Wednesday, 22 April 2020

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Deciphering Meaning Through Layers of Context (Part 1 of 5)

A single verse in the Bible is like an isolated piece of a jigsaw puzzle: the whole picture is indiscernible unless all the pieces are joined together. To focus on a biblical text without considering its surrounding context almost certainly guarantees distortion of meaning. While the twofold emphasis of contextual studies involves the particular environments within which biblical narratives and discourses took place and within which the biblical writings themselves were produced, there are other contextual matters that must not be overlooked. 

Multiple Layers of Context 

The Bible is fundamentally a compilation of sixty-six separate documents representing a variety of literary genres and subgenres. When any passage of scripture is examined, the type of literature through which it is conveyed dictates its purpose and meaning.

If a historian records someone’s public speech that contains quotations from other sources, there are at least three layers of context to consider: (1) the quoted material, including the original speaker or writer, his targeted audience, and their immediate circumstances; (2) the oral discourse, including the orator, the listening audience, and their immediate circumstances; and (3) the written account, including the author, the projected reading audience, and their immediate circumstances. 

The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5–7, comprises all three layers: (1) scripture quotations, (2) Jesus and his listening audience, and (3) Matthew and his reading audience. All these layers of context are helpful in discerning the Spirit-inspired message, enabling interpreters to handle God’s word accurately and make application to a fourth layer: the present-day church and world.

Contextual Layer #1: Psalm 37 

The biblical psalms, as a collection of prayers and hymns, are more likely to contain words spoken to or about God than from God. They are poetic by nature and characteristically composed with figurative language. Their function is not primarily for the teaching of doctrinal absolutes.1 In the genre of Hebrew poetry, the imagery is familiar to the psalmist’s contemporary Hebrew audience and creates associations that stir the emotions and engage the mind. A psalmist should therefore be afforded appropriate leeway to create a work within the parameters of his own literary conventions. The more we appreciate the poetry and cultural environment of the psalms, the better we understand the intended message.2

Psalm 37 can be subcategorized as a wisdom (sapiential) psalm, contrasting the respective plights of the righteous and the wicked, along with assurances of blessings and judgments. Lost in English translation is the poem’s acrostic structure, with two lines given to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Easier to detect is the synonymous parallelism, where the second line repeats or reinforces the preceding line, with meaning drawn from the combination of both. Parallelism is not two separate ideas but one main idea expressed in two different ways. It is important in analyzing any poem to discover its theme and how each part contributes to the whole. The entirety of the psalm, not just a single verse or stanza, supplies the interpretive framework. 

Of particular interest to our present study is the recurring blessing involving the Hebrew verbs shakan (“abide,” “dwell,” “settle down,” vv. 3, 27, 29) and yarash (“inherit,” “possess by inheritance,” vv. 9, 11, 22, 29, 34), along with the noun erets (“land,” vv. 3, 9, 11, 22, 29, 34).3 These familiar concepts would immediately call to the Jewish mind the Abrahamic promises (Gen. 12:1-7; Psa. 105:42-45), the physical aspect of which was realized in Abraham’s biological descendants – the Israelites (Gen. 12:2a, 7; 15:5-7; Ex. 32:13; Deut. 1:8).4 This provided a national setting for the fulfillment of the spiritual messianic promise: “in you [your seed, 22:18; 26:4] all the families of the earth [adamah] shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b; cf. Acts 3:25-26; Gal. 3:8-29; 4:4-7).

To “dwell in the land” (Psalm 37:3) meant so much more than mere territorial occupancy. Reprobates, void of divine favor, physically inhabited the land of Israel for generations (Lev. 20:2-5; Judg. 1:19-21, 27-35; 2:2-3; Ezek. 33:23-26). In the context of Psalm 37, the land dwellers are those exhibiting trust in God, goodness, and allegiance to the divine will, thereby benefitting from his faithfulness and provision (vv. 3-4). They are further identified as the “meek” [anav] (v. 11), those oppressed (v. 14) yet merciful and generous (vv. 21, 23), righteous and faithful (vv. 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 21, 23, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 37, 39, 40).5

To “inherit the land” (Psalm 37:9, 11, 22, 29, 34),6 therefore, is an expression of comfort and hope (vv. 1, 7, 8). It is idiomatically synonymous with providential care (vv. 3, 5, 6, 17b, 18, 19b, 24, 26b, 28, 31b, 40), including provision (v. 4, 25), protection (v. 33, 40a), peace (vv. 11, 37), fortification (vv. 17, 19, 24, 39b), rising above shame (vv. 19a, 34), and salvation (v. 39a, 40b). In old covenant Judaism, the sacred land (centralized in Jerusalem) represented Yahweh’s presence among his people (Ex. 33:1, 14; Psa. 27:4-6; 65:4; 140:13; Isa. 2:3). But to literalize the poetic imagery is to miss the spiritual significance of the divine purpose, more clearly revealed in the New Testament.

Concluding Thoughts

The psalmist essentially encourages his readers to trust in the Lord for improved circumstances. Traditionally ascribed to David, apparently in his later years (v. 25), Psalm 37 is thus placed in the historical context of the united kingdom of Israel during the first half of the 10th century BC. In another Davidic psalm (25:13), to “inherit the land” parallels towb, “goodness” or “well-being.” Just to hear the expression would have offered a great deal of consolation to any Jewish persons in antiquity, especially the disadvantaged and oppressed, irrespective of when or where they lived.

While some have posited the dating as late as the 4th century BC,7 whoever was responsible for the Psalter’s ancient inscriptions would have had access to information unavailable to subsequent generations.Moreover, the Davidic titles assume readers know who David is and are familiar with his life and poetry. Whether the psalm was originally intended for pre-exilic Jews, who already inhabited the land, or those in exile, who longed to return to the land, or post-exilic Jews of the diaspora, it offers the same assurances and hope. 

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Douglas Stuart, “The Psalms: Israel’s Prayers and Ours,” in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by G. D. Fee and D. Stuart (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014): 212-16. At the same time, however, we still acknowledge “the importance of understanding the instructional function of the Psalms as a book. This is because the very process of canonical collection means that the 150 psalms now gathered together are seen as playing a special role within the life of Israel. Their place within the canon also means that they have a further role …. their very status as scripture means that they now have a teaching role” (David G. Firth, “The Teaching of the Psalms,” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, eds. D. Firth and P. S. Johnston [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005]: 162).
     2 Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007): 24-42. Ancient near-eastern literature, even when translated, is very different from the literature to which modern readers are accustomed. A poem’s rhetorical effect on a targeted audience, far removed from our own, should not be ignored. See David Petersen and Kent Harold Richards, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992): 1-16.
     3 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. The Hebrew noun erets (vv. 3, 9, 11, 22, 29, 34) is consistently translated “land” in most English versions (e.g. ASV, CSB, ESV, ISV, NIV, NASB, NET, N/RSV, YLT), but varyingly rendered in the N/KJV “land” (vv. 3, 29, 34) and “earth” (vv. 9, 11, 22). It is flexible enough to apply to the entire planet (Gen. 18:18, 25), earth’s inhabitants (Psa. 33:8; 66:4), a regional or territorial section of land (Gen. 10:10, 11; 11:28; Psa. 42:6), particularly the land of Canaan (Gen. 11:31; 12:1, 5; Psa. 105:11; 135:12; 136:21) often designated simply “the land” (Gen. 1:8, 21; 12:6; Deut. 17:14; 18:9; Psa. 35:20). In addition to usage in Davidic psalms (incl. 101:6, 8), see also 44:3; 80:9; 85:1, 9, 12; 106:38; cp. 74:8. 
     4 Historically the Abrahamic land inheritance (Gen. 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:7-18; Deut. 4:1; 16:20) was fulfilled (Acts 7:2-5, 17, 45; Josh. 3:14-17; 21:43-45; 1 Kings 4:21; Neh. 9:7-8), albeit conditionally (Lev. 20:22, 24; Deut. 28:1-2, 15; Josh. 23:13-16; 1 Kings 9:6-7; 2 Chron. 20:7). Nevertheless, Abraham’s descendants did not remain faithful to the covenant (1 Kings 19:10; Jer. 31:32) and eventually lost the land (Josh. 23:13-16). The Hebrew olam (“forever”) occurs three times in Psalm 37, in conjunction with the righteous ones’ inheritance (v. 18), abiding (v. 27), and preservation (v. 29). Even though the Abrahamic land inheritance was promised “forever” (Gen. 13:15, ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV), this must be understood not only as a conditional promise but also in view of the fact that olam signifies simple duration and applies to that which continues as long as it was intended (cp. Gen. 17:13; Ex. 12:14; 21:6; 29:42; 30:8; Lev. 23:14; 1 Kings 9:3-5; et al.). Irrespective of what may or may not result on the other end, olam is merely a durative term expressing something that lasts its allotted time. See K. L. Moore, Will the Earth Last Forever?.
     5 The masculine noun anav is descriptive of the humble and gentle (Psa. 10:12, 17; 25:9; 34:2; 69:32), the afflicted and oppressed (Psa. 22:26; 147:6; 149:4; Isa. 11:4; 29:19; 53:4; 61:1), those who seek the Lord, uphold his justice, seek righteousness, and seek humility (Zeph. 2:3).
     6 Except for the infinitive construct in v. 34, the future form of this verb is repeatedly employed (vv. 9, 11, 22, 29), although verbal tense in Hebrew, unlike modern languages, refers more particularly to action than time. The Hebrew future tense expresses what is unfinished, whether future or present, something anticipated or continued at any point of time. See William Wilson, Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies (McLean, VA: Macdonald, n.d. [rev. ed., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990]): i-ii.
     7 Elmer A. Leslie, The Psalms: Translated and Interpreted in the Light of Hebrew Life and Worship (Nashville; NY: Abingdon, 1949): 412. Samuel L. Terrien posits a 6th-century date for Psalm 37, from late-exilic or early-postexilic times (The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003]: 322). Whether or not a specific time period can be determined, the psalms reflect “the spiritual insight and religious heritage of a small number of ancient Israelites ...” (David Firth and Philip S. Johnston, eds., Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005]: 17).
     8 When and by whom the collection of canonical psalms was compiled is unknown, though it is not outside the range of plausibility that the titles were appended by the original authors themselves. See Franz Delitzsch, “Biblical Commentary on the Psalms,” Vol. 1, in Biblical Commentary on the OT by C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968): 23. Prefixing authorial titles to songs was an ancient practice among the Hebrews (Deut. 31:30; Isa. 38:9; Hab. 3:1; cp. Ex. 15:1, 21; Num. 24:3; Judg. 5:1), inclusive of David (2 Sam. 1:17-18; 22:1; 23:1; cp. Psa. 72:20). Moreover, Davidic authorship of selected psalms is confirmed in the NT (Matt. 22:45; Mark 12:36-37; Luke 20:42-44; Acts 1:16, 20; 2:25-28, 34-35; 4:25-26; [cf. 13:33, 35]; Rom. 4:6-8; 11:9-10; Heb. 4:7); viz. Psalms 2, 16, 32, 69, 95, 110. 

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