Throughout the Bible we come across the expression fear of the Lord. It no doubt refers to a complex aspect of life and is far from simple. For a few thoughts on it, see “Who Do You Fear?”. Clearly, it is meant to play a significant role in life. If not, why does it appear so often? Alongside this “fear of the Lord,” another prominent idea emerges throughout Scripture: love for God. How do fear and love of God relate?
A bar magnet
Maybe the fear of the Lord and love of the Lord work kind of like this.
Envision a bar magnet.
As you know, a magnet has two distinct magnetic poles: the north pole and the south pole. As any kid can tell you, opposite poles attract and like poles repel.
So far, so good. Magnets attract and repel.
As you certainly know, this is why traditional compasses work. The magnetized needle interacts with the magnetic field of the earth, attracted by one pole and repulsed by the other, making it move.
The Love and Fear Magnet
Now let’s take this magnet and put love of God on the north end and fear of the Lord on the southern end.
To complete the image, we need to add one more piece to our metaphor: a compass. Look at this video and pay attention to how the magnet interacts with the compass.
There is a push-pull interaction of the magnet with the different ends of the compass (anyone who is into physics could go more deeply into the way the different magnetic fields interact, but we can ignore that for our sake). Either end of the magnet works to push the compass in the direction you want it to go.
You life should be like that compass needle. The love of God should keep us pointing in the right way. It connects us to the vital life of God and draws us ever towards him and the blessings he has. The fear of the Lord serves the same point: keeping us in connection with God. But it does so in almost the opposite way. The fear of the Lord is a force that repulses us from wickedness, sin, disobedience and disregard for God the creator and Redeemer.
Both love and fear of God need to move the needle of your life.
I’m no expert in investments and the stock market, but I know the general pattern. You buy stocks or bonds in some form or another and hope they go up in value. When they go up, you sell and voila, you make money. That’s the usual way things are done. But it’s also possible to bet against the market. In this case, your profits come from betting that certain companies are going to fall in value. If you take this approach, then you hope to hear the news of failure, disruption, and collapse. These patterns within the stock market capture the relationship of holiness to the world. Yes, that’s right. Holiness is a little like buying stock. To see it play out, consider with me Revelation 18—19.
Where your stocks are determines what you rejoice over
Revelation 18—19 is close to the end. We’re at the climactic showdown. The fall of Babylon dominates chapter 18. Now, Babylon in the book of Revelation is many things at many different levels. As Revelation unfolds, though, it becomes clear that Babylon is the anti-kingdom. As one author puts it:
“In his portrayal of Babylon the great, John is again confronting his audience with the choice between the beast or the lamb, the world or the church, those who dwell on the earth or those who are citizens of heaven, because Babylon is the “anti-Kingdom”—the alluring, all-encompassing alternative to the Kingdom of God.”
Menn, Biblical Eschatology, 2nd Ed., 294
Stockholders in Babylon
In the vision of chapter 18, we witness this anti-kingdom fall in judgment. Better said, we hear about the fact that it has fallen and we witness the way people respond to it.
The powerful and important people of the earth mourn (18:9-10). The businesspeople, the merchants, the traders, the Wall Street brokers mourn (18:11-17). The truck drivers, cargo ship captains, and freight train companies mourn (18:15-18).
Why is everyone so sad? Because they were vested in the existence and success of Babylon. They put all their savings into Babylon stock, as it were. They saw how wonderful, shiny, and great it was and poured all their money into it. They bet everything that it would endlessly increase in value. Instead, it turned out to be just like a crypto-currency exchange. The bottom dropped out on them and they are left with nothing.
Having lost their fortune is hard enough. But the coming return of Jesus in judgment makes it all the worse because everyone is about to be judged for what they have done (20:11-15—notice the repetitive emphasis on judging people based on their works). To use the picture from Jesus’ parable, it’s like Jesus will sit on the throne and ask each person to show their investment portfolio and judge them based on its value (see Matthew 25:14—30).
Stockholders in the Kingdom of God
Contrast the way the stockholders of Babylon mourn with the wild rejoicing that breaks out in heaven when Babylon goes into its death spiral. A great multitude cries out in worship, with the worship leaders shouting out, “Praise God” (19:1-5).
This is a stunning reversal in the plot of Revelation. Up ‘til this point, those who side with God and his Kingdom have mostly been getting trampled on. These people of God invested stock in the Kingdom of God and they bet all they had that Babylon would go belly up…but it looked like it would just keep growing in glory and splendor forever. It looked like holiness wasn’t going to pay out anything of great value. Until the turn.
Financial Advisors, in my experience, have one main component to their job. While they are specialists in the technical knowledge about how our financial system works—in all of its ridiculous complexity—even more importantly, they exist to tell you one message over and over again: it is worth it to play the long game with your finances. Don’t bet on what looks flashy and impressive now, bet on things that will hold value over the long haul.
And chapter 18—19 of Revelation show the tipping point where investments in holiness go from looking pretty silly to being the obvious best choice for the long run.
While Revelation has a cataclysmic, end-of-all-things aspect to its meaning and function, it also lays out for us the pattern of life until Jesus returns to close out this age and bring in fully the age to come. Babylon stands partially for a symbol of the world, people now, and how they stand in opposition to turning to God in worship. And, just like in Revelation, Babylon often looks pretty convincing and goes to great effort to make signing up for the Kingdom of God look like a fool’s errand.
As we work through 1 Peter, we see the conflict between Babylon and the Kingdom of God come into sharp focus. The people were suffering a fiery ordeal (1 Peter 4:12) of suffering, social ostracization, and persecution of various soft and hard types. An easy out? Stop living holy lives. That is, stop living lives devoted to knowing God and transforming themselves into the image of Jesus in word and deed.
Why? Lots of reasons. One of note: the stock with actual value is that which God holds, not Babylon (1 Peter 1:3-9)
Where is your stock?
Holiness is a bit like the stock market. Holiness is like investing your stock in the Kingdom of God and living for Jesus in all things. And holding out in trust and hope that, in the end, it will pay out. The other pathway is to invest in Babylon. It looks shiny and exciting, but no matter how hard it tries, it can never quite shake the “too good to be true” veneer. Whatever you invest there will burn up in Babylon’s death spiral.
On a practical point, this swing of events in chapters 18—19 of Revelation subtly but forcibly asks: are you in position to rejoice with the just judgment of God over Babylon, or am I more apt to mourn? It challenges you, the reader: are you able to rejoice in the defeat of the enemy of God, or do you have so much stock in it that it will be escaping as through a fire?
Some people are good at throwing things away. I’m not (though I’ve gotten much better with practice). You never know when something will be useful. Anyway, I was heading into a master’s degree before I finally managed to throw out my middle school papers, work, and notes that I had kept. There is just so much precious in them—at least, deeply precious to me. They speak to a past, a pattern of growth, work, and effort. They were precious. At least, precious in the sense of I would rather keep them around in a drawer in the dresser at my parent’s house that I didn’t live in and, even whilst visiting, hardly ever looked into. But keeping them there rather than throwing them away was important.
Which is one of the funny things about our pasts. They are dear to us, but often, the weight of the past is a lot like clutter which hampers life in the now.
In successive bouts of de-cluttering throughout the years, I have succeeded in throwing away (or recycling 😊) all of my former middle school, high school, undergraduate, as well as graduate school materials and assignments, except for a carefully curated few.
What ultimately got me around to throwing away/recycling? The past weighed too much.
The weight of the past
Papers are heavy
First, quite literally the past was too heavy to keep carrying around each time we moved. When you have to carry each and every box of papers from the past downstairs, into a truck, out of the truck, and upstairs into a new house, the weight of the past becomes far less precious.
Identities are heavier
Second, and more metaphorically, I found over time that holding on to so much of the past can be a burdensome weight in understanding who I am and what I am trying to be in the present. It has been fun to periodically poke about in my middle school essays, review my chemistry notes from high school, or look at water resources engineering problems from college. But these all bear very little connection to my life now. They are testimonies of what I once could do well, but no longer remember much about and no longer have any need to do. Holding on to them was holding on to an idea of who I am and what I should be able to do that is no longer true or necessary.
Yes, I once could do advanced mathematics and all kinds of cool stuff in chemistry. But outside of a brief stint in tutoring math and a few lucky times in substitute teaching, I haven’t done any of that stuff in more than a decade. Maybe this is just me, but I’ve found that holding on to these testaments of past ability puts a pressure on my life to still be able to do what I used to.
So, over the years I have progressively pruned, with increasing ruthlessness, my stash of precious papers from the past. Now the stacks and piles are a mere couple folders.
I’m sure you can tell a similar story with your own possessions. The experience of pruning things from the past is a helpful analogy to talking about change at church as we think through our current Church Health Assessment. In working through my precious papers which tied me to the past, there are three important principles I’ve come to appreciate about how I need to relate to the past: (1) honor the past, (2) live in the present, and (3) face the future.
Coming shortly, we’ll think a little together about how these principles relate to various ways the church relates to the past. As we process, discuss, and debate aspects of our recent Church Health Assessment, we will certainly need wisdom to figure out what in our past should remain our present, how we can honor the past, how we can face the future, and how we can do all these things without being weighed down.
Go ahead and look at the following picture and count how many triangles you see in it.
Do you see two? Most people will see two at least. Maybe you notice that there are at least six little triangles in addition to the big triangles, which brings our total up to 8. Possibly you see 3 more triangles as the “Pacman” mouths. Which would give us 11.
Or maybe you notice that there actually aren’t any triangles in the picture.
This picture is an optical illusion, the Kanizsa Triangle, to be precise. Look closely and you’ll notice that there are no complete triangles anywhere in this picture. There are no lines that actually connect to form a triangle. However, your brain so desperately wants to hold them together that it is really hard to not see a triangle. We even generate lines in our minds that don’t exist in order to make the shapes relate to each other.
Making up the lines in the picture is a phenomenon researchers call the Gestalt law of closure. We tend to see objects that are close together as related group. It’s a useful trait in real life where things close together very often need to be understood in relation to each other.
Seeing may be believing, but believing is not seeing
Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. Except sometimes, what we see doesn’t actually exist. Our seeing can be misled. Seeing is a reliable guide for a lot of life, but not all the time. We know this.
We also know that you can’t see everything you believe in. Sometimes it is just the way the world works. We don’t see air, or gravity, but we believe in them because of their effects.
I have never been to China, but I have zero doubt whatsoever that China exists. Not only is there all sorts of recorded evidence about China, but I know many people who testify that they are from China or have traveled to China.
We believe strongly in many things we haven’t seen, and many we will never see.
A different kind of seeing
Take a quick look at 1 Peter 1:7-9 (especially 8—9; 7 is there to make a complete English sentence):
7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (NIV)
Peter, writing this letter, knew Jesus personally and had seen him after his resurrection from the dead (see 1 Peter 1:3). But the recipients of the letter hadn’t seen Jesus. And yet, with a glance of loving faith, they are able to believe and be filled up with the joy that Jesus provides: a belief-filled joy which pours out salvation to souls.
They come to see and know Jesus through the testimony of others, through the evidence of lives changed, and through their faith.
Our eyes are capable of “seeing” lines where they don’t exist in the above optical illusion. Our brains see the shapes and fill in the connections. The optical illusion just reveals to us how our minds engage with the world around us. Because in real life, seeing how objects close to each other relate is critical.
The life of faith is similar, in many ways. The eyes of faith are also capable of seeing see how people, objects, and events in the world around us relate together and point toward things that are bigger than we can directly see and know.
This passage in 1 Peter calls to mind an interesting quote from C. S. Lewis that I recently came across:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
After an agonizingly long interruption, we return to our four-part series reflecting on Ephesians 6:4 and the command for parents not to provoke their children to anger. For a refresher, see part 1 and part 2 (they are really important for what is coming). As promised, in this post we will give brief thought to the way psychology contributes to our understanding of the covenantal relationship between children and parents. I have so far maintained that provoking a child to anger is accomplished through treating the child wrong in the very area of life where they have just expectations to be treated right. Psychology and child development theories lend some insight into better answering the question, “What are the legitimate expectations children have of their parents which, if not met, should result in anger.”
Consider the following big idea: parents should play a major role in child developing “life skills” and “civilization skills.” This probably sounds pretty obvious. But since the Bible speaks a great deal about how parents should help their children develop “life skills” and “civilization skills” (see the book of Proverbs), why bother with psychology at all?
Two reasons: (1) you are already borrowing from psychology, whether you know it or not, so why not be intentional about it, and (2) a lot of the biblical guidance on parenting aims mainly at the goals rather than the details. But in the throes of parenting, we are often grappling with detail questions. To avoid provoking children to anger, we stand to benefit from knowledge about what is normal for children in terms of their abilities at any given stage of life. Here enters psychology and child development studies.
You already borrow from psychology
“Why are they behaving like such children?”
Someone once shared that phrase with me, and it has proven a useful way to keep my sanity as I watch my own kids with a sense of bewilderment. Embedded in that phrase is an assumption, which you probably so firmly agree with that it passes by without a second thought. Namely, that children are different from adults. Not just that they are miniature adults, but actually different. This assumption comes to us through psychology and/or child development studies.
“In the modern study of child development, we simply take for granted that children are fundamentally different from adults. Yet, for much of human history, kids were simply seen as smaller versions of their adult counterparts.”
Even if you are making every effort to be stringently biblical in your parenting and avoid different “theories” developed by so-called “specialists” with dubious claims and motives, as like as not, the very way you think about children and the path of growing up is laid for you through modern child development theories that have become part of our collective unconscious as a culture. But, let us not naively rush in. The world of child development study is a mess.
Untangling the mess
There are many different theories of child development. I am not a specialist at any and have been impacted by several.
Rather than look deeply into one theory, I want to suggest some broad ways that child development theories can help flesh out what a child can legitimately expect from their parents. Because, remember, the idea here is that Ephesians 6:4 works by assuming some sort of “covenantal” relationship between children and parents. As such, certain ways parents can treat their children violate the norms and justly result in an angry child. We can find some guidance regarding what children can justly expect from their parents by looking at the way God created children and the needs they have in the process of growing to maturity.
children are different from adults
children are becoming adults
parents (or primary-caregivers of any stripe) play an outsized role in this process
it follows that insight on how human beings in general make the transition from children to adults will help us flesh out our model of what children can and should expect to receive in some fashion from their parents.
Broadly speaking, children can expect that their parents give them “survival skills” and “civilization skills.”
Navigating life today
Within the parent-child relationship it is the parent, not the child, who primarily has the wisdom necessary for survival and thriving within society. Note that this balance changes more and more as a child gets older. A parent knows far more than their 3-year-old about survival and civilization; their 13-year-old knows more about certain aspects of survival and civilization than they do. But, on balance, wisdom about life in society really does increase with age, which leaves the average parent ahead of their child, at least for childhood, and likely in certain ways for life. “Within society” is important. Humans are social beings. Especially in modern society, our survival is more dependent on how we work together than with knowing direct survival skills.
An immense amount of parent-child friction comes from parents implementing guards against the impulses of their children. While frustrating for children, these guards play the key role of preparing the children for survival and life in society. These rules range the familiar gamut:
yes, you have to eat your vegetables and not just ice cream and candy (even if they taste good)
no, you can’t play in the street
no, just because watching videos online is fun doesn’t mean you get to do it all the time
yes, you need to come in and say hello to your grandma and grandpa and not just sulk in the car
The list is endless, familiar, and both frustrating and difficult to navigate. In broad strokes, the friction emerges as parents implement rules that direct and constrain their children into certain patterns of living which enable their survival (health, well-being, etc.) and their ability to live in your culture (politeness rules, honor, shame, work ethic, etc.). No child comes pre-programmed with everything they need to live successfully. First, they can’t even stay alive. Second, the demands of your particular culture are enormous and require years of constant immersion and teaching before a child is adept enough to navigate them. Parents (or other types of primary care-givers) play an enormous role in the constant give-and-take of nitty-gritty decisions and debates about what is and isn’t good for their child at this exact point in time.
While we will consider many things Scripture does have to say about parenting in the next post, it does not answer for us whether 15 minutes or 2 hours or 6 hours of screen time is too much in a day. It does not tell us when our children should be entrusted with a phone, or a car, or money. It does not tell us what situations it is appropriate to raise your voice at your children. When you are to stick to your guns and when it is okay to change your mind. It doesn’t even tell us how often having ice cream is wise. There are no shortage of practical, in-the-trench parenting questions which Scripture does not answer.
Should you just follow your gut? That is often the case. After all, a big role of wisdom is allowing us to generate reasonable answers to novel problems. But studies of child (and human) development help flesh out the answers we can give. It really isn’t in your child’s best interest to let them watch 6 hours of daily screen time, be endlessly involved in social media, skip out of school, or forego eating broccoli because mealtime goes better when you just focus on dessert.
With novel problems emerging seemingly left and right calling for parents to try to navigate them—and help their kids navigate them—it seems like parents need to be experts at everything. Realistically, the best any of us parents can hope for is that our successes will not be overwhelmed by our failures. But, the biblical vision of parenting calls for parents to be deeply involved in setting boundaries, negotiating rights and privileges, and in all ways trying to guide their kids into wisdom. Getting a little help along the way can be helpful.
Adjusting aims and expectations
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits bequeathed to us through these sorts of child development studies is information that can help parents adjust their aims and expectations. Yes, in fact, you are going to have to say the same thing 200 more times before your child remembers it. Repetition is crucial to how they learn. And no, you are not imagining things, your teenager doesn’t hear you as well as they used to. In fact, their brain is shifting to be able to hear more people in general better, which means that you lose some of your privileged status in the corridors of their brain (sorry). Whether sinless children would have needed 200 repetitions or sinless teenagers ever would have missed your voice in a crowd or not, who knows (I suspect they still would have). But the kids we have today mostly follow predictable patterns of development with certain skills, abilities, and desires changing over time.
Knowing a few things about childhood development can help us parent with less frustration (at least theoretically). The biblical vision of parenting focus more on the long-game—what kind of person children should end up being. Adjusting our expectations and methods to better hit where our children are at developmentally as they age will help us get them there. After all, there are few things as frustrating in life as when someone is angry at you and you are not sure why. That happens often in childhood.
Much more could be said and has been said elsewhere. A big part of parenting is the on-going negotiation of who is in control of what between parents and children. Since
there is no perfect blueprint for any of the complicated questions involved
all parties involved are sinners, and
all parties involved are acting out of their own web of inscrutable and complex emotions, desires, assumptions, and beliefs about how the world does and ought to work
there will be endless opportunities for anger to rear up. Learning about child development from various psychological theories can clue us in to some of the inscrutable factors driving our children and give a little bit of practical guidance for the many specific questions parents must navigate with their kids on a daily basis.
Stay tuned for part 4, discussing some more specific biblical themes. After all, raising healthy, successful children who function well in society is wonderful, but it is short of the biblical mandate. God’s intentions for parents include other key ideas and children have an inherent right to receive them from their parents.
Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. Or a common one on the internet, “if there aren’t pictures, it didn’t happen.” These sayings neatly present a simple reality of how we as human beings live in the world: we depend a lot on our eyes. What we see has enormous influence on what we think, feel, and believe. That’s nothing new. But today there is something new. Today, it is easier than ever to make pictures that aren’t what they seem.
For nearly as long as there have been pictures, people have made fake pictures. In days of old, it took a fair deal of creativity and skill to pull off a decent fake picture. But no longer. Thanks to developments in artificial intelligence image generators, it takes shockingly little effort to make a reasonably good picture. But how good?
Surely, you will be able to tell the difference. Why don’t you give it a try?
You might be a little disoriented that it’s on a German website and in German, but you can handle this. All you have to do, is choose whether you think the picture is Fake, or a Foto (that’s German for “photo,”; I bet you figured that out because you’re clever). After each result, you’ll see a percentage pop up. That is the percent of people who guessed right.
Why don’t you go check it out?
Seeing and believing
Assuming you tried out the quiz (and if you haven’t, go do it—it is pretty fun), consider the following. At the time I took the quiz, the collective accuracy of people was right around 64%. To put that into perspective, that’s not much better results than the same amount of people taking the test would get if they just guessed randomly without looking at the pictures at all!
Naturally, this image is from an AI image generator. The prompt that elicited it: guessing with a blindfold, cartoon.
The results of this quiz suggest there’s a very high likelihood you will see fake pictures generated by artificial intelligence and not be able to recognize they are fake!!
No, the sky is not falling
Life will go on. You don’t need to invest all your savings in gold and go live off-the grid to try to avoid the computer apocalypse (at least not yet, anyway 😊).
But, it is time for us to start the long, slow process of preparing ourselves for living in a world where fake pictures are indistinguishable from the real, at least much of the time. Since what we see has such a strong influence on what we believe to be true, it’s going to take some work on our parts to live in this brave new world.
One key plank in our preparations for this high-tech world is the decidedly ancient Christian practice of charity. Charity is the effort to believe the best about other people and to assume that they act with consistent intentions and in ways consistent with their character. Of course, this “believe the best about people” can be grossly abused. Often people prove that we should not believe the best about them. But charity is going to become increasingly necessary. After all, it has never been easier to make a compromising picture or clip of someone and weaponize it against them. All it takes is a bit of time on an AI image generator. Anyone can do it.
Practicing charity with pictures we see online will better prepare us to treat the real people in our lives with charity. Jesus modeled a way of treating others that held together justice and mercy—a pathway of charity. A big part of charity is to see people not just for what they are now, but for what they can become through God’s grace. If having to wade through AI generated pictures helps us train in charity, then it won’t be all bad.
Even if it will be unsettling, confusing, amusing, and a little bit scary.
And just for fun
Here is the response ChatGPT spit out when I asked it to summarize this blog post in two sentences:
The article discusses the prevalence of fake pictures created through artificial intelligence and highlights the challenge of distinguishing between real and fake images. It emphasizes the importance of practicing charity in the digital age, as the ability to believe the best about others and treat them with grace becomes increasingly necessary in a world where manipulated images can be used to harm individuals.
Not bad. Although it feels funny to me to cite AI-generated text in a quote.
In Psalm 79 and 109 we see the psalmist crying out in anger against adversaries. Parts of each of these psalms sound pretty harsh. But they do address an important part of life: the reality of adversaries. We all have adversaries of some sort at points in our lives. The book of Psalms, wonderful for so many reasons, gives us guidance on how our hearts should move towards God and others when we are angry because of difficult people and difficult situations in life.
Responding to adversaries in difficulty
Adversaries come in many shapes and sizes. We can consider people bringing difficulties into life as “adversaries.” Maybe, like the psalmists, your adversaries are people scheming about how to kill you. More likely, they are people plotting your downfall at work, a family member who always manages to create chaos whenever they show up, a class bully, or a medical provider who doesn’t take you seriously. The list of possible adversaries is nearly endless. They all share in common the ability to elicit anger as they bring difficulties into life.
There are many ways we can respond to difficult people and difficult situations in life. Here are four ways we can respond to adversaries and the anger they inspire in life: (1) dreaming, (2) scheming, (3) bearing, and (4) moving.
By dreaming I mean the sort of wishful hoping for the downfall of your adversary. Maybe you silently wish your coworker would get fired; or that your obnoxious neighbor will get caught violating the city rules and be forced to change their ways. Whatever it be, dreaming involves a sort of curse: “I hope you choke.”
If dreaming is wishing for the downfall of your adversary, scheming takes it one step further. Here you are actively planning how to bring about the shame and/or downfall of those who have hurt you.
Scheming may take the form of passing around juicy stories—whether true or false—with the aim of exposing your adversary to ridicule. Or, in a more extreme form, scheming can involve creating traps that directly threaten the life and well-being of an adversary: political, financial, relational.
Scheming can feel good because it is taking initiative and using our power to fix the situation.
Often, the adversaries of our lives will pass by, if we are content to wait for a time. And if you are prone towards stubbornness, waiting emerges as an obvious approach to conflict. Bearing allows you to deal with your adversaries by not dealing with them. You may bear with your adversaries and the anger and frustration they bring into life because you are strong and can take it; you may bear with them because you feel like you deserve the difficulties they bring into your life. Whatever the reason, bearing concludes that it is better to put up with injustice than to try to do anything about it.
Another possible response to adversaries is to move. That is, moving towards God. Moving involves turning toward God in prayer about our adversaries, driven by the anger and frustration they cause within us. This is, I submit, the basic posture which Psalm 79 and 109 recommend in dealing with adversaries. Moving toward God in prayer while angry is an exercise in expressing ourselves towards God rather than towards our neighbor.
Responding by moving toward God in prayer differs in a couple key ways from the other responses above. It acknowledges that God is ultimately in charge of justice, it acknowledges that my resources for dealing with difficulties and difficult people are very limited, and it also acknowledges that anger is not a wrong part of how we function. Anger should drive us toward God, who is big enough to hear our anger, strong enough to bear it, and wise enough to patiently redirect our anger where it should be, rather than leave it in the misplaced directions we so often vent our anger in.
Life is full of adversaries. Most are small and passing; some are big and lasting. People and situations in life lead us again and again into anger by bringing difficulties and frustrations into life. The question is not, “Will you get angry?” but rather, “How will your anger play out?”
As adversity moves into your life, where does anger lead you? If it does not lead you to God in prayer, than your anger will certainly emerge as a force of destruction to you and to others. The Psalms guide us not only in how to praise God, but in how to respond in our anger towards adversaries in our lives: by moving towards God in prayer.
When reading through the book of Psalms, one can’t help but notice how often the name “David” pops up. Of the 150 psalms, a full 73 have the following note in their introductions:
(belonging) to David
The Hebrew proposition ל־ (the letter lamed) which begins this phrase is used in a bunch of different ways. How should we understand the point of it here? Did David actually write all these psalms? Or, as Robert Alter’s translates it, does the phrase mean “A David psalm.” That is, it just tells us that somewhere along the line of history people believed that David was somehow associated with these psalms—maybe as author, maybe as inspiration.
These same questions apply—to a lesser extent—to the psalms which name other authors: Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Sons of Korah, Heman, or Ethan. Did they really write these psalms?
Here is the short answer: there is no definitive way to prove they did or they didn’t.
A longer answer is worth thinking about.
The “no, David did not write this psalm” arguments
To spare the long, winding, circuitous, and generally self-referential arguments scholars make about the issue, here is a brief summation of the main arguments people call upon to support the position that David didn’t write the psalms attributed to him:
The dating of individual psalms has long been a region of treacherous scholarly quicksand. The one safe conclusion is that the writing of psalms was a persistent activity over many centuries. The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition has no credible historical grounding. It was a regular practice in the later biblical period to ascribe new texts to famous figures of the past. Although many psalms include the name David in the superscription supplied by the editors, the meaning of the Hebrew particle le that usually prefixes the name is ambiguous. It is conventionally translated as “of,” and in ancient seals and other objects that have been discovered, it does serve as a possessive. But le also can mean “for,” “in the manner of,” “suitable to,” and so forth. The present translation seeks to preserve this ambiguity by translating mizmor ledawid as “a David psalm.” David was no doubt identified by the editors of the collection as the exemplary psalmist because in his story, as told in 1 and 2 Samuel, he appears as a poet and the player of a stringed instrument, and at the end of the narrative is given the epithet “the sweet singer of Israel.” But the editors themselves ascribed psalms to different poets—Asaph, Ethan the Ezrahite, Heyman the Ezrahite, the Korahites, and others. One cannot categorically exclude the possibility that a couple of these psalms were actually written by David, though it is difficult to gauge the likelihood (and some scholars altogether doubt David’s historicity).”
Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, 13
In short, Alter notes it is technically possible that David did write some of these, but he (along with lots of scholars) view the evidence as strongly against such a conclusion.
The “yes, David wrote this psalm” arguments
There are three core arguments suggesting that David wrote the psalms attributed to him.
First, consider the example from Habakkuk 3.1:
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.
In Hebrew, the “of Habakkuk” is the same construction as the “of David” we see in our psalms. One scholar notes:
“Habakkuk seems to have employed a recognized formula for designating oneself as the author of a psalmic prayer.”
James M. Hamilton, Jr. Psalms 1-72, 44
The prayer in Habakkuk clearly is Habakkuk’s prayer. Since Habakkuk is close in time and culture to the time when the psalms were composed, this serves as reasonable evidence that the “of David” formula intends to claim that David is the author of those psalms in whose introduction it appears.
Second, the superscriptions are part of the text. Most of the psalms have some sort of superscription. Like these:
Psalm 18: For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said: (NIV)
Psalm 19: For the director of music. A psalm of David. (NIV)
You will note that in English Bibles these are not given verse numbers. The lack of verse numbers can give the mistaken impression that these superscriptions are not an original part of the text (in the Hebrew, they are numbered, as well as in every other language I have checked). So, what are these?
Simply put, every ancient version of the text of the Old Testament we have, in whatever language we have it, has these superscriptions in some form or another. While that does not prove that they are original to the poems they go with, it does strongly indicate that the book of Psalms as a canonical book of the Bible has never not had the superscriptions. Which means, among other things, that all the information in them is quite ancient.
That doesn’t prove that David wrote the psalms that say “of David.” But it does suggest that there was never a time, for as long as we can go back in recorded history, where people did not believe and pass on that David wrote those 73 psalms which say “of David” at the beginning. This ancient tradition supports that David was, in fact, the author of the psalms in question.
Finally, the biblical evidence robustly supports understanding David as the actual author of these psalms (and likewise, the other listed authors). I bring this up last because the strength of this argument rests entirely on the general view of Scripture which you bring to the question.
Within the New Testament, we see various people claiming that David wrote various of the psalms which are ascribed to him in the book of Psalms. Jesus (Mark 12.35-37), Peter (Acts 1:16; 2.25), and Paul (Rom 4:6) all do so.
Of course, it is possible that they were passing on knowledge which they had learned and assumed and which everyone more or less agreed upon. And this evidence from the New Testament authors doesn’t mean that we can verify David as the author of those 73 psalms without a doubt.
For those of a confessional attitude that says, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me,” this information from the New Testament settles the question. At the very least, the information from the New Testament testifies to a long standing and continuous tradition amongst the Jewish and then early Christian believers accepting as true the superscriptions we find in the psalms.
Does it matter: no, and yes
In closing out this brief reflection on the superscriptions of the psalms, we ask ourselves, “does it really matter?” The answer to that question is no… And yes.
First, in one sense it doesn’t matter. Many of the books of the Bible are formally anonymous. Many of the psalms within the book of Psalms are anonymous. Whoever it was who spent the painstaking time to organize the whole book of Psalms remains formally anonymous. That we can’t pin a text to a specific historical person is not a deep problem.
In another sense, Davidic authorship does matter. While we often cherry pick psalms as disconnected praises or laments to God, the whole book is deeply and intricately structured. Noting the way that the psalms of David are spread throughout the book of Psalms suggests that the final editors put the book together to reflect the life of David. And especially to reflect how the life of David demonstrates the hope God’s people have in a coming king from his line who will bring God’s people into the full blessings of his covenant with them. James M. Hamilton, Jr., writes:
“The collage of the Psalter is not merely about David’s own life but God’s purposes in the world and how and where David fits in that wider project.”
Psalms, Psalms 1-72, 51
For my own part, I lean toward assuming the superscriptions are historical. That is, that they preserve for us through traditions across the generations actual notes about who wrote what and, on occasion, what the life circumstances of the composition were. I couldn’t dogmatically prove that, or a great many other things which I believe. But there is rational evidence which at least points in this direction both inside and outside the book of Psalms.
Psalm 145 is one of a handful of acrostic psalms. Acrostic psalms follow the pattern of the Hebrew alphabet, each line beginning with the next letter. You’ve probably written acrostic poetry in English in elementary school. Something like this:
Depending on your view of cats, you may or may not like that last line (being mildly allergic to them, when I am in a cat house “tormentor” is an appropriate word to use). That aside, the acrostic poem uses the pattern of letters as part of the poetry.
Hebrew acrostic poems seem to work in a similar way. They follow the pattern of the alphabet to lend a sense of totality and comprehensiveness to their treatment of theme. Psalm 119 is the most well-known of these acrostics. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet gets 8 lines!
Acrostic poems like this work better in Hebrew than English. Virtually no one even bothers trying to mimic the alphabet structure in translation. Here are a few reasons why:
English word order is less easily manipulated than Hebrew;
Certain English letters—like Q and X—do not begin many useful words; and
There are more letters in the English alphabet (26) than the Hebrew (22/23, depending on how you count), meaning that you run out of Hebrew text to translate before completing the English alphabet.
But some intrepid translators give it a shot anyway. I’m not sure if the result is the same. The lack of completion in the English alphabet seems to hamstring the attempts, but they are interesting.
The text of Psalm 145 begins following the title (Psalm 145). Hebrew is on the left; English is on the right. Remember that Hebrew reads in the opposite direction from English, so the letter closest to the center of the screen in either language is where the line begins.
The lines follow the order of the alphabet.
What happened to the “N” line? In the standard Hebrew text from antiquity, this line is missing. That seems like a copyist mistake. Our ancient translations testify to a Hebrew line which somehow fell out of the main Hebrew text (called the Masoretic Text). We have since found at least one ancient Hebrew manuscript which has this “N” line as well. Modern Bibles all have it as the second half of verse 13.
The psalm ends “and all flesh bless the holy Name forever and ever.” There are a couple lines after that which are part of the Jewish worship setting for the psalm, not the psalm itself.
This translation is a nice stab at providing an English translation which visually parallels the effect of the Hebrew poem. It also shows part of the reason why translators don’t do this: it’s hard, and the effect in English is pretty uneven. Finally, Rabbi Sam Seicol’s translation here is more like an aid for reading Hebrew than an attempt to render the psalm into an English translation which can stand strong on its own two feet.
Those weaknesses acknowledged, read it. Ponder it. Enjoy it. Whether acrostic psalms work in English or not, in Hebrew they remind us that praising God’s greatness fills up the alphabet, A—Z ,and still is unsearchable.
We recently tackled Psalm 8, focusing on how the question “what is man” plays a key role in God’s name being majestic in all the earth. The message to proclaim the majesty of God’s name by being benevolent overlords is an important one. Yet, there is more. Another important point we barely touched upon shines through when we consider Hebrews 2:6-8, a quotation from Psalm 8, pointing towards Jesus. As the author of Hebrews continues:
“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
Hebrews 2.9, ESV
The author of Hebrews shows us that the position of humanity in general within creation testifies to the position of Jesus the Son of God in particular within his role of redemption.
Humanity in creation
There are several psalms celebrating creation (see, for instance, 33, 104, and 145). Psalm 8 is unique in that it positions humanity at a key position: as God’s agent of governance within creation. A thoughtful reader of Genesis 1-2 will arrive at that conclusion. David, the traditional author of this psalm, certainly was a thoughtful reader reflecting on those very passages from his Genesis scroll.
Yet it takes little imagination, then or now, to see that humanity is not the greatest choice for the job. The question “What is man?” (v. 4) no doubt involves a certain amount of disbelief. Why in the world, God, would you place us in this position?
But, there appears to be more. Because David was not just a thoughtful reader of his Genesis scroll, but also of God’s unfolding promises to his people—including the promise God had given him in 2 Samuel 7.12-16.
The enemy and avenger
Psalm 8.2 seems like an odd little detour from the rest of the psalm:
Out of the mouth of babies and infants, / you have established strength because of your foes, / to still the enemy and the avenger. (ESV)
There are no obvious connections between this verse and the rest of the psalm. None, that is, unless we read Psalm 8 against the background of God’s on-going work of redemption.
There is a consistent “enemy of God” throughout the Bible: Satan. And he wages a war against God in the realm of redemption. That is, Satan seeks to direct the heart of mankind away from God and toward destruction. The mention about God establishing strength “out of the mouths of babies and infants” could very well be a mediation on God’s promise to Eve, that her seed would successfully do battle with the serpent, Satan. There is a generally truism that in God’s work, he tends to use the weak to shame the strong, yet this also ties into looking for the Seed of Eve who will bring ultimate victory.
God’s battle is redemption and there is a babe who will defeat the Enemy.
As Hebrews reminds us, Jesus was for a time a little lower than the angels and is now crowned with glory and honor. God put humanity at center of creation account in Gen 1-2 because redemption through Jesus is the great action of God in the world. We might say that all the world’s a stage…for Jesus.
Psalm 8 reflects on the position of humanity within creation. Why is it that humanity plays a central role in creation proclaiming the majesty of God’s name? Because humanity is a placeholder for Jesus within God’s work. The “rule” of humanity over “all the works of God’s hands” is preparatory and partial…and is giving way to the complete rule of Jesus.
Brueggemann insightfully comments on this facet of Psalm 8:
“Human persons are to rule, but they are not to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation. Such loyalty must be directed only to God.”
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 38.
Jesus is the man, the New Adam, who stands fully in both earth and heaven and is fit to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation because he is God, as well as man.
In Romans 8, we read about creation groaning for redemption from futility. Creation is longing for the true king. Its experience under humanity as ruler is a mixed bag and hardly anything to brag about. Yet, as Psalm 8 joins in the biblical reflection on creation and on the special place of humanity therein, it points us to the broader hope that through Adam and Eve a Redeemer will come. One who will enable all creatures and all creation to become what God intends for them.
Psalm 8 is well aware that a merely human king like David can’t pull that off. But one who is a little lower than the angels for a while, and is then crowned with glory and honor as God of the Universe?