Hello, and welcome to this series on the Psalms. Let me introduce myself. My name is Knut Heim. I’m originally from Germany, but I have lived in the United Kingdom for many, many years and am in fact an ordained presbyter or, as some people would say, an ordained pastor in the Methodist Church of the United Kingdom. In recent years, I have been living and working in the United States, specifically at Denver Seminary. And it is my privilege and joy to share with you in these recordings my excitement for the Bible, the Word of God, and particularly for the poetry in the Bible and for the purposes of this series, the Psalms.
Let’s begin with a number of introductory remarks. I want to share with you about the study of the poetry in the Bible in general. I believe that the twenty-first century is actually an incredibly exciting time for studying the Bible’s poetry. Scholars of language and literature have gained exciting new insights into poetry. For example, modern linguistics helps us to understand how words acquire different meanings in different contexts and how word combinations produce meaning that far outstrips the sum of the individual words. It helps us to see ambiguity as an asset rather than a setback. Modern scholars of biblical Hebrew poetry have helped us to overcome simplistic ideas about poetic parallelism and helped us to rediscover the beauty and excitement of Hebrew poetry. Modern critical theory inspires us to ask fresh questions of familiar texts, invites us to rediscover their modern relevance for us and others around us, and empowers us to become proactive participants in poetry’s production of transformative meaning.
Not only that but modern study of metaphors helps us to understand how the metaphors we use to speak of complex problems shape our thinking and our lives. And as many of you will already know, the Bible’s poetry, and the psalms in particular, are full of metaphors. Modern hermeneutics helps us to read biblical poetry with both humility and expectation. To use one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite old Testament scholars, the Roman Catholic Spanish theologian Luis Alonso Schokel, “What has been written with imagination, must be read with imagination.” And by the way, if you forget everything else from this lecture on the introduction to the Psalms and remember only this sentence, you remember the most important thing I want to share with you: “What has been written with imagination, must be read with imagination.”
So, in many ways, the study of Hebrew poetry has just begun. We have arrived in a new territory of the mind that awaits our discovery: a land wide open to the interpretive imagination inviting us to embark on an exciting adventure of the mind that can change our lives—our political, cultural, and ethical values—and consequently change our world for the common good. Such imaginative and responsible Christian reading requires skill and imagination; and the church, you and I, all of us together, need to be challenged and empowered to acquire these interpretive virtues. For example, poetic metaphors in the Bible are immensely powerful, but they can be used as forces for good or abuse to promote or justify evil. On the one hand, they can be beneficial agents applied responsibly and skillfully for the common good. On the other hand, superficial and less-than-competent interpretations can turn them into dangerous traps, misleading well-meaning Christians and/or confirming narrow-minded presuppositions current in the general cultural milieu of wherever you and I are living.
In an important study of the ethical relevance of the law for Christians, notable Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham explains that laws tend to be a pragmatic compromise between the legislator’s ideals and what can be enforced in practice. Laws do not show what is socially desirable, let alone ideal. Rather, they enforce minimum standards and set a floor for acceptable behavior, not an ethical ceiling. To quote Wenham, “These laws do not disclose the ideas of lawgivers, but only the limits of their tolerance.”
By contrast however, I believe that when we get to the poetry of the Bible, the poetry can bring us further. In its beautiful words and phrases and in its powerful thoughts and emotions and ethical challenges, we come face-to-face with the dreams and hopes of the people of God and catch a glimpse of God’s ideals for fulfilled, purposeful lives that actively contribute to the common good, rather than simply avoid doing the wrong things. And so, with this introduction, we’re ready for the following lectures in each of which we will be looking at one particular psalm and be applying some of these exciting developments that I’ve been sharing with you in this introduction. I hope you are as excited as I am about us reading these psalms together with imagination, with faith, with hope, and with love.