How Liturgy Reads the Bible: The Old Testament on the Transfiguration of Christ

On this day, August 6 (O. S.), we celebrate with great joy the bright Feast of the Transfiguration. (For a sublime exposition of the meaning of this Feast, see this sermon by St Gregory Palamas.) Great Feasts such as this always afford us a sterling opportunity to have a good look at the fabric of liturgical exegesis, which is lavishly displayed throughout the festivities. It occurred to me yesterday during Vespers, however, that one of the chief ways in which we are exposed to the Church’s way of reading Scripture is by the simple use of Old Testament texts, without immediate commentary, in festal contexts. For instance, at Vespers, three lessons from the Old Testament are read on feasts of a certain rank; at Liturgy, feasts of the Lord feature three entrance antiphons made up of Psalm verses and a refrain. These texts are thus placed in a new context, and the events of the feast with which they are paired cast new light upon them, even as they illumine the feasted events with perspectives from other events in salvation history. Ultimately, that becomes the matrix within which liturgical poetry and patristic commentary develop. With that in mind, I offer below my hero Father Ephrem Lash’s translation of the Church’s text of the Old Testament lessons read last night during Vespers (spelling modified in a few instances), along with St Theophanes the Greek’s breathtaking icon of the Transfiguration, hoping that the juxtaposition will provide a taste (albeit a very small one) of the most basic way in which the Church reads her Scriptures.

6th. The Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

67. The Reading is from Exodus.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, the law and the commandments, which I have written for their instruction.’ When Moses had arisen, he and Jesus, who attended him, went up onto the mountain of God. And he said to the elders, ‘Wait here for us, until we come back to you again; and, see, Aaron and Or are with you; if anyone has a dispute, let them go to them.’ Then Moses went up onto the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of God came down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day the Lord called Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the children of Israel. And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And he was there on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

68. The Reading is from Exodus.
[33:11-23; 34:4-6.8]

The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as one speaks to one’s friend. Then he would return to the camp; but the young servant, Jesus, son of Navi, did not leave the tent. Moses said to the Lord, ‘See, you say to me, “Bring up this people”; but you have not shown me whom you will send with me. Yet you have said to me, “I know you above all others, and you have also found favour in my sight.” Now if I have found favour in your sight, show yourself to me, so that I may see you and find favour in your sight, that I may know that this great nation is your people.‘ And the Lord said to him, ‘I myself will go before you, and I will give you rest.’ And he said to him, ‘If you will not go with us yourself, do not carry me up from here. For how shall it be truly known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be glorified, I and your people, more than all the nations.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘For you I will do this word that you have spoken; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you above all others.’ Moses said, ‘Show me your own glory.’ And he said, ‘I will pass by you in my glory, and will proclaim before you my name, “The Lord”; and I will be have mercy on those on whom I will have mercy, and will have pity on those on whom I will have pity.’ And he said, ‘You cannot see my face; for no human shall see my face and live.’ And the Lord said, ‘See, there is a place by me; stand on the rock. And while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen by you.’ So Moses rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord. The Lord passed before his face, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, God compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and full of mercy and true’. And Moses quickly bowed to the earth, and worshipped the Lord.

69. The Reading is from Third Book of Reigns.

And Elias heard and was afraid; he arose and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba, in the land of Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly someone touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat and drink, for you have a long journey.’ Elias looked, and there at his head was a cake of flour and a jar of water. He arose, ate and drank, and slept again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Arise and eat and drink, for you have a long journey.’ He arose, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to mount Horeb. There he entered a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And behold, the Lord will pass by.’ And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of a gentle breeze. And when Elias heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood by the cave. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return to your way and you will come to the desert way of Damascus; and you shall anoint Eliseus son of Shaphat as prophet in your place.’

“Thou hast put on praise and majesty; who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment.” (Psalm 103:1-2, LXX)

How Liturgy Reads the Bible: In the Shadow and Letter of the Law

On this Day of Grace, forty days after the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Meeting of Lord, namely, of his presentation in the Temple (cf. St Luke 2:22-40). The rich service of this Feast affords us yet another opportunity to contemplate (albeit very briefly) how Liturgy reads the Biblethat is, how the Church’s liturgical texts interpret the Scriptures after the model of Apostolic and patristic exegesis.

In the shadow and letter of the Law, let us the faithful discern a figure: ‘Every male child that opens the womb shall be holy to God.’ Therefore the firstborn Word, Son of a Father who has no beginning, the firstborn child of a Mother who had not known man, we magnify. (Irmos of the IX Ode of the Canon at Matins)

In his Gospel narrative, St Luke writes (2:22-23) that Christ was brought to the Temple to be presented to the Lord according to what was written in the Law of Moses. Commenting on this, Liturgy calls the worshipping faithful to not simply regard St Luke’s indirect quotation of the Torah as a mere citation—a footnote, as it werebut to further discern in it a “figure,” a type (τύπον κατίδωμεν, typon katidōmen). It wasn’t only that Christ was presented in the Temple to fulfill the command of the Law, but rather that his presentation itself was The Fulfillment of the Law: he alone was the Holy One of God to which pointed every firstborn male that was presented to the Lord and called holy.

Here we have another example, then, of liturgical exegesis moving beyond a simple Messianic reading of an Old Testament text and firmly into an redemptive-historical understanding of it. And as I’ve written before, “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’.”

(For previous examples of how Liturgy reads the Bible, see here and here.)

For the Salvation of the People (Or, How Liturgy Reads the Bible)

I’m often asked, particularly in catechetical contexts, to offer a concrete example of how the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church can illuminate a given Biblical text. (The Church’s liturgical texts, no less than the Patristic writings, are rich in theological readings and other applications of Scripture; they are, for this reason, one of the chief sources that convey to us an authentically Orthodox approach to Holy Writ.) Some time ago, while singing the Vespers of the Feast of the Conception of St John the Baptist (Sep. 23/Nov.10; cf. St Luke 1:5-25), I found a wonderful example of this, which indeed helped me understand in new light a puzzling Biblical text.

The Service for this Feast (poetically) puts the following words in the mouth of St Zechariah, the father of St John, as he disputed with the angel who appeared to him while he discharged his priestly duties:

“Strange dost thou appear to me in aspect and manner; strange also in words and tidings,” answered Zechariah. “For I have come to ask for the salvation of the people, not to gain a child, as thou dost announce. I find thee contrary to my requests and I suspect that thou mayest not speak the truth; for how will what thou sayest be confirmed? The members of Elizabeth are deadened, and my own old age now counsels disbelief.” (2nd sticheron at “Lord, I Have Called”)

Why did St Zechariah doubt the words of God’s angel? Why was it so hard for him to accept the announcement that the God who had made Abraham and Sarah fruitful in their old age would also cause him and Elizabeth to have a child? The Church calls our attention to the context in which the angelic announcement took place: Zechariah, a priest of the division of Abijah, had gone into the Temple to offer incense to the Lord (cf. Exodus 30:1-8); his priestly job there was to pray for the salvation of the people. He could not understand why the angel would say “Your prayer has been heard” and then proceed to tell him about the child to be born to him and his wife in old age. As far as he could tell, this announcement was only a distraction from his priestly duty to stand and intercede before the Lord on behalf of the people. In spite of the angel’s opening words, he could not see that the answer to the prayer he offered right there and then for the salvation of the people and his lifelong prayer for progeny were intimately connected; that, in fact, praying for the salvation of the people was praying for himself and Elizabeth to have a child, and vice versa. And so the righteous Zechariahknowing who he is, where he is, and what he is supposed to be doing there doubts the angelic message, which seemingly contradicts everything he knows about all three of these things. But as Zechariah later realized, this was not so; because while his son would not be himself the Hope of Israel, he would be “called the prophet of the Most High, for [he would] go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (cf. St Luke 1:76).

(On a side note related to the larger subject at hand, I’m thinking of contributing a short essay to one Mr Nick Norelli’s 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit on Liturgy’s Trinitarian reading of the Bible in the Service for the Feast of Theophany. So if this topic interests you, you might want to watch out for that, as well.)

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 more prudent to refrain from any interminable discussion of these. Still I should like to mention that, to me, one the more interesting questions this raises is whether 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, as it turns out, 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). This promising approach could help to make unitary sense of the continuum of apostolic, patristic and liturgical exegesis, yet it remains neglected by researchers and therefore largely absent from the literature.

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).


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.