Saturday, June 23, 2012

On the Costly Loss of Lament in Worship

Why are so many Psalms (i.e. the hymn/prayer book of God's people for millennia) songs of lament (i.e. honest, raw, petitioning of God because things are not the way they ought to be, and the covenant God who has promised to be faithful needs to come and act), while in many people's private worship and many church's corporate worship, completely omits this genre from its songs and prayers? What is the result of this loss? Some choice quotes from Walter Brueggemann...

In these Psalms, Israel moves from articulation of hurt and anger to submission of them to God and finally relinquishment. Functionally and experientially, the verbal articulation and the faithful submission to God are prerequisites for relinquishment. Only when there is such relinquishment can there be praise and acts of generosity. Thus the relational dynamic vis-à-vis God corresponds to the move of the formal elements. (58) 
One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss οf genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology. Where lament is absent, covenant comes into being only as a celebration of joy and well-being. Or in political categories, the greater party is surrounded by subjects who are always 'yes men and women' from whom 'never is heard a discouraging word'. Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control (60). 
Lament occurs when the dysfunction reaches an unacceptable level, when the injustice is intolerable and change is insisted upon (62). 
The lament Psalms, then, are a complaint which makes the shrill insistence: 1. Things are not right in the present arrangement. 2.  They need not stay this way but can be changed. 3.  The speaker will not accept them in this way, for it is intolerable. 4. It is God's obligation to change things (62). 
The claims and rights of the speaker are asserted to God in the face of a system which does not deliver. That system is visible on earth and addressed in heaven with the passionate conviction that it can, must, and will be changed (63). 
A community of faith which negates laments soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise (64). 
It makes one wonder about the price of our civility, that this chance in our faith has largely been lost because the lament Psalms have dropped out of the functioning canon (66-67).
From "The Costly Loss of Lament," JSOT36 (1986) 57-71.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Holy Hatred: What Should We Think of the Psalms of Imprecation?

The Psalms of imprecation are notoriously difficult for any interpreter. How should they be understood and applied today? It intuitively feels wrong to ask God to harm our enemy. Is this not contrary to the New Testament's command to love and pray for those who hate us and wish to harm us? Once again, Bruce Waltke has been helpful to me. In the following quote he shows that there is not easy, fast answer, but if one understands the issue from various angles, they are able to understand what is going on and finally, to see how these passages of Holy Scripture apply and do not apply today...
"Thirty-five of the petition psalms ask God to punish the enemy. These psalms also trouble many. Lewis speaks of them as 'terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms.' Here he joins hands with those who deny that all Scripture is inspired. Dispensationalists traditionally averred that they are part of the ethical inferiority of the Old Testament. In fact, however, upon reflection they teach sound doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16) and are most holy.  a. These petitions are by saints (especially the innocently suffering king) who have suffered gross injustices. Few commentators have experienced the agony of utterly unprovoked, naked aggression and gross exploitation.  b. The petitioners are righteous and just: they ask for strict retribution... c. The petitioners are faithful. The pious recognize that vengeance is God's, not theirs (Deut. 32:35). They trust God, not themselves, to avenge the gross injustices against them. d. The psalmist is not vindictive (Ps. 109:5). 'There have been few men,' says Derek Kidner, 'more capable of generosity under personal attack than David, as he proved by his attitudes toward Saul and Absalom, to say nothing of Shemei.' The wicked, by contrast, avenge themselves (cf. Rom. 12:17-21). e. These prayers are ethical - that is, the petitioners ask God to distinguish between right and wrong (cf. Ps. 7:8-9; 2 Tim. 4:14-18). f. They are also theocratic, looking for establishment of a kingdom of righteousness by the moral administrator of the universe (cf. Pss. 72, 82). The earthly king asks no more of the heavenlly King than the latter asked of him (cf. Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 19:13, 19; 21:9, 22; 22:22, 24). g. The prayers are theocentric, aiming to see God praised for manifesting his righteousness and justice in the eyes of all (cf. Pss. 35:27-28; 58:10-11). Calvin wrote, 'It was a holy zeal for the divine glory which impelled [the psalmist] to summon the wicked to God's judgment seat.' h. These prayers are evangelistic, aiming for conversion of earth by letting all people see that the Lord is Most High over all the earth (Ps. 83:17-18). i. They are 'covenantal'; a wrong against a saint is seen as a wrong against God (Psss. 69:7-9, 22-28; 139:19-22)... j. The prayers are oriental and full of figures, especially hyperbole... k. The prayers are political. If we may presume the enemy heard the prayer, he would be publicly exposed as one who opposed the kingdom of God. Moreover, the righteous identify with the psalmist and rally around him (Ps. 142:7; cf. the complaint of Ps. 38:11). Indeed, the enemy and potential evildoer may be instructed and converted through prayer (cf. Pss. 51:13; 94:8-11). l. These prayers are consistent with the central message of the Bible: 'Thy kingdom come'...The Lord's Prayer entails that saints pray for the overthrow of Satan's kingdom. Though theologically sound, these petitions for retribution are nevertheless inappropriate for the church in the present dispensation for the following reasons. (1) Ultimate justice occurs in the eschaton...(2) Sin and sinner are now more distinctly differentiated (cf. Eph. 6:11-18), allowing the saint both to hate sin and love the sinner. (3) The saint's strugggle is against spiritual powers of darkness. He conquers by turning the other cheek and by praying for the forgiveness of enemies (Matt. 5:39-48; 6:14; Luke 6:28, 35; Acts 7:60)" (878-880).

Psalms of the Messiah

I've been spending a lot of time lately studying the shape of the book of Psalms. It is logical to observe that there is intentionality in the ordering of the Psalms; just like each individual Psalm had a context it was composed in, the compilers of the Psalter were intentional in the ordering of the material. The more I study this topic, the richer it gets. But few quotes have packed more punch for me in terms of revolutionizing my understanding of the Psalms, as the following by Bruce Waltke:
"The concept of Messiah was also developed in the editing of the Psalter. Israel draped the magnificent royal psalms as robes on each successive king, but generation after generation the shoulders of the reigning monarch proved too narrow and the robe slipped off to be draped on his successor. Finally, in the exile, Israel was left without a king and with a wardrobe of royal robes in their hymnody. On the basis of I AM's unconditional covenants to Abraham and David, the faithful know that Israel's history ends in triumph, not in tragedy. The prophets, as noted, evisioned a coming king who would fulfill the promise of these covenants. Haggai and Zechariah, who prophesied about 520 BC when the returnees had no king, fueled the prophetic expectation of the hoped-for king by applying it to Zerubabbel, son of David, and to Joshua, the high priest. When this hope fell through, Israel pinned their hope on a future Messiah. It was in that context, when Israel had no king, that the Psalter was edited with reference to the king. Accordingly, the editors of the Psalter must have resignified the Psalms from the historical king and draped them on the shoulders of the Messiah. Samuel Terrien, commenting on Psalm 21, agrees: 'The theology of kingship and divine power had to be re-examined in the light of the historical events. Psalm 21 needed to be reinterpreted eschatologically. The Anointed One began to be viewed as the Messiah at the end of time.' In short, in light of the exile and the loss of kingship, the editors colored the entire Psalter with a messianic hue" (890).
- See his chapter entitled, "The Gifts of Hymns and the Messiah: The Psalms," pages 870-896 in his larger "Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach."