Monday, November 10, 2008

Ruminations on the psalms

This is simply a follow-up on something I wrote over on Wendy's blog.

She mentioned how she found the prophets to be her least favorite part of the Bible for a long time. As she put it so succinctly, "I love the gospels and Pauline epistles, find comfort in the Psalms and wisdom in the Proverbs. But the prophets?! They can be a real downer."

Surely the Lord has made a great world with a great variety in it, because I love the epistles and find the wisdom literature valuable. I lean more toward Job and Ecclesiastes for wisdom literature than Proverbs but I like Proverbs. I use to read the epistles every day and while I don't always read the Gospels I remember them often. I love reading the prophets, though, and find them challenging and encouraging.

In fact if we bear in mind that in the Jewish Bible the prophets include all the books of Samuel and Kings we begin to understand how powerfully necessary the prophetic literature is to our understanding not only of Yahweh but of ourselves through the story of Israel. Prophetic books are not only a predictor of Christ but serve as warnings to Christ's people over time. A failure to engage with the prophetic literature in a meaningful way ensures that a local church will go off the rails and justify anything it considers cool. Justifying any means to an end or misunderstand what the God-appointed ends toward which Christ calls us is unfortunately easy to do if we neglect the prophets.

But the part of Scripture that has always been my least favorite over the years has been the Psalms. Perhaps it is not the least bit surprising that to the extent that I have bothered to read Psalms at all (which was exceptionally rare over the years, now that I'm really thinking about it) was to read something about Jesus, preferably a prediction made of Jesus' coming or something about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. So I could read through Hebrews (which I love) and go back and see all the Christological references and then I'd go back and read the Psalms and find, somewhat to my surprise, that I didn't really care.

Why was that? Well, I think some of my dislike of the Psalms came because I misunderstood the nature of prophetic fulfillment of God's promises in Christ. In the Western world it can be easy to want a one-to-one correspondence between a passage and its fulfillment. Western rationalists can lok at Isaiah 7 and say "Hey, this is CLEARLY not really referring to Jesus and is being quoted out of context." The rebuttal to this is to point out that similar misappropriations, if we're going to be hard-nosed about it, were being employed in Qumran and elsewhere in Judaism and there were battles about whether the Torah was considered to teach that the resurrection of the dead happened. The old joke is that two Jews have three opinions, and it reveals why many attempts to dismiss Christian interpretations of the prophets are potentially double-edged.

But the second reason I didn't care for the Psalms had less to do with not finding predictions of Christ than a more basic issue. I thought of the Psalms as emotionally dishonest. The language was often repetitive, it seemed clunky as poetry, and finally it just seemed impossible to me that anyone would actually feel the way the psalmist kept saying he felt (or the psalmists, to be more accurate, I suppose). The psalms seemed hyperbolic and insane. There would be whiplash changes of mood that didn't make sense, and there would be emotional outcries that seemed selfish and vicious.

It was also not clear to me that the voice of the psalmist was even really the voice of God since the psalmist kept asking God to destroy his enemies and poured out contempt on people he didn't like. How could I know the psalmist wasn't at fault? In Psalm 51 I have long wondered why David kept saying "against You and You alone I have sinned?" Really? David had just killed a man and his sin was such that God chose to kill his child because David had been disobedient. And yet David was saying he had only sinned against the Lord when he had a man murdered and that murder was something that prompted the Lord to kill a child in the womb? Really?

A pastor once mentioned from the pulpit that we need to consider that just because the psalmist says it does not mean we should take it as God speaking to us, we need to remember the psalms are where we see "us" through David and others speaking to God. He proferred the explanation that sin can be pervasive enough within us that we can imagine the consequences of our sin do not reach as far as they really do, which was his take on an aspect of Psalm 51 I have heard many Christians just skate over, the part about "against You and You alone have I sinned."

And to pick another, still more obvious example, is it good to pronounce a blessing on anyone who hurls babies against rocks to kill them? Christians are fond of making abortion a deal-breaker in politics and I do believe abortion is a moral and social evil overall ... but don't people realize that in Scripture God kills babies? It's something God has the ability to do to execute judgment against wicked empires. This does not diminish that abortion is wrong but how do we look at the Psalms and square much contemporary conservative Christian rhetoric against abortion with a biblical passage like Psalm 137 in which the psalmist pronounces a blessing on anyone who would take up Babylonian babies and kill them?

One of the more memorable exercises I did was to consider Samuel and consider the corresponding account of the same battle through Psalm 18. I began to realize that the Psalms display a heightened, emotional depiction of events that were in fact, rather prosaic. This is, I would suggest, a key to understanding apocalyptic literature, grasping that powerful symbolism and emotionally charged language may refer to things that, in their actual happening, may "look" pretty unimportant or normal. Apocalyptic as a genre allows biblical authors to invest things with a greater, more cosmic significance in terms of God's involvement in our lives, the narrative of God's work among us, if you will.

It has been this aspect of the psalms and their heightened emotional expression that I have only in the last few years begun to appreciate. I have come to see them less and less as emotionally dishonest or hyperbolic pity parties or mediums of what always seemed like a false sense of joy or contentment.

Perhaps it's not so strange that part of this process of having an actual appreciation for the psalms, and not just assenting that all Christians should read them and get something out of them at least some of the time, has been in setting psalms to music. There are many different ways of meditating on Scripture and for a musician and especially a composer one of the best ways to do this is to compose settings of biblical texts. This is not a substitute for exegetical or historical study at all! Instead it provides a believer with an opportunity to read multiple translations, consider contexts, observe historical settings in which texts are composed, and beyond all that consider both the emotional content of that biblical text and how you, as the composer, feel and what feelings you should and need to convey through that setting.

For instance, the most personal instance I can think of is when I asked a very dear friend of mine to suggest a Psalm for me to set to music. He picked Psalm 133. I had never really seriously considered the Psalm much over the years. Its theme seemed too mundane. Isn't it great when people get along? Yeah, sure, whatever, what else is there about predicting the coming of Christ? But having gone through (and at the time, really, still feeling I was in the middle of) a rough patch of misunderstanding and being misunderstood by family and things just being bad all around and not really being aware of some problems that resulted from sin I was not truly aware of, I began to see the psalm differently.

By way of an aside, there have sometimes been comparisons made between black American music and Jewish music. The comparison (which I think is apt in many ways) is the following--a song of joy will have a touch of sorrow and songs of sorrow will have a touch of joy. There are conflicting emotional elements within a song. That is, in a word, blues. The more clinical term would be ambivalence. This was, emotionally, a critical key to grasping the psalms as emotional narrative. Where as other Christians may need to see the narrative arc of the Psalms as a miniature of creation and fall, covenant and exile, war and ensuing victory and defeat, and the promise of final restoration and joy that was precisely not what I needed to see in the Psalms because that's what I see everywhere else in the Bible. I have trained myself over decades of reading Scripture to read the Bible for the macro themes, the overall narrative arc. To borrow nerd-speak, I am aware of the significance of continuit in story lines because I've read comic books and have watched Star Wars movies. :)

What I have needed to do with the Psalms is understand that they speak to real feelings and allow myself to appreciate them at a purely emotional level. I have needed to recognize that the feelings expressed in the psalms by the various psalmists are real, not overblown emotions. They sought poetic language to express their various emotions before God and people. Psalm 137 stopped being a psalm that seemed to be written by some bitter person who should just get over things and move on and should stop wanting to kill babies to someone who saw everything and possibly everyone he ever loved and fought for slain. He saw the city he loved, one of the greatest sources of joy in his life, beaten and battered down to its foundations while the sons of Edom were cheerleaders to the nation that executed the slaughter. When you have seen Babylonian soldiers hurl your babies against stones to kill them you desperately want to return the favor. After all that to be commanded by your captors to cheer THEM up with one of the vaunted songs of Zion, what would you do? By the waters of Babylon ... .

It has helped me immensely to remind myself during personal reading that the Psalms are not a litany of all the feelings we "should" feel. I have misread them for years as emotional equivalents of prescription drugs and there is a sense in which aspects of that are true. I needed to read them with an understanding that the Psalms reveal to us how we turn to God amidst what we actually feel, most of it mixed or ugly. We can rejoice in the glory of the Lord and His kindness in the past while feeling dread about the present and the future. We can be angry about injustice done or said against us while recognizing that our own sin has brought us to that point.

What we deduce, induct, observe, and infer about the lives of others throughout Scripture like Abraham, Moses, David, or Isaiah the Psalms allow us to participate in directly. The Psalms are where our story can be explored as part of the larger story of God and His people. But, at least for me, it is also a place where as the psalmist enjoins us, we can pour out our hearts before the Lord. Something I'm figuring out how to do. For reasons I don't feel like explaining, partly because I don't wish to and partly because I'm not sure I can, expressing emotions directly is not something I have often wanted or liked doing and this is why God seems to have providentially made the Bible as big as it is, because every believer has a part of Scripture he or she needs to be reconciled to as part of the challenge of following Christ. The Lord calls us to immerse ourselves in the parts of Scripture we fear or don't like as much as the parts that we call our favorites. It is the parts we tend to skip over that we may most need to focus on. So for me, that section of the Scriptures is clearly the Psalms.


Anonymous said...

Jeremiah, this entire post reeks of your sin. You argue that you can't get behind the psalms because of your perceived logical inconsistencies... (for example David sinning again God alone.) Your claim that this can't be right is sin.

If you ever encounter scripture that doesn't make sense to you, the only correct response is to assume that your fallen brain doesn't understand. David says his sin is against God alone... that psalm is in scripture, and is therefore God-breathed... So God is saying that David's sin is against God alone. Your pastor friend who says you can't take psalms at face value is wrong.

You apparently have a low view of scripture. You should repent.

Dwayne Forehand said...

"It has helped me immensely to remind myself during personal reading that the Psalms are not a litany of all the feelings we "should" feel. I have misread them for years as emotional equivalents of prescription drugs and there is a sense in which aspects of that are true. I needed to read them with an understanding that the Psalms reveal to us how we turn to God amidst what we actually feel, most of it mixed or ugly. We can rejoice in the glory of the Lord and His kindness in the past while feeling dread about the present and the future. We can be angry about injustice done or said against us while recognizing that our own sin has brought us to that point."

I am glad that your eyes are opening to Gods purpose in including the Psalms. I think anonymous must have missed the point of your post: You are admitting that you've been wrong about the book.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Thanks Dwayne. You've gotten what I've been writing about. I guess anonymous missed the forest for a tree.