Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Hyperbole and Analogy

When trying to understand individual psalms, three questions are helpful to ask:
  1. How was this psalm understood by its original audience?
  2. To what other circumstances might this psalm legitimately apply?
  3. Where is Christ in this psalm; and, conversely, where is he not?
The first and third questions are easily understood, even if it is sometimes tough sledding to find the answers to them. The second requires a little explanation.

When we speak of “applying” a psalm, it is necessary to distinguish between two very different sorts of application common both in the commentaries and in Christian circles generally. I refer to them as application by hyperbole and application by analogy. The latter is legitimate; the former is not.

Hyperbole

We are living in an age where hyperbole is the order of the day. Hyperbole is exaggeration for effect. You are using hyperbole when you call the lady at the entrance to the grocery store a fascist because she wants you to put your mask on to shop there, or when you refer to Donald Trump as “Hitler”. The least-attentive student of history knows you are grossly exaggerating the case, but the technique is nevertheless very common, mostly because it is so effective in getting us what we want. People do not like to be called “brownshirts” and “Nazis” for trying to enforce basic points of civic order, and they tend to capitulate when they think that is how they are being viewed.

A less extreme example of hyperbole is found is referring to the Spanish Inquisition as a “scourge”. Again, history helps us examine the legitimacy of such a claim. The Inquisition took place over a period of almost 400 years, meaning that the average number of Inquisition-related deaths per year in Spain during that period ranged somewhere between six and fourteen persons, many of which were classified, rightly or wrongly, as political enemies of the Spanish State. All respect to the friends and family members of those who were killed at the behest of the Inquisitors, but if numbers in the single and low-double digits annually constitute a “scourge”, then we are left with no English words to describe atrocities in which hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands are killed. We have exhausted the upper limits of our vocabulary far too early, and are using words in a way in which they were never intended.

Analogy

Analogy is a little different. When we draw an analogy, we are putting side-by-side two things which may be quite different in essence, but are roughly comparable in intensity. To compare the loss of a beloved spouse to an earthquake is a legitimate analogy. A death is not a literally seismic event, but it may have comparable effects on the human psyche in the emotional and spiritual realm. The bereft partner may still be drawing breath, but her life seems to her as comprehensively wrecked as in the aftermath of a 4.0 Richter Scale event. The poetic language of scripture is rife with analogy, but there is always a roughly equal level of seriousness between the actual events and the things to which they are poetically compared, even if those effects are felt in different realms of life.

So then, when we ask ourselves to what other levels of meaning a psalm might be applicable, we are looking for legitimate, Spirit-given analogies, not applications by way of hyperbole, which tend to be both questionable and speculative.

This morning I was enjoying Psalm 102, and of course I began to think about these three questions and what their answers might be.

1/ How was the Psalm Originally Understood?

The psalm powerfully compares the physical distress of a deeply afflicted man with the glory, grandeur and permanence of the eternal God. The fragile, pitiable nature of human existence serves as a sharp contrast to the everlasting and unchanging creator of heaven and earth.

Some commentaries ascribe Psalm 102 to David in the midst of Absalom’s rebellion, but these are few and far between. If the writer is David and the circumstances are his ouster from the throne of Israel and subsequent guilt and despair, the language of the first eleven verses is only applicable by very distant analogy. The “lonely sparrow on a housetop” then evokes Absalom’s betrayal, “my heart is struck down like grass and has withered” speaks of David’s emotional and spiritual distress, which may have been among the worst things he experienced during his days as shepherd of God’s people. The analogy might be strained to its outer limits, but anyone who has experienced the betrayal of a much-loved family member probably understands at least to some degree how David might have felt.

However, most commentators identify the language of the psalm with the sort of physical suffering that occurred in the aftermath of the Israelite and Judean captivities, and they view it as having been written in the time of Daniel or even as late as Nehemiah. If so, then on the first level, the psalm describes the suffering of a devout follower of Jehovah at a time when he and his people were marched away from their burning homes, starving, beaten, naked or in rags, to serve as low-end manual labor for a foreign power. In such a case, lines like “All the day my enemies taunt me” and “I eat ashes like bread” are closer to literal descriptions than anyone might like to consider at great length.

In support of this view, it may be pointed out that the sustained image of a ruined Zion which begins in verse 13 fits with the captivity narrative much better than it fits with the personal anguish of a father on the run betrayed by his rebellious child.

So then, one way or another, in its day, the readers and singers of this psalm surely viewed it as both historical and very probably literal, or as close to it as poetic language will get us.

2/ Other Levels of Meaning

A second level of legitimate meaning would surely have become obvious to devout Jews upon their return from captivity, or even during it. Here, the suffering narrator is the nation personified. Applied that way, the figurative language flows easily from individual suffering into national suffering and restoration. Israelites and Jews speaking corporately in the early days of Nehemiah could say in all truth, “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days” and pray for a time when “they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord, and in Jerusalem his praise”.

A third and equally legitimate application is also historical. Believing and persecuted Jews during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 might easily appropriate these words and read them with near-literal meaning.

A fourth application is future; to the believing remnant of the nation of Israel during the Great Tribulation. Oppressed by the nations like at no point in human history, the remnant will cry out to their God for the restoration of Zion. Nothing about this psalm exaggerates or distorts the level of spiritual distress out of which the remnant cry will arise.

Each of these levels of meaning is legitimate and analogous. Where we might get into hyperbole is if we try to apply this psalm to a bad day at the office, a misunderstanding between Christian friends, or even a family falling-out of a very serious nature. I’m afraid there is nothing in my modern, pampered Christian experience to which such powerful and evocative poetic language genuinely applies ... and, well, thank the Lord for that. To pretend there is would be to diminish the psalm. It would be the Christian equivalent of calling the lady at the grocery store a fascist. It might be effective rhetoric, but not a legitimate use of the word of God. There are other passages I can go to in scripture that more accurately address the comparatively insignificant level of seriousness of my own daily worries and cares. I can enjoy those without trying to draw a comparison that simply isn’t there.

That is not to say there have not been times and places in the last two thousand years where a suffering Christian might legitimately appropriate the language and emotional intensity of this very Hebrew psalm to describe his or her own personal experience and derive great comfort in the process. Christians have certainly suffered intensely for the sake of Christ and might indeed feel like “the desert owl of the wilderness”. That just wouldn’t be our general complaint in the West in the last hundred years or so.

3/ Where is Christ?

The risen Christ “interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, so we are not stretching things to look for the Lord Jesus in the Psalms, and particularly in this one. If in this particular instance we cannot grab from the Jews something comforting for ourselves about our daily troubles, perhaps we can at least refresh our hearts with thoughts of him.

Let me start by suggesting that we are unwise to spend too much time comparing the earlier verses of Psalm 102 to the sufferings of Christ, or even the anticipation thereof. All suffering in some distant way reminds us of Christ, and Christians will always think of Jesus as the epitome in the suffering department. But there are better and more accurate Old Testament comparisons to be found to speak of his suffering, such as Psalm 22 and 31, which the Lord Jesus quoted from the cross, and numerous passages in Isaiah and elsewhere.

Moreover, it is difficult to miss the fact that verses 25-28 of Psalm 102 are quoted by the writer to the Hebrews, who tells us without equivocation that these latter words of the psalmist are addressed directly to the Son. They are evidence of his supremacy, his distinctiveness in the plans and purposes of God, and his primacy and priority over all created beings. He is the “You, Lord” of Hebrews 1:10, the “God” of Psalm 102:23-24, the Foundation Layer, the one who made the heavens and will roll them up again, the one who is unchanging and whose years have no end. And if the Son is indeed the one being addressed in verses 25 through 28 of Psalm 102, then it is impossible that he is also the suffering supplicant addressing himself as “God” in verses 23 and 24. The idea of the Lord Jesus appealing to himself for relief is simply incoherent.

No, in Psalm 102 it is not the suffering Christ, but the glorified Christ we have in view. The sufferer, then, is best seen as either the individual Jew or his nation.

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