The Bible that Christians read is a multi-layered document. It consists of different types of literature from different stages in history. We can only theorise about the different stages. However, some traces can be found in Psalm 89. This psalm was composed by way of dynamic intertextuality. Intertextuality is a process in which existing texts are used to create new compositions. A text can take the form of words or even symbols. These interact with the world of the writer, leading to a new construction.
Psalm 89 is found in the third book of psalms. The intertextuality in Psalm 89 can be demonstrated by an analysis of the poetical structure of the psalm. In Hebrew poetry a composition comprises strophes and stiches. The stiches are placed parallel to each other to form a strophe with a central idea. The different strophes are linked together to form a stanza. There are three stanzas in the poem of Psalm 89. In the New International Version, 89:1–2 and 5–18 represent the first stanza. The second stanza can be found from 89:3–4 and 19–37, which both end with the word “Selah”. The third stanza (verses 89:38–51) comprises three strophes. An unknown redactor added an introduction (“A maskil of Ethan”) and a doxology (“Praise be to the Lord)” in verse 52.
The first stanza is linked to the second through an interchange of their first strophes. An ABAB type of technique is used. The first strophe of stanza one (1–2) is directly followed by the first strophe of stanza two (3–4). Then follows the rest of the first stanza (5–18). The rest of stanza two (19–37) is then presented and followed by the third stanza (38–51). This is a technique to lead the reader to link the content of the first stanza to that of the second one.
The first stanza (1–2 and 5–18) is composed in the form of a hymn or song. Its subject is the Lord of heaven, the Creator of the universe. It can be subdivided into five strophes. The first strophe (1–2) serves as an introduction and deals with God’s loyalty. The second strophe (5–8) proclaims God’s superior position. The third (9–13) praises God as Creator of heaven and earth. The fourth (verse 14) eulogises God’s righteousness. The fifth strophe (15–18) blesses those who rejoice in God’s name.
This stanza differs from the other two stanzas of the poem with regard to the terms and geographical references used. Heaven is seen as the abode of God from where He rules the cosmos. References to Rahab and northern mountains like Tabor and Hermon indicate the influence of an older Canaanitic religion. Mythological depictions were recontextualised as well as reconceptualised to fit into a monotheistic world view. The idea of creation and rulership is retained, but now applied to Israel’s belief in the Lord. All of this indicates that the first stanza was probably composed before the other two.
The second stanza (89:3–4 and 19–37) is written in the form of an oracle quoting the Lord’s promises to David. The word “Selah”, ending both sections of the stanza, is an instruction for the recital of the psalm. The stanza can be subdivided into three strophes. The first (3–4) introduces the Davidic covenant, the second (19–29) quotes the words God spoke regarding the covenant in a vision, and the third (30–37) applies the covenant to David’s offspring. On the intratextual level several links can be noticed between the first and second stanzas of Psalm 89. For instance, both call God’s people “holy ones” and “faithful people”. Along with the ABAB pattern mentioned above, these indicate that the first two stanzas are to be read together. God’s rule in the first stanza is extended to David as the instrument of his rule in the second stanza. David ruled between 1010 and 970 B.C. This indicates that the second stanza was created in a time when a royal ideology was coming into being in Israel. Examples of royal rule were derived from Egyptian and New Assyrian sources and applied to the covenant between God and David. The successes of David are not merely political phenomena, but actually proof of God’s eternal rule in and through his royal servant. The second stanza is therefore from a much younger provenance and represents a second stage in the compilation of the psalm. It retains the ideas found in the first stanza, but now reapplies it to historical circumstances from the time of David.
The third strophe (30–38) deals with David’s descendants. The Lord’s covenant with David includes his seed, that is his offspring. There will be perpetuity to the Davidic dynasty. In terms of ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties God’s care for his people is guaranteed. However, this covenant demands their obedience and loyalty to the Lord. God will never terminate his agreement, but God will punish his people when they are disobedient. This is indeed the subject of the third and next stanza.
The third stanza (38–51) contains three strophes (38–45, 46–48 and 49–51), the first two both ending with “Selah”. The stanza deals with exactly the opposite circumstances to those predicted in stanza two. It refers to a city lying in ruin and people in desperate need of help. The stanza has the form of a dirge. The Assyrian Adeh formulas bemoaning the death of a king were probably used as example to depict Israel’s fate. The provenance could have been any time in Israel’s history, but it is most probably the destruction of Jerusalem between 597 and 587 B.C. and the exile following. The conditions are interpreted in theological terms as a time when God totally forsook his people. The description of this critical situation in the first strophe (38–45) agrees with the five poems in the Book of Lamentations. This delineation is turned into a prayer in the second strophe (46–48), and in the end to the blasphemous accusation (third strophe 49–51) that God had forsaken his covenant with David.
Psalm 89 was included with other royal psalms in the third book of psalms (73–89), also known as the Asaph or Sons of Korah collection. In this literary frame of reference the psalm, especially the third stanza, refers to the problem of human despair. A universal open contextualisation is given to the psalm, inviting the reader to reapply and reconceptualise its contents for different circumstances.
This analysis of Psalm 89 indicates that a horizontal reading of the psalm, i.e. reading it in terms of other scripture passages, can be enriched by a vertical reading, i.e. analysing its contents in terms of a history of growth. This type of reading invites us to apply it to severely difficult times like that of a tsunami or pandemic. Recontextualising and reconceptualising are needed if the ecclesia reformata (the reformed church), following its tradition, is also to be the ecclesia reformanda (the reforming church).
Keywords: Bible; dirge; layered collection; mythological song; oracle; Psalm 89; process of growth; recontextualise; reconceptualise