Abide: Psalms Part Two

  • One of the first things I tell my students, and that I repeat throughout a semester, is that texts do not interpret themselves. Every time a person reads scripture they see it with new eyes and with shifting perspectives. The words on the page may be the same, though, of course, with the Bible, those words may vary, but it is up to us to seek learning by knowledge and through the Spirit. We’ll discuss that, and much more, on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.

  • One of the first things I tell my students and that I repeat throughout the semester is that texts do not interpret themselves. Every time a person reads scripture, they see it with new eyes and with shifting perspectives. The words on the page may be the same, though of course with the Bible, those words may vary by translator. But it is up to us to seek by knowledge and through the Spirit, to learn by the Spirit. We also recognize that we have to go to trusted sources of information for more. It’s part of our project here on Abide, to think about how we can learn by studying also by faith with spiritual impressions in concert with learning out of the best books. We’ll discuss that and much more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the public communication specialist of the Neal A Maxwell Institute for religious scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research associate at the Maxwell Institute, and each week we discussed the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block, so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are once again joined by Joanna Olson, one of our research assistants. Joanna is a pre-business major at BYU from Fort Collins, Colorado. After Joanna graduates, she plans to go to grad school to go into medical administration. Welcome back, Joanna. 


    Joanna Olson: Thank you, Joey.


    Joseph Stuart: Now, Kristian, this is our second episode on the book of Psalms and we’re taking a different thematic approach. What can you tell us about the interpretation of the Psalms?


    Kristian Heal: So the book of Psalms has played an outsized influence in Jewish and Christian worship and devotion from the Second Temple period onwards. They were already a fully formed compilation when the Bible was translated into Greek, in the third century BCE. They were found among the dead sea scrolls, and that community continues to write this, their own Psalms. Jesus cites the Psalms frequently, as do other New Testament writers. They quickly became part of the regular cycle of scripture reading in the synagogue and later the church, and these hymns became the mainstay of Christian worship for 2000 years. The earliest exegesis of the Psalms seemed to be the headings, many of which seem to have been added after the original composition. These headings convey five kinds of information. They seek to correlate the Psalms with historical people or events in Israel’s history. They indicate the type of composition, they indicate the psalm’s purpose or place in worship, they give musical directions, and in 13 instances, they connect the psalm with the life of David. Many of these headings are now kind of obscure. We don’t know what the instruments they are talking about are for example. The next phase of interpretation includes the ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, into Syriac, Aramaic, and Latin. In each case, interpretations were made in the choice of translations. These versions continued to be used in their respective communities and have influenced the worship and the reading of the Psalms for hundreds of years, and in the case of the Latin Vulgate, influenced many readings of the early English translators. The earliest manuscript witnesses of the psalms are the nearly 40 scrolls and fragments containing Psalms found among the dead sea scrolls, and dating from the second century BCE to the first century CE. This abundance of scrolls suggests that the Psalms were much used in this community. Interestingly, the best preserved scroll, 11 cue Psalms, here’s a particular nomenclature for identifying Dead Sea Scrolls, which is peculiar, but you can Google “11 Cue Psalms” and find out more about it. This scroll includes most of the last 50 Psalms, sometimes in a different order, and interspersed with other texts such as the three so-called apocryphal Syriac Psalms, together with other hymns. This scroll is one of several important indications of the fluid or dynamic nature of scripture among the dead sea scrolls community. And a nice example of how the psalms are a living text within that community. Why were their Psalms so important to the Dead Sea Scrolls community? John Eaton notes that the attraction of the Psalms is quote, “flowed from an interpretation of them as expressing their own struggles, in what seemed to be the latter days, they felt themselves to be a pure and humble folk, that the slums see oppressed by the wicked. Unlike many since, they found comfort in the ancient poetry of prayer and praise, as it gave them voice amidst the mighty conflict”. Over 90 passages of the psalms are quoted in the New Testament, and the language of the New Testament is bathed in the language of the Psalter. The prominence of the psalms in the New Testament stems in large part because so many Psalms were read prophetically in the time of Jesus. Individual phrases, verses and Psalms were read as direct prophecies of the Messiah that were fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus Christ. This means that the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Christ are all described with the help of the Psalms. Most poignantly, perhaps, is the fact that Jesus’s last words given in the Gospel of Mark spoken on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” are taken from the Psalms, in this instance, Psalm 22:1. In the early church, songs were sung and new compositions inspired by the Psalms began to appear. This combination of Psalms and new Christian hymns soon made up the distinct Christian worship services, and were eventually incorporated into the elaborate, Christ centered liturgies of the ancient churches. The Psalms were a mainstay of worship in the Christian tradition, but quickly became important also for moral formation, and the means of conveying Christian identity. In the early Christian centuries, children were taught to recite the Psalms by heart, as part of their basic education. And candidates for ordination the priesthood, were expected to have memorized the entire Book of Psalms. This means that the book of Psalms has a unique place in the Christian tradition that extends down to today. Now, entire books have been devoted to tracing the influence of the book of Psalms in Jewish and Christian tradition. I just wanted to give a little taste here of just how important this book of scripture is, for our early Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters. Even though our traditions of interpretation diverged significantly, the Psalms are a meeting point, and a text towards which Christians and Jews have turned to express their yearning for the living God.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks so much for that Kristian, that was beautiful. Now one of the shared goals of the ancient Israelites as well as modern Jews, modern Christians, and ancient Christians, is the desire to come close to God. But also that once a relationship with God is established to increase or to renew that relationship. Joanna, is that a theme that you saw when going through this section of the Psalms?

    Joanna Olson: Yes, renewal is found through this whole section of Psalms and in particular, in Psalm 51. David pleads with the Lord saying, “renew a right spirit in me.” This line in particular captured my attention. Even after David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah killed, he could still have renewal and a right spirit in him through Christ’s Atonement. Carrying the weight of our sins can be heavy and difficult to bear. Many people feel the effects of sin in one way or another, and many carry the burden of guilt, even long after they have repented or turned away from sin. I know I have felt that same way. Even though I know that Christ forgives our sins, it is easy for me to feel that I am not forgiven or that after I’ve sinned, I’m imperfect or unworthy of a second or third chance. I sin, I mess up, and I find myself making the same mistakes over and over and over. I used to think that this made me less than. I felt that my worth went down as my mistake count went up. I felt this way until a Sunday school lesson changed my perspective on the atonement.


    Joseph Stuart: Could you tell us about that Sunday school lesson? 


    Joanna Olson: Yeah, for sure. At the beginning of this lesson, the teacher stood at the front of the class with a piece of wood, some nails, and a hammer. She began hammering the nails into the piece of wood telling us that each nail represented a mistake or sin we make in this life. With the piece of wood all covered in nails. She turned to us and asked what the Atonement of Jesus Christ would look like for this piece of wood. We all responded to saying that the atonement would be like taking out all the nails. Following our direction, she began removing every nail, every mistake from the wood. After all the nails were off, leaving a dented block of wood covered in tiny holes. She turns to us to confirm that this is what we meant. We nodded. Kindly, she told us that we were wrong. She reminded us of a truth we had forgotten as she pulled out a brand new piece of wood. The Atonement heals us entirely. It doesn’t leave us with holes or spots or any marks. It makes us new. It makes us whole. Christ sacrificed for us that we might live again as a whole imperfect being. But what does He ask of us? What can we give to our Heavenly Father, who created and controls everything? In the Psalm that said, “The sacrifices of God are a broken and a contrite heart.” The only thing that is truly ours to give to God is our will. God doesn’t want an animal sacrifice, money, or any other tangible thing we can offer. He wants us. He wants our will. He wants us to come to him with a broken heart so that we may be healed and made whole through Christ.


    Joseph Stuart: As a former early morning seminary teacher. I’m thrilled to hear that these lessons are memorable. And thank you so much for sharing that with us, Joanna.


    Kristian Heal: That’s a really lovely illustration both of this Psalm, which has this beautiful message as you say, of kind of renewal and sort of healing. And the way that it’s presented to us in the Psalms, is about this figure that we almost feel is unredeemable. That David did something so bad, and so beyond the pale that he’s kind of left out. And yet this, so many of the psalms are presented as David pleading for this sort of renewal. I look in the translation that I have in front of me, which is the New Living Translation verse 2, “wash me clean from my guilt, purify me from my sin, I recognize my rebellion, it haunts me day and night.” I think so many of us feel sort of haunted by this sense that we’ve kind of done something wrong. And I think you’ve just captured beautifully this transformation that happens from and when we realize that this is we’re talking about renewal here, not about kind of patching over problems. It’s just really like, it’s a lovely reading of that psalm.


    Joseph Stuart: It’s marvelous to reflect on what God has done through the immaculate gift of His Son. And that’s one of the invitations in Psalms 66, that you looked at for this week, Kristian. That we are all invited to come and see what God has done.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, this psalm that really struck me this time through. It expresses the kind of praise that gave the Psalms their name in Hebrew, tehilìm, songs of praise. And it’s the kind of praise that is so overwhelming that it becomes an invitation. It’s like the joy of a birth, or of graduation, or a Champions League win. The kind of joy that you just want to share with everyone you know. As I say it there are three main parts of this psalm that I particularly love. The first is that God’s goodness is cosmic. Quoting from the New International Version at this point, “shout for joy to God, all the earth, sing the glory of his name, make his praise glorious.” There’s this sense, the whole earth is kind of rejoicing in God. And I’m not a big sort of social media person, I just think I’d never really worked out how to do it properly. Maybe I was born in the wrong time. Maybe I’m just waiting for a social media designed for introverts, although I think that that was designed by Alexander Graham Bell, and by the post. So that sort of worked perfectly well for me. But even I can’t stop myself from sharing posts about God’s majesty, particularly as I see in nature. We have, we’re really fortunate to have a beautiful campus here at BYU. And there are so many moments in the spring, or the fall, or the winter, where you just feel overwhelmed by the beauty of this place and want to sort of post about it. And all this valley that we live in or the surroundings. It’s so wonderful to see God’s sort of majesty shown to us in the world around us, and elicits in me that feeling of come and see what God has done.


    Joseph Stuart: I have that same feeling as I’m driving into Provo, thinking about the communities and relationships that I found, first as a student, and then as an instructor, and now as a full time employee of BYU, and just the remarkable things that God has done for me in creating community. And that also seems to come through in another part of the psalm.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think that the psalmist is interested in sharing God’s goodness towards his covenant people. Towards this community, that have been created through belief, through their devotion to God. It reads, “come and see what God has done. His awesome deeds for mankind. He turned the sea into dry land, they pass through the waters on foot. Come, let us rejoice in him.” Now I find myself sort of moved by this because I believe that God is constantly engaged in working for the benefit and blessing of his children. But I feel particularly attuned to the work that God has done, and is doing for his covenant people, both ancient and modern. Miracles, large and small, are bound in this great work. And if we learned anything from our reading of the Old Testament, it’s that we need to constantly remember the ways that God has saved us individually, as families, as religious communities, and as His people. And so, as we do this, we feel this desire to shout out, come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for all mankind.


    Joanna Olson: Going off kind of what you’re saying about how God is engaged in working for our benefit. I believe that not only does God help and bless his people, but he also protects us from countless trials, hardships, and pains that we don’t even see. My great grandpa served in World War Two, during the Battle of the Bulge, he was hit by some shrapnel and was put in an ambulance headed to the aid station. They reached a road closure while on a route they would normally take. My great-grandpa felt strongly that they should not stay in line waiting for the road to open and insisted that they turn the ambulance around and find another way. They left the line and went back another way. Come to find out that all those who stayed in line on the road ended up losing their lives in the war. If my great grandpa had not felt so strongly about taking another path, he would not have survived. Although the dangers of taking that road were not known at the moment, my great-grandpa felt so strongly that they should not go and was able to avoid unseen danger. How often are we guided away from dangers, pitfalls, and pain that we don’t even know. My favorite scripture at the moment is Exodus 14:14, which reads, “The Lord shall fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.” I truly believe that the Lord is helping us and orchestrating good things in our lives, in ways we may not fully understand or know in this life. He loves us and is fighting for us.


    Kristian Heal: Thanks Joanna, that is really beautiful, and such a lovely illustration of how God is turning his attention towards his covenant people. And it also shows how this attention that God’s turns to his covenant people is something that we feel deeply and personally. Towards the end of the psalm we read, “come and hear all you who fear God. Let me tell you, what he has done for me. I cried out to him with my mouth, his praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But God has surely listened, and has heard my prayer.” The power of this psalm comes in many ways because of this turn from the cosmic from the awesomeness of God, to this personal attention that we receive. “Come and hear all you who fear of God, let me tell you what he has done for me.” It really is a beautiful and bold move. And certainly in my darkest moments, when I sobbed tears of despair, and felt that no ear was listening. I actually knew that God was there waiting for me to reach out in the darkness for his loving hand. I’ve cried out to him with my mouth, and he’s heard my prayer. And this psalm has given me the words, to talk about that experience, to declare to others “come and hear, all you who fear the Lord. Let me tell you what he has done for me.” Such  beautiful scripture. It reminds me of the opening of Psalm 96, “sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth, sing to the Lord, praise his name, proclaim His salvation day after day, declare His glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” These kinds of Psalms remind us why the message of Jesus is called the good news. It’s the good news that’s worth sharing and singing about and talking about as we think of the things that God has done for us. Jesus is this new song, his the salvation of God, His the marvelous deeds, and God is the glory that we declare among all nations. How can we read and hear about him? How can we live our lives in faith, and not declare, not shout at some point or another” come and hear, all you who fear the Lord, let me tell you what he has done for me.”


    Joanna Olson: I think that in the scriptures, this is kind of another pattern we see, is that people receive this renewal and they immediately want to share it with others. After receiving renewal through Christ in Psalm 51, the first thing the psalmist wants to do is share it with others. The same is seen when Lehi wanted to share the fruit of the tree of life with his family after tasting it. If every good thing comes from God, why would we not want to share the good news about Christ in His gospel so that others may experience joy and goodness? When we feel the joy that comes from Christ and the gospel, sharing it is often what naturally follows so others can experience such a great joy.


    Joseph Stuart: That’s the perfect place for us to end today. Have a blessed weekend. 


    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @BYU Maxwell? On YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu.edu. Thank you and have a great week.