Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to read Psalm 13?

One of the quiz question in today's class is to determine the genre of Psalm 13. Maggie Low, our Old Testament lecturer, said that it is a "Lament" psalm, period. The psalmist was mourning over his own struggle with grief, sorrow, and or possibly regret.

I don't think so. Let's look at Psalm 13 from the English Standard Version:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him,"
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
I sensed anger in the psalm. It is not a mourn of lament. It is an expression of resentment. Why so?

It is obvious from verse 1 - 2 that the psalmist has God's promise to deliver him from his problems in his mind. Unless this is so, it does not make sense for the psalmist to harbor expectation for God to help him. And it is not a vague expectation. The psalmist has specific expectation, that is his God will rescue him from his enemies. Such specific expectation can not exist in the psalmist's mind unless this particular clause in his relationship with his God is assumed.

Would you expect your friend to come to your house for dinner unless she has promised to do so? If she has promised to come but did not turn up, you have all the reason to be angry and write a psalm. But if your friend did not promise you that she will come, then you should not feel angry if she did not turn up simply for the fact that there is no such expectation (unless you are a sociopath). And without expectation, there is no reason to be angry, not to mention to write an angry psalm.

This said, yet I did not make the case that this means that Psalm 13 is an angry psalm. The psalmist can, well, lament too given his unfulfilled expectation. But this is the point: We cannot determine the category of this psalm as a "Lament". It can also be an angry psalm. Maggie misses this point. I think she is following the textbook where this psalm is identified as a lament. (Tremper Longman III & Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd Edition (USA: Zondervan, 2006), p.248)

The textbook also states that Lament psalm composed of seven basic elements: (1) Invocation, (2) Plea to God for help, (3) Complaints, (4) Confession of sin or an assertion of innocence, (5) Curse of enemies, (6) Confidence in God's response, and (7) Hymn or blessing. But not many psalms are composed like this (p.248) In other words, this is not a strict category.

But why there is no such category as 'Angry' psalm? The textbook lists only: Kingship, wisdom, Remembrance, Confidence, Thanksgiving, Lament, and Hymn (p.246-252)

Some might say that the psalmist cannot be angry with God because verse 5-6 show his trust in God. But these two verses can well be the psalmist's indirect speech act that demands God to act. That means the angry psalmist is indirectly demanding God to act fast and act NOW given that God was not doing God's part in the relationship.

After becoming the President of the United States for more than one year now, Obama has disappointed some of his supporters. Yet Americans can say to their president that they still and will continue to trust him and celebrate his office, so he has to act fast and act now.

Of course I didn't bring this up in the class as I had not formulated this at that time. Yet to force an uncertain category to the psalms and demand the students to swallow this dubiety is not helping us to learn, not least to think.

If my case makes sense, then there should be a category of 'Angry' psalm. The textbook is just a platform to help us to learn and think, not to box us into categories which the textbook itself confesses ignorance.


sp lim said...

I think it's artificial to try and fit a particular psalm into some neat category or genre. One psalm may contain a few genres.

For this psalm I feel the frustration (or anger as you put it) of the psalmist in the beginning and for reasons unknown it turn to thanksgiving as the psalmist put his trust in God. I think quite a few psalms have this kind of movement from despair to hope.

Robert Alter commenting on this particular Psalm says, "The fluidity of genres of many of the psalms is an expressions of their psychological dynamism - they express not one static but an inner evolution or oscillation of attitudes. Perhaps prayer itself served as a vehicle of transformation from acute distress to trust."

I think it's rather unfortunate for someone to say it's a Lament psalm and period.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi sp lim,

Thank you for making your comment. What you have written is a food for thought for me.

Your mention of the significant break in tone between v.1-4 and 5-6 is a good point.

With the 'angry' tone that I have suggested to read the psalm, it seems more natural. The psalm starts with anger and ends with a demand for resolution which reflects the anger.

And this reading fit well as an oscillation of attitude (R. Alter) too.

What's more unfortunate is that this and only this answer (psalm 13 as Lament) is correct in the quiz. So if someone wrote something else, there is no mark.

I didn't write anything because the lecturer didn't mention about 'Anger' genre last week. It if through my own examining the psalm that I come to this conclusion.

Sze Zeng said...


It is through my own examining the psalm that I come to this conclusion.

SHWong said...

I am not one inclined to agree with Maggie. But in this case, it is quite the classic lament psalm. The burden of proof is on your side that there is such a genre of "resentment psalm", and that it can be meaningfully differentiated from lament. I personally don't think it is significantly different. Sadness, disappointment, grumbling, denial and anger are often all rolled into one poetic hissy fit.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi SHWong,

Thank you for the comment. I have tried to differentiate 'lament' from 'resentment' in the post.

You are right that we cannot reduce it to only 'anger' as if there is no sadness, disappointment, grumbling, etc.

The significant difference from 'lament' is the angry tone. In fact, it is the tone that makes one think that it is a lament. But I've shown in the post that the psalm can be read as an angry psalm. And given there is no definite criteria to prefer this from lament or vice versa, then one can either chose it to be a lament or a resentment psalm with no certainty.


Michelle said...

I think I like the baby picture you put on this particular post cute !

pearlie said...

Very interesting post and discussion ... I remember when I read this psalm at a time when I "needed" to, I had in me a sense of frustration, i.e. more than lament, in the sense of sorrow and regret. Not so much a resentment as in displeasure but a frustration as to the sense of His absence - just where are you Lord, can't you see I need you here - kind of feeling.

Which I think the scholars have lump them all into one genre, i.e. lament, which I think we cannot limit it to just being a lament per se. Yes, in a sense when we do say these prayers in the presence of God, we say it in his sovereignty, therefore the most we could do is lament, but being human, we will never run away from our bare emotions of anger, frustration, hopelessness.

So I would not say that it is a "lament psalm, period" in that sense - it is a lament but with more emotions than a pure lament.

pearlie said...

Ah, yes ... love the baby picture :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Pearlie,

Thank you for your thoughts. Share your approach that this cannot be reduced to "lament, period". It is not merely too simplistic, but to insist on that is imperialistic.

pearlie said...

Interesting that she actually said, "It's a lament psalm, period". Any context as to why she was so inflexible about it?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Pearlie, she didn't spell out those exact words "It's a lament psalm, period."

She said that it obvious that that the first verse establishes that it is a lament psalm. When one student said that one of the subsequent verse can be other genre, she said that given that verse 1 indicates that it is a lament, we have to interpret the subsequent verses under this framework.

And besides, this is a quiz. The answer on her powerpoint is 'lament', and nothing else.

Hope I didn't give the wrong impression of her.

pearlie said...

I see ... well, not easy setting quiz questions actually. I just ran one in the office ... in a competition with prizes. Had to cover ALL holes, or I'll be dead :)

Nah, I don't think this can be included in a quiz - in the sense that it is not ABSOLUTELY clear without ANY doubt that this is a lament psalm, is there? I am now in the office and I cannot run to my bookshelf or I will be checking out the tables in the various book on psalms I have - particularly Interpreting the Psalms by Philip Johnston that has a table in the appendix showing the different genres different scholars give to all the psalms. Have you seen it?

Sze Zeng said...

That shows you have an important job!

The quiz question goes somewhat like this: Analyze psalm 13 to determine its genre and literary/composition structure. (It was flashes out on powerpoint, so we don't have the handout) It sounds like an open question but it is not. I have had similar problem with this type of question in last semester exam.

The account is here:

I have not read Johnston's book before. Would be interesting to see how he categorize this psalm. Pls share when you get a hold of it. :)

pearlie said...

"That shows you have an important job!"
Very funny :P

Johnston's book on the Psalms is quite good. Anyway he is the editor of the book that comes with 15 authors including Dale Brueggemann, Johnston himself and Tremper Longman: here's the link.

According to the genre table I was referring to, your lecturer is safe it seems :)

Gunkel 1933, Sabourin 1974, Seybold 1990, Day 1990, Bellinger 1990, Gillingham 1994 and Lucas 2003 all categorised Ps 13 as an Individual Lament.

Glaring disagreements more on psalms like Ps 9-10:
Gunkel 1933 - Mixed Ps
Sabourin 1974 - Indiv Thanksgiving
Seybold 1990 - Wisdom
Day 1990 - Indiv Lament
Bellinger 1990 - Indiv Lament
Gillingham 1994 - Indiv Thnksgvg
Lucas 2003 - Indiv Thanksgiving

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Pearlie,

Thank you for the references.

I know I'm asking too much but if you are free, could you also let me know if any of Gunkel 1933, Sabourin 1974, Seybold 1990, Day 1990, Bellinger 1990, Gillingham 1994 and Lucas 2003 make reference with using "speech act" to interpret Psalm 13?

If not, how would they came to conclude that it is individual "Lament" and not otherwise? Could it be that they conclude from verse 1-2 that it is a "Lament"? But by doing that it will make verses 5-6 sound like a sudden change of mood to the entire psalm. By reading verses 1-4 as an 'Angry' psalm, coupled with speech acts on verses 5-6, I have proposed that that generates a more consistent mood to the psalm: The entire psalm is a resenting psalm which ends with a demand for God to uphold God's promises to the psalmist by the psalmist' reaffirmation of his allegiance to God.

If you are not free, that's okay as this issue is not about life and death :)

pearlie said...

The Gunkel 1933, Sabourin 1974, Seybold 1990, Day 1990, Bellinger 1990, Gillingham 1994 and Lucas 2003 portion came as a table in the Appendix, with no details as to how and why they categorised the psalms.

I did a search using on the book on "speech act" and I don't think there was any reference of it to Ps 13 - why don't you try it in Amazon, using the link I gave you, click the book to "look inside" and search the book. If you find something you want but don't get access to it - let me know and I will take shots of the pages and send it to you.

If you like, you can also send me your email address to ngpearlie at g*m*a*i*l and I will send you shots of Terrien's commentary on the psalm plus text files on commentaries by Peter Craigie (WBC) and Derek Kidner (TOTC) Then you can read and study them.

Let me know.

Sze Zeng said...

That's alright Pearlie. I'll check it at TTC's library to save you from all the trouble!

Really appreciate your conversation on this issue. :)

pearlie said...

No problem :) The Psalms after all are at the heart of my heart :) All the best!

reasonable said...

"She said that it obvious that that the first verse establishes that it is a lament psalm. When one student said that one of the subsequent verse can be other genre, she said that given that verse 1 indicates that it is a lament, we have to interpret the subsequent verses under this framework."

Aiyo... even if she has gotten her conclusion right (lament), her reasoning is very sa-lah leh. How can the first verse of a poem/psalm/song/hymn indicates the category of the poem/psalm/song/hymn? Must view the whole text first mah - the dynamic interactions of all the sentences should determine how we are to interpret the first verse's function and not the other way round. The first verse of any hypothetical hymn/poem/psalm could serve a rhetorical effect illustrating a mood/concept/attitude which the author intends to overturn with later sentences.