The Messianic Vacuum: How Not To Interperet the Psalter

 In the past, I’ve mentioned my disappointment with John Goldingay’s three volume commentary on the psalms because they completely lack a christological focus.  Not only does Goldingay simply avoid talking about Christ in the psalms, he explicitly says that psalms historically considered messianic are in fact not messianic. He sucks the Messiah from the psalms.  I used his commentary on Psalm 110 recently, and here’s what I found (for one example).

“There is no indication that it [Ps. 110] speaks of a future king, nor any necessity to reckon that it would be interpreted messianically by the time the Psalter reached its present form.”

“Mark 12:35-37 [which quotes Ps. 110] reflects how it would be understood messianically in Roman times, and on that basis some of its verses are applied to Jesus (e.g., Acts 2:34-35), though as a whole it does not fit him, and most of its application to him in the NT requires it to be understood in a way that would not correspond to its meaning in any OT context.”

“In the light of NT use of the psalm, Christian exegesis traditionally took the psalm as a messianic prophecy that Jesus fulfills.  Derek Kidner continues to argue trenchantly for this understanding.  One would never guess this interpretation from the psalm; it can only be read into it. …The text’s theological implications then do not lie in its application to Jesus; that is to ignore its meaning.”

Goldingay applies this psalm to the modern reader by saying since Psalm 110 combines the king and priest into one person, politics and war have everything to do with people’s relationship to God.  Here’s how he ends his commentary on Psalm 110 – with this application of the king and priest as one person.

 “These theological insights are unfashionable in the context of modernity in which Christians work out what they reckon is a Christian view on such topics.  That Christian view often corresponds to the secular view, which suggests that there is nothing very Christian about it.  We neutralize the psalm’s insights by claiming that we interpret it in light of the rest of the canon.  And the idea of Yhwh being on the Israelite king’s side against Israel’s enemies does have to be set in the context of the presupposition that the enemies are resistant to Yhwh’s purpose and that Israel is committed to it.  But canonical interpretation must mean letting different parts of Scripture have their say, not silencing some by others that we prefer.”

I have to admit I’m not sure what he means by this application.  I don’t get the “moral” of the psalm.  He also seems to contradict himself when he says claiming to interpret it in light of the entire Bible neutralizes the psalm, yet he also says we must let different parts of Scripture have their say.  Which is it?  Like many other application sections, this one is utterly mundane and unedifying.

This isn’t just poor interpretation; it is unbiblical.  The NT quotes Psalm 110 more than any other psalm, and in doing so it always refers to Christ.  In fact, Jesus himself says that David, speaking “in the Spirit” called the Messiah “Lord” in this psalm (Matt. 22:42-44).  Hebrews 1:13 says that this psalm is God speaking to his Son, “sit at my right hand….”  The entire chapter of Hebrews 7 discusses Melchizedek, Psalm 110, and Jesus.  The list goes on.  In removing the messianic aspect of the psalms, Goldingay is not helping us read them afresh, he is taking Christ out of the Bible by leading us to read them in a way neither Jesus nor the apostles did.

I supposes it goes without saying that I do not recommend these commentaries (I’m in the process of selling mine).  They are certainly not worth the $90 you’ll spend.  Though some of the textual work is helpful, they are bland, uninspiring, and moralistic at the end of the day.  Save your money.

shane lems

4 thoughts on “The Messianic Vacuum: How Not To Interperet the Psalter”

  1. I share your reservations, Shane. I respect Goldingay’s contributions to the field of exegesis and theology; for example, where he parts ways with Brueggemann or Barr, I often find myself on G’s page. On the other hand – and this is also true of commentary by Brevard Childs – G’s exegesis too often consists of the trumpeting of principles. It comes across as broad-brush, almost formulaic.

    G is clear about his focus. He sets messianic / christological exegesis of the Psalms aside because he regards both Jewish and Christian exegesis of that style to stand beyond his focus, which is the meaning the Psalms would have had before David came to be understood as a prophet and the Psalms understood to be predictive even when the diction of the Psalms, as is the case with Psalm 110, points in the other direction.

    Or perhaps you think Psalm 110, apart from its canonical context, has predictive force. If so, I would like to see that argued. So far as I can see, that is a bridge too far.

    One of the gifts of the canon is that passages within it that are *not* predictive in and of themselves come to be understood as figures and prefigurations. The figural and prefiguring potential of narrative, prayer, instruction, time-specific oracle, and so on is already actualized in inner-biblical exegesis within the Hebrew Bible. It comes to greater fruition in the New Testament (“out of Egypt I called my son”) and the Talmud (Jacob=Israel and Esau/Edom= Rome/Christianity).

    If I were to write a commentary on the Psalms, I would want to fully embrace scriptural methods of exegesis. On the other hand, as have commentators since Keil and Delitzsch and among Catholics since Alonso-Schokel, I would want to exegete a text like Psalm 110 in terms of its internal cues and the circumscribed horizons its diction presupposes, *before* and *apart from* taking up the senses in which it illumines and informs Christology.


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