The Psalms are an invaluable resource for passionate worship and profound spiritual formation. This collection of eight lectures draws on his academic experience to craft a highly readable exploration of the wonders of the Psalter.
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About the Author
Gordon Wenham (PhD, University of London) is an adjunct professor at Trinity College, Bristol. He previously studied theology at the universities of Cambridge, London, and Harvard, and taught Old Testament at Belfast and Gloucestershire Universities. He has also authored a number of critically acclaimed Bible commentaries and books. Gordon and his wife, Lynne, have four children.
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What Are We Doing Singing the Psalms?
"Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws." So said the distinguished Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher in a book published in 1704. Fletcher was a forerunner of the Scottish National Party in fighting for Scottish independence. His comment is the more intriguing in that as a member of the Scottish parliament he was very active in promoting legislation. Yet he recognized the power of song to capture and mold people's imaginations and attitudes to life.
This insight, though, seems to have eluded most biblical scholars. The significance of the Psalms for biblical ethics has been surprisingly overlooked. Their unique character as powerful shapers of individual virtues and social attitudes is largely ignored in books on Old Testament ethics. It is my belief that reciting the psalms, and specially singing them, has profoundly influenced both Jewish and Christian theology and ethics.
Most, if not all, of the psalms were originally composed to be sung in temple worship, and through the centuries they have continued to be sung in church and synagogue. So in this chapter I first want to give a brief overview of the history of their liturgical use and discuss the peculiar impact of setting their words to music. But the Psalter's present arrangement suggests that when the psalms were collected together as a book, it may well be that a secondary use for them developed, namely, as a resource for private meditation and devotion. I want to suggest that the Psalter is a deliberately organized anthology designed for memorization. In the days before the printing press Scripture was regularly memorized, and certain features of the Psalter suggest that it was used this way. I shall reflect on the implications that memorization has for their authority.
Finally I want to use speech-act theory to explore what we are doing when we recite publicly or sing the psalms. I will suggest that in some ways singing a psalm or hymn is like taking an oath: we are committing ourselves in a binding way to a particular set of beliefs and embracing a lifestyle. Perhaps this is not evident on the surface, but I hope to show that there is much more to singing the psalms than exercising our lungs!
Singing the Psalms down the Ages
The books of Chronicles contain many references to psalm singing, both in the temple and outside it. They tell how David appointed the Levites to lead worship. Some of the Levites carried the ark to Jerusalem while others sang and played musical instruments (1 Chron. 15:15–16). When the Israelites arrived in Jerusalem, Chronicles records that David appointed the Levites to sing thanksgivings. First Chronicles 16:8–36 gives the texts sung on this occasion. These correspond to Psalm 105:1–15 (1 Chron. 16:8–22); Psalm 96:1–13 (1 Chron. 16:23–34); and Psalm 106:47–48 (1 Chron. 16:35–36). Presumably these are to be understood as just a selection of the psalms used on this great occasion. It is not clear what others could have been used.
The use of psalms in temple worship is confirmed by a study of the psalms themselves. Conventional form criticism has ignored the titles of psalms and developed its theories on the basis of the content of the psalms alone. The numerous references to entering the temple and offering sacrifice, and the obvious relevance of many psalms to the great national festivals, such as Passover and Tabernacles, led scholars such as Gunkel and Mowinckel to argue that many of the psalms were composed for use in the pre-exilic temple.
The titles of the psalms point in the same direction. One says it is "for the thank offering" (Psalm 100, RSV), another "for the Sabbath" (92). Many others have the heading "To the choirmaster," if that is the right translation, while sometimes the tune seems to be specified "according to Lilies" (45, 69, 80) or "according to the Dove on Far-off Terebinths" (56). The book of Nehemiah tells of two choirs processing around the just-rebuilt walls of Jerusalem singing psalms (Neh. 12:31–43).
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts of the Psalms are more frequent than any other type, attesting their widespread use among Jews in New Testament times. The Gospels describe Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the crowds' greeting him with Psalm 118, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Mark 11:9; cf. Ps. 118:25–26). Jesus himself and his disciples sang this psalm and the immediately preceding ones at the Last Supper. The early church continued the practice of singing the psalms. Paul assumed that the Corinthians, Colossians, and Ephesians sang the psalms: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:16; cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19).
By the beginning of "the fourth century the memorization of the Psalms by many Christians and their habitual use as songs in worship by all Christians about whom we know were matters of long-standing tradition." The use of the Psalms in private prayer and public worship is most eloquently advocated by Athanasius in his letter to Marcellinus. He wrote:
Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.
If you want to declare anyone to be blessed; you find the way to do it in Psalm 1, and likewise in 32, 41, 112, 119, and 128. If you want to rebuke the conspiracy of the Jews against the Saviour, you have Psalm 2. If you are persecuted by your own family and opposed by many, say Psalm 3; and when you would give thanks to God at your affliction's end, sing 4 and 75 and 116. When you see the wicked wanting to ensnare you and you wish your prayer to reach God's ears, then wake up early and sing 5.
Athanasius sees Psalm 32 as particularly appropriate at baptisms: "Whenever a number of you want to sing together, being all good and upright men, then use the 33rd ["Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous! / Praise befits the upright]."
When St. Benedict established monasteries in the sixth century, he prescribed that psalms should be used at the eight services of the day. Some psalms (e.g., 51, 134) were used every day, and in the course of the whole week all the psalms would be sung. But it was not just in the monasteries that the psalms were used. In the Middle Ages the Psalter was the only part of the Bible a layman was likely to own. It is said that King Alfred the Great "was frequent in psalm-singing and prayer at the hours both of the day and night." Martin Luther, as a good monk, was brought up on the Psalms, and Luther scholars think that it was his study of the Psalms that led him to his understanding of justification by faith.
Certainly Luther encouraged the singing of the psalms in public worship. He said, "The whole Psalter, Psalm by Psalm, should remain in use, and the entire Scripture, lesson by lesson, should continue to be read to the people." His first hymnbook contained twenty-three hymns, of which six were versions of psalms. The Reformed tradition was even more diligent in producing singable metrical versions of the psalms. Bucer, Calvin, Hopkins, and Tate and Brady produced collections of metrical psalms. These continue in use in many Presbyterian churches even today. In other churches the situation is mixed. Since Vatican II, Roman Catholics have been singing more of the psalms, but I fear that in many Protestant churches the psalms have been displaced by hymns and songs. Indeed in a seminary at which I was examiner I was shocked to find there was no study of the Psalms in their BD (MDiv) program!
But what makes singing so significant? Singing, as opposed to mere recitation, helps concentration. Athanasius expressed it well: "For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man's whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect."
Luther made much the same point: adding music to the words involves the whole personality in the act of worship.
Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God because by her are all the emotions swayed. Nothing on earth is more mighty to make the sad gay and the gay sad, to hearten the downcast, mellow the overweening, temper the exuberant, or mollify the vengeful. ... That is why there are so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been bestowed on men alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord.
David Ford, Regius Professor of Theology at Cambridge, more recently commented:
What does [singing] do with the crucial Christian medium of words? It does with them what praise aims to do with the whole of reality: it takes them up into a transformed, heightened expression, yet without at all taking away their ordinary meaning. Language itself is transcended and its delights and power are intensified, and at the same time those who join in are bound together more strongly. So singing is a model of the way praise can take up ordinary life and transpose it to a higher level without losing what is good in other levels.
So perhaps Andrew Fletcher was right to suggest that composing a nation's songs is even more significant than drafting its laws.
Singing the psalms also helps us memorize them. I am afraid Anglican chants rarely do this for me, but some of Handel's settings in the Messiah and his Chandos anthems stick in my memory, as of course do hymns based on psalms such as "As Pants the Hart for Cooling Streams," (Psalm 42), "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun" (Psalm 72), and "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven" (Psalm 103). But whether or not the psalms were set to music, people in olden days were very good at memorization. As I was writing this, I came across a comment in The Times that the Romans "were commonly able to recite the Aeneid, a 10,000-line poem, word for word; generals would know the name of every soldier in their armies; orators would deliver three-hour speeches without notes."
The same was true among the Greeks. At their dinner parties Greek men were expected to show off their learning by reciting the poems of Homer. They were also performed at great festivals, such as the Panhellenic games at Olympia and Nemea. The Homeric corpus is about as long as the whole Old Testament, so reciting portions of it represents quite a feat of memory by these Greek scribes. In his book Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, David M. Carr has argued that similar practices were common among the neighbors of ancient Israel: the Babylonians, Egyptians, and the Canaanites of Ugarit. It is therefore highly probable that the Israelites did the same. Scribes, maybe drawn from the Levites, would have memorized books of the Bible and proclaimed them at the great festivals. It is possible that they also went round the villages giving recitations of them.
However, what would the ordinary Israelite have had in the way of Scripture? Certainly not a copy of the Old Testament. Books were prohibitively expensive before the days of printing. Of course the Israelites might have remembered bits of what the scribes recited, especially if they attended the national festivals regularly. But is there a part of the Bible that ordinary people might have memorized themselves? If any book might qualify, it is the Psalter.
Various features make the Psalter, in Luther's words, a mini-Bible. It gives an overview of history from creation through to the conquest of Canaan (e.g., Psalms 104–6). Many psalm titles relate to episodes in David's life. Some clearly celebrate worship in the Jerusalem temple. Other psalms relate the sacking of Jerusalem and reflect on the experience of exile. Thus those who sing the psalms will be constantly reminded of the character of God, his dealings with Israel, and the sin of man. More than that, they will be taught many principles of ethics. Not only are many laws alluded to and underlined, but the Psalter itself is presented as a new Pentateuch arranged in five books like Genesis to Deuteronomy, which the worshipper is encouraged to mutter to himself day and night (Ps. 1:2). That he can do this as well by night as by day indicates that he has learned them by heart: he is most unlikely to be reading a scroll by candlelight. Above all, the Psalter provides the reciter or singer of them with prayers that suit every mood. As Calvin put it:
I am in the habit of calling this book ... "The Anatomy of all the parts of the soul," for not an affection will any one find in himself, an image of which is not reflected in this mirror. Nay, all the griefs, sorrows, fears, misgivings, hopes, cares, anxieties; in short, all the disquieting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated, the Holy Spirit hath here pictured.
Not only does the content make the Psalter useful as a summary of the Old Testament and its teaching, but there are many features that may be viewed as aids to memory. Most obvious are the acrostic psalms: working through the alphabet verse by verse would certainly assist memorization. Then there are the verbal linkages between one psalm and the next, grouping of similar themed psalms, and the use of parallelism, alliteration, assonance, chiasms, and rhyme. All these could help the psalms be memorized. Delitzsch and Alexander are two nineteenth-century commentators who draw attention to some of these features. In recent times the commentaries of Hossfeld and Zenger in German and Vesco in French have provided a more exhaustive account of these features. Given the memorization techniques of the ancients, it is possible that they would not have needed these clues to help them. Nevertheless these clues do make modern readers of the Psalms ask questions about the potential for memorization.
But does history provide parallels to a book being produced for lay as opposed to specialist reciters, and is not the Psalter too long a work for ordinary people to learn by heart? In Greece there were abridged versions of the classics that could be memorized, even though such productions were looked down on by the purists. In India anthologies of Buddhist scriptures (c. AD 100 and 700) were produced with the aim of mass learning. But the most interesting parallels come from the church in North Africa in the third and fifth centuries.
In the course of their catechetical instruction new converts were expected to learn a collection of Bible verses. Cyprian's Three Books of Testimonies for Quirinus "is about 33,000 words long ... and contains rather more than 700 excerpts" and "would take about three and a half hours to read aloud." Augustine's Mirror of Sacred Scripture
is roughly 60,000 words long. ... It would take something over six hours to read aloud at a speed of 160 words per minute. It contains a little over 800 excerpts, of very varied lengths. The longest is seven pages ... , containing almost all of Matthew 5–7; there are a number of very short excerpts ... ; and there is everything in between. The mean length of an excerpt is about seventy words, but there are few of just that length. Augustine, much more than Cyprian, is happy to give lengthy excerpts interspersed with very brief ones. There is no standard length for an excerpt.
As modern Westerners we are astonished that new converts could be asked to learn so much, but it must have seemed an easy task compared with learning all the works of Homer or even the Aeneid. We can see how Cyprian and Augustine worked in excerpting the Bible. Cyprian arranged his texts topically, whereas Augustine just kept the extracts in the biblical order. Paul Griffiths observes similar features in the Buddhist anthologies. One contains six thousand verses and "almost all of it consists of excerpts from other works." The editor contributed at most 5 percent of the text, mostly "very brief phrases introducing an excerpt and giving the title of the work from which it was taken." There are about 312 excerpts, varying in length from a short sentence to 172 verses.
The Psalter fits this pattern of anthology. The psalms are discrete units, and the variety of titles has long suggested to commentators that they are drawn from a variety of earlier collections, for example, a Davidic Psalter, an Asaphite collection, and so on. The length of the Psalter is comparable to the Buddhist and Christian anthologies that Griffiths cites. The Psalter contains 2,527 verses, which, read at nine verses to the minute, would take about four and a half hours to recite. The variation in length of individual psalms is comparable to other anthologies.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Psalter Reclaimed"
Copyright © 2013 Gordon J. Wenham.
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Table of Contents
1 What Are We Doing Singing the Psalms? 13
2 Praying the Psalms 37
3 Reading the Psalms Canonically 57
4 Reading the Psalms Messianically 81
5 The Ethics of the Psalms 103
6 The Imprecatory Psalms 129
7 Psalm 103: The Song of Steadfast Love 147
8 The Nations in the Psalms 161
Works Cited 187
General Index 193
Index of Scripture 197
What People are Saying About This
“It is hard to imagine a better introduction to the book of Psalms, whether for pastors, seminary students, or general readers. Gordon Wenham, one of the most respected Old Testament scholars of our time, makes a compelling case for the relevance of the psalms for both public and private worship. The Psalter Reclaimed is engagingly written, well informed, practical, and genuinely inspiring.”
Gordon P. Hugenberger, Senior Minister, Park Street Church, Boston
“We are grateful to Professor Wenham for gathering in one volume many of his special studies on the Psalms, for many the favorite book of the First Testament. The essays included here not only introduce readers to the history of scholarship on the Psalter, but also provide us with hermeneutical guidelines for interpreting the book. And best of all, they make accessible to us its inspiring and transforming message.”
Daniel I. Block, Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College
“This collection of essays is vintage Gordon Wenham. Taking seriously both the church’s tradition of using the psalms and the possibilities provided by the latest exegesis, he shows us what it means to make use of the Psalter and how this can be done. The result is a rich theological and exegetical brew that nourishes both heart and head.”
David G. Firth, Lecturer in Old Testament, St John’s College, Nottingham, United Kingdom; author, Hear, O Lord: A Spirituality of the Psalms
“This book’s many virtues make it instructive and refreshing: I appreciate its stress on the psalms’ place in public worship, and the speech-act notion of self-involvement in singing. Wenham also offers helpful arguments for respecting the titles of the psalms. And the creative approach to ‘canonical reading’ allows us to view each psalm both as a composition for public singing and as a part of the canonical book (which may guide our interpretation). I heartily commend this work!”
C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary
“As someone who comes from an Asian (Filipino) context, I find it heartwarming to read The Psalter Reclaimed. This book helps those of us in the majority world, where the church continues to grow, by showing us a way of reading the psalms that brings us closer to God.”
Federico G. Villanueva, Associate Professor and Director of Biblical Studies, Alliance Graduate School, Manila, Philippines; author, It’s OK to Be Not OK: The Message of the Lament Psalms
“The Psalter Reclaimed is an absolute delight! This study takes us on a whirlwind journey through the book of Psalms, hitting all the high points along the way. Themes like the dynamic of singing our theology; reading the Psalms as a book, as prayers, and in the light of Christ; and dealing with the ‘nasty’ psalms are all considered with real exegetical insight and winsomeness. If your desire is to ‘reclaim the Psalter,’ then this is definitely the book for you.”
Jamie A. Grant, Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Highland Theological College, Dingwall, Scotland; author, The King as Exemplar: The Function of Deuteronomy's Kingship Law in the Shaping of the Book of Psalms