Written by Prof. Steve Taylor
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 00:00
Note to the reader: This is the first in a series of blogs on reading the Bible as a biblical theological unity. I will be arguing that the most stable foundation for a biblical- theological use of the Bible is a missional hermeneutic shaped by “Christotelic” vision of God’s ways in the word and in the world. These terms and concepts will be further defined and other introduced in subsequent posts. But first an example:
In the Bible, perhaps the most concentrated expression of praise for the faithfulness of God can be found in Psalm 89. The psalm begins with these couplets:
I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. 2I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
We are soon given to understand that the psalmist, though not himself of the royal line, is thinking primarily of God’s faithfulness to David and his descendants codified in the Davidic covenantal promises (vv. 3 ff.). The chorus of praise swells for some 34 verses before reaching its climax in vv. 35-37:
35Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. 36His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. 37It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies."
And for good measure the psalmist adds the instruction, “Selah,” urging the listener to ponder the glorious point while the musicians modulate the key for last verse.
But then something goes horribly wrong and the true purpose of the psalmist is revealed:
38But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed. 39You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.
Say what?! What happened to the unshakeable promises of the prior verses? You mean God isn’t faithful? And since the last verse of the psalm is simply the concluding benediction of the third book of the Psalter (compare the endings of the other books of the Psalter: 41:13, 76:18-20, 106:48, and all of Ps 150), the charge against God’s character goes unchallenged and unrebutted. Psalm 89 was a set up all along.
These observations go so much against the grain that the average evangelical reader must strain to see them. What should we do with this psalm? Should we: 1) Excise this psalm from the inspired canon? 2) Just read the first part and ignore the rest? 3) Argue that the psalm doesn’t teach what it says, but rather teaches that it is ok to be real with God in our disappointments? Or perhaps 4) maintain that this psalm doesn’t teach anything at all but is rather a piece of emotive literature meant to comfort emotional creatures like ourselves? Or finally 5) insist that this psalm is only supposed to be read as inspired in close connection with the rest of the Psalter where its charge can be suitably qualified or contradicted.
While perceptive and honest, the first option is worthy of the heretic Marcion who happily assigned most of the Bible to the work of another god. The second is an example of what scholars call “atomistic reading” in which a text is chopped up into disconnected oracles, divine sound bites, which can then be used like any aphorism. The third and fourth options seem to involve some capricious and preemptive appeals to external standards of propriety in an effort to shield the psalmist from erroneous attitudes. These two options seem to miss the fact that the psalmist is not voicing a personal disappointment but is rather struggling with God’s apparent failure to keep major covenantal promises! The last option contains some real wisdom but doesn’t explain why others psalms should have more authority than this one. Moreover, a Christian might ask, should we expect the answer to the psalmist’s bitter complaint to be found in the Psalter?
Here’s a sixth option: God specifically ordained this unrebutted charge to be here along with other similar ones (see Psalm 44 and 88, e.g., not to mention the book of Job), so that he might later, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, David’s greater son, prove the charge false. This option is the Christotelic* option.
The Christotelic option not only allows but demands an honest assessment of the message of the psalm as a function of the intention and state of mind of the human author. Yes, the psalm really does accuse God of unfaithfulness. It is only this stark fact that can properly serve the demands of a redemptive story in which God’s faithfulness is revealed ultimately and most completely in Jesus the Messiah. Jesus thus redeems this psalm for the Psalter. Is this reading strategy allowable? What do you think?
* The term is an adjective or adverb meaning “directed or tending toward God’s action in Christ (as the ultimate meaning, goal, or purpose).” Another, fuller example of a Christotelic treatment of a psalm is offered by Dr. Douglas Green, Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary: http://files.wts.edu/uploads/pdf/articles/psalm8-green.pdf.
Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri, and together they have five kids. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/stephen-taylor .