed, the family love which binds family members together and obliges them to help out one another in distress. This same hesed is the central characteristic of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel.

 

b. The Enemies

One of the chief characteristics of the Psalms of Lament is, not surprisingly, description of troubles which the suppliant is lamenting, and from which deliverance is sought. In this psalm animal imagery is liberally used to characterise the persecutors:

 

Fierce bulls of Bashan close me in (v.13)

Against me they open wide their jaws, like lions rending and roaring (v. 14)

Many dogs have surrounded me (v. 17)

Rescue my life from the grip of these dogs (v. 21)

from the jaws of these lions, from the horns of these oxen (v. 22)

 

In other psalms of lament a different imagery is used for the enemies who beleaguer the psalmist. The chief complexes of imagery are

1. Military attack (‘My foes encircle me with dead intent’, 16.9; ambush, 55.7; ‘the warrior’s arrows sharpened’, 119.4; the watchman on guard for daybreak, 129.6),

2. Hunting (‘he rescues my feet from the snare’, 24.15; ‘the snares they have hidden’ 30.5; hidden nets and pits, 34.7-8; 56.7; 139.6; 140.9; 141.4),

3. Natural phenomena (‘your torrents and all your waves swept over me’, 41.8; ‘I have entered the waters of the deep and the waves overwhelm me, 68.3, 15-16; ‘they surround me all the day like a flood’, 87.18),

4. Street-gangs (‘night and day they patrol high on the city walls’, 54.11-12; ‘they howl and roam about the city’ 58.7, 15 - possibly canine gangs; ‘he has made me dwell in darkness’ - imprisonment?, 142.3).

 

It is possible that all these were in fact pressing dangers in the contemporary world. There is little reason to believe that the world of the psalmist was better ordered or policed than our own. But the way in which these expressions are used does suggest that these are interchangeable images. More common still are the more general images of lying accusations, arrogance, mockery, taunting (as here, v. 7-9). The same imagery occurs also in the ‘Confessions’ of Jeremiah, those laments of the prophet where, in intimate conversation with Yahweh,  he bewails the persecution which his mission has brought him (Jer 11.18-12.5; 15.10-21; 17.14-18; 18.18-23; 20.7-18). These ‘Confessions’ have strong associations with the psalms of lament, though it is not possible to establish a line of dependence in either direction. In the psalms themselves the people behind the lying and mockery are most commonly called simply ‘the wicked’. That this is a stock description is suggested also by its similar use in Jeremiah 5.26 (‘Yes, there are wicked men among my people, who watch like fowlers on the alert’).


In fact the danger is often described simply as ‘evil’ or ‘wickedness’ rather than wicked people:

‘If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear’ (22.4)

‘The Lord will guard you from evil’ (120.7)

It seems that evil and its embodiment in persons are often on a par without distinction, so that abstract, personal singular and personal plural are used interchangeably. Thus in Psalm 139[14] v. 2 has ‘the evil man’ (sg), v. 3 ‘those who plan evil’ (plur), v. 5 ‘the wicked man’ (sg), v.6 ‘proud men’ (plur), v.9 ‘the wicked man’ (sg), v.12 ‘evil’ (abstract).  The enemies in the Psalms may, therefore, best be understood as various personifications and dramatizations of the power of evil and the evil influences by which the psalmists felt themselves threatened.

 

 

2. The Thrust of the Psalm

 

There is such a strong reversal between verses 22 and 23 that some scholars have suggested that two psalms have been put together, the first a lament and the second a song of thanksgiving. Such a change from lament to thanksgiving is, however, far from unprecedented. The suddenness of the change serves only to reinforce the psalmist’s gratitude.

 

Attempts have also been made to focus on one particular cause of the psalmist’s misery. It is clear (see above) that the hostile encircling animals are metaphorical. H-J. Kraus (p. 179) surprisingly seems to think that the dry throat of v. 16 is sufficient to establish the cause as a life-threatening illness including fever. ‘Like water I am poured out’ (v. 15) could indicate being ‘drained’ of energy, but the heart melted like wax is hard to attach exclusively to any particular malaise. The animal-foes, the sickness, the derision (v. 7, 18), the lynching (v. 17) are too diverse to coalesce into a single material interpretation and must be regarded as varied symbolic expressions of the psalmist’s agony.

 

All-important, however, is the constant expression of trust and confidence: the worse the misery, the greater the commitment to God alone. The very fact that the psalmist prays for deliverance is evidence of his confidence in God’s inclination and duty to save him, but explicit expressions of trust are scattered through the psalm. Perhaps the most extreme way of emphasising this trust is by putting it sarcastically on the lips, the curling lips, of his tormentors (v. 8-9).

 

The gradually widening circle of praise in the final verses of the psalm make a fitting conclusion, first ‘my brethren’, then all sons of Jacob/Israel and the great assembly.  Then the praise spreads geographically to all the earth and the mighty of the earth. Finally it spreads chronologically also, to generations yet to come.

 


This psalm must be put beside the fourth Song of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in Isaiah (52.13-53.12). There is the same movement from life-threatening persecution and suffering, through liberation by the intervention of God, to praise and thanksgiving. The psalm yields several other reminiscences of this part of Isaiah: the feeling of temporary abandonment by Yahweh (v. 2 and Is 49.14), the indebtedness to Yahweh from the very womb (vv. 10-11 and Is 44.2, 24), the homage to Yahweh of all nations of the earth (v. 28 and Is 53.10). The abstention of the psalmist from any railing against his undeserved suffering or its perpetrators compares to the sheep dumb before its shearers (Is 53.7). But the Song in Isaiah goes beyond the psalm in making explicit the idea of vicarious suffering, the innocent suffering for the guilty; to this the psalm does not quite attain.

 

 

3. Psalm 21 and the Passion of Jesus

 

The psalm features boldly in the gospel accounts of the Crucifixion of Jesus. The soldiers divided his clothing among themselves and cast lots for his robe (v. 19 and Mk 15.24; Jn 19.23-24). The passers-by ‘tossed their heads’ (v. 8 and Mk 15.29) as they mocked him, and in Matthew the chief priests and lawyers and elders even took for themselves the mocking words ‘He trusted in the Lord, let him save him if this is his friend’ (v. 8 and Mt 27.43). Jesus’ cry ‘I thirst’ is seen by John as fulfilling the scriptures (Jn 19.28), which may well be v. 16. Finally, Jesus’ last words in Mark and Matthew are the invocation of the psalm, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (v. 1 and Mk 15.34).

 

The humiliation and disgrace of crucifixion was a scandal in the Greco-Roman world. It was a disgusting and tortured death, intended to strip the victim of any last vestiges of respect or dignity. The first Christians had to explain it. One level of explanation was as the will of God expressed in the scripture. Whereas the modern mind may see the Passion and Death of Jesus as the culmination of the scriptures as a whole, the whole movement and thrust of the history of and revelation to Israel, for the contemporaries of Jesus, according to the fragmented and literalist principles of exegesis of the time, the fulfilment of scripture as a whole was demonstrated by the fulfilment of a multitude of small details. This appears again and again in the gospel narrative (e.g. Jesus riding on both a donkey and a colt at his entry into Jerusalem in Mt 21.7, in order completely to fulfill Zechariah 9.9) and in the detailed exegesis of Qumran. Psalm 21 lent itself ideally to this form of detailed theological explanation in relation to the Passion.

 

The invocation of the psalm as Jesus’ last words has frequently been misunderstood and made the fulcrum of the gruesome theory that on the Cross Jesus suffered the pains of the damned, the awareness of total separation from God. This is to neglect totally the thrust of the psalm, by which it progresses from agony to triumph. Of this any scripturally informed reader would be aware: allusion to the intonation of the psalm includes allusion to the whole psalm. The main point of the use of this psalm comes at the end: ‘kingship is the Lord’s; he is the ruler of the nations’ (v. 29). The purpose of the mission of Jesus - as is particularly clear in Mark and Matthew - is the bringing to completion or fulfilment of God’s kingship on earth. The kingship of God was the stuff of his proclamation, brought to the beginning of its realisation in his miracles and put forward as a goal in his teaching.

 


The seeming tragedy of Jesus’ failure to achieve any success in his proclamation. He came to proclaim to Israel what was really meant by the Kingship of God. He did not succeed in getting this message across. His failure to win the crowds, his failure to keep the loyalty of his chosen nucleus, the triumph of the representatives of that official Judaism which he came to reform - reaches on the Cross its climax and reversal. For it is in accepting his Father’s will that he brings his Father’s kingship to fulfilment. The secret of the Cross lies not in the Father thrusting the Son away to the pains of the damned, but in the Son achieving the kingship of the Lord precisely by clinging to the Father’s will in the pain of failure and derision. It is therefore the moment not of separation but of most complete union, which is expressed by the psalm taken as a whole.

 

A second element of v. 29 will have been particularly obvious and important to Mark. Not only is the Cross the moment of the God-ward completion of Israel (v. 24: ‘all sons of Jacob, give him glory; revere him, Israel’s sons’), but also it is the moment of the opening of Jesus’ good news to the gentiles (‘he is ruler of the nations’, v. 29). The gentile centurion at the Cross is the first human being to recognise Jesus as ‘son of God’, so completing the process of Mark’s Gospel, which opened, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God’. The two mentions of ‘son of God’ correspond to each other as opening and closing brackets, giving the character of the whole gospel message. That this gentile should be the first human being to declare Jesus as son of God marks out the moment as the beginning of the spread of the message to the gentiles: ‘all families of the nations shall worship before him’ (v. 28).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Work through the psalm, using marginal references given in a study-Bible, checking and marking features which recur in the Passion Narratives.

2. Compare and contrast the psalm with the ‘Confessions of Jeremiah’ and the Song of the Suffering Servant. Are they simply in the same school, or has each some special element?

 

 

 

 

 

 


Psalm 28 The God of the Storm

 

Since the study of Canaanite material behind the Bible began it has been recognised that there is a strong relationship between this psalm and the Canaanite background. How strong this is has been disputed, and some compromise of the originally extreme position  has been suggested. Three articles represent different positions:

 

H.L. Ginsberg, ‘A Phoenician Hymn in the Psalter’, in XIX Congresso Internazionale degli Orientalisti, Rome 1935, pp. 472-6, presents the initial insight.

H. Cazelles, ‘Une relecture du Psaume XXIX?’, in A la rencontre de Dieu, Le Puy 1961, pp. 119ff, suggests that the original Phoenician poem has been reused and overlaid by the biblical author.

P.C. Craigie, ‘Psalm XXIX in the Hebrew Poetic Tradition’, in Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972), pp. 143-151, suggests that the psalm is well within the Hebrew poetic tradition, seen already in the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 and continuing into the Enthronement Psalms.

 

 

1. Structure

 

a. Envelope-structure.

 

Verses 1-2 and 10-11 act as an envelope, enclosing verses 3-9. In these opening and closing lines the scene is in heaven, where God is waited upon by the ‘sons of God’, who celebrate his glory and power. Just as at the beginning they give God the due glory and power, so at the end God himself gives strength (the same word as ‘power’ in v. 1) to his people as a blessing which concludes the psalm. Each pair of verses circles round the same complex of ideas:

 

God enthroned among his courtiers, the sons of God (vv. 1, 10)

the ineffable glory due to God (vv. 1, 2, 10)

the divine gift of strength (vv. 1, 11).

 

The transition from the heavenly to the earthly occurs at the end of v. 2, slightly obscured by the Grail translation. ‘In his holy court’ renders a literal ‘in the court of his holiness’, but the word ‘court’ would be better translated ‘apparition’. In fact the word means an awesome apparition of the divine splendour, and the line leads directly on to the following description of that divine manifestation in the storm: ‘adore the Lord in the apparition of his holiness’.

 

Although the Canaanite imagery is much stronger in the central portion of the psalm, there are already in the ‘envelope’ two elements which reflect this background, ‘sons of God’ (v. 1) and ‘enthroned over the flood’ (v.10).

 

1. The idea of the ‘sons of God’ is drawn from the imagery of the heavenly court widespread in near eastern myth. Since for earthly monarchs the splendour of their majesty was determined by the number and splendour of their courtiers, so it was only fitting that a god should have an extended court. In the Babylonian myths these courtiers of a god are represented also by weird superhuman animals, fiery dragons or seraphim, huge stone figures guarding the entrances to the palace (cherubim, like karibou).


 

Part of the enrichment and expansion of theology which Israel underwent in the agonizing but therapeutic shock of the Babylonian exile came from confrontation with such Babylonian ideas. Most disturbing of all, of course, was the question posed by the fact of exile itself: is Yahweh the God only of Israel, or could they continue to worship the God of Israel on alien soil, in the territory of another god, Marduk? David, after all, in exile with the Philistines, complains that he is exiled from Yahweh’s presence (1 Sm 26.19). When Naaman the Syrian had wanted to worship the God of Israel at home in Damascus, he had taken home with him two mule-loads of Israel soil, so that he could stand on the soil of Israel to worship the God of Israel (2 Kgs 5.17). Indeed, what was the relationship between Israel’s God and Marduk? Out of this confrontation came the realisation, expressed so forcefully for example in the first creation narrative (Gn 1), that Israel’s God is the God of the whole world.

 

What, then, of the gods of Babylon? It is here that the concept of ‘sons of God’ is pressed into service, for the gods of the nations receive the position of courtiers of the true God, and are called the ‘sons of God’. So, in the creation narrative, the sun, moon and stars, which in Babylon were independent gods, are given by God the creator the humble duty of marking times and seasons (Gn 1.14-18). The sons of God are often represented as stars:

 

What supports its [the earth’s] pillars at their bases?

Who laid its foundations

to the joyful concert of the morning stars

and unanimous acclaim of the sons of God? (Job 38.7, cf. Bar 3.34).

 

In the New Testament very much the same procedure occurs with the mysterious spirits which were thought by some to have control over the world. The patron deities of cities are demoted to the position of the angels of a city (e.g. the seven spirits of the churches of Asia who are before God’s throne in Rv 1.4; 2.1, 8, etc). Those strange entities ‘thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers’ (Col 1.16), have no power, since they were created through Christ and for Christ, the first-born of all creation. He has stripped them of their powers and paraded them in public, behind him in his triumphal procession (Col 2.15).

 

2. The conception of God ‘enthroned over the flood’ alludes not so much to Noah’s flood but to the conception, drawn from Babylon, of God controlling the mighty waters of the seas and oceans. In Babylonian mythology the sea was a fearsome female goddess, Tiamat, powerful enough to cover and drown the world. In Israel’s confrontation with Babylon of course the goddess Tiamat became subordinate to God (Gen 1.9-10). The Israelites were no sea-dogs and were continuously afraid of the sea, envisaging it as an element which threatened to engulf the land unless God  held back its mighty power. ‘Am I the Sea, or some sea monster,’ complains Job, ‘that you should keep me under guard?’ (Job 7.12), and in the great final speeches God tells how he brought the sea under control,

 

Who pent up the sea behind closed doors

when it leapt tumultuous from the womb,

when I wrapped it in a robe of mist

and made black clouds its swaddling bands,


when I cut out the place I had decreed for it

and imposed gates and a bolt?

‘Come so far,’ I said, ‘and no further;

here your proud waves shall break’ (Job 38.8-11).

 

In Israelite mythology the sea stands for the darker powers, even the darker powers of human nature, difficultly controlled and always capable of breaking out. Here God’s control as he sits enthroned on the flood is no idle exaltation, for he gives to his people his own strength, which the sons of God duly attributed to him in the beginning, and blesses his people with peace.

 

b. Mathematical and Formal.

 

The divine name hwhy occurs four times in each part of the ‘envelope’, once in each half-verse. It has been suggested that these two quadruple mentions correspond to the four elements of earth (fire, earth, air, water), or the four points of the compass. Whatever its symbolic meaning, the balance must be deliberate.

 

The main body of the poem celebrates the Voice of the Lord. Accordingly, the expression is hammered home seven times. Seven is a special biblical number signifying completion. Here it may be related - among other possibilities - to the seven days of creation, the seven signs of John’s Gospel, the seven letters to the Churches of Asia in Rv.

 

One of the features of Canaanite poetry which occurs in this poem is the step-structure, by which a new feature is added to a line, step by step. Note that the translations here given are as close as possible to the Hebrew, rather than literary. Note also the inversion in vv. 5, 8 and 10.

 

 

v. 1      Give                the Lord

Give                the Lord                       glory and power

Give                the Lord                       the glory                      of his name

 

v. 3      The voice        of the Lord                   on the waters

The Lord                     on the waters               in plenty

 

v. 5      The voice        of the Lord                   breaking                      the cedars

He breaks,                   the Lord,                      the cedars        of Lebanon

 

v. 8      The voice        of the Lord                   shaking                        the desert

He shakes,                   the Lord,                      the desert         of Qadesh

 

v. 10    The Lord         over the flood              is seated

He is seated,                the Lord,                      king for ever.

 

v.11     The Lord         will give strength        to his people

The Lord         will bless                    his people                    with peace.

 


The same Canaanite step-structure may be seen in two ancient, biblical songs of triumph and victory, the ancient Song of the Sea in Ex 15 and clearly in the Song of Deborah in Jg 5 (the awkward English renders the Hebrew word-order).

 

Jg 5.4 Also the heavens                       pelted

Also the clouds                       pelted                          rain

 

Jg 5.19 They came                               the kings                      and fought

Now                                        they fought,                  the kings                      of Canaan

 

Jg 5.27Between her feet[15]                    he crumpled                 and fell

Between her feet                     he crumpled                 and fell

As he crumpled           there he fell                 destroyed.

 

The stress-rhythm of the psalm is overwhelmingly in two beats per line, just as the triumph-song of Exodus 15. In the case of the psalm the vigorous stress may suggest thunder-claps - just as, but quite differently from - the murderous, dull thud of the axe, so painfully represented by Hopkins’ line ‘All felled, felled, are all felled’ (see p. 00).

 

 

2. The God of the Storm

 

The central part of the psalm evokes the God of the Storm. At least in a pre-mechanical world - and possibly even since then - thunder, lightning and earthquake are the noisiest and most frightening of all manifestations. In Canaanite religion the chief god, Baal, is often represented as a storm-god, poised to hurl a thunderbolt. This was no doubt Israel’s cultural background too, and such a presentation was easily integrated into Israelite imagery. The great experience of God on Sinai was expressed in terms of thunder, lightning and earthquake:

 

Now at daybreak two days later, there were peals of thunder and flashes of lightning, dense cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast; and in the camp all the people trembled. Mount Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended upon it in the form of fire. The smoke rose like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain shook violently. Louder and louder grew the trumpeting. Moses spoke, and God answered him in the thunder (Ex 1916-20).

 


The point of the storm is not merely its manifestation in thunder and lightning, but principally what it expresses of the unseen world beyond it. The language of storm and earthquake which is so often used of the manifestation of God is generally thought to be derived from the terrifying storms on Sinai, which must have been an element in Israel’s experience of God on Sinai. In the later apocalyptic literature such language is expanded to embrace the extra-terrestrial universe, with the heaven split open, stars falling from heaven and other cosmic phenomena. All these are used to express the might and absolute control of God over the whole universe, particularly with regard to the ultimate visitation of God, the ‘Day of the Lord’.

 

Hence the psalm is a hymn to the unseen glory of God manifested and expressed in the storm. This is why the earthly manifestation of the Voice of God in the storm is surrounded by an ‘envelope’ of the heavenly scene. No human being can see the divine splendour and live. (There is a certain appropriate reverence in the Jewish refusal to pronounce the personal name of God, and a reluctance to use the generic noun.) Even Moses cannot fully see even the glory of God. So, when Moses asks to see God’s glory, the Lord replies, ‘When my glory passes by, I shall put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have gone past. Then I shall take my hand away and you will see my back, but my face will not be seen’ (Ex 33.22-23). At his vision of God in the Temple Isaiah cowers, and is filled with a sense of his own sinfulness and unworthiness (Isaiah 6). The only due reaction is expressed in Isaiah’s awesome poem whose refrain is,

 

Go into the crevices of the rocks

and the clefts in the cliffs

in terror of Yahweh, at the brilliance of his majesty,

when he arises to make the earth quake (Is 2.10, 19, 21).

 

No Christian reading of the psalm can fail to see the link with the full revelation of the glory of God which takes place in Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John. It is promised in the prologue (‘we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father’, Jn 1.14), starts historically with the marriage feast at Cana (Jn 2.11: ‘He revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him’) and reaches its climax in the passion (especially from Jn 17 onwards).

 

 

3. The Voice of the Lord

 

The central portion of the psalm, consisting of the seven allusions to God’s voice, falls into two halves. The first half (vv. 3-4) is introductory, rugged in its simple splendour, and is bolted onto v. 2 of the heavenly preliminary by its final ‘apparition’ (for whose meaning see above). Shorn of any gentle Englishness, it reads powerfully:

 

Voice of the Lord on the waters

The Lord on waters abundant

Voice of the Lord in power

Voice of the Lord in apparition[16].


The second half (vv. 5-9) is concentric in its pattern:

 

Cedars

Mountains

Fire

Desert

Oaks

 

In order to appreciate these manifestations of divine power some background description is needed. Of the cedars of Lebanon few remain, but the visitor feels that he is climbing to the top of the world, up twisting, snow-pocked lanes till finally those awesome great evergreen trees appear on the skyline. These few sentinels are the remnants of the great forests which Hiram of Tyre cut for Solomon’s Temple, for cedars can grow for as long as 3,000 years. They were considered the only wood noble enough for the main columns and beams of the Temple (1 Kgs 7.1-12). They were felled by levies of Israelites, ten thousand working in Lebanon for a month at a time (1 Kgs 5.27-28). These are the mighty mountains which the Lord makes gambol in a crazy dance, like calves, lambs or children (Job 21.11).

 

On the other side of the concentric pattern comes the solemn desert of Qadesh, scorched, silent, searing in its heat. It is part of the eerie moonscape of the Negeb, the desert to the south of the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’, whose very name means ‘dried up’. This was the tribal centre for Israel’s wandering for forty years, an oasis to which they returned in the ‘vast and terrible desert’ (Dt 1.19), where the judgements and way of life of Israel developed under Moses. This land the voice of the Lord will cause to writhe in twisted anguish - the word is used for the most severe pains of childbirth.

 

Finally attention is turned to the great oak-tree or terebinth, another solemn and imposing solitary tree, for millenia worshipped in the near east, from Akkadian times to Arabian[17]. By denuding it, the Voice of the Lord will show his superiority to that also.

 

After the violence of the storm the psalm concludes in tranquillity, with the assurance that all this power will be put to the use of granting strength and peace to his people.

 

1. Gather some idea of the early poetry which Israel inherited. Read appreciatively Psalm 92 (and comments on p. 75), the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, the Song of Deborah in Jg 5, the Lament of David in 2 Sm 1. Write a short introduction to this sort of poetry for a friend to use.

2. Examine the imagery of the ‘Day of the Lord’ as it appears in the Bible. Write a short essay showing how it increases in grandeur. Use NJB Study Guide, etc.

 



Psalm 33 Confident Shelter in God

 

 

 

1. A Wisdom Psalm

 

 

This is an alphabetical psalm, in which the initial letter of each line works steadily through the alphabet, a literary achievement used in various ways in the psalter: Psalms 110 and 111 work straight through the alphabet, line by line (each line being a half-verse). Psalm 25 uses the sequence verse by verse, Psalm 37 every alternate verse. Most skilled of all, Psalm 118 has the same process but stanza by stanza, each line of the stanza beginning with the target-letter. This is obviously a highly artificial process, and one must admit that the resultant poems are somewhat lacking in passion. All are within the Wisdom tradition, concerned with the wise conduct of life, with virtues and vices. Thus in the present psalm

 

1. The invitation to instruction in the fear of the Lord  is echoed in many Wisdom passages:

v. 12    Come, children, and hear me, that I may teach you the fear of the Lord.

Prov 1.8 Hear, my child, your father’s instruction...

Prov 4.1 Hear, my children, a father’s instruction...

 

2. There are several proverb-like utterances:

v. 23:   The Lord ransoms the souls of his servants;

those who hide in him shall not be condemned

Prov 10.27 The fear of the Lord adds length to life,

the years of the wicked will be cut short.

 

   Only there is none of the chuckling imagery of the wittiest proverbs:

Prov 10.26 As vinegar to the teeth, smoke to the eyes,

so the sluggard to the one who sends him.

 

3. An Egyptian inscription at Tell el-Amarna has the exact equivalent of v. 13 (see R. Couroyer in Revue biblique 57 [1950], p. 174), and Egypt is the principal source of the biblical Wisdom tradition (e.g. the Sayings of the Sages, in Prov 22.17-23.11, based on the Wisdom of Amenemophis).

 

4. The life-stances recommended are those which feature frequently in the instructions of the Wisdom tradition.

 

 

2. Structure and Genre

 

Despite the Wisdom character of most of the psalm, the opening double encouragement to join in praising God constitutes the psalm a Psalm of Praise, under which the wisdom element is subsumed.. This is followed by a short recital of God’s help to the singer, which fails to develop into any detail and slides off into the Wisdom verses.

 


1-4       Invitation to praise

5-7       Recital of God’s help

8-22     Instruction in Wisdom

23        Final verse, probably added later, because the alphabetical sequence finishes at v. 22.

 

 

3. The Poor in the Psalms

In the earlier literature of Israel the blessing of God is measured in terms of wealth, particularly, during the nomadic phase of the Hebrews, in terms of cattle(Gn 12.16; 32.15-16). This persists into later times with, for example, the rewarding of Job for his perseverance with immense flocks and herds (Job 42.12). In the Wisdom literature, also, there is a strong emphasis that poverty is the result of folly and fecklessness. Much of this literature - and certainly its origin - is directed towards the achievement of material success and prosperity by hard work and sensible management. It is the more striking that there is at the same time always an awareness that the poor are somehow a privileged class and should be protected.

 

There is, however, a rich vocabulary about poverty in the Bible, each word having its own peculiar shade of meaning. In the same way Hebrew has fine shades of meaning between different words for locusts, and Arabic has many words for various camels. This suggests that the various kinds of poverty created a problem with which language was preoccupied. Thus ebyon denotes the beggarly poor, those lacking home and resources and often exploited. The word dal is used most often in connection with poor and struggling peasant farmers who lack sufficient grazing or who are obliged to pay excessive taxes to rich land-owners. Not dissimilar is rash, used of the owner of a single ewe lamb in Nathan’s parable (2 Sm 12.1-4). On the other hand mahsor envisages the spendthrift and feckless poor (Prov 14.23; 21.5). Different from all these is the word used in v. 7, ani and its cognate anaw.

 

The ani is most specifically the oppressed and afflicted poor. In the prophetic books of the eighth century, Amos and Hosea, there is strong emphasis on the injustice suffered by the poor at the hands of the luxurious rich (‘Listen to this, you who crush the needy and reduce the oppressed to nothing’, Amos 8.4) by tampering with weights, selling sub-standard corn, extorting levies on wheat, denying the poor their rights in judgement and appropriating their land and houses. Once the calamity of the Babylonian Exile has occurred, the whole people in exile can be described as ani, and a principal theme of Deutero-Isaiah is that this oppression will not last, that God will come to deliver his afflicted people:

 

So listen to this, afflicted one (ani),

Thus says your Lord Yahweh, your God, defender of your people:

Look, I am taking the stupefying cup from your hand,

the chalice, the cup of my wrath, you will not have to drink again (Is 51.21-22).

 


There is then a growing realisation that the only hope for the afflicted is in the Lord, and that affliction itself calls for the pity of God. In the exilic and post-exilic literature of Judaism there increases side by side the awareness both of sin and of helplessness to achieve a remedy unaided. This engenders a spiritualization of the term ani, so that the anawim[18] come to be regarded as those who cast themselves on God’s protection in the realization of their own powerlessness. Hence it is often translated prau.j in the Septuagint of the Bible, meaning ‘meek, gentle, humble’.

 

This is the sense in which the term is used in v. 7. The rest of the psalm can be seen as a reflection on this spirituality, with the blessing on those who seek refuge in the Lord (v. 9), who seek the Lord (v. 11), who call to him (v. 18), whose spirit is crushed (v. 19), who hide in him (v. 23). It gives the character to many of the prayers of the psalter (e.g. Psalms 145 and 146). Such an attitude finds its prolongation in Luke’s presentation of all the characters waiting for the Lord’s salvation in the Infancy Narrative as the poor of Yahweh; this finds its climactic expression in the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. It is also a keynote of the Matthean Beatitudes (Mt 5.3-10), with their emphasis on the ‘poor in spirit’ and on the virtue of gentleness (prau,thj). Jesus himself is the exemplar of this spirituality: ‘Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened, for I am meek and humble of heart’ (Mt 11.28).

 

 

4. Praise and Thanksgiving

 

At some stage a few untidy thoughts must be aired about the basic category of praise and thanksgiving. This is such a primeval instinct that its activity and its motives are not easy to analyse.

 

It is a human instinct to rejoice in worth where worth is found, and to wish to share this joy by proclaiming it to those around. It is part of the willing admiration and pleasure in achievement, whether it be courage or physical endurance or skill or intellectual brilliance or artistic success, to wish to spread the news of such achievement by mulling it over to oneself, by recalling it to others (to whom it may often be equally well known - discussion of the brilliance shown in a particular football match: ‘And did you see how...?’), by recording it for future generations (on a memorial plaque or inscription). A basic way of expressing gratitude for a present lies in demonstrating (running the train-set, wearing the scarf) or describing to others the qualities of the present received, so that they may share one’s own appreciation and wonder.

 


One way of showing gratitude is to reciprocate the generosity, to give gifts in return for gifts, to risk one’s own skin in return for risks taken on one’s behalf. This is, however, not always possible. There is no way in which the small child can, at least in the short term, reciprocate the care and gifts received from parents. If I daren’t or have no opportunity to exercise the courage shown by my rescuer, I at least show my gratitude by talking about it. The word ‘bless’, with which this psalm opens, is eloquent testimony to the human effort to reciprocate. In Greek blessing in each direction, earthward or heavenward, is expressed by the word euvlogei/n  - literally ‘to well-speak’. This has diverse meanings according to whether God or a human being is the subject. When God blesses the world or its inhabitants, his creative word confers blessing, creates, sanctifies or enhances life. When in return a human being blesses God, this blessing cannot enhance the divine life, but the human ‘attempt’ to do so is itself a recognition of the blessing received.

 

This is the instinct to which the praise of the psalms responds, a public sharing in song, with as much dignity and celebration as circumstances permit, of recognition of the greatness of the Lord. There is no way in which human beings can adequately reciprocate the love and generosity of God, so the instinct is simply to talk about it, to praise it. Sometimes this is done by recognition of God’s awesome power as it is seen in natural phenomena (Psalm 28), sometimes of God’s control of and care for creation (Psalm 103), sometimes of God’s guidance of Israel’s history (Psalm 104). There is also a recognition that God is something beyond and greater than all this, to which the only response is fear of the Lord (v. 8, 12), a reverential acknowledgement that the experience of God cannot be put into words:

 

Go into the crevices of the rocks

and the clefts in the cliffs,

in terror of Yahweh, at the brilliance of his majesty

when he arises to make the earth quake. (Is 2.21)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Write a couple of pages about Praising. Is there any point to it? Why do we do it? Whom does it benefit and in what way? What is the best way of praising? (‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’?)

2. Examine the concept of ‘the poor’ in the Bible. Use NJB Study Guide and McKenzie’s Dictionary, and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (if available).


Psalm 38 A mere breath

 

This psalm is a tragic meditation on the meaningless of life and on human failure, alleviated only (but totally) by the strong statement of hope at its very centre in v. 8.

 

 

1. Structure

 

The various refrains and repetitions in the psalm have suggested a variety of complicated structures (most recently Pierre Auffret, ‘Car toi, tu as agis’ in Bijdragen, tijdschrift voor filosofie en theologie 51 [1990], pp 118-138, who discusses previous attempts). The repeated assertions, ‘I was silent’ (vv. 3a and 10a), ‘mortal man is no more than a breath’ (vv. 6c and 12c), do not seem to be as structurally significant as one might hope. Structurally, the only useful thought is that the author unusually seems to think in triplets (‘a mere breath...a mere shadow...a mere breath... in vv. 6-7) instead of the usual complementary pairs of lines.

 

It seems best to consider the poem in a much simpler structure:

vv. 2-4 Introduction: silence or speech?

vv. 5-6b                       Life’s sharp ending

vv. 6c-7                                   A mere breath

vv. 8-9                                     The central hope

vv. 10-11                                 A cry for release

v. 12                            Life’s swift passing

vv. 13-14         Conclusion: speech granted a hearing

 

2. My Hope is in You

 

The psalm is full of sorrow from the beginning, the introductory frustration (vv. 2-4), when the psalmist first determines not to speak, to remain silent, but is finally compelled to burst into speech. This is expressed in three triplets, a triplet of determination (v. 2), a triplet of silence (v. 3), a triplet of fire bursting into speech (v. 4). In each of the first seven verses there is a triplet, the second line repeating and intensifying the first, before the third line introduces a slightly new idea.

 

After the introduction comes the real subject-matter of the sorrow: the nothingness of human life. Stated at the beginning and end, it welds together the rest of the poem. The images are strikingly different. In v. 5 the triplet is all about stopping: ‘you have shown me my end’, the measure (rather than ‘the length’) of my days, and how defective (rather than ‘fleeting’) I am. In the final verses 13- 14 this is translated into movement. First there is the image of the temporary alien or passing guest, a figure well-known in nomadic society, and always at a disadvantage. Then finally the poem just walks off into nothingness with ‘before I walk and I am not’. The abruptness of the disappearance simply takes the breath away. There is nothing left. Suddenly the poem is over.

 


Midway between these two extremes comes the one alleviation: ‘in you rests all my hope’, expressed again in a triplet (with ‘set me free...do not make me’). The contrast of v. 8 stands out luminously with its brief question and answer, occurring as it does only after the complete nothingness of human life has been triply stressed. On either side of this brief positive statement are two reflections which take us one to Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes and the other to Job. Before the high-point of hope the inanity of human life is expressed in language which is reminiscent of Qoheleth’s most extreme cynicism. The imagery of verse 6c-7 takes the reader straight to the frustration and disappointment of Qoheleth, who sees no point in life. The Hebrew word translated here ‘mere breath’ is the key-word of Qoheleth’s opening: ‘Vanity of vanities and all is vanity’ or ‘Sheer futility; everything is futile’, a thought expanded in the following verses (Eccl 1.2-7) of the pointlessly and endlessly circling sun, wind and water:

 

The sun rises, the sun sets, then to its place it speeds and there it rises.

Southward goes the wind, then turns to the north;

it turns and turns again, then back to its circling goes the wind.

Into the sea go all the rivers, and yet the sea is never filled,

and still to their goal the rivers go.

 

Qoheleth also, as the psalmist in v. 7, is frustrated by the passing of his inheritance: ‘All I have toiled for under the sun and now bequeath to my successor I have come to hate; who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?’ (Eccl 1.18-19). The effect in the two writers is, however, entirely different, for the psalmist is driven by human inanity straight to God. The flash of hope makes all the difference.

 

Once God has been brought into the equation, the pain continues, but with the paradox of Job, for in v. 11 the psalmist joins Job’s cry to be released from God’s attentions. Here again, however, there is a difference: the psalmist knows his guilt, whereas Job protests his innocence. Despite the one hope in God, they share the longing to be freed from the divine punishment:

 

Remove your hand which lies so heavy on me,

no longer make me cower from your terror.

Do you want to intimidate a wind-blown leaf?

Do you want to pursue a dry straw?

You examine my every step

and measure my footprints one by one (Job 13.21-27).

 

The result is confusion and frustration, a hope which is no hope, a prayer where prayer has no place, but which is yet the testimony of an enduring longing.

 

3. A Christian Response[19]

 

Like the Book of Job, this psalm is crying out for an answer, expressing a hope for which it cannot see the fulfilment. The process of revelation about the future life was gradual, and became substantial only at the very end of the Old Testament period.

 


1. In the earliest days the conception of existence after death was expressed in terms of being gathered to the clan or the ancestors, a notion which stems from the nomadic custom of burying the family dead in a family burial centre to which the clan returned once a year. This is the expression which is most frequently used about the patriarchs, though the expression ‘slept with his father’ continues to be used later to signify that a person died a peaceful, non-violent death after a full and worthy life. One notable use of this terminology is by King David. When the child born of his adultery with Bathsheba falls ill and dies, in his mourning David says, ‘Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him but he cannot come back to me’ (2 Sm 12.23).

 

2. Somewhat later we find the concept of Sheol, a shadowy place to which all must come in the end. There the dead have no power, no possessions (Ps 48.18), no memory of the wonders of God (Ps 87.12-13), ‘cut off, as they are, from your hand’ (Ps.87.6). An evocative description is given by Isaiah:

 

On your account Sheol below is astir to greet your arrival.

He has roused the ghosts to greet you, all the rulers of the world.

He has made all the kings of the nations get up from their thrones.

They will all greet you with the words, ‘So, you too are now as weak as we are!

Your pride has been flung down to Sheol with the music of your lyres.

Under you a mattress of maggots, over you a blanket of worms’ (Is 14.9-11).

 

Yet even here the dead are not beyond the reach of God (‘Should they burrow into Sheol, my hand will haul them out’, Amos 9.2), and there are, especially in the psalms, occasional cries of confidence that God has not wholly deserted those who are in Sheol: Ps 15.10, ‘For you will not leave my soul among the dead, nor let your beloved know decay’; Ps 48.16, ‘But God will ransom me from the clutches of Sheol, and take my soul to himself’. The word there used for ‘take’ is that used for God’s taking Enoch to himself in Genesis 5.24, and Elijah in 2 Kgs 2.3. Is the psalmist hoping God will do the same to himself? Consonant with this hope is Job’s poignant cry,

 

I know that my go’el[20] lives

and that he will rise up last, on the dust of the earth.

After my awakening he will set me close to him,

and from my flesh I shall look on God (Job 19.25-26).

 

There seems to be no room for this hope in Israelite theology, and yet it is there. One can say no more than that the biblical authors are grappling with a problem. There was no way through to see how Sheol could be evaded, and yet believers were loth to accept that God would desert them.

 

3. It is only at the end of the development of the Old Testament that a positive hope begins to be expressed. In the Wisdom literature Ben Sira, in many ways a conservative thinker, sticks to the old ways. There is no glimmer of hope of escape from the inevitability of Sheol here,

 

Give and receive - enjoy yourself - there are no pleasures to be found in Sheol.

Like clothes every body will wear out, and the age-old law is ‘Everyone must die’.

Like foliage growing on a bushy tree, some leaves falling, others growing,

so are the generations of flesh and blood: one dies, another is born (Eccles 14.16-20).


Nor is there any more hope in the disillusioned reflections of Qoheleth, ‘For the fate of human and the fate of animal is the same: as the one dies, so the other dies; both have the selfsame breath’ (Eccl. 3.19). This passage shocked the later rabbis so much that they tried to change the statement into a question by a subtle change of vowels: ‘For the fate of human and the fate of animal, is it the same?’

 

At about the same time, however, advances were being made. The catalyst seems to have been the heroic fidelity of the martyrs in the Maccabean persecution, which could not go unrewarded. As one of the martyrs declares with his last breath, ‘the King of the world will raise us up, since we die for his laws, to live again for ever’ (2 Mc 7.9). Similarly and contemporaneously, the Book of Daniel speaks of the Book of Life in which the names of some are written. There seems as yet to be uncertainty whether all or only some are granted eternal existence. In the one verse it looks as though only ‘all those whose names are found written in the Book’ will be spared, while in the next verse all rise again to different fates: ‘Of those who are sleeping in the Land of Dust many[21] will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace’ (Dn 12.1-2). Perhaps the ‘shame and everlasting disgrace’ cannot be characterised as ‘everlasting life’. This would accord with the constant teaching of John’s Gospel (and eternal life is an ever-present reality in John, occurring 17 times in the Gospel, as opposed to twice or three times in each of the other Gospels), where everlasting life is the reward for the faithful, who commit themselves to Christ, while the future of those who refuse to believe is left undefined. This reinforces the suggestion that in John the concept of ‘everlasting life’ corresponds to the concept in the synoptics of the kingdom/kingship of God, which is mentioned in John only twice in the conversation with Nicodemus (Jn 3.3, 5). Everlasting life, then, is only for those who welcome the kingship of God. By the time of Jesus the notion of a general resurrection at the end of time was very widely accepted within Judaism, though still not by the theologically traditionalist Sadducees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Trace the development in the Bible of the concepts of the after-life. Use NJB Study Guide under ‘sheol’, ‘life’, etc.

2. Is there any important difference between faith and hope.

 


Psalm 45 The Lord of Hosts is with Us

 

 

1. Genre and Form

 

A psalm of Sion, celebrating the presence of God in the holy city, though the name of the city is not mentioned. The psalm has a dual axis: the beginning, the centre and the refrain[22] all stress the presence of God with us; and yet the psalm also celebrates the universal power of God, since each of the three stanzas of the poem stresses the power of God over the whole earth. Thus:

 

a. The presence of God with us:

v. 2      God is for us a refuge and strength

v. 6      God is in its midst (in the very heart of the city)

v. 4, 8, 12 The Lord of hosts is with us (the same expression as comes in Isaiah’s ‘Immanuel’, except that the personal name of God is used: Yahweh immanu).

 

b. The power of God over the whole earth:

v. 3                                                                              ... though the earth should rock

v. 7                                                                              ... the earth shrinks away

v. 9                                                                              ... the redoubtable deeds... on the earth

v. 10                                                                            ... an end to wars over all the earth

v. 11                                                                            ... supreme on the earth.

 

 

2. The Three Stanzas

 

The poem is symmetrical. It begins with the symbolism of the divine superiority to the chaotic powers of nature. Then there is a sudden change from the chaos of nature to the peace of God’s city, both a change of mood and a narrowing of geographical focus onto the Holy City. Finally in the last stanza the optic again becomes violent and world-wide. Only this time it is the Lord’s superiority, rather than that of the powers of nature. The stanza ends with peace again, for the Lord has destroyed violence. This symmetrical structure is arranged round the central v. 6, expressing the stability given by the divine presence. The first two stanzas make very different use of the image of water, the dread waters of chaos and the fertile waters of peace.

 

The first stanza invokes the myth of final catastrophic chaos, and particularly the raging powers of the sea-goddess (see on Psalms 28 and 92). But the worst that these chthonic deities can do brings no fear in the face of divine protection.

 


The second and central stanza stands midway between the first and third stanza, neatly joining them together. It begins with another image of water, the river of life, expressing the concept which is central to the whole psalm, the presence of God in the midst of the city (v. 6). Finally it turns to the tumult of the nations which will be the subject of the final stanza. The idea of the river of life (v. 5) belongs more to the conception of the holy city than to the actual geographical reality of Jerusalem. There is no river in Jerusalem, yet Isaiah prohesies

 

Look, I am going to send peace flowing over her like a river,

and like a stream in spate the glory of the nations (Is 66.12)

 

Isaiah also combines the two ideas expressed in this psalm, the river of peace and the supremacy of Sion. For the final restoration of Jerusalem, Ezekiel 47 also makes use of this image: a river of peace in his prophecy of the New Jerusalem. Ezekiel includes in his blue-print for the eschatological heavenly city a marvellous river of life. As it flows out of the Temple the water gets deeper and deeper, flowing east and even making the Dead Sea wholesome.

 

Wherever the river flows, all living creatures teeming in it will live. Fish will be very plentiful, for wherever the water goes it brings health, and life teems wherever the river flows. There will be fishermen on its banks. Fishing nets will be spread from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim... Along the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree with leaves that never wither and fruit that never fails; they will bear new fruit every month.

 

Looking eastwards from the Temple over the still today barren aridity of the Judean desert, one can only marvel at the promise of this luscious fertility. A four-hour tramp to the Dead Sea, through country so lifeless and hostile that it is shunned even by the Bedhuin, only increases this wonderment. The fierce heat is such that the accidental spillage of a few drops of water enables vegetation to spring up. The rare spring on the shore of the Dead Sea, such as En Gedi, with its date-palms and perfumes, shows the rich profusion that water can bring. But even these waters flow vainly into the Dead Sea, making no impression on its life-destroying chemicals. Such is the eschatological river of life, and such the joy which the waters of a river give to God’s city.

 

The imagery of water is also used for the Law and Wisdom itself, rooted in Jerusalem. The crusty but endearing scribe who was the author of the Book of Ecclesiasticus has a vivid love for Jerusalem, and pictures Wisdom taking root there:

 

I have taken root in a privileged people,

in the Lord’s property, in his inheritance..

I have grown tall as a cedar on Lebanon,

as a cypress on Mount Hermon.

All this is no other than the Book of the Covenant of the Most High God,

the Law that Moses enjoined on us.

This is what makes Wisdom brim over like the Pishon,

like the Tigris in the season of fruit,

what makes intelligence overflow like the Euphrates,

like the Jordan at harvest time,

and makes discipline flow like the Nile,

like the Gihon when the grapes are harvested.(Eccli 24.12-13, 23-27)


The Law, or the Wisdom of God, God’s revelation of himself and of his own nature to Israel, was Israel’s greatest treasure. It gave sense and direction to life, as well as knowledge and understanding of God (See on Psalm 118). This is why it can be equated with life-giving water, the most precious element in life. In the final vision of the New Testament the same imagery is used. Now it is appropriately centred on Christ: the river of life will rise from the throne of God and of the Lamb, flowing crystal-clear down the middle of the city (Rv 22.1-2).

 

 

The third stanza completes the idea which has lain beneath the surface in the first two, that of peace. In the first stanza the turmoil in nature held no fears; in the second the tumult between nations shrinks before God’s voice. In the third comes the definitive ending of war[23], another eschatological promise. Like the refrain, the language of this stanza, especially of v. 10, is reminiscent of the Immanuel promise of Isaiah (Is 7.14-15) and the climax of the Immanuel chapters in Isaiah 9.4 and 11.6-9:

 

The wolf will lie down with the lamb, etc

No hurt, no harm will be done

on all my holy mountain

for the country will be full of the knowledge of Yahweh.

 

Only the promise of the psalm is more universal. The promise of Isaiah was of peace for Jerusalem at a time of political and military threat; the psalm extends this more widely to ‘the ends of the earth’ (v. 10), and consequently extends to the ends of the earth also the exaltation of God. Whereas in the first stanza the powers of nature were locked in turmoil; now God’s sway has brought the nations to subjection. The repeated Hebrew word with which the stanza ends, translated ‘supreme’ in v.11, has awestruck overtones, literally ‘lifted high’, compelling reverence and praise:

 

Your faithful love towers to heaven, your truth to the clouds (Ps 56.11)

Exalted above the heavens, O God, over all the earth your glory (Ps 107.6)

 

To this the final refrain acts as a suitable echo.


Three Historical Psalms - Psalms 77, 104, 105

 

To call these three psalms ‘Historical Psalms’ is only a rough classification. Each is different and has its own point of view. Each is a meditation on what the author sees as the most important events of God’s guidance of his people through history. They do not, of course, recount the historical events but presume knowledge of them, choosing, shaping and commenting the events from the author’s point of view, so that close attention reveals the outline of the author’s own theology. These three psalms are here chosen for comment because they provide good examples of how the history of Israel may provide the material for prayer and meditation in totally different ways.

 

Psalm 77 - A Defiant and Rebellious Race

 

The point of view of Psalm 77 is the fickleness and rebelliousness of Israel, and especially of the northern tribes. It is written from the viewpoint of the southerner, concluding with God’s choice of the southerner David ‘to be shepherd of Jacob his people’ (v. 71). The Sion tradition may also be indicated by the use of the title ‘Most High God’ (El Elyon) in vv. 17, 35, 41, 56. In the mysterious story of Abraham and the four kings, Melchizedek, king of ‘Salem’, is called a priest of the Most High God (Gn 14.18), and it seems likely that Melchizedek is represented as the king of the ancient Jebusite city of Jerusalem. Certainly names compounded with -zedek (‘just’), such as Adonizedek, continue right up to the time King David captures the city, and this particular title ‘Most High God’ may well remain associated with Jerusalem and the Sion tradition.

 

Critique of the north is everywhere: ‘the sons of Ephraim’ (v. 9) attaches to the north, for the tribe of Ephraim held the main part of the hill-country north of Jerusalem, including the sanctuary of the Northern Kingdom at Bethel, which the southern kingdom hated and despised so thoroughly. For good measure we are told at the end ‘he rejected the tent of Joseph, he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim’ (v. 67), two parallel and almost synonymous lines, for Ephraim and Manasseh were the two sons of Joseph who had a place among the twelve tribes. Between these two mentions of Ephraim the psalm draws attention to the rejection of Shiloh, the sanctuary in the northern kingdom which had been the abode of the Ark when it was lost to the Philistines (1 Sm 4). By contrast, there is no criticism which attaches uniquely to the south, though the southerners are not exempt from the general criticism of the repeated failures of Israel through history. In a way the climax of the historical story is God’s grant of ‘his holy land, a mountain which his right hand had won’ (v. 54), and this holy mountain must surely be Jerusalem. The psalm ends with the blameless care of David as a shepherd of God’s people (v. 72), an unmistakably southern touch.

 

 

1. Structure

 

1-8 Introduction.


The repeated reference in these verses to instruction of successive generations on the lessons of history places the psalm in the tradition of Deuteronomy in such passages as ‘Do not forget the things which you yourselves have seen, or let them slip from your heart as long as you live; teach them, rather, to your children and to your children’s children’ (Dt 4.9). To learn from the lessons of history the love of the Lord and the untrustworthiness of his chosen people is one of the principal themes of Deuteronomy. So it is not surprising that the opening couplet has a very similar ring to the opening of the Song of Moses at the conclusion of Deuteronomy:

 

Deuteronomy 32.1                              Psalm 77.1

Give ear, heavens, while I speak,       Give ear, my people, to my Torah,

hear, earth, the words of my mouth.     Turn your ear to the words of my mouth.

 

The mention of Torah (law or teaching) in vv. 1 and 5 is a further link with this fifth and last book of the Torah. Further similarities to Deuteronomic theology will appear later. The psalm may therefore be classified rather as a Wisdom psalm than as a historical psalm. Rather than merely outlining the history, it seeks to show the lessons of history for a practical attitude to life, and Wisdom in Israel is concerned primarily with the practical wisdom of living a happy, contented and well-directed life.

 

9-11 Historical heading: The theme-tune of Israel’s history: failure and forgetfulness. 

 

12-41   Failure to recognise God’s care during the desert wanderings

 

42-53   God’s care of Israel at the exodus from Egypt

 

54-66   Israel’s infidelity during the period of the Judges

 

67-72   God’s choice of David to be shepherd of Jacob.       

 

 

2. Date

 

Like most of the psalms, this psalm has been placed in widely differing contexts. One attractive solution is to place it early in the monarchical period, perhaps soon after the division of the kingdoms, which would account for the polemic against the north. The final satisfaction with the choice of David, and lack of any suggestion of shadow over this choice, could hardly have been written after the failure of the Davidic dynasty and the Sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586. Especially v. 69 (‘He built his shrine like the heavens, or like the earth which he made firm for ever’) indicates that the Temple is still firm. It is a presentation of the monarchy which is entirely upbeat and optimistic. Similarly, the polemic against the north would have been sharpened and clinched if the Fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 721 had been mentioned; silence on this suggests that it had not yet occurred.

 

Another indication of date might be a whole series of links to the prophet Hosea (see p. 63), who was active in about 740, though the usefulness of this indication is dented by the difficulty of dating the final composition of the Book of Hosea. The infidelity of Israel, which is such a strong theme of the psalm (v. 37),  is castigated also by Hosea 8.1, ‘they have violated my covenant and been unfaithful to my Law’, and Hosea 5.15 expresses in the same way the threat of punishment if they fail to return and repent (v. 34). There is even striking similarity of imagery: Israel’s unreliability is like that of a faulty bow, which splinters just when the archer relies on it (v. 57 and Ho 7.16).


Further indications of the date must be the similarity of the theology of history in the psalm with that of the Deuteronomic History. However, this link is rendered less helpful by the doubt over the date of the Deuteronomic History and the emergence of the view of history which it expresses. This is usually placed either shortly before or during the Exile.

 

3. The lessons of the Deuteronomic history

 

During the exile in Babylon the early history of Israel in Canaan was written up, from the time of Joshua and the settlement in Canaan, beginning with the capture of Jericho, right up to the Sack of Jerusalem. The history of this period was seen to illustrate a consistent pattern in four movements. The schema is detailed in Judges 2, which acts as a sort of introduction to the history of the period:

 

1. Infidelity to the Covenant                                        Jg 2.12

2. Punishment by hostile invasion                               Jg 2.14

3. Conversion to the Lord                                            Jg 2.18

4. Liberation through a figure raised up by God.         Jg 2.18

 

This is obvious enough in the early history of the Judges. Again it comes to view in the story of the loss and return of the Ark under Samuel and David respectively. Further on, in the period of the Kings, the same lesson is seen: those kings who were faithful to Yahweh lived long and successfully, those who were not faithful were afflicted in some way, until the final great affliction which was the Sack of Jerusalem and the Exile itself. Psalm 77 meditates steadily on the repeated infidelity of Israel throughout its history (oddly meditating on the plagues and exodus from Egypt only after the consideration of the people’s behaviour in the desert, though that was chronologically later). The conclusion may seem rather unfair: in the psalm, the result of these infidelities is not the punishment of the people as a whole, but finally the rejection of the northern tribes and the choice of David and Judah (vv. 67-72).

 

 

Psalm 104 - God’s Guidance of History

 

Quite different in spirit is Psalm 104. It is definitely both a historical psalm and a hymn of praise. Like all hymns of praise, it starts with an invitation to praise the Lord for his ‘wonderful works’ (vv. 1-7), stressing his ‘strength’, his ‘miracles’, the effectiveness of ‘his judgements’. The emphasis of the recital concentrates on God’s steady guidance of the course of Israel’s history, with its constant ‘he sent’ (vv. 17, 20, 28) and ‘he spoke’ (vv. 5, 11, 19, 31, 34), ‘his word’ (vv. 8, 27, 28, 42)and ‘his judgements’ (vv. 5, 7), followed by the effects of these actions. Unlike Psalm 77, it has no hint of Israel’s disobedience, hesitation or murmuring, even during the wanderings in the desert. On the contrary, water from the rock, manna and quails are represented simply as the answers to Israel’s prayers, and the psalm concludes with a firm statement of the purpose of history, the observance of God’s precepts and laws.

 


The recital of history is meditative rather than descriptive, in that it is allusive and difficult to follow without previous knowledge of the course of that history. The full range of events described presupposes the already completed edition of the Pentateuchal history. There is a satisfying unity in the material chosen to illustrate the historical theme - or rather, the repeated references to ‘the land’ (vv. 11, 12, 16, 30, 35, 36, 44) make it a strongly territorial psalm - which forms a parabola, beginning in Canaan, the land of Abraham, going down to the land of Egypt, and finally returning to Canaan, the land of Israel.

 

 

 

Psalm 105

 

In marked contrast to Psalm 104 is the adjacent Psalm 105, where the emphasis is again on human disobedience. The two psalms must have been put deliberately side by side at the end of the fourth book of the psalter to highlight the contrast. Psalm 105 is a hymn to God’s love under its aspect of forgiveness. The psalm has been described as a Psalm of Lament, but is this a just description? Certainly the title in the New Jerusalem Bible (‘National confession of guilt’) is not without its justification.

 

1. The History

 

Once the historical recital begins, an almost unrelieved succession of failures is chronicled. Under the heading, ‘Our sin is the sin of our fathers; we have done wrong, our deeds have been evil’ (v. 6) the succession runs:

 

Failure to understand the wonderful deeds of God in Egypt

Defiance at the Red Sea - followed by short-lived belief (‘they hastened to forget his deeds’)

Impatience, greed and challenge to God in the desert, leading on to rebellion and idolatry, punishment for which was averted by the intercession of Moses

Disbelief in God’s guarantee about the Promised Land and idolatry to foreign gods, punishment for which was averted by Phinehas

Provocation to God at Meribah, in which even Moses was implicated

Refusal to destroy the non-Yahwistic inhabitants of Canaan, and consequent syncretism

 

All this occurred in the short time-span of the generation of the wanderings in the desert. There was always in the Bible an ambiguity about this period. The view of the desert period here presented is very different from that of the eighth century prophets. Hosea sees it as the honeymoon period after Yahweh’s betrothal to Israel:

 

But look, I am going to seduce her

and lead her into the desert

and speak to her heart.

There she will respond as when she was young

as on the day when she came up from Egypt (Ho 2.16-17).

 

In another passage Hosea sees it as the ideal period of Israel’s childhood innocence, when Israel responded to God’s affection with the trusting dependence of child to parent:

 


When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt...

I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I myself took them by the arm,

but they did not know that I was the one caring for them,

that I was leading them with human ties, with the leading-strings of love,

that, with them, I was like someone lifting an infant to his cheek,

and that I bent down to feed him (Ho 11.1-4).

 

Jeremiah, too, sees the desert period as one of unsullied love:

 

I remember your faithful love, the affection of your bridal days,

when you followed me through the desert, through a land unsown.

Israel was sacred to Yahweh, the first fruits of his harvest (Jer 2.2-3).

 

This psalm presents a very different picture of the murmuring and infidelity in the desert. Jeremiah’s phrase, ‘a land unsown’, is heavy with meaning. It requires little experience of the ‘great and  terrible desert’ of Sinai to understand how each of Israel’s opposite reactions could easily occur. The distances are so vast and the country so stark and threatening that even the chatty traveller falls silent. Limitless stretches of sand lie flat under the merciless blue sky. The sand is the colour of attractive beach sand, but is harsh and unyielding to the touch. Periodically great organ-pipes of rock squat inconsequentially on the sand to punctuate the view. Of water, life or movement there is none. It is a country of extremes, where the brooding, unseen, almighty power of God is dauntingly present. There is room for a honeymoon of trust and confidence. But to be lost on Sinai, even for a few hours, is an experience which can still chill the heart years later. Bewilderment passes swiftly to fear and then to longing or even indignation at having been persuaded to leave the lush vegetation beyond the territories of this hostile gaoler (cf. p. 81, note 29).

 

The recital reaches its climax in the final[24] verses 39-47, where Israel’s infidelity is seen precisely as the rupture of the marriage-bond with the Lord. Despite Israel’s adultery, ‘he remembered his covenant’ to the extent even of making their captors treat Israel gently. Such forgiveness gives grounds for the final prayer, to be gathered again from among the gentiles.

 

 

2. The Framework

According to the form-critical criteria established by Gunkel, the psalm should be classified as a psalm of praise, since it starts with an invitation to praise Yahweh (vv. 1-5). The other element in the framework fits the criteria also, the final prayer (v. 47) for the return from exile, so that ‘we may make it our glory to praise you’. This seems at first sight strangely at variance with the dark character of the rest of the psalm and its emphasis on failure. The bridge is provided by the object of praise, for the first few verses contain keywords which would be highly evocative to every singer steeped in the biblical tradition, namely hesed (‘for his great love is without end’), zedaqah (‘what is just’) and jeshua (‘Come to me, Lord, with your salvation’). It is for these qualities that God is praised, and all are qualities of forgiveness..


1. Hesed (see p. 13-14) Over and above the general meaning and usage of this word, perhaps best translated ‘steadfast love’, the connotation of forgiving love is built in. When Yahweh declares to Moses that he is a God of hesed, it is in a context of forgiveness, for this scene (Exodus 34) occurs immediately after the breaking and the renewal of the covenant in the desert. Similarly in Joel 2.13 this is the quality of Yahweh which is stressed in the Call to Repentance. Indeed Yahweh’s self-identification as a God of forgiveness echoes down the scripture. It is alluded to and even quoted again and again, as, for instance, in the amusingly satirical scene at the end of the Book of Jonah. Jonah complains bitterly at being made to look a fool because of God’s refusal to destroy the repentant city of Nineveh, ‘That was why I first tried to flee to Tarshish, since I knew you were a tender, compassionate God, slow to anger, rich in hesed’ (Jonah 4.2).

 

2. Zedaqah is not ‘justice’ in any modern sense of the word. In modern usage ‘justice’ is considered in function of law and of obedience/disobedience to the law. That is, the law is the norm against which justice is measured. In biblical usage about the justice of Yahweh the situation is wholly different. The yardstick of God’s justice is his promise in the Covenant that he would always protect and cherish Israel, and would forgive. God shows his justice by showing his fidelity to his covenant promises. Because of his justice, Israel could rely on his forgiveness. Thus, in the psalms and throughout the Old Testament (and in Paul, especially Galatians and Romans), God’s justice is frequently paired with his forgiveness or his salvation. It is always a forgiving or saving justice rather than condemnatory.

 

Ps 7.11: 'God is an just judge, slow to anger'.

Is 46:13, 'I am bringing my justice nearer, my salvation will not delay'.

Is 51.6, 'My justice is suddenly approaching, my salvation appears'.

Is 51.8, 'My saving justice will last for ever, and my salvation for all generations'.

Dn 9.16, 'In your saving justice turn away your anger,... for we have sinned'.

Also in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1QS 11.9-12, 'He will wipe out my transgressions through his justice.

 

Human justice is dependent on divine justice. Human beings cannot be ‘just’ on their own; they can be ‘just’ only by being enveloped in the justice of God.

 

3. Jeshua - the word which is transliterated (via Greek and Latin) into the name‘Jesus’ - is a wider term, used primarily of the salvation brought by God particularly in time of distress. It is the deliverance from the penalties brought on Israel through sin and infidelity, particularly the punishment of the Babylonian Exile. In consciousness of failure Israel cries to God, confident that God will bring his salvation. In the Old Testament God is the Saviour, and this persists into the New Testament. It is only in the course of the development of Christology that the title ‘Saviour’ is transferred to Jesus, ‘for it is he who will save his people from their sins’ (Mt 1.21).

 

Compare Psalms 77 and 105. What are the differences between the views of the history of Israel expressed in each of them? Can one be described as more correct than the other?

 



Psalm 86 Jerusalem, Mother of Nations

 

 

1. Genre

 

Hymns of Sion abound in the psalter, celebrating Jerusalem. Many of them use the ancient myths of Canaan, the idea of a healing river flowing from the city (Psalm 45.2) or a city built on a holy mountain (Psalm 47.2). But these ideas continued to be used and need not be signs of an early date, for the aura of Jerusalem continued to grow throughout biblical times[25]. A special group of Sion songs is formed by the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 119-133), sung by pilgrims on their way up to the city. Another large group is constituted by songs of the Temple. This sparkling short song celebrates Jerusalem as the centre of all nations.

 

 

2. Structure

 

One striking neat feature, not too clear in the English translation (which seeks to avoid monotony of expression), suggests a chiasmus. Each time the feature occurs at the end of a line:

 

in the literal Hebrew                                                              in the Grail translation

v. 3      in you                                                                                      Of you

v. 4                  will be born there                                                        will be her children

v. 5                              in her                                                               shall be her children

v. 6                  will be born there                                                        These are her children

v. 7      in you                                                                                      In you

 

This would suggest that verses 1-2 form an introduction.

 


3. Mother of the Nations

The literal meaning is clear enough, only two features requiring comment, the holy mountain (v. 1) and the register of peoples (v. 6). In addition we might say that the comparison to ‘Jacob’s dwellings’ is a reference to the northern kingdom of Israel, destroyed and transported in 721 BC. The reference, however, cannot be used to date the psalm; the remark could fall at any time after the establishment of a rival temple in the northern kingdom by Jeroboam as a result of the division of the kingdoms in 931 BC.

 

a. The Holy Mountain

Holy mountains feature naturally in religious traditions. No mountain-climber or hill-walker can doubt the appropriateness of this: there is a certain commanding awe about the summit of any mountain, which has always made mountains suitable homes for gods. In flat Mesopotamia worshippers were reduced to creating their own holy mountains, the ziggurats, made from billions of mud-bricks, and still today from their summits serenely dominating the Mesopotamian plain. The eastern coast of the Mediterranean had its own special holy mountains, in the north Mount Zaphon in Syria and in the south Mount Sinai. The latter certainly compels reverence by its stark and polychrome bare rock, a scene unrivalled for the great encounter with God.

 

It must be confessed that physically Mount Sion does not rate too well as a holy mountain. From the south and especially the east the slope is steep. But the City of David is really a lower escarpment running out from the higher hills to the north-west, and even the Temple built further up towards the north-west, on the flat threshing-floor of Araunah, falls well below the crest of the ridge. But the presence of the Ark, installed by David, made it the dwelling-place of God and so the holy mountain. ‘In the city of our God his holy mountain rises in beauty, the joy of all the earth, Mount Sion, true pole of the earth’ (Ps 47.2). For all their size, the mountain masses east of the Jordan must envy it: ‘High-ridged mountains are the mountains of Bashan. Why look with envy, you high-ridged mountains, at the mountain where God has chosen to dwell?’ (Ps 67.17). At any rate at the end of time the disparity of physical size will be put right:

 

It will happen in the final days

that the mountain of Yahweh’s house

will rise higher than the mountains

and tower above the heights (Is 2.2).

 

b. ‘His register of peoples’ may be intended as a reference to the Book of the Living. This shadowy conception of a book which lists the names of those who are to live surfaces already in Ex 32.32 (‘If not, please blot me out from the book you have written’) and again in Daniel 12.1 (‘Your own people will be spared - all those whose names are found written in the Book’). The idea is combined with that of a theoretical citizen-list of Jerusalem (cf. Is 4.3: ‘Those who are left in Zion and remain in Jerusalem will be called holy, all those in Jerusalem noted down to live’; contrast those excluded from the list in Ezek 13.9). The concept is extended into the Book of Revelation with the Lamb’s book of life (Rv 17.8; 20.12; 21.27).

 


Why are these names in particular included? Babylon and Egypt are of course the great nations at either extreme of the fertile crescent, the important forces dominating Israel throughout biblical history. Philistia, the coastal plain which gives its name to Palestine, was once the bitter rival, encroaching on the hill-country of Israel and particularly mocked as uncircumcised. Tyre, the proud merchant harbour-city to the north, is included perhaps because of its splendour and independence (cf. Ezek 26.1-28.19), Ethiopia perhaps because of its fabled distance.

 

It has been suggested that the psalmist is thinking merely of the joy of Jewish exiles returning from these countries (cf. p. 96), but this would scarcely make the countries themselves Sion’s ‘children’. More likely the psalmist is thinking of the joyful eschatological procession of the nations to Sion (Is 2.2):

 

Then all the nations will stream to it,

many people will come to it and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh,

to the house of the God of Jacob

that he may teach us his ways

so that we may walk in his paths’.

 

Indeed, finally this becomes an obligation, so that ‘Should one of the races of the world fail to come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, Yahweh Sabaoth, there will be no rain for that one’ (Zech 14.17, cf. 2.14; 8.20-23). This is the sort of triumphalism which is far from the tenderness of the psalm and of the picture of Jerusalem as the forsaken wife reclaimed by Yahweh and mother of the redeemed:

 

Break into cries and shouts of joy, you who were never in labour,

for the children of the forsaken one are more in number

than the children of the wedded wife, says Yahweh (Is 54.1).


Two Psalms of David’s Kingship - Psalm 88 and Psalm 131

 

 

These two psalms are so different in approach that it is useful to put them together in order to appreciate the contrasts between them.

 

 

Psalm 88

 

This psalm falls into three distinct but connected parts:

1. A hymn about God’s power

2. The prophecy to David

3. A lament for the monarchy.

These are, however, knit together, especially at beginning and end, by the themes of David (vv. 4 and 50), God’s faithfulness/truth (vv. 3 and 50), and his love (vv. 2 and 50 - both in the plural, signifying God’s concrete acts of love, translated ‘mercies’ in v. 50 of the Grail version). These are palpably the main concerns of the psalm.

 

Verse 53 is, of course, added as the doxology concluding the third book of the Psalms (cf. Psalms 40.14; 71.18-19; 105.48:150). It has no part in the movement of thought of this psalm. It has been plausibly suggested that Psalms 2, 40 and 88 are royal psalms deliberately placed at the ‘seams’ of the first three books of the psalms, to increase its ‘Davidic’ character. This has interesting consequences for the formation of the books of the psalter:

1. The first two books were joined together as a Davidic collection before the royal psalms began to be used at the seams. In the first book the titles imply that all the psalms may, in any case, be considered Davidic at least by implication. The concentration of Davidic psalms decreases gradually in each book. In the second book 21 of the 31 psalms are ‘Davidic’, whereas in the third book only one of the 17 psalms is. This strengthens the suggestion that the collection of psalms given in the third book of the psalter was a subsequent addition.

2. The last two books of the psalter are considerably less Davidic in character, and concentrate much more on direct divine rule - as is shown by the stress on the kingship of Yahweh in Psalms 95-99. This would be compatible with a date after the end of the rule of David’s dynasty.

3. At some stage, probably rather late, Psalm One was put at the beginning of the collection. Possibly at the same time Psalm 118 rounded it off. Both are Wisdom psalms, and would make Psalms 1-118 a neatly parcelled package about wise living (see p. 18).

 

 

 

 

1. A Hymn about God’s Power

 


This first part is in the familiar form of a chiasmus, a sort of pyramidal structure focussing on God’s divine power. It begins on earth, mounts through the heavens, to God’s own council, before returning through the same steps. The middle step in each direction makes use of the ancient myth of the earth-powers, now vanquished and demoted to the position of God’s servants. This is especially clear in vv. 11-13, with the mention of Rahab, the primitive sea-dragon, and the holy mountains, Tabor and Hermon[26].

 

vv. 2-5 The psalmist’s joy in God’s love and fidelity, expressed in his covenant with David

vv. 6-7             God’s power over the heavens and their powers, the defeated deities

vv. 8-9                         God unequalled in the council of the holy ones

vv. 10-14                     God’s power over the heavens, the seas and the holy mountains

vv. 14-19         The blessing and joy of those who find joy every day in God’s favour to the king.

 

The final element contains a remarkable balance between the kingship of Yahweh and that of David. In verses 15 and 16 the king and the throne are those of Yahweh; in verse 19 the king is David, a neat statement that kinsghip in Israel must always be regarded as derivative from that of Yahweh, who remains the true king (see on Psalm 109).

 

 

2. The Prophecy to David

 

This poetic celebration of the promise of an eternal dynasty receives its classic prose formulation in 2 Sm 7, when Nathan comes and delivers the word of the Lord to David. In this psalm, however, we have the main elements of Nathan’s promise without the later accretions regarding the Temple - for that much-loved passage was re-used and brought up to date generation after generation. The version in the psalm may, therefore, well be earlier than the prophecy of Nathan, at least in its present form. It has been suggested that it goes right back to the tenth century.

 

It is Yahweh (v. 21) who picked out, found and anointed his own choice of servant. The story is given, as so much of the early story of David, in two versions, either as the ‘sweet singer of Israel’ whose playing soothed the black moods of Saul (1 Sm 16), or as the stone-slinging giant-killer of whom it was sung, ‘Saul has killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands’ - hardly the best method of soothing Saul’s jealousy (1 Sm 17-18). At the centre of the promise is the assurance of adoption, and the poetic title, ‘highest of the kings of the earth’.

 

The permanence of the promise is much stressed, with a constant ‘always’ (v. 22, 29), ‘for ever’ (v. 23, 30, 37, 38), and the four consecutive uses of ‘never’ of vv. 34-36. At the centre of this protestation of everlasting divine fidelity comes the contrast of human infidelity, the hypothesis that the human king may fail. But this is closed by the repeated assertion that, though he will be punished, the promise will never fail.

 


3. Lament for the Monarchy

 

After this build-up of God’s everlasting promise the reversal is all the more startling. The reversal is rammed home by two pairs of stanzas (vv. 39-42, 43-46). The pairs correspond, first the physical, then the psychological evidence: his crown is in the dust (v. 40), his throne on the ground (v. 45); he is the taunt of his neighbours (v. 42), disgrace heaped upon him (v. 46). Finally, two stanzas, each containing a question to Yahweh (vv. 47 and 50) and a reminder (vv. 48-49 and 51-21).

 

This lament is surely the heart and purpose of the poem, to which all has built up, bringing out the paradox of Yahweh’s inalienable fidelity and yet his failure to keep the promise to the dynasty of David.

 

4. Date of the Psalm

At what moment in time should it be placed? H-J Kraus, in his brilliant Commentary on the psalms (1978, ET Augsburg Press, 1989) points out that ‘your servant’ in v. 51 can hardly be other than the king. Earlier in the poem it has been ‘my/your servant David’ (v. 4, 21); can the servant now be someone else? So the poem might be a lament over King Josiah, killed at Megiddo in 609 BC. But ‘the servant’ of the lament (vv. 40 and 51) must surely be the speaker; so is the poem placed in the mouth of the king only dramatically? The detailed analysis of vocabulary by V. Vanelli[27] suggests that the language is closer to Jeremiah, Lamentations and Job, so that the poem would fit well in the time of the Exile.

 

That was the time when Israel was desperately questioning how it was that the promise could have gone wrong. The answer is basically two-fold. A partial answer was that Israel’s infidelity left Yahweh no choice but to bring the kingship to the dust, even at the price of profaning his Name (see on Psalm 8, section 4). It would, in fact, be the occasion of a renewal, expunging reliance on the institutions of Israel in monarchy, cult and priesthood, when Yahweh would take the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh instead (Ezek 36. 25-27; Jer 33.31-33). The Christian, however, can see that the full answer lies only in the Messiah of David’s line.

 

 

Psalm 131

 

1. Form

 

The psalm falls neatly into two equal halves, vv.1-10 and 11-18, the first concerned with David’s oath for God, the second with God’s oath for David. The parallels are closely elaborated:

 

v.1       Yahweh...David                                  v.11a               Yahweh...David

vv.3-5  Oath formula                                       vv.1b-12          Oath formula

vv.7-8  Rest offered by David                         vv.13-14          Rest accepted by Yahweh

v.9a     Priests clothed with justice                 v.16a               Priests clothed with salvation

v.9b     your faithful ring out their joy  v.16b               her faithful ring out their joy

v.10     David...your anointed                          v.17                 David...my anointed


The two halves are, so to speak, bolted together by the verb shub=‘turn away’ in v. 10b, stressing Yahweh’s lasting fidelity (literally, ‘do not turn away from your anointed), and v. 11b (literally, ‘he will not turn away from his word’).

 

 

2. Historical Background

 

The historical background to the psalm is that wonderful, reassuring moment when David brings the Ark up to Jerusalem. It signified a turning-point in the history of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant was always a symbol of God’s presence with Israel. God’s presence in the midst of Israel was what made the nation special, what distinguished it from all other nations, and this presence was - ever since the time in the desert - in or at the Ark. The Ark itself was not precisely the place of God’s dwelling, but rather the Ark was the footstool (as v. 7 confirms): above the Ark was the ‘mercy-seat’, a gold platform flanked by great winged creatures, so a throne or footstool for Yahweh (Exodus 25.20-22). The Ark had the function of the bull in many Canaanite representations of Baal: Baal, the thunder-god, is represented standing on the back of a bull[28]. In the Ugaritic texts the God El (from whom the Hebrew word for God, ‘Elohim’ comes) is called ‘the Bull, El, my Father’; that is, the God himself could be represented as a bull. So the Ark was carried into war to bring terror on Israel’s enemies and reassurance of God’s protection to Israel’s own warriors. When the Ark fell into the hands of the Philistines this was both a national disaster and a national disgrace, marked by the heart-broken symbolic name given to Phinehas’s son, Ichabod or ‘Where is the Glory?’ (1 Sm 4.22). To the child’s mother the loss of the Ark features larger than the death in same battle of both her husband and her father-in-law.

 

The Ark was no easy trophy for the Philistines, and got its own back by inflicting them all with piles. After a few months they decided to get rid of their uncomfortable guest, put it on an ox-cart and left the inspired cows to shamble up to the (Philistine) border-town of Beth Shemesh. There it again brought havoc to the inhabitants until they ushered it off a few miles more to the (Israelite) border-town of Yearim, where it rested - neglected? Twenty years later David remembered it and brought it up with great ceremony to his new, personal capital of Jerusalem. At the end of the event David distributed bread, dates and raisin-cakes to the crowds, which may be the reference of v. 15b. Shrewd dynastic move, perhaps, by that clever politician[29], to hijack the Ark into his own city, and so make Yahweh his lasting ally. But, motivation apart, it was the decisive moment which made Jerusalem what it has since remained, the symbol of God’s presence in human history and beyond.

 


How does Psalm 131 stand against this background? According to Mitchell Dahood (Psalms, Doubleday 1970, vol 3, p. 241) ‘this royal psalm appears to have been composed in the tenth century as part of the liturgy for the feast when the ark was carried in procession to Jerusalem’. The author of the Books of Chronicles appears to think the same, for vv. 8-10 are quoted in that exaggeratedly liturgical account of the installation of the Ark, 2 Chr 6.41-42. This is at least strong evidence that the psalm already existed at the time of the writing of Chronicles. For others (e.g. H. Gunkel) it seems to have been composed for the annual feast of the dedication of the sanctuary. The major difficulty about this theory is that there is no clear evidence in the Bible for such an annual feast; it is deduced chiefly from the existence of such a feast in Mesopotamia, and then is used to explain several psalms (see p. 19-22).

 

There is no evidence in the Bible that David ever made the promise given here, not to rest until he had found a dwelling-place for the Lord. It is only a reasonable poetic deduction from David’s rejected offer in 2 Sm 7 to build a ‘house’ for the Lord and from his fulfilled resolution to bring up the Ark to Jerusalem. An important indication of the date of the psalm is the form of the oath in v.12. Unlike the oath in 2 Sm 7 and Psalm 88, the oath here is no more than provisional, ‘if they keep my covenant’. This suggests that the version of the oath may come from a time after the fall of the Davidic dynasty, when they had in fact not kept the covenant. Indeed it fits perfectly the exilic theology of the Deuteronomic History, so aware of the repeated failure of Israel and the need for repentance and forgiveness. Therefore, although the structure of the psalm makes clear that Yahweh’s oath courteously answers David’s oath, these oaths are only introductory, and the stress of the parallelism is on the place of rest (vv. 7 and 14; the parallel is more exact than appears, for the same Hebrew word is translated in the Grail version ‘place of rest’ and ‘resting-place’). Furthermore, the language of vv. 17-18 is commonly that of the exilic and later prophetic writings (e.g. Jer 33.15; Ezek 29.21; Zc 3.8; 6.12 for v. 17a, ‘I will make the horn of David sprout’). The promises must therefore be understood not of the historical dynasty of David but of his eschatological, messianic successor.

 

It is not by chance or by mistake that the psalm is placed among the psalms of pilgrimage to Sion (see p. 96). The emphasis is on the presence of God in Jerusalem, on the priests clothed with justice or salvation and on the joy of the pilgrims. David’s oath to bring the Ark to Jerusalem is a dramatic enhancement of this, as is also the chorus from Ephrata (v. 6, an alternative name for David’s home-town of Bethlehem).

 

 

3. Two Christian Reflections

 


a. The presence of God in the Ark and eventually in Jerusalem was what made Israel a people special to the Lord. It was their reassurance of their choice by God, whence the shattering character of the loss of the Ark to the Philistines and of the destruction of the Temple. The Gospel of Matthew, written as it is with Jewish traditions in mind, insists in the same way on the presence of Christ in his new community of the new Israel. Thus at the beginning of the Gospel the child Jesus is given the symbolic name Immanuel or ‘God is with us’ (Mt 1.18), and at the end the risen Christ in full power and splendour promises his presence among the disciples until the end of time (Mt 28.20). These two bracket the Gospel. The presence of Christ in his Church is, further, a theme which recurs again and again in the course of the Gospel. In his editorial touches to the story of the Calming of the Storm (Mt 8.23-27, compare Mk 4.35-41) Matthew represents the boat as the ship of the Church, which is safe as long as Jesus is present. In the Walking on the Water (Mt 14.22-33) it is when Jesus enters the boat that the wind drops. In the chapter on the community a central teaching is ‘when two or three are gathered together, I am there among them’ (18.20). It certainly seems likely that Matthew is representing the presence of Christ in the new Israel as being on the same level as the presence of God in Jerusalem.

 

b. Jerusalem, sanctified by the presence of the Ark, becomes in the thought of Israel the symbol and goal of God’s presence in the world. It is in the Temple that the prophet Isaiah experiences God’s awesome presence and glory, as the cloud filling the Temple (Isaiah 6). The tragedy of the Exile is expressed by Ezekiel’s vision of the Glory of the Lord leaving the Temple (Ezek 10.18-22); once the Glory of the Lord had left the Temple, Jerusalem had lost its heart. Similarly the restoration after the Exile is described in terms of the re-sanctification of Jerusalem:

 

 

When the Lord has washed away the filth of Zion’s daughters

and with the wind of judgement and the wind of burning

cleansed Jerusalem of the blood shed in her,

Yahweh will create over every house on Mount Zion

and over all those who assemble there a cloud by day

and by night smoke with the brightness of a flaring fire,

for over all will be the Glory as a canopy and tent to give shade by day from the heat,

refuge and shelter from the storm and the rain (Is 4.4-6).

 

 

The final chapters of Ezekiel embody the hope of Israel in Exile with a blue-print for the restored Jerusalem and its Temple, climaxing in the final line, ‘The name of the city in future must be “Yahweh-is-there”’ (Ezek 48.34). Throughout the history of Judaism, right into modern times, Jerusalem is the symbol of peace, rest and contentment, the City of Peace and the goal of all longing. The Jewish good wish or blessing, ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’, is understood not so much literally and geographically as expressing a wish for all good things, prosperity and contentment. This was already the magnetic power of Jerusalem in ancient times. The historian Josephus (who does tend to exaggerate numbers) estimates that over a million pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem regularly from all over the Diaspora for the Passover. It is this which gives such joy to the Psalms of Ascent, as the pilgrims gather from the lands of their exile to the safety and brotherhood of Jerusalem.

 

In the New Testament, too, Jerusalem becomes the symbol of the final goal, Luke already gives a very special place to Jerusalem. His gospel begins and ends there, the second half being dominated by Jesus’ final pilgrimage to die a prophet’s death and to manifest himself again to his followers at Jerusalem. The first and ideal Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1-7) takes its starting-point from Jerusalem, a centre of unity, prayer and fraternity, and the scene of the first martyrdom for Christ. It is from Jerusalem that the faith spreads to ‘the ends of the earth’.

 


This symbolism is most explicit in the two final chapters of the Book of Revelation. In imagery heavily dependent on that of the third part of Isaiah and on the final chapters of Ezekiel, the author describes the messianic, eschatological Jerusalem, the city of salvation, where all nations will gather to worship the Lord, bathed in his light and in his glory. There God will make his home, and all sorrow will be gone. The city will not need the sun or the moon, for it will be lit by the radiant glory of God and the Lamb will be a lighted torch for it. The river of paradise will flow in it, bringing light and plenty, and every yearning will be fulfilled.

 

1. Jesus is called in the gospels ‘son of David’. Do these psalms show this to be an apt title? Why?

2. Do these two psalms show the same or a different attitude to the promises of God?

 


Psalm 92 The Lord of the Seas

 

1. Genre

 

This psalm falls equally well into the two categories of nature/creation-psalm and royal psalm for Yahweh, ideally combining the two. It is certainly a psalm about the superiority of Yahweh over the created universe, and especially over the sea, which featured so ominously in the Canaanite mythology. It retains much of the fine simplicity of Canaanite verse, particularly in three ways,

 

1. The unbroken occurrence of tricola (grouping by three elements or lines, instead of the more usual Hebrew dual parallelism) in each verse,

2. Complete lack of definite article (which did not exist in Ugaritic, the primitive language of Canaan)

3. Repetition of words from one line to another with a single new element (see on Psalm 28, section 1b). So verse 3-4 runs:

 

v.3       They have lifted,         the rivers,        Yahweh,

They have lifted,         the rivers,        their voice

They have lifted,         the rivers,        their thunder.

 

v.4       Than the voices           of many seas,

the splendour               of breaking seas,

the splendour               is exalted         of Yahweh.

 

The sound of these verses in Hebrew, with their striking triple rhythm and repeated sounds, is so strong and so fitted to the surging of the waters that it must be reproduced here. Note especially in v. 3 the repetition of the swishing ‘s’ and the lift of the final syllable, and in v.4

the hollow booming of the final ‘-im’/ ‘-am’ / ‘-om’.

 

 

v.3       Na-su                          na-ha-rot         Yahweh

Na-su                          na-ha-rot         qo-lam

Ya-su                          na-ha-rot         dak-yam

 

v.4       Mi-qo-lot                    ma-yim ra-bim

a-dir                            mish-ba-re yam

a-dir                            ba-ma-rom      Yahweh.

 

 

 

At the same time the psalm celebrates the kingship of Yahweh, as Psalms 46 and Psalms 95-98. It has been suggested that this psalm is an introduction to the collection consisting of the latter four psalms. Earlier in this century attempts were made to associate these psalms with an annual festival of the harvest, the autumn New Year festival combined with a celebration of the re-coronation of Yahweh (see p. 19-22).

 

 


2. Shape

 

 

Contrasting with the turmoil of the surging waters at the centre of the poem is the majestic firmness of Yahweh at beginning and end.

 

First, the translation. Regretfully, I must depart from the Grail translation of v. 5 in two respects. The ‘decrees’ intrude strangely into the poem at this point; there has been no mention of commandments or directions given, and such a thought-world fits better the exilic period when the Law became important than it does the early Canaanite/Ugaritic sphere. In Ugaritic the word translated ‘decrees’ means ‘throne’. Similarly the idea of ‘holiness’ becomes important also in the exilic period; the word can also, and better, be understood as a collective noun, ‘the holy ones’. This yields the idea, frequent in the Bible (e.g. 1 Kgs 22.19, or Isaiah’s vocation-experience in Is 6) and elsewhere, of God surrounded by his courtiers, his ‘holy ones’. With other smaller adjustments, v. 5 therefore reads in a way which coheres better with the rest of the poem:

 

Truly your throne stands firm.

In your temple your holy ones will praise you

O Lord, until the end of time.

 

Then the shape may be more clearly seen. Corresponding to one another, and contrasting with the tumultuous and shifting waves are v. 1d, ‘the world you made firm, not to be moved’ (the same word as was used in Ps 45.3 of the mountains toppling into the sea) and v.5a ‘your throne stands firm’. The poem, then, is built on the contrast between the constant but frustrated and impotent shifting of the waters whom God has defeated, and the serene majesty of Yahweh who gives stability to the world.

 

 

 

3. The Kingship of God - a concept develops

 

a. During the Babylonian exile

The theme of the kingship of God takes on a new dimension during this period, a notable expansion from the conception of God as king over the natural world through the control of nature. The exile raises the question whether indeed God is still king. All the institutions on which Israel relied had been annihilated, the Temple, the cult, the royal dynasty. Was Yahweh really king if he could not protect his people and ensure their stability?

 

Hark, from the daughter of my people the cry for help,

ringing far and wide throughout the land,

‘Is Yahweh no longer in Zion, her king no longer there?’ (Jer 8.19)

 

If God has allowed his people to be dragged into exile, his kingship of the world is seriously questioned. But the message of the return is re-assuring. According to Deutero-Isaiah, God is to become king by the return to Zion:

 


How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger announcing peace,

of the messenger of good news who proclaims salvation

and says to Zion, ‘Your God is king!’ (Is 53.7)

 

The excitement of the return and of the renewal of God’s kingship is palpable in such passages as Jeremiah 3.17 or Micah 3.12-13; 4.7, or Zephaniah 3.15:

 

Yahweh has repealed your sentence. He has turned your enemy away.

Yahweh is king among you, Israel, you have nothing more to fear.

 

 

b. After the return from Exile

But again the excitement came to be disappointed. The return from the Exile developed into a harrassed and depressed existence in the impoverished Holy Land, surrounded by enemies, and increasingly oppressed by the great empires of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria. The dominant note of spirituality after the return from exile is not confidence in the kingship of Yahweh, but is marked by two quite different features. The first is awareness of sin and constant need of repentance (e.g. the Book of Baruch), the second that the poor and unfortunate are the favoured of Yahweh, indulged by God’s special care and blessing (see p. 50). The lowest point came with the Maccabean persecution, when the Syrian King Antiochus IV attempted to wipe out all Jewish religious observance.

 

It was under the pressure of these adverse political and economic conditions that the kingship of Yahweh came to be seen again in a new light, in less material terms. Not only did the apocalyptic literature develop, which, in terms of coded and splendid imagery, promised deliverance from oppression by enemies and a glorious future for Israel, but also a new concept of the kingship of God began to prevail, centred upon holiness and the kingship of God through the reign of ‘justice’, or the prevalence of the divine values seen in the Law. This becomes visible especially in  the literature of the first century before Christ, for example the so-called Psalms of Solomon (not in fact Solomonic, but hymns of the Pharisaic school, see p. 14). It is now not so much a political kingship as a kingship of righteousness and holiness:

 

Behold, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David,

at the time you appointed to reign over Israel your servant,

and cleanse Jerusalem of the nations which are trampling her down in destruction,

in the wisdom of righteousness to expel sinners from your inheritance,

to smash the arrogance of the sinner.

He shall gather together a holy people whom he shall lead in righteousness (17.21-26).

 

c. The kingship of God in the preaching of Jesus


Jesus came to proclaim the kingship of God, and from the beginning of his proclamation it is clear that a time of crisis and decision has arrived. Indeed, even before Jesus began his proclamation, the Baptist was proclaiming that the axe had been put to the root of the tree, that the Messiah was about to come, winnowing fan in hand, to separate the grain from the chaff. Jesus’ message was subtly different, for he saw his task as one of fulfilment. He explains the type of fulfilment by explaining to John’s messengers from prison (Mt 11.2-6) that his miracles of healing fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah 35 and 61, ‘the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the poor have the good news brought to them, etc’. By his ‘teaching with authority’ (that is, no mere repetition of traditional teaching) he showed how Judaism must be renewed if it was to express the kingship of God, again and again cutting through the web of superficiality and casuistry to the basic principles of God’s Law. As Matthew three times expresses it, ‘What I want is love not sacrifice’.

 

In some sense Jesus saw the kingship of God as already realised in his coming, though the exact sense of ‘The kingship of God has drawn near’ has been endlessly disputed: is it merely near or is it present? He undoubtedly saw it as in some sense realised and perfected by his self-offering and vindication: ‘In truth I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power’ (Mk 9.1). The claim is echoed most strongly in Luke: at the Last Supper Jesus says ‘I shall never again drink wine until the kingdom of God comes’ (Lk 22.18), and immediately drinks from the Chalice of the New Covenant. At the trial scene he says, ‘From now on the son of man will be seated at the right hand of God’ (Lk 22.69). There is a tension between the two time-zones: the kingship of God is both already present and yet to be completed in the future. There is an urgency of decision springing from the presence of the kingship of God in the proclamation of Jesus - everyone must make an act of commitment for or against the kingship of God - and yet the completion is still in the future. Perhaps this tension is best considered (if not resolved) by the mind-set of the Fourth Gospel: the gospel is one great judgement-scene, in which the presence of Jesus is a challenge. All those who encounter Jesus judge themselves either by accepting or by rejecting him. ‘The hour is coming - and now is - when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and all who hear it will live’ (Jn 5.25). This is the fulfilment of the kingship of God.

 

d. The kingship of God in Paul

In Paul the language of the kingship of God is rare. But the teaching is nevertheless present. In the earliest of all his letters, First Thessalonians, Paul teaches that

 

At the signal given by the voice of the Archangel and the trumpet of God, the Lord himself will come down from heaven; those who have died in Christ will be the first to rise, and only after that shall we who remain alive be taken up in the clouds together with them, to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess 4.16-17).

 

This is the language of a royal triumphal procession, when a city goes out to greet the arrival of a visiting emperor and accompanies him through the triumphal arch at the city gate in splendour and pomp. Such language was drawn from the imperial cult, but the thought is rooted in the biblical concept of the kingship of God, except that the monarch is here the Lord Jesus in the place of the Lord God. The completion of this triumphal procession is seen in a later letter,

 

After that will come the end, when he will hand over the Kingdom to God the Father, having abolished every pricipality, every ruling force and power. For he is to be king until he has made his enemies his footstool, and the last of the enemies to be done away with is death (1 Cor 15.24-26).

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Write a short piece on the development of the idea of the kingship of God (use NJB and McKenzie). In a post-monarchical world is the concept too outdated to be meaningful? What about ‘shepherd’?

2. Gather together and comment on the different images of water which we have met in the Psalms.


Psalm 94 The Word of the Lord

 

1. Structure

 

The psalm seems to fall fairly abruptly into two parts, the first three and the last two stanzas. The first three stanzas are in the classic form of a hymn of praise, twice repeated: an exhortation to praise (an imperative), followed by the reasons for so doing (introduced by ‘for’).

 

v.1       Come...

v.3       for a mighty God is the Lord   (the ‘for’ is omitted in the Grail version)

The reason for praising is already summed up in ‘mighty God’. God is to be praised as the creator who made heights and depths, sea and land.

 

v. 6      Come...

v. 7      for he is our God        

The reason for praising is summed up in ‘our God’. God is to be praised as the God who made and chose Israel, the flock of his pasture.

 

The last two stanzas form a prophetic warning. We should suppose that the words attributed to Yahweh are thought of as pronounced by a Temple prophet. Such prophets existed in the Temple worship beside the priests (1 Chr 25.1-2; Jer 5.30-31; 23.11), the successors of the groups of prophets who first roamed the country (1 Sm 10.5-13) and then became attached to the royal entourage (1 Kgs 22.5-7). These verses are concentric, focussing the attention on the centre:

 

v. 7d    If[30] today you would only listen!

v. 8                  ‘harden not your hearts

v. 9b                            they tried me though they saw my work

v. 10b              their hearts are astray’

v. 11b  If they will enter my rest!

 


The link between the two parts of the psalm is the concept of the work of God, manifested in God’s creation and God’s choice of Israel. Both of these are seen as going unrecognised by those who hardened their hearts at Massah and Meribah. The double name ‘Massah and Meribah’ (meaning respectively ‘trial’ and ‘contention/quarrel’) was given to the place on Sinai where the people of Israel finally - after already one revolt about water at Marah (Exodus 15.23) - took issue with Moses about water (Exodus 17.7)[31]. A secondary link between the two parts of the psalm is the concept of entry into God’s rest: entry into God’s sanctuary to praise him in the first part, and failure to enter into God’s rest of Canaan in the second.

 

 

2. Date

 

The psalm has been dated, somewhat hesitantly, to the period at the end of the monarchy or during the exile. The reflections on creation (vv. 4-5) are neither particularly close to the ancient Canaanite myths nor especially redolent of the new realisation at Babylon of the universal power of God as creator. The consciousness of sin would lead to the same solution: it is present, but does not yet show the drama and horror of the contrition present in so many writings of the exile and after.

 

 

3. The Flock that is Led by his Hand

 

Sheep and goats are the commonest of all animals in biblical lands, no doubt because of their ability to find some sustenance from apparently barren land just beyond the edge of civilisation. They often function as a unit of currency in large transactions. The image of God as shepherd, so widespread in the Psalms, is common throughout the pastoral lands of the near east. The accent is always on the shepherd’s loving care for the sheep (Psalm 22), but quite often also on the stupidity of the sheep, their unpredictable behaviour and their unwillingness to be controlled (Psalm 77.57). Palestinian sheep yield nothing to European sheep in their propensity to run the wrong way, and lambs do not long remain white-fleeced and cuddly (though this trait too can be used, 2 Sm 12.1-4). So God’s justified severity in punishing his people is described in terms of a cheap sell-off of unwanted sheep for slaughter (Psalm 43.12-13).

 

In the Bible the shepherd is normally God, an image given special point by the exodus-journey, in which God led his people like sheep across the desert (Psalm 77.52-54). The return from Babylon is also often described in the same terms (Isaiah 40.11; 49.9-12). However, David, originally a shepherd, is seen as the divinely-appointed shepherd of God’s people, God’s own lieutenant (Psalm 77.70-72). Human rulers as shepherds form an image used effectively by Ezekiel in his strictures against the self-seeking shepherds of Israel. This passage also promises that God will ‘raise up one shepherd, my servant David, and put him in charge of them to pasture them; he will pasture them and be their shepherd’ (Ezek 34.23). This opens the way to the imagery of the Messiah as the good shepherd.

 

 

 


4. Psalm 94 and the Letter to the Hebrews

 

The Letter to the Hebrews frequently applies to biblical texts the pesher-technique which is familiar from Qumran. This consists in taking a biblical phrase - usually from the Prophets - and actualising it of the present-day. The Qumran texts normally use a formula, quoting the text and adding, ‘Interpreted, this refers to...’[32]. The Letter to the Hebrews uses the technique without the formula, making direct, working application to the situation envisaged. It is one of the few occasions in the New Testament when this pesher-technique is applied at length.

 

The interpretative application of Psalm 94 in Hebr 3.7-4.11 forms the basis of the Letter’s teaching that Israel’s travels in the desert never reached a satisfactory end, a real place of rest, so that the People of God is still on pilgrimage towards the real place of rest. The passage takes the ‘Today’ of Psalm 94.7 and reflects on it from different points of view, using the word, occurring five times in this passage, almost as a sort of mantra. It forms a basis for any theology of the sanctification of the present day. With the repeated ‘today’ offered by the daily challenge of hearing God’s voice in an actualisation of Psalm 94, the Letter combines the ‘today’ of the seventh day of creation. So the complete and satisfying divine rest, which Israel is called to share, is illustrated from the seventh-day rest after God’s act of creation, the exemplar of the ‘Today’ which remains the object of hope for the believer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Exodus was the basic experience of Israel, to which the nation continually looked back.’ Sum up: how does the Exodus feature in the Psalms you have studied? How did it colour Israel’s view and experience of God?


Psalm 109 A Royal Coronation

 

 

Warning

This is a difficult psalm. It is of great importance for Christians, since it is quoted in the New Testament more than any other psalm. The first difficulty is to establish the original text, for the Greek version differs considerably from the Hebrew. The psalm was, of course, composed in Hebrew, but the Hebrew texts which we have date only from the ninth century AD. The Greek translation (known as the ‘LXX’ or ‘Septuagint’ because of the legend that it was completed by 70 scholars, each of whom simultaneously but independently produced an identical translation) was made nearly a thousand years earlier, so reflects a Hebrew text nearly a thousand years nearer the original[33]. The most extreme of the differences between Hebrew and LXX comes in v. 3, which R. Tournay considers the most obscure verse in the psalter (‘Le Psaume CX’, RB 67 [1960], p. 11). A second difficulty is interpretative: the psalm contains several obscure allusions which now escape us. A third difficulty is theological: was this divine promise ever fulfilled?

 

 

1. Genre - A Royal Psalm

 

A large group of psalms can be classified as royal psalms (2, 17, 19, 20, 44, 71, 88, 100, 109,  131, 143) because they are concerned with the earthly king in Jerusalem. Of these four (2, 71, 109, 131) could be coronation-songs. There is, however, also a group of psalms which celebrate the kingship of God (46, 92, 95-98, 144) and more which equivalently celebrate God’s throne (9, 46, 88, 102). This reveals the double aspect of kingship in Israel.

 


From the first suggestion of human kingship in Israel (1 Sm 8) the feeling was clear that to have a human king in Israel was an infringement of Yahweh’s kingship over Israel. To have a king was to become like other nations, whereas the special property of Israel was precisely that it was unlike other nations in having the special immediate authority and sovereignty of Yahweh[34]. In the end the need for a human king was reluctantly accepted as a political and military necessity. Israel could no longer hold out against the advances of the Philistines without some permanent ruler. But Samuel, in acceding to the demands for a king, points out the abuses which will inevitably follow (1 Sm 8.11-18). Nevertheless, the two first kings were very much God’s own appointment, since God guides Samuel’s search for the monarch and instructs Samuel to anoint him (Saul in 1 Sm 10.1, and David in 1 Sm 16.12). It is, therefore, a kingship which is delegated by God. David particularly makes much of the fact that the king is the Lord’s anointed (for example, in his reverent treatment of Saul, 1 Sm 24.7; 26.16; 2 Sm 1.14). David continues to show his awareness of his dependence on God for his kingship by making his capital, Jerusalem - won by his own band of soldiers, led by the courageous and brutal Joab (2 Sm 5.6-10) - the seat of the Ark and so God’s own capital (2 Sm 6 - David, that scheming and ambitious politician, is, of course, well aware of the advantage to himself of thus hallowing his own capital city). In turn, God’s own patronage of David continues to show, when Nathan is sent to refuse David’s suggestion of building a house or Temple for Yahweh: it is Yahweh who builds a ‘house’ for David, not vice versa, and the result is the great promise of a dynasty in 2 Sm 7.11-13

 

Yahweh tells you that he will make you a house. And when your days are over and you fall asleep with your ancestors, I shall appoint your heir, your own son, to succeed you and I shall make his royal throne secure for ever. I shall be a father to him and he a son to me.

 

The tragedy of the monarchy was the failure of the kings to remain true to this vocation as God’s viceroy, first by David’s adultery and weakness towards his own family, and later by the almost continual failure of his successors - with one or two exceptions, like Josiah - to lead the people in fidelity to Yahweh. Nevertheless, the kings of Judah continued to rely on the promise made through Nathan. By contrast to the northern kings of Israel, whose succession changed kaleidoscopically, the dynasty of the southern kingdom of Judah remained firm and stable. This forms the background of the royal psalms.

 

 

2. An Enthronement Psalm

 

The psalm falls obviously into two halves, vv. 1-3 and 4-7, each beginning with the announcement of a divine declaration (In the Grail translation ‘the Lord’ renders the Hebrew divine name, Yahweh, so that the Hebrew Adonai has to be rendered ‘my Master’ instead of the usual ‘my Lord’). The first half announces the adoption of the king, the second its consequences.

 

Much of the ritual, organisation and court ceremonial of the Israelite monarchy was taken over from Egypt. It is common in the royal sculptures of Egypt to find representations of the king seated at the right hand of god (v.1b), and throughout the near east conquered foes are represented as forming a footstool for the king (v. 1c): the footstool of Tutankhamen’s throne has foreign captives prostrate, their hands bound behind their backs. The second of these is common enough in Israel, but there is no parallel in the Old Testament for a king or any other human being to be seated at the right hand of God. The nearest parallel is Ps 60.8 (‘May he ever sit enthroned before God’), but this is a very different matter and easily admits of interpretation as the king being dependant on God. The revelation expressed in v. 1 of this psalm therefore stands out starkly. The nearest, but inadequate, parallels are the son of man in Daniel 7.14, who receives power from the One of Great Age, and Wisdom in the hymn of creation in Prov 8.30,

 


I was beside the master-craftsman

delighting him day after day,

ever at play in his presence.

 

V.3 is thoroughly obscure in the Hebrew; even the text is uncertain. The Grail version wisely follows the LXX, though one of the remaining difficulties is provided by the last three words ‘I begot you’, which are in the LXX and only in some manuscripts of the Hebrew. The difficulty is that the psalmist should be speaking, whereas suddenly God takes the word, introducing an idea from the very similar Psalm 2.6-7:

 

It is I who have set up my king on Sion my holy mountain.

I will announce the decree of the Lord. The Lord said to me,

‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’.

 

The Egyptian court language adopted clearly included the idea that at the king’s accession to the throne he is adopted by God; the relationship is already expressed in Nathan’s oracle, ‘I shall be a father to him and he a son to me’. The process of the birth and rearing of the monarch from the gods but through the persons of royal parents is illustrated by a whole series of scenes on the Temple of Hatshepsut at Karnak, described in detail and with illustrations by Othmar Keel[35] (The Symbolism of the Biblical World, p. 247-256). The divine but royal conception of the king is described thus:

 

The picture cycle begins with a portrayal of the assembly of the gods, at which Amon-Re [the sun god] makes known his love for the future queen mother. In another picture Amon himself communicates his intention to the king. Scene 3 depicts Amon on his way to the queen. Scene 4 depicts a preliminary high point, discreetly and delicately portraying the conception of the future king. The god and the queen are seated on the sign for ‘heaven’. The left hand of the god rests in the queen’s right; her left hand tenderly supports his right, which extends the life-sign toward the queen’s nose. The text indicates that Amon-Re enters the queen in the form of the reigning king.

 

Being the son of a god obviously is not thought to exclude human parentage, so that from this point of view the psalm could be addressed to a historical king in Jerusalem.

 


The second part of the psalm (vv. 4-7) is neatly parallel to the first, beginning this time not with a revelation but with a solemn oath from Yahweh. It spells out some of the consequences of the adoption/investiture described in the first part: the king is to be priest, conquering warrior and judge. It also contains two probable allusions to Jerusalem, which suggest that it may be an enthronement-psalm for David himself. The first of these is in v. 4. Here the difficulty is that the king never seems to have functioned as priest, so that it is odd that he is proclaimed a priest for ever. It is true that when the Ark is being brought up to Jerusalem King David dances before the Ark wearing a linen ephod which could be construed as the forerunner of the later High Priest’s ceremonial ephod. It is true also that on occasion both David and Solomon bless the people  (2 Sm 6.18; 1 Kgs 8.14). However, it is questionable to what extent these actions were regarded as priestly in the strict - or at any rate the later - sense of the priesthood. The solution may lie in a closer look at Melchizedek. Melchizedek was the legendary king of Salem in the oddly detached story of Gn 14. A later king of Jerusalem, who appears in the time of Joshua (Jos 10.1, 3) has the similar name ‘Adonizedek’; ‘zedek’ in both names means ‘justice’, and the two words ‘melchi’=‘my king’ and ‘adoni’=‘my lord’ are not much different. Perhaps the psalm is simply saying that David has taken over the role of the priest-king of Jerusalem, which was played by the Jebusite kings of Jerusalem, though in fact the kings of David’s line never exercised this priesthood. Both David’s dancing before the Ark and the blessings given by David and Solomon would fall well within this role. Already, then, it would be true that priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek was different from priesthood according to the order of Aaron.

 

The second allusion to Jerusalem comes in the obscure detail of v. 7, ‘he shall drink by the wayside’. This may be understood of the royal coronation-procession. At Solomon’s accession the new king is taken in procession to the spring Gihon, a sparkling spring of clear water which still wells up and flows merrily away on the east side of Jerusalem. We are not told what Solomon did there during the accession-ceremony, but he will surely have drunk from its waters. This may have been part of the traditional enthronement of kings of Jerusalem.

 

 

3. Date

 

The date of this psalm is, not surprisingly, as disputed as its meaning (see the bewildering variety of views laid out by Leslie C. Allen in Psalms 101-150 [Word Biblical Commentary no 21, 1983, pp. 83-85]). Some of the factors mentioned suggest the ancient times of David or soon afterwards, and some scholars accept this date. Other scholars consider that the exalted language used of the king can never have been intended for any historical monarch, but envisage the Messiah, when, in the centuries immediately before the pre-Christian era, messianic hopes were burgeoning.

 

 

4. Christian Interpretation

 

The widespread use of this psalm in the New Testament demands consideration on three levels:

 

a. In the gospels (Mk 12.35-37 and parallels) Jesus uses the opening verse of the psalm as a conundrum for the scribes, the learned interpreters of scripture. This conundrum relies on the acceptance - unquestioned in Jesus’ day - of the Davidic authorship of the psalms. If David calls the Messiah ‘Lord’, the Messiah cannot be a descendant of David, for a descendant cannot have greater dignity than an ancestor. The answer indicated is surely that the Messiah is more than merely David’s descendant.

 


In the scene of the trial of Jesus before the High Priest, it is surely this text to which Jesus alludes in his answer to the question, ‘Are you the son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus replies, ‘You will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven’ (Mk 14.62) and the enormity of his claim forces the High Priest to cry Blasphemy. The paradox of Jesus’ answer is that he claims to be both seated and coming. This paradox is best reconciled if he is understood to be referring to the Chariot-Throne of God, described in Ezekiel 1, and already a centre of devotion and mysticism (see the Fragment on the Divine Throne-Chariot, in G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 21968, p. 212-213), held to be describing - in so far as it could be described - the very essence of God’s sacred majesty. On this mobile throne Jesus can be both seated and coming. But for a mere human being to claim to share with God this awesome Chariot-Throne is indeed a spine-chilling blasphemy.

 

b. In the early Christian kerygma the opening verse is used several times to convey the vindication of Jesus at his resurrection. This is the allusion which is intended by such expressions as ‘seated at God’s right hand’. In his speech at Pentecost (Ac 2.34-35) Peter uses it to show that, since it was not fulfilled of David, who never went up to heaven, it must refer to Jesus as Messiah. Paul (1 Cor 15.25) uses the later part of the verse to show Christ’s triumph over death, both for himself and for all Christians: ‘For he is to be king until he has made all his enemies his footstool, and the last of the enemies to be done away with is death, for he has put all things under his feet’. The Captivity Epistles extend this to show that Christ is superior to every force imaginable: ‘...the power which he exercised in raising him from the dead and enthroning him at his right hand in heaven, far above every principality, ruling force, power or sovereignty, or any other name that can be named, not only in this age but also in the age to come’ (Eph 1.20-21; cf. Col 3.1). The psalm therefore constitutes one of the earliest ways of proclaiming the vindication of Jesus and his exaltation at his resurrection. The empty tomb is only one of the ways in which this vindication is expressed, stressing the bodily nature of the resurrection, the raising of the whole person. The Gospel of John concentrates on the ‘exaltation’ and ‘glorification’ of Christ in the hour of his Passion and Resurrection. The hymn in Philippians 2 expresses the same through the homage of all creation and the conferral of the Name which is above every name. The use of Psalm 109 perhaps centres the attention on the work of the Father in this establishment of Christ ‘at the right hand’.

 


c. The Letter to the Hebrews uses the opening of the psalm to establish Christ’s exalted position above even the angels (Hebr 1.13; 8.1), but concentrates principally on Christ’s priesthood, and so on v. 4 of the psalm (Hebr 5.6, 10; 6.30; 7.3, 17, 21). In an argument typical of Jewish exegesis at the time (and so particularly effective to the recipients of the letter) the author argues that the verse receives its fulfilment in the priesthood of Christ[36]. The argument of the letter is to show those who still hanker after the Temple liturgy that the sacrifices and the priesthood of the old dispensation, according to the levitical ordinances, are ineffective, and are superseded by Christ’s priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek. The point of contact is dual, resting doubly on the fact that Melchizedek appears only once in Gn 14, without any reference to his ancestry. The recipients of the letter may be imagined as asking how Christ, not descended from Aaron, could be a priest at all. Melchizedek’s priesthood, it is therefore argued, is not dependent on his ancestry. The same is true for Christ’s priesthood, for which Melchizedek’s constitutes a precedent. Secondly, Melchizedek’s single appearance in Genesis is reinforced by Psalm 109's ‘priest for ever’ to contrast with the repeated sacrifices of transitory levitical priests. Christ’s ‘power to save those who come to God through him is absolute, since he lives for ever to intercede for them’ (Hebr 7.25). There is no need for repeated sacrifices since he was perfected ‘once and for all by offering himself’ (Hebr 7.27-28).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. In the course of this study of the Psalms considerable reference has been made to non-Israelite literature, Egyptian, Canaanite, Mesopotamian. How developed was their understanding of God? What did it contribute to Israel’s understanding of God?

2. Explain and justify the widespread use of this Psalm as the first at Sunday Vespers.

 

 


Psalm 118 The Law and Love

 

 

1. Form

 

This is by far the longest and formally the strictest of all the psalms, a poem of 22 stanzas composed in an acrostic, that is, each of the eight lines of the stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. There are other such acrostic poems in the psalter (Ps 24[37], 36, 110,111; see p. 49), but none in which the same letter begins eight consecutive verses. It is this which makes it such a tour de force.

 

A brief word might be permitted about these letters. The Hebrew letters (and eventually Latin or European script) are derived from Egyptian pictograms. In their development they do not seem to have minded changing direction or angle, and, with this proviso, many remain recognisably the same as their originals.

 

a  aleph, was originally an ox’s head; the wavy horns are still visible on the Hebrew letter and on the Latin capital A, though now at the bottom of the letter.

b beth, was originally a house; it has lost its left-hand wall, but otherwise in Hebrew continues to resemble a primitive square, flat-roofed house.

l lamed, was originally an ox-goad (‘lamed’ yields the word ‘to teach’). In Greek it turned over L; in the Latin alphabet it again changed angles.

 

In almost every verse (v. 122 is an exception) some word occurs which denotes God’s law. The word ‘Law’ itself is very important, occurring in the first verse and at the beginning of four other stanzas. However, the principal expression for ‘word’ (dabar) also occurs in the first verse of eleven stanzas, and a poetic equivalent, also meaning ‘word’ (’imrah), in the first verse of 15 stanzas. This statistic, combined with the other statistics for the frequency of these expressions, shows that the psalmist considers the Law not so much a commandment to be observed as a word or revelation to be understood. Other expressions used are ‘will’, ‘ways’, ‘commands’, ‘statutes’, etc, commonly ten different words. The pattern of their use is not strict, some occurring more often than others, and certainly not each of them appearing in each stanza. The repetition of these words gives a sort of mantra effect to the recitation of the psalm, and this is surely the overall effect intended, rather than a strict differentiation between the various words used. The psalmist continuously turns over these expressions meditatively and lovingly.

 

The psalm opens with a beatitude, ‘Blessed are those whose way is blameless’ (also v. 2: ‘Blessed are those who observe his instructions’), which links it to Psalm 1. In the commentary on that psalm it was suggested that originally these two psalms were first and last in the collection, psalms 119 and following being added later. However, by contrast to Psalm 1, which is descriptive, from v. 4 onwards, this psalm is a prayer, being addressed constantly to God.

 

 


2. A Character-Study of the Psalmist

A remarkable and attractive character-study of the psalmist has been done by R.E. White (‘The Student’s Psalm?’ in Expository Times 102 [1990], pp. 71-74), in which the psalmist is seen as a young man, full of ‘artless, unconscious egotism’ because he uses ‘I’ or its equivalent, ‘your servant’, over one hundred times. He is eager to learn from the Lord, though he considers himself wiser than all his teachers, and he several times mentions (ruefully?) the need to study and meditate all day long. A ‘young idealist’, he is impatient of compromise and realises that he must and does suffer for his devotion to the cause. Another youthful trait which might be added is that the author betrays no historical sense: he regards his teaching as coming direct from Yahweh, without mention of Moses or other human teachers or any mention of the historical process of revelation.

 

This attractive picture is only one side of the coin. The psalmist has learnt from his predecessors, so that the psalm may be considered an ‘anthological’ piece, that is, it is full of reminiscences of other Books of the Bible. ‘Though princes sit plotting against me’ (v. 23) or ‘I shall speak of your will before kings’ (v. 46) are archaisms more suited to Jeremiah (36.1-2) than to the situation of the psalmist. Similarly ‘When will you sentence my oppressors? For me the proud have dug pitfalls’ (vv. 84-85) seem to be reminiscences of Jer 15.15 and 18.20-22. It is, therefore, not the psalm of a fresh and unlettered young man, full of enthusiasm and originality,  but rather a Wisdom prayer (and it is a prayer for Wisdom throughout), in which the riches of the Bible stand behind every verse, e.g. ‘I treasure your promise in my heart’ (v. 11) or ‘I rejoiced to do you will as though all riches were mine’ (v. 14) is a personalisation of Prov 3.13-15:

 

Blessed are those who have discovered wisdom,

those who have acquired understanding.

Gaining her is more rewarding than silver,

her yield is more valuable than gold

 

To give another example, important and recurrent is the spirit of repentance, ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word... It was good for me to be afflicted, to learn your statutes’ (vv. 67, 71). This appropriates to the psalmist the constant biblical theme that God’s punishment is therapeutic, as in Hosea 6.1 (‘Come, let us return to Yahweh; he has struck us and will bind up our wounds’) or Deuteronomy 8.2 (‘Remember the long road by which Yahweh your God led you for forty years in the desert to humble you, to test you and to know your inmost heart’). In short, a line of cross-references could be given for almost every verse of this psalm. It does not, of course necessarily follow that the psalmist is consciously quoting from the scriptures; it is equally possible that, at least in many of the instances, he is so steeped in the wisdom of the scriptures that he alludes to them unconsciously. The importance of this is that the psalm sums up marvellously almost every theme of the individual spirituality of the Bible - the individual spirituality, not the public spirituality, for there is no mention of covenant nor of the public cult of sacrifice and Temple.

 

 

 

3. The Heart of the Psalm

 


To a modern mind the constant combination in the psalm of Law and love seems strange: few of us spend much affection on traffic wardens. To the Israelite, however, the situation was entirely different: the Law was the supreme manifestation of love, and in two ways.

 

a. The Law was intimately connected with the Covenant. On Sinai, when God made Israel his people by the Covenant, he had at the same time given them the Law. This was a moment at which Israel did not yet exist as a nation; they were only a miserable group of runaway slaves, reluctantly following Moses and his wild aspirations, only too ready to give up and return to the leeks and garlic of Egypt - and slavery. The giving of the Law was therefore part and parcel of Yahweh’s supreme act of love in creating his people to be a people who were his very own, a special possession, closer to him than any other nation was to its gods. On Israel’s side obedience to that Law was the response in love to the divine initiative and the expression of gratitude, a way of clinging to every aspect of God’s own love.

 

b. The Law was also a revelation of God’s nature. It was a Law which showed Israel how God wished his people to behave, indeed, how Israel must behave if it was to associate with God. Partners in a covenant (such as marriage, a frequent image of God’s covenant with Israel) must accommodate their style of life to each other’s. Accordingly, then, the Law revealed much about God, the divine values of fidelity, forgiveness, respect for every person. The Law calls upon Israel to imitate God. The cry is constant, ‘Be holy, as I am holy’, and Israel is repeatedly encouraged to treat others as God treated them in Egypt: ‘You will treat resident aliens as though they were native-born, and love them as yourself - for you were once aliens in Egypt. I am Yahweh your God’ (Lv 19.34). The Law, then, revealed God’s nature, and obedience to it is an expression of love because it brings the Israelite closer to God.

 

The value of recognising the anthological[38] nature of Psalm 118 is that this makes clear that the psalmist is embracing not merely the revelation on Sinai, but the continuing revelation which has been going on in the Bible, giving gradually fuller knowledge of God and of his workings with humanity - so how humanity must respond to God.

 

 

4. A Christian Perspective: Christ the Word

 

The psalmist’s appreciation of the word as the revelation of God’s will and of his nature (see the earlier statistics for the use of the expressions for ‘word’ in Psalm 118) finds not only its echo but its fulfilment in the Johannine theology of the Word. The Prologue to the Gospel of John presents the Word who is Christ as the fulness of the revelation of God. In so doing, the evangelist, like the psalmist, links into the Wisdom tradition of the Bible, in which Word and Wisdom alike represent the fulness of God’s action in the world.

 


God created by his word (‘God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light’, etc), and Isaiah shows the continuing effectiveness of God’s word at work in the world:

 

For, as the rain and the snow come down from the sky

and do not return before having watered the earth,

fertilising it and making it germinate

to provide seed for the sower and food to eat,:

it will not return to me unfulfilled

or before having carried out my good pleasure

so it is with the word that goes from my mouth (Is 55.10-11).           

 

The whole appreciation by the psalmist of the Wisdom tradition of the Bible, and such repeated expressions as ‘the way of your precepts’ (v. 27), ‘the way of your commands’ (v. 32), prepares for those great passages where the function of Wisdom as God’s agent in the world is expressed:

 

Yahweh created me, the first-fruits of his fashioning,

before the oldest of his works.

From everlasting I was firmly set,

from the beginning, before the earth came into being. ...

 

When he assigned the sea its boundaries,

when he traced the foundations of the earth,

I was beside the master craftsman,

delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence,

delighting[39] to be with the children of men (Prov 8.22-31).

 

These passages are feeling their way towards expressing a Wisdom which is God at work in the world, entirely dependent on and yet not the same as Yahweh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. What would be your character-study of the author of Ps 118?

2. Write a short piece on the biblical view of the Law as a source of life, using Ps 118, NJB, McKenzie, etc.

 


Psalm 126 A Pilgrimage Song

 

 

1. Songs of Ascents

 

The psalm is one of the so-called ‘Songs of Ascents’. Each of the psalms from 119-133 is so labelled in its title (on the titles, see below), but it is unclear what is meant by this. In Latin they are called the ‘Gradual Psalms’, from gradus or ‘step’. This interprets the title by the vision of the eschatological Temple in Ezekiel 40.22, 37; the vision prescribes a staircase of seven or eight steps up to the gate of the Temple.

 

A more probable meaning relates the ‘ascent’ to the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem. It remained an ideal to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for the three pilgrimage-feasts; one such pilgrimage is described of the twelve-year-old Jesus in Lk 2, and the Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there could be as many as a million pilgrims in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover (but Josephus is notorious for exaggerating numbers). No doubt it was the possible adverse publicity, and upset to the pilgrims which a repetition of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple would have caused, which led to his arrest just before the festival.

 

Jerusalem was a great centre of devotion. By the first century it was already a pious custom for Jews to migrate to Jerusalem for the evening of their lives, a custom which caused financial strains on the community, and even a certain amount of unrest in the earliest Christian community: there must have been a disproportionate number of widows in the community, and complaints were made that the Hellenist widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6.1). Here they would find respite from the unpopularity and even anti-Semitism suffered elsewhere. There were large and flourishing Jewish communities still in Babylon and around the mediterranean area, some so flourishing (e.g. Alexandria and Cyrene) that the Jews were felt to be a threat by non-Jewish fellow-citizens. Jews were felt to be unintegrated and clique-ish, a position which was forced on them by the rules of ritual purity and by their refusal to participate in civic religious ceremonies. The situation was made worse by their profession. Then, as in the middle ages, their religious principles barred them from a number of trades, and banking had already become a favourite occupation. Bank managers and other money-lenders always risk unpopularity. It was therefore with a great sense of relief and of home-coming that returning pilgrims would meet up with other groups of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.

 

The same sentiment of solidarity can be experienced today. It is an ambition of many Jewish families to bring a child to make Bar Mitzvah at the western wall of the Temple (injuriously nicknamed by gentiles, unfamiliar with Jewish ways of prayer, the ‘Wailing Wall’); any bystanders are welcomed to participate in the extrovert joy of the occasion. The songs of ascent are still often sung during the descent of an aeroplane to Tel Aviv Airport.

 

A characteristic which runs through these psalms of ascent is the limpid and clear imagery, which makes them favourite psalms for many people. They are marked by a simplicity and affection for Yahweh and for Jerusalem, his dwelling-place, which makes them moving and memorable. Perhaps the most stable recurrent feature is confidence in Yahweh’s protection and his help (Ps 120; 126; 129).


 

2. The Titles of the Psalms

 

Each of the psalms, except the first two, has a superscription or heading. These are given in many modern versions of the Bible, e.g. RSV, NJB, NIV. (It should be noted, however, that the Grail superscriptions are the product of the editors, and have no biblical authority). A score of these exist only in the Greek version of the psalter, not the original Hebrew, and some of the Greek headings differ from the Hebrew ones. Neither the function nor the authority of the headings is clear, and some of them are unintelligible to us.

 

Some of the headings provide liturgical indications, often the type of poem. These include ‘psalm’ (e.g. 2) and ‘song’ or ‘poem’ (e.g. 43). Another indication probably gives a secular tune used (e.g.  21, ‘to “the Doe of the Dawn”; 44, 59, 68 and 79, all ‘Lilies’; 57 ‘Do not destroy’). Another indicates the instruments used, e.g. 60 ‘for strings’. Many of them are inscribed ‘to/for the choirmaster’, e.g. 74. A large group has personal headings, ‘to/for David’, ‘to/for Asaph, ‘to/for the sons of Korah’. The exact sense of the Hebrew particle l, here rendered ‘to/for’ is unclear. Are they dedications, or indications that the psalms were to be sung by a particular person or group?

 

A number of headings give a historical setting for the psalm, principally in the life of David. So Psalm 3 is labelled ‘To/for David, when he was fleeing from his son Absalom’, which is not inappropriate since it expresses confidence in God on the part of the psalmist persecuted by ‘even thousands of people, who are ranged on every side against me’. Famously, Psalm 50 is related to David’s repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba, ‘To/for David, when the prophet Nathan had come to him because he had gone in to Bathsheba’. These historical settings are unlikely to be correct. They fit the putative occasion only moderately well. However, the principal difficulty is that many of the psalms so labelled are (e.g. Psalm 50) almost certainly of later composition. It is easier to account for them as historicizations on the basis of David’s reputation as a singer (to soothe Saul, 1 Sm 16.17; 18.10) and as the founder of the Temple liturgy - though the Temple was not built until a generation later.

 

Psalm 126 is labelled hmlvl [read from right to left!], that is ‘to/for Solomon’. This may have several senses, possibly none of them historically correct. Firstly, as we shall see, the psalm has close links with the Wisdom Literature, which was reputed to stem from Solomon, as author of many proverbs and renowned for his wisdom (1 Kgs 3; 10). Secondly, it is concerned with building a house, which fits Solomon’s building of the Temple. Thirdly, ‘his beloved’ in v. 2 uses part of the name Yedidiah (‘Yahweh’s darling’),  given to Solomon by Nathan at his birth (2 Sm 12.25).

 

 

3. The Psalm

 


Psalm 126 falls into two halves, vv. 1-2 and 3-5, the first concerned with building a house (Hebrew: banah), the second with the gift of children (Hebrew: banim). The verbal assonance[40] makes a neat and attractive unity between the two halves. A further link comes through the double-sense of ‘house’, which can also mean ‘dynasty’. This association of the two meanings is also called into play by the unforgettable story of Nathan’s prophecy to David in 2 Sm 7, which would be familiar to any Israelite: David wanted to build a house (i.e. a Temple) for Yahweh, but Yahweh replied that David had no business building a house for Yahweh, it was rather Yahweh’s business to build a house (i.e. a dynasty) for David, which he then promised to do.

 

Each half of the psalm echoes, or is echoed by - depending on the relative priority of the two works - a proverb from the Wisdom Literature:

 

Prov 10.22      The blessing of Yahweh is what brings riches,

to this, hard toil has nothing to add.

 

Prov 17.6        The crown of the aged is their children’s children,

the children’s glory is their father.

 

The psalm could well be a meditation on these two sentiments. In addition, each half of the psalm contains a strong reminiscence of the story of Adam and Eve. The curse on Adam was to ‘toil for the bread you eat’ (v.2), and the birth of children, ‘the fruit of the womb’ (v. 3), immediately follows on.

 

Finally, the link between Psalms 126 and 127 must be the reason for their being placed consecutively. Both centre on the strength given to a house by children and on the fertility of the womb as a blessing of the Lord. Both reflect on the reward for toil imparted by the Lord. Further verbal links are less clear in translation, but unmistakable in the original:

1. Each is divided in two by the Hebrew word often translated ‘Behold’ (in 126.3 translated ‘truly’; in 127.4 translated ‘indeed’).

2. Each uses the classic blessing-formula ‘blessed are those who...’ (in 126.5 translated ‘O the happiness of the man who’; in 127.1 translated ‘O blessed are those who’). This beatitude-form is familiar from other psalms, e.g. Psalm 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make your own commentary either on Psalm 127 or on Psalm 136, preferably both.


Bibliography

 

Alter, R           The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York 1985)

has very sensitive material on the psalms from a literary and poetic viewpoint

 

Dahood, M      Psalms [Anchor Bible Commentary] (New York, 1966-70)

very learned and concentrates on words, explaining everything by Ugaritic parallels

 

Drijvers, P      The Psalms

ancient and simple, but still useful on literary types and other introductory matters

 

Gillingham, S. The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford, 1994)

an excellent, rounded introduction                 

 

Keel, O            The Symbolism of the Biblical World: ancient near eastern iconography and the book of psalms (New York, 1997)

illustrations and descriptions which provide useful parallels

 

Kraus, H-J       The Psalms (Augsburg Press, 1989)

a translation of his massive 2-volume 1961 commentary - detailed and useful

 

Pritchard, J.B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, 31969)

includes ancient prayers from Egypt and Mesopotamia (=ANET)

 

Sabourin, L      The Psalms, their origin and meaning (New York, 1974)

discusses each of the psalms, but very briefly - not well thought through

 

Stuhlmueller, C.P. Psalms [Old Testament Message] (Michael Glazier, Wilmington, 1983)

two volumes of commentary on each psalm - some prayerful reflections

 

Vermes, G       The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Pelican,)

the best source for the Qumran ‘psalms’ and other comparative Qumran material

 

Westermann, C The Psalms, structure, content and message (Minneapolis, 1980)

a standard work with many good points


Index of Psalms commented

 


 

 

 

 

 

psalm              page

 

1                      23-25, 92

2                      23, 71, 88

8                      26-29

14                    30-31

15                    57

17                    34-39

18                    26

21                    40-44

22                    84

23                    21, 30-33

24                    92

25                    51

27                    10-12

28                    10-12, 26, 54

32                    10, 26

33                    51-54

36                    9, 92

37                    51

38                    55-58

39                    9-10

40                    71

41                    10

45                    11, 59-61, 68

46                    20

47                    68-69

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

psalm page

 

48                    57

60                    87

71                    9, 71

77                    62-63, 84

81                    12, 2

84                    17

86                    68-70

87                    57

88                    71-73

93                    9

94                    21, 83-85

95                    21

98                    21

103                  13, 26, 54

104                  54, 64-65

105                  65-67, 71

109                  86-91

110                  13, 51, 92

111                  51, 92

117                  12

118                  23, 51, 71, 92-95

126                  96-98

131                  21, 73-75

139                  42

146                  8, 10

150                  11, 71

 


 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Index of Matters principally discussed

 


acrostics          51, 92

Alter, R           24

anti-Semitism  96

Ark                  21, 30-31, 74-76

Baal                 48, 74

Babylon           19, 20, 45-46, 52

beatitudes        24, 53, 92

Ben Sira          57-60

Book of Life    58, 69

Canaan 8, 13, 19, 26, 31-32, 38,

45-48, 64-65, 68, 74, 78-79

chaos               20, 59

countryside      50, 60, 66. 83-84

creation narratives      28

Crucifixion      43

cult                  19

David              19, 33, 34-39, 51, 62, 71-75, 87-89

Dead Sea         60

desert wanderings       65-66

Deuteronomic history  64

Egyptian myth  31, 40, 51, 72, 87-88

enemies           41

flood                20, 45-46, 59

go’el                37, 58, see ‘Saviour’

Gunkel, H        17

Hebrews, Letter to      85, 90

hesed               35, 38, 67, see ‘love’

Hopkins, G. Manley    11-12, 46

Immanuel         61, 75

Isaiah               15, 21, 32-33, 36, 42-43, 49, 53,

58, 60-62, 78, 81, 83, 86, 96

Jeremiah          8, 41, 66, 73, 93

Jericho 13

Jerusalem        60, 62, 68-70, 74-76, 87-89, 96-98

Job                  37, 46-47, 50, 53, 55-56, 75

Jordan             13

justice of God  67

Kingship of God          20-21, 43, 72, 78-79, 81

Law                 60, 63, 92

life after death 56-57

liturgy              19, 30

love                 35, 67, 71, 93

Lowth, Robert 9

Maccabees      58, 80

Marduk            20, 46

Mesopotamia   31, 40, 69

metre               11

Mowinkel, S    20

name of God    28-29, 35

Negeb              50

New Year Festival      20, 78

Nicodemus, gospel of  32

Oxford 84

parallelism      8-9, 11

Passion of Jesus          43

poetry & prose            8

poor                 52

praise              53

Psalm 151       14

Psalms of Solomon      14, 80

Qoheleth          55-56, 59

Qumran            25, 31, 34-39, 43, 85, 86,90

salvation          36, 67

Saviour            67

Servant of Isaiah         40-43

sheep               84

Sheol               38, 57-58

shepherd          84

Sinai                48, 66, 69, 83-84, 94

Sion                 see ‘Jerusalem’

Solomon          19, 31, 89, 97

sons of God     45-46

storm               48-50

Tabor, Mount  72

Temple            19, 28, 30, 68-70, 75, 83

thanks              53

theophany        37

Tiamat 46

titles of psalms            97

trees                50

Ugarit              19, 49, 76, 80-81

voice of God   47

water               59-60, 79, 83, 89

Westermann, C            21

Wisdom           23, 51-52, 60, 63

word-thrift       12-13


zedaqah           67

 


 

 

 


 



[1]Probably the most readable and serviceable introduction to the whole field is given by Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament (Paulist Press/Fowler Wright Books, 1984). To work through this, simultaneously reading the biblical books, would be a most valuable experience.

[2]E.g. X. Léon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Geoffrey Chapman, 1984), Johannes B. Bauer, Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology (Sheed & Ward, 1970). Perhaps the most useful single volume is J.L.McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Geoffrey Chapman, 1965).

[3]James L. Kugel, whose book The Idea of Biblical Poetry (Yale University Press, 1981) provides a valuable study of parallelism, complains at this nomenclature, since ‘Here is nothing antithetical whatever’ (p. 14) because the positive and negative create agreement rather than contrast. Kugel’s initial example (p. 2) is a helpful instance of different kinds of parallelism:

O Lord, avenging God // avenging God, appear!

Arise, Judge of the earth, // give the proud what they deserve!

How long, O Lord, shall the wicked // how long shall the wicked triumph?

They bluster with arrogant speech; // the evil-doers boast to each other (Ps 93.1-4).

In the first and third lines a phrase is repeated, but each time the second half advances over the first. In the second line each half begins with an imperative, the second half being more detailed than the first. The fourth line gives examples of the behaviour of the wicked, the second half more specific than the first.

[4]The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 81