Lecture 21. Biblical Poetry: Psalms and Song of Songs
Hayes: Okay, so having studied Job,
we’ve seen that the Bible is not a book with a single uniform
style and message. It’s an anthology of diverse
works that may have different, conflicting points of view.
So the conventional religious
piety of Proverbs, the firm belief in a system of
divine reward and punishment, that’s so important to the
Deuteronomist–this is challenged by the Book of Job.
Job concludes that there is no
justice–not in this world, not in any other world.
Job feels that he is not excused from the task of
righteous living. And it’s a wonderful and
fortuitous fact of history that Jewish sages chose to include
all of these dissonant voices in the canon of the Hebrew Bible
without, for the most part,
striving to reconcile the conflicts.
I mention this because I hope it will help you in writing your
final paper. Careful exegesis of the
biblical text–which is part of your task in these papers (I’ll
come back in a minute to the other part of your
task)–careful exegesis of the biblical text requires you to
set aside your presuppositions and to attend to the many,
complex and often conflicting details of the text.
Some of the other
presuppositions that you need to set aside when you write this
paper are presuppositions that I mentioned at the very outset of
the course, but it might be wise to mention
a few of them again. The first is,
and I hope you’ve seen by now, that the Bible is not a set of
stories about saints or pious people who always say and do
what is right or exemplary. Even the Bible’s heroes are
human, they’re not superhuman. Their behavior can be confused,
it can be immoral; and if we try to vindicate
biblical characters merely because their names appear in
the Bible, we can miss the moral dilemma
that’s being set out by the writer.
We can miss the psychological complexity of the stories.
So when you do these papers,
put yourself in the place of the character.
In other words, humanize them. Think of them as acting in ways
you might act. Think about their likely
feelings, their likely motivations as human beings.
Secondly, remember that the
Bible isn’t a manual of religion.
It’s not a book of systematic theology.
It doesn’t set out certain dogmas about God,
and you need to be careful not to impose upon the Bible,
theological ideas and beliefs that arose centuries after the
bulk of the Bible was written–for example,
a belief in a heaven and a hell as a system of reward or
punishment, or the belief in a God that doesn’t change his
mind. The character Yahweh in the
Bible changes his mind; it’s just a fact of the text.
If we wish to understand the
Bible on its own terms and in its own context,
then we have to be prepared to find ideas in it that may
conflict with later theological notions that we hold dear.
Don’t assume you’re going to
agree with the Bible. Don’t assume that the Bible
will agree with itself. So then, coming to your paper
assignments–You’ve been asked, in the final paper assignment,
to develop an interpretation of a passage, and the task of
interpretation for the purposes of this class is not excavative.
In other words,
you’re not asked to analyze sources or to account for how
the text reached its final form, right?
Source criticism. You’re to look at the final
form of the text and give a plausible reading that makes the
best sense that you can out of the details.
Whether you like the meaning or not, whether you agree with the
meaning or not, try to argue from the evidence
in the text itself. So you’re going to be doing
what you’re probably quite accustomed to doing in an
English class. You’re going to study the
text’s language, its vocabulary,
its structure, its style, all of the clues.
Look at the immediate context,
the larger context, the way vocabulary is used
elsewhere in the Bible, similar vocabulary,
anything that might shed light on the passage’s meaning or a
character’s motivation, and then you’re going to weigh
the evidence and present your reading.
As in an English class, you’ll want to minimize any
external assumptions that you bring to the text,
anything that’s not supported by the text.
Often the text will be truly ambiguous, precisely because
there are gaps of information or there are hints that pull in two
different directions at times. That’s part of the great
artistry of the biblical text. That’s what makes it so
interpretable. If that happens,
then you may want to present various, dueling
interpretations, various plausible
interpretations of the passage based on the evidence in the
text and say: these sorts of things would
lead one to suppose that this is going on;
but on the other hand, these textual clues lead to the
following plausible interpretation of what’s going
on. You’ll find that the task of
interpretation is easier if you keep in mind the following
point: Not all statements in the Bible are equal.
When a story is being told, information conveyed by the
narrator is reliable. Speech attributed to God is
reliable. The words of individual
characters are not necessarily reliable.
Characters can be wrong, they can be misguided,
they have limited perspectives and sometimes the narrator hints
as much. But the voice of the narrator
is privileged and that’s part of the game we play when we read
works of literature; we accept facts that are
established by the narrator as facts that guide our
interpretation. So it was with the story of Job.
The narrator established,
as a fact of the story, that Job is perfectly
righteous. That’s in the narrator’s voice
in the prose introduction. He states it explicitly;
he bolsters his statement by attributing the same assertion
to God. And the narrator also
establishes as a fact of the story that Job is afflicted with
horrendous suffering that he didn’t deserve.
It’s not a punishment for sin. And then he leaves the
characters to struggle with the implications.
Job’s friends cling to the idea that God rewards and God
punishes and so anyone who suffers must have sinned.
We, as readers,
know that they are wrong because of the narrative facts
established at the beginning of the story.
Job takes the other route. He knows, as we do,
that he is innocent, that he is not being punished
for sin and therefore he concludes that God doesn’t
punish and reward at all–and that’s a radical idea.
That God punishes the wicked
and rewards the good in this life, even if a little delayed
sometimes is a fundamental idea in much of the Bible that we
have studied so far. It’s going to get weaker in
some of the books we’ll be looking at.
But Job denies this idea and in doing so, he arrives at a
radical moral conclusion. The truly righteous man is
righteous for its own sake even if his righteousness brings him
nothing but suffering and pain in this life or in any other.
Remember that at the end of the
book the narrator has God state that Job is the one who has
spoken rightly and not his friends.
So be sure to consider point of view in your interpretation.
You wouldn’t want to go in and
just lift something out of Bildad’s mouth and say this is
what the Bible thinks, right?
Taking a verse right out of context that way.
Don’t assume that every
character in the Bible is reliable, look to the
surrounding framework as you evaluate their deeds,
and their actions, and their speech,
and their views. Finally, don’t be surprised if
after carefully looking at all of those things a passage
remains ambiguous. Again, in those cases you might
want to detail the features that would support interpretation A,
the features that would support interpretation B,
or you might plump for one interpretation over the other.
That’s the first part of your
task. It will help you enormously–if
you do that right, it will help you enormously
(and by “right” I mean thoroughly,
I don’t mean “correct”)–I mean “right” in the sense that if you
do it well and thoroughly then it will help you enormously in
the second part of your task, which is to analyze a Jewish
and a Christian, (and a Christian,
not or; a Jewish and a
Christian) interpretation of the passage particularly of whatever
key ambiguous point you might have found in it,
and try to understand how they are a reading of the text,
a genuine effort to deal with, to grapple with,
probably the very points of ambiguity that you yourself
found when you really delved into the text.
And as much as their answers may not be answers that you
would come up with, they are still genuine readings
of the exact issues that bugged you when you analyzed the text
closely. Try to give an account of that.
What is it that this
interpretation chooses to develop as it presents its
interpretation? What is it suppressing?
What is this interpretation
suppressing? What is it picking up on and
developing? You’ll be sensitive to those
things because you will have invested the time yourself in
appreciating how complex the passage is.
So do understand that you need to do all of those things for
any of the four questions. Develop your own interpretation;
analyze a Jewish and a Christian interpretation of the
same passage, okay?
Now, there is debate among scholars over the date of the
Book of Job, as well as some of the other books of the
Ketuvim. Ketuvim is a Hebrew word
that simply means writings, and it’s the label or the name
that we use to refer now to the third section of the Bible.
So we’ve talked about Torah,
Neviim or prophets, and now we’re moving into the
Writings or we have already really moved into the Writings,
the third section of the Bible. Most scholars would concur that
many of these books contain older material,
but that the books reached their final form,
their final written form, only later, in the post-exilic
period. Now, if these books contain
material that predates the exile, is it legitimate for us
to speak of them and study them as a response to the national
calamities, particularly the destruction
and defeat and exile, 587/586.
In answer to this question, we’ll consider a relatively
recent approach to the study of the Bible.
It’s an approach known as canonical criticism.
Canonical criticism grew out of
a dissatisfaction with the scholarly focus on original
historical meanings to the exclusion of a consideration of
the function or meaning of biblical texts for believing
communities in various times and places–a dissatisfaction with
the focus on original context and original meaning to the
exclusion of any interest in how the text would have served a
given community at a later time, a community for which it was
canonical. At what point did these stories
and sources suddenly become canonical and have authority for
communities? And when they did,
how were they read and understood and interpreted?
So the historical,
critical method was always primarily interested in what was
really said and done by the original, biblical contributors.
Canonical criticism assumes
that biblical texts were generated, transmitted,
reworked, and preserved in communities for whom they were
authoritative, and that biblical criticism
should include study of how these texts functioned in the
believing communities that received and cherished them.
So emphasis is on the final
received form of the text. much less interest in how it
got to be what it is; more interest in what it is now
rather than the stages in its development.
There’s a greater interest and emphasis in canonical criticism
on the function of that final form of the text in the first
communities to receive it and on the processes of adaptation by
which that community and later communities would re-signify
earlier tradition to function authoritatively in a new
situation. So a canonical critic might
ask, for example: what meaning,
authority, or value did a biblical writer seek in a
tradition or story when he employed it in the final form of
his text? What meaning,
authority, or value would a community, would his community
have found in it, and what meanings and values
would later communities find in it when that text became
canonical for them? How did they re-signify it to
be meaningful for them? Why did religious communities
accept what they did as canonical rather than setting
certain things aside? Why was something chosen as
canonical and meaningful for them when it came from an
earlier time? So I propose that we adopt this
approach for many of the books in this third section of the
Bible. We look at the Bible through
the eyes of the post-exilic community, for whom they were
canonical–at least in part. We won’t do this for everything
but I’m going to be coming back to this approach many times in
the last few lectures, because in this way it becomes
possible for us to understand these books as a response to the
national history. Not in their genesis or origin
(they weren’t written necessarily as responses to the
national history–some of them may even pre-date the exile) but
in the fact that they were adopted or cherished as
meaningful by the post-exilic community.
So whatever the circumstances of their origin and final
redaction might have been, many of the books of the
ketuvim, of the Writings,
eventually would serve the post-exilic community as a prism
through which to view Israel’s history.
Interestingly, many of the books in this
section of the Bible explore questions of suffering and evil,
and challenge some of the ideas that we’ve seen as more
fundamental in the Torah and in the Prophets.
They explore the very questions that are raised by the events of
Israel’s history, and so they were appropriated
by the community in its quest for meaning in the midst of
suffering. Let’s turn to the Book of
Ecclesiastes or Qohelet. The Hebrew name is Qohelet,
Ecclesiastes. It’s a second attack on the
optimism and piety of conventional religion.
The book is mostly in the first
person. There’s a third-person
introduction and a little epilogue.
The introduction reads “The words of Qohelet,
Son of David, King in Jerusalem.”
Now, Qohelet may mean preacher
and that’s why the Greek translation Ecclesiastes,
which means preacher (it’s hard to know): “one who assembles or
gathers others.” But tradition attributes the
work to David’s son Solomon, known for his wisdom.
This attribution is fictive.
The writer speaks of kings
reigning before him. That implies there were many.
But more important there are
linguistic and literary features that suggest a later,
probably or perhaps, a fourth-century date.
So, as such,
the work can be understood as a post-destruction and a
post-exilic work. It was available to Israelites
who were struggling to make sense of their history and their
God, even though no reference is
made to that history at all. In fact, God is not referred to
by his personal Israelite name Yahweh in the book at all;
he’s only referred to with the general term Elohim. The
prominent tone of the book is one of alienated cynicism and a
weary melancholy; it’s the prominent tone.
The theme that’s repeated
throughout is the idea of the emptiness of human effort.
All is vanity,
which means futile, it’s all for naught.
“Utter futility!–said Kohelet–/ Utter futility!
all is futile!
/ What real value is there for a man / In all the gains he
makes beneath the sun? / One generation goes,
another comes, / But the earth remains the
same forever.” and in verse 9,
“Only that shall happen / Which has happened,
/ Only that occur / Which has occurred;
/ There is nothing new / Beneath the sun!”
The endless repeated cycles of
the natural world, the rising and setting of the
sun and moon, the ebb and flow of the
tides–this leads the speaker to the conclusion that nothing is
permanent. All is fleeting,
change constantly. We don’t find in Qohelet the
linear view of time or the sense of progress in history that
scholars rightly or wrongly associate with the Hebrew Bible.
We find here instead the cyclic
view of time which scholars, again rightly or wrongly,
associate with myth. There are also the endlessly
repeated cycles of the human world: birth and death,
breaking down and building up, weeping and laughter,
love and hate, killing and healing.
In one of the most famous
passages from this book, Qohelet expresses the idea that
everything has its season or time with the consequence that
the effort of humans to alter or affect anything is meaningless.
I’m going to be reading from
the RSV translation, and in fact,
many of the things I’ll be reading today will be from the
RSV, Revised Standard Version,
because I think many of these passages will be familiar to
you, and I’d rather read versions
that will catch your ears as familiar, than the more accurate
translations of the Jewish Publications Society,
but which may not ring that familiar note for you.
So this is the RSV translation.
But notice how in context it
has a very different meaning from the meaning that’s been
granted it by folk singers: For everything there is a
season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is
planted; a time to kill,
and a time to heal; a time to break down,
and a time to build up; a time to weep,
and a time to laugh; a time to mourn,
and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from
embracing; a time to seek,
and a time to lose; a time to keep,
and a time to cast away; a time to rend,
and a time to sow; a time to keep silence,
and a time to speak; a time to love,
and a time to hate; a time for war,
and a time for peace. Switching now to the JPS
translation, “What value, then, can the man of affairs
get from what he earns? I have observed the business
that God gave man to be concerned with:
He brings everything to pass precisely at its time;”
In other words, everything comes to pass and
returns in endless cycles, we add nothing by our efforts.
It’s not quite the comforting
passage that it’s often quoted to be.
So the writer has tried everything in his search for
something that’s permanent and not evanescent.
Physical pleasure, he says, is unsatisfying.
Wealth just brings anxiety. Wisdom is better than power,
but even knowledge brings great pain.
1:17 and 18: “And so I set my mind to
appraise wisdom and to appraise madness and folly.
And I learned–that this,
too, was pursuit of wind: For as wisdom grows,
vexation grows; / To increase learning is to
increase heartache” (Don’t believe him!) Even if we concede
that wisdom is superior to ignorance,
we must still face the fact that ultimately death
obliterates everything. Death is the great equalizer.
I found that Wisdom is superior to folly
As light is superior to darkness;
A wise man has his eyes in his head,
Whereas a fool walks in darkness.
But I also realize that the same fate awaits them both.
So I reflected:
“The fate of the fool is also destined for me;
to what advantage, then, have I been wise?”
And I came to the conclusion
that that too was futile, because the wise man,
just like the fool, is not remembered forever;
for, as the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten.
Alas, the wise man dies,
just like the fool! And so I loathed life,
For I was distressed by all that goes on under the sun,
because everything is futile and pursuit of wind.
So even more explicitly then
Job, Ecclesiastes attacks the principle of divine providence
or distributive justice. There’s no principle of reward
or punishment; the wicked prosper while the
innocent suffer. Even the principle of delayed
punishment which is so important to the Deuteronomistic historian
is attacked as unjust. In Qohelet 8:10b to 14,
And here’s another frustration: the fact that the
sentence imposed for evil deeds is not executed swiftly,
which is why men are emboldened to do evil–the fact that a
sinner may do evil a hundred times and his [punishment]
still be delayed… sometimes an upright man is requited
according to the conduct of the scoundrel;
and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the
conduct of the upright. I say all that is
frustration. In a more famous passage,
chapter 9:11-12, I have further observed
under the sun that The race is not won by the
swift, Nor the battle by the valiant;
Nor is bread won by the wise, Nor wealth by the intelligent,
Nor favor by the learned. For the time of mischance comes
to all. And a man cannot even know his
time. Again, a passage which is often
used as a comforting exhortation–the race is not won
by the swift and so on–is here actually in context a lament of
the great injustice of the way things occur.
But really for Qohelet it is the inexorable fact of death
that makes life entirely meaningless,
and that is in fact the starting point of modern schools
of existentialist philosophy. Death is the bottom line;
he rejects the idea of any life after death.
Chapter 9:2-6: “For the same fate is in
store for all: for the righteous,
and for the wicked; for the good and pure,
and for the impure; for him who sacrifices,
and for him who does not; for him who is pleasing,
and for him who is displeasing; and for him who swears,
and for him who shuns oaths. That is the sad thing about all
that goes on under the sun: that the same fate is in store
for all. …For he who is reckoned among
the living has something to look forward to…since the living
know they will die.” [That was ironic.]
“But the dead know nothing; they have no more recompense,
for even the memory of them has died.
Their loves, their hates,
their jealousies have long since perished;
and they have no more share till the end of time and all
that goes on under the sun.”
Nevertheless, despite all of this despair and
cynicism, there is a positive note in Qohelet.
The writer, after all, doesn’t recommend nihilism or
suicide, despite the lack of purpose or meaning in life,
and in fact he does quite the opposite.
He states that every life does have its moments of happiness
and these one should seize while one can.
Qohelet 9:7-10, Go, eat your bread in
gladness, and drink your wine in joy;
for your action was long ago approved by God.
Let your clothes always be freshly washed and your head
never lack ointment. Enjoy happiness with a woman
you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted
to you under the sun–all your fleeting days.
For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the
means you acquire under the sun. Whatever it is in your power to
do, do with all your might. For there is no action,
no reasoning, no learning,
no wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.
Again, Sheol refers to this shadowy place beneath the soil,
that the shades of the dead just inhabit.
It’s an ancient notion in Israel.
It’s not connected with the idea of a reward or a punishment
after death. A similar exhortation is in
Qohelet 5:17, “Behold, what I have seen to be
good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all
the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of
his life which God has given him,
for this is his lot,”. Or 3:13: “…whenever a man
does eat and drink and get enjoyment out of all his wealth,
it is a gift of God.” We have to be sure not to
delude ourselves. There is no grand plan,
there’s no absolute value or meaning to our toil,
Qohelet says. There’s no life in the
hereafter that we are working towards.
Here he seems to be polemicizing,
I think, against a belief in the afterlife,
or reward or punishment, that was taking root at this
time in some parts of the Jewish community under the influence of
Greek thought. But one can still find
happiness and love, and with these,
one should be content. Striving after anything more is
a striving after wind that leaves one frustrated and weary,
and bitter. Accept the reality of death and
then enjoy what you can in the short time you have.
Indeed, it’s precisely the
reality of death that makes life precious.
Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might
because you have only this one brief chance.
Eternal, unlimited life with endless opportunities to act
would make any one act meaningless.
So given the fact of death and the limitations that it places
upon us, taking pleasure in the ordinary activities and labors
of life becomes not meaningless, but meaningful.
Qohelet is an unusual, if not subversive book,
and its inclusion in the canon was apparently a matter of some
controversy. Its controversial character is
reflected in the pious editorial postscript that appears at the
end of the book. At the very end,
chapter 12, verses 11-13 we read the following,
The sayings of the wise are like goads,
like nails fixed in prodding sticks.
They were given by one Shepherd. A further word:
Against them, my son, be warned!
The making of many books is
without limit / And much study is a wearying of the flesh.
The sum of the matter,
when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His
commandments! For this applies to all
mankind: that God will call every creature to account for
everything unknown, be it good or bad.
To fear God and obey his commandments because he will
reward the good and punish the evil is simply not the message
of the Book of Qohelet and it’s very likely (in my view;
people will disagree) but it’s very likely that this line comes
from a later hand, which was disturbed by the
theme of Qohelet’s preaching. So we have juxtaposed then two
responses to the suffering and pain in the world,
and specifically the tragedy that befell Israel.
One, an assertion of God’s
providence and justice, urging obedience,
and the other an assertion of the lack of justice and
providence in the world, preaching simple existential
pleasures as a source of life’s meaning, and the frustration of
trying to make sense out of what has happened.
The richness of the Hebrew Bible derives precisely from its
placement together of radically diverse points of view like
these. I’m going to turn now to the
Book of Psalms, which we will probably not
quite finish today. But the Book of Psalms contains
the principle collection of religious lyric poetry in the
Bible. It consists of 150 poems,
most of which are prayers addressed to God.
In a very nice little essay on
the Psalms, there’s a woman, Margaret Anne Doody,
who recounts a wonderful dialogue that takes place in
Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre.
You have the ten-year-old
Jane–she’s a very honest, but mistreated child,
and she’s being interviewed by Brocklehurst,
who is this very harsh schoolmaster.
And Jane recounts the conversation like this:
“Do you read your Bible?” “Sometimes.”
“With pleasure? Are you fond of it?”
“I like Revelation,
and the Book of Daniel, and Genesis and Samuel and a
little bit of Exodus, and some parts of Kings and
Chronicles, and Job, and Jonah.”
“And the Psalms? I hope you like them?”
“No? Oh, shocking! I have a little boy,
younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart;
and when you ask him which he would rather have,
a gingerbread-nut to eat, or a verse of a Psalm to learn
he says: ‘Oh! the verse of a Psalm!
Angels sing psalms,’ says he;
‘I wish to be a little angel here below’;
he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant
piety.” “Psalms are not interesting,” I
remarked. “That proves you have a wicked
heart.” [Doody 1994] Margaret Anne Doody has pointed
out I think several interesting aspects to this dialogue.
First, she points out the
literary authority and individual taste that’s
exhibited by Jane. She likes prophetic books with
dramatic apocalyptic imagery. She likes Revelation and Daniel
which we’ll see soon is very dramatic and apocalyptic;
and then she likes rich, narrative texts and
histories–Genesis, Samuel, parts of Exodus (I can
probably pick out which parts!) Kings,
Chronicles and then she likes the stories of the trials of
great survivors of tribulation like Jane herself–Job and
Jonah. Brocklehurst is looking for
evidence of her piety and instead he finds evidence of her
distasteful love of drama and story,
and imagery and suffering, and he’s quite shocked.
A pious child would naturally
love the Psalms which in Brocklehurst’s mind are the
songs of angels; they teach humility and
reverence and his own pious child knows how to recite the
Psalms. Jane’s not impressed.
She obviously sees through the
son’s little game even if Brocklehurst doesn’t,
and she says Psalms aren’t interesting, and he’s mortified.
Jane’s lack of interest in the
Psalms, her preference for what Doody calls the raw and the
real, is proof of her wickedness.
But Brocklehurst’s perception of the Book of Psalms,
which I think many people share, is not an entirely
accurate one. If Jane were to look closely
she would find plenty of emotion and drama and suffering in the
Psalms as well. The title Psalms derives from
the Greek, psalmoi. It denotes religious songs that
are performed to musical accompaniment;
the musical accompaniment of the psalterion.
That’s a stringed musical instrument.
So they imagined that these were performed to this
accompaniment, hence psalmoi.
And it’s the Septuagint’s
translation of the Hebrew title tehilllim;
the Hebrew title tehillim means “praises.”
The Psalms were only collected
into a large anthology in the post-exilic period.
We can be pretty sure of
that–the fifth or the fourth century.
But many, many–particularly those that are attributed to
professional temple musical guilds–are thought to have been
used in the temple service. Many of them date from very
early pre-exilic times. The temple staff provided the
Psalms with musical and liturgical notations.
I don’t mean musical notes but
I mean words indicating some sort of musical or liturgical
use, and those are preserved for us in the text.
We don’t, for the most part, really know what they mean.
Some superscriptions and notes
seem to be telling us the tune or the kind of musical
accompaniment for the Psalm, whether it was on stringed
instruments, or flutes. Most of the Psalms really tell
us very little, however, about the time and
circumstance of their composition.
Several, it seems, were to be used at royal
coronations which would mean that they were written when
Davidic kings still ruled in Jerusalem.
Psalm 45 is an example of a love song that’s written in
celebration of the king’s marriage with a foreign bride,
so this is also a pre-exilic date.
So Psalm 45:11-18; this would have been sung
probably at a royal wedding: “Take heed,
lass, and note, incline your ear:
forget your people and your father’s house,
and let the king be aroused by your beauty;
since he is your lord, bow to him.
O Tyrian lass,” [so she’s from Tyre to the north],
“the wealthiest people will court your favor with gifts,
goods of all sorts. The royal princess,
her dress embroidered with golden mountings
is led inside to the king; maidens in her train,
her companions, are presented to you.
They are led in with joy and
gladness; they enter the palace of the
king. Your sons will succeed your
ancestors; you will appoint them princes
throughout the land. I commemorate your fame for all
generations, so peoples will praise you
forever and ever. So clearly, some of the Psalms
date to the period of the monarchy, and scholars divide
the psalter into five main collections.
Each of them concludes with a little doxology that indicates
that it’s the end of a section. So I’ve listed the sections
down here–five books within the larger book of Psalms.
The latest of these–they
probably go somewhat in chronological order.
So we think number five,
for example, is probably the latest of the
group because it’s the one where the manuscripts that were found
at Qumran show the greatest variation,
which suggests that they continued fluid for some time
before being finally fixed. The second book,
Book Two (so about halfway through the Psalms;
the end of number 72)–Book Two concludes with this postscript:
“The prayers of David, the Son of Jesse,
are ended.” So at one time the Davidic
Psalms were thought to end there.
Almost all of the Psalms in Book One are prefaced with the
phrase to, or of, David.
The particle in Hebrew can be ambiguous;
probably “of David.” To this old First Temple
nucleus, you had other collections then gravitating.
So, for example,
all of the Psalms between 120 and 134, they all bear the same
title: A Song of Ascents. They were songs that were
probably sung by pilgrims on pilgrimage to Jerusalem because
from any direction you go into Jerusalem,
you have to go up, and so you go up to Jerusalem.
tradition attributes the entire book of Psalms to King David and
that attribution stems from the fact that 73 of the 150 Psalms
are explicitly said to be psalms of David.
And David is also in the historical books said to be a
man of musical talent. The superscriptions,
however, are in many cases late additions.
So perhaps the Psalms can only be said to be of David or
Davidic if by that term we mean that they are the result of a
royal patronage of poetry by the House of David in general.
The biblical text itself lists
other authors for some of the Psalms, so 72 is ascribed to
Solomon. Number 90 is ascribed to Moses,
others are ascribed to Assaf and the Sons of Korah.
Korah is an ancestor of a
priestly family. Some of them are clearly
post-exilic. Number 74 laments the
destruction of the temple. Number 137–“By the rivers of
Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept as we thought of
Zion” is clearly from the perspective of the exile.
So what we have is an
anthology, an anthology of religious expressions deriving
from many centuries of Israel’s history.
So despite the claim of religious tradition that the
Psalms were penned by David, it’s clear that they were not
all penned by David. Some of the Psalms are oriented
toward community worship. Some of them are oriented more
to individual worship. But in ancient Israel there
really isn’t always a sharp distinction between the two.
The ancient Israelite in the
temple prayed to God as a member of a larger community bound by a
covenant and not as a lone individual.
So in the words of Psalm 34:3 we read, “Exalt the Lord with
me, let us extol His name together.”
So there was a communal aspect to much worship.
A good deal of form critical work has been done on the book
of Psalms. We haven’t spent a lot of time
on form criticism. It’s another tool,
another approach that is used in studying the text.
But the pioneer in this area
was a man named Herman Gunkel (I think I’ve mentioned him
before). His work, particularly in the
book of Psalms, was forwarded by Sigmund
Mowinckel. Form critics look at the forms
that are used in the construction of psalms,
and they classify psalms according to their forms or
their literary genre, if you will.
And then they attempt to place these literary types or genres
within the cultic setting or their Sitz im Leben:
what would have been the circumstances under which such a
psalm would have been written or performed.
In general, the psalms can be categorized formally and
thematically in a number of different ways and I’ve given
you a handout which presents some broad classifications of
form or genre. I’ve actually collapsed many of
the main forms into several broader groupings,
but the very serious form critics will give you upwards of
13,14, 15 or more different forms for the psalms,
and as I say, I’ve grouped many of them
together, as you see on the sheet.
I’m going to go through each one of these and give you some
examples and talk about some of the themes as well as the formal
characteristics in the Psalms, so you’ll see the variety
that’s contained in this anthology.
First looking at some hymns of praise–these include creation
hymns praising God as the creator of the natural world:
psalms of thanksgiving and psalms of trust.
These are really the largest category of psalms and probably
are what give Brocklehurst the impression that he has.
Many of them celebrate God’s
majesty, God’s wisdom, his power, such as this
creation hymn. This is 8 (and by the way,
the numbers are just giving you some examples.
This is not exhaustive. I didn’t go through and put
every one of the 150 Psalms. But to give you an idea of an
example of each category I’ll be drawing from these numbers).
So number 8:
O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Your name
throughout the earth, You who have covered the
heavens with Your Splendor. …When I behold Your heavens,
the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set
in place, what is man that You have been
mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken
note of him, …and adorned him with glory
and majesty; You have made him master over
Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet,
sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too;
the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea,
whatever travels the paths of the seas.
O Lord our Lord, how majestic is Your name
throughout the earth! It’s a tiny little Psalm,
Psalm 117, that’s just two verses long contains really all
of the classic formal elements of a Psalm of praise or
thanksgiving. You have an opening invocation
to worship, calling others to worship or praise God.
Then you have a motive clause,
which is giving the reason and then a recapitulation or a
renewed call to praise. So all of Psalm 117 follows
this form: “Praise the Lord all you nations, extol Him all you
peoples.” There’s your invocation.
“For great is His steadfast
love toward us, the faithfulness of the Lord
endures forever,” there’s your motive clause,
“Hallelujah,” Hallelu is a Hebrew imperative “praise
Yah,” short for Yahweh, God.
So Hallelujah means “praise
God.” So it’s a recapitulation of the
call to praise, the imperative to praise God.
It’s a classic–tiny,
little–but it has all of the elements of the form of a psalm
of thanksgiving. Psalm 136 punctuates a
recitation of God’s great deeds, the creation,
the Exodus, the conquest of the Promised
Land and so on with the phrase, “His steadfast love is
eternal.” It’s an excellent illustration
of how Israel’s praise is inspired by remembering what
Yahweh has done in history. Still other Psalms extol God in
His role as Creator; 104 is another of those and
we’ve already seen one, or as law giver,
so there are various reasons to praise God: creation,
his role in history, his giving of the law.
A striking characteristic of
this category of Psalms is the variety of metaphors that are
used to describe God: King,
shield, stronghold, rock, refuge,
shelter, many more metaphors as well.
The paradigmatic psalm of trust is contained in the 23rd Psalm.
This is a Psalm that employs
the metaphor of a shepherd to describe God guiding the
individual in straight paths through a frightening valley.
The speaker’s trust creates a
sense of tranquility even in the presence of enemies and here I’m
going to use the RSV translation which will be more familiar to
many of you. The Lord is my Shepherd,
I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green
pastures. He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of
righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my
enemies; thou anointest my head with
oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall
follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the House of the Lord for ever.
The short Psalm 131 is another psalm of trust that invokes the
image of a mother and a child to express an even greater
tranquility. Again, the RSV translation,
“O God my heart is not lifted up, / my eyes are not raised too
high,” that’s a metaphor for arrogance in Hebrew.
“I do not occupy myself with
things too great and too marvelous for me.
/ But I have calmed and quieted
my soul, / like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
/ like a child that is quieted is my soul.
/ O Israel, hope in the Lord / from this time forth and for
evermore.” These and similar psalms
contain some of the most personal depictions of biblical
faith, of confidence or simple trust in God.
The second category I’ve got listed there for you are psalms
of divine kingship or royal psalms.
These are not quite the same; they’re two distinct things.
Enthronement or kingship psalms
celebrate Yahweh as the enthroned ruler,
the sovereign ruler of the heavens and as sovereign over
foreign nations–so sovereign over nature,
sovereign over the human world. And their descriptions of God
employ the language and themes that are associated with deities
of Ancient Near Eastern mythology,
particularly, the language associated with
Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Some even allude to the defeat
of a sea monster as key to God’s role as creator and enthroned
king. In Psalm 29,
the assembly of the gods praises Yahweh for defeating the
water monster. And although some psalms fully
personify nature at the time of creation, in others,
the old Ancient Near Eastern combat creation myths are
demythologized. So we see both of these
tendencies within some of these psalms.
So, for example, Psalm 93, “The Lord is King,
He is robed in grandeur,” (most of these enthronement or divine
kingship psalms will begin with “The Lord is King”):
The Lord is King, He is robed in grandeur;
the Lord is robed, He is girded with strength.
The world stands firm;
it cannot be shaken. Your throne stands firm from of
old; from eternity You have existed.
The ocean sounds, O Lord,
the ocean sounds its thunder, the ocean sounds its pounding.
Above the thunder of the mighty
waters, more majestic the than the
breakers of the sea is the Lord, majestic on High.
Your decrees are indeed
enduring; holiness befits Your House,
O Lord, for all times. See here, the mention of the
sea, the ocean pounding, but it’s completely
demythologized. It appears here as a natural
entity and not a divine antagonist.
By contrast there are psalms in which God is battling with the
sea in the form of a monster. Royal psalms are psalms that
praise God’s anointed King. Some scholars believe that
these were coronation psalms. These would have been used at
the time of the coronation of a Davidic King,
for example. So Psalm110,
“Yahweh said to my lord,” my Lord now meaning the king:
“Yahweh said to my lord, “Sit at My right hand
while I make your enemies your footstool.”
The Lord will stretch forth from Zion your mighty scepter;
hold sway over your enemies! Your people come forward
willingly on your day of battle.”
[I guess that’s what every king wishes for.]
“Your people come forward willingly on your day of battle
In majestic Holiness, from the womb,
from the dawn, yours was the dew of youth.
The Lord has sworn and will not
relent, ‘You are a priest forever,
a rightful king by My decree.’ The Lord is at your right hand.”
[Yahweh is at your right hand.]
“He crushes kings in the day of His anger.”
But not all of the royal psalms were concerned primarily with
military success or guaranteeing military success.
Some seek to ensure that the
king, the anointed king is bestowed with other qualities
necessary for good stewardship. So we find in Psalm 72,
O God, endow the king with Your
judgments, the king’s son with Your
righteousness; that He may judge your people
rightly, Your lowly ones, justly.
…Let him champion the lowly
among the people, deliver the needy folk,
and crush those who wrong them. Let them be like rain that
falls on a mown field, like a downpour of rain on the
ground, that the righteous may flourish
in His time, and well-being abound,
till the moon is no more. A third category I’ve got
listed for you are psalms of lament and petition and
indebtedness, and these can be voiced in the
plural (a communal supplication) or in the voice of the
individual. Although individual laments may
open with an invocation to or praise of God,
some launch immediately into a desperate plea for deliverance
from some suffering or crisis. It’s often expressed
metaphorically. Or they might launch into a
plea for vengeance on one’s enemies.
After presenting his complaint, the psalmist will usually
confess his trust in God, then ask for help or
forgiveness and conclude with a vow that he will praise God
again. We sometimes even see an
acknowledgement of a divine response, perhaps a thank-you in
advance. Psalm 13 has many of these
features, How long, O Lord;
will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your
face from me? How long will I have cares on
my mind, grief in my heart all day?
How long will my enemy have the
upper hand? Look at me, answer me,
O Lord, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes,
lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest my enemy say,
“I have overcome him,” my foes exult [when I totter.
My heart will exult]
in Your deliverance. I will sing to the Lord,
for He has been good to me.
Psalm 55 asks for deliverance from the treachery of a
deceitful friend: It is not an enemy who
reviles me — I could bear that;
it is not my foe who vaunts himself against me
— I could hide from him; but it is you, my equal,
my companion, my friend; sweet was our fellowship;
we walked together in God’s house.
Let Him incite death against them;
may they go down alive into Sheol!
For where they dwell, there evil is.
…He harmed his ally, he broke his pact.
his talk was smoother then
butter, yet his mind was on war;
his words were more soothing than oil,
yet they were drawn swords. Cast your burden upon the Lord
and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous
man collapse. Very personalized laments.
Some laments are pleas for
forgiveness of personal sins. This one is attributed in the
psalm itself, the superscription to the
psalm; it’s attributed to David after
the prophet Nathan rebukes him for his illicit relationship
with Bathsheba. Listen to the striking
parallelism–you hear the poetic parallelism in this psalm,
Psalm 51, again using the RSV translation:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love;
according to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me. Against thee,
thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in
thy sight, so that thou art justified in
thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.
…Create in me a clean heart,
O God, and put a new and right spirit
within me. Cast me not away from thy
presence, and take not thy Holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
The communal laments, a lot of these are individual,
but communal laments, bewail Israel’s misfortunes and
urge God’s vengeance upon Israel’s oppressors,
sometimes reminding God of his historic relationship with
Israel and his covenantal obligations.
Let me just finish by reading Psalm 74 as a case in point.
It makes explicit reference to
the destruction of the sanctuary so it’s clearly post-exilic.
And as a response to the
catastrophe, it gives expression to despair and bewilderment and
even anger that God has forgotten His obligations to
Israel: Why, O God,
do You forever reject us, do You fume in anger at the
flock that You tend? Remember the community You made
Yours long ago, Your very own tribe that You
redeemed, Mount Zion, where You dwell.
Bestir Yourself because of the
perpetual tumult, all the outrages of the enemy
in the sanctuary. Your foes roar inside Your
meeting place; they take their signs for true
signs. It is like men wielding axes
against a gnarled tree; with hatchet and pike
they hacked away at its carved work.
They made Your sanctuary go up in flames;
they brought low in dishonor the dwelling place of Your
presence. They resolved,
“Let us destroy them altogether!”
They burned all God’s tabernacles in the land.
No signs appear for us;
there is no longer any prophet; no one among us who knows for
how long. Till when, O God,
…will the enemy forever revile Your name?
Why do You hold back Your hand,
Your right hand? Draw it out of Your bosom!
…Do not deliver Your dove to
the wild beast; do not ignore forever the band
of Your lowly ones. Look to the covenant!
…Rise, O God,
champion Your cause; The psalmist is bewildered:
why has this happened, why doesn’t God act?
There’s no mention of Israel’s
sin; there’s no indication that the
destruction was just punishment. Psalm 44, which we’ll start
with next time, goes even further and states
flatly that the people haven’t sinned.
It’s God who’s been faithless.