September 5, 2009
A few conservative bloggers and podcasters recently critiqued my podcast and book for not giving enough recognition to the Psalm’s role as prophecy; apparently the fact that I don’t immediately look for Jesus in the Psalms means I’m not interpreting them correctly.¬† The thing is, I’m not entirely convinced that the Book of Psalms does prophesy Jesus, or that they were originally meant to be prophecy at all.
This has gotten me thinking about the nature of the texts contained in the Bible. The question of whether the Bible is the “inerrant Word of God” is such a hangup issue for so many churches – it’s used as a litmus test to determine whether a believer is a “true Christian” or whether a teacher is a “false Prophet.” When the final version of the Torah was put together (probably shortly after the Babylonian Exile), did the redactors suspect it’d be used as scripture? Well, yeah, they probably did. When Paul wrote his letter to Philemon, did he suspect that it’d be read in churches thousands of years later and declared “the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God?” No, he probably didn’t.
In Jewish copies of the Bible, the books are clearly separated between Scripture (Torah), Prophecy (Nevi’im), and Writings (Ketuvim). In Christianity, the lines between the three are much, much more ambiguous, whether we’re talking about the Psalms or the writings of Paul. Since I’m much more familiar with the Psalms, I’ll focus on them.
1) Prayer. The Psalms were written by people, and are a representative of the ways humanity prays. The Psalms were written over a period of centuries, and some of them were written by poets, others by liturgists, others by members of the royal court, and others adopted from the hymns of other cultures. The cover the gamut of human emotion, including joy, hope, despair, anger, loneliness, indignation, thanksgiving, love, and patriotism, and in so doing they provide models for our own prayers.
In Jewish practice, Psalms
are not chanted with the same trope as scripture; rather, they are changed like prayers. Similarly, monastic practice constructs round-the-clock services of psalm reading and psalm singing in order to follow Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing.”
2) Scripture. Many people, of course, believe that the 150 canonical Psalms were divinely inspired, and therefor are not only a record of humanity speaking of God but also of God speaking to humanity. Personally, I do believe that the Psalms are divinely inspired, but I don’t give God credit for the word-for-word version of the Psalms we have in our Bibles today. Is God responsible for splitting Psalm 9/10 in half? How about Psalm 42/43? And why did God choose to omit Psalm “151,” a Davidic psalm which is contained in the Septuagint but not in the Masoretic text, while including Psalm 104, which is suspiciously similar to the Great Hymn to Aten, an Egyptian prayer?
Then there’s the fact that the Psalms contain so much brokenness, pain, and violent imagery. Although I can fully support the idea that people have these feelings and deal with them by bringing them to God, it’s harder for me to imagine that God endorses smashing the heads of our enemy’s children on rocks (Psalm 137). I do believe that the Psalms are scripture, but they were inspired by God, not written by God.
3) Prophecy. And, finally, lots of people treat the Psalms as prophetic books, interpreting many of the royal Psalms to be about Jesus rather than the Davidic monarchy. (People who subscribe to this idea use the word “prophecy” to mean “predicting the future” rather than “speaking God’s justice to those in power,” i.e. Malachi rather than Nathan.)¬† Although I do believe that the Hebrew Bible points towards the messianic truth revealed in Jesus, I don’t think it’s reasonable to ignore what the Biblical writers were actually writing about him, i.e. I think Isaiah really was talking about Cyrus the Great of Persia, that Psalm 45 really is about a royal wedding, and that Ezekiel really is talking about the end of the the Babylonian Exile.
Now it’s worth noting that the canonical Book of Psalms does have a strong apocalyptic bent to it, promising a messianic era when all will be made right in the world. This isn’t directly contained in the texts, however, but rather in the order in which the Psalms are arranged:
- Psalm 1: The Righteous flourish and the Wicked are punished. Good deeds are rewarded by God. This Psalm expresses how the world ought to be in the eyes of the person who compiled the Book of Psalms.
- Psalm 2: The King is anointed by God and is told to be wise and to serve God. This admonishment can be extended to everyone who reads the Psalms.
- Psalm 3: The Psalmist laments about persecution and general troubles. The person who compiled the Book of Psalms uses this to show us that the vision of the world presented in Psalm 1 is not the situation in the actual world – in the real world, the Wicked are often victorious and the Righteous are often sick, broken, and persecuted.
- Psalms 4-144: These Psalms detail the range of human experience, as well as a history of God’s covenant with humanity.
- Psalms 145-150: The are joyous psalms of exuberant praise, claiming that the entire world, all humanity and all creation, is of one mind in the worship of God. The compiler of the Psalms put them at the end to demonstrate that this is how the world will be in the future, so we should have hope in our coming deliverance.
So whether or not the individual Psalms were meant to be prophetic, the canonical Psalter has a prophetic and apocalyptic message superimposed on them. The fact that this message is not original to the texts doesn’t, however, mean that it’s not a message worth paying attention to, just as the superscriptions to the psalms are worth reading even though they are later additions to the texts.
Which is these is the “correct” way to read the Psalms?¬† Or, for that matter, the Bible in general?¬† I don’t think that question has an answer, for abandoning any of these three modes or reading makes the Bible less rich.