THE PSALMS OF THANKSGIVING
In 1947 a young Arab boy made a fabulous archeological discovery as he roamed the caves overlooking the Dead Sea. Within one of the caves, which is now distinguished as Cave I, the Bedouin boy came across seven ancient documents now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The documents belonged to the Qumran Community. The language of the scrolls is solidly based on Biblical Hebrew, combined with Palestinian Aramaic and late Hebrew. These linguistic features led specialists to date the scrolls back to the pre-Christian era and the Tannaitic period, up to the second century A.D. (Mansoor 11).
The largest and most impressive of the documents is St. Mark Isaiah Scroll, which contains the complete text of Isaiah, and confirms the accuracy of the Massoretic tradition (Gilkes 8). Second is the Isaiah Scroll often referred to as the Hebrew University Isaiah. Third comes the Habakkuk commentary which consists of a reinterpretation of the prophecies of Habakkuk. The fourth document, The War of the Sons of Light and the sons of Darkness, describes in military detail the imminent battle between God and Belial, whereby the Sons of Light will help God destroy the Sons of Darkness, and what role the Community should play in the battle. The Thanksgiving Psalms are preserved in the fifth document. These Psalms consist of prayers characterizing the theology of the Community. Sixth is the Manual of Discipline which gives more information on the Community than any other scroll. Last is the Genesis Apocryphon Scroll which contains a narration by Abraham stating many of the events presented in the Book of Genesis.
The most important documents among the scrolls are those which contain literature connected with the Qumran community. Notable among these are the Thanksgiving Psalms which express the religious beliefs of the Qumran sect. The psalms are a collection of poems, most of which begin with “I thank Thee . . . . ” This introduction led to the description, Psalms of Thanksgiving, or as they are called in Hebrew, Hodayot (Holm-Nielsen 13).
The concept of man as a sinful being is an underlying theme in the psalms. Man is said to be earthy, and thus susceptible to corruption and bound by limitations. This point is illustrated in the following passage:
But I am a creature of clay and a kneading with water, a foundation of shame and a spring of impurity, a furnace of iniquity and a building of sin (18).
Man’s corruptible existence in this world is inevitable, as he is “born of a woman.” From the time man is in the womb until the day he dies, his situation is one of filth and shamelessness. In other words, man does not commit sins of his own free will, but is born of sin, and thus destined to live a life of sin (274).
The Hodayot does not state when this sinful state entered man’s existence. It can be considered an original sin in the sense that man as an individual did nothing to bring about his sinful state; however, there is no mention of a period in history that corresponds to the fall of man as there is in the Bible. Sin is not characterized as aspects of man in the psalm, but is interpreted as “faithlessness.” Man’s falling is thus the result of being without faith. This faithlessness, however, is the faithlessness of the human race, rather than of the individual (276).
Although man is unable to establish his own way, he is able to obtain insight into His mysteries, and thus sanctify himself unto God. God then reveals Himself and enlightens many.
He opens the heart and ear of dust, and impresses His statutes upon the heart of stone. He fortifies the spirit of man whom He has created, He supports man by His might, and reveals to him the wellspring of truth (282).
God’s truth is revealed as a means of teaching and directing man. It is not to all of mankind that God reveals himself, but only to those whom God has predestined for salvation. Although it is not specifically stated, it is implied that the revelation only applies to Israelites. “The members of the community are ordained unto eternal salvation, the others unto eternal damnation” (284). Although the revelation is exclusive to the community, it is not automatically bestowed on all the members within the Israelite community (285).
To those for whom the revelation is foreordained, it is through the Scripture that the revelation of God appears. It is hidden in concealed places, and requires enlightenment from God to obtain insight into it. Those who are not chosen may read and study the Scripture to their heart’s content, but they will not derive from it the revelation which remains concealed to those who are not chosen.
How shall I consider except Thou has opened mine eyes? and hear except Thou hast opened mine ears: for unto the uncircumcised of ear words are revealed; And I know that for Thyself Thou hast done these things (252).
Those who experience God’s revelation are thus able to enter God’s covenant. He is then able to have confidence in God, and God shows mercy and compassion toward him. The author of the psalms has clearly been chosen by God to enter the covenant of the elect. His emotional experience resulting from the election is, in fact, a central theme in the Thanksgiving Hymns. The author feels a deep gratitude and thus begins each poem with “I thank Thee . . . . ” (Mansoor 62). For instance in Psalm 8, line 5, the author says, “I thank Thee, O Lord, for Thou hast made my face to shine with Thy covenant” (Holm-Nielsen 76).
Once admitted into the community one must promise to keep near to “the mighty,” and to cleanse oneself of associations not within the community. One must associate only with the righteous. “God makes the righteous prevail over the wicked, for the sole purpose of showing His own might and goodness” (Mansoor 65). The wicked, whom one must not associate with, thus exist so that God’s power can be displayed in their downfall and destruction. “God has even dealt wonderfully toward the dust for the sake of His honour, to make His strength known unto all” (300). A clear distinction is thus made between “the righteous” and “the ungodly.”
The righteous are those God has chosen. There is hope for them if they turn from sin and look to God for salvation. They know the truth of God and they abide by it, and rejoice in it. They know good from evil and will not sin against Him in any way. They are His disciples who serve and fear him. They enter into the lot of God’s saints and are in His presence forever. God glorifies over them and bestows upon them a long life (290).
Those who do not belong to God’s community belong to the hostile world and are known as the ungodly. These are the sinners, those who live within the borders of ungodliness. They wander in an evil way rather than in the way of God. They disobey His commandments and they revel in guilt. They belong to the council of lies and they are the spirits of wickedness and injustice. They are allied with Belial, and as such, can do nothing but devilry (292).
This doctrine of categorizing all of man into the righteous and the ungodly is known as angelology. Angels are classed into two groups – good and evil. The good represent angels of light, while the bad represent angels of darkness. The members of the community have fellowship with the good angels and participate in the heavenly songs of praise for the Almighty. Meanwhile, the angels of darkness associate with Belial, the evil spirit. Belial is an outside force that hinders man and often causes him to go astray. The Qumran Sect believed they were living in a transitional period that was dominated by this battle between good and evil (54).
This ethical dualism in which two spirits dominate the human race, goes back to the ancient religion of Iran. The Iranian dualism, however, was modified in Judaism, including Qumran, by maintaining that both spirits were created by God (58).
The Qumran Sect believed that evil, having been decreed by God, dominates the present world. In the imminent battle between light and dark, however, evil will be obliterated and righteousness will emerge. “And wickedness Thou shalt exterminate forever, and Thy righteousness shall be revealed in the presence of all Thy deeds” (90).
The “end of days” it was believed, would be preceded by an onslaught of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and rivers of flames. These disasters are all necessary preliminaries to the execution of the final judgment.
His holy abode resounds; the consuming fire leaves naught behind it; the whole world is engulfed inflames of light; the mountains melt; then the earth groans in anguish. . . when the scourge of the war of God sweeps destructively across the earth, then shall also all the children of His truth gather themselves together and stand by God; yea, even the dead shall arise to action and shall raise the banner of war; thus shall ungodliness perish (Holm-Nielsen 296).
Although it is stated that ungodliness shall be brought to an end, there is no mention of the Messiah. Wherever the judgment of the world is mentioned, it is God who executes it. It is mentioned that He will be assisted; however, there is never any mention of sending a Messiah. Some interpreters insist that Psalm 3, lines 3 through 18, which illustrate a woman giving birth in anguish, signifies the coming of the Messiah, however. At any rate, the Messiah is never explicitly mentioned.
The Qumran clearly expected an ending of this world after God’s final victory over evil. This is only of consequence to the evil, however, as their time is up. The end of this world is of less significance to the elect who have already been chosen for salvation (298).
Scholars differ as to whether or not the psalms allude to immortality or resurrection. Although no clear mention is made of the resurrection of the dead or of an eternal life, many maintain that it is alluded to. The following passage illustrates the point of those who believe eternal life is implied:
I praise Thee, O Lord for Thou hast redeemed my soul from the pit; and from the Sheol of Abaddon Thou hast drawn me up to an eternal height, so that I may walk about in up-rightness unsearchable and know that there is hope for him whom Thou didst fashion from the dust unto eternal foundation. And a perverted spirit Thou didst cleanse from much transgression to stand in array with the host of the holy ones and enter into fellowship with the congregation of the sons of heaven (Mansoor 85).
Immortality is implied once again in the following passage:
And those that are according to Thy pleasure shall stand before Thee forever, and those who walk in the way of Thy heart shall be established to eternity (85).
Scholars are also at odds as to whether or not the psalms refer to a belief in the resurrection. Once again, there are a
number of passages that allude to the affirmative. For instance:
For then the sword of God shall hasten the period of judgment, and all his true children shall be aroused to destroy the sons of wickedness; and all the sons of guilt shall no longer be (87).
And those who lie in the dust have lighted up their standard-pole and the worm of men have raised the ensign . . . . (87).
Although these passages allude to resurrection, it is generally admitted that the Qumran Sect did not emphasize it, perhaps because it was taken for granted (89).
Disagreements also arise as to what purpose the psalms served. Some believe they were written for cultic use, while others believe they were written for use at religious services. It is likely, however, that the Hodayot are simply examples of the Qumran community’s faith, and are not intended to be used for instruction in dogmatics. The poems are written in the first person; however, the individual is not any one definite historical person (Holm-Nielsen 348).
The author speaks for the community as he portrays his assurance of salvation in an existence that will end with the battle between light and dark, good and evil. Members of the community have already been assured salvation as their membership is based on revelation. The author is thus speaking as the voice of the community, not as a prophet.