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Hear the Mystery of the Psalms

Paul Elledge Psalm 69

Years ago, a leading figure in my small Adventist community died in a horrible accident. I was a teenager at the time. My singular memory from the memorial service in the church sanctuary is the term imprecatory psalm. Through shared tears, his wife—suddenly a widow—bravely told us how she was now reading these biblical poems of divine vengeance as she wrestled with her personal pain and existential questions. Although I was too young to appreciate the metaphorical nuances involved in calling down God’s judgment, there was something profound in the mystery of the moment. This not so meek and mild genre of inspired scripture awakened me to the cathartic power of sharing messy emotions. 

One of the main benefits of studying the Hebrew religious hymns which start the Writings section of the Tanakh is that the anthological reality of Psalms offers a great way to expand discussions of biblical hermeneutics. Like cracking open a college poetry textbook, confronting the multi-author, repeatedly redacted mix of—at times, even back-of-the-class engaging language—leads to rich questions. How has meaning been found by audiences over the millennia with various tongues, of different cultures and religious systems? This polyvocality helps us appreciate the richness of sacred writ. Even at the triune Source there is mysterious unity in diversity. 

Most importantly, these used to play a central role in public worship. [Dear reader, if you are teaching the lesson this quarter, consider starting your group study just cold reading a psalm aloud. Even better, ask a variety of your class members to read several psalms cited in the week’s lesson to start class. Invite responses: What caught your attention? What moved you?]

The Adult Bible Study Guide introduces some of these historical-critical hermeneutical realities in the first week, including genre, context, authorship, structure, and inspiration—which involves writers, editors, listeners, and readers. One may hesitate at Spectrum including editors as receivers of God’s breath, but Friday’s lesson employs Ellen White to buttress this point, stating, “It is conceivable that the Hebrew scribes under the leadership of Ezra combined the existing smaller collections of psalms into one book when they worked on establishing the services of the new temple.” As scholars have shown, White’s published work received careful work by editors.

The following section from The Great Controversy, page 8, on the role of scribal assistants suggests profound self-awareness of how inspiration and literary production works:

“The fact that scribes consolidated the book of Psalms does not take away from their divine inspiration. The scribes, like the psalmists, were devoted servants of God, and their work was directed by God (Ezra 7:6, 10). The divine-human nature of the Psalms is comparable to the union of the divine and the human in the incarnated Lord Jesus. “But the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’”

Perhaps even to Ellen White, inspiration, like incarnation, offers a profound spiritual metaphor to understand the mysterium fidei

This introductory week of the quarterly draws on primary contributor Dragoslava Santrac’s doctoral work in the Old Testament and her section on Psalms 76–150 in volume six of the Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary (2022). Santrac works at the General Conference where she is the managing editor of the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. 

As a guide through the sometimes perplexing art and history of the psalms, Santrac helpfully details the essential approach: learning about the diversity and shared characteristics of the Psalms, writing, “the Psalter comprises a wide variety of genres: songs of thanksgiving, praises, confessions, prayers for deliverance, hymns for protection, imprecations, meditations on the Creator’s works, etc.” In the quarter’s first Teacher Comments, the lesson provides some helpful schematic organization that breaks up the biblical book into thematic and literary structures that, however debatable, at least offer a critical lens into the text. Unfortunately the lesson persists in dropping in single verse references, perhaps a remnant of a denominational prooftext style that distracts from appreciating the Psalms which sing an sich

Another unfortunate tendency are interpretive methodologies like trying to assign historical context or christological meaning to a specific psalm. As Walter Bruggemann writes in his An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, “The work of Psalm study, then, is to pay attention to the most distinctive rhetorical patterns that characteristically carry certain context appropriate to specific contexts” (279). Urging against trying to place each Psalm in a biblical narrative or surmise authorship, he draws on Hermann Gunkel, key founder of form criticism, in encouraging all to experience the Psalms as they have been used by believers for thousands of years: for personal and liturgical spiritual expression. The lesson joins this chorus, noting that, “though written more than 25 centuries ago, the Psalms transcend the time in which they were written and remain deeply relevant for us today. This quarter, encourage class members to pray through these songs, making them their personal prayers.”

Reflecting back to that memorial service I don’t remember the imprecatory verses the mourning widow read aloud. Maybe it was Psalm 69: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” What lingers seems a mystery about a mystery. Why does this memory of a public moment remain? Perhaps the psalms echo humanness, not only in a sanctuary, but across time.

Image: Paul Elledge, “Psalm 69” album cover for the band Ministry, 1992.

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About the author

Alexander Carpenter is the executive director and executive editor of Spectrum. More from Alexander Carpenter.
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