Reading the Psalms with Purpose: Two Scholars Point the Way (Brueggemann & Wright)

Derek Ouellette —  March 1, 2011

I have not read the Psalms through in quite some time and am rather glad. This is because I have always read the Psalms in an uncritical and purposeless fashion. For me reading the Psalms went something like this:

… Blah, blah, blah… the fool says in his heart there is no God… blah, blah, blah… My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?… blah, blah, blah… The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want… blah, blah, blah… The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it… blah, blah, blah… (Taken from Psalms 14, 22, 23, 24)

The “Blah, blah, blah” represent all the bits that didn’t compute with my concept of God or my theology, nor do they fit neatly in my high view of Scripture.

I think for example of Psalm 18:24:

The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness.

That sounds very Pelagian to me. Are not our righteousness like filthy rags? Isn’t there no one righteous, no not one? Or how about this one:

I hate those who cling to worthless idols. (Psalm 31:6)

What?! Are we not to “love the sinner but hate the sin”? This Psalm does not just tell us to hate the idol worshipping, but even the person performing the idolatrous act. Or how about this one:

You sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale… All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. (Psalm 44:12-17)

Here the Psalmist is blaming God acting unjustly, frivolously selling them for “pittance” all the while not only did they do nothing wrong to deserve such injustice, but in fact they went above and beyond by remaining faithful to God’s covenant! “Yet” the Psalmist continues, “for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughter” (Psalm 44:22). In other words, God! This is your fault because you are unjust!

Ya, I would have skipped over many, many of the Psalms in previous years. But two works of recent years have influenced my current readings of the Psalms, the first is The Message of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann and the second is Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright.

Orientation to New Orientation – Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann sees – broadly, he admits – a theological pattern which can be loosely traced throughout the Psalms which are reminiscent of that most famous Christological hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. He calls this pattern “Orientation”, “Disorientation” and “New Orientation”.

[Orientation] Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that invoke gratitude for the consistency of blessing… [Disorientation] Human life consists in anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death… [New Orientation] Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when Joy breaks through the despair. [The Message of the Psalms, p.19]

Consider how this plays out in the life of Christ in the classic Christian hymn of Philippians 2:5-11:

Orientation: “Though he was in the form of God…”

Disorientation: “[He] emptied himself.”

New Orientation: “Therefore God has highly exalted him…” [p.11]

The same pattern is emblematic of the larger biblical narrative, Creation, Fall, Recreation. Christians told this story in song, the Christ Hymn. This story may be seen in the Psalms as well.

Representative Psalms of Orientation are Psalm 2; Psalm 16; and Psalm 23.
Representative Psalms of Disorientation are Psalm 3; Psalm 6; Psalm 10; Psalm 26; and Psalm 44.
Representative Psalms of New Orientation are Psalm 18; Psalm 27; Psalm 31; Psalm 40 and Psalm 45.

Creation and Covenant – Wright

There is another theme, another story which the early Christians knew well because like the Psalms, the theology of early Christians was sung in another great Christological hymn, Colossians 1:15-20. The theology embedded in Christian song – and in Jewish song before it via the Psalms – is the theme of Creation and Covenant. Wright explains:

First the covenant is there to solve the problems within creation. God called Abraham to solve the problem of evil, the problem of Adam, and the problem of the world… But, second, creation is invoked to solve the problems within the covenant. When Israel is in trouble, and the covenant promises themselves seem to have come crashing to the ground, the people cry to the covenant of God precisely as the creator. – Paul: In Fresh Perspective, p. 24

Wright explains how Colossians 1:15-20 is more or less divided into two halves: verse 15-17 reminds the reader of God the creator all things “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” through Jesus Christ who is the very image of the invisible God. But then (verse 18-20) the text turns and appeals to God the covenant maker: “He is the head of the body, the church… and through him to reconcile to himself all things…”

Psalms 19 is a perfect thematic example of how this same theology motif was embedded in the great songs (i.e. the Psalms) of Israel’s tradition. Psalm 19 is also more or less broken up into two halves. Psalm 19:1-6 reminds the reader from the start that God is the God Most High (not just another “god”): “The heavens declare the glory of God”. But then (Psalm 19:7-14) the Psalm turns and reminds the reader not just that God is “God Most High”, but more specifically that God Most High is in fact their God; he is the God who established a covenant relationship with Israel.

Other thematic examples of Psalms of “Covenant and Creation” aside from Psalm 19 (which may be the most convenient to point out) are Psalm 9; Psalm 24; Psalm 29; Psalm 33; and maybe Psalm 37.

I found the theological insights from these two scholars very helpful in guiding me to read the Psalms with purpose. To look for deep rooted theological themes embedded within Israel’s tradition which bleeds through their worship hymns.

[P.S. You’ll notice that I did not source any Psalm above Psalm 45. That is because today’s post was based on Days 39 & 40 of my 90 (or whatever) day challenge through the bible: Psalm 1-45].

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.