Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Reading Psalm 139

I have recently started attending a church in Langley that I like it very much. One thing that I do find interesting in this or any church is the way people interpret scripture and what authority is implicit in order to justify that interpretation. The most recent sermon that I heard used Psalm 139 as a base text and focused predominantly on the final two verses:

"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

This was interpreted as a plea by the psalmist (interpreted as David) to see his own depravity. The speaker articulated that God will show us only a portion of our wicked ways because we would otherwise be overwhelmed by the depth of our sinfulness. This was linked to some common things that people need to "deal with" like feelings of guilt, bitterness, anger and fear. Thanks to Christ's redemption (the way everlasting) we are able to slowly overcome the things that God shows us.

I found this interpretation very interesting because, from a historical perspective, the opening assumption that God will find the psalmist wanting seems incorrect. The psalm looks to be written in two parts, verses 1-18 and 19-24. The first section is praise extolling the omniscience of God. The second section is the psalmist asking for God to destroy his enemies. The final verses are a reminder to God that he knows the psalmist's righteous ways and therefore deserves to be delivered. I think it is fair to say that the psalmist definitely sounds either angry or embittered:

"O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me - those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Yahweh? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me..."

Now, as someone that interprets the Bible as a metaphor for the Edmonton Oilers I'm not really in a position to pass judgment, but if I was, I still wouldn't have a problem with the interpretation offered in the church. However, it does speak to the fact that the authority for the interpretation is not coming from what the text meant to the author.

Uh oh. So where is it coming from?

One good place to look is the theology of the community. This is from the statement of beliefs on the church's website:

"WE BELIEVE that the whole world is under the domination of Satan and that all people are sinners by nature and choice. All people therefore are under God's just judgment."

Now that statement comes, not only from the church in Langley, but from the Association of Vineyard Churches Statement of Faith. This statement is informed by a particular understanding of human sin represented by John Calvin among others: people are all completely sinful before God. The statement also seems to ascribe to a particular view of the creation story in Genesis 2-3 in which sin is passed on from Adam to all people. It is interesting to note that this is not presented by the book of Genesis but, over time, became the dominant interpretation in both Christian and Jewish circles (just like the identification of the snake in the story as Satan). The reading of Christ as the way everlasting is ancient indeed. One famous old guy that interprets Psalm 139 this way is Augustine but there are many, many others that read this text with Jesus in mind. Needless to say, the psalmist didn't.

Anyway, all of that to say that the interpretation of Psalm 139 that I heard is being informed by these traditions. For a reader informed by these traditions, the psalmist is not proclaiming his innocence before God because according to the tradition all are guilty no matter what. This theology would also play into the personal experience of the interpreter. Psalms are prayers and people today continue to pray them. If a person with this preexisting theological framework prays this same prayer, that person will inevitably be lead to his/her own feelings of inadequacy before God. The wicked ways that are there for every person will inevitably be found and God will call the pray-er to change. The framework that the pray-er is taking doesn't really allow for any other conclusions. This personal experience of the text could (and probably did) lead the interpreter to believe that this is what the text has always meant.

So what? Well, I just like pointing out that there's a lot more going on in religious circles than "just believing what the (authoritative text) says." There's the early history of interpretation, the immediate community of the interpreter, the larger theological framework provided by the larger interpretive community (like a denomination), the wider culture in which the interpreter lives and the personal experience of the believer. That's a lot of stuff, and it seems good to keep in mind when anyone gets into discussions about what's "right" and what's "wrong" with a particular reading or belief.

Also, it definitely means that what I'm doing with hockey on this blog is OK with God.


danjo said...

Good point! I agree with you that a lot of things go in to a person's interpretation of the Bible or anything else for that matter.

I think maybe the translation may have something to play in it too. In the NKJV the word anxieties is used instead of thoughts in that passage you gave. Do you think that would suggest a greater sense of desparation on behalf of the pray-er?

Scott said...

That’s a great point. The translation in the post is NRSV. The translation used is a big part of any interpretation. For those that do not have access to the original languages there's a pretty big dependence on others again pointing to the importance of tradition and community. It’s pretty amazing how much trust people put in individuals that they have never met in helping them to interpret documents that are very important to them.

The word you’ve referenced here is only used twice in the entire Hebrew Bible, here and in Psalm 94:19. The Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible translates it with “paths” in Psalm 139 and a word that means, roughly, "griefs" in Psalm 94.

A similar word with a different spelling is used in two places in Job (4:13; 20:2) where the meaning of "troubling dreams" and then "anxious thoughts" seems to fit well.

All that to say that the translation of "anxieties" seems to me to be pretty good and is almost certainly better than just "thoughts." I think that there is definitely a sense of desperation in the psalmist since he is calling on God for his deliverance. He is expecting that God will see his anxieties and respond by delivering him.

Thanks very much for reading and responding!