Songs for the Journey Home: The Purpose of the Songs of Ascents

Psalms is a book. As such, it demands to be read like others, especially taking into account context and structure. Although this is often difficult, collections within the larger Psalter demonstrate the benefit and justify the methodology. I say this, because I would like to share a few thoughts regarding the collection of Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), beginning with the larger picture and then perhaps providing some further reflections on individual psalms in later days. So … today you get my purpose statement (albeit with little explanation).

The collection of Songs of Ascents is an eschatological interpretation/application of the Priestly Blessing based upon the psalmists’ hope in Yahweh’s faithfulness to fulfill the Davidic Covenant at Zion.

Put another way: Through the lens of the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:24-26), the Songs of Ascents encourage the faithful to look forward to the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises to David at Zion. They fill out what it means for the Lord to bless, to keep, to be gracious to, and to give peace to His people. They do this by interpreting their past, present, and future in light of God’s intention to bless them through the Son of David at Zion.

The eschatological fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant provides the basis for understanding the journey to Zion that is painted in these psalms not as a simple, historical pilgrimage theme but as a journey toward an idealized/new Zion in the eschaton.

Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures

Saw this quote in the preface to Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament by Christopher J. H. Wright, which I thought was helpful, certainly for someone who teaches the Hebrew Bible:

I find myself aware that in reading the Hebrew scriptures I am handling something that gives me a closer common link with Jesus than any archaeological artefact could do.

For these are the words he read. These were the stories he knew. These were the songs he sang. These were the depths of wisdom and revelation and prophecy that shaped his whole view of ‘life, the universe and everything.’ … In short, the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus. (ix)

Hebrew Clauses – Diethelm Michel (Section 28)

Although his work consists of a detailed study of the Psalter, Diethelm Michel’s Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen has an important section about the syntax of clauses in Hebrew (Section 5 of the work). For my own benefit and perhaps some out there who find such study interesting, I thought it might be helpful to present his results. (I did a similar summary of Wolfgang Schneider here.) In section 28, Michel lays out his understanding of the verbal clause and the nominal clause.

The Verbal Clause

  1. We refer to a clause as a verbal clause (VC) when it reports the performance of an action or the appearance of a characteristic.
  2. The predicate of a VC always consists of a finite verb.
  3. The finite verb always stands at the beginning of the clause; only adverbial qualification can step in before it. An explicit subject follows the verb in attributive position. An example of an adverbial phrase coming before the finite verb would be Ps 102:9a:

כָּל־הַ֭יּוֹם חֵרְפ֣וּנִי אוֹיְבָ֑י
all day my enemies surround me

The Nominal Clause

  1. We call a clause a nominal clause (NC) that makes a statement about a subject.
  2. A subject of the NC is a substantive or an equivalent of such (pronoun, substantive adjective or participle, substantive clause).
  3. A predicate of a nominal clause can be (1) a substantive, (2) an adjective (participle), (3) a pronoun, (4) an adverb, or (5) an entire clause. The last possibility is important in that it leads the third classification, the compound nominal clause.

The Compound Nominal Clause

  1. We call a clause a “compound nominal clause” when its predicate consists of an entire clause, a NC or a VC.
  2. In the predicate of the clause, a back-reference to the larger subject can take place.
  3. When a so-called copula is used in a nominal clause, it is regarded as a compound nominal clause.

Here are two examples, the first is a CNC with a NC as predicate, the second with a VC as predicate. Both have a nominal at the front about which a whole clause makes a claim.

Psalm 69:14
וַאֲנִ֤י תְפִלָּתִֽי־לְךָ֙׀ יְהוָ֡ה
As for me: my prayer is to you, Yhwh.

Psalm 103:19
יְֽהוָ֗ה בַּ֭שָּׁמַיִם הֵכִ֣ין כִּסְא֑וֹ
Yhwh [he has done this as a characteristic]:
he has established his throne in the heavens.

Reading, Interpreting, and Preaching the Psalms – Step 2

Please see this post for the origin and purpose of the process I’m continuing today. Breaking the 10-fold procedure into bite-size chunks, I will be explaining what I mean by step #2:

1. Read the Hebrew Text

Please refer to this post for my thoughts on this step.

2. Evaluate the Variants

If the first step of reading the Hebrew text is taken seriously, this second step of textual criticism will naturally arise as difficulties in translation are observed or the critical apparatus becomes significant. As variants in Hebrew manuscripts and ancient translations are considered, exegetical commentaries (e.g., the Word Biblical Commentary volumes) or other reference works (e.g., Emanuel Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible) will be helpful in this process.

The casual reading of various English texts will also demonstrate that not all translations are alike. Not only do they have various translations of Hebrew forms and tenses, but they also reveal completely different readings. For the preacher/teacher, the practical advantage of being diligent in this step is coming to understand why modern translations differ. As such, evaluating variants will prepare the preacher to speak intelligently and honestly about the nature of the text. Decisions will have to be made, and those decisions will need to be carefully integrated into interpretation and wisely presented to the congregation.

For example, evaluating the variants of the text will elucidate why English translations of Ps 100:3 vary. The NASB says, “It is He who made us, and not we ourselves” (cf. also [N]KJV), while the ESV reads, “It is he who made us, and we are his” (cf. also NIV, NRSV). Faithful expository preaching will probably have to address such an issue, so the preacher/teacher must be prepared.

Another example would be Psalm 72:5. In his work, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic, Michael Rydelnik has a helpful chapter regarding “Text-Criticial Perspectives on Messianic Prophecy.” Although the whole chapter (and book) is well worth reading, I refer to it in this discussion because he shows how a textual variant is important in reading 72:5, where the MT (יִירָאוּךָ) and LXX (και συμπαραμενει) differ, with quite distinct meanings. As such, English versions vary: “May they fear you” (ESV, see also NASB, NKJV) or “He will endure” (NIV, see also NRSV). Since there are possible messianic implications involved here, the reader must take these alternative readings into account.

This is not an easy step and can be done at various stages of this whole process. But the reader of the Psalter must come to an understanding of the textual criticism and how these differences are to be handled within a responsible view of composition and inspiration.

3. DIAGRAM THE TEXT

4. ANALYZE THE PARALLELISM

5. EXAMINE THE PSALM’S COHERENCE

6. COMPARE THE PSALM TO ITS CONTEXT

7. READ THE TEXT CANONICALLY

8. FOLLOW THE TEXT INTO THE NEW TESTAMENT

9. APPLY THE PSALM RESPONSIBLY

10. PRAY THE PSALM

Reading, Interpreting, and Preaching the Psalms – Step 1

Please see this post for the origin and purpose of the process I’m beginning today. Breaking the 10-fold procedure into bite-size chunks, I start with the first one:

1. Read the Hebrew Text

Essentially, become acquainted with the text, specifically its vocabulary and grammar. Since the Psalter was written in Hebrew, it only makes sense that the one who desires to read it competently and faithfully will spend time reading it in its original language, especially if you have gone through the difficult process of learning biblical Hebrew. Why be satisfied with reading poetry in translation when so many nuggets lie clearly before the one who will crack open that Biblia Hebraica purchased with such high hopes of devouring the OT? [Sorry . . . I’m now getting off my soapbox.]

In this early stage of reading, all that was learned in basic Hebrew will feed this step as your knowledge of Hebrew is stretched to learn (1) new forms, (2) vocabulary, and (3) grammatical tendencies of Hebrew poetry. The goal in this step is simply to saturate one’s mind with the text, ideally to the point where you can read through the text with no helps. A mind saturated with the text will more readily be prepared to make the observations on many of the later steps in this exegetical process.

I have recently begun to listen to the Psalter being read in the Hebrew, following along in the text. Although I was somewhat hesitant to do this at first, reasoning that I didn’t want to confuse the written with the oral, I have somewhat changed my mind on this with regard to the Psalter. In the psalms, I believe it provides help in recognizing the phonetic tendencies, i.e. consonance, assonance, other repetitions, etc. I will talk more about this in a later post on parallelism. If you’re interested, here is a resource.

Most students and preachers have a tendency to run quickly through the text by basically reading it along with the English versions. This is certainly not bad, but it surely is not the best. Granted, when one first gets out of basic Hebrew classes in school, he/she is probably not ready to break open the Psalter and read every line with just BDB in hand. This is probably the reason why many well-meaning students become disillusioned with using practically their Hebrew knowledge. However, increased exposure to the text will procure increased competence and decreased discomfort in the language.

So…try it. Psalm 117 would be a great place to start developing your “vocabulary of praise.”

הַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־גּוֹיִ֑ם שַׁ֜בְּח֗וּהוּ כָּל־הָאֻמִּֽים׃
כִּ֥י גָ֨בַ֤ר עָלֵ֙ינוּ׀ חַסְדּ֗וֹ וֶֽאֱמֶת־יְהוָ֥ה לְעוֹלָ֗ם הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃

Here are the other steps I will be discussing in later posts:

2. EVALUATE THE VARIANTS

3. DIAGRAM THE TEXT

4. ANALYZE THE PARALLELISM

5. EXAMINE THE PSALM’S COHERENCE

6. COMPARE THE PSALM TO ITS CONTEXT

7. READ THE TEXT CANONICALLY

8. FOLLOW THE TEXT INTO THE NEW TESTAMENT

9. APPLY THE PSALM RESPONSIBLY

10. PRAY THE PSALM

Reading, Interpreting, and Preaching the Psalms – Introduction

In preparation for an exegetical course I recently taught on the Psalter, I decided to present specifically the process I generally follow when approaching a psalm. As it happened, my thoughts ultimately developed into the following 10-step process.

But before presenting these suggestions, I have a couple qualifiers. On the one hand, this procedure assumes that the student has a working knowledge of Hebrew, with the skills to determine forms, to look up words in a standard lexicon, and to employ standard grammars.[1] On the other hand, the basis of this procedure is a text-centered approach that depends less on genre identification and more on the textual clues the author has left for the reader intent on discovering the significance of the psalm.

Today’s post will simply list the steps; later posts will flesh out some of the details with examples.

1. Read the Hebrew Text

2. Evaluate the Variants

3. Diagram the Text

4. Analyze the Parallelism

5. Examine the Psalm’s Coherence

6. Compare the Psalm to Its Context

7. Read the Text Canonically

8. Follow the Text into the New Testament

9. Apply the Psalm Responsibly

10. Pray the Psalm


[1] Many of these specifics are not necessarily covered in these steps, but rather assumed to be the outworking of a basic reading of Hebrew. That is, I don’t add a separate step to analyze the basic grammar (such as parsing of verbs), because I’m assuming that happens as one reads the text. These observations are vital, but I wanted to go beyond a simple rehashing of a basic Hebrew grammar class.

More on the Hebrew Perfect in the Psalter (Diethelm Michel – Section 7 )

Sorry about the long delay; the semester has been a busy one.

In section 7, Diethelm Michel continues to deal with the perfect tense within the context of various genres of psalms. Specifically, he deals with perfects that occur in three cases:

  1. when the speaker speaks of the certainty of the Lord’s hearing a prayer,
  2. when the speaker vows to praise the Lord within the context of a lament,
  3. when the speaker reports praise in a song of thanksgiving.

I have chosen a text from each of the first two sections that I believe will provide opportunity for clarity. I intend to post on some other passages from this section in the near future.

Please note that the translations given are a rendering of Michel’s German.

Psalm 6:9–11 [English versions 8–10]

9 ס֣וּרוּ מִ֭מֶּנִּי כָּל־פֹּ֣עֲלֵי אָ֑וֶן
כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֥ע יְ֜הוָ֗ה ק֣וֹל בִּכְיִֽי׃
10 שָׁמַ֣ע יְ֭הוָה תְּחִנָּתִ֑י
יְ֜הוָ֗ה תְּֽפִלָּתִ֥י יִקָּֽח׃
11 יֵבֹ֤שׁוּ׀ וְיִבָּהֲל֣וּ מְ֭אֹד כָּל־אֹיְבָ֑י
יָ֜שֻׁ֗בוּ יֵבֹ֥שׁוּ רָֽגַע׃

9 Leave me, all you wrongdoers,
for Yhwh has heard [perf] my weeping,
10 Yhwh has listened [perf] to my plea.
Since Yhwh condescends [impf] to accept my prayer,
11 all my enemies must be ruined [impf],
must be greatly frightened [impf],
must leave [impf], be ruined in no time [impf].

For the first 8 verses, the psalmist cries out to Yhwh for grace and healing because of the great trouble in which he finds himself. Because of the change of mood between vv. 8 and 9, the perfects of vv. 9, 10 are clearly facts reported by the author, facts that would have just been experienced, according to Michel. Such perfects are used in these cases to express the certainty of Yhwh’s hearing/acting on behalf of the speaker.

Noteworthy, in my opinion, is how the cry for the wrongdoers to depart is followed by the particle כִּי along with the perfects, as a signal that the psalmist is shifting to providing the basis for his request(s). Throughout this section, though Michel does not comment, such a particle (notably כִּי and אֲשֶׁר) is often found within this section’s examples (e.g., 3:8; 52:11; 116:2, 8). Although not universal, perhaps this can serve as a signpost for such a shift and such translation of the perfect.

The more difficult element within these verses is the interplay between the perfects, which report facts, and the imperfects that follow. Those of v. 11 are generally accepted as a modal use of the imperfect. Such is a reasonable conclusion, not simply because of the context, but also because these imperfects appear in first position of the clause. As such, they would generally be regarded as volitional.[1] An explanation for v. 10 is not as straightforward, because one must consider the effect of the author’s placing a perfect and imperfect in parallel (abba). The middle elements of the chiasm are tightly connected grammatically (Yhwh + fem. sing. noun + 1cs suffix). As such, the perfect expressing a fact is placed over against the imperfect as the first elements in the chiasm.

The question revolves around how the two actions should be related, and the answer to that question is variously understood.

  1. The possibility exists that the speaker is conflicted, in that he recognizes that Yhwh “has heard” the supplication, yet the “accepting” of his prayer remains a separate and unfulfilled act. Thus, the imperfect would be translated as a future act. Yet, to so parse the terms “weeping” (v. 9), “supplication,” and “prayer” (v. 10) seems to be unjustified in light of the confidence in Yhwh’s act based on his previous “hearing.” In other words, the psalmist seems to have no doubt in Yhwh’s intervention. The parallelism of the middle elements certainly invites the reader to make the conclusion that they are closely related (see comments in #2 below).
  2. Gunkel’s solution understands the imperfect as an imperfect of the story to be translated in the same way as the perfect: “Yhwh has heard my prayer.” This is followed by at least one modern version.[2] I find it interesting that Michel does not agree with this, for he certainly has regard for a “poetic aorist” use of the imperfect (§ 21). Michel does not give a solid argument for why this is not the case. It could be argued that the change to the imperfect was necessary to protect the identification of the “prayer” and “supplication” as two separate acts. If the perfect were used in both cases, according to Michel’s logic, the perfects would describe separate facts. A dichotomy between “weeping” and “supplication” is clear; not so between “supplication” and “prayer.”
  3. The imperfect of v. 10 could also be taken modally. Michel believes this is the case, given the clause position of v. 10b, as well as the relationship to the modal imperfects (cf. § 23) of v. 11. In other words, by inverting the clause and setting the imperfect in close connection to two other imperfects, v. 10b should be read as setting the stage for v. 11. If this is the case, then the translation given above (“Since Yhwh hears … my enemies must…”) seems quite reasonable.
  4. Although it is impossible to discern what the translators of most English versions are intending by their translations of such tenses, the general approach is to resort to a traditional understanding of the tenses. So the perfect of 10a is translated with an English past tense (specifically a past perfect), the imperfect of 10b as present (ESV, NASB, NIV, NRSV) or future (NIV). What seems to be quite clear, however, is that none of these versions are reading v. 10b with as tight a connection to v. 11 as Michel.

I believe Michel’s observation on the interplay between the perfect and imperfect is quite intriguing. Observing the connections between verses and the ongoing parallelism within the psalm makes an important contribution to his argument. By inverting the clause, the author has allowed a series of three imperfects to be read in succession, paralleled in v. 11b with two more. Thus, the chiasm helps the reader move seamlessly from the reasons for the psalmist’s confidence to the future certainty expressed in the volitional imperfects. V. 10 becomes a great example of the meeting of tense, clause position, and the dynamics of parallelism, despite the fact that Michel does not speak to the latter.

Psalm 31:8–9 [EVV 7–8]

8 אָגִ֥ילָה וְאֶשְׂמְחָ֗ה בְּחַ֫סְדֶּ֥ךָ
אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָ֭אִיתָ אֶת־עָנְיִ֑י
יָ֜דַ֗עְתָּ בְּצָר֥וֹת נַפְשִֽׁי׃
9 וְלֹ֣א הִ֭סְגַּרְתַּנִי בְּיַד־אוֹיֵ֑ב
הֶֽעֱמַ֖דְתָּ בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב רַגְלָֽי׃

8 I will rejoice [impf] and be glad [impf] in your favor.
You have considered [perf] my misery,
you have known [perf] my soul in distress,
9 you have not given [perf] me into the hand of the enemy,
you have set [perf] my feet in freedom.

Here, the perfects express facts following the psalmist’s commitment to rejoice in the Lord’s lovingkindness. Use of the perfect without connections shows that the actions should be understood not as being strung together sequentially, but as individual acts demonstrating Yhwh’s lovingkindness. Also, there is again a signal for the change (אֱשֶׁר), as there are in most of the examples given in the second section of Michel (see also 28:6–7; 71:24).

 


[1] Please note that this is not Michel’s conclusion, but one based on Schneider and Nicacci (see this post).

[2] The NET translates the clause, “The LORD has accepted my prayer.” The explanatory note states that they believe the impf should be a preterite and appeal to the parallelism with the perfect.