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N. T. Wright on Pss. 19 & 74

May 27, 2008

N. T. WrightThe following comes from N. T. Wright’s Creation and Covenant and which I warmly commend to you:

What I mean by ‘creation and covenant’ will become clear if we consider a couple of Psalms where the two are joined together. What I intend by using that pair of evocative terms as an initial way in to Paul will then become clear if we consider three central passages in which the same themes play the same kind of roles. This will open the way to a more detailed consideration of what, I shall argue, must be regarded as part of the fundamental structure of his thought, and how it relates to the other themes which will occupy us in subsequent chapters.

The first Psalm is no. 19, a spectacular poem made more so by Joseph Haydn: ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’. But Haydn’s setting, which never got beyond verse 1, can actually distract us from what the writer is doing. The psalm isn’t just a poem about the glory of creation. It divides into two more or less equal halves (vv. 1–6 and 7–14), and it is the juxtaposition of these which opens the door to the view of creation and covenant which, I shall suggest, remains at the heart of Judaism and, as I shall argue, was always central for Paul.

The first six verses are a paean of praise to God for his creation, celebrating the fact that creation itself praises God and declares his glory without speech or language but yet with great power and force. ‘Their sound has gone out into all the world, and their words to the ends of the earth.’ Within this, the psalmist celebrates the power and strength of the sun. ‘Nothing is hidden,’ he declares, ‘from its searching heat.’ Then, without warning, he switches to the second half of the poem, which is a similar paean of praise for Torah, the Law of YHWH. Torah does in human life what the sun does within creation: it brings the light, power and searching, probing heat of YHWH’s presence into the depths of the human heart. Torah is, of course, the covenant charter of Israel, the Law given to bind Israel to YHWH, to establish the nation as his people. With Torah as its guide, Israel is the unique, chosen people of the one creator God. The same point is made graphically at the end of Psalm 147: YHWH, the creator, declares his statutes and ordinances to Israel, but he has not done so with any other nation, and they have no knowledge of his laws (147.19–20). The ‘Alleluia’ which concludes the psalm indicates well enough how creation and covenant sit together: Israel celebrates its unique vocation as the creator’s chosen people, the people who know the secrets of the universe and are called to live by its otherwise hidden rules, while the other nations blunder around in darkness.

The second psalm I cite for my main point has a very different mood, but the same underlying theology. Psalm 74 is a lament, a complaint against the powerful heathen nations who have ravaged Jerusalem. ‘O God, why have you cast us off forever; why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? . . . Your enemies have roared within your holy place, they have set up their banners there, and have hacked down all the carved work with axes and hammers. . . . How long, O Lord? Why don’t you do something?’

Then in verse 12 (those who relish the Anglican choral tradition will know that this moment invites a change of chant from a lament in a minor key to a strong statement in a major key) the Psalmist appeals over the head of the powerful pagan nations to the creator God, the God by whose power Israel came out of Egypt. ‘Yet God is my king of old; you divided the sea by your power, you broke the heads of Leviathan in the waters. . . . Yours is the day, yours also is the night, you have established the light and the sun; you have fixed the boundaries of the earth, you have made summer and winter.’ When everything is tottering and crashing all around, in other words, look back to Genesis 1, and to the evidences that the creator’s power has in the past been made known on Israel’s behalf. Then the Psalm can return to the lament in verse 18, and complaint: ‘Remember this, O YHWH, how the enemy scoffs, how a foolish people blaspheme your name.’

Two very different Psalms, each drawing on the same theology of creation and covenant. The one celebrates creation, and within that celebrates Torah as the covenant charter designed to enable each individual Israelite to become a whole, cleansed, integrated human being; the other complains that the pagans are laying Israel waste, and invokes the covenant God as also the creator God who has the power, the right and the responsibility to deal with evil. There are many other examples, but I choose these both because they are so graphic and clear, and because they point to some of the themes which I shall propose as central for Paul.

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