Once a week I get to meet with Old Testament scholar Joe Henderson and a group of students to study one Psalm for one hour. We’re up to Psalm 56. Whenever we gather around one of these psalms, I’m aware that we’re not the first believers to get our grubby hands on it. There’s a long history of interpretation streaming off of these beloved old texts.
For instance, there is an iconographic tradition for many of the Psalms. This illustration is taken from the remarkable 12th century Anglo-Saxon book called the St. Alban’s Psalter. Inside of a giant letter M (from the word “miserere,” the first word of the Psalm in Latin: “Be gracious to me, O God”) a poor monk is getting kicked and beaten by an enemy (“man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me”). His response, as he falls to his knees, is to point to the Lord above (“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you”), who sees it all (“You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?”). These medieval illustrations are insightful commentaries on the psalms; a picture is often worth a thousand words of exegesis.
But there are other readers as well. Cyberhymnal.org has a great “scripture reference” index that lets you see if this Psalm has inspired any hymns. It has. The best (as usual) is by Isaac Watts:
God counts the sorrows of his saints,
Their groans affect his ears;
Thou hast a book for my complaints,
A bottle for my tears.
When to thy throne I raise my cry,
The wicked fear and flee;
So swift is prayer to reach the sky,
So near is God to me.
In thee, most holy, just, and true,
I have reposed my trust;
Nor will I fear what man can do,
The offspring of the dust.
One of the most interesting communities of interpretation that I like to check in on is the rabbinic tradition embodied in the Midrash Tehillim, a medieval compilation (9th century? 13th?) that contains bits of much older commentary (see The Midrash on Psalms, trans from the Hebrew and Aramaic by William G. Braude (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959)). Here’s a note on Psalm 56:10:
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise
What is the difference in meaning between In God and in the Lord? Rabbi Nehorai explained that where God (Elohim) is used, Scripture is speaking of Him as meting out justice, as in the verse Thou shalt not revile God (Ex. 22:27); … but where Lord (YHWH) is used, Scripture is speaking of Him as meting out mercy, as in the verse The Lord, The Lord… merciful and gracious (Ex. 34.6). Accordingly, David said to the Holy One, blessed be He: “If Thou metest out judgement against me, I accept Thee by saying In God — I will praise His word; and if Thou metest out mercy to me, I accept Thee by saying In the Lord –I will praise His word. (pages 497-498)
Among the church fathers, we get this from Augustine in the 5th century:
Therefore, brethren, to this end let all these things serve us, that God gratis we love, in Him hope always, neither man nor devil fear. Neither the one nor the other doeth anything, except when it is permitted: permitted for no other reason can it be, except because it doth profit us. Let us endure evil men, let us be good men: because even we have been evil. Even as if it were nothing, God shall save men, of whom we dare to despair. Therefore of no one let us despair, for all men whom we suffer let us pray, from God let us never depart. Our patrimony let Him be, our hope let Him be, our safety let Him be. He is Himself here a comforter, there a remunerator, everywhere Maker-alive, and of life the Giver, not of another life, but of that whereof hath been said, â€œI am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life:â€ in order that both here in the light of faith, and there in the light of sight, as it were in the light of the living, in the sight of the Lord we may be pleasing.
And the various church traditions have devised beautiful liturgical prayers and collects from this psalm. The Mozarabic liturgy frames a prayer which mobilizes the Psalm’s key words and ideas:
O God, we set forth to Thee, our Life, that Life which by death destroyed death; so that Thou, regarding not our merits, but His love, may both put our tears into Thy bottle in this life, and may everlastingly wipe them away in the Land of the Living. Amen. Through Thy mercy.
From among the Reformers, Calvin:
The ground of his joy is said to be the divine word; and this implies, that however much he might seem to be forsaken and abandoned by God, he satisfied himself by reflecting on the truthfulness of his promises. He would glory in God notwithstanding, and although there should be no outward appearance of help, or it should even be sensibly withdrawn, he would rest contented with the simple security of his word. The declaration is one that deserves our notice.
From the great age of 19th-century evangelicals, the Scottish pastor McCheyne:
Fear of man — grim idol, bloody mouthed; many souls has he devoured and trampled down into hell! His eyes are full of hatred to Christ’s disciples. Scoffs and jeers lurk in his eye. The laugh of the scorner growls in his throat. Cast down this idol. This keeps some of you from secret prayer, from worshipping God in your family, from going to lay your case before ministers, from openly confessing Christ. You that have felt God’s love and Spirit, dash this idol to pieces. “Who art thou, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die?” “Fear not, thou worm Jacob.” “What have I to do any more with idols?”
And on and on it goes. Modern commentaries (Kraus!) add a great deal, with more sober and responsible explanations of the historical and linguistic possibilities actually within the author’s intention. We are not the first to read these texts, and we are not, as Spurgeon warned, “such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men, who have labored before you in the field of exposition… It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” (Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries, p. 11). God surely has more light and truth to break forth from His word, but we’re not likely to catch sight of it if we despise the light and truth which have streamed forth from His perfect word in the millenia since their writing.