Thursday, February 10, 2005
On PsalmsSubstantial fare from Neil Dhingra. I'm looking forward to this series. If you want to peek ahead, the Sunday Psalms for cycle A are 51, 33, 95, 23, 130, and 22: not a slacker in the bunch. “God behaves in the Psalms in ways that he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.” -- Sebastian Moore, OSB This Lent, I’d like to meditate on the Psalms assigned for each Sunday. To begin, however, let’s meditate on the Psalter as a whole. The Hebrew name for the Psalter is “Tehillim,” which simply means “Hymns,” so we first should ask: Do the Psalms have a collective and continuous meaning or should we just look at them as individual hymns? The Presbyterian exegete Patrick Miller recently wrote a very interesting article on this very question entitled, “The Psalter as a Book of Theology.” Dr. Miller begins by noting a distinct coherence to the Psalter. There is an introduction (1-2) and a conclusion (150); there is also a gradual muting of lament in favor of an increasing voice of praise and thanksgiving. We can identify five separate collections of books (3-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-145) that correspond with theologically prominent stages in the history of Israel from the end of the reign of David to the scattering of Israel among the nations. We can also identify thematic sub-collections that link, for instance, Psalm 22 to nearby royal psalms (18, 20, 21), identifying it as the voice of the Royal Messiah. What, then, is the theology of the Psalms? The introduction tells us that we are faced with two very different ways – the “way of the righteous” and the “way of the ungodly” (1:6). The “way of the righteous” involves placing our trust in the God who will rule over the nations through his anointed Messiah (2:6). The Psalms do not distinguish between the individual’s path and the larger realm of politics; it is the king who cries out for help, but as “the representative Israelite, David also evokes the experience of every human being.” But this vision of “the anointed king who lives by the law and the community as those whose presence before God is a testimony to their devotion to God’s way in the law” does not endure. By Book III, we behold “the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches” (73:6); we hear the Psalmist tell God, “Thou hast made void the covenant of thy servant: thou hast profaned his crown by casting it to the ground” (89:39), and ask God with obvious desperation about “thy former lovingkindnesses, which thou swarest unto David in thy truth” (89:49). The climax is in Book IV. We are told to “Remember God’s marvelous works that he hath done; his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth” (105:5), and that, even though God had brought his people low for their sins in the past, “he remembered for them his covenant, and repented according to the multitude of his mercies” (106:45). The king is not finally abandoned, either – we are reminded that the Lord reigns, sitting “between the cherubim” (99:1), and we also encounter the king promising once more to act with wisdom (101:2). And in Book V, then, Psalm 110 reminds us of what Psalm 2 had promised – “The Lord shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion” (110.2; 2.9). The king will once more reign and model the “way of righteousness” to the entire people; the very long Psalm 119 centers on this ruler, who again “evokes the experience of every human being,” saying before God, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (119:71). The importance of these “statutes,” this “way of righteousness,” reminds Dr. Miller of the first part of the Westminster Catechism: “What is the chief and highest end of man? Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” (We can also think of CCC 1 .) But who is this God that we are called to “glorify” and “enjoy”? We can contemplate him through the Psalter. Dr. Miller suggests taking note of the pairing of Psalms 103 and 104 in Book IV. Psalm 103 enumerates the so-called “relative” attributes of God – those that have to go with his relationship to humanity and the world, such as mercy and love. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (103:8), the Psalmist says, echoing Exodus’ invocation of “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Ex 34:6). Psalm 104, which begins and ends like Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” continues to speak of this merciful and gracious God as the creator and provider over a complex, interdependent, and ordered cosmos of human beings and animals. “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth” (104:30). In a sacramental context, we will find v. 15 especially resonant, “And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart.” Indeed, the Lord “shall rejoice in his works” (104:31) – so much so that the threat of disorder is fiercely dealt with (104:35). By sharing in this rejoicing, not least by reciting psalms 103 and 104, we can be drawn to “glorify” and “enjoy” our Lord, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” author of torah and creation.