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In the last post, I dealt briefly with how God’s role as Creator and Sovereign impacts how the psalmist reacts to good or bad occurrences in his own life**. Now, I want to examine how the psalms portray God’s role as Covenant Keeper and Deliverer and those roles play out in different “life” contexts.

The psalms that focus on God the Covenant Keeper often have an eye on the past. Psalm 136 (the “his steadfast love endures forever” psalm) begins by praising God for his goodness and sovereignty (over both divine and human rulers). The psalm then moves to describe his past acts in creation, deliverance from Egyptian bondage, and victory over the kings of Canaan. All these acts demonstrate that his חסד, a term often associated with covenant faithfulness, endures forever.  The psalmist employs this phrase as a drummer would bang on a drum.  The phrase resonates with every reflection on past faithfulness. The psalmist brings all these past acts forward into his own time in the next section of the psalm:

It is he who remembered us in our low estate
his steadfast love endures forever
and rescued us from our foes
his steadfast love endures forever
he who gives food to all flesh
his steadfast love endures forever

That very same God who remembered his covenant in the past remembers it now. The psalm itself is a call to remembrance – after all, people often forget before God does. In response to this memory of God’s faithfulness, the people are to worship God continually. With every beat of the drum (His steadfast love endures forever), give thanks to the God of heaven, now and forever.

God as Covenant Keeper also comes up in several lament psalms as well. The psalmist celebrates God’s faithfulness to his covenant to such a great extent that the lament part often takes us by surprise. Psalm 44 is a good example. The psalm begins with, “We have heard with your ears what you have done” and begins to describe all the great victories that God had won for Israel. In response to God’s great acts of faithfulness, the people boasted in God not in their abilities. The psalm then turns downward to describe their current condition: “But You have rejected and humiliated us.” Their enemies trample them down. They suffer evil continually. The fault, they maintain, is not their own: “All this has happened to us, but we have not forgotten You or betrayed Your covenant.” Contrary to what God had promised to do for the faithful, God seems to have left them to their enemies. Yet, worshipers cry out for Yahweh to save Israel because of his steadfast love (חסד). They maintain that God is still the covenant keeper despite their feeling of abandonment! They found their hope for the future not in the present but in the past. No present situation diminishes God’s role as the One Who Keeps His Covenant.

Lastly, we should give some attention to God’s role as Redeemer. God’s strength is demonstrated by his acts in Creation and the successful execution of his will in this world. His faithfulness is demonstrated by the work he did on his people’s behalf in the past and present. These truths about God motivate the psalmists’ bold requests for help from Yahweh and establish their confidence in his salvation. Psalm 62 begins with:

I am at rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from Him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold; I will never be shaken.

The psalmist asserts that his salvation comes from God alone.  No need to beg for mercy from the rich and power. No need to sacrifice to any other gods. God alone is sufficient. God will move on behalf of the faithful and cannot be stopped. Not all psalms are like psalm 61 in their expression of such confidence. Yet, even the ones that seem to end so bleakly, they always maintain hope for salvation in some way. Psalm 89 is a punch in the gut but still calls for Yahweh to remember them and manages to finish with: “May the LORD be praised forever. Amen and Amen.” If anyone has hope, may they hope in God. He alone is able to save even when our present is in ruin.

While the picture I have presented about God’s attributes in the psalms has come no where close to exhausting the material of the psalms, I hope that the picture I have presented is enough to begin to understand the attitude the psalms demand from people who make use of them in worship (whether by reading, praying, or singing).  The psalms are beautiful. The writers were masters of imagery and parallelism. They give expression to a great range of human emotion and experience. What I think makes the psalms majestic, however, is the fact that each psalm expresses the wonderful truth that such a great God would bend his ear to hear the cry of his people and answer.

**NOTE: I do not intend to limit the meaning of the psalms to a single writer. The poets and editors of the psalms intended that all people who sang these psalms as a part of their worship. In a more limited sense, the worshiper would understand meaning of the psalms in the light of their everyday life as well. Psalms 25 and 51 are examples of individualistic psalms which move from the individual to the corporate confession and praise in a couple of lines at the end of each psalm. These moves transform an individualistic prayer into an expression of corporate hope making these songs even more appropriate for use in worship and prayer. We would do best to remember this feature of the psalms when interpreting and applying them. The psalmists’ reflections on the character and roles of God embody not only their own cares and concerns but also those of the people who would sing and pray them in worship. In this way, they bend our twisted minds and attitudes back into proper shape: humans living as humans were made to live.

When we begin to try to understand the psalms, we should first meditate on how they describe God. God is, after all, the psalmists’ primary subject of adoration and addressee in prayer. These psalms were written not only to proclaim these characteristics but were written on the basis of these characteristics. The psalmist doesn’t write, “How long have You forgotten me forever?” unless he has some concept of God’s faithfulness in mind. I plan to focus on four aspects of God’s character as represented in the psalms: God as Creator, God as Sovereign, God as Covenant Keeper, and God as Deliverer. I couldn’t begin to enumerate all the ways the psalms describe God. I can’t even do justice to the four I plan to focus on. I do believe that these four allow us to understand the content of many of the psalms and allow us to delve into each topic more fully.

The psalms that focus on God as creator do so to demonstrate his power over the heavens and the earth and their respective inhabitants. Many of these psalms usually state the reality Yahweh’s creative acts in order to state the reality of something else. For example, Psalm 146 says that, Yahweh who is maker of heaven  is the same God who “executes justice for the oppressed.” God is not so distant from his creation that he doesn’t hear the cry of the humble and afflicted. His role as Creator demonstrates that he is capable of helping them. Psalm 104 talks about God as a caring creator who crafted the world and continues to attend to the needs of his creation including purging the world of evil doers. The Creator does not act capriciously; he built and rules the world with wisdom. Other psalms reference God’s role as creator as an example of his ability to save his people from their current situation. Using the language of ancient myths, the author of Psalm 74 cries out for deliverance from the God who divided the waters and crushed the Leviathan. Yahweh can defeat his enemy with ease, why couldn’t he defeat mine?

One of the difficulties in describing God as Sovereign is that it seems to be a bit of a catch all for all the other categories. I think I can justify the difference between God as Creator, who possesses the right to rule by creating all things, and God as Sovereign, who continues to exercise his right to rule over his realm. Psalm 24 declares at the outset, “The earth is the LORD’s and its fullness, the world and everyone who lives in it.”  In the psalm, the one who approaches Yahweh, the king, as one often does to seek favor, must be righteous.  This demand in itself is strange to our democratic mindset. The psalm glorifies obedience to the supreme ruler. We, however,  celebrate the rule of the people as the ideal form government (and perhaps among human governments, democratic rule is). The Sovereign King blesses and mediates justice to those who serve him faithfully. Isn’t that what we seek in a democratic government anyway? Psalm 24 ends with a description of God as the King of Glory commanding a large host attempting to make a triumphant entry through the gates of the city. The psalm urges those gates to let him in and let him rule.

What we see in the first two categories is a God who by the very fact of creation demonstrates his power over everything in the world. Everything he does is wise and good, and he does exactly what he wants. The Creator possesses the right to rule over his creation as he sees fit. Yahweh does exercise his right to rule. He is not capricious. He rules with perfect justice. While these facts are enough to demand absolute obedience and continuous praise from the entire world, how are we to trust him? The last two categories should help answer that question.

In the fall, I will be teaching a series on how the psalms address certain issues we face in today’s world. As of right now, I decided to call the series “What the psalms say about…” I would like to say a thing or two about the topics I would like to cover and the method I think I will be using to address the topics.

Some topics will address questions we face in our day-to-day life. How do the psalms address religious pluralism, and how should that inform our mindset when addressing those questions in our culture? What do the psalms  say about evil in the world? How does the psalmist bring his complaint to God? What do the psalms say about social justice? Why do the psalms seem to speak so little about that topic when it is so important to love your neighbor as yourself?

Some topics will address faith issues. What does the psalmist say about God in particular situations (e.g. praise, thankfulness, suffering, etc.). What do the psalms say about faith, and why is it important to place that faith in Yahweh? As an aside, the faith issue is actually an important hermeneutical key for understanding the psalms. What do the psalms say about prayer? Do the psalms inform us how to pray? Can we pray the imprecatory psalms?

These are broad topics that will be tough to handle without a serious study of one of the larger bodies of literature in the Bible. The psalms were written from a variety of perspectives and situations. For the most part, the perspectives and situations encapsulated by the psalms are not the same types that we face today – no psalm was written with the modern day issue of the problem of evil in mind. Some topics require many psalms while others may require one. Thirteen weeks is an impossible period to go into a lot of depth, so we will have strategic in what psalms we choose to teach which topic.

The main issue with reading the psalms is understanding how the psalms speak to us today. How different are we from what the psalmists? How we deal with the historical background, literary devices, subtitles, and canonical layout can all inform how we read the psalms. On top of that, the psalms require a specific kind of reader – a reader who places faith in the sovereign God. Our perspective and questions are not their perspective or questions exactly, yet the psalms were written for our benefit. We must continue to read the psalms. By reading the psalms we encounter the sovereign, covenant-keeping Creator who is also our friend. Through the psalms God transforms us. They transform the way we think about God and his world. They sanctify our minds and our actions. Through the Holy Spirit, they make us faithful members of God’s community.

 

Among Christians today, especially from what I can tell in the United States, we love to play the bully. The target, however, is not anyone or any group. The target is a word: religion. We say that Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship. We have websites such as notreligion.org. We even enlist God’s help in our bullying: “God hates religion.” Poor guy! Is this poor word really worthy our derision?

For the most part Christian hate toward religion is justified by a sort of pigeon-holing religion into a set of categories that the Bible does explicitly hate: non-reverent, works-based, going-through-the-motion spiritual activities. In that sense, surely God hates religion, but I think we have more problems with religion than that.

We hate religion. Our non-conformist culture hates anything that seems traditional. Aside from the typical Christian rites of baptism and the eucharist, we target traditional music services, traditional preaching, traditional church programs. Some of these (most of these in some cases), cry out for reformation. They have become expressions of dead, false religion. We should not be quick to exorcise from the church all forms of traditionalism, especially if people exercise true religion in the form of traditional worship. 

Granted, most Christians would agree with the prior statement, such agreement doesn’t eliminate the issues I have with the formula “God hates religion, but loves relationships.” Relationship is a not a direct antonym of religion. Relationship between two people does stress that God wants authenticity, but our comparison may have too steep a price. I wonder if our constant comparison of religion to relationship tickles our individualistic, non-conformist attitudes to the point where we reduce Christianity to a two way “relationship” between a person and God. How easy is it to say, “I don’t need the church or all that ceremony, I don’t need relationships with other believers, I don’t need Bible studies,  I just need God?”

The truth is, God kind of loves religion. He did,after all, set up the ceremonial rites of law for the Israelites and constantly call for obedience to that law saying that it is a wonderful thing that they have the law in the first place (Deut 4:5-8). The prophet Joel calls for repentance through the ceremonial rite of lament. Jesus often attended, participated, and encouraged following religious  ceremony (John 7, Luke 22, Matt 26, Luke 11:42).

Maybe I’m taking too much offense at this point. I know Christians who say, “It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship” don’t really mean all that. In our communicating the truth of Christianity, however, it sends the wrong message. We need to find a better way of communicating the essential nature of a vibrant relationship with God vis-a-vis the dead practice of religion.

Might a suggest another emphasis? Maybe we should say God hates falsehood but loves truth, or, if we want to be hipster about it, God hates fake but loves authentic. I suppose those words could come across as judgmental. I think, however, putting Christianity in those terms gives us the opportunity to say, “I’m the worst of the fakers. God alone is authentic, and if it weren’t for his actions in history, we have no hope of being authentic people.” 

We should be wise to consider the prophet Joel’s command to the people of Israel. Yes, he commands people to observe the ceremony of lament in response to a past tragedy and future judgment, but he also says to the people, “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (2:13) God desires authentic people to follow true religion (that is, according how he has defined true religion, not according to how we define it). Above all, love God with all your heart and do what he says to do. That is what this faker is trying to do by the grace of God alone.

I’ve always struggled with the change of verb tense in Hebrew poetry. The first line will use the qatal and the second line the yiqtol. The change in tense does make sense in some situations, but in other places the change is odd. Take Psalm 93:3:

The floods life up (qatal), O LORD
the floods lift up (qatal) their voice
the floods lift up (yiqtol) their roar

Kugel notes that such changes are not merely stylistic:

As noted above: if avoidance of repetition were the point, why does one find qtl-yqtl differentiation of the same verbal root, or actual repetition of the same words in the very verses which illustrate some other differentiating feature. If “elegant variation” were the point, would it not operate first and foremost on the level of lexis?

In other words, if the author wanted to vary his style, would he not only change the word? Because the root remains the same in both lines, the parallelism remains despite the tense change. Yet, the change in tense does communicate a noticeable difference, and it is a problem for translating (how do you communicate the tense change in English, for instance, without making the line sound funny?). Kugel suggests that the variance in verb tense expresses communicates the complete unity of a parallel line:

To understand these alterations as supplying “variety” seems contradicted by the very repetition of the verbal root; instead, something closer to completion or complentarity seems to their role, the integration of A and B into a single whole.

Not all parallelisms are semantic. The change in tense have of the effect of making the reader read both lines together. In Adele Berlin’s words:

There is almost always some degree of grammatical correspondence between parallel lines, and in many cases it is the basic structuring device of the parallelism – the feature that creates the perception of parallelism…The important thing to remember is although there is a difference in the two grammatical structures, they are in some way equivalent to one another. In nonparallelistic discourse only one would occur, and either one could substitute for the other (semantics permitting); but in parallelistic discourse they are both present. Thus grammar has been projected from the axis of selection to the axis of combination. (Bold mine)

Thus, for both Berlin and Kugel changes in grammatical structure of a line help link two lines together in a parallelistic structure. What makes this change fascinating is that in the case of qtl-yqtl, the verbs could lose their tense and should be translated in a manner that fits the context. I still wonder if there isn’t anything more to that change in verb tense. Though Kugel says that the change isn’t stylistic variance, I can’t help but thinking that isn’t much more than stylistic. Change in verb tense may indeed strengthen the parallelism, but in two lines that communicate more or less the same idea how does the change in tense help line B communicate something more than line B? I can only answer: לא ידעתי ולא אדע 

Note: the quotes are from James Kugel’s Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History and Adele Berlin’s The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism.

My father-in-law and I finished the first assignment in Hebrew Poetry.  In the six hours we spent on this assignment, we spent our time dealing with first three verses of Psalm 6 (actually, we went through the title and the first two verses of the psalm). Six hours is a long time to think about two verses! Typically, I like to work through large sections of texts quickly in order to get the picture of the whole in my mind, but after this assignment I can’t say that I’m not appreciative of the longer gaze at the first few verses.

Psalm 6:2-3 read:

                יְֽהוָ֗ה אַל־בְּאַפְּךָ֥ תוֹכִיחֵ֑נִי
וְֽאַל־בַּחֲמָתְךָ֥ תְיַסְּרֵֽנִי
                 חָנֵּ֥נִי יְהוָה֮ כִּ֤י אֻמְלַ֫ל אָ֥נִי
רְפָאֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֖י נִבְהֲל֣וּ עֲצָמָֽי

2 O LORD, Do not in your anger rebuke me!
Do not in your burning wrath discipline me!
3 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am distressed!
Heal me, O LORD, for my bones are terrified!

The relationship among these lines depict the very personal prayer of a person who is going through a period of darkness in his life. The first two lines seem to echo the same exact thought: Do not because of your anger punish me. These two lines portray the beauty of Hebrew parallelism. “Rebuke” and “discipline” are both used in contexts that involve judgement against evil doers. God’s wrath, of course, burns against sinners. I have to confess that I’m not sure how the first and second line are different from each other except to say that the repetition heightens the intensity of the feeling of distress in the psalm. At this point, we ask what has the psalmist done that he is now in such a dire situation? Will he say to God to rectify the situation?

The second two lines are also synonymous, but the second line more obviously communicates something in addition to the first line. The first line calls for gracious because “I am distressed.” In the second line, he asks for healing because “my bones are terrified.” The word for bones probably a metaphor for the psalmist’s entire being. He is both physically and spiritually in danger; he is both physically and emotionally shaken. He is in an utterly helpless state and is now asking God to move in mercy on his behalf. The first line explicitly asks for grace; the second line explicitly asks for restoration.

He begins with an odd request: Do not punish me in your anger. When God is wrathful against a person of a group of people, he usually angry because of some sin. Punishment would be the correct action to take against a rebellious person. Psalm 6, however, does not explicitly mention any sin as the reason for God’s anger. The psalmist’s positive appeal furthers the oddity of the request: “Be gracious to me! Heal me!” not forgive me. Again, the psalmist does not explicitly mention guilt. Rather, he points out his current distress as the rationale for God’s action. The prophets refer to God’s restoration of a people tore apart from God’s judgement as “healing.” He may be implying some sin on his part. Yet, he does not come out and say “I have sinned.” Why?

What strikes about this feature is his high view of God’s sovereignty. Not that acknowledgement of sin in any way diminishes God’s sovereignty – it doesn’t!  The “non-acknowledgement” highlights the value he places on God’s mercy. God’s wrath would destroy him. God’s grace would heal him. What happens to him is in God’s hands.

The psalmist approaches his situation from a position of faith. God is sovereign. My actions may be evil, but my life rests in God’s hands. I believe that God has the power to save me or crush me. I believe God is merciful. I believe God is present. I believe God hears. I will trust in him.

Today was the first day in a long time that I dropped a class. Adding and dropping classes aren’t normally a big deal. I did adds and drops on a regular basis in college; albeit, I rarely dropped after the semester started. At about 2:40pm yesterday after already sitting in the class for 2 hours, I already knew I had to drop it. Still, I went through several different emotions as I was driving home. The feel of inadequacy hit me hardest. Am I not tough enough to continue in this class? Do I lack the intellectual capacity to continue in this class? Am I just a lazy student? I still wanted to continue and prove my imaginary doubters wrong. I can get through this.  I’m not weak. The thought of continuing, however, was overbearing still. I had no excitement of enduring 4 1/2 months of these feelings. After talking over the situation with friends and family (thank you Grace, Jacob, and Doug for your advice!), I understood that, for a variety of reasons, I needed this class less than I thought I did. What’s more is that there was another class that I needed more. My new textbook is in the mail, and I will be studying with my father-in-law (yes, he’s in my program too) tomorrow night.

I’m still upset over my experience. I really was looking forward to taking this class. I put a bit of mental prep into getting ready for the semester. Dropping the course altered my study plans. I’m not going to be studying a subject I thought I would be studying since October. I’m now going to be studying a subject I wasn’t expecting study until today. What seems so small was actually pretty big. But it all worked out for the better, and I’m glad to come to this realization before it was too late. Goodbye Greek 4. Hello Hebrew Poetry.

Here’s to lemonade.

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