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Entries in Training in Righteousness (18)


A psalm of praise

As promised on Monday, I am going to take some time today to do to do a little study of a psalm, just to put to practice some of the principles of studying them.

As I mentioned, there are a few different types of psalms.  Just for the sake of review, they are hymn, lament, thanksgiving,  confidence, remembrance, wisdom, and kingship.  Psalm 98, which I am looking at today,  is a familiar hymn to most, and is a psalm of praise.

If we take a look at the surrounding psalms, from 90-106, there are many psalms of praise, and which focus on God's attributes.  This psalm is one of them.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
    have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
    he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
    to the house of Israel.

 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
     break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
     make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!
All the ends of the earth have seen
     the salvation of our God.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
     the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
    let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
    to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with equity.

Psalms of praise generally have three parts to them:  a call to praise, a list of noteworthy acts and attributes of God, and a conclusion such as a prayer or a wish.  The first part of verse 1 is the call to praise:  Oh sing to the Lord a new song.  As we read the following list of noteworthy acts, we can see that the psalm has three distinct sections.  Verses 1-3 says calls for a praise to God because of his deliverance.  Reference to his mighty hand and holy arm working salvation show us that.  We don't know exactly what Israel has been delivered from, and that doesn't matter.  The point is that God remembered his people, and he delivered them.   Furthermore, the whole earth has seen the salvation of God.  It is a testimony to the entire world.  

The second stanza, verses 4-6 begins by encouraging the praise to be made with a "joyful noise."  The words in this stanza make noise and indicate music:  song, sing, lyre, melody, trumpets, horn.  The word "joy" is used three times. The point is that not only is Israel to praise God for his deliverance, but the entire world is to praise as well; and it is to be a joyful praise.

The third stanza calls upon all of creation, including nature, to praise Him.  This is where we see personification used.  The sea is to roar, the rivers to clap their hands, the hills to sing.  All the world and all who dwell in it are to praise Him.  And there is an interesting dimension of praise added: the call to praise is because God is coming to judge the people.  

Let's re-cap.  In stanza one, God the deliverer is praised; in the second, God the King, and in the third, God the Judge.  These are precious truths about God, that he is the deliverer, the King, and the Judge.  Right there, we have learned some valuable attributes about God.  They are attributes which can be said about Christ as well. Jesus is our Saviour, our King, and our coming Judge.  While the Isrealites could praise God for whatever deliverance was afforded them, we can look forward to His coming again.  We can be delivered from sin, we can bow before Him as King, and look with expectation for him to Judge.  We are told his judgment will be righteous and with equity.  The concluding statement of this psalm is in the last part of verse 9.  It began with the call to worship because He has done marvelous things, and ends with the statement that He will do another marvelous thing, He will judge the world with righteousness and judge the peoples with equity.  Did you pick up on the use of parallelism in that last phrase?  It is an example of synonymous parallelism.  Each part says basically the same thing, but in different words.

In addition to learning God's attributes, we learn about praise.  Praise and worship is to be joyous and noisy.  Now, this does not mean we need to have someone swinging from the ceiling fan while we worship, but our praises should not be ashamed, or hidden.  We should be joyful because God has remembered us.

So, this was a word to God by a people who praised him. It becomes a word from God to us through giving us words to praise Him and by revealing to us who He is.   When we are discouraged about something, we can look to this psalm and know that God remembers His own, and even in a difficult circumstance, we know we have been delivered from sin and can look forward to being eternally delivered.

On Monday, I hope to look at a lament.

By the way, if you are interested in commentaries to help in your study, I have two suggestions.

Derek Kidner's series is in two volumes.

James Montgomery Boice's are more like sermons, and are excellent.

I have both of these and have used them.


Training in Righteousness - 17

The Psalms contain some of the most well-known and well-loved portions of Scripture.  We love them because they are comparatively brief, self-contained units that speak to us.  The Psalms, written for worship and  set to music, are the voice of worship.  They speak across the range of human emotions that we all have; sorrow, fear, anger, joy, grief, victory, praise, confidence.  We like the Psalms because we can see our own hearts portrayed in them.  The Psalms give us the language to pray, to worship, and to grieve.  That is one of their many uses to us as a Christian.  In addidtion, they show us the character of God.

The Psalms are different from other genres of literature within the bible. What makes them different is the fact that these are hymns and prayers about God, and often directed to God,  yet they remain a word from God to us.  That is the challenge in interpreting them.  How are they a word from God to us?

We must remember that these are inspired poems.  They're Hebrew poems, and they're not like English poems.  In English, we expect poems to have rhyme and meter;  at least we used to.  Modern poetry doesn't feel the need for rhyme as much, but we still see patterns in the way words are used and structured.   Where Hebrew and English poetry are similar is in the use of metaphorical language.  Psalm 1:  "And he will be like a tree...."  There's a metaphor right in the first Psalm.  Metaphors provide concrete ways of expressing biblical truth.

Hebrew poetry uses parallelism.  Tremper Longman defines it: "Parallelism refers to the correspondence which occurs between the phrases of a poetic line."  Kathleen Nielson, a professor of literature describes parallelism as "the balancing together of units of thoughts, mostly in pairs."  An example is Psalm 6:1:

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discpline me in your wrath 

That first line is asking the same thing of God:  don't be angry with me.  It is stated in two phrases, the second one worded differently.

There are different kinds of parallelism.  The three most common are these: 

  • synonymous parallelism: the two phrases state the same truth, but the second one repeats it in slightly different words.  An example of this is Psalm 2:1: Why do the nations rage/and the peoples plot in vain?
  • synthetic parallelsim:  the two phrases state the same truth, but the second one adds more meaning, and "completes" the thought.  My shield is with God/who saves the upright in heart (Psalm 7:10).
  • antithetic parallelism:  the two phrases state the same truth, but the second phrase states in a contrasting way. Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses/but we trust in the name of the Lord our God (Psalm 20:7).

It's very useful to understand parallelism.  We encounter it again in the Proverbs.  For an excellent discussion about parallelism, look at Tremper Longman III's book How to Read the Psalms.

As with all Scripture, the context of the Psalms is important.  Many of the Psalms have a description about when they were written.  For example, Psalm 51 is a Psalm of David, expressing guilt after his sin with Bathsheba.   Some of the Psalms were written when David was fleeing from Saul, and afraid for his life.  A group of Psalms, called the Song of Ascents, include Psalm 120-Psalm 134.  Some scholars believe these were sung on the steps of the temple.  When the occasion of the Psalm is not mentioned, the language may dictate what the situation was.  We may not know the details of the actual event, but we can look to the category a Psalm belongs to.

Leland Ryken divides the Psalms into three major categories, lament, praise, and worship.  Those three divisions can be divided further.  The categories are: 

  • lament
  • hymn
  • thanksgiving
  • confidence
  • remembrance
  • wisdom
  • kingship 

 Other scholars may use different names.  For example, the above list, which is Longman's description, differs in Fee and Stuart's book, which is the same except they employ "salvation-history" and "songs of trust"  instead of "remembrance," and "confidence."  Robert Plummer's list is almost the same, except that he has two categories, "penitential" and "imprecatory" which I suspect the other scholars would include in the laments rather than have their own categories.  I like Longman's list the best, personally.  If you can't figure out specifically which category a Psalm belongs to, I think Ryken's broader division is the place to start, and then a student can narrow things further as he reads and sees the similarities and differences.

As we read and interpret the Psalms, it is important to keep in mind what category the Psalm is in, because that will dictate its interpretation.  Yes, some of the Psalms are prophetic, but they still exist within a category of literature.  Psalm 22 is considered prophetic, but it is a lament, and interpeted as such.  The important thing is to remember what, ultimately, we gain from the Psalms.  Through the Psalms we are given words for worship.  We are given examples of how to deal with our emotional lives.  We are encouraged to reflect on God's goodness and character.  If you're feeling down, turn to the Psalms, and you will be reminded of God's goodness throughout.

Tomorrow or Wednesday, I hope to continue this post by looking at a few Psalms to see how they are read and opened up. 


Training in Righteousness - 16

So, what are parables?

What they are not is allegories, although they may contain allegorical language.  Rather, they are folk literature, given orally, relating realistic, everyday circumstances.  Their appeal is that the hearers recognize the concrete examples, such as  family dynamics, lost items, sowing and harvesting, master and servant.  As with all biblical literature, we have to remember that the parables were given in a particular context.  The points of reference, those things which are the focus of the stories, are our concern.  If we don't understand what the points of reference are, we won't hear the message.  

The parables are told with the purpose of generating a response.  They teach by aiming for a reaction from the hearers.  Fee and Stuart liken it to the telling of a joke.  We won't get a joke if we have no familiarity with the points of reference.  The punch line will mean nothing to us.  It is that surprise at the end which generates shock, surprise, laughter, or anger which provides the parable with its power.  If we don't understand the points of reference in parable, it's like hearing an "inside joke."  Jesus did not tell the parables to exclude others.  He told them to get a reaction from whomever he was speaking to.  Fee and Stuart say this:

... the story parables do not serve to illustrate Jesus' proasic teaching with word pictures.  Nor are they told to serve as vehicles for revealing truth - although they end up clearly doing that.  Rather the story parables function as a means of calling forth a response on the part of the hearer.  In a sense, the parable is the message itself.  It is told to address and capture the hearers, to bring them up short about their own actions, or to cause them to respond in some way to Jesus and his ministry.

Since the parables are meant to elicit a response, it's important to understand the context and the original hearers.

The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is prompted by the question, asked of Jesus by a lawyer:  who is my neighbor?  Right away, we know the context.  There are four characters in the story, the man in the ditch, the priest who comes by first, the Levite who comes by next, and then the Samaritan who stops.  The priest and the Levite are not the points of reference, although they move the story.  When determining what the points of reference are, we should look at who the focus is at the end.  In this case, it's the man and the Samaritan.  The point of the story is that the Samaritan, although the Jews would have found this shocking, was the one who showed himself to be a neighbor.

As Jesus unfolded the story to the lawyer, perhaps the lawyer was growing increasingly uncomfortable, as he heard Jesus say that neither the priest nor the Levite stopped.  Jewish leaders were very proud of their almsgiving and acts of charity, yet both the priest and the Levite walked past.  The surprise comes at the end, when the Samaritan not only stops, but goes the extra mile.  This is what is supposed to grab the attention of the lawyer, and make him think.

The original hearers of that parable would have understood those points of reference, but it may be far removed from our culture today.  Perhaps a scenario that we would relate to is a young mother, eight months pregnant, walking out of a grocery store with her other four small children trailing behind her.  As she gets to her vehicle, she discovers that she has a flat tire.  There she stands, with a full cart of food, swollen ankles, and four children charging around asking, "Mommy, what will we do?"  Getting out her cellphone, she discovers that it is dead.  The woman sees a deacon from her church drive by in his car, but all he does is wave to her.  Next, the youth pastor from the megachurch down the road drives past on his motorcycle, looks at her, but because he's due at the high school to play basketball with some kids, he drives past.  The one who stops is a young kid about 21 years old, with a big set of spacers in his ears, a nose ring, and tatoos running up and down his arms, one which says "God is dead."  He changes the tire for her, helps her get all of her groceries loaded into the van, buckles the kids in their seatbelts and sends her on her way after he runs into the grocery store and buys her and her children a cold drink.

Now, that's a rather crude re-telling of the point, but you get the idea.  When we read the parables, our task is to look at who Jesus is trying to "catch" with his story, and how he uses the points of reference to do so.   

There is more that could be said about parables, but I'm quite sure I'm over 900 words at this point, and one post can't do them justice.  I think it would be a wise investment to purchase a good work on the parables not simply to be told what they mean but to learn by example how one studies them.

Robert L. Plummer in his book 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible recommends three books:

Interpreting the Parables, Craig L. Blomberg.
Preaching the Parables, Craig L. Blomberg.
An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, Robert H. Stein. 


Training in Righteousness - 15

We all want to study the gospels.  And why shouldn't we?  The gospels are full of the very words of Christ.  I remember very early in my life as a Christian, I became very frustrated with the apostle Paul, with what I perceved as his woman-hating ways.  I determined to read the words of Jesus first and take Paul later.  Of course, I was much more stupid than I am now.  As I have got older, I have come to appreciate Paul.

The gospels are a unique set of writings simply because they are not written by the major character in them, Jesus.  They are about Jesus, but they are not written by him.  They are more like memoirs.  Similar to the way a biographer may focus on specific aspects of his subject's life, the gospel writers each dealt with a specific, Spirit-led focus.   The fact that there are four gospels has often created difficulties for some, but clearly, if we believe in the inspiration of Scripture, we will know that God gave us four of them for a good reason.

The gospels are what Leland Ryken calls the gospels an "encyclopedic or mixed form:"

They include elements of biography, historical chronicle, fiction (the parables), oration, sermon, dialogue (drama), proverb, poem, tragedy, and comedy.  This very mixture and randomness produce an unusually powerful realism... The kaleidoscopic variety of scenes, events, characters, dialogues, speehes, and encounters, always revolving around Jesus at the center, conveys an astonishing sense of reality.

 It is best to read the gospels as we would read any other narrative, focusing on the characters, events, dialogue, and settings.  Just like the Hebrew narratives, the accounts are episodic in nature.  The gospel accounts were not written as a play by play, minute by minute, recounting.  The writers picked and chose what to include -- under inspiration, of course -- to focus on the theme which they were led to present.  Just like an epistle writer had a purpose, so did the gospel writers.

The difficulty in studying the gospels comes when we look at historical context, because there are two of them.  There is the historical context of the time Jesus lived in, and then there is the historical context of the gospel writer himself.  We have to take into consideration those two things.  While reading Epistles is aided by thinking "paragraphs" we need to read thinking in "periocopes," which are episodes within a larger work.  Both the context of when the events happened and the reason why the writer chose to include a particular event are important.  Reconstructing the life of Jesus from a purely historical point of view is interesting and worthwhile,  but asking why the writer chose to include what he did will help us more in the interpretation process.  

As with the Epistles, we need to ask ourselves what is the thematic elements of a given pericope.  The scenes depicted in the gospels are like drama in miniature, and each one serves a larger purpose.  As we read and observe, we must discover those themes to see how each episode is linked together.

When it comes to interpretation, the same cultural cautions apply as that which we would use in interpreting an epistle.  When we look at what the writers were trying to convey to their intended audience, we have to sift through not only what Jesus was saying at the time he spoke, but we have to understand why the author was including it.  That is, of course, where the sound exegesis comes in.  Again, we have to remember that everything is not normative for us today.   

Of course, the fact that so much of Jesus' writings were in parable and proverb form demands that we learn a about those forms of literature, especially how to interpret a parable.  One of the more significant things we have to understand as we read the gospels is the reality of the kingdom.  Fee and Stuart comment:

One dare not think he or she can properly interpret the gospels without a clear understanding of the concept of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus.

The kingdom of God has come, but it is still coming.  We have to adjust our thinking to the concept of the "already, but not yet." The believers alive in the time of Christ understood this idea of looking ahead to the fulfillment of the Messiah; it was crucial to their Jewishness.  When Christ came, many of them looked for Christ to usher in the end. They did not realize until he had ascended that his resurrection was the beginning of the end.  This principle of the kingdom being now but not yet is something we need to have in our thinking as we interpret.

I think the best approach to studying the gospels is to read, read, read, and take notes.  Furthermore, we must read "horizontally," i.e., keeping in mind that there are four gospels, and "vertically," i.e., paying attention to the context of a given pericope.  Getting into the context of the time Christ lived helps, too.  I don't own a book that delves into that, but I would like one.  Fee and Stuart recommend two books:

Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Everett Ferguson

Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Joachim Jermias

Next week, I think I'll look at studying a parable.


Training in Righteousness - 14

It didn't really occur to me that the book of Acts could be seen as a different kind of narrative until I saw that Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart had a separate chapter dealing with it in their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth.  As I have begun teaching Acts in Sunday school, I can understand why now.

Acts is historical narrative.  It operates very similarly to the Old Testament narratives, with characters, plots, conflict and resolution.  When we read Acts, we can follow similar habits, dividing the book into sections, noticing when there is a change in location, looking for how the plot is moved along by the various scenes.  The problem can come in our attitude as we begin studying.

When we read the Old Testament, we do not look at the events as historical precedents which set a pattern for Christian living.  For example, we don't send our daughters off to the barn at night to lie at the feet of their kinsmen redeemer.  Instead, we tend to draw moral lessons from the stories, something we should actually try to avoid.  However, when it comes to Acts, most people look at the book and think that everything is historical precedent for the church.  I have heard teachers tell students that the book of Acts is a "blueprint" for the church.  When we have that presupposition, we begin to take everything as normative, i.e. obligatory. 

This actually happened to me recently when I taught the passage in Acts 6, where the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in their serving of food.  The solution to this problem was that seven men (Greek speaking men, actually) were called to organize such things and leave the apostles to preach the word.  There were women in my class who did think this was an example of how to elect deacons.  When I pointed out that this wasn't really the point, I did get a few worried looks.  I saved myself from objection by pointing out that the specfic teaching for deacons and elders was later in the New Testament and the one providing those guidelines, Paul, was specific about what he was doing.  This passage didn't say anything specific.

Not everything in a narrative is normative.  Our task is, of course, to discern which is and which is not.  The unique situation with Acts is that everyone wants to think it's normative.  Finding the purpose for Luke's writing of Acts is really important, because as with all narratives, the author's purpose determines what he includes in his narrative.  We must ask not only what, but why.  

Reading the first chapter of Acts, within the first ten verses, Luke says this:  "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."  Luke's purpose in writing Acts is to detail that Holy Spirit-empowered witness.   As I have been studying Acts for the past few weeks and reading, I can see that very clearly, as gradually the church moves from being a small Jewish-based group of believers, to a more Gentile-based group of individuals, moving father and farther away from Jerusalem.  We begin in Jerusalem, but we end in Rome.  Furthermore, the presence of the Holy Spirit as the enabling power behind this growth is evident by its continued mention in the book.  If you want a good task, sit down and read the whole book in a couple of sittings and look for the mention of the Holy Spirit.

How, then, do we interpret Acts?  Knowing the book divisions is a good start.  Here is a clue that I picked up on:  look for the statements throughout the book that say the church was growing, that others were being added to its number. The first occurrence is in Acts 6:7, right before Stephen is stoned and there is a resulting scattering of believers because of great persecution.  After we know what those divisions are, it gets easier to see how they are revealing Luke's purpose.

I liked Fee and Stuart's principle for interpreting Acts:

Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normatiave (i.e. obligatory) - unless it can be demonstrated in other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.

When we derive doctrine from Scripture, we usually look at three areas:  theology, ethics, and practice.  Within those categories, there are always levels of statements.  For example, we are to observe the Lord's Supper.  It was commanded, which is a primary statement.  How often we celebrate it is a secondary statement.  Some people would refer to that secondary level as an "incidental."  The problem seems to be that often, when we derive statements of Christian practice from narratives, we frequently take secondary statements, call them historical precedent, and declare that Scripture teaches this.  When we take something as historical precedent and want to make it a command to follow in our churches, we have to find support for it in the entirety of Scripture.  There are patterns of behaviour that point to a teaching that we should apply to ourselves, but those are always repeated patterns.  And we have to be careful in saying things such as, "Well, the early church did it, so we should, too."

Next week, I will share some thoughts about reading the gospels.