Why Not to Blog on Psalm 68

Many years ago, I had occasion to examine a syllabus for a hermeneutics class that required the writing of an exegetical paper as the course capstone. That seemed fair enough, and I read on attentively as the professor laid out his very detailed instructions for this paper. There were several points that mystified me (not yet being wise in the ways of historical-critical atheology), but none more than his demand that the students refrain from using commentaries and articles published before 1950. How strange, I thought, that at an avowedly Wesleyan institution (for such it was), Wesley’s Explanatory Notes could not be consulted! As a result, I decided to experiment a bit and for quite some time consulted every pre-1950 commentary available to me as I prepared for sermons. Of course, since the syllabus singled out Puritan Matthew Henry and Methodist Adam Clarke as examples of commentators students should avoid like the plague, I decided to check these out first. Though I’ve never referenced them in papers for obvious reasons (which emphatically do not include the professor’s unreasonable instructions), their works became very dear to me. I hoped that Henry’s typically Puritan emphasis on stirring up godly affections in a plain and dignified manner would filter down to my poor preaching, and that Clarke’s attitude of learned simplicity before the intricacies of the Scriptural text would become my own. It should come as no surprise, then, that as I considered the possibility of joining the several bibliobloggers currently writing on Psalm 68, I decided to take a look at what Henry and Clarke had to say on this text. I was startled, however, to see my own thoughts staring back at me. I truly could sign my name to Clarke’s words:

I know not how to undertake a comment on this Psalm: it is the most difficult in the whole Psalter; and I cannot help adopting the opinion of Simon De Muis: In hoc Psalmo tot ferme scopuli, tot labyrinthi, quot versus, quot verba. Non immerito crux ingeniorum, et interpretum opprobrium dici potest. “In this Psalm there are as many precipices and labyrinths as there are verses or words. It may not be improperly termed, the torture of critics, and the reproach of commentators.” To attempt anything new on it would be dangerous; and to say what has been so often said would be unsatisfactory. I am truly afraid to fall over one of those precipices, or be endlessly entangled and lost in one of these labyrinths.

There are customs here referred to which I do not fully understand; there are words whose meaning I cannot, to my own satisfaction, ascertain; and allusions which are to me inexplicable. Yet of the composition itself I have the highest opinion: it is sublime beyond all comparison; it is constructed with an art truly admirable; it possesses all the dignity of the sacred language; none but David could have composed it; and, at this lapse of time, it would require no small influence of the Spirit that was upon him, to give its true interpretation.”

Or, as Matthew Henry states far more succinctly, “This is a most excellent psalm, but in many places the genuine sense is not easy to come at; for in this, as in some other scriptures, there are things dark and hard to be understood.”

I know, right?

This text’s native difficulty, to which both Clarke and Henry allude, would be compounded for me by the fact that, unlike everyone else’s, my comments would not be based on the Hebrew Masoretic Text, but on the canonical text of my tradition: that of the ecclesiastical Greek Psalter. (Allow me, however, to state the obvious: namely, that constantly minding the Hebrew Vorlage is essential to any serious reading of the Greek Old Testament!) And the use of the Greek Psalter as text would bring to the foreground some of the more heavily disputed aspects of patristic and liturgical exegesis almost at once.

Consider, for instance, the superscription of the Psalm (Εἰς τὸ τέλος· ᾠδῆς ψαλμὸς τῷ Δαυΐδ, which could be rendered freely as “Regarding completion. A song with accompaniment concerning David”). Patristic exegesis was quick to note that use of τέλος (telos, end or fulfillment) here seems to correspond to Romans 10:4 (τέλος γὰρ νόμου Χριστὸς, “for Christ is the telos of the Law”), and so it came to regard such a superscript (which occurs in several Psalms) as something of a cue to read a Psalm messianicallyand for our Psalm in particular, in view of the specification τῷ Δαυΐδ (“for David,” that is, about him), through the specific lens of the Messiah as Davidic king. We don’t have to wait too long for an opportunity to make such a reading: already the very first words of Psalm 68 (Ἀναστήτω ὁ Θεός, “Let God arise”) are understood to refer to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for which reason this Psalm is used time and again in the Paschal Office of the Eastern Church together with the chief hymn of the Feast: Χριστός ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν, θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας καί τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι ζωήν χαρισάμενος (“Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tombs”; note that even the chosen verb for “has risen” in the Paschal hymn is the same as that in Psalm 68, ἀνίστημι [anistēmi]). But of course, patristic and liturgical exegesis only follows here the lead of St Paul, who in Ephesians 4:7ff. quotes Psalm 68:18 in connection with the cosmic exaltation of Christ in the Ascension, and possibly also in connection with the Harrowing of Hell and the Pentecostal outpouring of gifts on the New Covenant community (but contra at least the second of these connections, cf. none other than St John Chrysostom in his Homilies on Ephesians). Thus the patristic and liturgical exegesis of Psalm 68 moves beyond a simple Messianic reading of the text, and into a decidedly redemptive-historical understanding of the same after St Paul’s model. And this progression turns out to be inescapable, for as the infallible Moisés Silva has noted, “If we refuse to pattern our exegesis after that of the apostles, we are in practice denying the authoritative character of their scriptural interpretationand to do so is to strike at the very heart of the Christian faith”1.

As can be gleaned from the comments (or stream-of-consciousness) above, a discussion in these terms quickly moves away from the “hard” exegesis of the text (which, as Clarke notes, is fraught with perils at every turn anyway), and branches out into a number of crucial hermeneutical and theological questions which are as controversial as they are inexhaustible. Frankly, I think it far more prudent to refrain from any interminable discussion of these. But I should like to mention that, to me, one the more interesting questions this whole thing raises is whether any such redemptive-historical readings can be supported, so to speak, by a “literal hermeneutics.” My own view is that they can, and this notion was first suggested to me by Robert Saucy’s book The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993). In four tantalizingly brief pages (76-80), Saucy discusses St James’ citation of Amos 9:11-12 in Acts 15:13ff., arguing on the grounds of a “literal hermeneutics” (and in agreement with St Irenæus’ Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching!) that the “rebuilding of David’s fallen tent” is nothing less than a prophecy of the “Jesus event” centered in the Resurrection (arguably the locus of Davidic fulfillment in the New Testament). Yet such a promising approach to make sense of apostolic, patristic and liturgical exegesis is notably absent from the literature. Say, anybody looking for a dissertation to write?

Those wishing to the explore the various fascinating perspectives on Psalm 68 currently setting Biblioblogdom abuzz should follow the yellow brick road to the following choice destinations: Better Bibles Blog (Suzanne McCarthy); Ancient Hebrew Poetry (John Hobbins); Bob’s Log (Bob McDonald); Lingamish; and J. K. Gayle (whose latest post, which I saw just after finishing this post, asks some very sharp questions relevant to the interpretive line suggested above).

 

Note:

1 Moisés Silva, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Text and Form,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (eds.), Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 164.

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