Psalm 124

The next Song of Ascents claims to be another psalm of David. But in this case, unlike Psalm 122, the psalm does not begin with a personal expression by the speaker. Rather, Psalm 124 reflects the hopes of the community, as David calls upon Israel to remember what Yhwh has done for them when they encountered difficult situations.

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Qumran

The poet begins with a type of parallelism that will be seen in other Songs of Ascents where a portion of a line is repeated with different complementary lines. Note how vv. 1–2 are designed:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side when people rose up against us …

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Megiddo

Such a poetic technique arouses the attention and curiosity of the reader by highlighting the theme of the psalm. The focus of the writer falls upon the presence of Yhwh with Israel, and he calls upon the reader’s to consider their fate if Yhwh were not on their side. They were Yhwh’s people and as such he was their hope as other men rose before them as enemies.

Yet, vv. 1–2 are incomplete sentences. They are merely setting the stage on which Yhwh’s work on behalf of Israel might be rehearsed in vv. 3–5, which serve as the complement to the sentence in v. 1:

then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone the raging waters.[1]

Although far removed from the actual events during the time of Moses, Israel is invited to remember the texts of the Pentateuch concerning how their enemies would have easily gained victory over them and the waters of the Red Sea would have easily swept over them if it had not been for the help of Yhwh.[2] He was “for” them, and therefore they enjoyed victory. Of Yhwh’s mighty work in the past, they should now speak (v. 1). The psalmist joins the chorus of the rest of the Hebrew Bible in its emphasis that Yhwh’s deliverance in the past serves as an example of his work in the present and future.

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Tel Dan

So in response, David says in v. 6, “Blessed be the Lord.” This is the only occurrence of the phrase in the Songs of Ascents, but it plays an important role in the Psalter as a whole. The phrase appears at the seams of the Psalter as part of the doxologies that close each portion of the book.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen. (Ps 41:13)

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen! (Ps 72:18–19)

Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen! (Ps 89:52)

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!
And let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the Lord! (Ps 106:48)

Throughout the Psalter, meditation on and singing about Yhwh’s mighty deeds serves as a clarion call for his people to bless his name (see especially 72:19). As the Priestly Blessing ensures the people of Yhwh’s blessing upon them, so the Psalter calls upon them to respond with the appropriate act of praise/blessing. The phrase is also present in the last verse of the psalm following the Songs of Ascents as part of its taking up several important elements of the Songs:

Blessed be the Lord from Zion,
he who dwells in Jerusalem! Praise the Lord! (Ps 135:21)

Yhwh deserves to be spoken well of because of his personal care on behalf of his people, especially because of his presence with them. In this, Ps 135:21 echoes the teaching of the psalm at hand, which lauds Yhwh because of his presence with his people. This joins the chorus of the Songs of Ascents as a whole as they focus on Jerusalem/Zion as the place where Yhwh dwells. And this means something hugely significant for the welfare of his people. So vv. 6–7 continue:

Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken, and we have escaped!

Using the imagery first of prey and then of a bird escaping from a net, the psalmist paints a practical picture of the deliverance Yhwh provided. In doing so, he again uses the literary device of step parallelism with the term “snare,” focusing attention of imminent danger from their enemies.

The conclusion to the psalm in v. 8 continues the psalmist’s intention of connecting his petitions to Psalm 121. First, just as the lifting of the eyes toward the mountains produced the certainty of Yhwh’s help, so here the theological conclusion is that help for God’s people was “in the name of the Lord.” The name Yhwh reminds his people that he is there with them; he is their covenant God who is loyal to his promises. Second, and integral to the author’s conclusion, Yhwh’s fidelity can be trusted because he is none other than the one “who made heaven and earth.” The speaker of Psalm 121 was certain that his “help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” So with this echo, the song ends by bringing the argument to its proper conclusion: Yhwh is on their side (vv. 1–2) as their helper (v. 8). Moreover, plots by mere humans (v. 2) are no match for help stemming from the maker of heaven and earth (v. 8).[3]

In looking back to Yhwh’s past deliverance as hope for his future redemption, Psalm 124 serves as an appropriate complement to Psalm 123. In Psalm 123, the psalmist lifted his eyes to the one enthroned in the heavens, waiting patiently for Yhwh to show his mercy to the community. This psalm likewise uses language reverberating with Psalm 121. While waiting for the grace requested, Psalm 124 reminds Yhwh’s people of how he came to their rescue in the nick of time, broke the snare, and provided their escape. Yhwh’s people can bless him because he is their deliverer, and they can be confident in his name because he is enthroned in the heavens (123:1) and is the maker of the heavens and earth (124:8).

Notes

[1] Note also the repetition in vv. 4, 5 of the phrase “would have gone over us,” which is highlighted by means of step parallelism. In fact, the author has produced somewhat of a chiasm with these verses, also repeating “waters.”

[2] The Psalter often returns to the Lord’s victory at the Red Sea both as a demonstration of his power and a call for God’s people in the present to trust him.

[3] On this inclusion, see Allen, 165.

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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 – 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.

Propositional Preaching?

I’ve been doing some reading on canon this morning in preparation for a lecture of text and canon for my OT class. Working through Stephen B. Chapman’s article “Reclaiming Inspiration for the Bible” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, I found interesting his discussion of an evangelical tendency toward “propositional revelation” as an answer to the question of the autographs of the text and later manuscripts in relationship to the canon. That is, concepts and doctrines remain intact, even through the text may suffer at the hands of later transmitters. In contrast, he argues that the Bible does more than convey concepts and doctrines; rather, the text also (1) “gives its hearers and readers a narrative world to live in” and (2) gives “phrases and rhythms” that “linger in the mind” and stories that “often provoke questions more than they provide answers” (p. 178). His point is that “[t]he literary features of the Bible cannot simply be peeled away in the search for propositional formulations” (p. 179). It’s at this point that he footnotes the following observation:

Sadly, the isolation and extraction of ‘principles’ from the biblical text is precisely what passes for theological interpretation in much current evangelical teaching and preaching.

I find this interesting and worthy of more thought, for if you are like me, that’s the primary way you were taught to approach the text when developing a sermon. The questions I have at first response:

  1. How do I adequately convey the literary features of the text in my preaching?
  2. Are preaching propositionally and preaching toward the significance of the text one and the same thing? [I already tend away from thinking about the text’s meaning and then turning to things about application. I think significance handles this turn toward the appropriation of the text to the modern audience better.]
  3. How does his statement square with the various types of literature within the text? That is, does propositional preaching excel in the epistles of the NT but flounder in OT narrative texts?