SATURDAY READING: On How To Study The Psalms Devotionally, by Bruce K. Waltke

On How To Study The Psalms Devotionally Bruce K. Waltke

From The Dance Between God and Humanity

At the end of the summer in which our committee translated the Book of Psalms for the New International Version of the Bible, I felt less devoted to God than at the beginning of the summer when we began our assignment.  (No aspersion on the NIV!  I suspect translators of all versions have had a similar experience.  In my judgment the NIV is the best translation available, and I thank God for giving me opportunity to have a small part in it.)  My confession is a wry comment on my depravity and the paradox of faith – God seeking after man and man seeking after God.  Is it not ironic that after tirelessly studying some of the most richly devotional literature of the Bible I came away from the study less consecrated to God, less zealous to perform his service, and less aware of the Holy?  And does not my experience, reinforced by the experience of most students in Biblical and theological studies, show us that in the “quest for holiness” the human dimension must take a place alongside the neo-orthodox emphasis on God’s sovereignty and transcendence in revealing himself in his Word and recreating man through it?

Studying Devotionally

My concern is this essay – to consider ways in which we as the people of God may study the Psalms so that we become more devoted to our Lord – is but a part of the larger issue on how to study any discipline in such a way as to further one’s commitment to God.  A major temptation confronting any student is that instead of seeking God in his or her discipline he or she seeks personal achievement and human recognition through it.  In a word, we are always in danger of being “worldlings,” by which I mean seeking “success” according to secular evaluations instead of according to sacred values.  Driven by pride and a desire to advance ourselves in the eyes of others we become self-ambitious, competitive, and foolish “workaholics.”  Montaigne, the inventor of the modern essay, complained about students in his time: “How many have I seene in my daises, by an overgreedy desire of knowledge, become as it were foolish.  Carneades was so deeply plunged, and as I may say besotted in it, that he never had leisure to cut his haire, or pare his nailes.”  I confess that I identify with Carneades and must turn to my Lord to save me from my folly.

We need to heed this reproof against worldliness by Thomas à Kempis:

The treating of worldly matters abateth greatly the fervor of spirit: though it be done with a good intent, we be anon deceived with vanity of the world, and in manner are made as thrall unto it, if we take not good head. (The Imitation of Christ)

The Preacher coined a proverb that every student would do well to frame and hang over his or her desk:

Better one handful with tranquility
than two handfuls with toil
and chasing after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:6)

Paul provided us with a model:

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?  Or am I trying to please men?  If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

Studying the Bible Devotionally

Having briefly looked at that temptation which greatly abates the fervency of our spirit toward God in academic pursuits, we can more directly address our topic by considering how to study the Bible devotionally.  The object of Biblical studies is twofold: the literature itself and God who revealed himself in it.  (I use “object” with reference to God with some qualms because in the final analysis God is the author who discloses himself to us.  On the other hand, the Bible is the revelation of God in the double meaning of that phrase: it is from him [a subjective genitive] and about him [an objective genitive].  With this second sense in view it is appropriate to speak of Biblical studies in the way I have.)  Because of the dual nature of Biblical studies we need to adopt a stance appropriate to both these aspects.

In the first place, then, the incarnation of God in literature exacts a rigorous, scientific investigation of the text.  It is highly mischievous to pit a devotional study of the Bible against an academic study of it.  A devotional study must include a careful determination of the text (until the invention of the printing press no two manuscripts of the Bible were exactly the same), of the meaning of its words (now from dead languages), of the value of the grammatical forms and their syntactical relations in the discourse, of the figures of speech and the authorial intention behind them, of the historical and cultural milieu shaping the composition, and of its literary forms.  Moreover, the exegete must make a conscious attempt to trace the progressive development of the text’s meaning as the canon containing it grew.  As the ancient text’s literary parameters expanded, its meaning became fuller and more precise.  With regard to this dimension of exegetical study, often overlooked by those schooled in the grammatico-historical approach, a student should ask of Psalm 2, for example, what this coronation liturgy meant during the first temple when David’s sons were installed on Mount Zion to rule over God’s kingdom.  What did it mean during the second temple when the Old Testament canon took its final shape and there was no king in Israel?  And what does it mean in the New Testament when Jesus Christ fulfilled the psalms’s vision and assumed his throne in the Heavenly Mount Zion?  (I have labeled this hermeneutic, “the canonical process approach.)

An honest quest for God is obviously more than a scientific inquiry, as we shall argue below, but it is certainly not less.  If we attempt in our pursuit for God to pole-vault ourselves directly into the Heavenlies and bypass the more difficult climb of Biblical criticism (textual, literary, and historical), accredited exegetical procedure (lexical, grammatical, and historical), and Biblical theology (the progress of revelation), we shall expose ourselves to inauthentic encounters with the Holy, fall into a mysticism that denies God’s incarnation, and despise the apostolic exhortation to study the scriptures diligently as approved workmen.  A student cannot say he or she is devoted to God who carelessly treats the empirical data in which he revealed himself.

Here, however, we must face the reality that we are in the process of growing in our knowledge of accredited exegetical procedure in our application of it to the literature, and therefore as we improve in our exegesis we mature in our knowledge of God.  Our relativism in knowledge should not defeat us but instead spur us on in our quest for God.  In addition, we need to bear in mind that the church is a body nurtured by gifted individuals within it.  In particular, he gave pastors and teachers to guide his church in its understanding of the Bible and, therefore, we need to avail ourselves of their contributions in up-to-date translations of the Bible, in commentaries, in schools, and above all, in the assembling of ourselves of as his temple.

But these disciplines so essential to the devotional study of the Bible must not be undertaken in a spirit of cold academic detachment.  Such a spirit is actually hostile to the scriptures, for, as Adolf Schlatter has shown, the Holy Scriptures call upon us to surrender our wills to its claims.  Rather we must approach our inspired literature with open hands of faith.  Thus, for example, the exegete should receive the textual traditions and his or her tools with heartfelt appreciation that he or she is the heir of all the ages, and he or she should approach the work with a deep sense of dependence on God to help execute this craft with skill.  Moreover, with imagination and prayer, the student should endeavor to recreate in his mind and viscera the historical and spiritual state of his spiritual father that authored these texts with the Spirit of God upon him.  In sum, we should do our work in the Spirit, both walking in him and being filled with him, and neither grieving him nor quenching him.

But since God is ultimately the object of our contemplation it is obvious that our study must be more than scientific; it must also be artistic.  John Warwick Montgomery in his excellent study of the theologian’s craft, The Suicide of Christian Theology, calls attention to John Ciardi’s introduction to literary criticism, How Does a Poem Mean? in which the following passage from Dicken’s Hard Times is quoted:

“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind, “your definition of a horse.”

“Quadruped.  Graminivorous.  Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.  Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries sheds hoofs too.  Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron.  Age known by marks in mouth.”

Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

“Now, girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind, “you know what a horse is.”

Montgomery cogently commented on this insightful spoof: “‘Girl number twenty’ knew ‘what a horse is’ only in a very special and limited way: she knew horses in a formal objective, scientific manner, but not at all in a personal, experiential way – not in the way in which a poet or an artist endeavors to convey knowledge.”

But in our approach to meeting God in the sacred page we must come not only as to a living person, but with awe and joy to his numinous holiness.  Before revealing himself to Moses he commanded: “Do not come any closer.  Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  Are the scriptures any less holy than the burning bush?  The psalmist said:

He guides the humble in what is right
and teaches them his way. (Psalm 25:9)

If we fail to come with the imagination of a saint to the Holy Bible we shall come away from our visit with God in a way similar to the proverbial pussycat’s visit to the queen in London:

“Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?”
“I’ve been to London to visit the queen.”
“Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there?”
“I frightened a little mouse under her chair.”

Luther nicely combined the scientific with sacred imagination in his Biblically based method for theological study in this counsel:

Let me show you a right method for studying theology, the one that I have used.  If you adopt it, you will become so learned that if it were necessary, you yourself would be qualified to produce books just as good as those of the Fathers and the church councils.  Even as I dare to be so bold in God as to pride myself, without arrogance or lying, as not being greatly behind some of the Fathers in the matter of making books; as to my life, I am far from being their equal.  This method is the one which the pious king David teaches in the 119th Psalm and which, no doubt, was practiced by all the patriarchs and prophets.  In the 119th Psalm you will find three rules which are abundantly expounded throughout the entire Psalm.  They are called: Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.

There we have the method: oratio, ” “by prayer”; meditatio, “by reading and contemplation”; tentatio, “by personal experience.”

Studying the Psalms Devotionally

As in all study we must approach the Psalms in our search for God by shunning the worldliness that turns us away from him toward self and our peer group, and as in the study of all scripture we must approach our hymnbook as both scientist and saint.  But in the Psalms, in contrast to the law and prophets, we directly encounter God’s king/King.  Most modern readers of the Psalms identify the human subject of the psalms as Mr. Everyman, but this is not so.  The human subject in most of the psalms is the king/King, and we shall never enter fully into its rich devotional material until we realize this.

John Eaton superbly summarized the evidence for an extensive royal interpretation of the Psalms as follows:

  1. The heading le dawid stands over seventy-three psalms (eighty-four in Greek).  In spite of problems of detail, this can reasonably be taken as an indication of the large place which royal psalmody has in the collection.
  2. The Biblical tradition and later Jewish tradition including one of the Dead Sea Scrolls dated to the first century A.D. unanimously ascribe the Psalter largely to King David.  The probability must be faced that the view most evident in the Chronicler will have had a genuine basis.
  3. Directly reinforcing the preceding argument is the picture of royal responsibility in religion which has emerged from modern studies of [Ancient Near Eastern] kingship.
  4. Many and various have been the suggestions as to who were the original subjects of the “psalms of the individual” and what their circumstances.  But the only “situation” which is certainly attested is that of the king; it is certain that he is the subject in a number of psalms, and the dispute is only about how many.  This cannot be said of the other suggested usages.
  5. Coupled with the preceding point is the general homogeneity of the psalms.  There is a prevailing similarity which is in accord with an origin within a restricted royal and national cultus.
  6. Birkeland and Kraus demonstrated that in many instances the psalmist’s enemies are national.  These references to international and political enemies make most sense if we assume the prayers were composed for a king.
  7. The special problem presented by the psalms were “I” and “we” alternate can be resolved by taking account of the representative character of the king.
  8. Throughout the “psalms of the individual” there occur motifs or expressions which are royal or at least specifically appropriate for the king.  Gunkel identifies the following.  All nations attend to the psalmist’s thanksgiving.  His deliverance has vast repercussions.  He invokes a world-judgment to rectify his cause.  He depicts himself as victorious over the nations through God’s intervention.  He confronts armies.  He is like a bull raising horns in triumph.  He is God’s son.
  9. In many cases the royal interpretation is especially to be preferred because it allows the psalm as it stands to be seen as a consistent and meaningful whole.
  10. It is almost unthinkable that a collection of hymns stemming from the royal temple – one large court enclosed (both the Lord’s Temple and the king’s palace) – should not include the petitions and praises of the king.

The psalms not only represent the prayers and praises of the historical king, but most of them present the king in Messianic terms.  C. A. Briggs put it this way: “The psalms embraced the vision of a reality beyond the impression of the senses, a vision which guided Israel to an ever deeper understanding of the reality.”  H. H. Rowley found that the vision of a king whose kingdom would extend to “the ends of the Earth” (Psalm 2:8), whose “divine throne [is] forever and ever,” (45:6), and who would “live while the sun endures and as long as the moon, throughout all generations,” (72:5), went beyond pious optimism or flattering hyperbole.  He wrote that “While they may have been royal psalms, used in the royal rites of the temple, they were also ‘messianic.’  They held before the king the ideal king both as his inspiration and guide for the present, and as the hope of the future.”

The Father and Jesus reveal to us in the New Testament that our Lord Jesus Christ fulfills the Messianic vision, and is the Son of God.  In brief, in reading the Psalms we encounter not only God but the prayers and praises of his son.

Finally, we need to realize that these ancient royal laments and confessions were not intended for the king’s private use apart from the congregation.  On the contrary, the king represented the people in them.  According to Mowinckel, “All that concerned the king and his cause also concerned the people; nothing which happened to him was a purely private affair.” (The Psalms in Israel’s Worship)  We might say that ancient Israel prayed “in the king.”  But since the Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in its fullest and truest interpretation, we can also say that his church today prays the psalms in him.  Bonhoeffer put it this way: “The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his church.  Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the body of Christ on Earth, continues to pray his prayer to the end of time.” (Life Together)  But the church today needs to distinguish those elements in the prayer that were shaped by a historical-cultural milieu different from our own.  Therefore, we need to keep in mind that the saints under the Old Covenant differed somewhat from the church under the New Covenant.  (It is far beyond the limits of this essay to point out these differences.)  Bonhoeffer also helpfully commented: “Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship.”

How then shall we study the Psalms?  In the first place, let us count ourselves dead to sin, and the world through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; and secondly, let us come into the sphere of the Holy with academic rigor while keeping our bodies in subjection and as a community dependent on him and on one another.  Finally, let us come with faith, expecting to meet both God and his son in these poems of prayer, acknowledgement, and praise inspired by the Holy Spirit.


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