Psalms of… Vengeance?

Watterson Imprecation
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached a few weeks ago, with Psalm 55 (read it here) as my preaching text.


Can we pray them? Yes, we can!

Recently the The New York Times published an Opinion piece called “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us.” The subheading was: “They are our apex predator, the deadliest hunters of human beings on the planet.”

An opening line was innocent enough: “It has been one of the most aggravating sounds on earth for 190 million years — the humming buzz of a mosquito.”

But the article shared some alarming facts. It described mosquitoes as “a swarming army of 100 trillion that kills (some) 700,000 people annually…” and “…research suggests (they) may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived.”

Even the most humane among us have no trouble swatting or smushing a mosquito. We might have some choice words for them.

Were mosquitoes to become a topic of prayer, we’d have no trouble praying against them: may they die a thousand deaths; may they leave no progeny behind; may they burn in the unquenchable fire. Even as I was looking over this sermon in the cool quiet of the morning, I found myself praying for a wretched fate for the crows that loudly feasted on our compost.

But when it comes to praying against other people or institutions, we might be a little more reluctant. We might wonder: can I pray that? We hear David pray, “Let death come upon them; / …for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.” We wonder what to do with this verse and others like it, that are right here in our holy book.

Psalm 55 is a prayer of vengeance—an “imprecatory” Psalm is the category interpreters put it in. We have Psalm of thanksgiving, Psalms of confession, Psalms of trust, Psalms of lament, royal Psalms, and others. But the imprecatory Psalms may be the hardest ones to know what to do with. These are Psalms that, in short, call on God to take swift action on enemies, even to the point of their destruction (HT: Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies).

Imprecatory prayers can be as specific and harmless as, “Dear God, I pray that that person who is texting while driving would get into the slightest of fender benders as a harmless but effective wake-up call so that they never text and drive again.” And imprecatory prayers can be as broad and intense as, “God, destroy these your enemies, so that they never see the light of day again!”

Some commentators say we should not pray these Psalms, as Christians. The verse “Bless those who curse you,” they say, is reason to no longer ask God to curse those who curse us.

Some of these commentators—including ones with a high view of Scripture—have described these Psalms in less than favorable terms, like:

  • “defective prayers”
  • “cold-blooded”
  • prayers of “malignant cruelty” (SOURCE)
  • “terrible” / “contemptible”
  • “barbarous and revolting”
  • “a disgrace to human nature” (SOURCE)

C.S. Lewis reacts to these Psalms this way: “The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves” (Reflections on the Psalms, 22). Lewis said, the imprecatory Psalms—Psalms of vengeance—“are indeed devilish” (25).

He’s entitled to his interpretation, of course, but in recent months I have come to view prayers of vengeance in a different way. I’ve made it my practice—given myself permission, really—to pray like the Psalmists do when they’re praying God’s vengeance would come to earth.

Thinking of the haughty and proud who abuse their power, I’ve prayed words like these ones in Psalm 59:

For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.

For those that lie serially, and who incite violence, I have prayed words like these ones in today’s Psalm, Psalm 55:

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.

I’m far from alone in reading the Psalms this way. Readers and interpreters of these Psalms have argued that just like we need Psalms of lament, we need imprecatory Psalms—prayers of vengeance. This is especially true when we consider the church across the world, and Christians who may live under a kind of duress or oppression that we may not know in our contexts. One commentator says, “A diet of upbeat songs and positive testimonies does not meet the needs of those suffering disappointment, ill health, or persecution.”

To be clear, no one in this worshiping community has been the subject of my recent imprecatory prayers. But as I’ve tried to inhabit Psalms like the one we read—as I’ve tried to pattern my own prayers after them—I’ve been reminded that God is a God of mercy and a God of judgment.

This is not just an Old Testament characteristic of God, either. Even the New Testament features words of imprecation, on the lips of Paul and even on the lips of Jesus himself. Martyrs in Revelation 6, killed for the sake of Jesus, cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

In my own praying, I’ve found myself feeling more vulnerable and more honest in God’s presence when I pray a prayer like Psalm 55. That honesty has led me to a greater sense of intimacy, or at least to feel like I’m doing something.

The big question about imprecatory Psalms—with a nod to Bob the Builder—is: Can we pray them? Yes, we can!

Still, I think the Psalms suggest some important parameters, if we’re going to take the plunge and pray prayers of vengeance.

1. Leave vengeance to God

First, imprecatory Psalms leave vengeance to God. They leave vengeance to God.

This is hugely important, noted by many readers of the Psalms, and gives us a reason to pray a prayer we might otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Our Psalm ended like this:

But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.

It did not end like this

But I, O God, will case them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days, because I will make sure of it myself. I will trust in myself.

Fundamentally, a prayer calling God to take action against his enemies is an affirmation of trust in God. It’s to say, “This is God’s job; not mine.”

Deuteronomy and Romans and Hebrews all quote God as saying, “Vengeance is mine; I shall repay.” Vengeance is not ours. We do not repay. God does.

When Psalm 55 and others like it pray for vengeance, it’s an affirmation that God judges in a way we cannot and should not. Better to ask God to exact justice—even destruction—on a serial evildoer, than for us to go rogue try to do it ourselves.

Prayers of imprecation pray for vengeance to come from where it should come from—from the Almighty and just God, not from ourselves.

2. Know “your” enemies

A second parameter seems important to Psalmists who prayed against others: knowing who “enemies” really are. Prayers of vengeance are not for that kid in your class who just bugs you; they’re not for someone who looks at you funny; they’re not for New York Yankees fans.

Imprecatory Psalms are chiefly reserved for those who are enemies of God, who set themselves up against God’s righteousness and justice, and who persist in doing evil in the world. They are those who harm precious ones created in the image of God.

Think of our Matthew passage today. Jesus says:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Or consider Psalm 139, powerfully rendered in the King James Version:

O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, and Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; they have become my enemies.

As we say in my family sometimes, “Hate is a strong word.”

We’re probably hesitant (rightly!) to even use the word “enemy.” And we know Jesus calls us to love our enemies, whoever those may be.

But whatever else we make of this part of Psalm 139, the point of the pray-er is that he’s calling on God to silence and put an end not to those who speak against him, but who speak against God.

Prayers of vengeance are not for personal vendettas. They’re prayers that God would deal justly with God’s enemies. And if we want to know who those are, we’d do well to spend lots of time reading Scripture and praying and connecting with other Christians, so we don’t mistake our enemies for God’s enemies.

Further, we want to keep in mind, as Ephesians says, that

(O)ur struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

If you’ve got pent up energy and frustration when you see injustice and wickedness in the world—pray first “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Those are the invisible powers animating the visible powers of this world.

3. Imprecate yourself?

Psalmists who prayed imprecatory prayers (1) were leaving vengeance to God and (2) were defining as “enemies” those who set themselves up specifically as God’s enemies.

A third parameter that’s important, if we’re going to pray like this, is that we be ready to turn this kind of prayer back on ourselves.

In Psalm 139, David confesses in prayer to despising those who despise God, calling down judgment and destruction on them.

But we know how that Psalm ends:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

I trust I’m not the only one who has read that Psalm and skipped from, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” to, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” But those intense imprecations come in between. And they cause the ending to make even more sense.

David says, “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Because he knows that there may be others who could rightly pray prayers of imprecation against him! Bathsheba certainly could have. His daughter, whose rape David did not take seriously, certainly could have. He at least has the self-knowledge to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. See if there is any offensive way in me….”

We might consider a similar ending to our prayers, as we pray for God’s justice and judgement to be enacted on the wicked.

For example, we might pray against racism, and those who advance it. In the same prayer, we might also pray, “Lord, show me any racist thoughts—however minor!—in my heart. Reveal to me, God, if there are any ways have I benefited from and perpetuated systems of racism.”

And we pray against those who harm others day after day, we might also ask, “God, help me to see: how have I hurt others with my words and actions, perhaps causing them to want to pray prayers of imprecation against me?”

One interpreter cautions about these Psalms: “Those who pray them are inevitably faced with the question of their own complicity in the web of violence.”

That makes praying imprecatory prayers even harder—we maybe already feel uncomfortable praying them, but to do so in good conscience before God, we need to be ready to point the prayers back on ourselves.

“Surely there is a God”

Psalms of imprecation, at their best, leave vengeance to God; they define “enemies” less as their own enemies and more as God’s enemies; and they are ready to implicate themselves.

It’s helped me to see this kind of prayer as a more detailed expression of lines in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

If God’s kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, that means there will be judgement for the wicked.

One interpreter and modern-day prayer of these Psalms said it like this:

As poetic prayers, the psalms of vengeance are a passionate clinging to God when everything really speaks against God. For that reason they can rightly be psalms of zeal, to the extent that in them passion for God is aflame in the midst of the ashes of doubt about God and despair over human beings. These psalms are the expression of a longing that evil, and evil people, may not have the last word in history, for this world and its history belong to God.

Psalm 58, another one of these “Psalms of zeal,” we might call them, ends like this:

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

If God lets evil go on forever, what hope is there for us? If God cannot stop and will never stop evil, how can we have faith?

As with lament Psalms, imprecatory Psalms are a way for us to keep showing up in God’s presence, even when seemingly unchecked evil might otherwise shut us down and keep us quiet.

“Surely there is a God!”

We need to see—the world needs to see—God in all power, exercising mercy and judgment, so that we can all say, “Surely there is a God!”

Psalm Songs: The Best New Worship Music You Might Not Have Heard Yet

I wrote about the Psalms as descriptive and prescriptive not long ago:

The writers of the Psalms give language to the whole range of emotions: from gratitude to fear, from joy to lamentation, from petition to thanksgiving, from intimate, private prayers to national, corporate prayers. In this way they are eminently descriptive of the human experience.

The Psalms also prescriptively guide the reader into various postures of prayer, so that the one praying does not only ever approach God with petitions, or only ever with complaint, and so on. The cognitive and affective come together in the Psalms in sometimes unexpected ways. Psalms of lament, for example, often begin with a loud “Why?” (stressing the affective) yet end with a determined profession of faith like, “But I will trust in you still….” In this way they stress the use of cognitive powers in prayer—external life evidence notwithstanding!

The Psalms express (descriptively) and call forth (prescriptively) a whole spectrum of human experience in relationship to God. They teach us to bring our whole selves to God in worship.

There comes a point in biblical studies when one has to say, I guess we’ll never know. That’s especially true with possible musical settings of Israel’s Psalms (careful efforts notwithstanding). So when it comes to music today for the Psalms, the Church (and before that, the synagogue) has had to make the way by walking.

 

*    *    *    *    *

 

A few months ago I received an email from Adam Wright, a church worship leader in Alabama and primary force behind The Corner Room. He introduced me to his band’s Psalm Songs, Volume 1. I’ve heard Scripture set to music in ways that were helpful and edifying, as well as ways that were… well… not. I was getting ready to reply with what I usually need to say, which is that I’m behind on existing reviews and need to take a pass on writing about this record. But then I listened and found myself spending at least a half hour at his site. Months later the record is still on regular rotation at our house and during my sermon preparation sessions and in our car.

 

Adam Wright (image via The Corner Room)
Adam Wright (image via The Corner Room)

 

Each of the album’s ten tracks sets a Psalm to full-band music. Adam writes, “As the Psalms are diverse in their character and intent, so is the musical character of this collection – rock, folk, bluegrass and modern worship are genres you’ll hear on this first volume.” Not only that, the kinds of Psalms represented are wonderfully diverse. The album covers a broad range: from the Psalm of Ascent (121) to the pastoral Psalm (23) to the lament Psalm (42)–and that’s just the first three tracks!

Adam’s voice on the record is perfect. It’s smooth but not overly saccharine, strong but not abrasive, and his soaring tenor has me singing in my falsetto just to try to keep pace. He calls to mind Chris Thiele, not just in terms of vocal timbre, but also in his ability to effortlessly cover different styles of music. If Adam will forgive my mild Hoosiers obsession, I can say that he’s as good a songwriter, musician, and band leader as Jimmy Chitwood is a ball player.

 

Jimmy Chitwood Hoosiers
Psalm Songs: Like This Guy’s Shooting Set to Music

 

The musicianship on Psalm Songs is as good as it gets. The band is tight and the instrument parts all fit together well–from mandolin to guitar to fiddle to bass and drums. The multi-part harmonies so characteristic of bluegrass will have you singing along as soon as you know the song.

 

*    *    *    *    *

 

psalm songs vol 1_itunes imageThe album takes the Psalms verbatim from the English Standard Version. The ESV is not my all-time favorite translation–I will probably always take issue with the generic Hebrew or Greek word for human being translated as “man.” But that version is more fluildy poetic than I expected for the Psalms. Rare is the moment on the album when the words feel shoehorned into the music–the settings do the Psalms great justice.

Psalm 23 has been set to music so many times, one might wonder how it could be done well again. But the second track is poignant and uplifting all at once. It’s got a moving video, too:

 

 

The other two videos at this page are pretty awesome, too.

One of Adam’s driving motivations, by the way, is to help people memorize Scripture via these musical settings. I’ve found the music helpful to that end, for sure.

I could go on about how much I like this record (and my three kids are big fans, too, especially of the opening Psalm 121). But go listen for a few minutes and I suspect you’ll have the same reaction I did, that this is an album you’ll not only want to own, but will also want to get a few copies of so you can give away to others.

Check out The Corner Room’s site here. You can also get Psalm Songs on iTunes (link) and Amazon (link).

 


 

I received Psalm Songs, Volume 1 free for the purposes of review–I’ve already given away my hard copy but am happily still listening to an electronic copy.

A Three-Volume, Multi-Thousand Page Commentary for Psalms Study

Engagement with the Psalms—reading them, owning them, singing them, praying them, and taking cues from them—is vital for robust worship and spiritual formation in the church. If they truly are “a Bible in miniature,” as Luther has said, they offer the opportunity for the church to grow in its spiritual and emotional maturity.

 

Descriptive, Prescriptive

 

The writers of the Psalms give language to the whole range of emotions: from gratitude to fear, from joy to lamentation, from petition to thanksgiving, from intimate, private prayers to national, corporate prayers. In this way they are eminently descriptive of the human experience.

The Psalms also prescriptively guide the reader into various postures of prayer, so that the one praying does not only ever approach God with petitions, or only ever with complaint, and so on. The cognitive and affective come together in the Psalms in sometimes unexpected ways. Psalms of lament, for example, often begin with a loud “Why?” (stressing the affective) yet end with a determined profession of faith like, “But I will trust in you still….” In this way they stress the use of cognitive powers in prayer—external life evidence notwithstanding!

The Psalms express (descriptively) and call forth (prescriptively) a whole spectrum of human experience in relationship to God. They teach us to bring our whole selves to God in worship.

 

Preaching the Psalms

 

But how to preach them? One will need to take into account intercultural realities. Understanding the role of a shepherd in ancient society will certainly help with Psalm 23. And soul-searching is required.

 

Psalms of Summer

 

A good set of commentaries helps, too. I preached some Psalms a couple summers ago, and found these two options quite helpful.

Just completed, too, is Allen P. Ross’s three-volume, multi-thousand page commentary on the Psalms, published by Kregel Academic.

 

Ross’s Commentary, in Three Volumes

 

Ross Psalms Vol. 1

 

Volume 1 has more than 150 pages of introductory material, covering:

  • “Value of the Psalms” (Ross says, “It is impossible to express adequately the value of the Book of Psalms to the household of faith”)
  • “Text and Ancient Versions of the Psalms”
  • “History of the Interpretation of the Psalms”
  • “Interpreting Biblical Poetry”
  • “Literary Forms and Functions in the Psalms” (the best starting place, I thought)
  • “Psalms in Worship”
  • “Theology of the Psalms”
  • “Exposition of the Psalms”

I haven’t seen the just-released third volume, but Kregel was kind to send me the first two volumes for review. In what follows I interact with those books. Volume 1 covers Psalms 1-41; Volume 2 treats Psalms 42-89.

 

The Commentary Layout (Psalm 42 as Case Study)

 

Even in the Table of Contents you can get a sense of where Ross will go with a given Psalm, as each Psalm listed includes summary titles. Psalm 1 is “The Life That Is Blessed.” Psalm 23: “The Faithful Provisions of the LORD.” Psalm 46: “The Powerful Presence of God.” Psalm 51: “The Necessity of Full Forgiveness.”

Introduction to the Psalm

Then there follows Ross’s introduction to the Psalm. He provides his own translation from Hebrew with extensive notes, analyzing the text and textual variants. Psalm 42:2, for example, he translates:

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When shall I come and appear before God?

His footnote offers a point of interest: “This first ‘God’ is not in the Greek version; it simply reads ‘for the living God.’” He often has the Septuagint in view, which I especially appreciate. On Psalm 42:9, for example (“I say to God, my rock…”), he notes:

The Greek interprets the image with ἀντιλήμπτωρ μου εἶ, “you are my supporter/helper.”

Not that every footnote “will preach,” but they don’t need to—Ross offers a wealth of insight that will help preacher, student, and professor better understand the text as it has come down to us.

Still with each Psalm’s introductory material, the “Composition and Context” session sets the Psalm in its biblical-literary context and explores background information (where available). Regarding Psalm 42, Ross says:

And Psalm 42 is unique in supplying details of the location. The psalmist is apparently separated from the formal place of worship in Jerusalem by some distance, finding himself in the mountainous regions of the sources of the Jordan. There is no explanation of why he was there; and there is no information about who the psalmist was.

Ross Psalms Vol. 2Reading the commentary, one trusts that were there such information, Ross would have unearthed and presented it!

Then there is a summary “Exegetical Analysis,” followed by an outline of the Psalm. Anyone looking to get their bearings quickly with a Psalm will find this one of the most helpful sections. Here is Ross again, with his summary of Psalm 42:

Yearning in his soul for restoration to communion with the living God in Zion and lamenting the fact that his adversaries have prevented him, the psalmist encourages himself as he petitions the LORD to vindicate him and lead him back to the temple where he will find spiritual fulfillment and joy.

Commentary in Expository Form

After each Psalm’s generous introduction, Ross presents the commentary proper (“Commentary in Expository Form”). It’s as detailed as one would expect and hope. Here he is, for example, on Psalm 42:3-4 (“They must endure the taunts of unbelievers”):

In the meantime, the psalmist must endure the taunts of his enemies—enemies of his faith. In this he is an archetype of believers down through the ages who are taunted for their faith. This has caused him tremendous grief, so much so that he says his tears have been his food night and day (see Pss. 80:5 and 102:9; Job 3:24). The line has several figures: “tear” (collective for “tears”) represents his sorrow (a metonymy of effect); “food” compares his sorrow with his daily portion (a metaphor); and “day and night” means all the time (a merism). The cause of his sorrow is their challenging question: “when they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God’?” (see Pss. 74:10 and 115:2). The unbelieving world does not understand the faith and is unsympathetic to believers. “Where is your God?” is a rhetorical question, meaning your God does not exist and will not deliver you—it is foolish to believe. For someone who is as devout as the psalmist, this is a painful taunt.

This blend of careful attention to the text and reverent devotion to the God who breathed it is typical of the Ross’s rich comments.

Message and Application

Though Ross already offers theological interpretation in the commentary proper, the Message and Application section is one any reader will appreciate. He often reads (in a good way) through a New Testament and Christological lens, as with Psalms 42-43:

But in the New Testament the greatest longing of those who are spiritual is to be in the heavenly sanctuary with the Lord, for that will be the great and lasting vindication of the faith. Paul said he would rather be at home with the Lord—but whether there or here, he would try to please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8–9). And Paul certainly knew what it meant to be persecuted for his faith. But the marvelous part of the desire to be in the heavenly sanctuary is that the Lord Jesus Christ desires that we be there with him, to see his glory (John 14:3; 17:24). Throughout the history of the faith believers have desired to go to the sanctuary to see the LORD (see Ps. 63); in Christ Jesus that desire will be fulfilled gloriously.

Those looking for a dispassionate commentary or for one that does not find Jesus in the Hebrew Bible will be better served looking elsewhere. To my mind, this dynamic is one of the great strengths of these volumes.

Toward the end of a Psalm, then, Ross boils it down to an italicized expositional message. This is one of the (many) highlights of the commentary, as it pulls everything together from Ross’s careful exegesis into the world of the listener. Here is how he puts Psalm 23:

The righteous desire to be in the presence of the Lord where they will feed on his Word, find spiritual restoration, be guided into righteousness, be reminded of his protective presence, receive provisions from his bounty, and be joyfully welcomed by him.

Where to Get It

 

Here is where to find these fine books:

Volume 1: Amazon / Kregel

Volume 2: Amazon / Kregel

Volume 3: Amazon / Kregel

 


 

Thanks to Kregel for the review copies of both books, given to me for the purposes of reviewing them, but with no expectation as to the content of this post.

A Seven-Syllable, Emphatic Word of Praise

One thing that continually impresses me about Greek is its preponderance of multisyllabic words.

Much of this has to do with how its verbs are conjugated. The four-syllable verb μεγαλυνω, for example, when inflected in Psalm 19:8 (Psalm 20:7 in English Bibles), becomes a majestic seven-syllable ending to an already beautiful verse:

ουτοι εν αρμασιν και ουτοι εν ιπποις,
ημεις δε εν ονοματι κυριου θεου ημων μεγαλυνθησομεθα.

Here is an English translation:

These ones take pride in chariots, and these ones in horses,
But as for us, we will find glory in the name of the Lord!

Though I’m a week behind on the reading plan, little gems like this make reading the Greek Psalms in a Year well worth the effort.

Greek Psalms: Some Standout Verses So Far

 

LXX Psalm 1
 LXX Psalm 1

Greek Psalms in a Year is almost through its first month. Here are some verses that have really stuck with me, both in the Greek and with the NETS (New English Translation of the Septuagint) translation. All references below are according to the Septuagint versification:

Psalm 3:4

συ δε, κυριε, αντιλημπτωρ μου ει, 

δοξα μου και υψων την κεφαλην μου.

 

But you, O Lord, you are my supporter,

my glory, and one who lifts up my head.

 

Psalm 9:10-12

και εγενετο κυριος καταφυγη τω πενητι, 

βοηθος εν ευκαιριαις εν θλιψει· 

και ελπισατωσαν επι σε οι γινωσκοντες το ονομα σου, 

οτι ουκ εγκατελιπες τους εκζητουντας σε, κυριε. 

ψαλατε τω κυριω τω κατοικουντι εν Σιων, 

αναγγειλατε εν τοις εθνεσιν τα επιτηδευματα αυτου,

 

And the Lord became a refuge for the needy,

a helper at opportune times in affliction. 

And let those who know your name hope in you,

because you did not forsake those who seek you, O Lord. 

Make music to the Lord, who resides in Sion.

Declare his practices among the nations,

 

Psalm 9:19

οτι ουκ εις τελος επιλησθησεται ο πτωχος, 

η υπομονη των πενητων ουκ απολειται εις τον αιωνα.

 

Because the poor shall not be completely forgotten,

the endurance of the needy shall not perish forever.

 

There are others, too, but Psalm 9 especially—with its focus on God’s compassion for the poor—struck me as important… and convicting.

 

Greek Psalms in a Year: Resources for Reading

LXX Psalm 1
LXX Psalm 1

Greek Psalms in a Year starts this coming Thursday. The two primary loci of activity (at least online) are the Facebook group and now a dedicated sub-section of the Accordance Forums. (Thanks, Accordance, for hosting!)

Follow along or contribute to either place for what is going to be a challenging and rewarding year-long activity.

Here is the reading plan, compiled by Russell Beatty.

In this post, I offer a sampling of resources–electronic and in print–that could be of help in reading through the Psalms in Greek. Do you know of anything not mentioned here? Please add it in the comments. You can also contact me with any questions or comments about the endeavor.

 

Greek LXX Texts: Electronic

 
 

Greek LXX Texts: Print

 
  • Rahlfs
  • Göttingen
  • Oxford University Press (out of print!): The Comparative Psalter (Hebrew MT, RSV, Rahlfs LXX, NETS) (Amazon)
  • Psalter Synopse (Hebrew, LXX, two German editions) (Amazon)
 

English Translations of LXX: Electronic

 
 

English Translations of LXX: Print

 

 

Images or Transcriptions of the Greek Text

 

 

Transmission/Reception of the Greek Text

 
  • Albert Pietersma’s article: “The Present State of the Critical Text of the Greek Psalter” (PDF)
 

Monographs and Collections of Essays

 
  • A Question of Methodology: Collected Essays on the Septuagint, by Albert Pietersma (Peeters)
  • The Old Greek Psalter: Studies in Honour of Albert Pietersma (The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies) (Amazon)
  • Psalms 38 and 145 of the Old Greek Version, by Randall X. Gauthier (Brill)
  • Emanuel Tov, The Greek and Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays on the Septuagint (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999) (Amazon)
 

Sermons and Devotionals on the Psalms

 
 

Septuagint Lexicons

 

 

Vocabulary Help

 

  • This. An amazing resource via Daniel Semler for Greek Psalms vocab acquisition, set up both for Anki and Mental Case

Happy reading!

Coming Soon: Greek Psalms in a Year

LXX Psalm 1
LXX Psalm 1

It’s funny–I was just thinking the other day about how much I missed Greek Isaiah in a Year. More than 200 of us read through the Septuagint text of Isaiah in a year, roughly five verses a day. Both the readings and the discussion were rich.

I didn’t do anything like that this past year, though the Greek Isaiah in a Year Facebook group I’d created stayed active, as folks went after it a second time.

Just this afternoon I learned that Russell Beatty, a member of the Greek Isaiah group, has started a Greek Psalms in a Year group, to launch January 1, 2015.

That group is on Facebook, and you can see the well laid out reading plan here.

I preached through some Psalms this past summer, which greatly deepened my love for that book of the Bible.

I can’t wait to get started–feel free to contact me or request to join the Facebook group if you’d like to read along with us.

Through the Psalms? 2 Books to Help

Before the mid-50 degree winds blow Psalms of Summer too far back into my homiletical consciousness, I want to highlight two Psalms commentaries I used every week this summer.

They are Willem A. VanGemeren’s Psalms (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised edition) and Gerald H. Wilson’s Psalms Volume 1 (NIV Application Commentary), both from Zondervan.

 

1. Revised EBC

 

Psalms Revised EBC

In the EBC set’s previous edition, Psalms was only available in a larger volume that also contained Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Now, with some expansions and revisions, it is its own 1,000-page volume.

VanGemeren’s introduction is detailed, offering the kind of thorough but not verbose overview anyone reading or preaching on the Psalms would want. Among other issues, he writes about Psalm types, the formation of the Psalter, theology in the Psalms, and literary/poetic devices–in addition to parallelism, he lists and describes 16 devices.

The typical pattern is for each Psalm to begin with an Overview (covering its themes, structure, authorship, and so on). Then follow “Commentary” and “Notes” for each passage. The Commentary section is verse-by-verse exposition; the Notes include more detailed technical insights, especially delving into the Hebrew text. 22 “Reflections” throughout the commentary offer additional explanation of important themes.

To take just one look inside the commentary, Psalm 13:5-6 in the NIV (1984) reads:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.

Of these verses VanGemeren says:

Though he has experienced deep despair, the psalmist does not give up. His feet did not slip. He held on to the promise of God’s covenant love: “your unfailing love” (hesed). He is not overwhelmed by his troubles, but in his depression he says, “But I trust.” The emphatic “But I” (v.5) is a surprising response from the heart of a depressed person. Because life may be so bitter for some, it is only by God’s grace that the heart of faith may groan, “but I.”

 

2. NIVAC

 

Psalms Vol 1 NIVACAs with the Revised EBC volume, the introduction to Psalms Volume 1 in the NIV Application Commentary series (NIVAC) covers good ground: authorship, historical use of Psalms (in temple worship, as well as the move “from public performance to private piety”), poetic conventions, Hebrew poetry specifically (parallelism, use of refrains, acrostics), Psalm headings, and types of Psalms.

Wilson–after an informative historical survey of attempts to categorize Psalms–highlights three “main” Psalm types: Praise, Lament, and Thanksgiving. He also notes other types, like royal Psalms and wisdom Psalms. The introduction spans more than 60 pages and (thankfully) exceeds what one might expect to find in an “application commentary.”

The NIVAC series has as its primary goal “to help you with the difficult but vital task of bringing an ancient message into a modern context.” It employs three sections for each Psalm to (quite successfully) accomplish the aim:

  1. Original Meaning: “the meaning of the biblical text in its original context.”
  2. Bridging Contexts: “to help you discern what is timeless in the timely pages of the Bible–and what is not,” i.e., what applies only particularly to a context and not universally.
  3. Contemporary Significance: the application section, including suggestions for the preacher or teacher or reader of the passage.

The text of each Psalm is printed in full before its commentary, which I appreciated. This first volume covers Psalms 1-72 (Books I and II of the Psalter). The author is as adept in the text’s Original Meaning as he is in Bridging Contexts or discussing its Contemporary Significance. Wilson won’t write your sermon for you, but he gives the preacher or teacher plenty to chew on, both for herself and for her congregation. Especially illuminating in the application section is Wilson’s Christological read of many Psalms.

Here are just two examples of the kind of edifying insights that fill Wilson’s NIVAC volume:

1. He notes the walk…stand…sit progression of Psalm 1, and does so with a nice turn of phrase:

The order of these verbs may indicate a gradual descent into evil, in which one first walks alongside, then stops, and ultimately takes up permanent residence in the company of the wicked.

2. When Sons of Korah in Psalm 46 call the congregation to a counterintuitive praise session, they do so in the midst not just of some tragic events befalling God’s people—it’s the complete disintegration of all of life that is the dominant metaphor in these verses. Wilson says that when the Psalm speaks of mountains falling into the sea, this “amounts to a moment of uncreation.”

 

Praying with Many, Many Others

 

Wilson puts it well:

Thus, whenever you read the psalms, when you sing them or pray them, you are praying, singing, and reading alongside a huge crowd of faithful witnesses throughout the ages. The words you speak have been spoken thousands–even millions–of times before: in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, and a myriad of other languages. As you read or sing or pray, off to your right stand Moses and Miriam, in front of you David and Solomon kneel down, to your left are Jesus, Peter and Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, while from behind come the voices of Jerome, St. Augustine, Theresa of Avila, Luther, Calvin, and more–so many more!

 

Thanks to Zondervan for review copies of each of the above, given to me with no expectation as to the content or trajectory of my review. Find the Revised EBC volume here (Amazon) or here (Zondervan). The NIVAC Psalms volume is here (Amazon) or here (Zondervan). 

From the Study… Books for Sale

Last weekend I built a sandbox; this weekend I’m cleaning up the study. I have a few books I’m trying to unload. Contact me here if you’re interested.

 

Simplified Guide to BHS (Hebrew Bible)
(Scott, 1990 Second Edition, includes Ruger’s English Key to Latin Words, bound together), hard to find in print. One page has writing, but is helpful to understanding text. Previous owner’s name inside front cover; sticker residue on back (slight).
$20

 

Hand Concordance to Greek NTHandkonkordanz zum Griechischen Neuen Testament (English and German)
Super-handy small concordance to Greek New Testament… I just don’t have use for it recently. See reviews at Amazon link here. Good to Very Good condition (sticker on back, some regular wear, but clean inside and strong binding).
$22

 

Seow Hebrew GrammarC.L. Seow’s Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (1987)
Pencil notations throughout (one page pen), otherwise great condition. Old sticker on back.
$10

 

The increasingly hard-to-find NIV Triglot Old Testament
Yes, English, Greek and Hebrew. It’s a big and impressive-looking hardback. Really good condition. Name inside front cover. No markings that I’m aware of. No dust cover (but you were just going to take that off as soon as you got it anyway, right?).
$22

 

Behold, the Triglot
Behold, the Triglot

 

Spurgeon Treasury of DavidSpurgeon’s 3-Volume Treasury of David
Commentary on the Psalms, hardcover (green dust jackets). Hardly used, in great shape. One volume has a small coffee splash on page edges. Not a set of books I’d normally want to part with, but I have it electronically now.
$29

 

Bonhoeffer Fiction from Tegel PrisonDietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 7 (Fiction from Tegel Prison)
Hardcover. Brand new, still in shrink wrap.
$14

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 9 (The Young Bonhoeffer, 1918-1927)
Hardcover. Still in original shrink wrap. Just a tiny bit of bumping to spine edges, one corner ever-so-slightly dinged.
$20

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 10 (Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931)
Hardcover. Dust jacket, page edges, and corners show some wear/bumping, but not much. Insides unmarked, never used.
$25

 

Interested? Contact me here to inquire.

 

The Real Reason We Don’t Take a Sabbath

Traffic Jam
One of the many things New Englanders are good at is taking a summer vacation. You see the evidence of this if you are driving on 128, 95, or 93 on a Sunday afternoon or evening, when everyone is coming back from a weekend or day away.

Nonetheless, our life’s work can easily take over if we’re not careful. We forget the truths of Psalm 127—that it is God who makes our work truly come alive. We do our work with a sort of Tower of Babel mentality… I’m just going to get this done really quick by myself.
 

Unless the Lord Builds….

 
Psalm 127:1-2 says:

Unless the LORD builds the house,
      its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
      the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise early
      and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
      for he grants sleep to those he loves.

The other day I finished an intensive summer class on Cross Cultural Counseling. The final paper I turned in was in its 7th or 8th draft when I finally clicked the Send button to submit it to my professor.

So recently I can relate to “rise early and stay up late.” If your life’s work involves taking care of other people, early mornings or late nights when they are asleep might be your best time to work through your task list. These two verses don’t say not to do that. But they do caution us against squeezing more hours out of our day without deliberately inviting and acknowledging God’s presence in those working hours.

I can stand watch early over my work, but that work is good only because God stands watch with me. Work without God, Solomon says, is in vain.

Besides that, you need to sleep. God knows that. Sleep is part of the benefits package, if you will, of those who work with the God of Israel.

“He grants sleep to those he loves.”  (I.e., to everyone.)

Our bodies have an amazing way of getting sleep when they need it. If we go for too long without enough sleep, our bodies just shut down. We may fall asleep involuntarily. This is one of the ways, I think, that God grants sleep to those he loves: When we’re tired enough, our bodies will sleep, whether we want them to or not. So you might as well get out of your chair or off the couch, brush your teeth, and get in your bed.
 

Why We Should Take a Sabbath

 
Another manifestation of God’s granting of sleep—rest—to the ones he loves is the gift of a Sabbath day. A Sabbath day of rest is part of the natural, biological rhythm that God set up from the very beginning of creation. God did his work—created the heavens and the earth, life and all that is in them—in six days. And on the seventh day, he rested. He didn’t do or create anything. Six days on, one day off.

Psalms of SummerWe don’t need much intellectual convincing of the value of Sabbath-keeping. We know that practicing the Sabbath follows God’s pattern of six days on, one day off. (Work and rest, work and rest… not: work and work, work and work.)

We know that keeping a Sabbath re-orients us to God, in case we forgot about God during the rest of the week. We experience Sabbath as a gift of refreshment when we most need it, part of the full life that Jesus promised. (A Sabbath-less life is really only half a life.)

And who wants to eat what verse 2 of this Psalm calls “the bread of anxious toil”? We’ve ordered and eaten that dish, right? It’s disgusting. The bread of anxious toil leaves a bad aftertaste; it gives you heartburn.

Besides, we can’t really be productive 7 days a week anyway. Even multitasking doesn’t really give us an edge. A New York Times article says, “In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, [on] Facebook and [at] a meeting is really doing something called ‘rapid toggling between tasks,’ and is engaged in constant context switching.” We can’t just keep switching contexts and rapidly “[toggle] between tasks” for 7 days. That’s exhausting.
 

Sabbath: Not Just a Day, A Mindset

 
The practice and mentality and posture of Sabbath-keeping is not just for one day, but we can practice a Sabbath mindset in all of life, turning to God and acknowledging his presence in our work and in our rest, in our waking hours and in our sleeping hours.

Clement of Alexandria, one of those highly quotable early church dudes, said,

Practice husbandry if you’re a husbandman, but while you till your fields, know God.  Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the while on the heavenly pilot.

Here’s how The Message puts Jesus’ words in Matthew:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out…? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

That’s what we want. That sounds amazing. We need no convincing whatsoever of the value of Sabbath-keeping, both as a distinct day of the week and as an ongoing daily mindset.
 

Why We Don’t Keep Sabbath, Really: Internal Competing Values

 
And yet, we don’t take a Sabbath as we should. Or we do, but three days into the week, we forget to practice a daily Sabbath orientation toward God with complete reliance on him. We turn to our own inner resources to face our life’s work.

Euguene Peterson warns against “un-Sabbathed workplace” when he says,

[W]ithout a Sabbath…the workplace is soon emptied of any sense of the presence of God. The work itself becomes an end in itself. It is this ‘end in itself’ that makes an un-Sabbathed workplace a breeding ground for idols. We make idols in our workplaces when we reduce our relationships to functions that we can manage. We make idols in our workplaces when we reduce work to the dimensions of our egos and our control.

Why do we do this? We don’t really think about other people as just relationships to be managed, do we? We’re not really egomaniacs, right? At least, in the depths of our beings, we don’t want to live like that.

Is this as simple as just saying, “Okay, well, I guess we need to take a Sabbath more. We should practice a Sabbath mentality more often in our daily endeavors”? We’re just a forgetful and disobedient people and we need to obey to this 4th commandment.

There is some truth to that. But I don’t think it’s just disobedience or forgetfulness or laziness that leads to an un-Sabbathed life.

I think the main Christians don’t take a Sabbath, or don’t practice a daily Sabbath mentality, is because of our competing internal values.

Kegan and LaheyTwo educators at Harvard—Kegan and Lahey—have a diagnostic grid that I’ve found immensely helpful for unearthing my sometimes subtle competing values. It’s from their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work.

The essence of their diagnostic is to begin with a commitment or value or belief—something where we say it’s really great if this happens. In this case, to adapt their language, “We are committed to the value or importance of… Sabbath-keeping,” both as a distinct day and as a mentality throughout the week.

Then we ask, “What are we doing or not doing that prevents this from happening?” So think for a moment, what are you doing or not doing that prevents Sabbath-keeping and rest from happening?

There may be some forces outside of your control—small children, an overbearing boss. But what are you doing that prevents a Sabbath rhythm in your life?

Underneath the answer to that question is a competing commitment or value or belief. Based on what I’m doing to undermine my Sabbath-keeping—checking email on a day off, not calling in anyone else for help–“I may also be committed to…” getting everything done myself and making sure it gets done right. Or, “I may also be committed to” just keeping going, because I have to.

Where Kegan and Lahey’s grid gets really fascinating is in what comes after you’ve unearthed your competing value. They suggest that each competing value carries with it a big assumption that may or may not be true.

If I don’t do this task, it will never get done, and there is no one else in the entire universe who can do it as well as I would.

Or, I’m committed to working 7 days a week (competing value), because (here’s the big assumption) if I stop and take a Sabbath, I’ll be so stressed out the day after the Sabbath with catching up, that it won’t have been worth it.

Or, if I slow down enough to practice a Sabbath mentality, I might become less productive.

Walter Bruegemmann talks about this kind of assumption as a scarcity mentality. He says:

There’s never enough time; there’s never a moment’s rest. … But how willing are we to practice Sabbath? A Sabbath spent catching up on chores we were too busy to do during the week is hardly a testimony to abundance. [It] does nothing to weaken the domain of scarcity. Honoring the Sabbath is a form of witness. It tells the world that ‘there is enough.’”

There is enough. There is enough time for us to stop on the 7th day, and to slow down on the other 6 days and to dwell in the watching presence of God.

It’s true that we have a bundle of competing values, commitments, and assumptions that keep us from fully practicing God’s call to a Sabbath rest.

But ultimately, a Sabbath way of life acknowledges that God is God and we are not.

God can and does complete building projects that we cannot finish. God can and does stay awake watching, guarding, protecting, so we can sleep.
 

A Modest Experiment: Four Weeks of Sabbath

 
Here’s the final square in Kegan and Lahey’s competing values diagnostic: Try “a modest, safe test.”

back to school
NO.

I had to pinch myself the other day when I saw a “Back to School” sign up at the store. Our summer just started! But we’re just a few weeks away from Labor Day.

It’s time to start planning your fall, if you haven’t already. And I would propose that as you do, you try a “modest, safe test,” with regard to Sabbath-keeping.

Plan a Sabbath each week for the next four weeks and keep it. Make it a Sabbath from technology. From your job. From household chores. And after four weeks, evaluate it. See how it went. See if all the things you thought would go wrong (if you took a break), actually did go wrong.

Or… see if you find yourself refreshed and living with a heightened awareness of God’s watching presence. See if you find the scarcity you feared… or, if you find instead an abundance of good gifts from the God who gives rest to the ones he loves.

I preached on Psalm 127:1-2 this last Sunday, from which the above is adapted. See my other Psalms sermons here.