by Pamela Henderson
Our lection for this Sunday is from the book of Psalms, which will also be the source of our Lenten lections. Thus, before we turn to today’s psalm, some background about the book itself seems in order.
The book of Psalms, which Christians also call the Psalter, is a collection of 150 “sung poetic prayers … associated with divine worship in Israel” (Source A) that “were numbered consecutively in the Hebrew tradition” (Source B). “The individual compositions have come to be called ‘psalms’ because of the name given to the Greek versions of the book, psalmoi” (Source C) which means “instrumental music and, by extension, the words that accompany the music” (Source B). (“In Hebrew [the Psalter] is known as ‘the book of praises.’” Ibid.)
“The psalms are poetic discourse between Israel and God, who is said to hear and answer. Many are frank, unrestrained conversations. Some are prayers and praises that soar to the heights of spiritual devotion. Some arise from the deepest pain and distress and display the depths of human misery, anger, and frustration. A few are complacent and self-congratulatory, and a few others are militant and chauvinistic. The psalms present a rich cross section of speech to and about God, and in some cases include speech from God. At their heart is the conviction that God is the one to whom all can speak.” Source D.
“Nothing much can be said about the psalms as musical compositions. There are many references to musical accompaniment, and one may infer that the words were sung, but nothing is known about melody or orchestration.” Source B. Many of the “psalms likely functioned as a musical libretto for sections of the Temple worship, though exactly when and how they were used is unclear.” Source A.
“[P]recious little is known for certain about the who, when, and why of the composer of particular psalms.” Source E. “While most of the psalms are Judean in origin, the language or internal references in several psalms suggest that they originated in the Northern Kingdom [Israel]; these most likely were brought to Judah after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE.” Source A. Several psalms “are now believed by some to be among the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible.” Source F. By contrast several other psalms are now believed by some to be “among the youngest parts of Hebrew Scripture.” Ibid. “The times of composition for the psalms range across at least five centuries.” Source A.
Unquestionably, the “composition, transmission, and collection of the psalms and the formation of the book were a very long process that stretched across eras of change. The preservation of the psalms was not a neutral archival process but involved the selection, reuse, revision, and grouping of the psalms that went with their constant use in Israel’s worship, the devotion of circles of the faithful, and the emergence of Scripture.” Source E.
Titles or headings “exist for 116 psalms…” (Source B) although they “were not part of the original text, and were probably built up rather than prefixed in toto” (Source E). “By the Hellenistic period [333-166 BCE], the psalms [also] were provided with superscriptions indicating authorship….” Source B. “The attributions probably came about in different ways for different purposes. None of them identify authors in the current sense of the term. …The earliest attribution of some psalms to David may have been based on the tradition that honored him as patron and founder of Temple music (1 Chronicles 15–16). That may be the result of the need to find in established tradition a significant and appropriate identification for the individual voice in the psalms.” Source E. However, there “is no hard evidence for Davidic authorship of any of the psalms.” Source B.
“While it is likely that the early Christians prayed and sang the psalms, it is absolutely clear that they used the psalms as a theological resource. The book of Psalms is quoted and alluded to in the [New Testament] more than any other [Hebrew Bible] book. This is not at all surprising in view of the fact that the theology of the psalms is congruent with the core of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. [T]he theological heart of the psalter—God reigns—is precisely the fundamental good news that Jesus announced from the beginning of his public ministry (see Mark 1:14-15).” Source G. And the psalms “are the primary scriptural context for the titles by which Jesus is identified.” Source E.
We are privileged to have the Psalter. “These prayers illustrate the theology and worship of the Israelites across the six centuries in which they were composed and collected. No other book in the Bible has this kind of origin and orientation. One learns what kind of God Israel worshiped and both the history and mystery of the covenanted relationship. At the same time, one learns much about the warmth and dynamism of Israel’s faith. An important mix of theology and anthropology is the result.” Source B. Moreover, the Psalter “is aptly considered a school of prayer, not simply because it contains prayers that can be appropriated for personal use but because it also teaches one to pray. The familiarity and the frankness of the lament, the enthusiasm of the hymn, the confessional character of the thanksgiving—all these characteristics speak to the human heart before God.” Ibid.
Now let us turn to our lection, Psalm 131, which as set out with its superscription in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible reads:
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
1O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
2But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
3O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
The psalm’s superscription reflects the fact that Psalm 131 belongs to the clearest one of “several collections or anthologies within the Psalter,” the anthology of songs in psalms 120-134, “each of which begins ‘A song of ascents.’” Source A. “While certainty is not possible, it is likely that this collection was originally used by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem or as part of a festal celebration in Jerusalem. …The noun translated ‘ascents’ … is from a Hebrew word meaning ‘to go up’ [which] as Psalm 122:4 points out [may reflect the fact that] it was decreed that ‘the tribes go up’ regularly to Jerusalem…. The noun can also mean ‘steps’ or ‘stairs,’ and it is elsewhere used for the steps of the Temple … and the steps to the city of David….” Source G. “Some scholars view the Psalms of Ascent as a collection of laypersons’ prayers, brought to the temple and later edited into their more communal settings. Psalm 131 may have been one such prayer….” Source H. If so, verse 3 “may have integrated the [psalmist’s] prayer of verses 1-2 into the collection.” Ibid.
“The reference to David in the superscription of Psalm 131 does not necessarily date the psalm to his time. Like so much literature of the Hebrew Bible, such attributions more likely honored and invoked a famous figure than indicated authorship or date. The date of the psalm is uncertain.” Source H. As to the psalm’s authorship, due to the “straightforward translation of verse 2c,” (Source G) “[m]ost of the recent analysts have accepted what seems obvious once spoken—that the author is a woman or is, at least, quoting a woman” (Source H).
Verse 1 “begins with a series of three negatives that eschew pride and arrogance.” Source E. A variety of suggestions for the predicate of the psalmist’s humility have been advanced. Two turn on the author or speaker’s gender. “A woman, especially one engaging in some sort of liturgical observance (as the term ‘song of ascents’ implies), might well have been wise to disclaim ‘stepping out of her place’ before she spoke any further.” Source H. Thus, her disclaimers “may be … an actual apology for intruding into male space in a time and place where that religious behavior was not universally accepted.” Ibid. “In the mouth of a man, the words have an altered connotation; they are easy to read as a warning that questioning the Deity is an unwise occupation.” Ibid.
But “verse 1 [also] can be proclaimed as acknowledgment that there are aspects of God’s intentions and activity that we do not and will not ever comprehend, no matter how much or how well we study theology. Although it is natural and even desirable that we ask questions about God, even after prolonged, serious engagement with the questions there will still be answers we do not know. Not even the most intelligent or most spiritual or most theologically gifted of us will completely understand the Deity, or ourselves, in this lifetime.” Source H.
A strictly theological reading of verse 1 would applaud the fact that the “speaker has not thought too highly of himself” as an appropriate recognition of the speaker’s “proper relation to God. It is not a relationship between equals, but is one of subordination, submission, trust….” Source I. Yet simultaneously, verse 1 theologically asserts “the psalmist’s own worth before God, an appropriate recognition of his or her humanity and mortality.” Source J.
In v. 2 “[t]he woman [reports finding] peace in her acceptance by and dependence upon God.” Source D. The “poem understands that such glad, submissive reliance leaves one free of anxiety, for anxiety is wrought either in trying to be self-sufficient (which one cannot be) or in trying to be an equal of the mother-God, rather than a fed dependent.” Source I. And simply “because the psalmist has not tried (and failed!) to be something that God did not intend for him or her to be, there has descended on this person’s innermost being a marvelous peace (v. 2). It is not a peace that the psalmist has constructed for her- or himself, in spite of the first-person ‘I have calmed….’ Rather, it is like the peace that naturally ensues when a small child is with its mother. As the inevitable, God-given consequence of a mother’s cradling of a child is peace in the child’s heart, so God grants quietness and tranquility to the heart of the one who, without false pride, understands his or her relation to God and to the larger world.” Source J.
The psalm’s central metaphor which appears in v. 2 is remarkable. “[I]t draws attention to both women and children. The psalmist compares a devout worshiper to a child, although children were often ignored and oppressed in the ancient world. Furthermore, the poetic transition from verse 2 to verse 3 lifts up the act of mothering as comparable to the work of the Divine.” Source H.
“The third verse of the psalm appears to [have been] added” as part of “a process by which intimate statements of faith [were] systematically reassigned to Judah and Israel” by the Psalter’s compilers. Source I. This verse “urges the larger community of God’s people to learn [to] hope [in the Lord] and to live their lives according to its joyful imperatives” (Source J) for “hope is a light and power for the way” (Source H).
A “long tradition of translation and interpretation of this psalm, a tradition that goes back at least to the Septuagint [completed by 132 BCE], … ‘reads’ the Psalm” “as a song of quiet confidence and joy.” Source J. The psalm’s “dominant theme is that a hopeful trust in God and a life of peace go hand in hand.” Ibid. Indeed, “Psalm 131 commends the style of life that the psalms regularly described as ‘righteous’ and ‘happy’—utter trust in and childlike dependence upon God for life and future….” Source D. “And what word could be more significant than one that sings of the beauty of a quiet life lived in peace and harmony before God!” Source J. “Psalm 131 [also] brings to light the voices and experiences of mother and child as acceptable prayer offerings to God and as welcome contributions to the community’s prayer book.” Source H.
Source A: The New Oxford Annotated Bible.
Source B: Bruce M. Metzger & Michael D. Coogan (editors), The Oxford Illustrated Companion to the Bible.
Source C: James L. Mays (editor), HarperCollins Bible Commentary.
Source D: Walter J. Harrelson (editor), The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.
Source E: James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible commentary for Teaching and Preaching.
Source F: Paul J. Achtemeier (editor), HarperCollins Bible Dictionary.
Source G: The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume IV: 1 & 2 Maccabees – Psalms.
Source H: David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor (editors), Feasting on the Word, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, Volume 1.
Source I: Walter Brueggemann, et al., The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary.
Source J: Walter Brueggemann, et al., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A.