The Message of the Psalms
Chapter 1- Introduction
There is a devotional tradition of piety that finds the Psalms acutely attuned to the needs and possibilities of profound faith. There is also a well established scholarly tradition of interpretation which tends to be critical.
What seems to be needed (and is here attempted) is a postcritical interpretation that that's the devotional and the scholarly traditions support, in the form, and correct each other, so that the formal gains of scholarly methods may enhance and strengthen, as well as criticise, the substance of genuine piety in its handling of the Psalms.
1. Personal piety focuses on a few well-known and well beloved Psalms, especially 23, 46, and 121. Such piety tends to be highly selective and frequently romantic in its understanding of them, so that the Psalms serve to assure, affirm, and strengthen faithful people.
We owe minutes Psalm 109 as "too much" for the worship life of the church. My argument will be that the value fully any Psalm, it must be used in the context of all of them. Every time we become selective we tend to block out some dimension of Israel's life with God.
The Psalms permit the faithful to enter at whatever level they are able.
2. Another pre-critical use of the Psalms was by the great teachers of the Evangelical tradition - especially the great reformers such as Luther. This theological tradition concluded that the Psalms articulate the whole gospel of God in a nutshell. It is in the Psalms that Calvin found the whole faith of the whole person articulated. He was able to say that the Psalms are an "anatomy of the soul", fully articulate in every facet of the cost and joy of life with God.
3. We are not pre-critical people.
a. The main gains of the Psalms scholarship have been made by the form-critical approach of Hermann Gunkel. He saw that the Psalms can for most part be understood in a few recurring patterns. We cannot and need not consider every single some of its own. We need not treat each separate Psalm as an isolated entity as though it stood by itself. Certain representative Psalms reflects certain people situations of faith and unfaith.
b. Sigmund Mowinckel, a student of Gunkel, developed the hypothesis that these representative Psalms are best understood in a single liturgical setting that dominated Israel's life. He proposed that many of the Psalms reflect the annual enthronement festival, enacting dramatically the Jerusalem Temple at New Year's time - the turgidly rear enthronement for the New Year.
Scholarly reaction to his hypothesis is twofold:
i. Psalms interpretation must be more pluralistic and diversified in order to allow the Psalms freedom to operate in many different aspects of Israel's life.
ii. We may permit it to inform our work as long as retreat and provisional and are attentive to its imperial temptation.
c. Claus Westermann has urged that the lament is the basic for of Psalmic expression, and that most other Psalm forms are derived from all responses to the lament. The basic moves of faith in God, ranging from deep alienation to profound trust, confidence, and gratitude.
4. We shall try to take full account of the critical gains made by such scholars without betraying any of the pre-critical, naivete, and insight of believing exposition. We shall proposed a movement and dynamic among the Psalms that suggest and interrelatedness.
The following discussion is organised around three quite general themes:
poems of orientation,
poems of disorientation,
and poems of new orientation.
The Psalms can be roughly groups in this way. We propose a correlation between the gains of critical study and the realities of human life.
a. Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude - "Psalms of orientation". The articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God's creation, and God's governing law.
b. Human life consists in angry seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering, and death. These evoke rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred - "Psalms of disorientation". The lament has a recognisable shape that permits the extravagance, hyperbole, and abrasiveness needed for the experience.
c. Human life consists in terms of surprise when we are overwhelmed with new gifts of God, when joy breakthrough despair. Where there has been only darkness, there is light - "Psalms of new orientation". The Psalms affirm a sovereign God who puts humankind in a new situation. The move of the seasons is transformational and not developmental; that is, the move is never obvious, easy, or "natural". It is always in pain and surprise. Human life is a movement from one circumstance to another, changing and being changed.
We will suggest that the life of faith expressed in the Psalms is focused on the two decisive moments of faith that are always underway.
1. One we make is out of a settled orientation into a season of this orientation. It constitutes a dismantling of the old, safe reliable confidence in God good creation. The movement of dismantling includes a rush of negatives, including rage, resentment, guilt, shame, isolation, despair, hatred and hostility. This is much characterised in the form of complaint and lament. The lament is a candid, even unwilling, embrace of a new situation of chaos.
The dismantling move is a characteristically Jewish move, one that evokes robust resistance of one that does not doubt that even the experience of disorientation has to do with God and must be vigorously addressed to God. Disorientation is decisively embodied in the crucifixion of Jesus.
Thus^ r more directly apply to Jesus than to the Psalms of penitence.
2. The other move we make is a move from a context of this orientation to a new orientation, surprise by a new gift from God. This move entails a departure from the "pit" of chaos just when we suspected in the would never escape. It is a departure in it available to us which includes a rush of positive responses, including delight, amazement, wonder, awe, gratitude and thanksgiving. There are also songs of thanksgiving and declarative hymns and tell the tale of a decisive time, a reversal of fortune, a rescue, deliverance, liberation, healing. Such hymns are a joyous assertion that God's will is known just when we had lost hope.
This reception of a new orientation is decisively embodied in the resurrection of Jesus.
Songs of surprising new life
Songs of disarray
Songs of guaranteed creation
the first move:
the second move:
Hymns and songs of thanksgiving
5. Three preliminary comments:
a. The move through this grid is not a once-for-all experience. It is not difficult to see that yesterday's new orientation becomes today's old orientation. While I have offered a grid and do not want it taken to precisely.
b. Scholars have made a distinction between communal and personal laments, but the personal and public issues of all of a piece and so can be experienced the same threat or surprise of faith.
c. Such a grid into movements reveals an understanding of life that is fundamentally alien to our culture. The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success and the avoidance of pain,, and loss. When we had is either move (into this orientation or into new orientation) we engage in a counter cultural activity, which by some will be perceived as subversive. Perhaps that is why the laments Psalms have nearly dropped out of usage. If we try to keep our lives we will lose them, and when they are lost for the gospel we will be given life (Mark 8:35).
These are Psalms that expressed a confidence, serene settlement of faith issues. God is known to be reliable untrustworthy. This community has decided to trust in this particular God.
Here we will consider five representative types of Psalms. They describe a happy, blessed state, confidence in the abiding, reliable gifts of life from God. Life is not trouble or threatened, but is seen as the well-ordered world intended by God. This is a "no surprise world", and consequently a world of "no fear". The Psalms do not report on an event, a happening, or an intrusion. Rather they describe how things are.
In various ways we are expressions of creation faith. They affirm that the world is a well ordered, reliable, and life-giving system, because God has ordained it that way. Creation here is not the theory about how will came to be. Chaos is not present.
The function of this kind of Psalm is theological; i.e. to praise and thank God. But it also has a social function - it articulates and maintains the "sacred canopy" under which the community of faith can live out its life with freedom from anxiety. There is a givenness to be relied on, guaranteed by none other than God. Whenever we use this Psalms they continue to assure us of such a canopy of certitude - despite all the incongruities of life.
Such a satisfied and assured assertion of orderliness probably comes from the well off, from economically secure and the politically significant. Such a religious conviction comes from those experience life as good, generous, and reliable. This does not make this prime suspect, but not everyone experience life in this way. Life is well orientated only for some.
We dare to suggest that creation faith is not always high and noble faith. Sometimes it serves only to celebrate the status quo. Creation faith and easily become social conservatism, which asks in our bone well-offness.
There are times when such Psalms must be used carefully for with a knowing qualification. We must always ask whose interest is reflected and served by such Psalms and by their use.
They may also served as a form of social control. They may be used to justify morally the view that those who do not prosper in the world are those who live outside the parameters and priorities of God's creation.
Having said all this, the religious power of these Psalms is considerable for all sorts and conditions of people. This Psalms provide a point of reference even for those who share in none of the present “goodies”, but we fling in hope to the conviction that God good intention for creation will finally triumph.
The Psalms pursued a healthy orientated life that anticipated even if not yet experienced. Thus these very Psalms that may serve as social control may also in action as social and to situation which becomes social criticism.
In this Psalm there is no development of plot. It is essentially static in form, articulating what is enduringly true of the world. What is true the beginning of the Psalm is still true at the end. It is a series of affirmations that could be rearranged without disrupting the intent.
This Psalm is acrostic because each line begins with a letter of the alphabet in sequence, right through the whole alphabet. This is praise to God for world well arranged and orientated, from A to Z.
1. The range of praise is from the personal "I" to the intergenerational community v.4. The God is praise is intimate as any God v.1, and as regal as an awesome King v.1 who does what is great, unsearchable, terrible, glorious, and wondrous.
2. vs.1-7 reflect a setting which is certainly older than the Royal reality in Israel (cf. Ex 34:6-7). Yahweh's main characteristics are asserted: gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, good, compassionate. Ancient. This is experienced in the day the blessings of creation. Creation holds together because of Yahweh's faithfulness.
3. vs.10-13a return to the team announced in v.1. The vocabulary includes kingdom three times, power twice, and glory twice.
4. vs.13b-20a major shift that surprises us - Yahweh's great power is directed especially towards the weak and needy. The language of self giving by God which enables transformed humanness is echoed by Mary: "he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things" (Luke 1:52-53).
The shift from regal power to compassion regard is decisive and intentional. This is not only at “the King” was also “my God”.
The equilibrium of the world is experienced best by those who live contentedly we Yahweh's expectations.
5. God relatedness is always to decided: to rescue and to judge v.20. This verse is a harsh and sobering qualification of the grand claims of the Psalm. Perhaps this verse is the voice of realism; that is, creation does work within boundaries of obedience and responsibility. The gifts of God become carefully administered rewards.
We take Psalm 145 to be the full as representative of those Psalms that understand creation as a mode of equilibrium, coherence, and reliability. It seems to reflect the experience and the interests of the "well off".
Whereas Psalm 145 focuses on the compassion of the creator, Psalm one of four has much more concerned for the splendour of creation - but God is nearly absent. This absence May reflect that this Psalm is borrowed from Egypt - a hymn about creation rather than the creator.
The speaker catalogues noteworthy features in creation and assigns them all to Yahweh. The grand and almost overwhelmingly recital is ended in v.23. The endpoint in the recital is appropriately that the function of "man" is as worker in God's creation. The remainder of the Psalm includes three telling conclusions:
a. God is known to be confident, serene, and at ease. The metaphor this is "the sea" v.25. Confidentially the sea is expression of dread and intense threat. He of the sea is God placing in which the great sea monster serves only for God's peculiar amusement (cf. Job 41).
b. vs.27-30 eight table prayer not unlike Psalm 145: 15-16. The whole world is daily dependent on God's sustenance, God's face, God's presence, God were. The world is impressive and to be celebrated. But it has no independent existence. The world is well ordered and reliable. But on its own it has no possibility of survival or well being. All of that is daily gift.
c. That awareness lose the speaker in v.31-34 to be moved to spontaneous wonder, gratitude, and praise. It is also intended to strengthen our confidence in regard to the future, that we may not live in the world in a state of constant fear and anxiety.
v.35 the world is a free gift from God, but it comes with an expectation and a cost.
It is a world ordered by God's justice over which God presides with faithfulness.
In vs.1-3 there is a series of five imperatives summoning Israel to praise: rejoice, praise, make melody, sing, play. In vs.4-5 there are reasons for praise. The reasons are: "for the Word of the Lord is upright; and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his steadfast love."
When the creation is celebrated, it is acknowledged to be a well-ordered world. The good Lord of creation is concrete the experienced in Israel as the torah. The torah articulate God's intention for Israel in the creation. For Israel, torah is Israel's way to respond to and fully honour God’s well-orientated world.
Placed intentionally as a prologue to set the tone for the entire collection. It announces that the primary agenda for Israel's worship life is obedience. The fundamental contrast is a moral distinction between righteous and wicked, innocent and guilty, those who conform to God's purpose and those who ignore those purposes and disrupt the order.
It affirms that the well-orientated life fixed on torah expectations is one of happiness and well-being. There is no middle ground, no neutral ground. Either be a happy person who enjoys torah of obedience vs.1-2 or be that the wicked who refuse such delight v.4. There will be a judgement. One can stand all one can perish.
Psalm 1 does not allow for ambiguity. It has confidence that the torah is the only thinkable response to the givenness of creation. It is probably a tract for socialisation - firmly conditions the young into a "right" morality. (a need for boundaries)
Psalm 37 – a collection of sayings
This is a collection of sayings that might easily be found in the book Proverbs. This Psalm is acrostic and is so crafted with a pedagogical purpose. The world is exceedingly well ordered, and virtue is indeed rewarded.
This poem, more explicitly than torah Psalms, articulate a close and predictable connection between deed and consequence. It reflects a community for whom the most things work. They understood themselves as someone for whom "all things work together for good." And they understood themselves as "the ones who love God." (Rom 8.28)
A more substantive concern in this Psalm - a series of reflections on how to keep land and how to lose it.
a. For the wicked shall be cut off; but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land. v.9
b. . . the wicked will be no more . . .; but the meek shall possess the land and delight themselves in abundant prosperity. vs.10-11.
c. For those blessed by the Lord shall possess the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off. v.22.
d. The righteous shall possess the land; and well upon it for ever. v.29
e. Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way; and he will install you to possess the land. v.34.
Land possession is closely linked to Yahweh, is governance and purpose.
Psalm 14 (same as Psalm 53.1-6)
This is a reflective Psalm. Its main statement is about "practical atheism". A picture is drawn here of a creature whose life is not referred to the creator. Where the creature is not honoured, creature the life disintegrates and degenerates v.5a.
God still attends the kinds of folk were righteous v.6
Yahweh is business, even in the world distorted by fools, is to God and keep the poor v.6.
v.7 is a rather odd verse, it is a wish and the hope for the rehabilitation of Jerusalem and Israel.
The intent of Psalm 14 is to counter the temptation that humankind can manage the world in better ways than Yahweh’s way (Isa 55.8-9). God has made the world as a built-in protections for the week against the strong, and that must not be mocked (Isa 10.12-14).
D. Songs of Retribution
Psalm 112 - an unqualified statement that the world is ruled by God with moral symmetry. That's symmetry in the world is reflected in a disciplined acrostic structure of this Psalm. The world works so that the persons receive the consequences of their actions (Gal 6.7).
path confidence in creation is based on the pattern of blessings that on the especially in the family, household, and tribe. The goodness of God is no one here not by shattering intrusions or by quiet, unobtrusive sustenance. The regularity of creation is experienced in the predictable occurrences of birth, marriage, death, seedtime, and harvest. All these experiences testified the creator's regularity and reliability.
Psalm 133 - an eloquent affirmation of family or tribal solidarity
Yahweh does nothing, but is acknowledged to be the hidden source of such well-being. All of the images is point to what is "natural", the general performance of creation. Psalm 133 reflects Israel's capacity to appreciate the common joys of life and to contribute them to the well-ordered generosity of Yahweh. The voice may be that of a relieved elder, anxious that you regeneration does not destroy itself in conflict.
The problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry (as in chapter 2) is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that.
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continue to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disorientation. It can be an act of bold defiance in the face of the disorder. Such a "mismatch" between our life experience of disorientation and our faith speech of orientation could be the great evangelical "nevertheless" (as in Hab. 3.18).
It is my judgement that this is much more a frightened, numb denial and deception but does not want to knowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, or from the wishful optimism of our culture. A church that goes on singing "happy songs" in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.
I think that serious religious use of the lament Psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it contribute too much about God's "loss of control".
The point to be urged here is this: the use of these "Psalms of darkness" may be judged by the world to be axed of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, they use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not into some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are the proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact we withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these Psalms make the important connection: Everything must be brought to speech, and every brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference all of life.
The community that uses these Psalms of disorientation is not easily linked with civil religion, which goes "from strength to strength."
Life is understood to be a pilgrimage or process through the darkness that belongs properly to humanness. The presupposition and affirmation of these Psalms is that precisely in such deathly places as presented in these Psalms new life in by God.
The denial may be of a broken relationship, a lost job, a medical diagnosis, or whatever. The harsh and abrasive speech of disorientation may penetrate the deception and say, "no, this is how it really is.
It is no wonder that the church has avoided these Psalms. They lead us into dangerous acknowledgement of hell life really is, where everything is not polite and civil. They lead us away from the comfortable religious claims of "modernity" in which everything is money and control - very much a "religion of orientation". The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise. It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life. Indeed, Israel's seems to know that new life comes from nowhere else.
In some sense they speech is a visceral release of the realities and imagination that had been censored, denied, or held in check by the dominant claims of society. For that very reason, it does not surprise us that these Psalms tend to hyperbole, vivid imagery, and statements that offend "proper" and civil religious sensitivities.
Two factors operate here:
1. What is said to Yahweh may be scandalous and without redeeming social value, but these speakers are completely committed, and what ever must be said about the human situation must be said directly to Yahweh. Yahweh does not have protected sensitivities.
2. The speech itself imposes a kind of recurring order in this disorientation, so that it has an orderliness of its own but is known and recognise in the community - both to speech about the collapse of all orientated forms, and yet to assure that even in the chaos of the moment there is a Yahweh-directed order.
We do know, both from the structure of the text and our own experience, is that grievance addressed to an authorised partner does free us. That is the insight behind Freud's theory of talk-therapy, that we do not move beyond the repressed memory unless we speak it out to one with authority who hears.
Personal lament Psalms are the clearest and most simple. One partner or the other speaks about the disarray into which the relationship has fallen. It is a disarray that concerns both partners in various ways.
a. Personal Lament
There is a great variety of Psalms of disorientation. Lament Psalms constitute a very considerable part of the collection.
We begin with Psalms 13 because it most easily let us see the form and the argument. Something is terribly wrong in the life of the speaker, and in the life of the speaker with God.
1. vs.1-2. The questions addressed to Yahweh are rhetorical questions that do not seek an answer. They are statements that intend to fix the blame firmly on Yahweh. They accused Yahweh of being responsible for the trouble. First, the trouble is absence of God, v.1. Second, v.2, the derivative trouble is pain, sorrow, and worst of all, the awareness that enemies prevail. The crisis in the relationship with Yahweh is at the bottom of the external problem of troubles in the world. The speaker does not for a moment entertain the thought that the troubles come from guilt or failure. It is because of Yahweh's irresponsible absence.
2. vs.3-4 provide a petition and a motivation. The petition is in a triad of imperatives: "consider, answer, lighten." They will be no way out of the trouble, unless Yahweh can act.
In v.3 "My God" indicates the past relationship that is the proper ground and context for this urgent appeal.
The Psalmist waits. It is a long wait after v.4, a wait in the darkness of death, a wait in disorientation, a waiting "until hell freezes over." There must be such a wait, perhaps a long wait, because there is no other court of appeal. One must simply wait here until there is a response.
3. vs.5-6. When the Psalmist speaks again, he is on the way to a new orientation - which resolves the situation of disorientation. There are three announcements: "I . . . my heart . . . I." the language reflects a new liberated self-confidence. The waiting in the dark space after v.4 was not an act of distrust. There was a real wait - and now it is completed.
The speaker ends with a sense of this orientation overcome.
This is much longer and more repetitive and Psalm 13. Here in Psalm 35 the trouble is closer, the hatred is stronger, and trust in Yahweh seems a bit more uncertain. This Psalm evidences a situation badly deteriorated compared to that of 86.
1. The petition to Yahweh is very strong. vs.1-3 begin abruptly with a barrage of military images. The petition is continued in v.17. It is assumed that the trouble is Yahweh business, if not his fault, and it is time that he acted. vs.22-24 there is an urgent request for God's presence.
The language of war and jungle is recessive language. For Israel what is found at the bottom of the pit is not despair but the rule of God. Israel knows that the rule of God is the only alternative to despair.
2. Psalm 35 includes extended comments about the enemy. So in vs.4-6 and v.8 there is a wish that every thinkable trouble should fall on the enemy. This is continued in vs.19, 25-26.
Clearly they are people who are not much interested in getting along or in enhancing the life of anyone else. The speaker describes the sorry situation in which he finds himself as a result of their enmity vs.13-14. One may detect a note of indignation, or at least impatient about Yahweh v.17. It is as though the poet asks: "Where have you been Yahweh? How much will it take before you do what is expected?" Note that this rage is not at all directed at the enemy.
3. The third element is a promise of praise:
I will thank thee . . .
I will praise thee . . . v.18
Great is the Lord . . . v.27
First, they are sure anticipations. The speaker does not doubt that it will happen. These angry prayers uttered in the disorientation are not act of despair. They are acts of hope, for they are convinced that conditions need not and will not and cannot stay this way.
Second, these are withheld anticipations. It is made clear that there will be no praise until there has been an act on Yahweh's part.
Third, we should know the actual substance of sure, but withheld praise. The claim is that when Yahweh delivers from this wretchedness, it will be known again that there is none other like Yahweh who delivers in such a way v.9.
In reflecting on the moon and movement of this prayer, two observations about psalmic piety:
i. The prayer of the life of the speaker is do with anger and rawness. There is no attempt to be polite or docile. Psalmic prayer practices no cover-up. Real prayer is be open about negativities and yielding them to God.
ii. Second, the relation to God in these Psalms is not at all cosy, comfortable, or congenial. There is an edge of resentment and resistance here that involves some jeopardy of the relationship. Yahweh will be freely praise, but only when there is specific reason for praise. This is daring theology, for it suggests that unless God delivers, God will not be distinctive v.10.
b. Communal Laments
it is probably the easiest for us to resonate with these personal Psalms of lament because they predominate in the psalter. The category of the personal, even psychological, has become our mode of experiencing reality. Our loss of public experience means we have little experiential counterpart to the communal laments. Given our privatistic inclination we have lost our capacity to practise prayer in relationship that public events.
The Psalms we now consider are statements about public events of loss. The public disasters of Israel were not unlike our own: War, drought, famine. Quite specifically, public energy in Israel's prayer was focused in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The Temple have come to be the point of reference as for all of life.
We may in the preliminary way think about comparable experiences and possibilities. The overriding symbolic threat in our time is the nuclear threat (note: global warming today). The destruction of the Temple May not be of the same magnitude, but as a functioning symbol, the loss of Jerusalem is a comparable to the loss of the whole "known world" threatened in our time. On a letter scale, or in more centred, localised places, it can be done by a storm, a mining accident, or an academic (note: the 911 disaster, the death of Diana, the Dunblane massacre) for the death of John Kennedy will Martin Luther King Jr. these Psalms universal access to those sensitivities.
To gain access to these Psalms we need to think through the public sense of loss and hurt and rage that we all have in common. It is stunning to think that prayer of this kind might indeed be the point of entry into the larger world of faith, where the Lord of the nations governs.
The Temple has been violated. The key symbol of life has been lost. Things in all parts of life fall apart - precisely because the centre has not held. This Psalm of protest and grief does not concerned simply a historic invasion and the loss of a building. It speaks about the violation of the sacral key to all reality, the glue that holds the world together. Our modern-day world has lost some sense of the power of such centeredness. (Note: although cf. The collapse of our financial centres 2008).
A Psalm like this one permits us to reconsider the centeredness of life. This Psalm is for grieving Jerusalem destroyed, still a powerful symbol in its own way.
Psalms 74 speak the three parties in the travesty:
a. The foes who have done it,
b. The people who have suffered it,
c. And the God whom is now deal with it.
1. vs.1-3. In the first instance it is not Babylon who is responsible for the Temple, but Yahweh. Jerry Meyer had made it clear that the undoing of the Temple was the action of Yahweh. (Jer 7) in the initial assault on Yahweh, God is urged to do two things:
i. to remember the former time when things were right v.2
ii. and take a look at the present mess v.3.
The contrast between how it was and how it is is calculated to get God to act, for he will find this present arrangement intolerable.
2. vs.4-8. But Yahweh must be pressed and persuaded into action. Yahweh is given a play-by-play accounts of the destruction. ‘You must act for your own honour and glory’. Things seem not to be as urgent for Yahweh as they seemed Israel. Could it be that God is indifferent?
3. The urging must be escalated. So in versus 12-17 Psalms 74 reviews in Yahweh’s better days. Yahweh need to be reminded whom he is and what he has done on what is regularly expected of him. Yahweh's great moments with Israel are those moment in the face of defeat and when Yahweh performed against enormous odds to bring a new wholeness where it was not expected. There is an appeal to Yahweh's creative action which overcame chaos in creation.
4. vs.18-23 a series of imperatives. After God is reminded that he should act, he is told what he must do. And in v.20 he is reminded of his covenant commitments.
5. Two observations may bring a Psalm 74 closer to our own situation. The speaker is utterly committed to the Temple as the centre and focus of all life. And yet, at the same time, the speaker knows better. For even when the Temple is destroyed, life remains focused on the invisible, but very concrete, presence of Yahweh. This Psalm makes quite clear that the loss of the Temple does not mean the Loss of Yahweh. The Temple is important, but it is not ultimately important - faith is in God, not in the Temple.
this Psalm repeats the themes of Psalm 74, but seemingly with more venom. The situation is the same: the Temple is destroyed, Israel is bereft, and the conquering army gloats. Yahweh cannot afford to be a disinterested party.
This clearly comes out of the exiled community in Babylon after the destruction of 587 BCE. It reflects the need of those who have been forcibly removed by the Babylonian Imperial policies of relocation and yet who cling to their memory and hope for homecoming with an unshakeable passion.
This Psalm may at first be an affront to us because of its vengefulness. (Note: the closing of St M & St J Alum Rock - "just you watch, you will be next" "who would have thought it would have come to this, I spoke at the opening of this Church and now am speaking at its closing”.) I suggest it affronts us because of the nonnegotiable, scandalous particularity of Jerusalem. As much as any Psalm, Psalm 137 requires us to face the Jewishness of the Psalms and asks us to think through how we as Christians embraced this Jewishness. To some extent Christians have "spiritualised Jerusalem".
Psalm 137 is the voice of those who have live longer and have learned with anguish that things would not be immediately righted. I suggest that the communal function of this Psalm is to act out and transmit the next generation the yearning and the fate that belongs to every dislocated Jew. It is always "lest we forget" v.5.
Most of the Psalm, except v.7, is not even addressed to Yahweh.
1. vs.1-3 set the scene. The grief is compounded by the torment of the overlords’ requiring them to sing Zion's songs in order to humiliate, to show how helpless and bereft they are. Such a scandalous scene was savagely repeated in the death camp of Treblinka, where Jews were forced to sing and dance of their Jewishness. Such songs of Zion not for public review.
2. vs.4-6. We will not be talked out of that point of reference. These exiled of clear. The vision of Jerusalem is more precious than body and self. God's truth is linked to his holy city - not all of the evil of Babylon can take away that conviction. It is the maintenance and on the counter-culture posture, and act that asserts life is not controlled by Babylon (the dominant culture.)
3. vs.7-9 shows that costliness of such resistant faith. The ruthlessness of such faith is extraordinary. It is not exactly a noble prayer, but such faith can have no mark of romanticism. There is a strong passion in this Psalm. Such vivid imagery must have energised fidelity for the long haul.
It is not for us to "justify" such a prayer in the Bible. Admittedly, it is not one of the most noble moment of the Bible, but it is there. It reminds us that the star claims of the holy God override all of conventional humanness.
We have evidence that the affront was not in vain. It was this very tenacity which led the restoration of Nehemiah. A century later it still could be said:
"when I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned the days;
and I continued fasting and praying before the God of Heaven." (Neh 1.4)
I am not sure how such a Psalm fits with the Christian faith. I suggest it asks about faithful tenacity. It asks about our capacity to endure, to maintain identity, to embrace a calling in situations of sell-out.
The speaker does not, in fact, crossed the heads of babes against rocks. It is a prayer, a wish, a hope, a yearning. But even the venom is left in God's hands. Perhaps it is precisely the capacity to turn that over to God which leaves Israel free to hope for the new Jerusalem. It is an act of profound faith to entrust one's most precious hatreds to God, knowing that they will be taken seriously.
c. Two Problem Psalms
Here are to Psalms that are the voice of Israel in the very depth. There is not for every personal crisis of disorientation a way out, if only we can press the right button. Too much pastoral action is inclined and tempted to resolve things, no matter how the situation really is.
Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith. This is indeed "the dark night of the soul", when the trouble person must be and most stay in the darkness of abandonment, utterly alone.
1. vs.1-2. The initial addressed is one of intimacy. The versus are dominated by this desperate speech: "I cry . . . my prayer . . . my cry". This threefold cry (vs.1-2, 9b, 13) forms the structure of the Psalm. Characteristically when Israel cries, Yahweh hears and answers (see ex.2.23-35, Ps 107.6, 13, 19, 28). Psalm 88 is adamant in its insistence, and it is harsh on Yahweh's unresponsiveness. The truth of this Psalm is that Israel lives in a world where there is no answer. It simply report on how it used to be a partner of Yahweh in Yahweh's inexplicable absence.
2. The unanswered plea does not silence the speaker. The failure of God to respond does not lead to atheism all doubt in God or rejection of God. It leads to a more intense address. Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.
in vs.3-9a the speaker addresses the barrage at Yahweh. There is no playing up to God, there is only anger. Yahweh should not in the persuasion, for he is expected to answer.
vs.3-4 a standard complaint with a reference to "The Pit "and to "Sheol". This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. "The Pit" is not final judgement. It is only beyond the rain of communion. The notion of cutting off, v.5, is expressed with three metaphors and a fourth climactic line: "dead . . . grave . . . remember no more . . . cut off".
in vs.6-9a the stakes are upped. This is an incredibly audacious speaker. Not only does death come, but Yahweh causes it.
Thou hast put me . . .
Thy wrath lies heavy,
Thou dost overwhelm . . .
Thou hast caused . . .
Thou hast made me.
The fault is firmly fixed in Job-like fashion. But there is no response - only more silence
3. vs.10-12 for a serious of six rhetorical questions (or at least four, two of which have two parts.) All of them ask about Yahweh's capacity to work his sovereign way in death. We have "dead/shades/grave/abandon/darkness/land of forget fullness." The speaker will surely fall further if Yahweh does not act soon. We are given six corresponding words that characterise Yahweh's usual action: "wonders . . . praise . . . steadfast love . . . faithfulness . . . wonders . . . saving help."
The pattern of these two sets of words shows the incongruity between where the speaker is and what Yahweh does. The obvious response to the focal questions is "no". The urgency of the speech is that at this moment in Yahweh can still do his life-giving work, but not for long. If Yahweh does not act soon the chance will be lost. But there is still no answer - only waiting.
4. vs.14-18 is the final assault that comes after the third appeal of verse 30. Now the how it moves to direct, or in ambiguous accusation. In v.14 two questions place the blame frontally. v.15 described the situation one more time, in case in Yahweh did not hear it in vs.3-8 or 10-12. Then the poem culminates in its harshest statement: "thy wrath has swept . . . thy dread assaults . . . thou hast caused."
Finally, the speaker is shunned and in darkness. The last word in the Psalm is darkness. Nothing works, nothing has changed, nothing is resolve.
So what is one to do about that? Wait. One has two options: either to wait in silence, or to speak it again. What one may not do is to rush to an easier Psalm, or to give up on Yahweh.
What is a Psalm like this doing in our Bible?
i. Life is like this and these poems intend to speak of all life, not just a good parts. Here more than anywhere else faith faces life as it is.
ii. This Psalm is not Psalm of mutant depression. It is still speech. It is still addressed from the bottom of the Pit, Israel still no use it has to do with Yahweh. It cannot be otherwise. Israel has no option but to deal with Yahweh. But Israel must also deal with Yahweh in the silence.
This Psalm accords well with Luther's theology of the cross. It certainly militates against every theology of glory, against every theology that imagines that things can be resolved, that there are answers, that we go from "strength to strength". Psalm 88 shows is what the cross is about: faithfulness in scenes of complete abandonment.
This is speech against the darkness. If the holy one chooses to answer, that answer of must not be weak or trivial. When God next speaks, God must answer this charge.
Psalm 88 stands as a mark of realism for biblical faith. It has its pastoral use, because there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolutions must be avoided.
Whereas Psalm 88 is preoccupied with the absence and silence of God, Psalm 109 is concerned for vindictiveness toward other human beings who have seriously violated the speaker. The two Psalms embodied the main problems of the Christian faith:
i. the problem of trusting God in seems not available
ii. the problem of caring for a neighbour who is experienced as an enemy.
In Psalm 109 it is difficult to love a neighbour who seems to be beyond love. Psalm 109 is a problem precisely because it articulates a yearning for retaliation and the vengeance of the sort that we do not expect to find in the "edifying" parts of the Bible.
This Psalm is speech of God, who addresses is covenant partner concerning matters of violated covenant. After the narrative introduction of verses, v.1-6, it is all one extended speech in the form of the green with no room for negotiation.
Psalm 32 testified to the need of confession. But it is mainly a proposal that sin should be confessed. Psalm 51 moves closer to the centre of the crisis of alienation and offers a model for actual confession.
this Psalm, reckoned as a wisdom Psalm, seems to have a didactic intent. It general structure reflects a teaching of "the two ways", the way of life and the way of death. (cf. Deut 30.15-20, Prov 8.32-36). The purpose of the teaching is to set the record straight, because some have had their head turned and are deceived and regard the way of death as the way of life (cf. Isa5.20-21).
Other Psalms in this category:
81, 32, 143, 130, 19, and 73.
Chapter 4 Psalms of New Orientation
I have tried to show that a major move of the Psalms is the move from an ordered, reliable life to an existence that somehow has run amok. The Psalms give expression to that new reality of disorientation, when everything in heaven and on earth seems skewed.
We have seen that the experience of disorientation is experienced and expressed in many different ways. We have spent a major portion of our time and space on the reality in the Psalms because that is the part of the Psalter that has been most neglected in church use. In the present religious situation, it may be the heart of the psalter that is most helpful, because we live in society of denial and cover-up, and these Psalms provide a way for healing candour.
The Psalms regularly bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected. That new orientation is not to return to the old stable orientation, although it is no such going back. The Psalmist knows that we can never go home again.
The speaker and the community of faith are often surprised by grace, when there it merges in the present life a new possibility that is inexplicable, wrought by the inscrutable power and goodness of God. That new in this cannot be explained, predicted, or programmed. It can tell, narrate, recite, testify, in amazement and gratitude, "lost in wonder, love, and praise."
It is important that the form includes not only a statement of the problem. It also includes a statement of resolution, culminating in praise and thanksgiving. Israelite praise characteristically comes out of the depths, out of the Pit from which we were surprised to come, because the situation seemed unresolvable.
Israel sings songs of new orientation because the God of Israel is the one who hears and answers expressions of disorientation and resolves experiences of disorientation. The songs on not about the "natural" outcome of trouble, but about the decisive transformation made possible by this God who causes new life when none seems possible.
The lives of people and of communities on never static. They are always on the move.
a. Thanksgiving Songs
The most obvious song of new orientation is the thanksgiving song. The speaker is now on the other side of a lament for complaint.
The Psalm tells the story of going into trouble and coming out of trouble.
1. vs.1-3. The Psalm begins in praise for a quite specific reason. It is dominated by four action verbs credited to Yahweh:
you have drawn me up v.1
you have healed me v.2b
you have lifted up my life v.3a
[you have] restored me to life v.3b
This is a genuine experience of resurrection. (There is a reference to the Pit and Sheol, usual terms in laments.)
2. vs.4-5. These verses are a general invitation to the community to join in praise. The simple formula is:
imperative: Sing praises . . .
imperative: Give thanks . . .
motivation: For . . .
The Psalmist does not deny that there has been trouble, but it has been powerfully overcome. The move from weeping to joy (cf. John 16:20) is as reliable as the move from night to daybreak.
3. vs.6-10. These verses articulate the Friar move from old orientation to disorientation:
Old orientation: I said in my prosperity, "I shall never be moved" (it can't happen here) v.6
Disorientation: Thou didst hide thy face, I was dismayed v.7
Then in verses 8-9 we are given a quote (lament) ‘I cried; I offered motivations for God to act’ v.9 ‘I uttered a petition.’ v.10. The Psalm narrates a whole career of the relation to Yahweh from well-being (prosperity) to Pit, to new life.
4. vs.11-12. This conclusion is the parallel to vs.1-3.
You have turned,
You have loosed,
(You have) girded v.11
the mark of new life, inexplicable and unexpected, is confession expressed as thanks. The purpose of the Psalm appears to be to keep that memory alive, show that the occasion of transformation is kept alive.
This prayer remembers a time of need that has no be resolved in deliverance. What is special here is that the circle of praise is expanded, both in heaven and in earth.
1. vs.1-3 summarise the main action of thanksgiving
I bow down,
The location here seems to be the divine court of the gods in heaven v.1. Each God has witnesses to what he or she has done lately (cf. Isa 41:23; and 44:8). Psalm 82 asserts that the only God who does not die is the one who cares for the poor.
2. vs4-6 are a reiteration of the same themes. Only now the community of praise is on earth. Now the kings of the earth are also pressed to confess to Yahweh. In what does Yahweh's great glory consist? The clue and pivot point is in verse 6. He is high, but attends the lowly. Unlike other gods in v.1and unlike the conventional kings in v.4. Characteristically kings and gods are high, but do not notice the lowly.
3. vs.7-8. Such radical hope is grounded in the specific experience of the speaker. He remembers trouble, i.e. restriction, confinement, stress. And that burdensome historic circumstance is what Yahweh acts on:
You did preserve,
You did stretch out your hand,
Your right hand delivered.
b. Thanksgiving Songs of the Community
These include Psalm 65, 66, 124.
c. The Once and Future King
These are the songs of new orientation par excellence. It is likely that the enthronement songs are one version of victory songs that celebrate Yahweh's victory over Israel's enemies. Old Testament example is the song of Miriam in Exodus 15. It traces the triumph of Yahweh in detail and likewise the defeat of Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods.
This is a him that stays close to the narrative experience of Exodus. It is evident that the specific liberating events is here presented as having cosmic proportion.
The enthronement Psalms, taken the liturgically, eschatologically, politically, are an affirmation that all peoples - Israel and the nations - as well as the whole created order, are accountable to God's governance. That is an enormous claim in a world bent on autonomy, threatened by normlessness.
d. Thanksgiving Generalised to Confidence
This is a Psalm of confidence. In v.1-2 and v.6, Yahweh is spoken of in the third person. In v.3-5 Yahweh is directly is addressed as "Thou".
At the centre of this Psalm is the magisterial Thou, which seems to Bill and the whole Psalm. This is the only strong independent through now referring to God.
The "I" here knows that in every case, life is fully cares for and resolved by this Thou response to and anticipates every need.
"I lack not". Israel refuses to split things into spiritual and material. It affirms that Yahweh is the satisfaction of all wants and every kind of need.
This Psalm can be called situations of threat, but the poet knows the powerful solidarity of Yahweh more that overrides the threat.
It is God companionship that transformed every situation. It does not mean there are no deathly valleys, or enemies. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but not feared. Confidence in God is the source of new orientation.
Other Psalms of this type include 27, 91.
e. Hymns of Praise
The conclusion of the Psalter is this extravagant summons to praise - no reason needs to be given. We have suggested that Psalm 1 is a formal and intentional introduction to the Psalter. It asserts in a decisive way that life under the Torah is a precondition of all these Psalms. In relation to that, Psalm 150 state the outcome of such a life under Torah. Such a life arrives at unencumbered praise. The expectation of the Old Testament is not finally obedience, but adoration.
Other Psalms of this type include 117, 135, 100, 103, 113, 146, 147, 148, and 149.