This blog continues my translation of Psalms 42-72, with a short commentary.
A Psalm for Asaph
The divine one, Yahweh God, speaks
and calls the earth from sunrise to sunset.
From the complete splendour of Zion, God shines.
Our God’s arrival is not quiet:
Fire eats its way before him;
around him is a great storm.
“Listen, my people,
and I will speak, Israel!
I will give evidence against you,
I, your God.
I am not arguing with you about your sacrifices;
your burnt offerings are always before me.
I will accept no stirk from your steading,
no billygoat from your folds,
for every forest beast is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the sky;
and whatever moves in the fields is mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you;
for the world is mine in its fullness.
Shall I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of billygoats?
Let your sacrifice to God be thanksgiving
and make good your promises to the Most High.
Then cry to me in the day of distress;
and I will set you free
and you will honour me.”
But to evil people God says,
”What business have you reciting my laws
or carrying my covenant in your mouth?
For you hate correction
and cast off my words behind you.
You see a thief and are delighted with him;
and to adulterers you bring a smooth tongue.
You lounge about and libel your brother,
you slander your mother’s son.
You did these things and I kept silence;
you thought I was like you;
But now I will refute you
I will set out my case before your eyes.
Now get this, you neglectors of God,
in case I tear you to bits, with no one to help you:
The one whose sacrifice is thanksgiving
does me honour;
and to the one who mends his way,
I will show the deliverance of God.”
Both the form of this psalm, which features God making a legal case against his people, and its content, which criticises a merely ritual obedience to God, are related to the prophetic tradition of Israel, but focus on the moral life of the people, to the exclusion of social and political issues. The rhetoric seems to me to come from a time when some aspects of the prophetic critique could be taken for granted, at least in a weakened sense.
The division between the “true people” of God and the “evil people” on the other hand, reflects the wisdom tradition of Israel with its depiction of the “two ways” of the wise and the foolish. The faithful may sin and make mistakes, especially by an over-reliance on animal sacrifice, but they are admonished and set right, whereas the evil people are simply threatened.
The opening description of God “speaking” from the Temple is made lively by the image of the divine spendour which shines more brightly than the temple itself, plus the more traditional images of the fire and storm which accompany Yahweh God. The diatribe about sacrifice is interesting because it ridicules the idea of divine pleasure in the sacrificial cult. God does not want dead animals, otherwise he could take as many as he wanted, seeing that all creatures belong to him. The fact that the cattle on a thousand hills are untouched by God should tell his people that he doesn’t need animal sacrifice but rather the honour of thanksgiving and obedience. The making good of promises to God is the one practical responsibility of the member of God’s people. As such the person is promised God’s deliverance in time of trouble. This mutual faithfulness is the meaning of the covenant.
Those who are called “evil” are those who have no intention of obeying God’s law, and no shame in disobeying it. They are threatened with God’s destructive anger if they fail to mend their ways; while the faithful are again promised divine favour.
This theology is hardly exciting, but it is modest and shrewd.