Tuesday, December 01, 2020

“Christianizing” the Psalms

In Sunday School we used to sing, “Every promise in the book is mine: every chapter, every verse, every line.” And of all the books in the Old Testament that we Christians love to apply to ourselves, the book of Psalms is right at the top of the list.

I suspect this is because despite being mostly composed between 4,000 and 2,500 years ago by Hebrews living in a very different cultural setting, the psalms contain statements of great universality which we may reasonably apply to believers in every era of God’s dealings with mankind, up to and including ourselves.

Universalizing in Error

But as we go on in the Christian life and get deeper into the study of scripture, we realize the old Sunday School song — while surely well-intended — simply isn’t accurate. Some promises were given to others, not to me, and no amount of creative allegorizing will make them fit my situation. And it’s not just the promises. There are all kinds of statements in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament that are foreign territory for Christians.

“The Lord is my shepherd”, we say with David, and it’s as true for me as it was for him. Or how about “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Amen to that too. Or “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways,” as the writer of Psalm 91 puts it so comfortingly. (Okay, sometimes we apply that one better than others.) Or even “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” Psalm 2 deals with the exaltation of Christ in a way that every believer can get behind with enthusiasm regardless of time and place in which we read it.

In each of these psalms the Christian can find something to speak to his own spiritual experience and aspirations. Then again, these very same psalms also contain an abundance of “local” references to situations, places, customs and events about which the average Christian reader doesn’t have a clue unless he keeps a concordance and a stack of commentaries by his bedside. If you are not a Hebrew scholar doing an hours-long investigation into the history of obscure terminology, enjoying the psalms for yourself sometimes requires a little judicious skipping from one point to another.

The Precious Oil and the Dew of Hermon

For example, Psalm 133 contains a reference to “precious oil” running down the beard of the first Israelite high priest, Aaron, and down the collar of his robes, an image which does precisely nothing for the casual modern reader. At worst it sounds like an unpleasant experience, and at best it sounds all-but-meaningless. Psalm 133 also mentions the “dew of Hermon” falling on the mountains of Zion, which sounds like it requires an atlas to understand and a light jacket to keep off the chill if it happens to fall on you. Nevertheless, context demands we recognize that both the psalmist who wrote about these things and his fellow Israelites who originally memorized and sang his psalms understood them to be Very Good Things.

These are turns of phrase which were of great significance in their day but are largely lost on Christians looking for practical encouragement in the Old Testament. To successfully put ourselves in the sandals of Israelite readers 3,000 years ago (assuming that is even possible today) requires more time and effort than the average believer is expecting to devote when he or she picks up the Bible at bedside for a little time with the Lord prior to a long day on the job.

In fact, if we are very honest, we may have to confess that there is language in some psalms which is so profoundly Jewish in character that we cannot successfully “Christianize” those psalms at all. What do we do with some of the statements in the so-called “imprecatory” psalms? Statements like “Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.” Can a Christian pray such things in good conscience? Not really. Trying to force them into our prayer vocabulary is a bit of a non-starter.

Getting the Main Message

But back to Psalm 133. We can’t do much with the dew and the oil without some serious Old Testament research, but even if we don’t fully understand the local references to which the psalmist is comparing the unity of brothers, we can certainly notice the main thrust of what he is saying:
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! ... For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
That’s important. Subtract the culturally relevant Hebrew comparisons and that’s the basic message of the psalm: God blesses his servants when they work together harmoniously. Such an experience is a foretaste of eternal life. That’s as true of you and me as it is of Benjamites and Judeans.

Two minutes in an online concordance will confirm that thought. To “dwell” is yashab, meaning to stay in place. The duration is very much unspecified. It is translated “dwelt” (or “settled” in my ESV) when it is used of Lot’s stay in Sodom, a period of at least 13 years (and probably much longer), but the very same word is translated “was sitting” when used to describe where Abraham was sitting in the heat of the day, which was very likely a matter of minutes.

“Together” and “in unity” are yachad, which is used in the Old Testament to mean “side-by-side”, “with one voice”, “yoked”, “woven together”, “entwined” and other activities that involve regular, intimate contact.

All to say, the psalm’s primary statement may be applied with equal legitimacy to tribal relationships in ancient Israel, to a Christian family’s ability to get along without friction, or to a meeting of minds and hearts in a modern elder’s meeting. And in fact it is the precursor to a much more familiar line of New Testament teaching that starts with “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” and “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” and continues to be reinforced throughout the epistles with statements like “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.” Basically, if you want God’s blessing, it is important to interact harmoniously with those who are your brothers and sisters. That is true in every age, and true even if you don’t really understand the references to the dew of Hermon and the oil on Aaron’s beard. You can take that one with you whether you have brief or extended contact with your fellow believers.

Tired of Packing and Unpacking?

Now, if you have time or interest, you can look up the oil and the dew too. I certainly wouldn’t discourage you. There are all kinds of things we may unpack from Old Testament history that illuminate the Psalms and make them come to life for us. The better Bible teachers often do this for us from the platform, and many of their little “asides” have stuck with me over the years.

But even if you don’t, there is still much to be gained from one little psalm just so long as we don’t try to rigorously apply every word to our own personal situation. Every promise in the book is not ours, and we would be silly to pretend that they are.

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