Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Exegesis of Psalm 118
Exegesis of Psalm 118
The Context: The Book of Psalms reached its present form quite late and the process of completion took several stages from the fifth to the second centuries B.C.E. Religious tradition depicts the Psalms as being the work of King David but the Psalms were not written down in Hebrew before the sixth century BCE, several hundred years after the generally accepted dating for the reign of David.
Critical analysis lends strength to the belief that the Psalms are more likely to be the combined work of several writers or schools of writers. Brueggemann gives a helpful analogy when he describes the psalms as being rather like negro spirituals
…that have no author or identifiable place of origin, but simply arise in the life and practice of the community and are found to be recurringly adequate to many different usages over time. W. Bruggemann, p279
Various collections of psalms were compiled over time to be used in liturgical settings by those responsible for worship, rather like guilds of liturgical performers, and that what we are left with is what Bruggemann calls a “long editorial-traditioning process” (p278) as these various collections were moulded and shaped for use in a variety of liturgical contexts until they settled into the form which we know today.
In addition there are clear patterns or formats to the Psalms. Hermann Gunkel pioneered Form Criticism and sought to provide a new way of interpreting the Psalms. He concluded that GENRE, rather than the individual psalm’s context within the Psalter was the key. According to Gunkel three conditions needed to be met for a psalm to fit into a genre.
• There needed to be a similar basis of worship or cultic setting.
• They were characterised by common thoughts, feelings and moods.
• They required a shared style or structure. H. Gunkle and J. Begrich, p16
Gunkel identifies six genre: hymns, enthronement psalms, communal laments, royal psalms, individual laments and individual thanksgiving, together with a number of smaller genre.
Psalm 118: Turning to Psalm 118: what we have, in Gunkel’s classification, is a psalm of individual thanksgiving. However Gunkel recognises that some psalms fit more than one category and Psalm 118 is also found under his list of Psalm Liturgies.
Here the form within the Thanksgiving Genre is:
• An expanded introduction expressing the intention to give thanks to Yahweh. (v1-4)
• An outline of the problem to a congregation which will encompass: the lament, the call to God and the deliverence. (v5-19)
• A public declaration of Yahweh’s acceptance. (v20 – 25)
• A thanks offering. (v26 – 29)
From the very outset, in verse 1, we have an echo of the ancient covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel in the idea of loving-kindness or hesed as the priest invites the congregation to repeat the liturgical statement that is common elsewhere in the Psalter: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, His love endures forever.” What is interesting about this psalm is the possibility that some of the original liturgical instructions may have become incorporated into the text of the Psalm. We can imagine the people standing outside the gates of the Jerusalem Temple and being required to repeat a creedal statement in some form of antiphonal response. It might be possible to identify the three groups represented by the designations, Israel, The House of Aaron and Those Who Fear Israel as the regular faithful, the Priests and the proselytes. G.A.F. Knight argues that from the outset we have the key as to the liturgical purpose of this Psalm.
It covers an act of worship in which a pagan is received into the fellowship of the people of God. He is welcomed by the priest of the day. G.A.F. Knight, p206
While Knight’s is not the general view, it is worth considering and it easy to see how he has reached his position: such converts were not uncommon in the community of Israel as those from other tribes who were attracted to the Law of Moses, were accepted into the covenant. In terms of dating this Psalm, however, the clue is little help: in the pre-exilic period many Canaanites were absorbed into the People of Israel, their very survival conditional upon their following Yahweh while in the post-exilic period Israel saw its role as welcoming in the nations as reflected in the themes of second Isaiah. Attempts at dating are further confused by the use of the term The House of Aaron to identify the priesthood. This would suggest a post-exilic dating as “Aaron” becomes the designation for the priesthood from the period of Ezra. Alternatively one could speculate that the line “Let the House of Aaron say….” is merely a later editing of the text to acknowledge a change in liturgical terminology and shows a traditioning process at work.
So if, as is likely, Knight is wrong, and this is not a psalm of conversion, whose is the primary voice of Psalm 118? In Israel there was a real corporate identity where the first person pronoun could authoritatively be said representing the community. If this is a psalm of Cultic proceeding, as Gunkle would argue, then the primary voice becomes a representative of the people. The military language in v 10-12 and 15-16 suggests the King who, in speaking about his experience of “God’s steadfast love” is, in fact, delivering a word of testimony on behalf of the nation (and there is some suggestion that this may be an annual event). Now that the King has Yahweh on his side his faith is strengthened, as is that of the people. “What can man (now) do to me?” he demands as he goes on to outline those generic things which used to overwhelm him (the nation) or perhaps a generic failing that equates to confession.
Whether the thanksgiving which follows is a new convert’s or the King’s the source of thanksgiving is the same: Yahweh is on his side. At this point the text lends itself to a form of response with the lead voice, either the new convert or the King leading the congregation.
Voice : All the nations surround me
Response: But in the name of the Lord I cut them off.
Voice : They surrounded me on every side
Response: But in the name of The Lord I cut them off.
Voice : They swarmed around me like bees
Response: but they died out as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of The Lord I cut them off.
Given that the Psalms, we now realize, are less private reflection and more public liturgy, this would not be unusual. In the Psalter there are 150 Psalms. Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that each had its particular niche as a liturgy? Some would be part of regular public worship while others would be occasional liturgies depending on the circumstances. “Depression, sir? You’ll be wanting the liturgy of Psalm 22 then.”
At verse 19 there is a change of mood. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the voice we now hear is the voice of the Priest. “Open to me the gate of righteosness” becomes a literal instruction rather than merely a spiritual aspiration. In this understanding, the liturgy of Psalm 118 is very much a drama. We see the Priest leading the congregation in procession from one temple court to another in an act of great symbolism. This is theatre in promenade and a liturgical drama managed by the Priests. It is a spiritual transition acted out.
It is the Priest who, in verse 20, makes a statement of authority on the status of the petitioner, new convert or chastened King: he is now Righteous in the sight of God and can therefore move deeper into the temple, closer to the Holy place. This is God’s saving love acted out as a public witness of faith. Does verse 21 now reveal the petitioner’s response? His statement “I will give you thanks, for you answered me: you have become my salvation” is a strikingly humble recognition of the working of God’s grace. It is God and God alone who has brought him to this point. Here we have jutification by faith not by good works Old Testament style.
What for many Christians is a statement about Christ in verses 22-24 is revealed as having an altogether different emphasis. The petitioner, whether former pagan or penitent King, is recognized as having been brought close to God. He is a new creation and we can “hear” the voices of his supporters in a formal response as they acknowledge his acceptance (or reacceptance) into the community of the faithful, perhaps in unison or perhaps in three groups:
• The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
• The Lord has done this and it is marvellous in our eyes.
• This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The one who was nearly rejected has been reinstated. The use of the idea of cornerstone would seem to strengthen the argument for the petitioner to be the King. The King is restored: all is well with the community.
In Christian understanding this is taken as a clear reference to Christ and verse 24 “This is the Day that the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it.” is a wonderful statement for Easter Day. Thus Christianity has taken this Psalm and used it to support the doctrine that God has acted to bring life to mankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.
That Christianity sees itself as the heir to the theology, history and traditions of Israel has always been a part of its self-understanding. In seeking to re-evaluate a past in the context of a man who has been accepted as the promised Messiah, Christian apologists have re-read the writings of the Tanakh in search of passages which can retrospectively legitimize their claim that Christ is indeed God’s Chosen One “Before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn 8.58).
However, regardless of Christianity’s view that Christ is the word of God both forward and backwards, the same yesterday, today and forever, there was a pre-existing understanding of this Psalm in the Jewish tradition which has value in its own right.
The Christian understanding of this section, while it may be valid, is not the primary understanding. While it is, in its broadest sense, a Psalm of David and therefore might be interpreted as having a Messianic element, it is primarily a Psalm of “fresh start”. The petitioner’s new acceptance by the worshipping community reflects back to the earlier sense of abandonment of verses 5-9.
The final section of the Psalm is one of thanksgiving and the symbolism and sense of theatre continue. Is the voice we now hear in verse 26 – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” - that of another priest, one who has a different liturgical responsibility in the new temple court? We can picture this priest standing at the door of the shrine building and inviting the now forgiven and justified petitioner to approach the altar of Yahweh to make an offering of thanksgiving. The petitioner follows what must have been this deeply moving and spiritual moment with an exultant cry of gratitude: “You are my God and I will give thanks; you are my God and I will exalt you.” To which the gathered congregation responds “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”
What we have in Psalm 118, then, is not the private reflections or meditations of “the psalmist” but a vibrant piece of active liturgy, taking the petitioner from the status of outcast, through confession and penitence to grace and acceptance by God into thanksgiving and full membership of the worshipping community: all witnessed by, and with the active participation of, that same worshipping community. We have a tantelising glimpse of the religious practices of a lost world. How exciting is that?
Knight, G.A.F: The Daily Study Bible – Psalms (Vol 1), St. Andrew Press, 1982.
Bruggemann, W: An Introduction to the Old Testament, WJK Press, 2003.
H. Gunkel and J. Begrich: Introduction to Psalms, Mercer University Press, 1998. (German edition 1933)