Saturday, March 8, 2014

Psalm 150

Well, this is my last post about the Book of Psalms for my weekly quiet time!  My first post of this series was published (on my blog, of course) on December 4, 2010.  That means that I have been doing weekly posts on the Book of Psalms for over three years.  Time went by fast!  Near the end of this post, I will talk about what I have learned, overall, but, first of all, I want to mention some items from my study of Psalm 150.  Interestingly, the items do not concern Psalm 150 so much, but rather points that intrigued me as I was reading interpretations of Psalm 150.

For one, there was an article by Anthony Ceresko: “Endings and beginnings: alphabetic thinking and the shaping of Psalms 106 and 150.”  It appeared in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68/1 January 2006, pages 32-46.  In a footnote, Ceresko quotes from page 598 of Norman Gottwald’s The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel.  Gottwald was contending that ancient Israel’s reliance on the alphabet was consistent with its more democratic set-up.  Gottwald states that “The older hieroglyphic and syllabic scripts with their complex burden on the memory were well suited to imperial-feudal monopoly, whereas the alphabetic script contributed to a democratization of language and thus to the celebration of a people and its deity in a new social system.”  This is an intriguing proposal.  I have some difficulty accepting it, since the Canaanite city-states which Israelite peasants supposedly revolted against or left also used an alphabetic script, and my understanding is that they were not exactly democratic or egalitarian.  But it is still intriguing.  Admittedly, the alphabet was probably easier to remember than the hieroglyphic and syllabic scripts, and that could be why it was invented: so that people outside of the elites of the elites, such as traders, could have access to written language.

Second, there was a comment by Cyril of Jerusalem, which I read in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, the one about Psalms 51-150.  Essentially, Cyril was responding to a question: How can we even talk about God, if God is incomprehensible?  Cyril’s response is that we cannot drink down an entire stream, yet we can still drink what we need.  Our eyes cannot take in all of the sunlight, but sunlight can still benefit us.  Of course we will fall short of a perfect understanding of God when we worship, but that does not mean that we should not worship.  Cyril quotes Psalm 150, which exhorts all that has breath to praise the Lord.  I would not say that Cyril answers the question adequately, but he does mention things that are worth thinking about.  I would say that we do have enough understanding of God to worship, even if our understanding falls short, due both to the greatness of God, and also our subjectivity in conceptualizing God.

Now, for what I learned about Psalms.  What particularly interested me was the different settings that interpreters have ascribed to the Psalms.  In my younger years, I would interpret the Psalms in reference to David, as if David were the author.  In some of my graduate school years, I interpreted many of them in light of the annual creation-and-renewal festival, in which God defeated chaos and renewed the cosmos, a la Mowinckel.  These past three years, however, I have learned about different views: views that regarded certain Psalms as eschatological, views that dated them to the time of the Maccabees, views that related them to David’s life, views that said certain Psalms concerned Hezekiah’s time, views that dated certain Psalms to the exile or post-exilic periods, and views that sought to apply them to Christ, while employing creative interpretations when that did not appear to work.  A question that I have long had is why there is so much in the Psalms about oppressors, or enemies conspiring against the Psalmist.  Who would write a piece about this?  Who would have the power to do so?  What purpose would such a piece serve?  Well, I encountered a variety of scenarios: such Psalms were about David on the run from Saul or Absalom, Israel suffering under foreign oppressors, some king trying to deal with palace intrigue, a bloke with complaints coming to the Temple to pray, or Christ.

I have said this more than once, but I will say it again: I was not expecting to enjoy my study of the Psalms as much as I did.  I long regarded the Psalms as rather boring, as the same praises or complaints repeated over and over.  I do not want to minimize the euphoria or the harsh conditions that stimulated the creation of many of the Psalms, but I thought that I would get bored reading the Book, and that I would not find much to write about the Psalms.  But I turned out to be wrong.  The vast majority of Psalms had something interesting, largely because there is disagreement or ambiguity about what some of the verses mean.

One thing that I did not do in my study was to address the story that all of the Psalms as a whole try to communicate.  I focused on each individual Psalm, rather than what all of them may say when one considers them all together, in terms of their order, for example.  I am not beating myself up over this, but I am just noting it as one deficiency in my study.  There are people who have sought to explain the order: E.W. Bullinger did so in light of the Pentateuch, Bob MacDonald sees a story throughout the Psalms, and some argue that there is an overall Messianic pattern in the Psalms’ arrangement: that the Psalms are arranged so as to communicate Israel’s desire for a Messiah.  This may be something for me to probe in years to come.

The next book that I will study for my weekly quiet time is I Chronicles.  I chose this book largely for practical reasons.  I already have the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture for this book, which is convenient.  The Word Bible Commentary for I Chronicles was inexpensive.  So I Chronicles it is!


  1. Bravo for completing this task James. I am still intrigued and reading these day by day though the discipline is difficult without a monastic setting :)

    As you may have noted, my current study is in the music implied by the te'amim. It is clear to me that the tradition (Masoretes based on ben Asher's Aleppo codex but the te'amim probably going back at least another 1000 years to the Elders of Bathyra) has a coded sequence of signs in it. It is clear because I can code a computer program to decipher them and I have. Whether I have the pace, or the mode correct, I am confident that the pulse and the scale is 99% accurate. I cannot say this for any 'interpretation' that I or anyone else might make.

  2. That is an accomplishment: deciphering the codes, I mean. I don't know of anyone else who has done that!

  3. Incidentally, that was another thing I didn't get into in terms of my study: the musical aspect!

  4. My work is based on the pre-computer inductive reasoning of Suzanne Haik Vantoura. Her work is being continued by Dr David Mitchell of Brussels. And her translator, Jon Wheeler has played a very important part in the US to promote her work. No one to my knowledge has put her rules into a computer program - but this has only become possible in the last 10 years with the development of Music XML, a markup language to 'describe' music. My shared resource has a short paper on it that references the history. I hope to present this at a conference in Reykjavik in May.


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