Determining the Indeterminate: Issues in Interpreting the Psalms -- By: Jamie A. Grant

Journal: Southeastern Theological Review
Volume: STR 01:1 (Winter 2010)
Article: Determining the Indeterminate: Issues in Interpreting the Psalms
Author: Jamie A. Grant

Determining the Indeterminate:
Issues in Interpreting the Psalms

Jamie Grant

Highland Theological College UHI

Writing a commentary on the psalms is a funny business. No, not “funny ha-ha” but it is “funny strange.” It is not just the challenges of the length of the book and the time that needs to be devoted to it. It is not even a matter of the complexity of the text or the lack of certainty regarding the meaning of so many poetic and liturgical idioms. Nor is it the problem of poetics and cola and defining stanzas and structure and all of the vagaries and uncertainties that come with any poetic text. The issue that strikes me as strange in writing a commentary on the Psalms is, as the title of this article suggests, the practice of trying to define that which is purposefully left vague in the psalms themselves. Allow me to develop this observation a little further by asking a question: Why is it that we look to the psalms commentaries to suggest background information that the psalms themselves do not provide for us?

Were one to pick up and read through almost any Psalms commentary it is likely to tell us that this psalm (for example, Psalm 88) is a “sickness psalm” or that another psalm (for example, Psalm 15) is an “entrance liturgy.” Now, my intent is not to question the veracity of such statements—each and every such assessment, in so far as they are not contradictory, may well be entirely accurate. Rather the question swimming around my head is this: Why do we feel the compelling need to determine the indeterminate? To define that which is deliberately left undefined in the biblical text? Let me unpack this thought a little further.

The Psalms and Indeterminacy

There can be no doubt regarding the lasting popularity of the Book of Psalms. Throughout successive generations of communities of faith, both Jewish and Christian, the Psalter has retained a powerful place in the hearts of many believers. Robert Alter’s observations illustrate this point ably: “Through the ages, Psalms has been the most urgently, personally present of all the books of the Bible in the lives of many readers. Both Jewish and Christian tradition made it part of the daily and weekly liturgy. Untold numbers have repeatedly turned to Psalms

for encouragement and comfort in moments of crisis or despair.”1 Susan Gillingham’s excellent study of the reception history of the Psalms strikes a similar chord throughout, but her concluding comments add a significant element of explanation regarding the phenomenon of the psalms’ lastin...

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