25 June 2017

Birdwatching and the Psalms

Dad and I passed binoculars back and forth across the kitchen table. He looked through “Birds of North America” to identify Rufus Sided Towhees and other visitors outside our picture windows.

He talked about each species' field marks and how bird book illustrators painted colors more vividly than they appear in life. Grandma Paulsson also had a well-worn copy of that book...and eventually I got a new edition of my own.

I remember identifying a Green-Winged Teal for the first time on my own and still get excited to see Cedar Waxwings and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Green-Winged Teal pair, Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
public domain.

By both nature and nurture, I inherited Dad's curiosities, his penchant for slightly eccentric musing, and the Psalms.

Mornings we'd read from the Psalms and—if time allowed—a Proverb.

I'd count down to the next verse I was supposed to read, put my finger in place, and wait to hear the pause that indicated it was my turn again.

Sometimes it must have felt to Mom and Dad like pulling teeth, but their persistence gave me a familiarity with the Psalms...which I sometimes used as an excuse to avoid subsequent readings...but which also gave expression to the beauty of a frosty morning, “...he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes....” (Psalm 147:16) and the fears I felt around my paper route, “Help, LORD! for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men” (Psalm 12:1).

Over the last several years, my efforts to better understand were motivated first by how the Psalms relate to biblical narrative.

In the introduction to his translation and commentary, Robert Alter says, “The prose narratives of the Hebrew Bible, despite the sundry links with the surrounding literatures that scholarship has identified, are formally innovative in striking ways. Indeed it is arguable that at least as a set of techniques and conventions, they constitute the most original literary creation of the biblical writers. Psalms on the other hand, or psalmlike cultic hymns and celebrations of the gods, were common in Egypt and mesopotamia, and Syro-Canaanite literature....”

But Alter continues, “Many of the psalms, then, derive some of their poetic force from the literary antecedents on which they draw. But the Hebrew poems were manifestly framed for Israelite purposes that were in many regards distinctive and at best no more than loosely parallel to the polytheistic texts that served as poetic precedents.”

1 Chronicles 15 and 16 tells how David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem “...and he appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, and to record, and to thank and praise the LORD God of Israel: Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, Jeiel, and Shemiramoth, and Jehiel, and Mattithiah, and Eliab, and Benaiah, and Obededom: and Jeiel with psalteries and with harps; but Asaph made a sound with cymbals; Benaiah also and Jahaziel the priests with trumpets continually before the ark of the covenant of God. Then on that day David delivered first this psalm to thank the LORD into the hand of Asaph and his brethren.”

In 2 Chronicles 29, Hezekiah cleansed the temple. “And he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets....And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.”

The account of King Josiah's Passover in 2 Chronicles 35 listed King David's worship instructions in parallel with the office of the priests: “When the service had been prepared for, the priests stood in their place, and the Levites in their divisions according to the king’s command.... The singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their place according to the command of David, and Asaph, and Heman, and Jeduthun the king’s seer....”

Nehemiah 11 records provision for singers toward the beginning of the second temple period: "Of the sons of Asaph, the singers were over the business of the house of God. For it was the king’s commandment concerning them, that a certain portion should be for the singers, due for every day."

New Testament writers quote the Psalms more than any other book of the Hebrew Bible. In the gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples and says, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.”

The author of Hebrews begins his explication of Christ and the covenant citing Psalm 2. “...For unto which of the angels said he at any time, 'Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?'....”

This surprised me because I tend to quote historians or scientists, not poets, as authorities.

The next challenge I encountered had to do with seeing the Psalms as poetry but not seeing in the Psalms the kinds of rhyme and rhythm I expected.

Derek Kidner, in the introduction to his two-volume commentary, explains Hebrew poetry is not measured out in syllables or feet as in English poetry, but “heard in the sound of, say, three or four stresses in a short sentence or phrase, matched by an answering line of about the same length....” and “What we have called a couplet...can build up at times to the higher climax of a triplet....”

The larger units of a poem are similarly flexible, Kidner says, “...it is the exception rather than the rule to find stanzas of equal length or even any clear definition.... But the fundamental characteristic of this poetry is not its external forms or rhythms, but its way of matching or echoing one thought with another.”

We see this flexibility in Psalm 1.

Blessed is the man
   that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
      nor standeth in the way of sinners,
         nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

But his delight is in the law of the LORD;
   and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
   that bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
      his leaf also shall not wither;
         and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

The ungodly are not so:
   but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous:
   but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

This flexibility allows the Psalms to express a wide range of experience and, Kidner points out, also allows this poetry to survive translation better than a lot of other poetry.

The final roadblock I've encountered has to do with the work of understanding psalms.

In his book, “Poetic Diction,” Owen Barfield critiques the narrowing of meaning in modern language, influenced as it is by the growth of scientific thought. He describes the poet's task as something like a re-enchantment of modern language in order to recover the meaning lost as words become more technical and precise. Languages earlier in their evolution, he argues, are less scientifically precise and more naturally poetic.


If I'm understanding Barfield, and if his view applies here, the Psalms perhaps speak—in their content and context—to the tensions and experiences of the biblical narrative and thereby challenge and renew it.

Returning to Psalm 1, the wicked appear primarily to contrast with the blessed, who delight in the law of the Lord and who meditate—murmur to oneself—thereon.

Kidner points out this reference roots the psalm not only in the Torah generally but in God's instruction and promise to Joshua: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein... Be strong and of a good courage...for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

We see how often the verb "is" occurs in this psalm and how descriptive the tone becomes, more matter of fact than conditional promise.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,

 that bringeth forth his fruit in his season....

The psalmist contrasts this fruitful tree with chaff, the ultimate picture of rootlessness. As Kidner points out, the image brings to mind similar language in Jeremiah 17, contrasting the one who trusts in man, a desert shrub in a salt land, with the one who trusts in God, a tree planted by water.

This psalm brings to my mind the plant imagery that Jesus used: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?"

And again in John 15, Jesus intensifies the psalmist's "congregation of the righteous" by pointing out the community of the branches and by describing himself as the vine in which all the branches are: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit."

The psalmist's final couplet roots the whole psalm in a statement of the action and knowledge of God, which Alter renders...

“For the Lord embraces the way of the righteous

and the way of the wicked is lost.”

As Alter points out, the word translated "embrace" carries the idea of intimate connection.

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