Goldingay on Psalms

Tue, 09/09/2008 - 10:09 -- James Oakley

I'm just discovering, and enjoying doing so, Goldingay's commentary on the Psalms. (Volume 1 covers 1-41, Volume 2 coverse 42-89, and Volume 3, not out until December 2008, will cover 90-150.)

Some snippets from the introduction:

The Bible assumes that we do not know instinctively how to talk with God but rather need some help with knowing how to do so. The Psalter is the Bible's book of praise and prayer to provide the answer to those questions and meet that need. It is given to us so that we can "adapt and adjust our minds and feelings so that they are in accord with the sense of the psalms." Eugene Peterson thus comments that the Psalms are where Christians have always learned to pray — till our own age! (page 22)

The Psalms make it possible to say things that are otherwise unsayable. In church, they have the capacity to free us to talk about things that we cannot talk about anywhere else. (pages 22-23)

A hint that the Psalter is designed as a teaching manual for worship and prayer is the fact that it is divided into five books, like the Torah …. In both cases the fivefold division is artificial. There are some plausible divisions into which the Pentateuch could have been broken up, but the familiar fivefold division does not correspond very well to the dynamic of its narrative. The division of the Psalter into five books is even more random, but that makes its symbolic significance the clearer. It comprises a work of teaching concerning proper response to God in worship and prayer. As such it correlates to the work of teaching that appears in the Torah concerning God’s story with Israel and the response God looks for in terms of worship and everyday life. Psalm 1 is then a fitting introduction to this book of teaching, especially if it means to invite readers to treat the Psalter like Torah. Likewise, “Ps. 150 understands the book which it closes as a primer in worship”; from this point on, “the way stands open for every conceivable variation in praise” as the world takes up its hallelujah. (Page 23)

The “long headings” referring to specific incidents in David's life may have a further significance. With these, too, there is no presumption that a heading such as “David's, when he fled from his son Absalom” (Psalm 3) is originally a statement about authorship, though people have come to understand it thus. When we label a stained-glass window with a title that relates it to a biblical person or scene, we do not imply that the person or scene actually looked like that. We are rather seeking to help people use their imagination to enter into the reality of the scene or come to an understanding of the person in such a way as to see how he or she impacts their lives. The long headings do something similar. (Pages 28-29)

"The world of scholarship" will never come to a consensus on the date and circumstances of the Psalms, because the Psalms "proceed and work by not making reference to the particularities of their origin, so that such information does not distract people who use them and make them more difficult for worshippers to identify with." (page 30)

I love this quotation: Rap? There's a new idea!

Although the headings and contents of the Psalms make clear that they were often sung, they were apparently sung in a way that did not require regular meter in the manner of modern hymnody. It may be that they were sung by means of something like traditional Anglican chant, which itself descended via plainsong from synagogue forms of psalm singing. ese allow for a varying number of words to be sung on one note, the “tune” being confined to the beginning and/or ending of the colon. More anachronistically but perhaps more helpfully, we might consider the rhythmic nature of psalmody in light of the rhythmic nature of blues, rap, or modern worship songs, where the music has a regular rhythmic form but varying numbers of words can be fitted into a bar. Blues and rap depend on a regular rhythm but can allow for vast difference in the number of words in each bar or at each beat. Many modern Christian songs such as the setting of “I am the Bread of Life” work in the same way. Also analogous is the approach to singing the Psalms developed by Joseph Gelineau, which again uses (semi)regular rhythms but varies the number of words in each bar in accordance with the wording of the Psalms. If the Israelites did not sing the Psalms by a method such as that of rap or Father Gelineau, they should have done so. And if they said or sang the Psalms responsively, then the characteristic division of lines into two halves would imply doing so by half-verses, not by whole verses as Christians often do. (Pages 41-42)

The Psalms also envisage a relationship with God that involves both withdrawal (into worship) and engagement (in a faithful life), and both speaking to God and listening to God. By their nature they do not seek to maintain a balance between these but put the stress on worship and prayer rather than on engagement, and on speaking rather than listening. There are other parts of the Scriptures that put the stress the other way, so that the Scriptures as a whole embody a balance between them. The importance of the Psalms is to remind the community that their prayer is important alongside their action and that their side of the conversation is important alongside God's. (Page 58)

Why are there no intercessory Psalms, as such?

So when Israel interceded, how did it do so? Perhaps the answer lies in the consideration we have recognized, that people likely used prayer psalms in the company of others, such as a priest or a group of worshippers or one’s family. Those people, then, involve themselves in intercession by standing with a person in need and praying with and for them. Part of that support would be listening to God for them, listening for what response God might offer to their prayer. In a quite literal sense, interceding or intervening on someone’s behalf involves putting oneself in another person’s place. It does not involve praying for someone so much as praying with them and even as them. For this reason there are no special forms for intercession. Intercession is simply praying in the first person, by taking on the persona of the one in need. (Pages 65-66)

Doxology and theology are closely related. Doxology requires theology; glorifying God involves making many a statement about God. Conversely, theology finds one of its natural forms in doxology There is a role to be played by dispassionate analytical theological statements, though I cannot remember what it is, but the natural way to make statements that do justice to God’s nature is to make them in the form of praise. Dispassionate analytical statements about God deconstruct. (Page 69)

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Richard's picture
Submitted by Richard on

I would suggest you get a copy of Futato’s Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook and Firth’s Interpreting the Psalms: Issues And Approaches. Also keep an eye out for Futato's new commentary published by IVP soon.

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