20 Dec 2013

‘To you belong all the nations’

Although the biblical Psalms are a product of the old covenant, for centuries the Christian Church has sought and found Jesus Christ in its historic song book. A number of Psalms have been designated messianic in character, including Psalms 2, 22, 30, 69, 72, 110 and 118. This is due either to their explicit reference to the LORD’s Anointed (Messiah) or to their anticipation of an event related to Jesus’ life, suffering or death.

Psalm 82 is not always placed in this category, although it does anticipate God’s judgement over the nations of earth in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Revised Standard Version, the Psalm begins, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” The footnote to this verse in the New Oxford Annotated Bible tells the reader: “Making use of a conception, common to the ancient Near East, that the world is ruled by a council of gods, the poet (presumably a priest or temple prophet) sees, in a vision, the God of Israel standing up in the midst of the council and pronouncing judgment upon all other members.”

Such an interpretation owes much to an evolutionary worldview which treats religion as merely an artifact subject, like all other products of human culture, to growth and development. Within this worldview, the ancient Israelites’ primitive polytheism developed under various influences into henotheism (in which YHWH is chief among the gods) and finally into monotheism (no God but YHWH) around the time of the Babylonian exile. By contrast, the biblical narrative itself portrays the Israelites repeatedly abandoning fidelity to the one true God and worshipping false gods for which they were punished throughout their history.

There is another interpretation of Psalm 82 less beholden to this evolutionary worldview. The translators of the New International Version place “gods” in inverted commas, as if to indicate the improper assumption of divine status by these beings. But who are these beings? I believe a good case can be made for their identity as earthly rulers who have come to esteem themselves as gods.

The key to this can be found in verses 2-4: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” All of these imperatives are ordinary tasks undertaken in the course of political rule. The setting is not a mythological council of gods, but the one true God calling those to whom he has given political authority to do justice as they discharge the weighty responsibilities of office.

A decade and a half ago, I set Psalm 82 to verse to be sung to the proper Genevan melody. My own versification draws on the interpretation set forth above:

Judging among divine pretenders,
in council God his verdict renders:
“How long,” says he, “shall wickedness
be favoured over righteousness?
Give justice to the poor and needy,
rescue the helpless from the greedy.
Treat widows as is right and fair,
defend all orphans in your care.

“Blindly you grope about and stumble,
while earth's foundations start to crumble.
Gods you may think yourselves to be,
yet you shall taste mortality.
Like earthly kings whose days are numbered,
death's claim on you will not be cumbered.”
Rise up, O God, and judge the earth,
to you the nations owe their birth.

During Advent and Christmas we do well to pray Psalm 82 acknowledging that its ultimate fulfilment is in the person of Jesus Christ, who, in the words of Isaiah 9:7, will sit upon the throne of David and establish his kingdom of righteousness and justice for ever.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College. His next book, We Answer to Another: Authority, Office and the Image of God, is forthcoming from Pickwick Publications.

4 Dec 2013

Review: Old Paths, New Feet

Last evening I was privileged to talk by phone with Chris Reno, who, along with Jordan Brownlee and others, is part of the group Brother Down. Chris teaches English at a christian secondary school and is a member of Trinity Covenant Church in Aptos, California. This congregation is part of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches. According to Reno, the group's name was taken from Genesis 43:7:

They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Do you have another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?”
A decade ago the group produced another album called To the Black Land.

This most recent album is called Old Paths, New Feet, a reference to a new generation rediscovering ancient liturgical resources. The texts are from Cantus Christi, a psalter and hymnal widely used within the CREC.

In response to my question as to the style of their music, Reno said he is hard-pressed to come up with a single description, but admits the influence of Ghoostly Psalms, Celtic music and Mumford and Sons. The project was spearheaded by Douglas Wilson as part of a Psalm-Off contest two years ago.

Having listened to the album, I am most favourably impressed with what I've heard. The quality of the recordings is most professional, and the instrumentation is very good indeed. Reno spoke highly of Brownlee's musical gifts, especially his ability to pick up new instruments such as the banjo on short notice. Perhaps Celtic folk rock would characterize the group's unique style. The album is produced by Canon Press's Bultitude Records and is available for download from amazon.com. As I mentioned earlier, eight of the psalms are Genevan in origin (Psalm 100 is set to the tune for Psalm 134, a match that goes back to the 1650 Scottish Psalter), one is from Thomas Tallis and the other by Johann Graumann and Hans Kugelmann.

I strongly recommend this wonderful blending of 16th-century tunes and 21st-century musical styles, which comes in time for the Christmas gift-giving season.