The Dongola Times

(Anachronistic) Dispatches from the Kingdom of Makuria.
12th of September, 2013

The Recursive Psalm 40

Psalms 40 is a very strange and psychedelic hymn. The good translation of it is an important thing, but more-importantly the understanding of it. It is a highly-recursive psalm. It refers to itself, and to references to it within both the Old and New Testaments. Some of the recursive action is obvious, but some is not.

The first thing you have to note is that the version of it that was found in the Septuagint is a good translation; so it said “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me.” This is the version quoted in Hebrews 10:5, and its reference to Jesus Christ is very clear. Not just because it was written by a most-influential follower of Jesus Christ, but because it is also written to the Hebrews, who have problems with the very thesis that this verse is affirming: that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, in the flesh.

The prominence of the “secular” Greek among even the Jews who first believed in Jesus Christ is truly a sign of just how non-mainstream Jesus was, from the “insider” Jewish view. And then came Paul, personally chosen by this Jesus, who further revealed the greatest Gentile-lover hidden behind the nationally-oriented rabbi who on occasion called Gentiles “little dogs” and Samaritans “foreigners.” This is the Jesus in John 4:22.

So the psalm quotes Someone:

Then I said, “Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart.” I have proclaimed the good news of righteousness in the great assembly; indeed, I do not restrain my lips, O Lord, You Yourself know.
I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly.

Since the original didn’t have quote marks, where the quote ends would have been arbitrary (but, of course, not random). But in Hebrews 10, the same Person is quoted:

Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—in the volume of the book it is written of Me—to do Your will, O God.’”
Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

You can already see the recursion.
The psalm refers to the volume of the book—which, in Jesus’ case and is the psalm itself, and in Hebrews’ case is the word of Jesus Himself, which, after all, is what the psalm originally quoted! This part of Psalms 40 is a quote. But when Jesus says it, He, too, is quoting the same passage. Jesus quoted a quote of Himself. Then when Hebrews was written, it referred to this recursion. (Hebrews has this kind of thing at least one other time, in Hebrews 11.)
But it gets deeper.

Who quoted Who? Certainly David was not quoted, so he is out; he himself makes it clear that he is quoting. This is another of infinite beautifully-humbling Trinitarian conundrums. David was speaking by the Holy Spirit. (That same chapter, Hebrews 10, there is explicit mention of the Holy Spirit as God: “But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before …”) So, fine, David is speaking by the Holy Spirit, Who is quoting the words of Jesus Christ! According to David himself, it is a quote. But David cannot a distant descendant. It is God quoting God.

It is not too often recognised how greatly Trinitarian, so to speak, the epistle to the Hebrews is. The entire first paragraph is a whirling mix of “Jesus is the exact character of God.” The first chapter of Hebrews quotes the Psalms saying that God directs the angels to fall down and worship His Son, who is the exact character of God, Jesus Christ. The second chapter admits that having been a human is too lowly a situation for the “exact character of God,” but the writer says it was necessary in order for Jesus to be able to die. “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” Anyway, having obediently suffered, now He has inherited a name above every name in this age and in the age to come!

The theme of taking on a body carries another recursive theme. An ancient translation was “A body you have prepared for me,” as Hebrews quotes, while all the translations in the Bibles I have seen say “My ears you have opened” in the psalm itself, regardless of what they say in Hebrews. Even then, the original Hebrew says something like “Ears you have fashioned for me.” It carries the sense of a sculptor; an alternative translation in NASB is “my ears you have perforated,” and the Amplified says “You have given me the capacity to hear.”

Of course, then, what Jesus Christ did in the body is also covered in the verses that follow. “I have proclaimed the Gospel of Righteousness in the great ecclesia.” For this reason the Hebrew asks “For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him?”
See how Hebrews references what Jesus said. But He said it before He said it; so early, in fact, that David was able to know about it and prophesy about it in startling recursive fashion, even though he was His forefather-in-the-flesh.