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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 16: The Psalms"


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First we must explain that there are two numbering systems for the Psalms, one following the Hebrew numbers, the other following the Septuagint (LXX) numbers. Both systems are the same for 1-8. But then: 9-10 of Hebrew = 9 of the LXX. 11-113 Hebrew = 10-112 LXX; 114-15 Hebrew = 113 LXX; 116 Hebrew = 114-15 LXX; 117-146 = 116-145 LXX; 147 Hebrew = 146-47 LXX; 148-150 = 148 - 150 LXX. Most modern versions follow the Hebrew system, while the older Catholic versions follow the LXX and the Vulgate.

Our present Psalter is likely to be a collection of several earlier collections. The Psalms at present fall into five books or groups: 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150. Each book closes with a shorter doxology, or praise of God. Many of the Psalms are attributed to David. It is likely that he did compose many. At the time of Christ it was customary to speak of all as by David. Christ merely adopted the current way of speaking. His mission was not to reveal the history of literature.

The Psalms are in general sacred songs, prayers. There are several different types of Psalms: Psalms of Lament; Psalms of Thanksgiving; Hymns; Enthronement Psalms; Royal Psalms; Liturgical Psalms and Wisdom or Torah Psalms.

The titles at the beginning of Psalms are in general mysterious. So also is the use of the word selah, which is frequent. Its sense is not known. It may be a musical notation.

The Psalms are all poetry. Poetry in general requires two things: elevation of thought and language; and some special metrical form. The meter of Hebrew verse does not depend on rhyme or regular meter, but on rhythmic beat and parallelism. It is necessary to count how many stressed syllables - usually 2, 3 or 4.

Parallelism is very common. In synonymous parallelism the sense of the first stich (group of words) is repeated in the second. There is also antithetic parallelism, in which the repetition gives the same idea in contrasting ways. Sometimes the second member merely completes the thought of the first. Sometimes the parallelism is worked out in three lines. The parallelism of the Psalms is much influenced by that of Ugaritic literature. Ugarit is the modern Ras Shamra. A plow of a farmer in 1928 accidentally came upon the buried ruins of Ugarit, which had been destroyed by fire in 1185 BC, probably in an invasion of the Sea Peoples, who distressed many lands around that time, including Egypt. For examples of Ugaritic texts cf. Peter C. Craigie, Ugarit and the Old Testament (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1983, esp. pp. 53-55, or Stories from Ancient Canaan, Edited and Translated by Michael D. Coogan (Westminster, Phila., 1978, pp. 14-18). It is remarkable how much of the imagery of God riding upon the clouds etc. comes from ancient Ugarit. The targum sees Messianic texts in many Psalms: 18, 21, 45, 61, 72 (the whole Psalm), 80, 89, 132.

We will examine the most important of these, and add some that the targum does not see as Messianic.

First, those which the targum does call messianic.

In 21:5 the Hebrew texts says "He asked for life from you." The targum expands: "He asked eternal life of you." This reflects the widespread view that the Messiah would live forever.

Psalm 45, many think, was written for the marriage of Joram to Athaliah. Yet the targum takes it to refer further, to the Messiah. References to God, the Messiah, and Israel are interwoven. 45:7 in the Hebrew says "your divine throne is forever;" the targum renders "your throne of glory lasts forever". Psalm 61: 7-9 echoes the belief that the Messiah will live forever.

Psalm 72 is entirely Messianic, and is similar to the thought of Nathan's prophecy (of 2 Sam 7. 4-17 to David. 72:17 says "May his name be forever", reflecting the prevalent rabbinic belief of the preexistence of the name of the Messiah.

In Psalm 80:18 we find, "May your hand be upon the man of your right hand, on the son of man, whom you raised up for yourself." Levey (op. cit., pp. 119-20) notes that the targum takes the Messiah to be the son of God. He adds that later rabbis carefully steered clear of any messianic interpretations of it. It is interesting to see the Messiah called "son of man" here.

Now for Psalms which the targum does not take as messianic: First, Psalm 2 speaks of the Lord's "anointed one" who is the son of God, and who will rule the nations, "with an iron scepter". Peter and John in Acts 4:25-26 explicitly take Psalm 2 to refer to Jesus. So does Revelation/ Apocalypse 12:5. The targums often see messianic indications with less reason than Psalm 2 offers. We suspect deliberate suppression by the Jews - that this happens at times is admitted by three major Jewish scholars today: Jacob Neusner, Samson Levey, and H. J. Schoeps (cf. chapter 14 above).

In Acts 2:25-28 St. Peter argues from Psalm 16:8-11 in which v. 20 says: "You will not abandon me to the grave, and you will not let your holy one see corruption." St. Peter says that the body of David did decay - therefore this referred to Jesus.

Jesus Himself recited the opening line of Psalm 22 on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In a General Audience of Nov 30, 1988, Pope John Paul II commented on this text: "Dominant in His mind, Jesus has the clear vision of God.... But in the sphere bordering on the senses... Jesus' human soul is reduced to a wasteland, and He no longer feels the presence of the Father." Verse 17 says: "They have pierced my hands and my feet." We think again of Zechariah 12:10: "They will look on me, the one they have pierced." (cf. again Apoc/Rev. 1. 7) And Ps. 22:19 adds: "They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots."

Jesus Himself in Mt 22:41-46 reasoned from Psalm 110:1: "The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies the footstool for your feet." So, Jesus said, David calls the Messiah Lord - a hint of divinity. Matthew 22:46 reports that the Pharisees could not answer this reasoning.

Psalm 118:42 says: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone". Jesus referred that to Himself in Mt. 21:42 (cf. Eph 2:20 and 1 Pet. 2:6).

There are some Psalm lines that seem to reflect a belief on the part of the writer that he will be with God even after death, for his union with Him has been so close in this life, that it cannot be interrupted.

Psalm 49:16: "But God will rescue my soul from the hand of Sheol; surely He will take me." Right after this the fate of the wicked rich is pictured: he cannot take his riches with him.

Psalm 73:23: "But I am always with You, You hold my right hand by Your hand; you guide me with counsel and afterwards you will take me to glory." In the first part of the psalm, the author said he was tempted to think God was not just. But he understood the fate of the wicked when he went into the sanctuary. After that, he gained the confidence he expressed in verse 23. He continued: "Whom do I have in the heavens but you? Being with you, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever (le olam). "

Mitchell Dahood, in the introductions to his three volume commentary on the Psalms in Anchor Bible, proposes revised translations of about 30 Psalm lines, in the light of Ugaritic language discoveries. If one accepts them, there are more lines like those we have just cited. We will see more evidence on belief in after life and on future retribution in our consideration of individual wisdom books in the next chapter.

There are some Psalms and parts of Psalms that call down punishment on enemies. For example, Psalms 35, 58, 59 ask God to punish the enemies of the Psalmist. Ps. 137:8-9 is similar.

How can we explain? Some have said these were merely predictions of punishment without any desire. That seems unrealistic. Some have said the morality of the Old Testament was imperfect: it was, compared to the new, but we must not say there is something positively immoral in it.

It is helpful to think of Revelation/Apocalypse 6:10 where the souls of martyrs under the altar ask God: "How long, until you will bring justice for our blood?" They are with God, so their wills are completely aligned with His. Many versions here use the word avenge. That is unfortunate. To will vengeance is to will evil to another so it may be evil to him. The souls of martyrs do not do that. But to will that the objective order be righted - we discussed that in chapter XI - this is supremely moral, it is the attitude of God Himself. It is a bit dangerous to indulge in that wish, for one may slide over readily into a desire for vengeance. Yet we must admit that in itself it is highly moral.

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