A Hermeneutical Shift (No, It’s Not a Dance)

I was reading Psalm 41 recently, and when I came to the end, I was reminded that I had just completed “Book One” of the Psalter (“the Psalter” is not a condiment dispenser, but another name for the Book of Psalms). I of course knew about the various “Books” to be found in the “Book” of Psalms (there are a total of five), but still it caught me afresh, bringing back into conscious recollection the complicated nature of the editing of the current collection of the 150 poems and hymns found in that “book.” Like hymnbooks in churches and synagogues “back in the day,” the Psalter represents a carefully chosen collection of “the best of the best”—individual hymns of praise, corporate hymns of praise, and—in contrast to more traditional hymnbooks—a surprisingly large number of laments as well (the gloomiest psalm of all has to be Psalm 88, with no note of hope pervading the darkness anywhere in the poem).

But back to the “hermeneutical shift.” The term “hermeneutics” simply means “interpretation,” but often in a more careful and precise manner than that found in popular thought. And everyone knows what a “shift” is—some sort of change or alteration. So the “hermeneutical shift” I have in mind is some type of intentional variation, or change in perspective. And for that, we need to look at Psalm 1, the first psalm found in the Psalter. Like any psalm, this “torah psalm” was once an independent composition, not part of the one-hundred-fifty chapter work which now constitutes the psalter. As just noted, this psalm stands in praise of “torah” (basically representing the five books of Moses which are placed at the beginning of all Jewish and Christian Bibles). Psalm 1 was not originally written to head the other collection of five books—the five books of the psalter—even though it now stands as the introduction to that very collection. I guess some later editor is responsible for this—and he or she is the one who now signals the “hermeneutical shift” by that current placement. For we find another “torah” of sorts in the book of Psalms, with its five subsections. Psalm 1 (verse 2) declares to its readers that a truly blessed person “takes delight” in studying Torah, meditating on it “day and night.”  But now we know that a blessed person—at least in the opinion of a later psalms editor—should also take delight also in studying the “torah” which is found in Psalms. Many have meditated “day and night” with great profit on the words of the psalter—for example, I recall that in the middle ages, priests up for ordination in the Catholic church were expected to commit the entire psalter to memory!

So do you catch the “hermeneutical shift”? Now, Psalm 1, in its current location, serves to indicate that there is more than one five-volumned “torah” to enjoy. Of course we are to continue to meditate on the Torah of Moses, and enjoy its varied and often surprising teachings. But we are also to enjoy the “torah” (the basic idea of this Hebrew term is “teachings”) of the Psalms too—again with their varied and definitely surprising observations. Therefore, be encouraged to meditate on these poems day and night. And be blessed.


P.S. Don’t be upset if you still don’t understand the exact nature of the “hermeneutical shift.” Just be aware that the current location of Psalm 1 now encourages us to meditate on the following psalms as well as on the original books of Moses. [The term “hermeneutical shift” in this context was employed by the noted OT scholar Brevard Childs, who in turn cited its use by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.]