Home » Posts tagged 'prosopological exegesis'
Tag Archives: prosopological exegesis
One thing is true about the Psalter: it is not to be skimmed, or read quickly. The psalms are meant to be mulled and chewed in a quiet atmosphere in which the alarm clock has been turned off. When read in such a manner, the psalms reveal details of form which add to reader comprehension. Scholarly tradition holds that the Psalter was performed in temple liturgies, that is, out loud where worshipers gathered. Many psalms lend themselves to a readers theater approach that would help to clarify their meaning to physically present listeners (see “Psalms 9 and 10: A Readers Theater”). Psalm 25 can be included in this grouping.
If I were the director, or worship leader, in charge of setting up Psalm 25 for dramatic presentation, I would assign parts in the following way:
- Speaker 1: the individual lifting his prayer to God
- Speaker 2: the chorus
Who are the speakers?
Concerning the identities of the speakers, the individual, Speaker 1, could be you or I. In a deeper sense and in alignment with the basic premise of this blog, the speaker is Jesus Christ. Psalm 25 uses this prosopological approach (speaking in-character as though using a dramatic mask, or costume) to prophesy of the coming Messiah in his human and mediatorial role. Speaker 2 could reasonably be any of the following: 1) an actual chorus of speakers who stand above and beyond the action as an interpretive narrator, 2) the voice of Scripture, as though personified, or 3) the voice of the Holy Spirit. Verse 22, “Redeem Israel, O God, from all their troubles!” favors an actual chorus (#1 above) or the voice of the Holy Spirit in intercession ((#3 above; see Romans 8:27).
Psalm 25 (NIV) in text blocks, or panels
- Panel 1
- Speaker 1, verses 1-2:
1 In you, Lord my God, I put my trust. I trust in you; 2 Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
- Speaker 2, verse 3:
No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame, but shame will come on those who are treacherous without cause.
- Panel 2
- Speaker 1, verses 4-7:
4 Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; 5 guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.
6 Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord.
- Speaker 2, verses 8-10:
8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. 9 He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. 10 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant.
- Panel 3
- Speaker 1, verse 11:
11 For the sake of your name, O Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.
- Speaker 2, verses 12-14:
12 Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way chosen for him, 13 He will spend his days in prosperity, and his descendants will inherit the land. 14 The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.
- Panel 4
- Speaker 1, verses 15-21:
15 My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare. 16 Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. 17 The troubles of my heart have multiplied; free me from my anguish, 18 Look upon my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins. 19 See how my enemies have increased and how fiercely they hate me! 20 Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. 21 May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope is in you.
- Speaker 2, verse 22:
22 Redeem Israel, O God, from all their troubles!
What are the advantages of viewing Psalm 25 this way?
The main advantage of reading Psalm 25 in this statement/response format is that the interplay between God and petitioner becomes apparent. In Panel 1, the individual addresses God, acknowledging his trust in him. He asks God that he would not be put to shame and that God would rescue him from his enemies. Then, the chorus, which could be the Holy Spirit, also addresses God directly. This speech differs from the former in that it states general, biblical principles about the nature and actions of God. It answers the needs of the first speaker with reassurance. “God, no one who puts their faith in you is ever put to shame. As for the enemies, they will be the ones put to shame, since they act treacherously without provocation. Speaker 1 is vindicated and reassured by these statements. Notice that the second person direct address to the Lord made by Speaker 2 in verse 3 is joined by third person statements of general principles. This contrasts with the second person direct address and first person statements of a personal nature in verses 1 and 2. The grammar supports the perception of two distinct speakers, and this becomes more apparent as the poem progresses.
In Panel 2, Speaker 1 asks the Lord to teach and guide him, because God is the one he looks to as Savior. All his hope is in the Lord constantly; there is no one else this individual relies upon. He reminds the Lord and asks the Lord to remember his great mercy and love which stretch back to the beginning. He also brings up the sin issue, asking the Lord to forgive him. He cites two reasons: 1) he is older now and knows better, and 2) he is counting on God’s love and goodness.
In response to this speech, Speaker 2, still in Panel 2, indicates in third person that the Lord is indeed good and upright. He does instruct sinners in how to improve their walk. Speaker 2 specifically mentions “the humble,” thereby implying that Speaker 1, as one of the humble, will be guided in what is right and that the Lord will answer his request positively by teaching him. In other words, “Don’t worry. The Lord hears and will answer your prayer by forgiving you and giving you the guidance you seek.”
In Panel 3, the first person individual speaker very simply repeats his request for forgiveness (verse 11), including the elaboration that his iniquity is very great. Speaker 2 responds in much the same fashion as the first time. This speaker never states, “The Lord does forgive you.” Rather, speaking in third person about the sinner and about the Lord, Speaker 2 implies the Lord’s forgiveness through descriptions of ongoing relationship. First, he describes the kind of person the Lord forgives. This person(s) is one who “fears” the Lord (verses 12 and 14). We learn contextually, by reading many psalms, that “to fear the Lord” means to be humble toward him, both in acknowledgment of his rights as the one and only sovereign creator and in acquiescence, or submission, to those rights. The Lord chooses a path, or “way,” for that person who fears him and will instruct him on how to live his life, or to walk in that “way.” Speaker 2 continues in verse 13 to pronounce a blessing from the Lord to such a person and his descendants. Verse 14 goes deeply into the blessing in store for the persons who fear the Lord, “14 The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.” The teaching is remarkable, that to be forgiven means to be drawn in to close and intimate relationship with the Lord Almighty. And so the reader sees by example and illustration what it means when the Lord forgives the great iniquity of those who confess and repent.
Panel 4 contains the longest speech by the first person individual supplicant. It is like a final fireworks, as the end of the prayer-poem approaches. It causes the reader to question whether Speaker 1 has heard the responses given by Speaker 2 earlier in the prayer. Certainly the conditions have not yet changed. Descriptions of these become more personal and detailed, “I am lonely and afflicted” (vs 16) and in “anguish” (vs 17). The hatred of his enemies toward him is described as being fierce (vs 19). Verse 18 includes a request that the speaker’s sins be not just “forgiven,” as in verse 11, but more than that, taken away.
Verse 21 adds a new element to the prayer. Even though the supplicant perceives himself as a sinner, he requests that integrity and uprightness would protect him. The English translation does not indicate whose integrity and uprightness are being specified. Are they abstract, stand-alone qualities, are they characteristics of God, or are they indicative of the supplicant, in spite of his confessed sins? The Septuagint translation interprets the underlying Hebrew text (vorlage) differently, “The harmless and upright joined themselves to me: for I waited for thee, O Lord.” This is very interesting. First, such a statement supports well the interpretation that Christ in this psalm speaks in a mediatorial capacity. Secondly, in his incarnation, the poor and afflicted, the harmless (disenfranchised) ones, did attach themselves to Christ. Their very belief in him as God’s Son indicates their “uprightness” before the Lord (metaphorically their truth, “straightness,” sincerity according to Thayer). On the other hand, if Speaker 1 is making reference to his own integrity and uprightness, this would support the underlying premise of the righteous one confessing mediatorially the sins of others throughout the psalm.
Speaker 2 closes both this panel and the psalm with a prayer that Israel that would be redeemed, or saved, from all their troubles. Both the Hebrew and Greek use a masculine singular for “his troubles,” a grammar supported by the NET. If the Holy Spirit is Speaker 2, “Israel” could be the kingdom or it could be a special name for Christ in his mediatorial capacity (confer Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15). This summary prayer in verse 22 accords well with the interpretation that the individual supplicant, Speaker 1, has spoken throughout the psalm in a mediatorial capacity.
Why does a grammatical shift of person indicate a change of speaker?
Verbs in many languages express “person,” the English word used to describe who the subject of the verb is speaking about. Some languages also use pronouns to help clarify meaning. For example, a sentence may say, “I run,” or “We run,” “You run,” or “He runs,” etc. Why is it important to notice person in speech?
Let’s set up an imaginary scenario. Let’s pretend that I am talking to you and that you and I are alone together. Let’s further assume that no one is listening in. I may make statements such as, “I am hungry,” or, “I want you to help me.” I may say, “You are doing a good job.” The common practices of ordinary language are such that grammatical person remains consistent during a speech segment. So let’s say I am talking to you, and your name is Viva. I might say something like, “Viva, I’m hungry. I want you to help me get some lunch ready.” However, I wouldn’t say, “Viva, I’m hungry. I want you to help me get some lunch ready. Viva is a good and kind person who always helps whoever asks her,” if the situation hadn’t changed and I was still talking directly to you, Viva. If I did speak like that, a hypothetical reader (who is now listening in) might think that 1) I was speaking to a very young child, 2) that Viva had a learning difficulty of some sort, 3) perhaps I was trying to brainwash Viva, or 4) that I was making a dramatic aside to an outside party listening in. Number 4 might occur if I were on a reality TV show and I suddenly turned to speak in third person about Viva to the assumed audience. These possibilities serve to demonstrate that in normal direct address to someone labeled, “you,” when the two persons are alone together, the speaker continues to use second person throughout a consecutive speech segment. They do not grammatically shift to third person and speak about the person whom they previously had been addressing, if nothing in the setup has changed. Such a shift would normally imply the presence of a third party to the conversation.
In the example given above, a reader might see on the printed page, “Viva, I’m hungry. I want you to help me get some lunch ready. Viva is a good and kind person who always helps whoever asks her.” Rules of ordinary, common speech would cause the reader to assume the presence of a third person, who either 1) speaks the final sentence or 2) to whom the final sentence is being spoken. The type of written material would influence the reader’s conclusions concerning which of those two possibilities is correct. For example, if the reader is reading a novel, she might assume the narrator spoke that last line to the reading audience.
The above example illustrates the principle that in ordinary, plain speech an individual who directly addresses another individual does so continuously throughout the speech event. The speaker does not switch second person “you,” to third person “he,” if continually addressing the same individual. If I am speaking directly to you, I would not suddenly begin referring to you in third person, not while I am still talking to you directly.
Therefore, when we as readers encounter grammatical changes of person in a single speech event, such as second person switches to third person and back again, we normally assume another individual to be present, either as speaker or as listener. As demonstrated above, Psalm 25 continuously switches from reference to the Lord in second person to reference about the Lord in third person, and back again. For example, consider verses 7b-8, “7b According to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord [second person]. 8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways [third person].” Verse 7b addresses the Lord directly in second person, you. Verse 8 without warning switches to describing the Lord in third person, he and his. As readers daily schooled in the norms of plain, ordinary speech, we would naturally begin looking for explanations to explain the shift.
What possibilities might explain the shift of person in Psalm 25?
In Psalm 25, there are various possibilities that might explain the shift in person.
- The first person speaker turns from addressing the Lord in second person to addressing himself about the Lord in third person.
- The first person speaker turns from addressing the Lord in second person to addressing an assumed audience about the Lord in third person.
- A third party privy to the prayer makes narrative statements to the Lord (verses 3 and 22) or about the Lord (verses 8-10 and 12-14). In this scenario, the first person speaker either may or may not be aware of the third party who functions as a narrator.
Let’s discuss each of these possibilities one at a time.
- The first person speaker addresses himself about the Lord. In this scenario, the supplicant, that is, the first person speaker, begins by addressing the Lord directly using first and second person, “In you, Lord my God, I put my trust,” (verse 1). Then, even though his prayer hasn’t ended, he breaks off addressing the Lord and begins talking about the Lord in third person, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways (verse 8). Is he now talking to himself about the Lord?
- If number one is the case, then the entire prayer becomes a kind of metacognitive debate. If he is talking to himself, it would appear to be an attempt to convince himself that the Lord will answer his prayer because that is the Lord’s nature. This would preclude (leave out) his waiting on the Lord in order to receive the Lord’s reply. The psalmist does indeed state in verse 5 LXX that he has waited on the Lord all day long; the NIV uses the word “hoped” rather than “waited.” Trying to convince oneself about the reliability of the Lord is not the same as waiting on the Lord to answer one’s prayer. Possibility one, therefore, must be rejected.
- The first person speaker turns from addressing the Lord in second person to addressing an assumed audience about the Lord in third person.
- If number two is the case, that the supplicant turns to address an audience, as in a liturgical setting, then the intimacy of the personal confessions and appeals would be broken. This scenario seems unlikely in that the passion and intimacy of the prayer directed to the Lord lead one to believe that the prayer is genuine and earnest, as prayed by a real person in a real situation. If the prayer was originally conceived for a liturgical setting, then its basic premise would be false. An honest reader must reject this notion.
- A third party privy to the prayer makes narrative statements to the Lord (verses 3 and 22) or about the Lord (verses 8-10 and 12-14).
- Verse 3 is problematic in that the statements are second person addressed to the Lord and third person about those who are treacherous without provocation. It may be spoken by a narrator (a dramatic chorus viewing the prayer from the outside or the Holy Spirit), or it may be spoken by the supplicant. I feel it is the Holy Spirit, due to its content and tone, which differ from the statements in first person of personal need. Verse 3 aside, the remaining verses fit well with assignment to a third party.
- Is the first person speaker aware that third party proclamations about the nature and character of the Lord are being inserted into his prayer from time to time? It appears not. While it seems as though the Speaker 2 statements are spoken in reply to and with regard to the contents of the statements by Speaker 1, the reverse does not seem to be the case. Statements by Speaker 1 remain consistent throughout the psalm. His thoughts do not seem to have responded to the words of reassurance consistently spoken by Speaker 2. Therefore, I believe that we the reader can hear these inserted statements, but Speaker 1 does not.
- Of the three possibilities set forth to explain the grammatical shift in person within the prayer that is Psalm 25, I believe that the third possibility appears most probable in that it best explains the normal rules of speech under which we all function.
- There are changes of grammatical person throughout Psalm 25.
- These indicate a change of speaker.
- Speaker 1 is an individual supplicant confessing his suffering and sin to the Lord, asking forgiveness, and asking the Lord for his intervention in overcoming his enemies.
- Speaker 2 is an outside voice apparent to the reader of the psalm, but not apparent to the supplicant.
- The content of the statements by the two speakers vary considerably.
- Statements by Speaker 1 are all spoken in first and second person. They express anxiety, urgency, stress, emotional pain, confession of sin, and a beseeching attitude of trust and hope in the Lord. These are consistent throughout the psalm.
- Statements by Speaker 2 are all spoken in second and third person. They express strong confidence in the Lord’s consistent love, goodness, and faithfulness toward those who fear him by keeping the demands of his covenant. They express no anxiety.
- Psalm 25 is consistent with other psalms that clearly and directly indicate Christ as King, mediator, and persecuted supplicant.
- Most likely Speaker 1 in Psalm 25 is the prophetic, in-character (prosopological) voice of Christ during the trials of his incarnation.
- Most likely Speaker 2 is the voice of the Holy Spirit having heard the prayers of Christ and also praying to the Lord God on behalf of Christ and Israel.
- All of the above is consistent with Scripture considered as a whole and in parts, both Old and New Testaments.
How do these conclusions, based upon consideration of the grammatical changes of person in Psalm 25, help the reader’s faith?
First, two speakers are better than one. Two speakers implies the supernatural presence of deity listening to the words of the psalmist’s prayer. The supplications of this prayer will be answered. This informs the reader that her prayers will also be heard, understood, accepted, and answered. Our Lord is Spirit, but he is God who sees, hears, and speaks.
Psalm 145:19 NIV He fulfils the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.
Second, the presence of two speakers implies the presence of the Trinity within the words of Psalm 25: The Lord God to whom the supplications are directed, Christ the mediator making supplication for himself and the people he represents, and the Holy Spirit, the Helper, who helps the supplicant in his prayer.
Finally, the words and prayers of Speaker 2 are highly reassuring and certainly speak to people of faith of all times and places. By reading Psalm 25 with the understanding that Christ our mediator is praying for his mission and for the forgiveness of our sins and that the Holy Spirit is in full agreement with the words of his prayer, our faith is helped.
1. Psalm 1. Introduction to the Psalter. God favors the righteous; the unrighteous will perish. God defines righteousness.
2. Psalm 2. Introduction to the Royal Family; the King is appointed
3. Psalm 3. The King appears as a man on earth
4. Psalm 4. The King on earth walks in righteousness but has many enemies who do not receive him
5. Psalm 5. The King prays Psalm 1
6. Psalm 6. The King is assaulted by enemies and feels assaulted by God; he cries out to the Lord for deliverance
And, moving forward:
7. Psalm 7. The King addresses accusations against himself; war is fully declared and victory won
8. Psalm 8. First denouement, a day of rest, the end of the story foretold, a post-resurrection view, creation celebrated
“Early Christian writers adapted prosopological analysis for interpreting poetic biblical texts like the Psalms and the Song of Songs, and routinely identified the speaking “I” (ego) of the Psalms as Christ.” —Michael Cameron, 171
The key to understanding the Psalter is Jesus Christ. When the reader perceives Christ in the first person speaking role of the Psalms of David, much of what otherwise may appear to be a scattered jumble of statements falls into place. My premise is that “the man,” of Psalm 1 describes Christ in particular. The immediately following psalms unfold as in the Recap and Moving Forward above. When the superscriptions assign a psalm to David, David is “taking on” the persona of someone else–the Christ. (See Peter’s statements in Acts 2:29-31.) A good Greek term to describe this rhetorical tool is prosopopoeia. (1)
In these psalms we find a progression from God’s decree in heaven (Psalm 2:6-9 and especially verse 7, “the ordinance of the Lord” LXE) to its enactment on earth. The entire sequence is the Gospel of Christ our King. He was appointed by God in eons past to be Savior and Sovereign Lord of humanity. He performed the salvation by means of his incarnation, substitutionary death on the cross, his resurrection, and ascension. The Psalter records in advance Christ’s holy ministry. Much of this is presented through first person prayers and other speech. In the recorded prayers, as the Apostle Paul writes, “…we have the mind of Christ” (1Co 2:16b ESV).
When the reader adheres to the simplicity of this key concept of interpretation, the love of God for his Son all but shouts from the pages of the Psalter. When we see that love of the Father/Son Godhead and ourselves as readers interacting spiritually with the text by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are included in the fellowship of love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an interactive way. When we hear Christ speaking the psalms, the love of God for us pours into our hearts. It is a transforming love, “… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5b ESV).
Following the progressive sequence from Psalm 1 through Psalm 8, Psalm 7 moves beyond Psalm 6. In Psalm 6, the human Son-of-God-King presents himself in weakness and, possibly, what we might experience as confusion, if this were happening to us. God seems to be angry with him and is far away. He cries to the Lord as death draws nearer. Eventually, God does answer. Although Psalm 6 is called the first of the Penitential Psalms, in it the psalmist does not confess any sins. Neither does God offer forgiveness when he answers the psalmist’s prayer. The reader can conclude (knowing who the speaker is) that any sin and God’s resultant wrath are not on account of the psalmist himself.
Psalm 7 is blatantly defensive. The accusations from the speaker’s enemies have been pinpointed (vv 3-4), and the psalmist vehemently denies any wrongdoing on his part by asking God to punish him if indeed he committed the crimes stated by his accusers (vv 4b-5). He then appeals to God on the basis of God’s decree, which is recorded in Psalm 2. In other words, he prays Psalm 2 as concerns himself. Psalm 2:6-9 shows God decreeing Christ as King (quoted in Hebrews 1:5). Verses 6-16 speak of the decreed judgment upon those who reject God and his appointed Ruler. (See also Psalm 1:4-6.)
Verses 7-8a of Psalm 7 in the Septuagint makes better sense when heard as spoken by the Chorus, which is slightly off-stage but ever present. (See the dramatic setting including the Chorus in “Penitential Psalms: The Amazing Psalm 6–Windup to the Pitch“.)
And the congregation of the nations shall compass thee: and for this cause do thou return on high. The Lord shall judge the nations. (Psalm 7:7-8a LXE)
This is because of these verses being embedded solidly within a paragraph of verses clearly spoken by the main speaker of Psalm 7, yet verse 7 appears to be addressing Christ the Lord, rather than God most High, and verse 8a is about the Lord. We learn from New Testament Scripture, Isaiah, and other Psalms that “the nations” shall gather around Christ the King, and it is Christ who shall “return on high,” in other words–ascend–after his resurrection, in order for his Lordship over the nations to begin. It also befits a dramatic production to assign the speech in verse 7 about “the congregation” to the Chorus. Verses 14-16 are also suited as lines for the Chorus. If 14-16 are spoken by the Chorus, then verse 17 is the closing “Amen” of thanksgiving spoken once more by the main speaker of Psalm 7.
Who is this God on High who wreaks vengeance upon those who oppose his favored Son/King? Is he being unfair, autocratic, authoritarian, narrow, and fascist in his outlook?
First, God is Creator. At this point in human history, that fact cannot be changed. It follows from this fact that God is Sovereign. Whether we as people like it or not, the Creator is the Ruler.
But secondly, he is a God who gives many chances.
Now therefore understand, ye kings: be instructed, all ye that judge the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice in him with trembling. 12 Accept correction, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and ye should perish from the righteous way: whensoever his wrath shall be suddenly kindled, blessed are all they that trust in him. (Psalm 2:10 LXE)
Psalm 7 reinforces the call of God to repentance found above in Psalm 2.
God is a righteous judge, and strong, and patient, not inflicting vengeance every day. 12 If ye will not repent, he will furbish his sword; he has bent his bow, and made it ready. (Psalm 7:11 LXE)
Verses 14-16 work well as a choral commentary upon the preceding four verses. These lines speak of an unnamed “he,” which from the context can only be the unrighteous false accuser of the righteous King. They spell out the bad choice the unrighteous one made and how he is bringing down upon his own head his just retribution. These verses demonstrate the false reasoning of those who blame God for condemning evil. Here the just punishment that pursues the unrighteous is nothing more than what that person planned for an innocent person who had done him no wrong. God is patient and just, inviting sinners to repent.
Verse 8a says, “The Lord shall judge the nations…” Immediately the Judge, when not yet the Judge but still the suffering Savior, in response to God on account of the words just spoken by the chorus, pleads with God, “Judge me, O Lord,…” The righteous Judge wants to be judged by God first.
And God does acquit him. Psalm 7 ends very strongly, much as Psalm 2. The righteous King is vindicated, and his false accuser falls into the pit his own hands have dug (vv 15-16). These words of Scripture have been written in future tense, as prophetic, yet their outcome is secure.
From Psalms 3 through 6, the audience perceives the King descending, as he falls deeper and deeper into persecution and human vulnerability. Psalm 7 presents him rising up in strength to face his accuser, along with the announcement of his final victory. Then Psalm 8 comes crashing onto the scene in a wild exuberance of joyful praise. I’ll give Psalm 8 a posting of its own.
1 We encounter this ancient tool of figurative language called prosopopoeia nearly every day. Whenever we hear a child or someone else speak “Valley talk” as they describe an encounter with another person, we might hear a statement such as, “And then she’s like, ‘………’.” What transpires in the elipsis, the dots in the quotation, is a perfect reenactment of the described person’s words, intonation, mannerisms, and attitude, albeit exaggerated for effect. This is prosopopoeia, when a speaker or writer takes up the persona of someone else and becomes them imitatively. This is what acting on stage is all about. Real life actors take up the lives and characters of others in order to portray them with convincing reality. Within Psalms, David, the prophet/actor being used by God, takes up the persona of the Christ. Who has a greater role in God’s plan of salvation: David the man or Christ the Atoning King? Did David know that he was being used by God this way? According to Peter in Acts 2:30-31, David did know that he was prophesying about Another.
When as readers we consistently keep Christ in view and use the key of the gospel message which he himself provided to his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47), much of the Psalter prophetically accommodates the apostolic kerygma (gospel message). In Psalm 88, Christ the Messiah, in his form as a human being (Philippians 2:8), prophetically laments his condition as he approaches the grave and then descends into it. Psalm 89 gives us another view of Christ’s persecuted life during his incarnation, with the difference that it stops short of his Passion week. Before we hear the psalmist’s lament, however, the reader is given a brief review in broad, comprehensive strokes of the biblical history of creation and the Davidic Covenant. (Link to text of Psalm 89: Link)
Psalm 89 Is Like Readers’ Theater
Dialogue is notably present in Psalm 89. Speech as a tool creates dramatic immediacy and truthfulness within the psalm. The quotations themselves unite Scripture into an organic whole, as one portion cites other portions. Speech causes the readers or listeners to recall the real history of Israel as God’s holy people.
One of the first tasks for the reader, then, is to recognize that speech occurs. The fancy word for this reading technique is prosopological exegesis (Matthew W. Bates, The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation, 183f). Our task in Psalm 89 is made easier by the use within the text of quotation marks and identifying speech markers, such as, “I said, …” (v 2) and, “You have said, …” (v 3). Additionally, the text supplies a liberal use of second person speech labels, as commonly used in direct address: “you” (e.g., vv 8, 9, and 10) and “your” (e.g., vv 4, 14, 15). Finally, the use of first person singular in verses 1 and 50, intertwined with direct address (you) to God, provides a strong clue to the reader that dialogue is present. The reader can easily envision Psalm 89 being performed or read upon a dramatic stage, perhaps as a reader’s theater.
Where is the Speech and Who Are the Speakers?
The psalmist (the narrative speaker of the psalm, not the author) makes reference to himself as “I” in verse 1 and again in verse 50. As is usual in the Psalter, the first person psalmist does not identify himself. One of the first person speakers is God, as the entire context declares. Therefore, our task is to identify the voice represented by the other speaker, the first person psalmist. No universal agreement exists. If there were, there would be no need for me to write. Context, however, including the previously mentioned apostolic kerygma, provides sufficient clues for the reader to confidently assume that the speaker is the Anointed One.
- God as the reported speaker in verses 3-4 states the Davidic Covenant as it applies to Messiah. Verses 19-37 expand the terms of that covenant (see 2 Samuel 7:1-17). Details of this expansion, as in the original, indicate that the covenant extends beyond David himself and refer to God’s chosen Messiah, or Anointed (see vv 25-37, especially verses 27, 29, and 36).
- The gospel message, or apostolic kerygma, proclaims Jesus of Nazareth to be Christ, God’s Messiah.
- Verses 50 and 51 (“Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, 5with which your enemies mock, O Lord, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed,“) in context of the larger unit unite the first person speaker and the referenced Messiah. The calamities described in verses 38-51 have befallen the Anointed One with whom God made the covenant, and by the use of first person singular in verse 50, the psalmist claims those calamities as his own.
The Four Sections of the Psalm
Psalm 89 tells the interesting story of God’s promises to Israel concerning Messiah. The exalted expectations are then contrasted with the harsh realities of the Messiah’s life during his incarnation. The psalmist/Messiah points out the contractions to the Lord, reminding him of his promises. He asks the Lord why his life compares so unfavorably with the promises. Nevertheless, he closes by blessing the Lord. (I am indebted to Patrick Reardon for his observation of the sections in Psalm 89. While he identifies three sections, I find it more convenient to locate and describe four. See Reardon, 175.)
The reader needs to bear in mind that the psalm is prophecy, and this is Scripture’s way of announcing that the Messiah’s life would be one of suffering. The facts of his future incarnation do not seem to resemble the facts of God’s promises. No one understood this in the days when Jesus walked on earth, not even his own disciples. It was left to the Lord to explain the prophetic Scriptures concerning himself to his disciples after his resurrection. We, as readers today, have the great advantage of hindsight, although even today, many, if not most, believers do not perceive the messianic prophecies in this psalm. Psalm 89 is not listed as being messianic in most study Bibles.
Creation: Verses 2, 5-18. God created all things, and his power is supreme, even over Rahab (Job 9:3). Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before him. (v 14)
God’s Promise to Israel and Messiah: Verses 3-4, 19-37. God’s righteous, just, loving, and faithful nature, as established, manifested, and proven throughout all of creation, form the basis of his covenant with Israel, as represented by David his servant, and by the Greater David, Messiah. Verses 15-18 provide the transition from the first section to the second. God’s people know and understand God’s nature as expressed in creation, and they are blessed because they walk in accordance with his nature.
In the long speech block from verse 19 thr0ugh 37, God describes in his own words the future messianic kingdom, Messiah’s loving response to him (verse 26), and the nature of his disciplinary yet covenantal interactions with Messiah’s progeny. Just as God proves himself to be righteous, just, loving, and faithful in all his created works, so the Israelites and Messiah can count on him to be the same in all his covenantal dealings with them.
Enter Messiah. Enter Discord. Is Something Wrong? This Reality Doesn’t Match Up with the Promise. Description of the Discord: Verses 38-51
Verses 38-51 describes Messiah’s actual incarnated experience with the following statements:
38 But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.
40 You have breached all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
41 All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.
43 You have also turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not made him stand in battle.
44 You have made his splendor to cease and cast his throne to the ground.
45 You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame. Selah
Messiah’s Prayer of Appeal (vv 46-51)
As we read Messiah’s prayerful protest to God, there can be no doubt that Messiah was fully man. These words are spoken from a human vantage, and a suffering human at that. Well may Paul have had this psalm in mind when he wrote of Christ to the Philippians:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phi 2:5-8 ESV)
Summary and Conclusion
Psalm 89 concludes, as many psalms do, with a final word of blessing for the Lord. Here the psalmist/Messiah reminds us that even when the path is difficult and strewn with trials of all kinds, God is faithful to perform what he promises, notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, and in that his people worship and adore him.
Psalm 89 does not solve the mystery of a suffering Messiah–it simply announces the mystery. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, by the time Jesus walked the earth, his entire people had lost sight of the full scope of this psalm’s message. They grasped well enough the exalted promises of God to Israel through a glorified Messiah, but they apparently had never connected or had forgotten the last portions of the psalm, which paint a portrait of a suffering Messiah. How like ourselves–don’t we so often want the glory without the pain?