Saturday, March 15, 2008

The mystical interpretation of the psalms

About 165 years ago the Reverend J. M. Neale D.D. began a comprehensive collection of the interpretations of primitive and medieval commentators of the Psalms. I have the first 3 of the four volumes in hand. His work, he writes "is not, in the slightest degree, critical. My acquaintance with the Hebrew is far too limited to enable me to offer anything of value in that way." He strives rather to trace "above all things, their mystical meaning." Yet a paragraph later he also says that "not one single mystical interpretation through the present commentary" (2400 or so pages) "is original; and (if I may venture on the term) that fact constitutes its chief value."

We read that word mystical this morning in the prayer from the prayer book that follows communion - that we are members of his mystical body. Mystical and incarnate. Mysterious and flesh. Mystery and body. A post from Biblicalia this morning on Louth reminds us of mystery - what can and cannot be known and how much is undefinable without presupposition even when we write of what we consider "well-known" traditions.

It seems to me that what is there in the Psalms is the same as what is in the New Testament - the offer and the reality of relationship - mysterious and incarnate - now as then and for ever. In this I find myself unable to consider even the discussions of Paul in the last 60 years as really approaching the mystery. Explanation will not do as a substitute for understanding. To the extent that discussion of law separates the doing and the hearing, the form and the action, the obedience and the presence - to that extent, the law becomes a substitute for the reality of relationship.

I like the Reverend Neale's approach - collecting the record. I have yet to see if his filter is wide enough. But since I can only come to the record gradually, I hope his collection will help provide me a path through the psalms that will let me find a way to express that relationship - in such a way also as to relieve some of the tension in the interpretation of Paul and the Gospels that so pervades writing these days. (See e.g. this recent post on Ben Witherington's blog and the dozens of comments. I am also remembering Michael Valpy's Globe and Mail interview yesterday with Barrie Wilson out of Toronto, the author of a new book on Paul that sounds to me like a new book on a discarded view of Paul as religious genius and opposed to Christ - whatever that is supposed to mean.)


Iyov said...

Thanks for this post Bob. Certainly Neale's psalter is a giant in the field and deserves to be better known. Yet, I think is important to recognize that when Neale says "mystical" he means what we today would call "Christological". That is certainly a valid way of reading the Psalms, and I might even argue that for Christians it is one of the preferred ways. And yet, I do not think it corresponds to what we think as "mystical." Neale, for example, takes little account of classical Christian mystical techniques such as "lectio divina", much less of Jewish mystical practices. Rather, Neale's technique is to find allegory in the psalms.

There are classical ways of reading the texts -- in Judaism, they are usually denoted as:

Peshat -- plain meaning
Remez -- allegorical meaning
Derash -- homiletic (or midrashic) meaning
Sod -- mystical meaning

There are corresponding meanings in traditional Christian exegesis as well. (See, for example, "The Four Senses of Scriptural Interpretation and the Mediaeval Theory of Preaching", Harry Caplan, Speculum, Vol. 4, No. 3. (Jul., 1929), pp. 282-290 -- I will send this to you separately.)

When Neale says "mystical", he means primarily "allegorical" or "homiletic". But today, when we speak of mysticism, we are more likely to refer to the level of "sod."

Iyov said...

I was about to send you the article, when I discovered I don't have your e-mail. Mine is voice.of.iyov at gmail -- drop me a line and I'll mail it off to you.

Bob MacDonald said...

Iyov - I hope you see this because the email you note is not accepted by my mail program - maybe I should try my web mail. My email is bobmacdonald at

Thank you for your comment. From the sections I have delved into in Neale and Littledale on a psalm by psalm basis, I have found that their work is largely Christological and allegorical – though I prefer an analogical rather than allegorical approach.

I perhaps do not have the words for this at the moment – but the instruction I have is to find them. I would love to read the article you reference.

I can only thank you again for being such a clear witness. My wife thinks I have something to say – but she is my quickest critic as to clarity (need I say more) – my quick hurts.

I hope yet to express the mystery of our participation in covenant.

Today for instance was a ‘psalm’ day – I had to sing the middle of Psalm 31 as cantor this morning. (Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in trouble vv 10-17.) To set it off, who should arrive at my door in the very early morning before I had awakened but my fourth child (now aged 30), a street kid with serious brain damage from youth and a present deterioration due to drug abuse. We fed him then drove him to a place where he might find some companionship for the day. Tonight at evensong, the lesson was Isaiah 53. The thought occurred to me (without too heavy a blow) that the author might have had such a one as my son in mind for some of the cola in this section of the prophecy.

Iyov said...

True, prophecy is a form of mysticism. But more often, it refers to contact with the divine, either experientially or mystically. There are many such traditions -- in Sufi Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (they are present in other religions as well, no doubt). The traditions I am most familiar with is hisbonenus in Judaism and lectio divina in Christianity. There are fascinating similarities between these, and also fascinating differences. If this is a topic of interest to you: the Psalms as meditative text to see experience or unity with God, then let me know; I may be able to send you some references that you will find useful.

OwlJulie said...

Hey, can you tell me where I can find a really deep study of the Psalms which goes into the original Hebrew words and translates them as they originally meant, and also one that is mystical, as in Jewish mysticism? There are so many books that it is hard for me to find one that i want! It would have to be a book that goes into the symbolism and meanings of things to the mystical Jew. Thanks, julie

Bob MacDonald said...

To OwlJulie - there are many books on the psalms and I do not know any that would exactly match your description. I recommend learning the Hebrew language and reading the psalms slowly making your own translation. If your heart is there, you won't need a mystical book because the One who gives mystique and love in ultimate mercy will be with you in your reading and in your life. Join me on my other blog, Sufficiency - link on the right - and read Job, Ruth, and other wisdom literature the same way. Slowly, haltingly, learning as you go.


Bob MacDonald said...

To OwlJulie

My book has now been written - and I think it will meet some of your requirements. Please see this link