A. What have you learned from the course?
This course on the Psalms has opened the way for me to become more aware, knowledgeable and appreciative of the Book of Psalms. Previously the Psalms had been a closed book for me and, like Yancey (The Bible Jesus Read, p. 109), I avoided it, finding myself unable to relate to the familiarity other Christians displayed towards it. Though some of the messianic prophecies had been instrumental in bringing me to faith in Christ, I found troublesome passages of vengeance, not knowing how to interpret, for example the curse, “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (Ps. 137:9). Yet after this brief excursus over the summer with the Professor, with theologians old and new and also with my fellow-students I feel less apprehensive about reading and reflecting on the rich contents of the Psalms.
At the start of the course when I read the Psalms through for the first time using Bellinger’s outline (Psalms: Reading and Studying the Book of Praises, p. 23), it was appealing to follow the classification by type modelled after the work of Gunkel and Westermann (ibid, p. 22). What enlivened this experience was listening to the Psalms being read with a British accent in the King James on audio CD (accessed online at: http://server.firefighters.org/kjv.asp).
Bellinger’s text was relatively straightforward, setting the tone by placing the Psalms in their historical context as being representative of various phases in Israel’s experience and worship. Bellinger aptly highlights themes of faith and relationship to the Holy by recalling Israel’s encounter with God in various narrative portions of the Old Testament (Judges 5:1-31; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Jonah 2:2-9; Jeremiah 20:7-18, ibid, p. 3). Foundational to the present study is an understanding of the shape of the Psalter. Bellinger walks the reader through basic organizational facets (ibid, pp. 7-10), such as title (sepher tehillim), structure (Books I-V), superscriptions (including technical terms such as selah and historical notes) and collections (e.g., Davidic, Korahite, Elohistic, etc.). The author then brings the reader up to speed on notable modern Psalms scholars, such as Gunkel, who broke from traditional personal-historical analysis to consider Psalms according to type, identifying the major classes of Hymns (Songs of Zion, Enthronement Psalms), Community and Individual Laments, Individual Psalms of Thanksgiving and Royal Psalms in addition to the minor types Pilgrimage, Community Psalms of Thanksgiving, Wisdom Psalms, General Liturgies, Prophetic Liturgies, Torah Liturgies and Mixed Types (ibid, pp. 18-21). Bellinger moves on to present the efforts of Mowinckel, Gunkel’s student, who extended the work to consider the dramatic use of Psalms in Israel’s cultic worship (ibid, pp. 24-26). Bellinger then identifies more recent scholarship, such as that of Westermann and Childs, whose work led to a contemplation of the shaping of the Psalter, in light of concerns such as Community, Exile, Future Hope, Language, Superscriptions and Organization (ibid, pp. 27-31). Walking through the Psalms in light of these and other considerations with Bellinger for the remainder of the book makes for an edifying introduction.
Although my lack of skill in Hebrew deprived me of some of the beauty of the Psalms, reading about poetic devices in Van Gemeren (Psalms, pp. 21-28) and using them in the construction and analysis of a lament helped to immerse one into the nuts-and-bolts side of Old Testament poetry. Learning that ancient Hebrew poetry relies on a number of devices such as parallelism (synonymous, antithetic and synthetic), paired synonyms, acrostics, alliteration, apostrophe, assonance, chiasm, ellipsis, hendiadys, hyperbole, inclusion, merismus, metonymy, onomatopoeia, paronomasia, refrain, repetition and synecdoche helped to reveal the great tapestry of Psalms which would otherwise remain hidden from superficial analysis.
Professor Taylor’s exposition of King David’s faith and dependence on God in the Introduction to Week Three helps set the scene for personalization and internalization of Psalms study. Mays’ essay underscores the role of David as “both type and prophet of Christ” (“The Lord Reigns”, 1994, p. 88) and demonstrates that “the book of Psalms is the collection of his inspired sayings that illuminate the Christ-event” (ibid, p. 89). Mays’ analysis of David in Samuel, Chronicles and Psalms helps illuminate the both the objective and subjective aspects of historical events in which Israel’s anointed king played a formative role and “emphasizes the organizing, unifying subject of the Psalter, the kingdom of God” (ibid, p. 97, italics added).
Going on to a reading of several saints’ testimonials provided a key step to acknowledging the universal appeal and influence of the Book of Psalms. Basil’s comment that Psalms memorialize events struck a deep personal chord, as my own experiences with God led me to write a handful of songs as well (Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, p. 3). Ambrose emphasizes the collective appeal of the Psalms: “A psalm joins those with differences” (ibid, p. 5). Athanasius’ comment that Psalms trace “the movements of the soul” brings to light the psychological dimension of the Scripture and leads to “ownership” of the thoughts contained therein (ibid, pp. 7-8). Merton shows how Psalms help one turn away from self towards God (Praying the Psalms, 1956, pp. 44-45, as quoted in Witvliet). Peterson makes the provocative statement that “Prayer requires community” (Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, 1989, pp. 83-84, as quoted in Witvliet). What is instructive in the readings from Thompson and Fry, as Dr. Taylor says, is that “For sensitivity and transparency Fry and Thompson rival the much better known testimonials of Luther and Calvin” (Taylor, “Week Four: The Psalms as Food for the Saints”).
Delving into the Reformers’ views on Psalms was more challenging than other materials considered thus far, especially with the added dimension of early and late writings. The initial Luther reading demonstrated a messianic lens quite clearly, in contrast with Calvin’s more historical-critical comments. Selderhuis’ description of Calvin captures the Reformer’s typological interpretation of David and Solomon, which nonetheless maintains a personal and pastoral focus for both the individual and community (Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms, pp. 55-59). Luther’s more mature reflections move from identity with Christ as a type of suffering, where he sublimates his personal angst into cross of the Messiah, to the context of community. Seeking to find in the Psalms answers to pastoral questions, such as the growth of the individual soul, Luther’s change may be charted using Erikson’s stages of development; in his early writings the German monk displays concerns for the ego (stage 6: Intimacy versus Isolation: seeking consummation with Christ) which successfully migrate to consideration of community (stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation: guiding the next generation of believers). On an emotional level, Calvin’s reserve and cool logic are far more appealing than Luther’s rage, which migrates from its focus on ‘The Jews” to the Catholic Church. Had Luther kept his passion centred on Christ rather than letting it spill over into tirades he would have avoided much bloodshed.
The “recovery of a Christological witness” attempted by some modern scholars (e.g., Taylor, Mays) is bold and successfully turns the clock back on the “rationalistic” and “reductionistic” scholarship of the Psalms (Taylor, “Contemporary Christology of the Psalms - Professor’s Introduction“). Taylor’s image of Psalms 1 and 2 as a set of double doors provides a useful framework for approaching the Psalms as both “meditative” for the “devotee” as well a reference point for messianic interpretation of the Book. Mays succeeds in answering critique that the “Jesus of History” is not explicitly mentioned in the Psalms by pointing to the germinal potential of Messiah therein (The Lord Reigns, p. 100). His exposition of the characteristics of Israel’s king in Psalm 72 provides a universal context which may only find fulfillment in Messiah: “it prays for what is not yet - a king whose person and practice bring the people of God and the nations of the earth into the time of the reign of God” (ibid, p. 104). Mays centers his analysis on the “reign of God” in the context of “faith seeking understanding” and demonstrates how the “royal, political, military language” of the Psalms are “redefined and informed by the subject” of Jesus in the New Testament (ibid, p. 106). Professor Taylor’s essay provides the fascinating insight that the arrangement of the Psalter also points to the life, death, resurrection of Jesus, being that one may trace these events in that order in the Psalms (“On Seeing Christ in the Psalter”, Part VI). Dr. Taylor’s suggestion to read Psalm 45 as pertaining to Christ and His bride, the church, is appropriate and serves to further highlight key events and images which occur in other parts of Scripture, notably the fulfillment of the believer’s yearnings for spiritual consummation in the Book of Revelations (esp. chapter 21:2).
With the Christological and relational focus in mind, the transition to preaching from the Psalms is natural. In seeking out those elements which are universal, and not strictly historical, the listener adopts the "I" of the Psalmist, thereby taking ownership of the emotions and thoughts expressed therein. Achtemeier rightly moves from the particulars of Israel's experience of the divine to the congregation's by highlighting what is common to both: relationship with God (Preaching from the Old Testament, pp. 138, 149).
The Psalms, in contrast with some of the other Scriptures, deal with subject matter which more easily lends itself to be shared within the collective ethos of generalized human longing for and glorying in God. As Bosley tells us, we are trying to find "a deep personal experience of the reality of God" (Sermons on the Psalms, 1956, p. 103, italics added). I am able to identify with David when he writes, "Restore unto me the joy of my salvation" (Ps. 51:12) - the limitless ecstasy when God enters the heart when one looks to the cross for the first time.
The Psalms also remind us to see the evil in ourselves "in its true light" (Bosley, p. 101), a practice which may serve to render us "forever humble" (ibid, p. 103). Although it is difficult to identify with the cry of certain Psalms for vengeance, Achtemeier attempts to show this as having a sublimated value, our aim being to "ask for God's destruction of the evil within ourselves" (p. 144).
In Dr. Taylor's "Mountain Goats in the Clouds" I saw in myself the traveller who establishes faith in greater things from glimpses of smaller miracles. In this vein, I find the quizzical affirmation that even the existence of evil and demons in the world points to a good, eternal and loving God. Thus the tension created by Psalms with verses of vengeance is suggestive of an ultimate restoration when the Messiah appears on the earth a second time. For the preacher, it is a natural move to offer comfort to her or his congregation in the words of Psalm 121:1, “I lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: whence shall my help come?” In the context of modern preaching which often focuses on self, using the Psalms rightly shifts the equilibrium back to God, with the “childlike trust” which Peterson elicits in his study on Psalm 131 (“My Eyes Are Not Raised Too High”, A Chorus of Witnesses, 1994, p. 188).
Reading a handful of Psalms with greater intensity helped to internalize many notable features which have been considered thus far. Psalm 1 sets the stage for wholehearted devotion to the wisdom of the Psalter; Psalm 2 opens the way to reading the Psalter within a messianic framework; Psalm 8 lifts the eyes in joyous celebration of creation and considers the place of man and Messiah therein; Psalm 51 provided a glimpse into the hurt caused by sin and the promise of restoration through repentance; Psalm 73 gives comfort to the believer who wonders at the prosperity of the godless; Psalm 137 reflects the angst of separation from the comforts of home and heart; Psalm 139 highlights the omnipresence and omnipotence of the Almighty, giving expression to the worshipper’s wonder and thankfulness.
Reading the Psalms a second time using the New Jerusalem Bible gave a fresh perspective into the Book, this time with the added benefit of the knowledge gained in the course. Having completed the lessons certain features of the Psalter were made more accessible. The messianic character of the Psalms became more apparent, notably that of Psalm 22. Other Psalms, aside from the ones considered in class, pointed to events in the life of the Messiah were Psalm 16: “neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption” (v. 10); Psalm 34: “He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken.” (v. 20); Psalm 40: “Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not desire...” (v. 6); Psalm 41: “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (v. 9); Psalm 69: “They have hated me without a cause” (v. 4); Psalm 109: “Let his days be few; and let another take his office” (v. 8). Reading the Psalms a second time was also less rushed than the first time, as the words and context of the verses were enlivened through the coursework.
Overall, the course taught me to be more sensitive to Psalms in the life of the church, to appreciate their use in worship, when they are sung, as in the Punjabi Bible study my wife and I attend each Saturday and also when they are read, in the liturgy of the Catholic Masses we partake of on Sundays. The historicity of the Psalms, while not neglected in the present course, has been properly considered as being an issue quite apart from their use in modern worship. Dr. Taylor’s analogy of a wagon wheel refurnished to serve as a chandelier proves useful to open the way for Christological interpretation of the Psalms in the light of modern reductionist studies.
Most of all, the course has empowered my study of Psalms to be more authentic, more personal and at the same time, more universal. These extremes occur within the scope of the writings of the various Psalms scholars, those ancient, those more historically recent, those modern as well as those considered post-modern. With the Psalmist we conclude in joy: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD!”