Bring the highs and lows of faith to your Bible study and you might be surprised at how much they help your understanding, says Christopher Ash
That’s a provocative title — surely everyone who reads the Bible does so as a human being. Yes, and no. I want to sow in your mind the idea that academic scholarship can blind us to reading the Bible with a sympathetic grasp of what this book means to believers in the ups and downs of the life of faith. I want to encourage you — as I encourage myself — to soak your Bible study in prayerful love of people. Humanity is a vital tool in every Bible reader’s toolkit.
I will come at this through Psalm 27 because I have been writing on this Psalm recently and it’s fresh in my mind. It’s a lovely Psalm; how could it not be when it begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”? But there is one big puzzle: it starts (verses 1-6) with a quietly confident declaration about God and then — quite suddenly — turns to earnest and rather sad lament and prayer (verses 7-14). Verses 1-6 speak about the Lord in the third person; verses 7-14 mostly speak to the Lord in the second person. Verses 1-6 are confident; verses 7-14 are mostly cried aloud with urgency and a sense of danger.
Now here’s the thing. It is not uncommon in Old Testament scholarship to read a commentator who says this must be two originally separate Psalms that have somehow been put together. At its most extreme (going back to the influential German scholar Hermann Gunkel) it is viewed as two entirely independent Psalms. But a more careful comment from a generally respected and mostly conservative scholar, A F Kirkpatrick, points out: “If the two parts (1-6, 7-14) are by the same poet, he must clearly have written them at different times, and under the influence of different circumstances. When he added the prayer of vv. 7-14 to his former song he reaffirmed the faith of happier days, though it had ceased to give joy and comfort in his present distress. But the marked difference in tone, contents, and rhythm, makes it not improbable that two independent Psalms are here combined, or that a later poet appended vv. 7-14 to vv. 1-6. It is as though he would say: ‘I would fain appropriate this bold utterance of faith; but all is dark around me, and I can only pray in faltering tones, and strive to wait in patience.’”
It is interesting that he endeavours to understand how the parts of this Psalm might be written and sung out of real human experience (and that’s a good thing). However, if I am right, he is still so bound by the powerful paradigms of much Old Testament scholarship (which are quick to see diverse sources behind the text) that he doesn’t really grasp the realities of the life of faith. I have been very struck, again and again, by the difference in tone between scholars who are also pastors, and scholars who are simply academic scholars. Reading Augustine, Luther, Calvin or Spurgeon, for example, one is in no doubt that they write out of a knowledge of the hearts of people for whom they care. They are not always right, of course, just as I am often in error (although I suspect they are right a lot more often than me). But understanding and ministering to the heart of real people is the heartbeat of their writing. The scholar I quote above was also a minister, and that shows in his attempt to understand the Psalm sympathetically. But the effect of these almost all-pervasive scholarly ways of reading the text tended strongly in the opposite direction.
So, to take Psalm 27, why might David (or any believer) begin by affirming with a quiet confidence covenant truths that he knows (verses 1-6), and then use this as a springboard for urgent prayer about the distresses that surround him (verses 7-14)? Why might he voice Psalm 27 as one Psalm? Why is it not at all certain that the two parts must have been written at different times?
I do not think the answer is so very hard to find. Let me ask it another way: what transforms mere anxiety into prayer? The answer is Gospel truth, for prayer is the outflow of faith, and faith rests on revealed truth. All through the history of the people of God, men and women have restated — for their own benefit, not because God has forgotten! — Gospel truths that God has revealed, and then used these as the springboard for prayer. Cranmer famously did this in most of his Collects in the Book of Common Prayer, which typically begin with some truth about God before going on to speak to God in prayer.
There are other reasons for thinking that Psalm 27 holds together as one integrated Psalm. But the general point I want to suggest, for your continued pondering, is that a sympathetic understanding of the ups and downs, the highs and lows, of the life of faith, can be a real help in reading the Bible well.