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A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms
The Psalms as Torah
By J. Clinton McCann Jr.
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1993 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Psalms as Torah, Then and Now
Biblical scholars have traditionally struggled with the question of where to begin an exposition of the book of Psalms. There are so many psalms to choose from—150. And there are several different types. Should one begin with the songs of praise? Should one begin with the prayers of lament or complaint? Should one begin with the psalms of thanksgiving, or perhaps the entrance liturgies, or the psalms that recite Israel's saving history? Seldom has it occurred to scholars to begin at the beginning. In fact, Psalm 1 has often been relegated to last place in treatments of the Psalms. Psalm 1, along with Psalms 19 and 119, is a torah-psalm, a psalm in which the concept of torah, "instruction" (NRSV "law"; see below) is preeminent (see Pss. 1:2; 2; 19:7; 119:1, 18, 29, 34, 44, plus twenty more times in Ps. 119). The effect of treating Psalms 1, 19, and 119 last has been to relegate the concept of torah to one of minor significance in understanding the Psalms. But having made the decision to take seriously the canonical shape of the Psalter, we shall begin at the beginning—Psalm 1. The effect is to elevate the concept of torah to one of central significance in understanding the Psalms. As suggested above and again in this chapter, the Psalms are to be heard as God's instruction to the faithful.
This chapter begins and ends with an interpretation of Psalm 1; the middle consists of a briefer look at the other torah-psalms, Psalms 19 and 119. Chapter 2 will begin with an interpretation of Psalm 2, which is linked to Psalm 1 and also forms part of the introduction to the Psalter.
Upon reading the first two verses of the Psalter, one is struck immediately by two things. First, there is a sharp contrast drawn between the wicked/sinner/scoffer and people whose "delight is in the law of the LORD" (v. 2). Verses 3-6 will sharpen this contrast even further, eventually identifying the latter type of people as "the righteous" (vv. 5-6). We shall return below to the significance of this contrast.
A second observation is the focus on "law" at the very beginning of the Psalter. For many biblical scholars and non-specialists alike, this emphasis on "law" has proven problematic. One interpreter captures well the nature of the problem: "It's not difficult to see why someone might find Psalm 1 a quite insufferable Psalm about a quite insufferable fellow. There he sits, day and night, brooding and fretting over the law. What a pedant!" For Christian readers of Psalm 1, "the righteous" may sound even worse than pedants. Christian readers are inclined to hear Psalm 1 in the light of New Testament affirmations such as "we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law" (Rom. 3:28; see Gal. 2:16). When this is the case, then "the righteous" of Psalm 1 begin to sound like the kind of people who were frequently Jesus' opponents and whom Jesus accused of self righteousness (see Matt. 25:27-28; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 18:9-14). The inclination is to be rather suspicious of people whose "delight is in the law of the LORD." If Psalm 1 is an introduction to the Psalter, then the Psalter does not sound too promising or inviting.
To hear Psalm 1:1-2 this way, however, is to misunderstand it entirely (as well as to misunderstand the New Testament, in which Paul can say in Rom. 3:31 that "we uphold the law," and in which Jesus says in Matt. 5:17, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them"). The problem stems from translating the Hebrew word torah as "law." The Hebrew word can mean "law" in the sense of specific injunction (Exod. 12:49) or a collection of legislation (Exod. 24:12; Deut. 4:8); however, it essentially means "instruction." The introductory verses of the Psalter have an entirely different sound when torah is so translated:
Happy is the one who does not walk
in the counsel of the wicked,
and in the way of sinners does not stand,
and in the seat of scoffers does not sit;
but rather who delights
in the instruction of the Lord,
and upon God's instruction meditates day and night.
The introduction to the Psalter is anything but an invitation to pedantry, legalism, or self-righteousness. On the contrary, it is an invitation to be open to God's instruction and to the reality of God's reign in the world (see chap. 2).
We shall return below to the question of how openness to God's instruction means that one is "happy," but for now it is important to point out that the Torah for Judaism is the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy (which include not just "laws" in the strict sense but also stories). It is highly significant that the Psalter also consists of five books (Psalms 1–41, 42–72, 43–89, 90–106, 107–150). The editors of the Psalter wanted readers to grasp the analogy between the Torah, God's "instruction" par excellence, and the Psalter. In short, the Psalter is to be read and heard as God's instruction to the faithful. Regardless of the fact that the Psalms originated as the response of faithful persons to God, they are now to be understood also as God's word to the faithful.
Obviously, the concept of torah was both very significant and very positive for the shapers of the Psalter. To appreciate this more fully, we turn now to Psalms 19 and 119 before returning to Psalm 1.
The difficulty interpreters have had with the torah-psalms is indicated by the fact that many scholars divide Psalm 19 into two separate psalms. Psalm 19A (vv. 1-6) deals with creation, and Psalm 19B (vv. 7-14) deals with torah. Supposedly, there is no relationship between the two. To bisect Psalm 19, however, is to fail to appreciate a carefully constructed poem and to miss entirely its message about the torah of the Lord.
Granted, verses 1-6 talk about creation. Without literally being able to speak, the heavens offer powerful and convincing testimony to the glory of God. No corner of the universe is unreached by this witness (note the three occurrences of "end" in vv. 4 and 6). When verses 7-13 are heard immediately following verses 1-6, the message about God's torah is clear. The "instruction of the Lord" (v. 7; my translation) is built into the very structure of the universe. It is as fundamental and reliable and close-at-hand as the progression of day and night (v. 2), the rising and setting of the sun (v. 6). And the impact of torah is just as far-reaching as the circuit of the sun—to the end of the heavens.
A different translation of verse 7 helps to reinforce the connection between verses 1-6 and verses 7-14. A traditional translation is as follows:
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul; (RSV, NRSV)
"Perfect" is a misleading translation, because we almost inevitably hear connotations of moral perfection. The Hebrew word means "sound," "complete," "all-encompassing." While "soul" is an acceptable translation, the Hebrew word can also mean "life," "living being" (see Gen. 2:7). The following translation sounds quite different from the traditional:
The instruction of the Lord is all-encompassing,
restoring human life; (my translation)
Psalm 19:1-6 has described the all-encompassing circuit of the sun; similarly, verse 7 proclaims that God's instruction is all-encompassing. As God is responsible for creating the heavens, the sun, and the progression of day and night, so the torah of God is responsible for constantly re-creating human life (the Hebrew participal suggests that the activity of "restoring" is continual). To discern the unity between 19:1-6 and 19:7 is to begin to appreciate the psalmist's daring claim and the psalms' radical implications. The psalmist's claim about torah means that we live not by our own cleverness, initiative, achievement, or possessions (see 19:10), but rather as Jesus said, we live "by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4; see Deut. 8:3).
For the psalmist, to be open to God's instruction is the only way to live. That is why torah is to be so desired (19:10) and why in keeping torah "there is great reward" (19:11). Like verse 7, verses 1113 can be misleading. The mention of "great reward" and being "warned" (v. 11) and "blameless" and "innocent" (v. 13) may lead us to conclude that keeping torah is simply a matter of being rewarded for obeying a set of rules. But the matter is more complex; moral perfection or moral blamelessness is not what the psalmist has in mind. I prefer to hear verse 11 and the conclusion of verse 13 as follows:
Moreover by them is your servant instructed;
there is great consequence in keeping them....
Then I shall be whole,
and acquitted of great transgression. (my translation)
Verses 12 and 13 suggest that the psalmist, despite the best of intentions, will inevitably sin. The good news is that, despite inevitable errors and hidden faults, life is possible—a life of wholeness and integrity (v. 13; the Hebrew word usually translated "blameless" is from the same root as the word in v. 7, which is usually translated as "perfect"), a life in which great consequences are possible (v. 11). This "abundant life" (John 10:11) is not the result of human achievement; its source is God, and it depends on God's forgiveness (19:13, "acquitted of great transgression"). Similarly, Jesus' admonition to "be perfect" in Matthew 5:48 is not an affirmation of human potential but rather an acknowledgment of God's rule and the reality of the forgiveness of sins. To "be perfect" or "blameless" or "whole" is not to be sinless, but rather to be open to the torah of the Lord on which human life constantly depends. Such is the bold claim of Psalm 19, a claim to which we must return below as we explore the meaning of the terms happy and righteous in Psalm 1.
The movement of Psalm 19 is completed by the final verse. Verses 1-6 had God and the whole cosmos in view; verses 7-13 narrowed the focus to God's instruction and humanity; and verse 14 focuses even more narrowly on the individual human life:
Let the words of my mouth and
the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
The "words" of verse 14 repeats the Hebrew word translated as "speech" in verses 2-3. In short, this final verse is the psalmist's prayer that his or her life be in tune with the music of the spheres, the very structure of the universe. Having heard verses 1-13, we know that the psalmist's audacious request is not impossible with God. The psalmist's words will be acceptable to God as he or she opens the self to the all-encompassing, life-giving instruction of the Lord. It would be difficult to imagine a more powerful and eloquent affirmation of the significance of God's torah, unless perhaps it is Psalm 119.
As with Psalm 19, it is easy to illustrate with Psalm 119 the difficulty scholars have had with the torah-psalms. Consider the following opinion of the Psalm: "Tedious repetitions, poor thought-sequence, apparent lack of inspiration reflect the artificiality of the composition."
Actually, the composition is more artistic than artificial. The psalm consists of twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line within a particular stanza begins with the same letter. Every stanza except one (vv. 9-16) contains at least one occurrence of the word torah, and every line of the poem contains either the word torah (25 occurrences) or a synonym for torah. The structure of Psalm 119 reinforces the theological content. In short, torah is pervasive and all-encompassing. It applies to everything from A to Z (or in Hebrew, from 'alep to taw).
As Westermann has recognized, "If a person succeeds in reading this psalm's 176 verses one after the other at one sitting, the effect is overwhelming." Precisely! And that is exactly the effect the psalmist intended. For the psalmist, the importance of torah is overwhelming! Apart from God's instruction, there is nothing worthy to be called life.
It is not surprising that Psalm 119 shares much of the vocabulary of Psalms 1 and 19 (see, for instance, vv. 1, 15-16, 23-24, 72, 98, 103, 127, 133). An examination of the opening line of Psalm 119 must suffice:
Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the instruction of the Lord.
In fact, every word of Psalm 119:1 occurs in either Psalms 1 or 19. It is clear from verse 176 that the blamelessness involved is not moral perfection, for the psalmist confesses: "I have gone astray like a lost sheep" (literally, "perishing sheep"; perish is the same word used to describe the way of the wicked in the last verse of Psalm 1!). Likewise, the psalmist's being "happy" must involve something very different from automatically reaping the benefits of following a set of rules. Somehow, the psalmist's "happiness" cannot be incompatible with the persecution and scorn she or he experiences (vv. 22-23, 42, 51, 61, 69, 84-87, 95, 110, 121, 134, 141, 150, 157, 161) and with sorrow and affliction (vv. 28, 50, 71, 75, 92, 107, 153). Psalm 119 posessharply the question: What does the psalmist mean by "happy"? Obviously, it has everything to do with orienting one's life to being instructed by God. But what does the "happy" life look like in practice? We shall address this question when we return to Psalm 1.
It is interesting to consider the possibility that an earlier form of the Psalter may have consisted of Psalms 1–119. If so, this would mean that at one stage of its existence the Psalter itself was encompassed by what Psalms 1 and 119 affirm is all-encompassing—the instruction of the Lord. It would be yet another instance of how literary structure reinforces content and theology. But even if Psalm 119 was never the conclusion of the Psalter, its current position in the Psalter is still important. As Wilson suggests, it is a central and dominating presence in the fifth and final book of the Psalter; and it is intended to instruct the faithful in how to live in reliance on the Lord. When taken in relation to Psalms 1 and 19, as well as portions of other psalms that emphasize the centrality of torah, the effect is as follows: "Taken together, this harvest of texts contains a profile of an understanding of the Lord's way with people and the world that is organized around torah. Torah applies to everything."
This is precisely the claim Psalm 1 makes as it introduces the Psalter: Torah applies to everything!
Psalm 1 makes this bold claim by developing the contrast that it introduces in the first two verses of the Psalter. If torah applies to everything, it applies especially to the way human life is lived and to the way life turns out (note the repetition of "way" in vv. 1 and 6). As Psalm 19 puts it, there is "great consequence" (v. 11; my translation) in being instructed by God. The contrast between "the righteous" and "the wicked" is developed carefully, comprehensively, and artistically.
The structure, movement, vocabulary, and imagery of the psalm combine to emphasize that there should be absolutely no confusion about the two ways and their results. For instance, the adversative particles at the beginning of verse 2 and in the middle of verse 4 serve to draw the contrast as sharply as possible ("but"; Hebrew kî'im). The negative particle at the beginning of verse 4 is emphatic, "Not so!" (Hebrew lo'-ken). The word therefore at the beginning of verse 5 makes the whole psalm sound like a sort of mathematical proof—clear, logical, straightforward. In short, there can be no doubt about it: those who are instructed by God are "happy," and the wicked are "not so."
The effect of the structure and movement of the psalm is reinforced by the vocabulary. The very first word of the psalm is happy, and the very last word is perish. Such are the results of being open or of failing to be open to God's instruction; the way one chooses makes the difference between life and death. The contrasting choices are highlighted a final time in verses 5-6 by the repetition of way (v. 6), righteous (vv. 5, 6), and wicked (vv. 5, 6). The pattern of the repetition is important too: "wicked ... righteous ... righteous ... wicked." This abba pattern (chiasm) is frequent in Hebrew poetry, and its effect is to call attention to the middle element(s). In this case, "the righteous" are preeminent, both literarily and theologically. While "the wicked" perish on the periphery of verses 5-6, "the righteous" are the very center of God's attention. One must choose between the center and the periphery, between life and death; there is no other ground.
Excerpted from A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms by J. Clinton McCann Jr.. Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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