Should Psalms 19, 40, and 66 be divided?

Q.  Since The Books of the Bible combines Psalms 9-10 and 42-43, why doesn’t it divide Psalms 19, 40, and 66?  I’ve heard that each of those were originally two separate psalms that were later placed together.

One essential goal of The Books of the Bible is to help people read the Scriptures with greater understanding and enjoyment by presenting whole literary compositions as the Bible’s fundamental units of meaning and authority.  That’s why the edition removes chapter and verse numbers and section headings–they send the wrong message about what those units are.  That’s also why it recombines individual compositions such as Psalms 9-10 and 42-43, as well as longer, more complex compositions such as Luke-Acts.

There’s clear internal evidence that those psalms should be recombined:
–  An acrostic pattern runs all the way through Psalm 9-10, in which pairs of lines begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  (This pattern has become corrupted in the Masoretic Text, but it can be restored by reference to other Hebrew manuscripts and ancient versions.  The NIV translation reflects a restored acrostic pattern.)
– A three-fold repetition of the same refrain ties together Psalm 42-43. (“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”)  This is like the threefold refrain in other psalms, for example, Psalm 80 (“Restore us, O God make your face shine on us, that we may be saved”).

There’s also external evidence, in the manuscript tradition, that Psalms 9-10 and 42-43 are originally unified compositions.  Psalm 9-10 is a single psalm in the Septuagint and Psalm 42-43 is a single psalm in many Hebrew manuscripts.  So they should indeed be recombined.

But it is not similarly the case that Psalms 19, 40, and 66 should be divided.  The argument for dividing them is based what is known as form criticism, the idea that the history of a composition can be determined by identifying the literary genres of its constituent parts.  (There is no manuscript evidence that Psalms 19, 40, or 66 ever circulated in separate parts.)

The case that some scholars make for dividing these psalms is based on the distinctive conventions of the different psalm genres:  supplication (or lament), thanksgiving, and praise.  (I introduce and explore these genres in my study guide to Psalms.)  Some scholars feel that they can discern two different types of psalms living together uneasily under a single number in these cases, and they want to pull them apart.

For example, Psalm 40 appears to contain a fully articulated psalm of thanksgiving, acknowledging God’s deliverance, and then a fully developed psalm of supplication, asking God not to “withhold his mercy.”  These seem to be two separate occasions of composition, and so it appears that two different psalms have been put together here.

However, in his book The Message of the Psalms, Walter Bruggemann demonstrates (quite convincingly, to my mind) that Psalm 40 is not simply a psalm of thanksgiving to which a separate psalm of supplication has become attached.  Rather, the psalm of supplication has been crafted expressly to be added onto the (likely pre-existing) psalm of thanksgiving, resulting in a new integral composition.  The supplication intentionally echoes the specific language of the thanksgiving in several places, for example:

At the end of the thanksgiving it says, “I did not conceal your love (hesed) and faithfulness (‘emeth)”;
At the start of the supplication it says, “May your love (hesed) and faithfulness (‘emeth) always protect me.”

In the thanksgiving: “I speak of your . . . saving help (teshua‘)”;
In the supplication:  “may those who long for your saving help (teshua‘) . . .”

In the thanksgiving: God’s deeds are “too many to declare” (they are “beyond numbering”);
In the supplication: “troubles without number [“beyond numbering”] surround me”

These deliberate echoes of the language of the thanksgiving in the supplication show that the psalmist has used the occasion of celebrating one deliverance as an opportunity to pray for rescue from a further trouble.  So Psalm 40, as we know it, is an intentional, integral composition.

Similarly, Psalm 66 is not, as some have argued, a psalm of praise for God’s historical deliverance of the nation at the time of the exodus, to which a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of the psalmist personally has somehow become attached.  Rather, the whole psalm is a thanksgiving that begins with a “song of victory” that harkens back to the exodus as the archetypal event of deliverance.  (Compare the ending of Psalm 77, a psalm of supplication that similarly invokes the exodus.)  Claus Westermann discusses the role of the “song of victory” found in many psalms of thanksgiving in his book The Psalms: Structure, Content, and Message.

Finally, some scholars consider Psalm 19 to be two psalms of different genres that have been combined, the first a psalm of praise for God’s glories in creation (like Psalm 8) and the second a “poem of the law” that extols the value of meditating on God’s word (like Psalm 1).  It’s possible that the first part of this psalm did once circulate independently.  But as we know it today, it has been intentionally paired with the second part to create a meditation on the “two books” that reveal God: creation and the Scriptures.  It is an integral composition, even if it may incorporate an earlier song, and it would not be proper to pull it apart.

We can witness a similar process of composition at work in our own day as songwriters have take traditional hymns and add their own original material to make new integral compositions, for example, Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” from “Amazing Grace” or David Crowder’s expansion of “All Creatures of our God and King.”  We would not want to pull these songs apart, nor should we pull apart the psalms that have been created by a very similar process.

The initial page of the Leiden St. Louis Psalter, an illuminated manuscript of the book of Psalms. The “B” is the initial letter of Psalm 1 in Latin, “beatus” (blessed).

Didn’t Paul quote from the Old Testament by chapter number?

Q. In the book of Acts, when Paul was speaking to the people of Pisidian Antioch, he introduced one of his Scripture quotations by saying, “As it is written in the second Psalm . . .”  Isn’t this evidence within the canonical Scriptures of referencing by chapter number, and can’t we take it as support for doing that today?

Paul, of course, could not have been using the system of chapter numbering that we know today, since it was only added many centuries after he lived, in AD 1200.  Rather, he was simply referring to one of the psalms by describing where it came in the traditional ordering.  In addition, the numbers of the psalms, unlike the chapter numbers in most other places in the Bible, serve to identify distinct compositions rather than to break them up.  So this is not exactly a case of quoting by chapter number as is done today.

Still, this is an important question, because here Paul is not citing Scripture by context and content, the way he does in Romans when he speaks of “the passage about Elijah–how he appealed to God against Israel” (referring to the contest on Mount Carmel), or the way Jesus does when he refers to “the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush.” Paul doesn’t even identify the psalm by its first line, as was customarily done.  This seems to be definite biblical evidence for an apostle referencing by number, rather than by context and content.  So what’s going on here?

Actually, when understood in light of the broader manuscript tradition of the book of Acts, this citation by Paul provides canonical support not for referencing by chapter number, but for recognizing chapter numbers as a late and fluid addition to the text of Scripture.

While most ancient codices of Acts read “as it is written in the second psalm,” Codex Bezae, representing the Western textual tradition, reads, “as it is written in first psalm.” This reading has significant patristic support.  P45, an important third-century papyrus, reads simply, “as it is written in the psalms.”  The editorial committee for the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament was so uncertain about the original reading here that they ranked the reading that appears in the text, “the second psalm,” a {D}, expressing their greatest degree of uncertainty.

Bruce Metzger writes in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament that “the variety of positions at which the numeral (whether prōtō or deuterō) is introduced makes both numerals suspect.”  This would suggest that P45 has the correct reading, “as it is written in the psalms.”

But Metzger then notes that if this is the original reading, “One has the difficulty of explaining why, in this passage alone in the New Testament, almost all scribes thought it necessary to introduce the quotation by using a numeral.”  Hence the uncertainty about the original reading in Acts.  We don’t know whether the numeral is original, we don’t know which numeral is correct (“first” or “second”) if it was original, and we don’t know why a numeral was introduced if it wasn’t original.

But we can at least explain the uncertainty about which psalm the quotation comes from.  There’s a well-attested tradition in which the second psalm as we know it today is treated as part of the first psalm.  That’s why some of the manuscripts that do have a numeral say “first” rather than “second.”

This tradition of combining the two psalms doesn’t stand up very well to a literary analysis, which clearly identifies Psalm 1 as a wisdom psalm and Psalm 2 as a coronation psalm.  (See my study guide to the Psalms for an explanation of these types and many others.)  But this tradition, as reflected in the textual variation in this passage in Acts, does illustrate that chapter numbers are a late and fluid addition to the canonical text of Scripture.  All the more reason not to rely on them today, whatever Paul might actually have said to the people when he was in Pisidian Antioch.

Ruins of the Church of St. Paul in Pisidian Antioch, built on the traditional location of the synagogue where he is believed to have spoken on his visit to the city.

Do our prayers really get through to God?

Q. I don’t know if I’ve really ever gotten through to God in prayer.  Some great things have happened to me over the years and I’ve said, “Thank you, God” for them.  I’ve looked up at the stars and said, “Wow, that’s awesome, God!”  But I’ve also been through some really tough things, and I’ve prayed about them, too, but I’m not sure what happened. 

I knew I should never ask for anything selfish, like riches.  I just prayed for God’s will to be evident, or for a really sick friend to be healed, or for some victims of a horrible accident, or financial problems to be straightened out.  I’ve tried the “If it’s your will, Lord” prayers.  Some worked out, some didn’t. 

I’ve read many verses about prayer.  One says to ask believing that it has already been done for you. Another says, “Ask, seek, knock.” There’s that parable Jesus told about the widow getting her wish because she wears the unjust judge out with her asking. 

I’ve heard a lot of answers to this problem:
“Just trust God and He will reveal Himself.”
“We can never know the Mind of God.”
“He knows the best thing for us, even if we can’t see it now.”
“God wants us to speak with Him as a young child, so keep praying.”
“Jesus showed us how to pray, so follow His example.”
“Many people prayed for things and it came about, so don’t give up.”
 
I need some assurance at this point.

Thank you for this honest and heartfelt question, which I’m sure many, many other readers of this blog will feel as well.  Prayer is central to the relationship we’re meant to have with God, but it’s also complex and mysterious, and I don’t pretend to be able to explain everything about it. But I can share with you some of the things I think I’ve discovered from the prayers in the Scriptures.

I think your question itself illustrates one essential point:  prayer is not meant to be primarily a way of asking for things; rather, it’s a way of living in relationship with God. And you’re already living in relationship with God through prayer. You describe how you use it to express your thanks for his blessings and your praise for his wonders. In other words, sometimes there’s not an expectation that a prayer will be “answered” with a particular result. It’s just a way for us to express ourselves to God. I’m certain that in those prayers, you got through.

The Bible is full of prayers of praise and thanksgiving. In fact, biblical prayers typically contain a much higher percentage of praise and thanksgiving than ours often do. So one important thing we can learn about prayer from the Bible is to use it regularly to express our gratitude and wonder to God.

Another important purpose we discover in the Scriptures is this: talking to God in prayer enables us to move from a place where we are questioning God’s power and goodness to a place where we have a confident trust in God, even in troubling circumstances. The most common kind of psalm by far is the “psalm of supplication,” whose essential purpose is to enable the writer to make this move. (This is discussed at length in the Psalms study guide, in sessions 2 and 7-11.) In these biblical psalms of supplication we see people make it to all stages along the way from questioning to trust. It’s a powerful and helpful model for us.

So in this case the expected result is not so much in the world around us, but inside us. It sounds to me that prayer also “worked” for you when you were able to trust God with the really tough things that were happening to you.

But I recognize that your ultimate question is about those times when we are hoping for and expecting a result in the world around us: for someone to be healed physically, or for a material need to be met, or for a relationship to mended–things like that. We would know that we’d “gotten through” if we got the result we were praying for. And what I see in the Bible is that prayer is also meant to be a means by which God can use us as his agents to bring about results like these. In other words, God wants to work through our prayers to achieve his purposes.

We often see this happen in the Bible. For example, the early church in Acts was “earnestly praying to God” for Peter’s release from prison, and he was miraculously set free. We also see it in Nehemiah’s prayer for favor with his king, who let him go to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. We see it in Daniel’s prayer for the return of the exiles, and in many other places.

However, we also have to acknowledge that in the Bible we see some petitions and intercessions (that is, prayers for oneself and for others) fail to achieve the desired result. Just before the apostle Peter was miraculously released from Herod’s prison, the apostle James was put to death by Herod. But I’m sure the early church was praying for the safety and deliverance of both men.

The clearest example for me is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He made a specific request: “May this cup be taken from me” (in other words, keep me from being executed). But he was crucified anyway. If even Jesus didn’t get what he asked for, how can any of us be sure that our prayers ever get through?

Gethsemane
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Church of St. Esteban,Salamanca

But I think Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane actually illustrates one more important thing about prayer. When God wants to work through our prayers, he calls us into an interactive process of speaking and listening.  This process may last for days or even weeks, rather than take place in one concentrated night as in Gethsemane. (I think that’s what Jesus wanted to show us through the parable of the widow and the judge.) Over the course of this process, we come to discern the will of God more and more clearly, so that we can pray with more and more confidence for it. The ultimate goal is for us to receive bold faith from a clear assurance of God’s will, and to see the prayer that’s prayed in that faith answered. I think Jesus’ teachings about “ask, seek, knock” and “believing that we have already received” apply to these cases specifically.

But the description of this process suggests that we begin in a place where we don’t have a clear assurance of God’s will.  That’s where the “if it’s your will, Lord” comes in. We begin by saying what we think God might want for us, but with the expectation that we will hear from God in response (if not in an audible voice, then at least in a change of heart, a new perspective, or something like that). In light of that response, we adapt our prayers, and the process of speaking and listening continues until we reach either a place where we are completely surrendered to God’s will, whatever that might be, or a place where we have a confident assurance of God’s will and a bold faith that our prayers will be instrumental in its realization.

It’s eye-opening and encouraging for me to think that, on this model, Jesus in Gethsemane actually began in a place where he wasn’t certain that it was God’s will for him to receive what he was asking for–an escape from the cross–and that he reached a place not where he knew his petition would be granted, but where he was yielded to God’s will, even if it wasn’t what he was asking for.  I’d say he definitely “got through” on that occasion, and perhaps, looking back on your experiences, you’ll recognize some where you “got through” in the same way. But I hope you’ll also recognize some experiences where your initial impulse to pray for something turned out to be what God wanted, and that he used your prayers over time to bring about his purposes.

Was Jesus really forsaken on the cross?

Q. I often hear people say that when Jesus cried out on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this was a poignant expression of his suffering and abandonment. But given how well Jesus knew the Scriptures, and how strongly the whole of Psalm 22 describes him and his situation, didn’t he likely have the whole psalm in mind? If so, you could equally see his cry as conveying triumph through suffering. When I thought of this it changed my whole view of the crucifixion.

Guido Reni, Christ Crowned With Thorns

There’s an extensive discussion in Session 8 of the Psalms study guide (pages 52-53) of how Jesus appealed on the cross to Psalm 22.

In my view, the best understanding of what was happening when Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” recognizes both the sense of abandonment he was expressing immediately through these words and the sense of faith and trust that’s articulated over the course of Psalm 22, to which he was indeed alluding in its entirety.

In other words, in our interpretations we need to honor what Jesus was experiencing in the moment, but we also need to recognize that he was giving voice to that experience through the words of an ancient inspired song of faith. Jesus was taking his place in the long line of Israelites who used the psalms, written centuries earlier for other occasions, to express what was happening in his own relationship with God.  The Psalms were gathered into a collection and made part of the Bible precisely because people had been using them in this way for so long.

Psalm 22 was probably originally written by someone who had a deadly illness.  However, the uncanny resemblance between what the psalmist describes and the experience of crucifixion, unknown at the time the psalm was written, has convinced many that the inspired writer was given an advance glimpse of Jesus’ sufferings on the cross. In that case this would be a Messianic psalm that speaks as much about the coming Messiah as about the original circumstances of the author.

What we can say for certain is that just as the people of Israel looked back to earlier songs (the psalms) to express their own spiritual experiences, the psalmists themselves also looked forward, as authors like this one express the hope that their words will be used by later generations.  Psalm 22 is a classic psalm of supplication that moves from a cry for help to a statement of trust, and after a description of troubles and petition makes a vow of praise that envisions people in the future all over the world hearing about God and worshiping him.  Jesus fulfilled this vision by creating a worldwide community of followers through his life and ministry, his death on the cross, and his resurrection and ascension.  So the psalmist gave Jesus some words through which to express his most vital spiritual experience, and Jesus in turn gave those words the most marvelous fulfillment that could be imagined.