Herman Gunkel Examines Psalms


Herman Gunkel’s Psalms

I have just attended a fascinating lecture about Psalms, so I want to tell you about it. (I ought to be writing an essay, but this is more fun.)

When you study at Spurgeon’s College, you are allowed to listen to any of the other lectures that they offer. So although it is not related to my course, when I heard there was a lecture about Old Testament writing, I slunk into the back and took notes. It really was very interesting.

In case you don’t know, Psalms are found in the middle of the Bible, and are songs/poems, expressing emotions and full of metaphors. A chap called Herman Gunkel (can only be German with a brilliant name like that!) decided that rather than fuss about who wrote the Psalms, and which situations they related to, we should simply examine them “sitz im Leben,” which means ‘forget all the things we cannot possibly know, and think about the general setting.’

“Ah,” you might say, “but my Bible tells me who wrote the Psalms, some of them say ‘of David’ in the title.”

Well, that is very misleading. Don’t forget, you are probably reading an English translation. The Hebrew would say:לְדָוִד  which can be translated as ‘of David’ or ‘to David’ or ‘for David’ or ‘the sort of thing that David wrote.’ So a bit uncertain really.

Herman lived about a hundred years ago, but scholars still use his findings today.

Herman Gunkel

He sorted the Psalms into three main types: hymns, laments and thanksgiving. If you pick a Psalm, it will fit into one of those categories. He then divided them up further, saying that each type would have certain features—which makes it easy to categorise them if you have to write an essay or preach a sermon—but is also simply interesting.

As you might remember, I am going to learn some of Psalm 22 every day in Lent, and in preparation I have been reading the English version and learning some of the vocab. This Psalm is a lament. If you look, it fits into the category noticed by Herman. A ‘lament’ has the following form:

*It’s addressed to God. *It describes a terrible situation. *There is a confession of trust. *There is a petition. *There is an appeal to God’s care. *There is a vow of praise. *It finishes with an assurance of being heard.

Pick a Psalm, if you can divide it as above, it is a lament. The other forms (hymns and thanksgiving) also have a set structure. It’s quite fun when you know, because you start to spot the various forms when you are reading them.

However, be careful, because the occasional Psalm doesn’t seem to fit. This is probably because originally, they were two separate Psalms, and an editor has patched them together. (Or I suppose it could be that Herman was wrong, but people who know more than me believe he was correct, so who am I to argue?)

The lecture then talked about all the nasty bits in Psalms, and how we should view them today. We looked at a Psalm that ended with the hope that their enemies would suffer and the heads of their babies would be smashed against rocks. Not something we tend to preach in church today. How should we use the uncomfortable and violent sections of Psalms?

Some people simply ignore those bits, and edit the Psalm so only the ‘nice’ bits are read out. That seems like a cop-out to me.

Some people ‘spiritualise’ the Psalm, and transfer the curse to anything evil, wanting for temptation or greed or hatred to be ‘smashed against rocks.’ Personally, I think there are dangers with spiritualising things that were not meant to be spiritualised—the early writers did want to smash up babies’ heads, that is the era in which they lived and I think we should look at the Bible through the lens of history. That’s what they wanted, we don’t say things like that now, though we understand the sentiment of anger.

Some people use those bits to express anger, even though they wouldn’t actually want to smash heads today—they say the anger is a human condition, and that is still relevant. I’m not sure about that either, because the curse is so violent, I don’t feel it does express my own emotions. What do you think?

Anyway, it was all very interesting, and I think I will gate-crash other lectures in the future. Hope you enjoyed reading about it. Thank you for reading.

Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Psalms – Next book in my Bible Blog


In my read through the Bible I have reached Psalms. I didn’t find it a very easy book to read through, as each Psalm is like a poem, and if I wasn’t in the right mood, it was hard to connect with what the psalmist was writing. Lots were written by David, when he was fighting for his life, so he was in a different situation to most of us. It’s quite difficult to hope all your enemies will die horrible deaths, if you don’t feel you actually have any enemies. However, there is still lots to glean from reading them.

This book is made up of songs, which we tend to read as poems (and is actually divided into five separate books). I used the books by Michael Wilcock to help me understand them, and if you want to study individual psalms in detail, I would recommend it. (It’s part of The Bible Speaks Today series, ISBN 9780851115061) He describes the Psalms as being like “a photograph album, full of pictures that show us a variety of places in a land of spiritual experience.” I rather like that description.

As I read through, there were three main themes which struck me: The absolute power and sovereignty of God, the importance of remembering what God has done in the past, and the realisation that we are very temporary. These themes are repeated and intermingled throughout the Psalms, and I think they’re important. (There is also a lot of poetry, but I’m not a great appreciator of poetry, so that side was a bit lost on me.)

If you have ever faced a potentially terminal illness, you will have faced the fact that you might die soon. This is probably not a bad thing to realise, especially in our culture, which tends to hide away from death. We need to acknowledge that we have a ‘use-by’ date, and that our life is relatively fleeting. I guess for the psalmists, who lived in an age when dying in battle was likely, when diseases were mostly incurable, and when life expectancy was short, knowing that you would die one day was much more relevant. But it’s something we all need to consider. Not because we want to be gloomy, but because then we will have some urgency to how we choose to live our lives. What exactly is important? What really matters? (Probably not the designer handbag, nor being a best-selling novelist, or the CEO of a major company!) In Clara – A Good Psychopath? Clara makes the observation that all the writers of the Bible were pretty weak people, who made lots of mistakes, and they’re all dead now anyway. And yet, their lives had meaning and significance, simply because they followed God and HE gave their lives significance. Their lives were worth something, because HE was worth something. I think this is what the Psalms remind us. Unless we look to God, it’s all pretty meaningless in the long term.

Which leads on to the importance of remembering. I don’t know about you, but I am fairly fickle when it comes to praise and worship. I remember, right after I had brain surgery, when I was so grateful to God for his support, that I wanted to tell everyone I met about it. Talking about how great God was, happened naturally, it was sort of bubbling up inside of me. But I’m not like that now. Most days I’m a grumpy middle aged woman who has a crisis when the cat brings in a mouse. Therefore, remembering is important. We need to stop, regularly, and remember what God has done. The Israelites were told to remember being rescued from Egypt, long, long afterwards – in fact, generations afterwards. Remembering what God has done for us is important, especially when life is tough. If life is like a series of mountain peaks and valleys, then remembering how we felt on the mountain will help us to get through the valley.

Finally, the Psalms deal with the absolute power and sovereignty of God. The God who created the heavens, who formed the mountains, the power of the waves – there is no other. When we’re in the doldrums, it’s good to lift our thoughts upwards, to think about who God is, to remember to worship him. Which challenges us to think about how we do that. Do we make time to pray regularly? Do we bother to kneel down when we pray? Do we make space for the God we claim to worship in the busyness of life?

So, Psalms was not a favourite book of mine, and is one I would rather dip into when I’m in the mood, than to read from beginning to end. But reading it has, I think, helped to change me, just a little.

*****
anneethompson.com

Thank you for reading. The UK Amazon links for the books mentioned are below.

Psalms by Michael Wilcock:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Message-Psalms-1-72-People-Speaks/dp/0851115063/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1523950840&sr=8-1&keywords=the+bible+speaks+today+psalms

Clara by Anne E. Thompson: