The poetry of time

From Star Trek to Back to the Future to the Avengers, or for that matter, practically the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe as of now: the science fiction / fantasy genre is filled with stories of time travel and its paradoxes. Don’t mess with the timeline, or who knows what might happen, someone warns. Everyone is appropriately somber and thoughtful — then they mess with the timeline anyway, and all live happily ever after. Mostly. In some alternate reality. Follow?

We tie ourselves in narrative knots trying to keep the logic of the story flowing in a straight line. So, wait: if they go back into the past and change it, does their future become our past? And if they return to the present, which is still their future, isn’t it a new future in which their pasts have been altered, and they can’t be the same people anymore? And, and, and… As one Star Trek character once moaned, “I hate temporal mechanics.” At some point, you just throw up your hands and go with it.

That’s an odd place to begin a Lenten meditation, I know. And I have no intention of trying to explain “temporal mechanics,” as if I could. But there are temporal paradoxes to the Psalms, too, when we try to answer questions about prophecy. Simply put: in what sense are psalms “prophetic”? And more specifically: to what extent do they foretell the suffering of Jesus?

Properly speaking, “prophecy” means more that just foretelling the future; prophets doesn’t simply look down the linear corridor of time and describe what they see. To be a prophet is to be a messenger of God, bringing an authoritative divine word — though yes, often that word is about possible futures.

But some psalms truly and eerily read like foretelling, like the psalmist is looking in a crystal ball and describing the Passion. Psalm 22 is probably the most obvious example. It opens with the famous words of anguish Jesus spoke from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (vs. 1, NRSV). Along the way, there appear to be references to how onlookers taunted and mocked Jesus on the cross, asking why God hadn’t saved him (vss. 6-8). The psalmist is “poured out like water” (vs. 14); one might think here of what happened when the Roman soldier pierced Jesus’ side. “They divide my clothes among themselves,” the psalmist laments, “and for my clothing they cast lots” (vs. 18). And in some translations, verse 16 reads, “They pierced my hands and my feet” (e.g., NASB).

The psalm still gives me chills.

Here’s the paradox: can the psalm be “about” both the present and the future at the same time?

. . .

Bible scholars, typically, try to read the psalms as much as possible in their own historical context. They don’t believe in crystal balls, of course, but neither do they assume God woke the psalmist up with a vision of the future. Their question is not, “What do these words tell us about Jesus?” but “What do these words tell us about the psalmist’s situation?” But they also recognize the way such psalms have been used by the church over the years, particularly in worshipful reflection during Holy Week.

They do not, as a rule, discuss temporal mechanics.

I’ve suggested in previous posts that we might think of the psalms as the “soundtrack” to Jesus’ life story. He quotes Psalm 22 from the cross, for example, because he knows the psalms intimately, so much so that they are his first language of spiritual emotion. This is not foretelling from the past, but “backtelling” from the present, narrating one’s own life through a beloved poetic inheritance.

But poetry does not tell a linear story of past, present, and future. The psalmist is neither a reporter nor an essayist but an artist, a person of faith whose imagination roams freely from present trouble to God’s past faithfulness and the anticipation of future praise. The psalms don’t unfold in straight lines: they circle and fold back in on themselves; they rise and dive.

This, I think, is a potentially useful way to think about time and prophecy. As temporal beings, we want to understand our lives as linear narraties, as stories that unfold in a straight line. But Scripture as revelation cannot be bound in that way, for neither can God. What we need is a poetic approach to time that allows us the freedom to not have line up past, present, and future, the freedom to enter into and appreciate the psalmist’s swoops and swirls.

So: are “prophetic” psalms about the psalmist? Yes, of course.

Are they also about Jesus? Yes, they can be, even if the psalmist is unaware. This is partly because Jesus himself and the writers of the New Testament make the inspired connection. But it’s also because in the poetry of time, where metaphor and imagery lift us beyond narrative and into the ineffable, all things are present to God.

We don’t have to sort out the temporal mechanics of it all. It’s enough, in our Lenten meditations, to give in to the chills.