Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 27

Domestic Involvement with the Psalter

In this lesson, you will gain a deeper understanding of the domestic involvement in the Psalter and its significance in Ancient Israel's worship and daily life. You will learn about the roles of families, rituals, and celebrations in the Psalms, as well as the importance of music and poetry in the context of ancient worship. Additionally, you will explore the social, cultural, and theological impact of the Psalms on the community, and how they served as a means of transmitting values and beliefs. Finally, you will examine the Psalter's legacy and its influence on later generations, including its interpretation, adaptation, and relevance in the life of the church and contemporary application.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 27
Watching Now
Domestic Involvement with the Psalter

TH730-27: Domestic Involvement in the Psalter

I. The Psalter and Its Importance in Ancient Israel

A. Introduction

B. Historical and Cultural Context

C. Significance of the Psalms in Ancient Worship

II. Domestic Involvement in the Psalter

A. Families and Their Roles

B. Rituals and Celebrations

C. The Role of Music and Poetry

III. The Impact of the Psalms on the Community

A. Social and Cultural Influence

B. Theological Implications

C. The Psalms as a Means of Transmitting Values and Beliefs

IV. The Psalter's Legacy and Influence on Later Generations

A. Interpretation and Adaptation

B. The Psalms in the Life of the Church

C. Contemporary Relevance and Application

  • Explore the loss of transcendence in modernity, examining its historical and philosophical context, defining transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, exploring the impact of various movements on theology, and considering responses to the loss of transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the Greek world's origins of language and culture, the evolution of Greek history and thought, and the differences between Greek and Roman history. By examining the works of Luke as a Roman historian, you will better understand the cosmic and intimate nature of Christian history.
  • The Christian historiographical revolution redefined history as linear and purposeful, contrasting with ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish approaches and profoundly impacting the study and writing of history.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the factors that led to the loss and eventual restoration of transcendence in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Reformation and Enlightenment's historical contexts, key figures, and events, as well as their impact on society, religion, and the loss of transcendence, ultimately discovering ways to reclaim transcendence in the modern world.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the loss of transcendence in modern society, its consequences, the role of Christianity in addressing the issue, and strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal.
  • This lesson teaches you about Radical Christianity, its importance, and how to cultivate it through deepening your relationship with God, prioritizing spiritual growth, and practicing radical love and social justice in a world experiencing a loss of transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you grasp the factors contributing to the loss of biblical authority and learn strategies to reaffirm its importance in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into contemporary biblical criticism, its methodologies, impact on theology, and learn to appreciate its contributions while recognizing its limitations.
  • By examining biblical criticism and its various forms, you gain insight into how Christians can respond thoughtfully, affirming Scripture's authority while engaging with criticisms and maintaining a commitment to truth.
  • By examining the loss of the soul, you'll understand its diminishing importance in modern life and learn to integrate science and spirituality for a holistic, transcendent perspective.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into classical interpretations of the soul and their interaction with Christian theology, while also understanding their modern theological implications.
  • This lesson equips you with a comprehensive understanding of the embodiment of faith, its historical development, theological implications, and practical applications in the Christian life.
  • By studying this lesson on embodiment in community, soul, and culture, you will learn how these concepts impact spiritual formation and shape your understanding of Christian faith and practice.
  • The lesson on embodiment and self-sacrifice offers insights into the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus' incarnation, the human body as the Holy Spirit's temple, and self-sacrifice as a key Christian virtue, while providing theological and practical applications.
  • This lesson equips you to understand the biblical concept of sin, the factors contributing to its loss, and offers practical steps to reintroduce sin in teaching and preaching for a more complete Christian faith.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the cardinal sins and their contemporary significance, learning how to identify and combat them in modern society for personal and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into C.S. Lewis's critique of the loss of transcendence in modern society, his theological perspectives, and his emphasis on imagination in Christianity.
  • This lesson offers an in-depth analysis of the theological differences between Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence in modern theology.
  • What then did Lewis write about in The Abolition of Man? The symbol is that the immediate threat is not the abolition of man, but the abolition that there are men without chests. And he means that being without a chest is living two dimensionally and not three dimensionally. It’s not that you just live in space and time, but that you live with space, time and God or, indeed, space, time and morals. And so really it’s simply to live an amoral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society, its consequences, theological implications, and the need for a countercultural response in the face of modern challenges.
  • This lesson guides you in understanding the loss of transcendence, seeking understanding, and retaining hope amidst the challenges of modern society.
  • You gain insight into Jacques Ellul's life, his views on the loss of transcendence, and the influence of his work on theology and society.
  • You will learn about the concept of technique in the modern world, its characteristics, societal effects, and the spiritual implications it holds for faith and transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the implications of technique on society, its challenges, and ways to respond from a biblical perspective, ultimately aiming to strengthen human connections and reclaim transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Psalms' structure, types, role in ancient worship, and their significance in modern Christian life, prayer, and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the role of domestic involvement in the Psalter, its significance in Ancient Israel's worship, and the impact of the Psalms on the community, values, and beliefs.
  • Gain insights into the connection between biblical eschatology and secularity, understanding key aspects and themes while learning to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology.
  • This lesson offers insight into the theological tensions between immanence and transcendence, their impact on modern theology and worship, and the practical steps for reintegrating them into the Christian life.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the concepts of immanence and transcendence, their effects on theology and culture, and the importance of integrating both for a balanced Christian worldview.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into time and eternity, God's relationship with them, and their impact on human experience and theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, and Christian living.
  • Gain insight into Old Testament concepts of time, the role of numbers and patterns, the significance of time in biblical prophecy, and the theological implications concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • This lesson provides insight into the New Testament's complex understanding of time, addressing concepts such as the Kingdom of God, the present age, and eternal life, and offering guidance for Christian living.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the loss of transcendence in modern society and learn how to recover and foster a transcendent view within your personal faith and church life.

This course on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. 

Dr. James Houston

Loss of Transcendence


Domestic Involvement with the Psalter

Lesson Transcript


We find evidence already by the 4th century that in the Eastern Church people were so domestically involved in the Psalter that it’s reported that when the housewife is weaving her cloth, she’s singing the Psalms. When the fishermen are sailing the sea, they’re singing the Psalms. When the ploughman is tilling the soil, he’s singing the Psalms. In other words, in every conceivable occupation and situation you’re involved in this Psalmic consciousness, a consciousness that is even for those who are totally illiterate, but who can all sing. And they’re singing the Psalms. In other words, this is what we’re saying, that our tech consciousness was their Psalm consciousness. One of the things that we have more recently learnt is that you have a much better extension of memory when you sing than when you speak. You achieve an awareness that you have 80% more expansion of memory when you’re singing it than when you’re saying it. So something that you may have read has 20% memory, but something that you’ve memorised by singing gives you the full 100% of memory. And so this again is an amazing feature of the Psalms, that the Psalms are sung.

I’ve already suggested that there has been recent insight by historical musicologists that singing was the first language of communication before speech by primitive man. So from the origins of homo sapiens, it’s singing that was the communication. This is perhaps an aside, but more recently I’ve been studying the work of Oxford anthropologists in the remote region of South African, in the northern mountains. And a remarkable thing among this primitive tribe of people, the most primitive in that part of Africa, is that when a girl is going through puberty and preparing herself to enter into womanhood, that all the process of the rites and ceremonies are the rites and ceremonies of dancing and singing. And all the communication of what the girl should be prepared for emotionally in becoming pregnant and then having a child and the delivery of the child is all done by singing. And that, therefore, what singing does is it expresses far, far more emotions than you can ever express verbally. And so you can see when this was applied to the Psalter, how there was not a single situation in their consciousness that was not related to the Psalms.

Nowadays, when a teenager gets pregnant and is so terrified by what’s going to happen to her and the changes in her life and how [radically 00:04:20] this may be disapproved of if she has Christian parents, all of this was not a problem as far as the Early Christians were concerned because you were full of Psalmody in every aspect of your consciousness. This continued then right till the 18th century. And it’s then, as we’ve seen already, that we get the substitution that is tragically, not tragically, but certainly a much lower sense of consciousness that we then have with hymnody, which itself is now evaporating from so much of our worship today.


In singing the Psalms, the participation that we have with Christ is then also related to the various metaphors that we have of our participation with God in the Old Testament. And one of the most profound forms of participation that Origen began is in bridal mysticism, that we are the lovers of Christ. We are, indeed, the bride of Christ. The love songs that the monastic movement under the Cistercians created was transformative of their way of life. And so, alongside of the Psalms, the Middle Ages is full of the consciousness of the Song of Songs.

I don’t know whether you know that from the 86 sermons that were first developed by Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century, he never finished speaking on the Psalms every week. These are simply 86 of the many other sermons that he preached or meditated with the monks every week. He spent 18 years doing nothing else than speaking on the homilies of the Song of Songs. He was, of course, preaching to the novitiates, who were all full of romantic love, as young knights had been. But now they were the knights of Christ and therefore they were in love with Christ and they were saturated in the Song of Songs. And how far does he get after 18 years? He gets to the Song of Songs 2:3. He never gets beyond that. It’s his successors like William of St. Thierry himself and John of Ford and other later writers are communicating. In the archives of Europe today, there has been discovered by scholars that even by just the end of the 14th century from the 12th century, do you know how many learned commentaries there are on the Song of Songs? 285. Again, it’s this consciousness of love, consciousness of the presence of the love of God.

This is what we might call all the evidence of homo participans: the person who is saturated with the scripture. Now, of course, there’s a different mettle, a difference voice, when we come to the Reformation. Now the Song of Songs has been discarded. Now we have Luther focusing on the Epistle to the Galatians. And this is much more limited digestion, but it’s about freedom in Christ, which is good. Or Calvin: it’s all about now the Epistle to the Romans. But you see how in the history of the Church, consciousness, even Biblical consciousness, got more and more narrowed to the point that we today have no Biblical consciousness at all. It’s quite a story. There are pivotal Psalms that were used by the Apostles to focus on qualities and realities of being homo participans that became very important for the manifestation of the doctrines of the New Testament. Let me recite what these Psalms are: Psalm 1, Psalm 2, Psalm 8, Psalm 16, Psalm 22, Psalm 51, Psalm 110, Psalm 139. And so in our meditation today, you might take these Psalms particularly seriously. And so let me again, as we did in our first volume, explain why these Psalms are so pivotal for the Christian life today.


Psalms 1 and 2 are considered by scholars today as the portal to enter into the world of the Psalms. They’re like the two portals of a door. And what is the first Psalm, which is perhaps the most important of all, telling us? It’s telling us what is the way of the righteous and, in contrast, what is the way of the wicked. What is the way of the righteous is simply right-relatedness to God. Having His spirit, having His love, by which we can participate and respond in love to Him. The way of the wicked is not the wicked as we define the wicked. The way of the wicked can be with very good people who are very upright, very, very kind, very generous, very honest, but it’s their own righteousness. It’s not the righteousness of God by faith. It’s not what Paul is talking about as righteousness. And so the solemnity of Psalm 1 is that nothing is more radical for the human spirit than to live in the light of the way of the righteous. This is not the place to make a commentary on the Psalm, but you can get many good commentaries that will help you to reflect on the depth of what that Psalm is about. And, of course, it is essential for us to realise that to participate in the Word of God is to have the mind of God, to have the spirit of God, to have the presence of God. We need all of those realities in order to really appropriate the scripture.


Psalm 2 is about kingship. And, of course, whereas the first is so personal, this seems so political. It’s about the kingship of God, of the rule of his Messiah over all the nations. It’s, as Lewis would say, look microscopically and look telescopically. You could say that Psalm 1 is looking at our life microscopically and Psalm 2 is looking at our life telescopically. But, of course, even within ourselves, we know that our emotions are not under the sovereignty of God. So yes, Psalm 2 is to tell us that all our emotions have to be under the kingship of God. And so that intensifies the consciousness with which we appropriate the second Psalm.


Psalm 8 is the Psalm that speaks about the mystery of being human. What is man that you’re mindful of him? It’s a great mystery. And many different people in many different ways are wondering about that mystery today. I think of Einstein who himself as a Jew said to him the greatest mystery of the cosmos is that the cosmos is intelligible to the human mind. What is man that man has this intelligibility—his mind is shaped to understand the whole mystery of the cosmos? Well, that’s one mystery. But the mystery of the evolution of man that perhaps physical anthropologists have been wrestling with as they dig up all these different skulls to understand the evolution of man still leaves the mystery as to the transition between the primate and the human. It’s a great mystery. It’s one of the ironies of our society today that we’re so hugely intelligent, but we’re fascinated about our animal ancestry. Or that our animals are our best friends. It’s a bit ironic when we think of the supremacy and the gulf that there is between the human and the animal and that this Psalm is amazed about what is man. Who is he?

Then there’s other Psalms. I can’t go into all of them. But we can think, of course, of the desolation of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? The sheer mystery that lies in the suffering of the cross, of the suffering servant. And in the depth of our own suffering, we should realise, I think, more than ever that suffering should not be a surprise for the Christian. How are we to be the friends of the crucified if we don’t suffer too?

It always shocks us to suffer. It’s perhaps our sinfulness that has the shock, that if we were more Christ-like, of course, that should be the norm of a Christian. He’s a suffering Christian. Not that we’re masochistic, that we don’t invite it, or that we’re foolish about receiving it, but that it’s the way of our calling. And again, that great classic Psalm of lament over one’s own sinfulness Psalm 51, what a Psalm that is. And how it’s so personalised in the life of David, but it’s so true of every one of us. So yes, Psalm consciousness is sin consciousness. One of the most profound statements of my own heart is breathing in and breathing out and saying Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner. We’re going to talk about that later. But it’s create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and take not thy spirit from me. Is the greatest passion in our life that we always want to have the presence of the Lord? If that’s the greatest passion then Lord, I need a clean heart for me to be able to be a participator of your holiness. So Psalm 51 is profound.


We have left out Psalm 23, but then you can think of when we come to die, there’s no greater comfort that ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’. I had the great privilege, which was unique in my whole life, that when my colleague from Switzerland Klaus Bockmuehl had cancer of the oesophagus, that I pledged for 14 months I would see him every day. There were three weeks when I was in Hong Kong, so there was a break, but for the rest of that period till he died, I had the privilege of walking through the valley of the shadow with him. It so enriched my life. It so bonded me to his children that when he died and his son and I found what we thought would be a nice spot for him amongst fellow Christians in the graveyard, I bought the plot as close to him as I could so that one day I’ll be there, too. That’s the bonding that you have that Psalm 23 helps you to have: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. And of course, when you get to my age, there is only a window between this life and the life to come. There’s not much difference between living now and living eternally. So that’s what Psalm 23 does so much for us.

Now again, I may revise some of my choice of Psalms because most recently I’ve been meditating profoundly on Psalm 104. And Psalm 104 is about the praise that we should have for all creation, that God is the Creator of everything. So think of your consciousness being filled with Psalm 104 instead of being your own creator of your tech devices. What a contrast. And as I’ve been in dialogue with mischief, with my dear friend Bruce Waltke, who wants to call this third volume we’re doing Psalms of Creation and Redemption. Bruce, I think we’ve got to turn it round: it’s Psalms of Redemption and Creation. Why? Because you might call it God’s mysteriously primordial intent was that we should be like Him, that we should be created in the image and likeness of God and all the cosmos is simply a stage for His redemptive action. And even our understanding of how God takes a Sabbath. The Jews interpret the Sabbath as the first day of the week after the days of creation—the seventh day. But we don’t. We realise that God’s Sabbath was what was celebrated eternally. That gives you a very different focus on things altogether.


And then, of course, we do come, though we have Psalm 130, when we’re in terrible despair, we’re like Jonah in the whale’s belly. It could be a cry of Jonah that we have in de profundis. ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O God,’ you see. Yes, 130, a Psalm when we’re in terrible despair, when we’re tempted to commit suicide, perhaps, that kind of despair. And you know, my dear friends, I’ve never asked people, but I doubt whether there’s anyone who has deep feelings who hasn’t despaired that perhaps that might be the solution. You see, we’re so protective of our reputation, so protective of our lives. I’ve been tempted to commit suicide, I was so desperate. Now, thank God, it was only a passing thought, but I know I can have empathy with people who’ve had much longer thoughts. But it’s there. And Psalm 131 will comfort you in that moment.

And then there’s Psalm 139, which is so embracing of our consciousness. Before I was ever conscious of God, He was conscious of me. Before I was ever born, before I was in my mother’s womb, He already recognised my identity. Amazing. This goes far beyond any genes. This gets to the very root: that God knows me from the foundation of the world, we might say. Well, this is how the Apostles themselves, though I’ve articulated it in a contemporary way, but the Apostles too were recognising there are pivotal Psalms for pivotal understanding of our participation in the Gospel. And certainly, they were well aware of those Messianic Psalms that were expressive of redemption.


Well, I think as we summarise some of this thinking, let’s conclude with a wonderful text that I hope that you will all read some time. And it’s summarised by the Bishop Athanasius, who lived to write In The Life of Anthony, that he admired him as the prototype of the Desert Father, because he himself had been five times exiled in the desert. So he was with Anthony in those experiences of living in the Sahara Desert, a fugitive from the wrath of his enemies in Alexandria. And so it was no doubt from that desert isolation that he found the Psalms so comforting. And so his letter to Marcellinus, who was one of his young mentees, is really a wonderful direction on how you have Psalm consciousness. And so he’s writing to Marcellinus, who’s been taken ill, who’s been writing to him. And Marcellinus has said do you not realise I’m on my sick bed. And what he’s saying is when you’re on your sick bed, you’re feeling very miserable, so he’s writing to comfort this young man. And that’s when Athanasius says well, read the Psalms; that’s your medicine for sickness; and learn to appreciate the Psalms from an old man who’s lived with Psalm consciousness. Now, I expect that old man is not himself; it’s Anthony. Because Anthony was, again, full of Psalmic consciousness.


How old did Anthony live? Probably older than me. He was probably near 100. So when people keep saying to me how is it you’re living so fit at 94, well, I tell them—because I’m speaking to, often, non-Christians—it’s gratitude. I think I should really change that and say it’s the Psalms. I think it’s the Psalms. And so that’s what Athanasius is saying: it’s the Psalms. In other words, you see, why do we have hypertension? Why do we have psychosomatic illnesses? Because we have tech consciousness and not Psalmic consciousness. We have so much stress in our bodies. We’re our own worst enemy. That’s what’s happening to so many of us. Stress, anxiety, stress, anxiety, is the rhythm of the beat of so many old people. Fear, fear, fear fills their lives. How tragic. So what really Athanasius is saying to Marcellinus is the Psalms are a miniature Bible. There you will find encapsulated all the scriptures. And, as we’ve seen, it became the miniature Bible for centuries afterwards.

He says look at the Pentateuch and you get echoes of the Pentateuch in the Psalter. Look at the books of Joshua, Judges and Ruth; you find the same thing in the Psalms. Look at the books of Kings and Chronicles; you’ll find the Psalms being echoed there. And so he takes him through the whole Bible and indicates that all these different communications of the Bible are in the Psalter. If you want to sing the events of Genesis, read Psalm 19. If you want to read the Exodus, read Psalm 78 and 114. If you want to read about the life in the wilderness around the events of Moses and Aaron, read psalm 105.


In other words, every different hero, every different epoch, every different event, of the Old Testament is all recorded in the Psalms. But do you know why? Because the Psalms come first. We’ve said that the origin of the Psalter is probably 4,000 years. So what lays out the script for the later consciousness of these people? It’s the Psalms. It’s not only David that recited and composed Psalms; Moses composed a Psalm that we now find recorded in Psalm 89. So you then have a completely different view on the Psalter in the light of this. And again, Athanasius is saying that if you want to recover your soul then recover the Psalms. Look at the Psalms morally; look at the entire teaching of scripture on the virtues and the truth of faith: the Psalms are recording it all.

Well, as we close, one of the things that I think is even very moving is that even early kings were aware that kingship is groomed by the Psalter. If you read Deuteronomy 18 when there was a desire on the part of Israel to have a king and this was not God’s desire for them to seek to have a king. He was their king. But if you have to have a king then you get the mandate of how to be a king, a godly king, in Deuteronomy 18. And what does the king do? He goes back to Psalm 1 and he meditates on the Word day and night. That’s what he does.

Well, there’s one amazing king who did this. His name is King Alfred, that we think burnt the cakes. As a schoolboy, those of us growing up in England knew that one of the Anglo-Saxon kings that was a Christian king fighting the Vikings in the 9th century, he was the King of Wessex, of Southern England. What does a Christian king in Wessex do? He’s memorised the Psalter. And because he’s a good king, what does he do? He gives a commentary to his people of every Psalm so that they have a kind of thumbnail sketch of what each Psalm is about. Have you heard of any other king doing that? He was like King David, you see.


Well, there’s a lot more we could say, but I think we’ll have to close soon by indicating to you that participation with the spirit of God is, in fact, participation in the Psalms.