“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O LORD”:
The Remnant Motif in the Book of Psalms
The theme of the remnant has always had a significant bearing upon the Christian concept of the Church. This was more explicitly felt during the controversy which raged in pre- and early post-war Germany concerning the origin of the idea of ekklesia in Jesus’ ministry; where, in order to defend a position that Jesus has attempted to establish a new community, “a number of scholars appealed to the Jewish notion of a remnant or a ‘true Israel’ in Jesus’ ministry.”
Considered in a broad context of the concern about human flourishing and of the relationship between God and man (or better, of the all-embracing covenant between God and creation), the very situation of the remnant reminds us, on the one hand, of the destruction of a large part of humanity when they turn away from God, and on the other, of the survival of few ones because of their return to Him. I believe that the idea of the remnant can be redeveloped in such a way that it may play a transformative role in the art of building a society that keeps the covenantal relationship with God.
The remnant motif could be looked at within a broad scope of the history of mankind as a whole, stretching from Adam to Eschaton. Reference can be made in this regard to such narratives in the Bible as that of the flood. The flood story told in Genesis 6-9 describes the destruction of all creatures—save very few remnants—because of man’s wickedness. The biblical narrative has it that only the righteous Noah and his family, along with representatives of the animal kingdom was saved. Both Jewish and Christian scholars believe that “the earliest explicit reference to the Hebrew remnant motif… is from the start securely anchored in salvation history.” Time and space may not allow me to pursue on this, however, except to highlight on the hint that the threat of total destruction comes as a result of sin, due to apostasy in particular; and that repentance of the people, God’s grace and His covenant with the fathers, have each played indispensable role in the salvation of a remnant.
The Gə’əz word for ‘remnant’ is ‘təruf,’ which is rendered to mean two things: a) left over (remained), and b) perfect—a rendering that, I submit, may give impetus to emphasize the current significance of the theme in the way I try to depict it. For Ethiopian scholars, the concept of the remnant at once combines two seemingly mutually exclusive vocations in human existence. Namely, it combines the need for survival as well as the call for perfection. It does so in that it refers to survival on the one hand, while it pertains to perfection on the other. What is implied here is that, in a person inspired by the vocation of the “təruf,” the one is not/should not be required at the expense of the other. That is to say, survival is not/should not be secured at the total expense of perfection; nor is/should be perfection sought after at the total expense of survival. And this, I argue, ensures the covenantal relationship between God and humans.
The Theme of the Remnant in the Psalms
Let me state the reason why I chose the Book of Psalms as the basis of my reflection on the remnant motif. From my rather brief survey of literature, I realized that there are detailed studies on the remnant motif as it appears in most parts of the Old Testament. However, I haven’t as yet come across even a tacit recognition, by Christian scholars, that the remnant situation could possibly be the “Sitz im Leben” (the “life setting” or the “social context”) of a significantly large part of the Book of the Psalms. Some medieval Jewish scholars have in fact indicated that “all of it [i.e. of the Book of Psalms] is instruction and guidance for the people of the Exile, teaching them how to repent—to weep, fast, and wear sackcloth, and beseech the Merciful One for salvation…” But many scholars who greatly influenced contemporary Psalm scholarship do not seem to know anything about this position, let alone to follow and build upon it. On the other hand, the Ethiopian tradition identifies about 74 Psalms as “tənbit bä’əntä tərufan” (which literally means: “prophecy about the remnants”). However surprising it may sound, according to the Ethiopian traditional exegesis, in almost half of the Book, the Psalmist is thus considered to have spoken to, or on behalf of, the remnant. For which reason I find it interesting to attempt a kind of interpretation informed by this tradition, but of course in such a way that it can somehow be shared with a modern reader.
Ethiopian scholars consider the Book of Psalms, along with the Prophecy of Isaiah and the christologically interpreted Song of Songs of Solomon, as the Fifth Gospel. In the introduction to the commentary of the Book of the Psalms, they state that King David was endowed with seven gifts from God. The last gift in the list they provide is that of prophecy, which they believe King David has told in the poetic language of the Psalms, and which they interpret guided by the ten titles received from the tradition. One of the titles is: “Prophecy about the Remnants."
Psalms 137 and 126: In the Beginning and End of Exile
These are among the very few Psalms which contain within themselves explicit historical references that would help identify what might have been their Sitz im Leben or life setting. Namely, the references in Psalm 137 to “Babylon” and in Psalm 126 to “the captivity of Zion” plainly indicate that these Psalms are dealing with issues related to exile, allowing thus for assuming the situation of the remnants to be their Sitz im Leben. I picked out these two Psalms first, because they project the contrasting images of the lives of the exiles at the beginning and end of the Babylonian captivity. Psalm 137 speaks of the gloomy situation of the remnants as they were taken captives, that is, when they were just crossing the rivers of Babylon, hanging their harps “upon the willows in the midst thereof” as they refused to sing “the LORD’S song in a strange land;” while Psalm 126 attends to the favorable circumstances surrounding their return, that is, when the captivity of Zion have just been brought back home, their mouth “filled with laughter” and their tongue “with singing!”
One of the most renowned Old Testament scholars noted for his contribution to “form criticism” and for coining such a very useful technical phrase as “Sitz im Leben” (life-setting/sociological setting), Herman Gunkel considers this Psalm as a mere poetic saying of blessing and curse. Such a consideration may not come as a complete surprise when it is noted that Gunkel’s primary task was in fact to attack the historical atomistic approach to Psalms and to introduce a method of classifying types. Yet, as his very method of classification was based not only on form and function but also on social context, one cannot help but wonder how the remnant situation did not cross his mind as a possible sociological setting for certain Psalms including this one.
Sigmund Mowinckel, who accepts Gunkel’s method but prefers to label it “type-critical” or “type-historical” and to reduce the categories to only four main types (from about ten), considers Psalm 137 to have been a congregational Psalm and entertains the question as to “why they had to sit on the river banks and why the harps had to hang on the willows;” for “when they did not wish to use them, they might as well have left them hanging on the walls at home." Mowinckel believes that the poet created a “fancied situation” in his imagination: seeing himself as a wanderer harp-player, who used to sit down to rest nowhere but by springs and river banks, and who might have imagined being asked by one of the tyrants to sing and would have known well what he would have had rejoined: “How could we on a strange soil, sing the songs of the Lord!”
My answer would indeed be otherwise. For one thing, rather than a past-oriented imagination, the Psalm in question sounds more like future-oriented prophecy. Consider the last two verses:
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
For another, the situation might have looked like this: as they were taken captive, every household had a chance to go together, in groups; taking whatever they could carry with them, including their harps. They might even have been given false promises of leading normal life in Babylon. But once they reached and sat by the rivers of Babylon, they might have just started to experience the actual enslavement; when they had been given over to individual slave owners and would thenceforth have to be separated from one another. Only then might they have undoubtedly realized that they would engage in the duties of a slave and thus would not have time to use their harps any more. Even if they would have had time to do so, they must have come to realize that their songs could be offered only for (the pleasure of) their (wicked) owners, not for their Almighty God Yahweh, nor for their beloved City Jerusalem/Zion, certainly not to entertain themselves! Hence, realizing that their harps would no more serve any purpose of their own, they just wept remembering Zion and hanged them upon the willows.
Let me move on to Psalm 126. This Psalm clearly shows that its life setting is the remnant situation when they returned home. Having paid the bitter price of apostasy in Babylon and elsewhere, Israel’s remnants are now coming back home. Verses 2 and 3 emphasize that not only were great things done for them but also were those things recognized by the heathen: “then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them.”
There are a number of other Psalms that the Ethiopian exegetical tradition considers to be expressions of the attendant circumstances of the beginning and end of the captivity. Here is the context of Psalm 23, for instance. When second round exiles were brought to Babylon, in order to avoid any contact between them and those who were formerly exiled and thereby to forestall any opportunity for a sort of strong rebellion, the Babylonians forced those who were already established in the city to go further to a more distant area and let the new comers settle in their place. Psalm 23 is believed thus to reflect the hopes against hope, so to say, of those former exiles in the face of such state of affairs: “[Although you Babylonians have deported me again to a further distant and inhospitable area], the Lord is my Shepherd; and I shall not want… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (v. 1, 4).
In between the two events (i.e. the captivity and the return), however, there is a long 70 years of life in exile that provide the sociological setting for numerous other Psalms. Below are a couple of Psalms the settings of which is the heavy weight of the remnant’s life in exile.
to be continued...
 I tend to take survival and perfection as, in some way, mutually exclusive; because, taken in their logical extremes, the principle of survival requires that, whatever it takes (i.e. even killing others and destroying anything else than oneself), one has but to survive, to live; while the principle of perfection demands that, come what may (i.e. even in the face of one’s death and the total destruction of what one holds dear), one has but to be perfect.
 For anyone who operates with historical critical method, this might be translated to mean that these Psalms were composed after the exile and hence by remnant-Psalmists. However, not only because I do not totally buy into such a method, but mainly in order to be able to reflect the traditional view from which I come from, in what follows, I will continue to hold fast to the ascription of the whole Psalms to King David.