A friend (and relative of a relative) raised some good questions after my last post about Psalm 122. In summary, if I understood him correctly, he wondered whether my interpretation might be another example of a flat Bible approach. Let me quote some of his questions:
Are OT scriptures sometimes just that, OT scriptures? And even though we can possibly identify with the sentiment, a passage may not have been intended to refer to us, and/or the church. Maybe some passages are more relevant to a Jew than to a Christian? Do we read things into scripture that it was never intended to mean?
As I started answering these questions in a comment, my thoughts kept growing, so I thought I’d post my reply here instead. So here it is.
Thanks for your thoughts, Wayne. I’m not surprised this post raises some questions, and I’m still thinking through some of them myself.
A few thoughts. First, I don’t think the approach I presented is a flat Bible approach, although I did think about that concept as I wrote; the topic was certainly relevant to my post. But a flat Bible approach would be to read Psalm 122 today in the same way that the ancient Israelites did. In my post I carefully distinguished between how the Israelites would have read it and how I’m suggesting we can. So that’s not a flat Bible approach.
Let me sketch some alternate approaches to mine:
(A) I think it is actually “flatter” to read vs. 6 as we often hear it–as still referring to the current earthly city of Jerusalem. This approach does not recognize the coming of Christ as making any hermeneutical difference; all the words in the psalm only and still have their original ethnic Israel referents. If we insist that vs. 6 still carries this meaning for today, then we should be consistent and conclude that no one is currently able to sing vs. 1, for there is no earthly temple at present. We could only sing a lament: “I used to be so glad back when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ But now the temple is destroyed, and we cannot go!”
(B) An approach somewhat similar to A, but avoiding the problem of a flat Bible problem, is the approach I hear you tentatively suggesting: To conclude that the psalm had an original meaning for the ancient Israelites and that, since the coming of Christ, no one can any longer read it as they did. This would mean that we should also stop thinking that vs. 1 is ours to quote, too. This is the approach of higher critical bible scholars, who take the history of religions approach and see the book of Psalms as being Israel’s hymn book, interesting for learning more about the religion of ancient Israel, but of little direct significance for us today.
(C) Or, and this is probably even closer to what you may be thinking, we could tweak B to say that, though no one can any longer sing Psalm 122, it is still useful for us today as revelation from and about God, useful for learning his character and observing his history of redemption. I like what this approach affirms (educational value of the psalm) but not what it denies (that we can no longer sing the psalm). This approach might work for 1 and 2 Chronicles, but hardly for Psalms.
In short, I think that perhaps the key reason why the approach to Psalm 122 that I sketched in my last post sounds strange to some (in part even to me) is that the modern Church has, by and large, ceased to sing the Psalms. This is an historical abnormality! The early Church sang the Psalms, the Reformers did, as did many other saints across time. How might we read the Psalms as we sing them? Are we to sing them merely as historical pieces, stepping into ancient roles as actors, rehearsing the thoughts and feelings of ancient Israel but knowing they are not our own? Or is there a way in which we can sing the Psalms from our hearts, as our own expressions of lament and praise to God? I think it is clear that the Church has done the latter.
I have a reprint of a hymnal that was originally produced in 1843. It includes 241 pages of hymns based directly on the Psalms! Included are four hymns based on Psalm 122, two of them by Isaac Watts. The interpretive approach in these hymns matches my post exactly. (I did not think to check this until now!)
Here are those two hymns, as copied from this website:
Going to church.1 How pleased and blessed was I To hear the people cry, "Come, let us seek our God to-day!" Yes, with a cheerful zeal We haste to Zion's hill, And there our vows and honors pay.2 Zion, thrice happy place, Adorned with wondrous grace, And walls of strength embrace thee round; In thee our tribes appear To pray, and praise, and hear The sacred gospel's joyful sound.3 There David's greater Son Has fixed his royal throne, He sits for grace and judgment there: He bids the saint be glad, He makes the sinner sad, And humble souls rejoice with fear.4 May peace attend thy gate, And joy within thee wait To bless the soul of ev'ry guest! The man that seeks thy peace, And wishes thine increase, A thousand blessings on him rest!5 My tongue repeats her vows, "Peace to this sacred house!" For there my friends and kindred dwell; And since my glorious God Makes thee his blessed abode, My soul shall ever love thee well.Going to church.1 How did my heart rejoice to hear My friends devoutly say, "In Zion let us all appear, And keep the solemn day!"2 I love her gates, I love the road; The church, adorned with grace, Stands like a palace built for God, To show his milder face.3 Up to her courts with joys unknown The holy tribes repair; The Son of David holds his throne, And sits in judgment there.4 He hears our praises and complaints; And while his awful voice Divides the sinners from the saints, We tremble and rejoice.5 Peace be within this sacred place, And joy a constant guest, With holy gifts and heav'nly grace Be her attendants blessed!6 My soul shall pray for Zion still, While life or breath remains; There my best friends, my kindred dwell, There God my Savior reigns.
I think that if we reject the interpretation I suggested in my post, then we will need to reject these hymns, along with many hymns in our current hymnals, including favorites like “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” based in part on Psalm 87.
Clearly it is possible to jump too quickly from OT to NT. For example, the promises made to Israel were first made to Israel; when they apply also to us, it is often only in a varied form, as fulfilled in Christ (“The meek shall inherit the earth,” for example). I think we should be very careful to never hastily draw 100% equivalence between ancient Israel and the Church. Israel is a type of the Church, and types contain differences as well as similarities; they do not match in every detail, and sometimes, in fact, they are mirror opposites in some respects. We need to first read the OT, including the Psalms, in their original historical and covenantal contexts.
At the end of the day, however, when I ask myself what a psalm like Psalm 122 means, I need to ask: Why, in the first place, did God instruct Israel to build the tabernacle? Why did he choose Jerusalem? What did these mean at the deepest level from the very beginning? Where they not intended from the start to prepare the way for Christ, to provide images and patterns that would never be fully realized until Christ appeared? So, reading the Bible “backward,” starting with Christ, we can see what things truly meant all along at the deepest level. Thus we sometimes see things in the OT that the original earthly authors either never grasped at all or only partially, as prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-12; 1Cor. 13:9-10). What we see is not at odds with what they saw, for sure, and our new insight does not mean that their understandings were wrong. Rather, it is like they were painting by candlelight and we can now view the same Scriptures in the full light of the Sun.
The foundation for this approach to reading the OT, I believe, is Jesus himself. He read the OT in ways that none of his own contemporaries imagined. (Seeing himself as the Son of Man from Daniel 7 is just one example of a new interpretive move.) The apostles, trained by Christ and guided by the Spirit, continued this new hermeneutical approach. Many psalms were among the texts that they reread in convincing ways that astounded their Jewish hearers.
It would be fun to dig into multiple examples from the NT of reading the OT (including psalms) in just the kind of way I’ve suggested. But I’ll end by mentioning two books that have helped me start to see these realities: According to the Scriptures, by C.H. Dodd (currently out of print), and Jesus and the Old Testament, by R.T. France. Both are technical, but both are extremely helpful and oft-cited books that are guaranteed to help you read Scripture with sharper vision.
Finally, let me repeat that I am still learning. I feel like I’m wading on the edge of the ocean! May God help us learn together, to the glory of Christ, the one to whom the Scriptures point.
Feel free to share your insights in the comments below. And God give you joy as you gather with his people this Lord’s Day!