Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Sorry, Psalm 139 Isn't About You

Aren't they cute??
But they aren't the point.
Picking up a thread from here, the more I live, the more I see how much those of us who call ourselves Christians - without thinking - interpret the Bible in a massively self/modern-culture centred way. You and I need help to flee it.

If, like me, you've been on the (Western popular) Christian circuit long enough, then you'll be familiar with that myopic approach from reading Psalm 139. The approach that says you're the centre of God's universe to the exclusion of everything else. He puts you centre stage. For example, have a look at this video:

This video tells me nothing of Jesus, but that is exactly who Psalm 139 is about.

Psalm 139 should be read like Psalm 22, King David, is writing prophetically about Jesus, not himself.

Here we see, Jesus speaking to his Father about his forthcoming incarnation.

Verses 1-3 and throughout, Jesus speaks of the perfect mutual indwelling, loving fellowship that he has had with the Father through the Spirit since eternity past.

Verse 4 Jesus has only ever spoken what the Father has given him to speak.

Verse 5 The hand (Spirit) of the Father was clearly on Jesus.

Verse 8 No fallen human has ever ascended into Heaven - they can't and it's heresy, not poetry, to suggest they can. Satan and Adam both had a go and failed. Jesus has and has done so by virtue of his own inherent righteousness.

Verse 9 is a poetic image of verse 8. The sun is being described here. The only person equated with the sun (which each day symbolically ascends into the heavens and descends into the earth/grave) in the Bible is Jesus. Jesus is the only mediator between Heaven and earth.

Verse 10 Jesus on the cusp of his becoming a frail human and being planted inside the womb of a woman.  He will be away from direct face to face fellowship with his Father, but he knows that by the Spirit, his Father is always with him as he plunges down into the darkness of a fallen cosmos to redeem that pearl of great price - the Church.

Verses 13-15 Jesus speaks of his Father's care for him as he is being formed by the Spirit in the womb of Mary.

Verses 16-17 speak of how the Father has prepared the Old Testament for Jesus to read so that he would know, with the help of the Spirit, what his mission was and how to accomplish it. Jesus went to the cross with the promises of the Old Testament ringing in his heart.

Verse 18 speaks of resurrection, victory and vindication, even death did not sever the eternal fellowship of the Father and Son.

Verses 19-22 Did you notice that these verses were absent in the video above. If we read this Psalm focussed on ourselves then we have no idea what to do with them - they are an embarrassment. But if it's about Jesus, then it's obvious. Jesus after his resurrection and ascension is asking the Father to do what the Father has already said he would do for his Son namely; vindicate the Son and defeat their enemies.

Verses 23-24 The Psalm closes like it opens: Jesus, the obedient Son, humbles himself before his Father's scrutiny for the vindication of his cause.

See how close the love is that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father, altogether in the unity of the Spirit. It is into that love, that the Church has been swept up.

This Psalm is only about you and me to the extent that it tells us what are the blessings and benefits that we derive from being in Christ - clothed with his righteousness. It's not about you and me per se, and I for one am grateful, because I need a victorious champion, an awesome and merciful saviour in my life, not a deceitful mirror.


Caleb Woodbridge said...

Hmmm... I think you're perhaps overreacting in the other direction. It seems to me that the first thing that David is talking about in the Psalm is God's complete knowledge and care for his people - that's seems the clear surface meaning. Reading divine indwelling and so on into it seems quite a stretch to me.

I don't know of any New Testament passages citing this Psalm as being fulfilled by Christ, so I would be very cautious of claiming it is directly and exclusively about Jesus and so not about humanity generally - though in a more general and typological sense, Jesus fulfils it as being the perfect man, the new Adam.

It's not myopic to celebrate God's love for us. The problem arises when we forget grace, and have a sense of entitlement, rather than praise, thankfulness and worship.

Richard Walker said...

Hello Caleb, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to engage with this stuff.

I prefer to think of it as being selective, rather than overreacting. ;-)

There are indeed many layers, that's the beautiful complexity of the Bible. Someone who is joined in covenant love to Christ can claim this level of intimate care to themselves. (I should really pause to enjoy the truth of that last sentence.)

But it's selection for a reason.

For me, the hermeneutic of the Old Testament is "Christ revealing the Triune God" everywhere, (1 John 5:9) unless there's some overriding reason to say that it can't be him (e.g. Ps 51 It is David, not Christ who is confessing his sin).

My reason for writing this post is not to make people feel like God doesn't care about them, but to try and put the horse back in front of the cart and keep the "Jesus who faithfully reveals the Triune God" as the focal point of all the Scriptures, including those not directly cited in the NT. :-)


John said...

I agree with Caleb. The point you are making is somewhat obscured by what seems to be an overreaction.

It seems the problem you are concerned with is an anthropocentric theology. You're right: this is definitely a problem in some contemporary approaches to spirituality. That's important to explore, however, I think you miss the wider theological implications of the incarnation and continuing humanity of Christ with the 'it's not about you' line of reasoning. I agree that we should avoid reading any section of scripture on the basis that 'you're the centre of God's universe etc..." But I fear your analysis speeds past Psalm 139's affirmation of the unique dignity that God has given humanity. I think this is worth dwelling on as it is vital for the contemporary church to understand and has implications for our approach to life, politics, creation, culture...everything really. I'm also not persuaded by the assertion that it can only be read the way you suggest.

Anyway - thanks for posting - made me think which is always a good sign.

Jonathan Campbell said...

Excellent article. As I read it I felt like the two on the road to Emmaus, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” Thanks for sharing. I can feel a Christmas series coming on!