Home > Bible, Word of God > Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Psalm 119)

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Psalm 119)

I’ve tried to sketch out a few ideas out about how modernism and postmodernism influenced the reading of the Bible. After I wrote up a few thoughts on some of the ways I might think about the text, I thought began to think of simply highlighting how the text tells us to interpret itself. As with anything I write, I am not trying to provide an exhaustive study but rather a sketch. So I might simply take one passage that explores the idea of meditation in some depth: Psalm 119.

As I reflected on the Psalm and listed out the various forms of meditation mentioned, I discerned that the list might be considered in three seperate categories: hearing, speaking and seeing.

1. Hearing – In verse 33 the Psalmist prays, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.” This request is part of a larger pattern that reappears throughout Scripture. The Spirit of God teaches us the Word of God. At the very beginning of the Bible, God is speaking.

Hans Urs Balthasar taught me that hearing is the position of humility. I exert less control over hearing than seeing. While I can easily change me gaze or attention from one spot to another, when I am addressed, I cannot so easily change the focus of my listening. To change the focus of my hearing would require me to physically interfere with my ears through headphones or earplugs. Thus to refrain from listening suggests active resistance.

Whereas to hear, to listen is to submit. So like the Psalmist, I approach the Word with a listening ear, and ask the Lord to teach me. The Psalm is filled with entreties to God to teach, comfort, come, revive, and so on. The Psalmist models the position of prayerful listening. As I humble myself before the Word of the Lord, I ask the Lord of the Word to speak, “for your servant is listening.”

This reflects an attitude of trust, which is reiterated thorughout the Psalm. I listen and trust in the Word. The Psalmist prays,

Forever, O Lord,
Your word is settled in heaven.
90 Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
You established the earth, and it abides.
91 They continue this day according to Your ordinances,
For all are Your servants.
92 Unless Your law had been my delight,
I would then have perished in my affliction.
93 I will never forget Your precepts,
For by them You have given me life.
94 I am Yours, save me;
For I have sought Your precepts.
95 The wicked wait for me to destroy me,
But I will consider Your testimonies.
96 I have seen the consummation of all perfection,
But Your commandment is exceedingly broad.
NKJV – 119:89-96

The Psalmist acknowledges that the Word is faithful, good, trustworthy, delightful, and stands over all people. He writes “all are Your servants.” Whether we aknowledge the Lord or not, we are His servants and stand under His Word.

Proverbs 2 also highlights this posture of listening:

Prov 2:1-9
My son, if you receive my words,
And treasure my commands within you,
2 So that you incline your ear to wisdom,
And apply your heart to understanding;
3 Yes, if you cry out for discernment,
And lift up your voice for understanding,
4 If you seek her as silver,
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
5 Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
And find the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;
7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
He is a shield to those who walk uprightly;
8 He guards the paths of justice,
And preserves the way of His saints.
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice,
Equity and every good path.
NKJV

I believe this posture of listening continues in at least two other ways. One is listening to the actual reading of the Word aloud. Thus part of the tradition of God’s people is the public reading of the Word. This is a fundamental part of worship. Secondly, we need to listen to God’s people proclaiming the Word.

While Psalm 119 does not seem to specifically highlight this, we see the pattern again and again of God’s people listening to God’s ministers (his angelic flames) announcing the Good News of God’s Word. From Moses to the Prophets to the Apostles and Teachers, we see the consistent pattern of God’s Word being spoken, proclaimed, taught through the servants of the Lord.

In Ephesians, Paul writes the God has given each person on the body of Christ a measure of grace. And we are to offer back that measure in service to one another. One way we do this is by speaking what is “good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

So listening to the Word involves personal, prayeful listening, public listening to the reading and proclaiming of the Word, and listening to the saints around me speak and edify through the Word.

2. Speaking – The Psalmist not only writes about listening but about speaking the Word.

1 My lips shall utter praise,
For You teach me Your statutes.
172 My tongue shall speak of Your word,
For all Your commandments are righteousness.
NKJV – Ps 119:171-172

Throughout the course of the psalm, speaking seems to be part of remembering, which involves speaking, wlaking, running, obeying, studying, rehearsing, re-enacting, reflecting, and enfleshing. Deuteronomy 6 exhorts the people

6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
NKJV

Speaking the Word seems to be a fundamental extension of listening to the Word. So speaking becomes a vital part of interpretation. Speaking is much more than just reading and preaching. It involves singing and rejoicing over the Word. Then working outward from this image of rejoicing in the Word, speaking seems to involve imaging the Word in my body (obedience) and in the world that I create.

So interpretion is enfleshed on many levels. In submission and obedience, I seeking to build the world of my family around and upon the Word of God.

3. Seeing – I won’t say much about this now (because I’m ready to stop writing), but it seems that the culmination of listening of speaking is seeing. The text moves to hearing to seeing. The Psalmist speaks of seeing and even the whole drama of Scripture starts with God speaking and ends with God’s people seeing.

  1. January 15, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Doug, thanks for the blogs on approaching the text. Clearly, the question is larger than just how do you read the text–that is, “study” it. Rather, the question is: how do we allow God to interpret us through our encounter with Him through the text? I very much appreciate your reference to the ease with which we are distracted in our seeing, but less so in our hearing–provided, of course, we don’t acclude the real airwaves of the world (and God’s voice) by filling up our ears with our own reality via itunes, car stereo, tv, our own endless chatter > pick your poison. There is much to ponder here. Thanks for your hard work, sorry it took me so long to finally get to look it over.

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