A Lecture on Psalm 90

Here’s a lecture I recently gave at Harvard on Psalm 90:

Von Rad“No special hermeneutic method is necessary to see the whole diverse movement of the Old Testament saving events, made up of God’s promises and their temporary fulfillments, as pointing to the future fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  This can be said quite categorically.  The coming of Jesus Christ as a historical reality leaves the exegete no choice at all: he must interpret the Old Testament as pointing to Christ, whom he must understand in its light.” (Gerhard Von RadOld Testament Theology, vol. 2, p. 374)

God and Language

Alter“God exists before and beyond language, and is by no means the product or the captive of the poets’ medium.  But God manifests himself to man [humanity] in part through language…Within the formal limits of a poem the poet can take advantage of the emphatic repetitions dictated by the particular prosodic system, the symmetries and antitheses and internal echoes intensified by a closed verbal structure, the fine intertwining of sound and image and reported act, the modulated shifts in grammatical voice and object of address, to give coherence and authority to his perceptions of the world.  The psalmist’s delight in the suppleness and serendipities of poetic form is not a distraction from the spiritual seriousness of the poems but his chief means of realizing his spiritual vision, and it is one source of the power these poems continue to have not only to excite our imaginations but also to engage our lives.” (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, pp. 135-36)

Brueggemann“The sequence of orientation-disorientation-reorientation is a helpful way to understand the use and function of the Psalms.  Very likely, the overview suggested here has been intentional in the practice of many believing people, even though they have not recognized or articulated it in this way…The movement of life, if we are attentive, is the movement of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.  And in our daily pilgrimage, we use much of our energy for this work…

[Thus there is] a difference between the second naivete and the first.  The first naivete is the precritical.  It believes everything, indeed too much.  It is an enjoyment of well-being, but unaware of oppression and incongruity.  It is a glad reception of community, but unaware of hurt.  It can afford to be uncritical because everything makes sense.  But growth–and indeed life–means moving to criticism: a new awareness of self in conflict, of others in dishonest interestedness, of God in enmity.  The critical dimension of our pilgrimage discovers, with Marx, the slippage between appearance and reality in our social arrangements, slippage poorly covered by ideology.  And it discovers, with Freud, the censorship that we exercise and that is exercised upon us.
But the second naivete is postcritical, not precritical.  The second naivete has been through the pit and is now prepared to ‘hope all things’ (1 Cor. 13:7).  But now hope is after the pit.  It now knows that finally things have been reduced and need be reduced no more.  It knows that our experience is demystified as it must be.  But it knows that even in a world demystified and reduced, grace intrudes and God makes all things new.  The ones who give thanks and sing genuinely new songs must be naive or they would not bother to sing songs and to give thanks.  But it is a praise in which the anguish of disorientation is not forgotten, removed, or absent…
The song celebrative of reorientation is a movement out of the disorientation marked by lament…The song of celebration is a new song sung at the appearance of a new reality, new creation, new harmony, new reliability (Pss. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isa. 42:10; Rev. 14:3).  Its style and rhetoric must speak of the quality of surprise and newness that are appropriate to such new reality…It is the experience that the world has a new coherence, that the devastating hopelessness of the lament is not finally appropriate for the way life is.” (Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function”)

Here is (part of) James L. Mays’ lucid description of what the Psalms mean by the statement “The LORD reigns”:

51iJn9KMjVL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“One power comprehends all.  Everything that exists arises from, is ordered by, is related to that power.  It is not known in and of itself, but has given itself a name and manifested itself in the idiom of sovereignty.  The LORD reigns in every sphere…

The LORD maintains rule among the peoples of the world by sovereign choice of a people [Israel], a place [Zion], a person [the Davidic king], and a pedagogy [the Torah, the law]…

The reign of the LORD comprehends time.  It is forever and ever.  It has happened and does happen in interventions of judgment and salvation, wrath and grace.  It is the horizon of time toward which history moves.

The campaign to consummate the reign of God in the world continues.  Nations rage against it; people ignore and subvert it.  Opposition and conflict, enemies and adversaries, are part and parcel of its present and prospect.

All who seek to live in the reign of God are caught in the conflict and endure the incompleteness.  The people of God are opposed.  The Messiah is humiliated and rejected.  The faithful are undone by hostility and and done in by the powers of death.

The voices and roles in the psalms are defined by the situation of the conflicted reign of the LORD.  The servants of God are those who acquire their identity by having the LORD as their lord.  The enemies are their counterpart.  The righteous are those who trust their lives to the reign of the LORD.  The wicked are the opposite.  The lowly, poor, needy, humble are those who depend on the LORD for deliverance from alienation, sin, and death.  Their counterpart is made up of the arrogant, the ruthless, and the proud.

The time of the psalms is the interim.  The hymns proclaim among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns.’  The prayers of the people of God are based on the confidence that the proclamation is true.  The instruction lights the darkness of the present with the assurance that life and experience will ultimately vindicate the proclamation.” (James L. MaysThe Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms, pp. 7-9)

51iJn9KMjVL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“The nuclear and organizing metaphor for the theology of the psalms is the liturgical proclamation ‘The LORD reigns.’  That proclamation announces the reality on which all else in the psalms depends…

The coherence and reference of the psalmic language world is based on a sentence on which all that is said in the psalms depends.  Everything else is connected to what this one sentence says.  It is a liturgical cry that is both a declaration of faith and a statement about reality.  In Hebrew the sentence is composed of only two words: the proper name of Israel’s god and the verb for becoming, being, and acting as a sovereign.  The sentence is ‘Yhwh malak,’ ‘the LORD reigns.’  In this declaration the verb is, of course, a metaphor, but not just a metaphor or any metaphor.  It is what T.N.D. Mettinger has called a ‘root metaphor.’  Whatever else is said in the psalms about God and God’s way with world and human beings is rooted in the meaning and truth of this metaphor.  It is systemic for all psalmic language…

The sentence itself occurs in a relatively few but crucial psalms [93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1; 146:10; cf. 47:8].  In those contexts the verb malak means more an activity than an office.  It is a term for a dynamic sovereignty, a sovereignty administered in two patterns of activity.  One is the pattern of ordering chaos to bring forth cosmos and world [creation].  The other is a scenario of intervening in human disorder by judgment and deliverance [redemption].  The reign of God is God’s activity as creator and maintainer of the universe, and as judge and savior who shapes the movement of history toward the purpose of God.

All the topics and functions of psalmic language fit into this collateral pattern of active sovereignty.  The people of God, the place God chooses to preempt in the world, the Messiah as earthly regent, and the law of God are the principal topics.  The prayers are the pleas and the thanksgivings of God’s servants to their sovereign; the hymns are the praise of God’s sovereignty; and the instructional psalms teach how to live in the reign of God.  The psalms are, then, the liturgy of the kingdom of God.  The integrity of psalmic speech in all its forms, praise, prayer, and instruction depends on the proclamation ‘The LORD reigns.’  And this is of course a central reason why psalmody has endured in the communities of Judaism and Christianity.  The Psalter as a whole comprises a language in which God and world and human life are understood in terms of the reign of the LORD.” (James L. MaysThe Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook on the Psalms, x, pp. 6-7)

51iJn9KMjVL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“In his Confessions Augustine tells how he used the psalms in a period of retreat between his conversion and baptism.  ‘What utterances sent I unto Thee, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those faithful songs and sounds of devotion…What utterances I used to send up unto Thee in those Psalms, and how was I inflamed toward Thee by them’ (Book 9.4).  For Augustine it was a time of preparation for a different life, of initiation into a new existence, a period in which habits of thought, customs of practice, and feelings about self and others and the world had to be reconstituted.  As part of the transformation, he was learning a new language.  He spoke the psalms to and before the Christian God, who was now source and subject of his faith and life.  He took their vocabulary and sentences as his own.  He identified himself with the speaker of the psalms.  He said the psalms as his words, let his feelings be evoked and led by their language, spoke the words that resonated in his own consciousness in concord with those of the psalms.  He was acquiring a language world that went with his new identity as a Christian.  It was the vocabulary of prayer and praise, the ‘first order’ language that expressed the sense of self and world that comes with faith in the God to whom, of whom, and for whom the psalms speak.

Augustine’s engagement with the psalms was not unique, but was typical of early Christianity.  In his use of them, he was entering into a practice that went back to the first generations of the church.  What was true for him held for the church at large.  Of course, not with the same profundity and intensity.  Augustine was Augustine.  But his experience was representative…As Christianity spread in the early years, it seems always to have been accompanied by psalmody…Psalmody was virtually a mark of the church, one of the constants that constituted the distinctiveness of this new religion.  We have to imagine what was happening to the mentality of Christians, living in the world of the Roman Empire and its culture, surrounded by philosophies and religions with their own views of self and world and the gods, day in and day out, week by week, year after year, letting the psalms put them in the presence of God and undertaking to be the ones who speak and think about self and world and God according to the psalms.  The differentiating and distinguishing effect on the Christian consciousness must have been incalculable.  What was true of the relation between Christians and psalmody in the earliest centuries continued to be the case during the centuries of Christian history.  The relation has been maintained in different times and practices, at different levels of intensity and intentionality.  But for Christianity as a whole, it has persisted as though something essential were at stake in the relation.” (James L. MaysThe Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook on the Psalms, pp. 3-4)


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