Lectionary Reflection for the First Day After Pentecost: Trinity Sunday

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 8:1:

The two clauses of 8:2 sit uneasily together. The first is one of the most arresting phrases in scripture—“You established strength from the cries of babies and nursing infants”—after which the poet rushes to a shockingly different context—“for the sake of your enemies to make an end of the enemy and avenger.” How are they related? Early Christian and Jewish commentators labored over this verse, especially its insistence that God established his might (ʿōz) through the weakest and most dependent of creatures, human infants, who yet mature to become its most powerful.

Here I follow the path begun by Augustine and Calvin to interpret this challenging verse. A reasonable translation would read these clauses in reverse order: “For the sake of putting an end to enemy and avenger you established strength in the cries of the defenseless and suckling infants.” Without the parallelism, this translation offers an arresting “take” on the consequences of observing one scene for a particular set of onlookers. The cries of the weak and helpless are so poignant and compelling that they pierce the heart of those who might summarily take advantage of them. Their very existence proclaims the majesty of God, and that is what inhibits those who would harm them.

Enemies of the helpless are, after all, enemies of God. Not only the vastness of heaven and earth but also the weakness of God’s children testify to the majestic power of the Creator, and that testimony, through their cries, converts God’s enemies into precisely the Christians Augustine seeks. Calvin is correct; helpless infants can bring down the enemies of God, that is, transform them until they cease being vengeful against the weak. Psalm 8:2 is thus a piercing elaboration of 8:1, which claims that earth and sky tell the splendor of God.

 

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 23:

Just as Ps. 8 is an oasis amid laments that focuses our attention on the glorious creation, so Ps. 23 is another oasis focusing our attention on the paths of righteousness that are the goodness and grace of God, which cannot be broken through by adversity.

This perspective casts further light on the ambiguous preposition neged of 23:5. If the oil and wine of the table prepared is the righteous path of life that God lays down for the sake of his name, neged truly means “against”

the adversary of fear—that is, against the fear of losing one’s moral and spiritual grounding in the face of adversity. This is the fear that is stilled by the care-taking shepherd. The “sheep” lack nothing (23:1) because God supplies the need that truly enables them to dwell in his house throughout their lives.

The tracks for a morally strong life are secure. This reading carries us back to Ps. 1 that links happiness to God’s teaching. Considered in light of Ps. 23, that happiness is the freedom from the fear that one might become one of the evil ones whose deeds and malevolent aspirations haunt the lament psalms.

 

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 30:

The theology and the pedagogy of this psalm are different depending on how one fills in the identity and circumstance of the complainant and of those rejoicing. This common observation is one of the great advantages of the Psalter. Its persistent ambiguity invites a wide variety of applications to people in all manner of circumstance, as the various commentators recognize.

The general point of the poem combats the experience of abandonment seen in Pss. 13 and 22 by proposing that God pays attention and is compassionate to those who cry for help and are faithful. The theodicy question is never far from those who suffer. The psalmist celebrates physical and spiritual resurrection in which those whose time of trial has passed look back on their misery to see God’s steady hand at work in their lives.

To enjoy God’s eventual favor, however, one must be patient—a lesson that pertains not only to individuals but also to whole communities, as the Jewish commentators’ association of this psalm with the rescue of the Jewish people in the book of Esther makes clear. A Christian version of corporate rescue appears in Samuel John Stone’s hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” which employs Ps. 30:5b in the third stanza:

Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed;

Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?”

And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

Embedded deep in this poem is a report of the kind of spiritual maturation that Calvin seeks for his readers. In my reordered version of the poem, the speaker starts out as one who thinks he will never stumble, only to uncover his own weakness when he does. Perhaps from the perspective of Christian piety, the turning point is when the speaker realizes that he cannot pull himself out of the pit into which he has fallen and that only divine mercy can pull him out.

 

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for Palm Sunday

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 31:14-18:

Of all the commentators, Theodoret alone recognizes the distinction the psalmist makes between sin and impiety. The speaker, while admitting his sin, still counts himself among the faithful. The belief that sin cannot efface faithfulness is the basis for the speaker’s appeal:

Then he shows the form of the redemption: Lord, let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your mercy [31:16]: when you make your appearance, gloom is immediately lifted. Lord, let me not be confounded, because I called upon you. Let the ungodly be put to shame and cast down to Hades [31:16–17]. From this we learn that the sin is very different from impiety; hence the mighty David beseeches that he be freed from the shame caused by the sin, but those addicted to impiety be sent in shame to their death.

Although all are sinners, it may be that not all sinners put themselves in God’s hands, feeling shame before God. Those who look for relief may seek release not from divine disapproval but from the public shame that accrues from public misbehavior.

 

 

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 32:

The repeated opening word of the first two verses of this psalm carries the reader back to the first word of the Psalter and forward to the Matthean Beatitudes. One who believes that one’s sins are not held against one is truly blessed by God’s grace. This thought is the heart of Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith. However, it is also quite close to Luther’s doctrine of imputed righteousness, which might be better called a doctrine of imputed sinlessness when one considers the phrase, “blessed is the person whose sin (ʿāwn) God does not think about.” God ignores it.

The idea is not that God himself has paid what one owes, as Anselm of Canterbury would formulate atonement soteriology for the West at the end of the eleventh century; Psalm 32:1–2 makes no mention of a price needing to be paid.  Still, the opening verses explain forgiveness as having one’s sins covered (ksûy), with the parallel in 32:2 being that sins are ignored by God.

In his core text on justification, Paul quotes Ps. 32:1–2 in Rom. 4:7–8 to advance the position that uncircumcised gentile men may benefit from the forgiveness the psalm promises “apart from works [of the law],” that is, without having to undergo surgery or even symbolic circumcision. The move is to encourage gentiles to become children of Abraham whose righteousness is reckoned to them, just as “David” speaks of having received it and offered it to the whole people of God.

Certainly the point is central to Luther, who wrote on it voluminously. In his 1521 comment on Ps. 32 he writes, “Here David says, in plain words, that all the saints are, and still remain sinners; and that they are justified and sanctified in no other way than this;—God of his free mercy, for Christ’s sake, is pleased not to impute their sins unto them, nor to judge them, but, to forget them.” Calvin cites 32:1–2 (often together with Paul’s use of them in Rom. 4) numerous times in his Institutes, in support of the Protestant doctrine of justification.

It may be noteworthy that Theodore of Mopsuestia, a Greek-speaking contemporary of Augustine, presents a rather “Protestant” view of these verses a millennium before the Protestant Reformation. In Ps. 32, David “teaches everyone, even if they are righteous, that they ought not trust in the merit of their actions nor attribute to themselves any good work. Rather, whatever good work they perform they should ascribe to divine grace and confess that God’s mercy is necessary for them, and should believe themselves blessed if they deserve to have God well disposed toward them.”

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 19:

Psalm 19 hopes to attract us to the glory of God in stages. Beginning with the Creator (perhaps because contemplating God as Creator is relatively easy), the psalmist lures us to consider the wisdom of God the legislator as he carries us into deeper water. His final step is meant to stir up longing to become the beautifully pure self that God deserves from those on whom he lavishes such care and effort.

God’s teaching (torah) is perfect (19:7), and the speaker knows that genuine reverence for God is pure (19:9). Lured as he is, the speaker wants to be blameless, and cleansed of small hidden faults (19:12) as well as great transgressions (19:13). Psalm 19 aims for a person’s best self in the hope that she will enlist as one of God’s radiant servants.

As stirring as the poetry and imagery of this psalm are, perhaps its greatest appeal comes from its unfeigned candor. Moral arousal, however necessary, will not suffice. More than volunteering is needed. God must make one more push for his people—this time not in a public way, as with the heavenly bodies and the commandments, but on a deeply personal level. God must protect the would-be servant from going astray and accept the meditation of her heart that she might find acceptance.

The point is not, however, that one should think of oneself as a dirty mop that needs to be cleansed in a bucket of water and wrung dry of its dirt. Thinking of oneself as a mop besotted with dirty water from cleaning the floor betrays both the beauty of the commandments (the water that washes us) and the beautiful self whose heart rejoices in God’s ways. Psalm 19 has something else in mind. While it concludes on a suitably humble note, it calls us to envision ourselves as partakers of the glory of God—proclaimed by the sun as much as by torah—so that we might triumph as God’s faithful servants.

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 36:5-10:

Psalm 36:5–9 also prompts reflection on the unfathomability of divine providence and raises the question of theodicy, where moral intuition expects mercy for the righteous but harsh judgment seems to prevail as they suffer. Commenting on 36:6, which says that divine judgment is like great mountains and deep oceans, Ibn Ezra sounds a note of pious agnosticism:

“People cannot bear Your righteousness, for [it] is like the mighty mountains. However, in reality its meaning is that God’s righteousness is beyond comprehension. It is like the mighty and powerful mountains that no man can reach. The knowledge of God’s judgments is similarly like the great obscure deep, which man cannot see.”

However, the poet assures the righteous that they will feast delightedly at God’s table, “for the core of life is with you and in your light we see light” (36:8–9). That last (famous) phrase is tantalizingly ambiguous and invites speculation. Theodore interprets the light literally, insisting against other commentators that the light is not Christ but rather the physical gift of light, which is, indeed, the fountain of life. “[David’s] meaning was to present the utter generosity and abundance of God’s gift—hence his mention of these two things in particular: the light . . . and enjoyment of the light.” God is therefore shown to be both “creator” and “provider”; he gives “some [of those things] for our continuance and sustenance, some for us to have a pleasurable and beneficial enjoyment of life.”

Feasting in God’s house (36:8), which refers to salvation for those who take refuge in God, speaks to Christians of heavenly reward after this life although that idea is not in the text. While Theodore denies that these verses allude to Christ, Augustine is sure that they do. Eschatologically, Christ is the fountain of life.

“The reality is that a fountain is light also; you may call it what you will, because it is not what you call it. You cannot find a suitable name, because it is not captured by any one name. If you were to say that it is light, and only light, someone might object, ‘What then was the point of telling me that I am to hunger and thirst? Can anyone eat light? That other hint that was given me was obviously more apt: Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8). I had better prepare my eyes, then.’ Yes, but prepare your throat too, because the reality that is light is also a fountain: a fountain because it drenches the thirsty, light because it illumines the blind. . . . Here below the two may be separated; but there you will never flag, because there will be the fountain for you, and you will never walk in darkness, for there is light.”

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

The Weekly Hit List: January 8, 2016

Cover ArtWesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship was featured in The 2015 Christ and Pop Culture 25.

“Raises the possibility of deeper friendships being not just as a bulwark against corrosive individualism or a solution to the “problem” of gay Christians, but also a rich font of spiritual blessing for everyone. This short book is desperately needed in our cultural context, raising questions we shouldn’t keep to ourselves.”

Publishers Weekly reviewed The Justice Calling, coming soon from Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson.

“Powerful insights, based in scripture and Christian teaching, to help Christians to live out Jesus’ teachings in a globalized, interconnected, but impersonal world.”

Quick Hits:

Rejoicing in Lament, by J. Todd Billings, was a book of the year at Pilgrim in Progress and The Fidelity Essays, and was recommended at Scrawlings & Ramblings.

Ellen Charry’s Psalms 1- 50 was reviewed at SirReadaLot.

James K. A. Smith, author of the forthcoming You Are What You Love, was interviewed Thursday on The Ride Home with John & Kathy. You can find the podcast here, starting at the 1:12:00 mark.

Lectionary Reflection for the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 16:

Psalm 16 takes its place in Christian scripture and eventually in the creed through Peter’s speech to the baffled Jews gathered in Jerusalem on the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), which celebrates the giving of the law at Sinai. Acts reports that the Holy Spirit rushed upon the disciples, undoing the curse of Babel to enable them to become apostles and proclaim the news in all languages; Jesus of Nazareth had risen from death (Acts 2).

Peter quotes Ps. 16:8–11 (Acts 2:25–28) to explain that David (in Ps. 16) spoke of Jesus’s resurrection in the psalm’s promise of escaping death and abiding forever (16:9–11). Furthermore, the author of Acts reads the resurrection through Ps. 16 to suggest that Jesus was exalted at the right hand of God (Acts 2:33 reflecting Ps. 16:10). Reading this interpretation of the psalm in Acts (reinforced by Ps. 110:1), the later theological tradition inscribed it in the second article of both the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds to teach the ascension and session of Christ at the right hand of the Father.

The Christian reception of Ps. 16 illustrates a reading strategy that quite transforms the original pedagogy. The general counsel for a morally flourishing and satisfying life with God morphs into a uniquely Christian vision of adhering to the risen Lord, with the commendation to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding in order to be theologically warranted. The Christian reading of David’s psalm is a fresh instruction for people in a quite different context than the one the psalmist originally attributed to David. But the underlying hope is the same. The psalmist reads David’s life, and the author of Acts reads Peter reading the psalmist’s read of David’s experience to the same end: as the “way of life” (Ps. 16:11) for those who “set the Lord always before them” (Ps. 16:8).

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

This Just In: Psalms 1-50, by Ellen Charry

Cover Art

The biblical psalms are perhaps the most commented-upon texts in human history. They are at once deeply alluring and deeply troubling.

In this addition to the acclaimed Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Ellen Charry offers a theological reading of Psalms 1-50, exploring the various voices in the poems to discern the conversation they engage about God, suffering, and hope as well as ways of community belonging. The commentary examines the context of the psalms as worship–tending to both their original setting and their subsequent Jewish and Christian appropriation–and explores the psychological dynamics facing the speaker.

The book includes a foreword by William P. Brown.

 

 

Ellen T. CharryEllen T. Charry (PhD, Temple University) is Margaret W. Harmon Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. She is the author of numerous articles and several books, including God and the Art of Happiness. Charry has served on the editorial boards of the Scottish Journal of Theology and Pro Ecclesia and currently serves as an editor-at-large for The Christian Century.

 

Praise for Psalms 1-50:

“It is a wonder and a gift to have a systematic theologian slow down and focus attention on the particularity of biblical texts. No one doing theology can do that more effectively than Charry.” – Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

“Ellen Charry’s exposition of Psalms 1-50 is in a class of its own as a theological exposition of an Old Testament book….I shall often come back to this commentary.” – John Goldingay, Fuller Theological Seminary

“A very thoughtful, theological reflection on the Psalter. Truly to be commended is the seriousness with which Charry takes up the settings provided by the Psalm titles themselves as well as the questions raised by Jewish and Christian interpreters over the centuries….Allows the theological depth of the Psalter to open up new vistas for the religious life.” – Gary A. Anderson, University of Notre Dame

“Grounded in a close reading of the text, this widely useful volume steadily demonstrates how the psalmists discover and rediscover God’s faithfulness.” – Ellen F. Davis, Duke Divinity School

“Bringing deep theological wisdom and human experience to reading and hearing the Psalms, Ellen Charry has given us a beautiful commentary in every way–exegetical, theological, and pastoral.” – Patrick D. Miller, Princeton Theological Seminary

“The Psalms are daily bread for the broken hearted. Ellen Charry reads them this way and in doing so opens her commentary for my Jewish eyes as well as the eyes of her many Christian readers.” – Peter Ochs, University of Virginia

“By asking how psalms relate to but also challenge later Christian theology, Ellen Charry reads them as part of the Christian’s Bible without claiming they speak specifically of Christ. As a result, her commentary will interest–and truly guide–people of more than one faith.” – Benjamin D. Sommer, Jewish Theological Seminary