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Boda, Mark J. Zechariah. NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 935 pp. Hb; $58. Link to Eerdmans
Mark Boda’s new commentary on Zechariah in the NICOT series from Eerdmans sets the standard for exegetical commentaries on this important post-exilic prophet. Too often Zechariah is bundled in brief commentaries along with Haggai and Malachi. For example, The WBC commentary, for example, devotes a mere 130 pages to the prophet. Joyce G. Baldwin’s useful commentary on Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series was replaced by Andrew Hill still only manages about 170 pages on Zechariah. Boda himself contributed Haggai, Zechariah to the NIV Application Commentary. George Klein’s 2008 NAC commentary is a notable exception trend.
Based on questions concerning the unity of Zechariah, commentators often divide the book into two volumes, one on chapters 1-8 and a second on chapters 9-14. For example, the excellent commentary on Haggai and Zechariah 1-8 and Zechariah 9-14 by Carol L. Meyers in the Anchor Bible Commentary. The Old Testament Library commentary by David L. Petersen combines Haggai with Zechariah 1-8, and Zechariah 9-14 are combined with Malachi in a separate volume. By devoting over 900 pages to the whole book, Boda is able to argue that Zechariah 1-14 ought to be treated as a single book despite clear evidence of two or three sections and editorial activity. He does not, however attribute every section to Zechariah the son of Berechiah.
The Introduction. The commentary begins with a short, 56 page introduction, including about ten pages of bibliography. Although this seems to be a short introduction, Bod also includes short introductions in the body of the commentary (labeled “orientation”). For example, the orientation section for the first until, the Vision Reports (Zech 1:7-6:15) runs about twenty pages and includes genre, structure, relationship to apocalyptic and relationship to the other sections of Zechariah (intertextuality).
After a short discussion of the text of Zechariah, Boda surveys the historical context of the book. Since the book was composed over an eighty year period (520-440 B.C.), Boda traces the history of the period from the end of the Babylonian Empire through Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes and Artexerxes. The rebellions against Cambyses and the rise of Darius are in the background of Haggai and Zechariah,
Second, Boda canvasses the complicated suggestions concerning the composition of the prophecy. Zechariah 1:7-6:15 contain eight “night visions” and chapters 7 and 8 begin new unites with the phrase “the world of the Lord came to me.” Chapter 9 is a “clear shift in style” marked by the phrase “a prophetic utterance of Yahweh” (mśʾ dbr-yhwh) at 9:1 and 12:1 (23), the same phrase which begins the book of Malachi. Boda argues there is a clear distinction between chapters 9-10 and 12-14, but also editorial effort to integrate the two sections, including most of chapter 11 (25). Despite his recognition of these basic divisions in the book, Bod thinks there is warrant for reading the whole book as a single unit. First, both sections are have intertextual allusions to earlier biblical material (primarily Jeremiah). Second, the prophetic sign-act appears in Zechariah 1-8 and 11:4-6. The shepherd-flock motif is a “skeleton key” for understanding chapters 9-14 (28). Third, similar themes are developed within redactional material which serve to bind the two parts of the book together, including (fourth) a similar movement from restoration to frustration with the pace of restoration due to the leadership of the community. This “connectivity” suggests the scribal tradition joining the two books is “related to the latter’s recognition of an original editorial intention” (29).
Boda expands this canonical approach to the book to the rest of the Book of the Twelve by arguing for a striking similarity between the messenger formulae” in Haggai 2:10 and Zech 1:1 (30). Haggai and Zechariah 1-8 came together soon after the completion of the Temple in 520 B.C., chapters 9-14 were integrated with an “already existing Haggai-Zechariah 1-8” (30). In addition to these three books, Malachi was added based on the “messenger of Yahweh” in Haggai-Zechariah to form a prophetic corpus calling on the restored community to return to the Lord (Zech 1:3, Mal 3:7).
With respect to dating the original composition, Boda argues chapters 1-8 fit the dynamics of the restoration of the Temple, 520-518 B.C., but the dating of chapters 9-14 range from the eighth to second centuries. Some detect a historical allusion to Alexander the Great in 9:1-8 and possible Ptolemaic Egypt in chapters 10 and 14. That Zechariah 14 is often identified as apocalyptic has encouraged a later date as well. Boda, however, argues the intertextual links in Zechariah 11:14-16 imply a date near the end of Zerubbabel’s tenure, about 510 B.C. (36). The book functions as “a supplemental vision to that represented by Nehemiah’s infrastructural initiatives, reminding both priestly and political leaders of Yahweh’s desire for renewal that moved beyond physical restoration” (37).
The third and fourth sections concern the literary form and inner biblical allusions. Zechariah 1:1-6 indicates that the words spoken to the prophets before the exile continue to have meaning to those who are returning to Jerusalem. “My words” and “my statutes” refer to prophecy and the Law of Moses, but Boda argues the forms which appear in Zechariah have been “shaped by the Jeremianic tradition” (40). There are allusions in the book to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, other books within the Book of the Twelve, and the Torah. Boda does not take any time to define what he means by an “intertextual allusion” other than to refer to his earlier work, Bringing Out Treasure: Inner Biblical Allusion in Zechariah 9-14 (T&T Clark, 2003). The “orientations” in the body of the commentary include a section on intertextuality.
Finally, Boda offers a few pages on the message of Zechariah which have “enduring relevance for communities of faith who have recognized the authority of this book as sacred Scripture” (41). Of particular interest is “Zechariah for today.” Several New Testament writers were influence by the book and used elements in their presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. The book continues to be applicable as a warning to believers that sin still can easily entangle communities and individuals.
The Commentary. The body of the commentary resembles other volumes in the NICOT series. Boda offers a fresh translations followed by textual notes, a running phrase-by-phrase commentary on the text. Textual notes on the translation include syntactical options and variations from the Old Greek, Vulgate, or other ancient witnesses. Because the text of Zechariah is difficult, these notes sometimes appear on almost every word of the translation. On 9:11-13, for example, there are 24 notes; on 11:4-12 there are more than three pages of notes! By placing these technical details prior to the commentary proper, the body is more useful for readers who are more interested in the meaning of the text. All Hebrew appears in transliteration in both the body of the commentary and in the footnotes.
Given Boda’s interest in intertextuality, it is not surprising the commentary is rich with possible allusions to other text in the Hebrew Bible. For example, on Zechariah 9:9, he suggests the verse is “reminiscent of earlier expectations of Haggai and Zechariah 1-8” (565). Commenting on Zechariah 12, he says “earlier textual traditions have played a key role in the shaping of 12:2-13:6” (696), primarily Ezekiel 36, but “the vocabulary of 13:2 echoes Ezek 14:1-11” and the cleansing contained in 13:1 “reflects the river of water which flows from the temple in Ezek 47:1-12” (696). The section is also “reminiscent” of Isaiah 51 among other texts. A potential objection here is the dating of Ezekiel, since it is possible the final form of Ezekiel is later than the composition of Zechariah, about 520 B.C. according to Boda. Although I consider Ezekiel to predate Zechariah, it is at least possible Zechariah and Ezekiel represent common tradition in this particular example.
Zechariah and Apocalyptic. Boda’s commentary reflects in part an ongoing discussion of the genre of Zechariah. Since chapters 1-6 are a series of visions which include strange imagery and an angelic guide, the book is sometimes associated with apocalyptic literature. The final two chapters of the book are concerned with eschatological battles using apocalyptic language. Since imagery from Zechariah is used in Revelation, the book is sometimes considered an example of early apocalyptic. Boda however does not think it is helpful to read the book as apocalyptic since this makes the visions reports refer “strictly to futuristic events, place in the distant future or even eschaton” (102). He argues the vision reports in the book concern recent events in the community, the punishment of Babylon and Persia, and the restoration of the the priestly and royal houses in the new province of Yehud (102). It is in fact dangerous, says Boda, to use the term protoapocalyptic because “it encourages treatment of the vision reports as apocalyptic” (102).
Perhaps this is the case, but it is possible Boda has protested too much. The genre of apocalyptic does not necessarily require a vision refer to the extreme distant future. For example Daniel 8 is clearly apocalyptic, yet refers to the decline of Persia and the rise of Greece. Depending on one’s view of the date of Daniel, this vision refers to either very near future or recent past. It does not refer to events of a distant eschatological age at all. Perhaps this is an example of hearing premillennial interpretations of Revelation in the text of Zechariah. There is no reason Zechariah could not use a variation on the developing genre of apocalyptic to comment on the struggles of his own community prior to 520 B.C.
Conclusion. Boda’s commentary on Zechariah is an excellent exegetical commentary on a most difficult prophetic book. His careful attention to detail makes this commentary one of the best on Zechariah available today.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Thomas, John Christopher and Frank D. Macchia. Revelation. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 692 pp. Pb; $36. Link to Eerdmans
This new addition to the Two Horizons series from Eerdmans by John Thomas and Frank Macchia combines an exposition of Revelation with theological insight drawn from the text of the final book of the New Testament. The commentary is not intended to be an exegetical commentary on the Greek text nor do the authors intend to explore every possible allusion to the Old Testament or other Second Temple period text. Thomas and Macchia contribute a clear, readable theologically-oriented commentary on Revelation which will be useful for pastors and teachers as they present this difficult book to their congregations.
The introduction to the commentary is divided into five parts. First, Thomas and Macchia discuss the structure and nature of the book of Revelation. Aside from the usual outline of the book, they emphasize the oral nature of Revelation, commenting that “at every turn there are indications that the book is designed for oral enactment” (7) in “the context of worship within the community” (8). But the book is a Christian prophecy using the style of apocalyptic, although not without significant modification. John sees himself as an heir to the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament so that the book of Revelation is a “prophetic re-interpretation” of the traditions John has received (11). Yet John never directly quotes the Old Testament. He alludes to or echoes the earlier tradition in order to re-interpret them in a new context. Thomas and Macchia describe this as “intertext” (14) although they are not distracted by the often nettlesome discussions of how to detect allusions and echoes.
Second, the audience is Asia Minor, specifically the seven churches from chapters 2-3. There are other churches in the region which were prominent yet are not mentioned, and at least Thyatira seems less important than the others. This suggests the book was intended to be read by all of the churches in Asia Minor. Thomas and Macchia are content to locate Revelation within a “Johannine Community” and point out a number of connections between the Gospel of John and Revelation (20). This community would have been able to hear John’s intertextual allusions because they revered the Jewish Scripture and were led by the Holy Spirit to interpret that Scripture. They cite Revelation 11:8 as evidence for a “spiritual interpretation,” although it is not clear πνευματικῶς in that verse implies a revelation from the Holy Spirit to understand the allusion. Thomas and Macchia suggest the audience included female leadership, although the examples in Revelation 2-3 are mostly negative (i.e. Jezebel). The community faces persecution and suffering from Satan (“cosmic oppression”), Rome, the Jewish community and false teachers from within the community itself.
Third, with respect to the date and authorship of Revelation, Thomas and Macchia affirm a date in the last quarter of the first century, surveying the usual evidence for the later date. They dismiss a pre-A.D. 70 rather quickly. While I agree with the later date, there have been a few good arguments made for an early date recently which could have improved this section of the introduction. They do, however, offer a “modest proposal.” Since the phrase “the Lord’s Day” in 1:8 is the only time reference in the book, perhaps the only date that “counts” is the eschatological Day of the Lord (35). Since there is no specific a date given (as in many Old Testament prophets), the book of Revelation is “dehistoricized.”
This commentary takes seriously the claim someone named John wrote the book, although they prefer the title “John the Prophet.” While they think there is little reason to identify this John with the apostle, the Son of Zebedee, it is at least possible the author is John the Elder, a figure active in Ephesus at the end of the first century according to Eusebius. John the Elder is often thought to be the Beloved Disciple, one of the suggested authors of the Gospel of John. Although it is impossible to conclude John the Prophet and John the Elder are the same person, they think both the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation are from “the same community if not the same hand” (43). Neither book is from the Apostle John, but the two books ought to be read together as authentic voices from a community in Asia Minor at the end of the first century.
This thesis is intriguing and might be improved in two ways. First, Thomas and Macchia do not deal with the obvious objection the Gospel of John and Revelation seem so different. Although there are some similar motifs, the Greek style is radically different and for many the theology of the two books seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. This is especially true for eschatology, the Gospel of John is often described as “realized eschatology” while Revelation looks forward to a glorious return of Christ. This is enough to keep the Gospel of John and Revelation in separate categories for most scholars.
Second, it is possible to make a positive argument in favor of a Johannine community authorship by observing the fact the Olivet Discourse is missing from the Gospel, but may be the source for the seven seals (Rev 6). The author of John may have been motivated to intentionally drop the Olivet Discourse from the Gospel because it is presented in apocalyptic garb in Revelation 6. Since the Gospel is so non-eschatological, it is possible the author intentionally removed this theological thread to include in another book using an apocalyptic style.
The introduction concludes with a survey of the influence of Revelation, including several “disastrous applications” of the book, other apocalyptic documents, art, music, poetry, film and other commentaries. This is an interesting addition to the introduction, ranging from Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant’s Revolt (154-25) to Charles Manson and David Koresh! They devote several pages to other apocalypses of John and artistic and musical representations of Revelation. The two films they chose as examples are terrible, End of Days and the TBN produced Omega Code. Neither are worthy of mention, the space could have been devoted to far better apocalyptic films. The final section surveys historical commentaries on Revelation from the gnostic Victorinus to Allan Boesak, a commentary written in South Africa during Apartheid.
Thomas is responsible for the commentary proper. At 332 pages, the commentary relatively brief commentary compared to some recent works. For example, this commentary section is less than a third the size of Greg Beale (NIGTC) or Aune (WBC). A major reason for this is the relative lack of interest in allusions to the Old Testament and virtually no reference to other Second Temple literature. The index only lists one reference to 3 Maccabees under Pseudepigrapha. There is barely a column of Classical references. This is a refreshing exposition of the text of Revelation without falling into the error of parallelomania.
One feature which is unique to this commentary is the frequent reference to other Johannine literature. The commentary often refers to the use of a word or phrase in the Gospel of John or draws some parallel to a motif found in both books. For example, while discussing the souls under the altar of God in Revelation 6, Thomas points out they are called “witnesses,” a common theme in Revelation but also the Gospel of John (160).
The body of the commentary divides the text into larger sections works through the section. Salient phrase open paragraphs without reference to verses numbers within the section. Not every element of syntax or grammar is discussed nor does the exposition bog down in excessively detailed study of individual words. As is often observed, it is not difficult to read the Greek of Revelation; it is the meaning which is often obscure. There are only occasional references to Greek (and even more rarely Hebrew). These always appears with transliteration so a reader without Greek or Hebrew will find the commentary usable.
As is the case for other Two Horizons commentaries, following the commentary is section devoted to the theology horizons of Revelation more or less based on the standard loci of theology (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Church, Salvation and Eschatology). This is different than other Two Horizon New Testament commentaries, although there does not seem to be a single method for writing a “theological reflection” in the series. Macchia begins each section with a few pages on the theology of God (Christ, Holy Spirit, etc.) in Revelation, followed by “other voices in the New Testament” in order to tease out the distinctive contribution of Revelation. It is significant the first voice in each section is the Gospel and Epistles of John. Matthew and Mark are treated together as are Luke and Acts, Paul and the “other voices” (mostly Hebrews). This comparison is followed by a few short essays on Revelation and Systematic theology.
With respect to the eschatology of Revelation, Macchia is clear the book is about the triumph of the triune God and the reader of the book should not be “preoccupied with future ‘end-time’ events” (590). The book of Revelation teaches that the future is in God’s hand and attempts to read Revelation as if it was a crystal ball predicting the future are inappropriate and dangerous. Yet this is not a complete rejection of a future-aspect to the book. For Macchia, the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation “helps us avoid any illusion that the Kingdom of God can arise from human efforts” (615). This thousand-year reign precedes the final new creation and is focused on “the reign of the crucified and risen Lamb” (618). Since Macchia does not allow his view of Kingdom to be classified in one of the standard millennial categories, both pre- and a-millennial readers will find his discussion stimulating (although both will probably want more support for their own views).
Conclusion. This is a very readable commentary on one of the more difficult books in the New Testament. Thomas and Macchia provide a solid commentary on the text of Revelation and significant theological reflection on Revelation. It avoids several excesses which tend to plague commentaries on Revelation and will serve as a solid resource for pastors and teachers.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Ross. Allen P. A Commentary on the Psalms. Volume 3 (90-150). Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2016. 1040 pp. Hb; $49.99. Link to Kregel.
Allen Ross’s third volume of his Psalms commentary brings to completion this major contribution to the study of the Psalms. Considering all three volumes, Ross has written nearly 3000 pages on the Psalms. But as Ross himself says in his preface, no commentary on the Psalms is every quite complete. Since this commentary is written to assist pastors and teachers study the Psalms for sermons and Bible studies, there is much left to the side. Rarely does he comment on form critical issues nor does he devote space to historical interpretations of the Psalms like Waltke’s recent work on the Psalms. Ross does not attempt to write an overall theology of the Psalms nor is there much awareness of canonical interpretation of the Psalms. He is true to his goal to write a solid exegetical commentary on the Hebrew text to meet the needs of pastors and teachers.
There is no additional introduction to the commentary beyond a short preface. Like the previous volumes in the series, Ross begins his commentary on individual psalms by “paying attention to the text.” He provides his own translation of the psalm with copious notes on textual variations, emendations, and lexical issues. Ross weighs evidence from the versions (Greek, Syriac, etc.) and does not shy away from the syntactic difficulties one encounters reading Hebrew poetry. There are notes on textual variants in the Masoretic text and alternative translations based on Hebrew syntax.
Following his translation, Ross comments on the composition and context of the Psalm. He begins by taking the Psalm header seriously if present. One example is the first Psalm in the commentary. The header for Psalm 90 identifies it as a “Song of Moses, a man of God.” Virtually all commentaries consider Psalm 90 to be post-exilic since it appears to be a communal lament and has been influenced by wisdom literature. Usually the header is understood to mean the Psalm was written in the style of Moses, as if Moses the Man of God was commenting on the present state of Israel in the post-exilic world. Ross considers this plausible, yet “unnecessarily contrived” (27) and ultimately “unconvincing” (25). Since there are Psalms attributed to David in the last section of the Psalter, it is plausible a song of Moses, composed in the late wilderness period. It was intentionally placed here in the Psalter as an introduction to the final section of the Psalter.
After the context is set Ross provides an exegetical outline for the psalm, beginning with a short summary of the Psalm (usually a single sentence). This outline is based on the English text but takes into account exegetical decisions made in the translation. There is nothing unusual about these outlines, In fact, they are excellent resources for pastoral use since they could be adapted into an exegetical sermon very easily.
The extensive explanation of the translation of the Hebrew text of each psalm is a strength of this commentary. In the main body of the commentary Hebrew appears in parenthesis without transliteration. The method is more or less verse-by-verse, although he occasionally groups verses under a single header. He interacts with a broad spectrum of scholarship in the notes, although there is preference for more conservative writers. There is no separate bibliography for each Psalm (as in the WBC or NICOT). Most of the commentary focuses on the vocabulary of the Psalm, with special attention to the main point of the metaphors chosen. When a Psalm refers to some historical even in the life of Israel, the commentary attempts to use the allusion to understand the text of the Psalm.
Each chapter ends with a short “message and application” of the Psalm. It is here Ross attempts to bridge the gap between ancient Hebrew poetry and contemporary Christian worship with a short application. Pastors will find these conclusions very helpful as they draw on this commentary for sermons. Since Ross began by “paying attention to the text” and done his exegetical work, the “message” of the Psalm is tied directly to the text. Usually there is a single line in italics that functions as a kind of one-sentence application for the psalm.
If there is any messianic element in the Psalm, it appears in this “message and application” section. For example, Psalm 118:22-24 is explicitly messianic in the New Testament (Matt 21:42-44). Ross considered this Psalm a typology of Jesus; the builders are the Pharisees and the kings are the Romans (454). The interpretation of the Psalm, Ross says, but function at two levels because “the Lord Jesus Christ clearly appropriated it to himself” (457). Likewise, Psalm 110 is a “prophecy of the coming victory of the Messiah over the world” (358).
One significant feature of this commentary is a 136 page commentary on Psalm 119. As Ross explains, Psalm 119 has not received the kind of attention it deserves (459). By way of comparison, the excellent NICOT commentary on Psalms devotes only sixteen pages to Psalm 119, but nearly ten of those pages are a translation of the whole Psalm and more than two pages are concerned with the acrostic form and repeated vocabulary. So too Samuel Terrien’s EEC commentary; of the nineteen pages devoted to Psalm 119, twelve are a translation and one is bibliography. Geoff Grogan’s Two Horizons commentary on the Psalms has about six pages on the Psalm. To be fair, Ross has about three times the pages than the NICOT, but a 136 page unit only on Psalm 119 is perhaps the longest attempted study of this psalm is modern biblical studies.
Ross observes that a quick reading of Psalm 119 may result in the conclusion that it is a “repetitious and random collection of meditations on the Word of God” (462). Yet careful study will show each stanza is a careful meditation with certain themes, and each stanza builds toward a message which must be read from beginning to end. To demonstrate this, Ross offers a short exposition of each stanza as if were a separate Psalm. He includes an exegetical outline and expositional notes along with a “message and application” for each eight verse unit.
Conclusion. Like the other two volumes, Ross’s commentary on Psalms 90-150 is a model for how to read any section of Scripture. Ross’s method is clear and yields fruit that will enhance any sermon or lecture on the Psalms. This commentary would make an excellent addition to any pastor’s library.
NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Psalm 73 begins with a proverb, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” But the writer wonders if that is really true. From his own experience, the wicked seem to prosper (73:4-12) and he does not see much benefit in keeping his heart pure (73:13-14). Despite his careful attention to the details of the Law, he still suffers in ways that seem to be punishments. When the Psalmist entered into worship, his perspective changed (73:17). It was then he realized the success of the wicked is an illusion. They are not as “blessed” as they appear.
This change in perspective is also seen in his renewed commitment to be near to God (73:25-28). The last two verses of the Psalm returns to the theme of the first, “But for me, it is good to be near God.”
The writer’s commitment to God is based on God’s presence in his life. God is near his people. This is God’s persist care for his people. The image the writer uses is a young child who is protected by loving parents. This is particularly vivid because most parents need to work very hard to watch over a child. A parent must be persistent, since the moment you let your guard down there is going to be crayon on a wall of a spoon in the light socket.
This metaphor also expresses God’s sufficiency. God is all that the writer needs; as it turns out, he does not need to envy the prosperity of the wicked since God has given him all that he needs, he is able to be completely satisfied in the presence of God. What more on earth could there be to satisfy me compared to true fellowship with God?
As it turns out the proverb in 73:1 is correct. The one who is pure in heart is near to God, the external circumstances of the individual do not matter, whether they are wealthy or in poverty, whether they are in good health or suffering greatly. True shalom, the peace of which the covenant speaks is to be found in nearness to God and only in nearness to God.
Conversely, it is a fearful thing to be far from God, as are the wicked. Their apparent prosperity in the present time is nothing, it is in fact not real prosperity at all. Ironically, in the end, misery is to be far from God, while true shalom is to be near to God.
Even though he questioned the value of his innocence, the writer’s perspective is changed when he entered into worship. The wicked are not as prosperous has he once thought (73:18-20). The writer knew his feet were in danger of slipping when he became envious, but the wicked are in a slippery place as well, in ignorance! Because they trust in their wealth and power, they are in the most insecure place imaginable. The prosperity of the wicked is compared to a dream. It is not real and substantive, it is merely a vapor which will pass away when morning comes. The wicked are “unreal” or even naturally unstable, liable to fall at any moment.
We might think it strange that this new perspective might come out of a worship experience since we do not really sing worship songs about the damning of the wicked. This is true in the psalms, however. Assuming the writer did engage in the liturgy of the temple, then there is a strong possibility that he would have sung some of the Psalms which reminded him that God is a righteous judge and would punish the wicked.
The writer’s change in perspective is also seen in his self-evaluation (73:21-24). Like most people who have “come to their senses,” he feels a bit foolish. he calls himself senseless (only in Pss 49:11, 73:22, 92:7, Prov 12:1, 30:2, parallel to foolish, etc.), he compares himself to an animal which has no reason or wisdom at all. In saying this, he is not deprecating himself out of a false humility. Worship has taught him what he really is (a child of God) and his understanding of the way things really are in this world will be driven by that worship experience.
He recognizes that God is always with him, holding his hand as a parent with a small child. The reason a small child can walk or play with confidence is the knowledge that the parent is nearby and watching over them. The psalmist is describing himself as a small child who simply needed to be reminded that his loving parent is keeping watch nearby.
This is a child-like faith, but it is not a simple, unquestioning faith. In this psalm the writer has expressed very grave doubts about God’s justice in the world, perhaps even the ability of God to keep his promises. He has critically evaluated both the world and his faith, and returned to an honest faith in the God who is very near.
The writer’s changed perspective is also seen in his renewed commitment to be near to God (25-28). The last two verses of the Psalm returns to the theme of the first, “But for me, it is good to be near God.”
The writer’s commitment to God is based on God’s presence in his life. He is always with me, he is near. This is an expression of God’s persistence. The image of a young child is particularly good because a parent has to work pretty hard to watch over a child all of the time. A parent must be persistent, since the moment you let your guard down there is going to be crayon on a wall or a spoon in the light socket.
This also expresses God’s sufficiency. God is all that the writer needs; as it turns out, he does not need to envy the prosperity of the wicked since God has given him all that he needs, he is able to be completely satisfied in the presence of God. What more on earth could there be to satisfy me compared to true fellowship with God?
As it turns out, the proverb in 73:1 is correct. The one who is pure in heart is near to God, the external circumstances of the individual do not matter, whether they are wealthy or in poverty, whether they are in good health or suffering greatly. True shalom, the peace which the covenant speaks of, is to be found in nearness to God and only in nearness to God. Conversely, it is a fearful thing to be far from God, as are the wicked. Their apparent prosperity in the present time is nothing, it is in fact not real prosperity at all.
Ironically, in the end, misery is to be far from God, while true shalom is to be near to God.
Like Job and Jeremiah, the writer of Psalm 73 wonders if there is any value to being “pure in heart.” This should not be understood as arrogance, the writer has done what he believes to be all that he can to approach God in the proper way. He claims to be both pure and innocent.
If the proverb in 73:1 is true, then the person with a pure heart ought to be the most blessed because the Lord is near. He says he has “washed his hands in innocence.” This probably alludes to proper ritual purity. He has followed the rituals as commanded and is able to wash his hands, declaring his innocence. Compare the Psalmist’s claim to be innocent to Psalm 26:6 and Isaiah 1:15-16. In both cases, the writer is simply expresses his belief that he has done what God wanted him to do, he believes that he is “near” to the Lord.
It is possible to see this as an extremely self-centered prayer – “Why was I pure? What did it profit me to behave this way throughout my life, if the end is to suffer in silence while the wicked prosper?” Derek Kidner described this psalm as “pathetically self-centered” (Psalms, 260). This is the attitude of the older brother in the prodigal son story, and it is possible it is a thought many of us have had, although we may not allow it to rise to the surface too often for fear of our response!
The writer has a legitimate question. Despite being pure, he is plagued and punished daily. Both of these words are associated with judgment. To be plagued is often a violent punishment, the second word is nearly always used for correction or reprimand. The writer is basically saying, “if I am pure in heart and ceremonially pure as well, why am I being punished every day?” Either the writer is not as near to God as he thinks (and the proverb is true), or God is not near to those who are pure in heart after all, and the proverb is false.
He knows if expresses his doubt, he will betray the “children of God.” This is perhaps a hint that the writer is in some sort of leadership role, others are looking to him for answers, how he expresses his doubts will have an effect on the children of God who come to him for spiritual guidance.
It is not wrong to wonder and question, it is wrong to cause others to sin. The writer is therefore struggling with his doubt that the covenant actually works, that being pure in heart has any value at all, and he is wondering seriously if it might not be a better idea to live a life of arrogant wickedness if there is not value to his purity.
The solution to the problem is found in worship: no understanding is found until “I entered the sanctuary of God….” This verse is the key turning point in the psalm. When the writer enters into worship, his perspective changes. Notice the contrast in verses 16-17. “When I tried to reason this thing out on my own, it was oppressive to me.”
This human attempt to understand God’s working in the world is radically changed when he entered into worship – he began to focus on God and God alone. In doing so, he saw his suffering and the prosperity of the wicked from a different angle altogether, but he also saw his own suffering from God’s viewpoint as well.
The fact that our writer enters into the temple to worship ought to be at least some confirmation that he does have a pure heart and innocent hands, since these are the requirement for approaching God’s holy hill (Ps. 24, again).
Genuine Worship is therefore critical to our understand of God and his relationship with the world.
The psalmist confesses he has envied the wicked because of their prosperity (73:2-3). In doing so, the writer expresses what many people are afraid to admit, he is honest before God in a way which distresses the ordinary Christian. This embarrassing openness allows us to explore the issue of the prosperity of the wicked.
The writer uses a metaphor for his doubt – he nearly slips. Sure footing is a common metaphor in the wisdom literature for a wise person, the person who is protected by the Lord (Ps 17:5, 37:31, 40:3, 44:19 73:2, Job 31:7, Prov 14:15). This is very similar to Job’s description of his own righteousness, his feet have never “turned from the path.”
The reason for this doubt is envy, or jealousy of the wicked. Envy and jealously really do not need to be described since they are so common in human interaction. Frequently in the Bible envy ends up in violence. Envy of the wicked is also a common theme in the wisdom literature; the wise person does not envy the wicked, nothing good can come of envy (Ps 37:1, Pr 3:31, 23:17, 24:19).
The focus of his envy is the “prosperity of the wicked.” The word for prosperity in this verse is shalom, commonly used for peace, but the word covers a wide range of meaning. It is a word which describes things as they are intended to be. It is not just that the wicked have made money and bought large houses for themselves while the psalmist is poor and lives in a hut – the wicked person is in a state of shalom, a state which he believes is not proper. The writer ought to be in the state of shalom, not the arrogant, wicked person.
When the psalmist describes the wicked, his point is that these are not the sort of people who ought not be enjoying a state of shalom at all. Each line might be expanded with parallels to the psalms and proverbs, but the following summarizes the description.
The wicked do not suffer. The word in verse 4 translated “struggles” by the NIV is rare, used here and in Isaiah 58:6 where it has the connotation of injustice. The wicked do not experience the sort of hassles that the righteous seem to face daily. The next line refers to physical suffering. Verse 12 describes them as “at ease,” a word some commentators translate as “always in luck” (See wlec;, HALOT).
The wicked are arrogant. “Pride as a necklace” is in contrast to Proverbs, where wisdom ought to be worn as an ornament. The whole section gives the impression of bombast (the word for pride in verse six is “roaring” like the sea.) All of their thoughts are wicked because their hearts are wicked.
The wicked mock God’s knowledge. These people do not deny God’s existence (noon in biblical times was an atheist), but they deny the God of the covenant knows about what they are doing. It is as if they know what they do breaks the covenant but they think that they are outside of God’s view. This is something like a child who thinks they can get away with something because their parents are not watching them at the moment.
So is the proverb in 73:1 true? Experience seems to say the proverb is not true at all, verses 2-12 demonstrate that the wicked prosper despite being far from God.
If this is true, what about the one with a pure heart? Why even bother with the effort of maintaining a “pure heart” if it results in punishment rather than prosperity?
The first line of Psalm 73 may have been a popular proverb at the time the Psalm was written. At the very least, it is a common theme in the Psalms. Those who are the true worshipers of God are pure in heart. In Psalm 24, for example, only those who have clean hands and a pure heart may ascend the holy hill of God (Ps 24:3-4). In Psalm 51:10 David famously asks God to create a clean heart and a right spirit within him.
But Psalm 24:5-6 goes on to say that the one who has clean hands and a pure heart will be blessed by God; they can expect that the blessings of the covenant will come their way. The converse of this would be that the one who is not pure in hear will not receive the blessings, but rather the curses of the covenant. A “pure heart” is therefore a way of describing a total commitment to God (Kidner, Psalms, 259).
This proverb reflects the covenant relationship which Israel has with God. In Deuteronomy God promised he would bless the nation when they kept the covenant and that he would punish them when they broke the covenant (curses and blessings). If a person did make a good-faith effort to keep the Law and followed the Law when they encountered impurity, then they ought to experience physical prosperity. God ought to give the good health and peace because they are “pure in heart.”
Is it really true that the Lord is good to those who are pure in heart? Is it really true that the Lord sends curses on the wicked? The Psalmist has some doubts about the truth of this proverb in the rest of the Psalm. This doubt is common: how many truly wicked (or exceedingly shallow) people are wealthy and powerful? How many people who have dedicated themselves to God’s work are poor and oppressed?
For me, I am less upset when an evil person succeeds than when a shallow, useless person succeeds. Like the Psalmist, I feel like shouting, “hey God, are you paying attention to these people? Read their twitter feeds and judge them with hellfire!”
If verse one is true on some sort of universal “proverbial” level, is it fair that a long time servant of God dies painfully with inoperable cancer when a mass murderer lives out his years in relative comfort? This is the issue the psalmist explores in Psalm 73.
Psalm 49 describes the fate of the wealthy. Wisdom literature in general has a great deal to say about the folly of relying on one’s personal wealth. Despite this, it seems like contemporary American culture (especially conservative evangelicalism) ignores the biblical associate of wealth and folly. I am tempted to inset a Donald Trump joke here, since there are far too many Christians who are fooled into thinking his wealth means he knows something about running a country (or worse, his wealth means he is blessed by God). If anything, American politics should demonstrate the truth of Psalm 49, reliance on personal wealth and power is folly.
The wealthy are described as cheating the worshiper. To “cheat” or “deceive” is the noun עָקֵב, the root behind the name Jacob. The basic meaning is “heel,” Jacob was the second of the twins born to Rebekah and was given the name “heel grasper” since he was born grabbing the heel of his brother. To “raise one’s heel against” another person is a threatening sign, Ps 40:10 uses this phrase to describe a betrayer, Jesus quotes that Psalm in John 13:18 to describe Judas.
These wealthy people trust in their riches (49:6). Rather than trusting in God, the rich are confident that they can weather any economic problems which come along. Remember Y2K? Some people stocked up on food and water “just in case.” If the worst possible things happened on that date, they could have “boasted” in their own preparedness, they survived because they earned it and deserved to survive.
The fate of the wealthy is the same for the poor, they will both die (49:7-12). Wealth cannot ransom a person from the grave. This line (v.7) begins with a rare interjection which is not in the NIV and is usually translated “alas!” The word (אָח) is a cry of pain, almost like a guttural scoffing noise. The syntax here is significant (infinitive absolute with an imperfect cognate, the same sort of construction in the famous “you will surely die,” Gen 2:17). The ESV uses “truly” to get at the meaning here, the point is the certainty of this not happening: “he most certainly cannot buy his way out of Sheol!”
People who boast in their wealth have foolish confidence (49:12-13). It is not wrong to have wealth, nor does this psalmist praise poverty. The problem is that people who have wealth place their confidence in the wealth, often to their shame. Wealth can disappear in an instant. Their confidence is described as “foolish” (כֶּסֶל). They are relying on something which is unreliable. Imagine if you had an uncle tell you that he was going to help you pay off all your debts because his new business was just about to make a huge profit. He is only waiting for his Nigerian contact to wire him millions….most of us would understand that this is relying on something which is foolish. Perhaps one of the reasons they have such high confidence in their wealth is that they have an entourage of people telling them what they want to hear! There are people following behind approving of their boats, giving more confidence to the wealthy person.
Wealth does not follow a person to the grave (49:16-17). The idea that one leaves their wealth behind when the die common in most cultures, “you can’t take it with you when you go.” This is a common theme in the Hebrew Bible as well (Ps 39:6; Job 27:16, 17; Eccl 2:18, 21, 26; Jer 17:11; cf. Luke 12:20). The wealthy used to name territory after themselves, but after they have died they will live in a bit forever without any hope of returning to the land they once claimed. All of the honor the wealthy expect will not continue after death. The ESV translates יְקָר as “pomp,” probably because the word is used to describe precious stones on a number of occasions (Jer 20:5; Ezek 22:25, Job 28:10). The word appears four times in Esther to describe the honor given to Mordecai when the king honors him. The wealthy expect to be treated with a higher level of honor simply because they are wealthy.
In summary, the writer of the psalm paints a realistic picture of the “rich and famous” foolishly relying on their wealth instead of the God who gave it to them in the first place. The riddle might be, “how can rich people be that stupid?” But before we quickly condemn the celebrities for being foolish, we need to recall that “wealth” is a matter of perspective. Everyone in our church is wealthy compared to the rest of the world – that we have shelter—multi-room homes with indoor plumbing and usually multiple toilets, heat and air conditioning, reliable electricity, cable TV, phone service, internet, etc.
While it is easy to condemn “those rich people,” it is quite easy for us to rely on our own wealth rather than look to the God who is the real source of our blessings.
How did a wisdom Psalm function as a worship song? Psalm 49 is an example of setting a wisdom theme to music, although these themes are not typically part of modern worship. When was the last time you heard a praise and worship song on the futility of wealth or the shortness of this life? This is true for traditional hymns or contemporary worship. There may be good theology in a song, but rarely is there anything akin to wisdom literature in a worship service.
Yet it is not clear how a worshiper would use this song as a part of Temple worship. Older commentaries assume wisdom psalms are late additions to the psalter, Mowinckel (1955) “posited a close relationship between a school of the wise and the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the post-exilic period which led to the production of wisdom psalms.” The main assumption is that wisdom as a genre is post exilic and completely separate from the religious life of Israel. Wisdom is a secular education, not a religious experience.
Our culture has many songs that can be described as educational (from the ABC song to song which set scripture to music, many folk songs have proverbial wisdom in a story format). Most songs we sing in church teach us things, even if we do not think of them as educational. There are quite a few hymns which are decidedly Calvinistic, or hymns which have the theme of the gospel clearly presented. This song is therefore worship, although it is worship that intends to develop wisdom in the heart and mind of the worshiper.
It is possible that the song was used for teaching people about the dangers of wealth. One of the most common themes in the Bible is the dangers of relying on one’s own wealth. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible have a great deal to say about the rich, they gnaw at the bones of the poor (Micah 3:1-3) or steal from the poor by seizing their property (Micah 2:1-2), or impose fines and taxes (Amos 5:11) or cheat them in the marketplace (Micah 6:9-12). This psalm stands in that same tradition, although the psalmist approaches the “problem of wealth” from the perspective of a wisdom teacher. He invites us to ponder a “riddle” about the wealthy in order to teach us something about our own relationship with our wealth
This is a worship theme which would never work in contemporary “praise and worship” music. Most of this music is about the worshiper’s relationship with God, and while some songs are about the Cross, most are about the warm feelings Jesus gives us or how he helps us through our troubles. I cannot imagine a song warning people to avoid accumulating wealth would be very popular on the P&W circuit. Not do I hear very many sermons about doing good things with wealth (usually sermons on money are thinly veiled plagiarisms of Dave Ramsey rather than preaching what the Bible says about wealth!)
Bibliography: Katharine J. Dell, “‘I Will Solve My Riddle to the Music Of The Lyre’ (Psalm XLIX 4): A Cultic Setting For Wisdom Psalms?” VT 54 (2004), 466.