Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Lord of the Psalms (Patrick Miller): A Review

THE LORD OF THE PSALMS.  By Patrick D. Miller.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.  Xiv - 116 pages.


             The Book of Psalms is a book of sacred poetry.  Because these words are directed to God, this book serves as the prayer book of the Bible.  This collection of prayers, songs, and hymns that has inspired Jews and Christians for centuries to draw near to God.   In their diversity they provide us opportunity to offer lament, complaint, anger (at God and neighbor), thanksgiving, and praise.  It is, however, also an extremely relevant source of theology.  This collection might not be systematic in its presentation of the nature of God, but it is, nonetheless a most important source of theology.

            Patrick D. Miller, Charles T. Haley Professor Emeritus of Old Testament Theology at Princeton, introduces to the “Lord of the Psalms.”  In this brief book, Miller points out how the writers of the Psalms envisioned God and God’s relationship with God’s people.  According to Miller, “the primary sense one has of the God-talk of the Psalms is the degree to which God is embodied and personalized" (p. xiii).  The emotive language of the Psalms reveals a God whose existence and presence is not abstract, but personal.  We might not be able to fully define the nature of God, but God is more than a philosophical principle. 

The book begins with a conversation about the reality of God’s existence.  The Psalmist doesn't deal with the modern question of whether God exists, but rather the nature of God’s identity.   This conversation goes into two directions – the objective – who is God and how do we know God.  But there is also the subjective question of how God knows us – does God seek us out?   Consider this word from Psalm 139, where we learn that it is impossible to escape from God’s sight, for God knows “when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.”  Miller writes that “there is nothing about the human being unknown to God” (p. 13).   Then there is the objective side, which is our knowledge of God.    

In our modern context, reading the Psalms from the perspective of a developed monotheism, we may forget that many of these songs and hymns emerged out of a henotheistic context.  Israel worships Yahweh alone, but God has rivals.  Thus, the question presented in the second chapter is an interesting one – what is the place of God among the gods?   What is interesting is that in the end, the Psalmist seems to conclude that the gods have become human and die off.  They die off because they have been judged to be unrighteous and unjust.   This scene is most apparent in Psalm 82, which Miller suggests might be among the most important texts of scripture.  It is, Miller suggests, the closest thing in scripture to a truly mythological piece – that is because here God is seen in the context of the gods.  What it does, Miller suggests, is give us a picture of the “complexity in the divine world while also insisting on the one rule of the one God as shaping and directing it” (p. 21).  With this in mind, the Psalm shows us that radical change came to the divine world because of the presence of injustice and oppression among the human creation.   Thus, “on that day the gods died because they did not sustain a world where justice e and deliverance for the weak and the needy could be maintained” (p. 28).  Thus, the divine entities came under judgment. 

One of the most intriguing chapters in the third, where Miller writes about divine embodiment.  The God revealed in the Psalms isn’t an abstract entity, but is instead one who can be described in personal terms, even anthropomorphic terms.  This is one with whom humans can be in relationship.  Miller writes of modern conceptions of God and interpretations of God talk in the Bible that favor metaphorical over literal:
Perhaps it is not a matter of deciding between metaphorical and literal so much as it is recognizing the necessity of the personal and embodied God-talk, which ten suggests that it may also be truthful. (p. 31).    
Thus, in the Psalms we find body language – the face of God (personal presence), hand and arm, eyes and ears.  Consider the words of Psalm 34, where “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.”  In other words, God is able to be attentive to our prayers and to our realities of life.  This body language doesn’t exhaust the Psalmist’s God-talk, but it is an important part of it.  The Psalms also consider the name of God – a matter of identity – and God’s voice and speech.  They speak of space and time – for God is present in the heavens.  For Christians all of this is prelude, Miller suggests, to our ability to perceive and understand the idea of incarnation: 
The embodied person of God is real, even as that embodiment does not exhaust the fullness of deity.  Jesus experiences human finitude and mortality, but that is not the last word (Phil. 2:6-11)  . . . The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the Yea and Amen to all that the Psalms tell us of the person of God in and with us, seen and seeing, named and naming, speaking and listening, here and there, now and forever.”  (pp. 45-46)
The God we meet in the Psalms – this personal, embodied God, is also the Creator – the Maker of Heaven and Earth.   Genesis 1 is not the only creation story – Psalm 104 and Psalm 8 both are descriptive of God’s creative acts.  In Psalm 104 humanity is pictured as a creature among creatures.  It affirms the statements made in Genesis 1, that the creation is good, therefore there is joy and celebration.  Psalm 8, on the other hand, celebrates more specifically the place of humanity, who are given rule or dominion.  One of the themes of the creation stories, is God’s continued activity – both creating and preserving creation.   

The Psalms are, Miller suggests, an expression of the human response to God, but to limit the Psalms to this is to narrow.  What we have here is a dialogue between a God who pursues and humanity that pursues.  Remember that many of the Psalms are laments, cries of suffering and requesting God’s engagement.  This encounter is couched in the premise of God’s steadfast love, which is the foundation for the dialogue that leads to praise of God.  Thus, there is both divine and human initiative.  Thus, “they are both a human word to God and the word of God to humans” (p. 70).

The God of the Psalms is a God of “Tender Mercies.”  This is the confession of faith found in Psalm 103, which restates the confession of faith found in Exodus 34, declaring that God’s steadfast love endures forever. It is this confession of faith in God’s steadfastness, mercy, and grace, which allows the creation to respond in praise. 

In the final chapter, Miller invites to envision the Psalter as a book, to look at the sum and not just the parts, and ask the question – what is its vision?  Being of Reformed background, and having a faith that is deeply rooted in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, he turns to the first question of that catechism to discern the overarching point of the Psalms.  That question is: "What is the chief end of man?"  The answer is – that we should we should glorify God and enjoy him forever.  This is, Miller believes, the ultimate message of the Psalms.  God is gracious, merciful, steadfast and loving, God listens and responds, and thus we are invited to glorify God and enjoy God's presence.  Of course, in making this statement, we must remember that nearly half of the Psalms are laments.  The songs of praise must be understood in that context.

Too often we fail to discern the deep theology that is present in the Psalms.  As a preacher I don’t go there nearly as often as I should to ask the question of God’s identity and purpose.  As a theologian, I often turn elsewhere.  But this isn’t just a book of sacred poetry; it is revelation of God’s nature and purpose, deserving our attention.   Indeed, this is especially true for those of who struggle with conceiving of God in personal terms. 

The book is succinct and relatively accessible.   And perhaps as we gain a better understanding of the theology present in the Psalms, we might discover that our hymnals might also be important sources of theology, that to sing is to pray, and to pray is to encounter God.  As one who finds the impersonal, abstract descriptions of divinity less than helpful, I specially appreciated the reminder that in the Psalms we have a very robust personal vision of God.  Whether or not it is metaphor, it is a sense of the divine that draws one in rather than keeps one on the sidelines.  For this reason, we can be grateful for Miller’s insights and contributions to furthering our encounter with the living God.      

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