Gordon Wenham on the nations in the Psalms

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On Wednesday night we had the inaugural Center for the Study of Bible and Mission lecture from Gordon Wenham, on the nations in the Psalms.

The great thing about Gordon Wenham is that he’s an outstanding Biblical scholar. I’ve read and referred to his commentaries, and they’re invaluable contributions to Biblical studies.

The unfortunate thing about Gordon Wenham, though, is that he’s an outstanding Biblical scholar. We were treated to a detailed, encyclopedic critical exegesis of the Psalms, with Wenham recapitulating the scholarly arguments about particular readings and giving a defence of his own hermeneutical method.

For forty-five minutes. I had to gnaw off my own leg to stay awake.

Unfortunately, that meant that I didn’t get to stick around for the “missional response” given by Tim Davey, which hopefully would have put more of a practical, expository front onto all that exegetical spadework. All I got, though, was what the Psalms say about the nations.

And to be honest, that was fairly negative. Wenham divided the Psalms into three sections; in the first, the emphasis was on Israel’s complaint against the nations and prophecy of ultimate vindication and the nations’ submission to God; the second section spoke more positively of the nations streaming to Israel to worship; the third was similar to the first, reminding us that this entry to worship was as a result of Israel’s vindication. So essentially the message was: yes, every knee will ultimately bow in submission to Israel’s God, because Israel will vanquish the nations.

I had two concerns with what Wenham was saying. The first was that he was reading the Psalms as a canon and trying to understand what the editors of the canon were doing in putting it together. He took the first two untitled psalms as programmatic for the whole collection, contrasting the righteousness of David and Zion against the oppression of the nations, and then he set about looking for evidence of this theme throughout the psalter. This is a bit of a leap for me; it’s conjecture at best, and I couldn’t help thinking about whether we could take the same approach to, say, Mission Praise.

The second was that he took the Psalms to be theological statements, and didn’t engage with the question of where to draw the line between theology and poetry. This was taken to comic extremes when he gave us a verse by verse exegesis of Psalm 137, but just verses 1 to 8, and then moved on hoping that we wouldn’t notice that there was another verse there that he didn’t plan to deal with. (Psalm 137:9)

Just like with readings of the Exodus, it felt like trying all of this exegesis and carefully considering the context totally missed the broader context of how and why the Psalms were written: they are the songs of an angry, defeated and bitter Israel, wistfully wishing for the day when the rest of the earth would submit to them.

I’d love to pull a missiological implication out of that one.


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