A Psalm Against David: Why David Didn’t Write Psalm 51

I’m scheduled to present a paper at the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR), a sort of evangelical version of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), at their annual meeting in Atlanta, on November 20, 2015. It happens just before the start of the SBL.

The paper is called “A Psalm against David? A Canonical Reading of Psalm 51 as a Critique of David’s Inadequate Repentance in 2 Samuel 12.

The paper is an attempt to read Psalm 51 carefully in light of the superscription, which links it to David’s confrontation by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12 over his adultery with Bathsheba.

The trouble is that a close reading of the psalm just doesn’t fit with the narrative, at multiple levels. So, what is an evangelical, orthodox Christian to do with that?

Since psalms superscriptions are not original to the psalms, but inserted by later editors (I give evidence for this in the paper), I propose that we take the superscription to Psalm 51 as a (divinely inspired) lectionary suggestion for reading the psalm together with the 2 Samuel narrative.

The result of doing this, I argue, is that the psalm ends up being a critique of David’s superficial “repentance” in 2 Samuel 12. My paper, therefore, challenges the naive, idealistic reading of the figure of David often found in the evangelical church (but then anyone who reads 1-2 Samuel with their eyes open would be disabused of this ideal picture anyway).

The paper is, most fundamentally, my attempt to take the authority of Scripture seriously (regarding both Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12 as divinely inspired), with eyes wide open to the complexity of this divinely inspired Scripture.

I tested out a short version of the paper at the recent meeting of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association in Ottawa, and got good discussion there.

The research group of the IBR in which I’ll be presenting the paper (called Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, and the Theological Disciplines) posted my draft of a longer, fuller version of the paper so that anyone can read it and send comments to me. I’ll then have a chance to revise the paper in light of the comments, and it will be re-posted in late October, prior to the conference.

The paper will be published (probably in 2017) in a volume of essays coming from the IBR research group, tentatively entitled Explorations in Interdisciplinary Reading: Theological, Exegetical, and Reception-Historical Perspectives, ed. Robbie Castleman, Darian Lockett, and Stephen Presley (Eugene, OR: Pickwick).

I invite you to post your comments or questions here.

Heading for the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences (Ottawa)

I’ll be heading off to Canada next weekend to the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences, held this year at the University of Ottawa. I am member of, and typically attend, three of the eighty academic societies that meet over the space of a week each year on a different Canadian university campus.

This year I’m presenting papers at all three societies.

For the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (CSBS) I will present a paper on May 30 called “Is God Fickle? The Theological Significance of Interpretive Conundrums in YHWH’s Judgment on the Elide Priesthood (1 Samuel 2-3).” This paper grows out of research and teaching I’ve been doing on 1 and 2 Samuel over the last number of years; I’ve been particularly interested in how God’s character and actions are understood in relation to the momentous transition of Israel from a tribal league to a monarchy.

For the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA) I will present a paper on May 31 called “A Psalm against David? A Canonical Reading of Psalm 51 as a Critique of David’s Inadequate Repentance in 2 Samuel 12.” This paper also grows out of my work on 1 and 2 Samuel, in connection with my teaching on the Psalms. Here I’m interested in how we in the church tend to read the character of David as pious and faithful, when the narrative portrays him in no such manner.

Also on May 31, as part of the CETA evening program, I will be participating in a panel discussion, responding to three reviews of my book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology; this discussion will be held at Sunnyside Wesleyan Church.

For the Canadian Theological Society (CTS) I will present a paper on June 1 called “Faith Seeking Understanding: Reflections on Narratival Biblical Hermeneutics from a Canadian Immigrant Perspective.” This paper is part of a larger project on Narratival Hermeneutics of the Bible in Canada that will involve a variety of immigrant biblical scholars, each of whom will reflect on how their own ethnocultural background and tradition shapes their approach to the Bible, in connection with their Canadian experience.

On My Way Home from Jubilee 2015

On Saturday I uploaded a post in the Atlanta airport on my way to speak at Jubilee 2015 in Pittsburgh. Here I am a day later writing this post in the airport on my way home (though I am only posting now, after arriving back in Rochester).

I did have to clear a foot of snow off my driveway just to get into my garage (but enough about winter in Rochester already).

Restoration—The Destiny of God’s Good Creation

I gave my talk on “Restoration—The Destiny of God’s Good Creation” to a group of some 3,000 college students in the final plenary session of the conference Sunday morning. I was honored to have been invited to speak at Jubilee. I had attended the Jubilee conference once in the past when I was an IVCF campus minister, and I have always been impressed with the CCO, the campus ministry group based in Pittsburgh that has sponsored this conference for almost 40 years, helping college students learn how to worship God with their whole lives.

Speaking to a large group like this is always a strange experience, especially when I don’t actually know my audience (and the lights on the stage were so bright that I couldn’t see anyone beyond the front row). I much prefer the back-and-forth of dialogue that you get in a classroom with an interactive group. I love to help students actively process what they are learning; and I love the “aha” moment you sometime see in their eyes.

Nevertheless, I think I communicated what I set out to—the biblical emphasis on God’s love for creation, a love clearly displayed in God’s unswerving intent to redeem heaven and earth. My point was that we should love what God loves. So an understanding of biblical eschatology can lead us to care deeply about this world—both the natural world and the world of human culture and society—since God hasn’t given up on this world, but is in the business of restoring creation to its full glory.

Two Contrasting Views of the World

I opened my talk by contrasting two classic quotes, one by Dwight L. Moody (the prominent evangelist of the Third Great Awakening), the other by Abraham Kuyper (founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, past prime minister of the Netherlands), who introduced American Christians to the idea of a Christian worldview in his famous “Stone Lectures” at Princeton. Both were born the same year (1837).

In an 1877 sermon, Moody explained:

“I look on this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a life-boat, and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’”

This contrasts with what Kuyper said in an 1880 speech:

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign Lord of all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

The Comprehensive Scope of Salvation—Five Key Restoration Texts

This vivid contrast between viewing the world as a wrecked vessel, from which we must escape, or as Christ’s world, even after sin, set the stage for looking at five key New Testament texts that clearly articulate God’s intent to restore creation (click here for a chart).

  • Acts 3:17-21 – the restoration of all things, as foretold by the prophets (v. 21)
  • Ephesians 1:7-10 – the bringing together of all things in heaven and on earth (v. 10)
  • Colossians 1:16-20 – the reconciliation of all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through the blood of the cross (v. 20)
  • Romans 8:19-23 –the liberation of creation from its bondage to decay (v. 21); the redemption of the body (v. 23)
  • 2 Peter 3:10-13the “finding” of the earth after judgment (v. 10); the renewal of heaven and earth (v. 13)

The Biblical Plot—A Coherent Story of Restoration

After we looked at these five New Testament texts, I invited the audience to accompany me on a whirlwind tour of the biblical drama from creation to eschaton, tracing the basic plot structure of the Bible’s narrative (click here for a diagram). I sketched three levels of the biblical plot, beginning with the initial narrative sequence of creation.

  • Level I Creation—The Original Human Calling in God’s Creation
  • Level II Israel—The Mission of God’s OT People among the Nations
  • Level III Jesus—The Climax of a Series of God’s Redemptive Agents
  • Level II The Church—The Community of Jew and Gentle as God’s NT Redeemed People
  • Level I Eschaton—The Renewed Humanity in God’s New Creation

I wanted to show that there is a return to the original narrative sequence (creation) in the eschaton, so that our basic human calling to tend the earth and develop culture to God’s glory is renewed.

I probably tried to accomplish too much, since I combined two topics that I usually divide into two class sessions when I teach this material. The result was that I ended up going ten minutes over my allotted time of 25 minutes.

Toward the end I used this picture of Sean Purcell doodling a quote from my eschatology book.

A video of the talk is now posted on You Tube.

I ended the talk with the title of the conference: This Changes Everything!

You can find a two-minute video montage of the Jubilee 2015 conference here.