Review of U. Rechberger, Von der Klage zum Lob

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Rechberger, Uwe, Von der Klage zum Lob: Studien zum “Stimmungsumschwung” in den Psalmen (WMANT, 133; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2012). Pp. xii, 399. Hardcover. €64.00 ISBN 978-3-7887-2580-8.

One of the well-known peculiarities of the biblical psalms of lament is that these psalms display a specific tension. They do not merely lament a certain distress and ask God to do away with this distress. In most cases, these psalms also offer expressions of confidence and praise demonstrating the praying person's certainty that God acts on his behalf to bring about deliverance. This peculiarity of the psalms of lament—often described with the expression “(sudden) change of mood” (“Stimmungsumschwung”)—is frequently discussed in Old Testament scholarship. The monograph by Uwe Rechberger, a revised version of his doctoral dissertation written at the University of Tübingen under the supervision of Bernd Janowski, provides a new and comprehensive treatment of this phenomenon.

At the beginning of his book, Rechberger presents a broad history of scholarship (3–54). He shows the continued importance into recent investigations, especially in German-speaking scholarship, of the early twentieth-century theory proposed most prominently by Friedrich Küchler and Joachim Begrich.[1] Küchler and Begrich explain the “change of mood” by assuming that a priestly oracle of salvation (“priesterliches Heilsorakel”) was spoken by a priest after the praying person had uttered his lament and petition. The words of confidence and praise at the end of the lament psalms were thus to be understood as the praying person's reaction upon receiving this oracle of salvation. Following Begrich, such priestly oracles of salvation can be found in the book of Deutero-Isaiah, for example in Isa 41:8–13, 14–16, 17–20; 43:1–7, 16–21; 44:1–5; 49:22–23, 25–26; 54:4–8; 55:4–5.

In more recent scholarship another thesis regarding the “change of mood” has taken root. Scholars like Ottmar Fuchs, Christoph Markschies, and especially Bernd Janowski explain the tension between lament and praise by assuming the psalms of lament as a whole should be understood as acts done in confidence.[2] Yet, as Markschies says, they are a “zielgerichtetes Vertrauensparadigma.” According to this view, already the lament section is based upon the confidence that God will act on behalf of the praying person; and in the final expressions of confidence and praise, which can be understood as anticipation of the praying person's future deliverance, the psalm reaches its goal.

In the first main part of his study, Rechberger investigates the old thesis of a priestly oracle of salvation (55–132). He first analyzes those sections of Deutero-Isaiah most commonly held to be such oracles of salvation, namely Isa 41:8–13, 14–16; 43:1–7; 44:1–5; 49:22–23. Rechberger contends that none of these oracles actually corroborate Begrich's thesis. These oracles do not, as often presumed, respond to laments uttered by the people. They do not even answer specific requests of the people at all. Additionally, these sections are not “oracles” in the strict sense, that is, words evoked by way of instrumental or ecstatic medium divination. Thus, the book of Deutero-Isaiah cannot prove the existence of a distinct Gattung “oracle of salvation.” Consequently, it cannot help explain the “change of mood” within the psalms of lament.

According to Rechberger, the same is true for other arguments that scholars use to support the theory that the “change of mood” should be explained as the response to an oracle of salvation. The “confessions of Jeremiah,” which are often used in support, are neither followed by a word of salvation given by God and nor do they lead to a “change of mood” on the part of the prophet. Lamentations 3:57, appearing in the context of a lament, declares that God came near and said: “Do not fear.” But nothing supports the conclusion that this word has been transmitted by a priest. In 1 Sam 1 after Hannah's lament, the priest Eli gives her a promise (1:17), but this promise is not provoked by and does not respond directly to Hannah's lament. Finally, some psalms of lament refer to words of God. However, they do not presuppose that these words have been communicated by a priest or a prophet.

Thus, according to Rechberger, this earlier solution for the problem of the “change of mood” explaining this phenomenon by a priestly oracle of salvation should be abandoned. In his view, the “change of mood” should not be explained by looking for a process which is external to the text. It should rather be explained from within the text.

In his second main section (133–292), Rechberger presents his solution for the “change of mood” based upon a close reading of three psalms of lament: Pss 22; 3; and 6. His analyses are influenced by speech-act theory as well as by some recent formulations of reader-response criticism.

In Rechberger's view, the “change of mood” should be explained as a change of the speech act. Lament and petition are displaced by proclamations of confidence and praise. In the wake of Fuchs, Markschies, and Janowski, Rechberger explains this change in the speech act by assuming that not only the utterances of confidence and praise but the whole psalms of lament can be understood as demonstrations of confidence. Similar to these earlier scholars, he understands confidence to be the main theme (“Basismotiv”) of the lament psalms.

He argues, for example, that the invocation “my God” in 22:2 already documents the praying person's strong relationship to God. Thus, the beginning of this psalm in 22:2–3 opens a certain space for speech that intends to bridge the gap between the current experience of a distant God on the one hand, and both the memory of and the hope for new communion with God on the other.

The subsequent passages of the lament in Ps 22:2–22 give further utterances of confidence. Verse 5 refers to the confidence of the fathers; vv. 10–11 declare that the praying person has been reliant upon God since his birth.

Against this background, Rechberger argues that the statement in 22:22bβ “you have heard me,” which earlier theories explained through the assumption of an external oracle of salvation, can be understood as an expression of anticipated certainty of a hearing. In his view, the preceding 22 verses of the psalm can be seen as a kind of investment in confidence, which now in 22:22bβ–32, in the final section of the psalm, reaches its climax in unadulterated proclamations of confidence and praise.

After the detailed analyses of three specific psalms, the final sections of Rechberger's study treat various general questions regarding the psalms of lament. He first discusses theological aspects (293–309). He points to the importance of the invocation of God, the presentation of God's character, and the significance of God's forgiveness in the psalms of lament.

Rechberger then treats some anthropological aspects (310–21). He deals with the praying person's assertion of innocence, with references to earlier experiences of deliverance or, again, with the significance of the praying person's confidence.

Finally, Rechberger offers some remarks based upon reader-response criticism (322–40). He develops the idea that the psalms of lament are not documentations of individual prayers but paradigmatic prayers intended to be read and re-read. As paradigmatic prayers, the psalms of lament condense a process that unfolds over a longer time in real life—a process from lament to praise. The lament psalms invite people in distress to read and re-read them again and again, and by doing so to step into the praying process as it is documented in these psalms.

According to Rechberger, this praying process is not, as other reading processes, only constituted by the text and the reader. It is also constituted by a third party, namely God. The turn from lament to praise documented in the psalms of lament cannot be adopted by the reader or prayer of these psalms alone. It is rather a gift that is ultimately given by God himself.

Rechberger's study is surely important. It is—perhaps besides the study of Villanueva[3]—the only work on the psalms of lament that discusses comprehensively both the earlier and more recent theories on these psalms. Though his own approach is not really new, but rather a conservative continuation of the studies of Fuchs, Markschies, and Janowski, the well-informed history of scholarship, the broad discussion of the earlier theory about the oracle of salvation, the detailed analyses of selected psalms of lament, and the profound elaboration of the Fuchs-Markschies-Janowski thesis make Rechberger's study worth reading.

After his study, the old theories about an oracle of salvation should now indeed be abandoned. These approaches try to fill the gap between lament and petition on the one hand, and the proclamations of confidence and praise on the other, through an unverifiable external impulse.

Additionally, Rechberger's study convincingly shows that the psalms of lament are not idiosyncratic prayers of specific individuals but paradigmatic prayers. Because of their undetermined shape, these psalms were, from their very beginning, written prayers made for reading and re-reading in very different situations. Thus, Rechberger is right that the “change of mood” cannot be explained in light of a certain biographical or ritual setting. It should rather be understood against the background of the lament psalms' function as paradigmatic prayers.

The question remains, however, whether the new theories adequately explain the juxtaposition of lament and praise by assuming that the lament itself is an act of confidence.[4] In my view, these theories also fill the gap—the tension—between lament and praise in an unjustified way. Understanding lament as an act of confidence veils the disturbed nature of the relationship to God documented in these psalms. The lament sections of these psalms often state, or at least presuppose, that God is the origin of the current distress. The expressions of confidence and praise, by contrast, present God as faithful deliverer. Thus, there is a deep theological gap between the lament sections and the praise sections of the psalms of lament. This theological gap should neither be filled by the invention of an oracle of salvation nor by recasting lament as an act of confidence. It should instead be explained by the logical fact that—in a monotheistic religion—only the very deity seen as the source of distress can be the savior from this selfsame distress. In my view, this theological tension inherent in monotheistic belief is the reason for the tension in the psalms of lament. The psalms of lament do not solve this unsolvable tension. However, with their juxtaposition of lament and praise, they counter this tension with a certain dual strategy. They enable lament over a current distress, which is perceived as being caused by God, and at the same time encourage confidence in God's acts of deliverance.

Thus, in my view, there remains space for continued discussion concerning the tension between lament and praise in the psalms of lament. Rechberger's interesting study should, however, be accorded an important place in this conversation.

Jakob Wöhrle, University of Münster

[1] F. Küchler, “Das priesterliche Orakel in Israel und Juda,” in W. Frankenberg and idem (eds.), Abhandlungen zur semitischen Religionskunde und Sprachwissenschaft (FS W. W. Graf von Baudissin; BZAW, 33; Gießen: Töpelmann, 1918), 285–301; J. Begrich, “Das priesterliche Heilsorakel,” ZAW 52 (1934), 81–92. reference

[2] O. Fuchs, Die Klage als Gebet: Eine theologische Besinnung am Beispiel des Psalms 22 (Munich: Kösel, 1982); C. Markschies, “‘Ich aber vertraue auf dich, Herr!’—Vertrauensäußerungen als Grundmotiv in den Klageliedern des Einzelnen,” ZAW 103 (1991), 386–98; B. Janowski, Konfliktgespräche mit Gott: Eine Anthropologie der Psalmen (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2003). reference

[3] F. G. Villanueva, The “Uncertainty of a Hearing”: A Study of the Sudden Change of Mood in the Psalms of Lament (VTSup, 121; Leiden: Brill, 2008). reference

[4] See J. Wöhrle, “Der verborgene und der rettende Gott: Exegetische und religionsgeschichtliche Überlegungen zur Theologie der Klagepsalmen,” BZ 55 (2011), 224–41. reference