Graduate Chapel meets every Wednesday at 11:00 a.m., in the Chapel on the Hill in the Biblical Studies Building.
Deep Calls to Deep: The Quest for God in the Psalms
Graduate Chapel, Fall 2012
|August 29||“What is Wisdom?” Psalm 1|
Goal: to explore the connection between wisdom and piety
Note: The Psalter opens with a wisdom psalm, which seems to be a deliberate effort on the part of the book’s final editors to frame the work as a wisdom book. That is, the placement of the psalm here grounds human wisdom in the quest for God.
Other possible texts: Job 28; Matthew 7:24-27; 1 Corinthians 1:12-31
|September 5||“Whom God Mocks” Psalm 2|
Goal: to contemplate God’s commitment to justice and the
protection of the innocent
Note: Psalm 2 reflects the royal ideals of the Jerusalem court, but it explicates a serious theological point, i.e., God’s protection of the innocent against the oppression of the geopolitical power system.
Other possible texts: Micah 6:6-8; Acts 4:23-31; James 1:22-27
|September 12||“The Sweet Hymn of Creation” Psalm 8|
Goal: to understand all the cosmos as God’s creation with a telos and thus call humans to act responsibly regarding the cosmos
Note: The psalm, like other wisdom texts, sees piety as a feature of all beings, not just humans. A creation or environmental ethic can be grounded in part in the psalm.
Other possible texts: Job 38; Isaiah 40:12-31; Revelation 22
|September 19||“Do Quarks Speak? Creation Points to God” Psalm 19|
Goal: to continue the discussion of the previous week
Note: This would be a good opportunity to bring in faculty from one of the sciences to talk about the complexity of affirming divine interaction with the cosmos.
Other possible texts: Daniel 12; John 1:1-18
|September 26||“When God is Absent” Psalm 22|
Goal: to legitimize lament as a form of Christian worship
and introduce the lament series of the month
Note: Like other laments, this one moves from despair to trust to despair to praise. The preacher should avoid connecting this too early to Christ’s use of it on the cross and should read it as the lament of Everyperson.
Other possible texts: Luke 21:10-28; Philippians 1:19-30
|October 3|| “When Grace is Overdue” Psalm 102:1-17|
Goal: to recognize the depth of despair that comes even to
people of faith
Note: This psalm provides an opportunity to explore spiritual dimensions of despair and acknowledge the reality and indeed legitimacy of such feelings.
Other possible texts: Micah 7:1-7; Matthew 9:18-34
|October 10||“Crying Out of the Depths” Psalm 130|
Goal: to explore what it means to wait and hope when life
seems hopeless on account of sin and failure.
Note: A dimension of lament is the realization of personal failure that nevertheless does not explain the full extent of the sinner’s misery.
Other possible texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Lamentations 5
|October 17|| “Working Wonders for the Dead” Psalm 88|
Goal: To identify moments of utter despair and find within them grounds for hope.
Note: The psalm is a tremendous challenge for the preacher because, unlike most laments, it offers little ground for hope, except that the mere fact of its existence demonstrates the biblical tradition’s ability to question God with utter frankness. This frankness is also the greatest opportunity for the preacher.
Other possible texts: Jeremiah 20: 7-18; Mark 16:1-8
|October 24||“Wash Me clean!” Psalm 51|
Goal: To move past Psalm 88 to a kind of preliminary
resolution of lament
Note: One should avoid reading this as part of Davidic psychology. It is a more general lament that nicely balances concern with personal sin with larger communal or even human concerns.
Other possible texts: Hosea 14; Luke 13:1-10
|November 31|| “The God Who Remembers” Psalm 105|
Goal: To remind us of the depth of the story of God’s saving work
Note: The psalm, like 78 and 135, recites God’s saving acts (especially in the Exodus). Following All Saints’ Day, this text can elicit memories of past interventions of God.
Other possible texts: Acts 2:22-36; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
|November 7||“Treasuring God’s Word” Psalm 119, esp. vv. 9-16|
Goal: To connect wise living with a knowledge of and
appreciation for Scripture
Note: This, the longest psalm of all and an acrostic, explores the nature of wisdom and its connection to Torah. The psalm is relatively late, coming from a postexilic period in which Scripture has begun to influence Israelite religion profoundly.
Other possible texts: Jeremiah 31:23-34; Romans 12
|November 14|| “En Route to God” Psalm 122|
Goal: To cultivate a sense of the Christian life as pilgrimage.
Note: Part of the pilgrimage Psalms of Ascent, Ps. 122 calls the pilgrims to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, a city that had previously been sacked. Treatment of this psalm must capture the tension of being peace-seekers.
Other possible texts: Nehemiah 1:1-11; Acts 20:17-37
|November 14||“Waiting for God” Psalm 130|
Goal: To acknowledge the place of waiting in the life of faith
Note: The psalm, again part of the Psalms of Ascent, reflects the longing of a pilgrim to Jerusalem for the encounter with God. As such, the psalm is appropriate for the season leading to Advent.
Other possible texts: Matthew 28; Revelation 4:1-11
|November 21||Thanksgiving Holiday|
|November 28||“The Generation that Praises” Psalm 145:1-7|
Goal: To call students to praise and create an environment of praise
Note: The psalm starts the coda of the Psalter, which frames all its texts within the contexts of praise. That is, even laments and recitations are simply species in the genus “praise.”
Other possible texts: Numbers 6:22-27; Romans 11:25-36; Ephesians 3:14-21
Notes to Psalms Semester
The shape of the Psalter to some degree shapes the flow of our chapels this semester. The Psalter opens with various hymns of praise and wisdom texts but soon moves into lament. The density of lament diminishes later in the collection. The book ends with a coda of praise of Psalms 145-50.
October has become a month of lament. This is dictated by the flow of the course, but it may clash a bit with the flow of the academic calendar. For example, this plan calls for Psalm 88 to precede homecoming and Psalm 51 to follow it. But this somewhat radical juxtaposition of text with outside events can be useful to our worship planning. Think about how the liturgy relates to the outside world, in any of several possible ways.
November could be used as a time of preparation for Advent, a season of longing for the joyous coming of Christ. Psalms 122, 130 and 132 come from the “Psalms of Ascent” (Psalms 120-34 with addenda in Psalms 135-36). These psalms were apparently used in postexilic processions into the city of Jerusalem at major holidays, perhaps especially during the Feast of Tabernacles. As such, they express the longing for the presence of God that Israel sought following Exile and that we all seek in our times of lostness.
On David. Although ancient and medieval interpreters commonly read the Psalter as the product of David’s personal spiritual life, this interpretive move does not seem to predate the second century bce. Instead, the Psalter arose over a period of centuries within the Israelite cult and in circles of pious individuals. The series should avoid the sort of psychologizing that commonly occurs with the interpretation of the Psalms.
The Psalms and art. It would be helpful to tie the psalms into the history of Christian music and visual art, drawing on the expertise of the relevant ACU departments here. See proposals, below.
Finding God in the Depths:
Entering the Strange World of the Psalms
Mark W. Hamilton
Graduate School of Theology
The core story of the Bible concerns God’s dramatic acts of grace redeeming the human family, first in Israel and then throughout the world. For us, as for the first people who experienced God’s saving activities, the question is, how shall we respond? What words or deeds can capture the awe we experience when contemplating the presence of the sovereign creator in our own communities? Our chapel this fall will explore these questions in detail. By examining a range of different psalms, evoking varied emotions and actions, we will capture a sense of the breadth and depth of appropriate, honest, life-giving response to God. This brief essay will sketch the types of psalms available, indicate something of their history, and suggest resources for further reading.
In the Bible, the central collection of responses to God appears in the book of Psalms. This great collection of 150 hymns has inspired Christians and Jews through the centuries as they explore the deepest dimensions of what it means to be human beings in relationship to God. Here we find expressions of joy and sorrow, belonging and alienation, fear and ecstasy. In magnificent poetry, the people of God address themselves to the One who called them out of slavery into a life of freedom.
The theology of Psalms, though wondrously complex and diverse, can be summarized in terms of two complementary pairs. The first pair is God/creation. The second pair is praise/lament. Almost all the material in the Psalter works by placing these themes in interaction with each other.
The first pair is God/creation, with creation including, but not limited to, humankind. The psalms embrace monotheism, the recognition of the unity of deity. This monotheistic predisposition is not simply a matter of arithmetic, but a confession that Israel has found God not to be arbitrary, capricious, or subject to whim, but rather reliable, forgiving, loyal, and redemptive in intent and action (see Psalm 130). As creator of the cosmos (see Psalms 24, 104) and redeemer of Israel (see Psalms 78, 105, 135), God continues to summon people to a life of generosity and faithful obedience (see Psalms 1, 82, 101, 103, 119).
Humans in covenant with this God care for the poor and vulnerable and live worshipful lives (see Psalms 84, 104 and many others). When encountering a radically transcendent God, humans respond with awe and an overwhelming consciousness of divine grace. For these texts, humans are an extraordinary species exercising a responsible delegated sovereignty over creation (Psalm 8). Human dignity, though threatened by greed and the lust for power (Psalm 2), remains intact in the world that the psalmists envision.
The second pair, praise and lament, comprehends the divine-human relationship. As the modern scholar Walter Brueggemann has put it, we should think of psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. The psalms allow us to express every imaginable emotional state and aspect of the life of faith, while also helping us grow in our obedience to God. Hymns acknowledge human reliance on, and trust in, God. Laments, with raw honesty, express the doubts and fears that even faithful people have. Rather than seeing doubt as the opposite of faith, the Psalms understand lament as a legitimate form of praise in which we find reconnection with God and creation. Lament also connects us again to the story of faith so that we can praise again. Even lament – especially lament – fashions us into a community of believers that can be sensitive to the realities of the world around us while nevertheless envisioning what this world could become.
Re-envisioning the world was the purpose of the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms was the primary anthology of hymns for the second temple in Jerusalem (ca. 500 bce-70 ce). Songs were sung at the Sabbath sacrifice and during various holidays, and they were undoubtedly familiar to many religious people who found in them words that expressed their own longing for God's presence in their lives.
However, most of the psalms are older than the second temple, coming from the First Temple period (1000-586 bce). Written over many centuries, they were hymns for worship, mostly in the Jerusalem temple, but sometimes in private settings and perhaps even in sanctuaries in northern Israel. The psalms were sung by the people of Israel as a community as they face various dilemmas that challenge their faith. The psalms’ anonymous authors, mostly Temple singers, sought to express Israel’s response to God’s gracious actions among them.
To read the psalms, we must be aware of how they work as texts. The various genres of psalms include:
Laments of the individual (examples: Psalms 6, 30, 38, 41, 88)
Laments of the community (examples: Psalms 12, 14, 44, 58, 60, 74, Lamentations 5)
Wisdom psalms (examples: Psalms 1, 119)
Historical recitations (examples: Psalms 78, 105)
Hymns of praise (examples, Psalms 8, 19, 29, 33, 46, 47, 48, 76, 104, 135, 136, 145, 150)
Psalms about kings (Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 132, 144)
Each type of psalm plays a different role in the worship of God.
In reading a psalm of whatever type, recognize that it is poetry, not a set of propositions. Rich in metaphor, powerful of emotion, the psalms talk about the interior life of the believer, his or her life in the community of faith, and the ever-present search for God. They are deeply personal, but not individualistic. They bear witness to the involvement of each person praying them in the life of a community of shared histories and obligations. As James Kugel has recently put it, these texts (and the Bible in general) open up to us “another way of seeing” the cosmos as it really is, a level of perception that often escapes us in the modern world. They are not chiefly theological propositions about “the way things are” objectively. Rather, they are profoundly expressive explorations of the deepest moments of human encounter with God and creation. This is important because it means that when we read the psalms we may not need to take every statement literally, though we do take every line seriously.
Since the psalms have for so long and for so many opened windows into eternity, we must ask how they do so. Like the prophets, the psalms employ the basic features of poetry: metaphor, rhythmic word order, alliteration, and so on. Normally, the Hebrew poetic sentence consists of two parts, conveniently labeled A and B, which in some way balance out or complement each other (a feature usually called “parallelism”). Consider, among hundreds of possible example, Psalm 80:6, You have fed them tears for bread; you have given them a full complement of tears to drink. You have made us a laughingstock to our neighbors; our enemies snicker among themselves.
The second part of each sentence repeats the basic sense of the first part, although with some supplementation. Again, this pattern A __________ B __________ appears everywhere in the book of Psalms.
In addition, each psalm follows, in general, the structure and content of the genre of which it is a representative. Let us consider one example, which may stand for others.
Psalm 80 is a lament of the people. It opens with an appeal to the “Shepherd of Israel,” whom it asks for relief from various enemies. Like other psalms of lament, this psalm opens with an address to God and proceeds to lamentation over disaster befalling the people. It ends with a final turning to God and a promise to praise Him for deliverance. This basic pattern provides the structure for scores of laments in the book of Psalms.
Within the confines of this basic poetic structure, the psalmist soars to amazing spiritual heights. He or she recognizes that God has previously saved Israel and can do so again. The appeal to the exodus in verse 8 – “You brought a vine from Egypt” – simultaneously reminds the audience (and God!) of past deeds and expresses hope for similar actions in the future. Verses 14-16 continue the vine metaphor by tying it to present harsh realities. These verses probably refer to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721 bce (one may infer this from the mention of exclusively northern tribes in verse 2). Present reality and past reality thus blend into one arena of the activity of God, the shepherd of Israel.
Moreover, this merging of the horizons of time allows us also to hear the psalms, individually and as a collection, as our texts. Since the history of Israel is fundamentally God’s history with Israel, the psalmist recognizes God’s responsibility for the current situation. He asks how long God will allow the current calamities to continue, daring even to attribute them directly to God’s decisions. Unlike the prophets, who agree that God has indeed caused disaster for his people, the psalmist does not think of the people as culpable, but as innocent victims of foreign enemies. This perspective, which finds its fullest biblical expression in the book of Lamentations, balances out the prophetic emphasis on human morality with a recognition that suffering sometimes exceeds the bounds of human tolerance. Sometimes arguing that suffering is the due reward for wrongdoing simply does not seem convincing.
This brings us to our last point about the psalms. Originally songs (for the most part) of the monarchic period of the history of Israel and Judah, the psalms at some point were collected together into a single work. (David was associated with a few psalms at first, but later readers attributed the entire Psalter to him.) The process of collection undoubtedly began before the Babylonian Exile, and it was not entirely finished until perhaps the second century bce. The finished book of Psalms, with its passionate cries to God for help, its witnesses to God’s repeated intervention on behalf of Israel and individuals within the nation, and its overwhelming attitude of awe before the sovereign creator of the universe who deigns to care about the welfare and behavior of ordinary human beings, also articulates a single vision of a community at praise.
It does this by opening with two introductory psalms that call upon the reader of the book to be wise (Psalm 1) and to trust, not in the power of arms and wealth, but in the strength of the one who sets his anointed one on Zion (Psalm 2). The book ends with a coda of five psalms of praise (Psalms 146-150) that invite the entire creation, not just Israel or even humankind in general, to join in praising the God who made everything and invites human beings to share in this magnificent handiwork. The aim of the book as a whole, as Psalm 1 makes clear, is the formation of a community of people who understand their place in a universe in which God has made humans “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8), has called us to a life of service and concern for the weak (Psalm 101), and has invited us to join the cosmos in bearing witness to that Being greater than which nothing can be conceived, the God who brought Israel from bondage. The psalms form us as moral and spiritual beings in a community of shared values. Read, sing, and pray them with delight and awe!
For Further Reading
Thousands of valuable books and articles on the Psalms have been written by scholars and others over the centuries. Here are a few, chosen for their accessibility and accuracy, which will deepen your appreciation of this great collection of the hymns of the people of Israel and of the church.
- Brown, William P., Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).
- Cukrowski, Kenneth, Mark W. Hamilton, and James Thompson, God’s Holy Fire: The Nature and Function of Scripture (Abilene: ACU Press, 2002).
- Eaton, John, The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation (London/New York: Continuum, 2005).
- Giles, Terry and William J. Doan, Twice Used Songs (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2009).
- Hamilton, Mark, “Doubt & Faith for Today’s Christians,” New Wineskins (May/June 2003): 20-22.
- Holladay, William L., The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).
- Hopkins, Denise Dombkowski, Journey Through the Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002).
- Kugel, James L., The Great Poems of the Bible (New York: Free Press, 1999).
- Murphy, Roland, The Gift of the Psalms (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2000).
- Terrien, Samuel, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).