God’s wives (3)

A tension is evident in Lamentations where the destitute and captive city is described, not as an abandoned child but as a widow (Lamentations 1:1), and at the end of the mourning for the destruction, desolation and death God is praised: “But you, O Lord, reign for ever; your throne endures to all generations” (5:19) and the widowed city longs for restoration (5:21). In Lamentations the city is widowed, the nation is exiled, and the people groan. The characters are not individuals but rather they are all emblematic of the people as a whole: the daughters of Zion and the grieving widows are the nation itself. The writer only speaks in the first person at the crux of the book (chapter 3) in describing his personal misery, and turns immediately to speak of the “steadfast love of the LORD” (3:22) and his goodness. The goodness and mercy of the LORD are juxtaposed in a starkly contrasting manner with the misery and desolation that lies around. Even during their worse crisis the writer says “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (3:26). Despite speaking in the first person it is still a national salvation for which he pleads patient waiting, and despite the nation forsaking God (it is always they who forsake God not God who forsakes them) they maintain a desire or passion for him.

It seems that the relationship which concerned the prophets, the writer of Lamentations and probably the writer of the Song of Songs was the relationship between the nation of Israel and God. There is no hint in any of these texts of a concern about the individual’s relationship with God and the idea of ‘personal salvation’ is foreign to most of the Hebrew biblical literature, with the notable exception of the book of Psalms. The Psalter contains a mix of songs which were probably written for liturgical use or for national celebratory occasions[1] as well as personal confessions, supplications and thanksgiving. Most Psalms seem to be connected in some way to the Jerusalem Temple.[2] Parts of the Psalter in the final form in which we have it show evidence of earlier compilations: it is composed of five ‘books’; several Psalms are grouped together and attributed to common authors or with common titles (such as the ‘Songs of Ascent’); and some Psalms naturally flow on to the next. Scholars however have long wrestled with the structure of the book, as the psalms which were evidently for corporate use in a worship setting are mingled together with personal confessions, or psalms written against an historical background involving an individual (such as David fleeing from Absalom in Psalm 3)[3]. It looks like a “collection of collections”.[4] There is a fair degree of ambiguity in some of the national psalms where it is difficult to determine if the subject is the Davidic King, or God. For example, Psalm 72 could be a prayer for Solomon, or equally in praise of a messianic king. Sigmund Mowinckel argued that the ‘enthronement psalms’  had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, but that the enthroned king who was being acclaimed was the LORD rather than the Davidic King.[5] Psalm 45 which is headed שיר ידידת a love song closely resembles the love-language of the Song of Songs and provides a link between Psalms and the Song of Songs. It is addressed to a king, contains some of the elements of a wasf, yet sounds a little like a national anthem (“Send him victorious!” 45:4). It suggests that the love-song may have been written for one purpose and acquired further significance as part of the national collection, and is at the nexus of where personal and individual meets national and corporate. The so-called ‘Pilgrim Psalms’ show signs of having been written for the corporate worship of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimages, but they also contain elements which are personal and individualistic (such as “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!”’ in Psalm 122:1). Marc Brettler summarises the difficulties in attempting to find an orderly arrangement in the book when he writes: “perhaps Psalms is not really a book at all; it would seem to be a hodge-podge. We can no longer determine why each psalm is in its place”.[6] Perhaps the difficulty we have in making sense of the structure of the book is precisely because here he have the nexus in Hebrew literature between the nation and the individual, and because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate individual yearnings from corporate ones.

It is in the Psalms that we find most clearly the redemption of the individual as well as the nation. The writers of the prophetic books, Lamentations, Song of Songs and the Psalms give us multiple divergent perspectives about the relationship between God and his chosen people, whether we think of his people corporately as Israel or as individuals. Song of Songs appears to be deliberately commenting on the Genesis creation story and reversing the perversion of desire between male and female which came through disobedience and sin. The prophets metaphorise the mutual desire between God and his people for intimacy as a troublesome marriage where the husband remains faithful while the woman has other lovers, and Song of Songs implies a lack of passion (on the woman’s part) as a reason for her unfaithfulness. Perhaps Ezekiel put some of the blame on God because he sometimes acted like a father and at other times like a lover or husband. Israel was confused and did not know how to relate to this father-husband-God. Perhaps Tennyson was right that “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved” but through the lover and marriage metaphors the biblical poetic books argue that “If love is lost it can be found again.”  Eventually, both in the prophets and in the Psalms, the people (and by implication the individual) learn that God’s passion for them should be reciprocated and then at last the union between the lovers will be consummated.

(Concluded)


[1] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: a Translation with Commentary, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), p. xvii

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p. 226

[3] John Goldingay however argues that the psalms with historical superscriptions were not written in those circumstances but that the headings were probably added for use in a lectionary to provide a Scripture with similar or related themes for parallel consideration with the psalm. John Goldingay, Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 28-29

[4] Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 226

[5] Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, p106

[6]  Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 228

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