David Puckett on John Calvin’s Exegesis of “Complaint Language” in the Psalms

David L. Puckett’s volume in the Columbia Series in Reformed Theology, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament, is an interesting study.  Calvin’s commitment to historical exegesis at times put him at odds with various Old Testament reading traditions held in the medieval and early church, causing some to label his exegetical endeavors as too “Jewish.”  Thus in this book, Puckett examines how Calvin actually balanced both Christological and historical exegesis of the Old Testament.

As part of his chapter examining the “dual authorship” of scripture as understood and articulated by Calvin, Puckett has an interesting discussion of how Calvin wrestled with the implications of “complaint” Psalms.  Having recently preached on Psalm 88 using (among other things) Calvin’s commentary on this Psalm, I found this paragraph especially interesting:

Calvin does not find the same sublime spirit in all the biblical writers.  Some of the emotional outbursts of the psalmist stretch his considerable exegetical skill as he tries to find an acceptable explanation for how such sentiment could be in scripture.  He sees improper emotions expressed in Psalm 88:14 (“O LORD, why does thou cast me off?  Why does thou hide thy face from me?”) and Psalm 89:46 (“How long, O LORD?  Wilt thou hide thyself forever?  How long will thy wrath burn like fire?”).  In both instances he tentatively condones the psalmist’s outbursts – in Psalm 88 because it contains tacit prayers, in Psalm 89 because it is accompanied by faith.  He has greater difficulty, however, explaining David’s bitter complaint against God in Psalm 39:13 (“Look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more”).  “This concluding verse of the psalm relates to the disquietude and sinful emotions which he had experienced according to the flesh.”  Calvin finds it difficult to explain this text in an acceptable way.  David’s complaint was “not well seasoned with the sweetness of faith.”  However, David’s outburst may not be as bad as it at first appears, for he is not entirely negative.  He speaks “in a becoming manner, in acknowledging that there is no hope of his being restored to health, until God ceases to manifest his displeasure.”  Calvin does not seem very satisfied with his explanation.  [H. Jackson] Forstman suggests that if pressed on this point, Calvin had an answer available in a principle of multiple causation, “worked out mainly in his discussion of the problem of evil but equally applicable here.”  This, Forstman believes, would allow Calvin to say that “although David’s words were unbecoming, the Spirit, speaking through David and using David’s excess, intended something entirely acceptable.”  Forstman’s explanation derives some support form the immediate context, where Calvin suggests that God may have intended to communicate something useful for his people through David’s intemperate speech.

David spoke under the influence of a distempered and troubled state of mind, but there is included in his language this very profitable lesson, that there is no remedy better fitted for enabling us to rise above all necessary cares than the recollection that the brief period of our life is only, as it were, a hand-breath.

Is Calvin suggesting here the idea of two distinct purposes or intentions in the passage – one human and one divine?  If so, it raises an important hermeneutical question.  Whose intention is the interpreter of scripture concerned with – that of the human writer or that of the Holy Spirit?  This is a question Calvin never systematically addresses.  Thus far, this much is clear: Calvin believes the style and personality of the human writers left their  mark on scripture.

Pgs. 28-29

I am not as uncomfortable with the language of the complaint Psalms as is Calvin, but I do find Puckett’s analysis of Calvin’s wrestling to be helpful in noting that Calvin’s discomfort was not due to a lack of thought about the details of these texts or the ramifications of their dual authorship.  Incidentally, those looking to read more about the topic of dual authorship do well to read B.B. Warfield’s essay “The Divine and Human in the Bible” in vol. 2 of his Selected Shorter Writings.

John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament is an interesting book and available (at least as of 12/2/13) for only $6.99 on Christianbook.com.  Another interesting (though less technical) historical-exegetical study on John Calvin was written by John Currid and is also worth reading.

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R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

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