For my weekly quiet time this week, I’ll be blogging about Psalm 33 and its interpreters.
Psalm 33 encourages the righteous to praise the LORD with musical instruments. It talks about how God is the creator—who made the heavens by his word, and the hosts of the heavens by his breath—and how the earth manifests his attributes: his truth, his righteousness, his judgment, and his goodness. Psalm 33 may be drawing from P’s creation account (Genesis 1), for both Psalm 33 and Genesis 1 refer to God creating by word, as well as God gathering the waters together. Moreover, the Psalm affirms that God has been at work in the world since creation, for God frustrates the counsel of the nations and protects those who fear him and hope in his mercy, as God delivers them from death and protects them in times of famine. God is truly supreme, as far as this Psalm is concerned, for God has fashioned the hearts of all people, and trusting in God is a greater guarantee of protection than armies and horses.
I have four items for today:
1. I learned years ago that the Church of Christ does not believe in using musical instruments in worship. And, as I read Charles Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, I found criticisms of this practice: from Spurgeon (who nevertheless supported Christian liberty for those who did want to use musical instruments), from Justin Martyr, from John Chrysostom, and from Thomas Aquinas. Their idea was that using musical instruments is Jewish, for Judaism is a very physical religion, which required external aids to keep the Israelites on the straight-and-narrow. But, in the minds of these Christian thinkers, we under the New Covenant do not need physical and external aids in our worship, for our worship is spiritual. I was somewhat surprised to see Aquinas endorsing this sort of attitude, since Roman Catholicism has physical elements (i.e., the mass, confession, etc.). In fact, Protestants criticize Roman Catholicism for being too ritualistic! Plus, whenever I have attended Catholic worship, musical instruments are used.
Personally, I like the use of musical instruments in worship, and I don’t consider myself to be less spiritual on account of that. It’s not as if advocates of spiritual Christianity have no physical rituals at all, for they go to church, sing, read their Bibles, pray, preach or listen to sermons, etc. I think that one can worship God without a lot of fanfare, but I doubt that there’s anything wrong with allowing rituals to draw us closer to God, or to enhance our faith.
2. Psalm 33:6 reads (in the King James Version) that “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” Many Christians—such as Athanasius, Basil, Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin—have offered trinitarian interpretations of this passage. Many equate the “word of the LORD” with the Word of John 1 who became Jesus Christ, and the “breath of his mouth” with the Holy Spirit, for the Hebrew word for “breath” can also mean “spirit”.
Christian exegetes from the literalistic Antiochian school, however, shied away from this approach. Theodore of Mopsuestia (fourth century) says that the “word of the Lord” is not the Son, for the Son is called in Scripture the “Word”, not the “word of the Lord”. And the “breath of his mouth” is not the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit in Scripture is called the “Holy Spirit”, “the Spirit”, or “the Spirit of God”, not “the breath of his mouth”. For Theodore of Mopsuestia, Psalm 33:6 is saying that the breath is a corporeal expression of God’s decision.
Another Theodore from the Antiochian school, Theodore of Cyrrhus (fifth century), maintained that the literal meaning of Psalm 33:6 for ancient Israel was that God’s word alone was adequate for creation, without added effort on the part of God. (And Theodore may have believed that “the breath of his mouth” also referred to God’s spoken word in creation.) But Theodore of Cyrrhus still thought that David by prophecy anticipated the New Testament doctrine of the Trinity.
I tend to rebel against Christological interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, probably because I’ve been turned off by Christian dogmatism about them. However, I have seen in evangelicalism a greater openness to the Theodore of Cyrrhus approach—that the Hebrew Bible meant something non-Christological for ancient Israel, but that it had a deeper significance that coincides with Christian doctrines. But, when I hear that, I wonder why I should assume that the Hebrew Bible foreshadowed Christianity at all. Where’s the proof? Maybe the surface, literal meaning is all that there is!
At the same time, maybe I can appreciate that Christianity was a community of interpretation, and that it used the Hebrew Bible to define and to support a concept of creation. I do not think it’s a coincidence that God creates by speaking in Genesis 1, and that the Son in John 1 is called the Word, by whom all things were made, that were made. I just have problems with Christians walloping others with their interpretations, and acting as if people who do not see the text their way are stupid.
3. I appreciated certain themes in Psalm 33: that God’s creation reflects in some way God’s nature—his reliability, his righteousness, his love, etc. I also liked the concept of God keeping the wicked in check, for that presents God as reasonable and practical. And there is a part of me that agrees with what Psalm 33 is saying. There are blessings from God’s creation—such as food, good climate, sex, relationships, conditions suitable for life, etc. And there is something in the world that keeps evil in check. There are many cases in which evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. And evildoers can also upset others, which brings about their own downfall. Adolf Hitler, for example, failed to effect his sinister goals.
But I cannot treat things in Psalm 33 as an absolute. There are aspects of nature that do not make sense to me, such as the over-abundance of salt water. Moreover, does God deliver from evildoers everyone who trusts in him, or preserve all God-fearers in times of famine? I don’t think so. And I’m hesitant to say that he does, because then that would make me judgmental towards those who encounter problems, as if their suffering is their own fault.
I think that God did make things good, but that human beings have corrupted God’s creation. Many Third World countries had (or even still have) resources for food and wealth, but greedy people have plundered them for their own gain, consigning many people to a state of poverty and starvation. I believe that God one day will intervene in a dramatic fashion and eliminate evil, but I’d also like to think that, even now, God has some victories over those who hurt others—through the way that the world works (i.e., karma), or his intervention, every now and then.
4. Psalm 33 got me thinking last night about a question: What does God as creator mean to me? To be honest, as of late, the only time when the concept has entered my mind has been when I have thought that, even if there is evidence for an Intelligent Designer, that does not prove that the God is the God of Christianity. Again, I’m sick of Christian dogmatism and arrogance. But my mind wandered last night to a book that I read years ago: Athol Dickson’s The Gospel According to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me About Jesus. The book got raving reviews on Amazon, but I had issues with it, to tell you the truth, for I felt that the author was reaffirming his own evangelicalism over and over, and I couldn’t exactly tell how Judaism shaped his Christianity. Rather, Judaism served to prop up what he already believed.
But Dickson made a point that I remembered last night: he said that every blade of grass reminds us that there is a creator, and that we are not him! If I’m not mistaken, Dickson was taking this in the direction of saying that we all have sinned and deserve God’s judgment, and so we need a Savior. But his point inspires me to ask: What are the implications of there being a creator God, who is not me—which means that God exists and is as he is, and that he may not conform to my subjective preferences for how God should be? Should this scare me? Well, it does, if the Christian conception of God is true—if God is one who torments most of humanity in hell forever and ever for not believing in the right doctrines, or for not bearing enough spiritual fruit. But if God is a God of love, then I wouldn’t have a problem with there being a creator God, and that God not being me.