Studying Psalm 100

We will get to “make a joyful noise unto the HOLY ONE,” or at least think about what that might include, as we are studying Psalm 100 for Sunday, October 3. It’s World Communion Sunday, too, so the Psalmist’s invitation to “all ye lands” seems particularly timely. This will be the first in a series of five weeks of Psalm texts for us. Here are a few notes on this one:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Psalms is simultaneously familiar and mysterious. Familiar, because it contains some of the best-known and best-loved Biblical material; mysterious because almost everything we know about it raises more questions than answers.

We know this book is a collection of 150 poems – praise songs, prayers, laments, in various sub-genres. Scholars have identified patterns in the psalms, and have spent a lot of time and energy on sorting them into categories (“royal psalms,” “songs of Zion,” “wisdom psalms,” “hymns of praise,” for instance). This seems useful, in that it can help us see a particular psalm as an example of a larger pattern; we can learn that it is somehow typical. Then, if our question is “what do we do with this psalm here,” the answer is “what you always do with a hymn of praise,” for example. Psalm 100, for instance, has this praise psalm structure: first an invitation to praise, then a reason or reasons for the praise. On the other hand, we don’t necessarily know what that is, exactly.

The book of Psalms does not have an obvious plot. Sometimes people refer to the book of Psalms as “the hymnal of the Second Temple,” and we don’t think of hymnals as having a plot, either. But if we know how to read a hymnal, we know that there’s some kind of organization to it. The new Presbyterian Hymnal, for instance, groups the hymns into sections, identified by little notes at the top of the page, starting with “The Triune God” and “Creation and Providence,” and running through “Jesus Christ: Advent” and “Jesus Christ: Ascension and Reign” all the way to “Living and Dying in Christ” and “Trusting in the Promises of God.” If you know the basic organization, you can get to the hymn you want to sing a little quicker. [Though honestly, in real life, you’d use the index of first lines.]

Presumably, the book of Psalms has some organization like that, too. If we were ancient Israelites, we might actually know what it is. For those of us who aren’t ancient Israelites, the organization is less obvious. We think it ought to be there, and there are some tantalizing clues, like the superscripts and the instructions “to the leader.” The introduction in the Access Bible offers one thematic analysis of the order of the Psalms, which is interesting, but doesn’t seem to represent a “scholarly consensus.”

We assume the psalms were used in worship. We don’t know how, exactly. We assume they were set to music. Again, we don’t all know what it sounded like, exactly. [But some intrepid souls have done a lot of interesting work on this. Bob MacDonald, at Dust, is one.]

We know they are poetry – Hebrew poetry, which like all poetry, works with the special properties of the language in which it’s written. Hebrew and English are different. The Hebrew poetry doesn’t translate easily into English, as poetry. [On this, Robert Alter’s introduction to the book of Psalms in his translation of the Bible is particularly instructive, and poignant.]

We know, or think we know, that the psalms are old, or could be old – old, as from the time of the Israelite monarchy old. The scholars no longer think that they were all written by David – in fact, we seem to have evidence in the text itself that they were not ALL written by David. David might have written one or two or so. They seem to have been written over a long period of time – new ones being added as time went on. And there seem to have been some “recent additions” – verses or even entire poems brought in after the exile, which we think because they make references to the exile, and we think those references come from experience.

We might think of the Psalms this way: here we are, praying and singing along with the ancient Israelites. Whose prayer and song still seem remarkably relevant to our own lives.

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CLOSER READING: Psalm 100 is one of the first “Bible verses” I had to memorize, and then memorize every year thereafter for many years. [For which coercion, Mom and Nanny and Lake Avenue Congregational Church, I am now eternally grateful. Just saying.] In King James Version.

So I was hugely disappointed, more than is rational, to discover that “make a joyful noise” in Hebrew is more like “shout.” And “all ye lands” is “all the earth” or “all the land,” the same “land” as in “the land of Israel.” So it might be a toss-up whether the Psalmist is inviting the entire globe or the entire land of Israel to shout [implicitly, for joy, in exultation]. But I lean towards the entire land of Israel, now, honestly, just on the percentages.

The joy in the shout is definitely implied, though, because the Psalm has a superscript: “a thanksgiving psalm,” and the next line has an invitation to serve or worship Adonai with simcha, rejoicing. Then, the invitation continues, to come before Adonai with another, different kind, of shout. Still joyful.

So the invitation IS to make a lot of noise, and joyful noise. [I begin to imagine a football stadium – either kind.]

And then, “to know” that YHWH is God. So the sequence of verbs is shout [to Adonai] – serve [Adonai] – come into/before [Adonai’s presence, Adonai’s face] – know [Adonai is God].

In verse 3 there’s a text issue that hinges on a single Hebrew letter; KJV had “it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves,” NRSV and Alter have “he made us, we are his.” “We are his” feels like a better fit with the rest of the verse: we are his people, [we are] the flock of his pasture or the flock he tends.

Whether this part of verse 3 is still part of the invitation to praise, or one of the reasons for praise, or both, we could think about.

The invitation continues in verse 4, which switches to space: come into his gates, [come into] his courts. This might be a reference to the Temple. Or, in the absence of the Temple, space itself.

With or in thanksgiving; with or in praise. We could think about how the translation of those prepositions affects our sense of what we are being asked to do.

Alter points out there’s a narrative development in verse 4: first, an invitation to enter, then, suddenly, there we are IN the worship space: give thanks to him, bless his name.

Verse 5 gives the reason for all this praise: For Adonai is good. Forever is his chesed [steadfast love; kindness; loyalty]; unto generations and generations – all generations – his faithfulness/truth.

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That last word is Hebrew emunah, which in a lot of contexts is translated “firmness” or “faithfulness” or “steadfastness,” so “truth” maybe with the connotation of staying true to something or someone.

But I had to laugh, because reading it brought to mind an episode from the seminary class in Hebrew I took a long time ago, which has become a classic tale in our house.

It goes like this: I’m sitting on the couch in the living room trying to translate Hebrew for class. With the lexicon. And it’s late. Late. And I’m tired. So tired. And I’m lamenting about how I can’t get this translation. And my beloved says “well, what have you got so far?” And I tell her. And she says “you need to go to bed.” And I say, “what are you talking about” and she says “because that’s wrong” and I say “you don’t know anything about Hebrew!” and she says “no, but I know English, and if you think that’s English, you need to go to bed.”

So I did, angrily. And the next morning, indeed, my translation did not sound anything like English: “the light of firmness is not in our uncles.” [emunah; dor]

How about, “the light of truth is not in our generations.”

So now, at our house, when something is obviously deranged, but you’re not seeing it, we say “the light of firmness is not in our uncles.” Which is to say: you need more sleep.

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Image: Illuminated Psalter, Lionel Allorge, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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