“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O LORD”:
The Remnant Motif in the Book of Psalms
Psalm 24: The Question of Worship in the Midst of Babylon
Gunkel considers Psalm 24 to belong to “Psalm Liturgies.” Building upon him, Mowinckel believes that this Psalm was made even for “festal procession” and “can only be understood in connection with a vision of the procession itself and its different acts and scenes.” He thus provides an interesting interpretation along these lines. But let me present my interpretation, assuming that it was a “prophecy about the remnants” as the Ethiopian tradition holds it to be.
The particular attitude that is thought to have motivated the composition of this Psalm is the remnants’ hesitation to pray to God while they were in Babylon; on the grounds that Jerusalem, which they know to be the City of God, has already perished, and that the Temple, which they consider to be the only place where a proper worship of Yahweh can be conducted, has already been destructed. It sounds like they were thinking that Yahweh’s presence could be experienced only in Jerusalem and that He could heed their prayers only if they were conducted in the Temple. Against such a disposition, the Psalmist instructs them that not only Jerusalem but the whole world is owned by Yahweh. Even Babylon and Babylonians belong to Him. His opening phrase, “The earth is the LORD'S, and the fullness thereof,” can in fact be taken almost as it is, that is, to refer literally to Yahweh’s comprehensive ownership of the whole world of creation, of the universe; whereas the phrase that follows—“the world, and they that dwell therein”—is interpreted as denoting, metaphorically though, to “Babylon” and “its residents” in particular. Thus, the Psalmist exhorts them to pray (if not to conduct cultic worship of a higher order) even when they live in the foreign land of Babylon, as exiles, amongst Babylonians.
In verse 3, the Psalmist poses a question for the remnants who might have taken it for granted that they would of course be able to pray just one day, that is, when they would return home and when the Temple would be reconstructed. He seems to ask them: “[Even if there is a hope to return home and to enjoy the Temple worship], Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD [Jerusalem]? Or who shall stand in his holy place [the Temple]?” The answer he provides in the following verses unambiguously makes it plain that not all of them but only few remnants who strive for perfection—those with “clean hands” and “pure hearts”… those “that seek him”—are destined to return home. The logic is clear: if they want to return home and enjoy the Temple worship, they are supposed to keep their hands clean, their hearts pure… and to seek Him in prayers now while in exile, or wherever they find themselves to be. For the whole world, even Babylon, belongs to Him.
I think, this and similar exhortations by other prophets have definitely helped a lot to hit upon the idea of synagogue. Indeed, synagogue worship could not become a complete substitute for Temple worship. What the Psalmist summons to, is not the highest form of worship with sacrifices and offerings of the type that can only be conducted in the Temple. What is needed then, after all, is to conduct some sort of common prayer involving scriptural instruction that would lead to repentance. Psalm 4o speaks thus:
“Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required… yea, thy law is within my heart. I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained my lips, O LORD, thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation: I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation” (6-10).
And, the prophet (and priest) Ezekiel was also instructed to say: “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary [=Synagogue] in the countries where they shall come” (11:16). Yahweh knows better than anyone that His people lost their “big sanctuary” as a result of their apostasy, a deadly sin which they committed due to their lack of heed to Torah instruction and prophetic reproof. And yet, these very people are the ones who still carry His Holy Name and who are heirs to the covenant He entered with their fathers---His Holy Name and His Covenant, for the sake of which He would want to save a remnant. However, the remnants should not be mere survivors—and here is my point based on the connotation of the Ethiopic word təruf—they needed to be perfected. How else than in a prayerful re-instruction of the Torah and a heedful prophetic exhortation could they be led to repentance and perfection? And, where else than in any part of the face of the earth including Babylon (where they momentarily found themselves to be) could they do this?
Gunkel assumes that Psalm 73 belongs to “wisdom poetry” while Mowinckel treats it under the category of “Personal (Private) Thanksgiving Psalms.” If von Rad, who believes that “Yahweh had not chosen his people as a mere dumb object of his will in history, but for converse with him,” was right to assert that Israel’s answer can be gathered “for the most part from the Psalter,” I would insist that Psalm 73 would constitute the central place, in that it posits and deals with the most essential theological question, namely: with theodicy. And I firmly believe that a contemporary Old Testament scholar, Brueggemann has thus all reason to consider it as “the most remarkable and satisfying of all the Psalms.” In fact, it is important to note here that although the Psalm deals with the question of theodicy, “the course of the argument and the resolution are on terms other than sapiential,” as Brueggemann rightly observes. “The question and the answer of theodicy are set in the context of the tradition, in the authority of torah, in the promise made to this people.” In any case, taken in the context of the remnants, the Psalm seems to depict their exile as a school of life where they had to learn the hard way!
It may of course sound overambitious to attempt here to configure the life of the remnant in a way that fits into Brueggemann’s triadic scheme of “orientation-disorientation-new orientation.” But if I just combine some crucial insights of traditional Ethiopian exegesis and Brueggemann’s excellent interpretation of this Psalm with my own reflection, I may come up with a pattern that amounts to a configuration of the life span of the remnants. Brueggemann basically treats this Psalm as one of the Psalms of disorientation; he in fact takes it to be “the last word of disorientation.” However, he also recognizes that “it utters the first word of new orientation.” I want to add that the Psalm even begins with words of vivid memory of orientation, if not with the exact experience thereof. Hence, I find this Psalm all the more helpful to reconstruct the complete triadic scheme of orientation-disorientation-new orientation as played out in the life span of the remnants.
Once regarded as “prophecy about the remnants,” Psalm 73 can be taken to have spoken on behalf of the remnants that they had a certain time of orientation in Jerusalem (or at least a good memory of such one), that they went through a really tempting period of disorientation in Babylon, and then that they came to a new orientation upon their return to Jerusalem. Let us imagine a concrete example: if someone, who was 85 years old by the time the exiles returned, died at the age of 90, it can safely be assumed that this person must have been born in Israel and lived there for about 15 years, being attached to the old order in Jerusalem (orientation); this person must then have passed through the 70 years of exile in Babylon, suffering the afflictions and disorder that the exile entailed (disorientation); and upon return to Jerusalem, the same person must finally have had some 5 years to experience the new order that Yahweh entrusts the remnants to cherish once again (new orientation). Does not what the poetic prayer of Psalm 73 recounts fit well into such person’s life span? Let us have a closer look at it.
Verse 1, where it says: “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart,” may be understood to have already established the experience that the remnant had of some sort of orientation, to wit, of the religious order in Jerusalem. For how can one see and speak of the goodness of God and His relationship with Israel unless one has gotten a clear religious orientation of the type the Torah offers? It is also to be recalled that not only those who had actually sinned but also people with “clean hearts,” even true prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were exiled. Verses 2 and 3 in particular, and the whole bunch of verses that follow them, in general, express the loss of such an orientation while the remnant was in Babylon. What can best give tongue to one’s disorientation than saying: “my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped” (v. 2)? Once disoriented, the remnant further utters, “I was envious at the foolish [Babylonian], when I saw the prosperity of the wicked [Babylonian]” (v. 3). As to the new orientation, I deem it was attained only gradually. Although the remnant considered the Babylonians as foolish and wicked ones, and recounted their evil deeds, he nonetheless observed that it all worked for them in a way he could not explain: “Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches. Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency” (v. 12, 13). And yet, the remnant seems to maintain a certain order and orientation if only for the sake of the coming generation: “If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children” (v. 15). However, what seems to have finally helped the exiled remnant gain comfort was the understanding that, "like a dream when one awakes," the Lord "will despise them as fantasies" and the belief that a return was foreordained: “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel,” that is, on the way back home, “and afterward receive me to glory” (v. 24).
to be continued...