Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.

When I was a math teacher, one thing I taught frequently was the “order of operations” – the rules of the language of math. The mnemonic device to remember these rules is the word “PEMDAS,” which stands for “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” In math-speak, “PEMDAS” means “Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication & Division, Addition & Subtraction.” You always do parentheses before exponents, and so on.

The order in which you do these things really does matter. For instance, how much does 7 + 2 * 3 equal? I distinctly remember getting this wrong in 7th grade math (which was a tough pill to swallow, but I got over it). I thought it was 27, because 7 + 2 = 9, and then 9 * 3 = 27. But I didn’t know PEMDAS yet. The order matters! Multiplication comes before addition: 2 * 3 = 6, and then 7 + 6 = 13, so the correct answer is 13.

Now I must ask you to please excuse my dear Chronological Bible. This edition of the Bible has made a noble effort to rearrange all of the Bible into the order in which events occurred. I have mixed feelings about this project, because it tears apart individual books of the Bible which were intended to be read as single units with themes, messages, and developments unique to each. But it gives us a better handle on the historical events underlying the Bible’s teachings.

Things have gone pretty well up until the Psalms.

This month, we have read a bunch of Psalms attributed to King David or others on his royal staff. Eleven of them (73-83) are said to be written by a man named Asaph, a musician in David’s time (see 1 Chronicles 25). These psalms appear after David’s psalms in the Chronological Bible. So far, so good.

But there’s a problem here. These psalms seems rather unlikely to be written by a person in King David’s time. Let’s look at two examples:

Psalm 78 is a long psalm that recalls God’s faithfulness to his people throughout history. In verse 9, we briefly meet “the men of Ephraim,” who turned back from God on the day of battle and forgot his faithfulness in the past. Well, maybe the tribe of Ephraim wasn’t too brave or something.

Then, much later (verses 56-64), the psalmist describes how a whole bunch of Israelites rebelled against God and were conquered by neighboring people groups as punishment. Well, maybe this is talking about one of the (minor) defeats the Israelites experienced as they conquered the Promised Land.

But then things get very strange. Verses 67-69 show God rejecting Ephraim, choosing Judah, and building “his sanctuary like the heavens” on Mount Zion, another name for Jerusalem. When exactly did this happen? In David’s time, the tribes of Israel were united, and there was no temple or sanctuary in Jerusalem; in fact, the city was still being conquered!

Maybe, just maybe, Psalm 78 was written by someone in the southern kingdom of Judah, home of the grand temple in Jerusalem, after the northern kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim) was conquered by Assyria and carried off into exile. Wouldn’t that make sense? But those events happened in 722 B.C., about three hundred years after David and Asaph. That would mean the heading at the top of the page, “A Psalm of Asaph,” is somehow misleading. It sure sounds like it wasn’t written in the middle of King David’s reign!

Second example: the much shorter Psalm 79. Take a few minutes to read that psalm, and ask yourself if it sounds like it written during the height of David’s reign. Even just the first verse raises question marks: “O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.” All of those things didn’t happen until Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., even after Israel/Ephraim fell. But it says “A Psalm of Asaph” at the top! It must be from David’s time, right?

In a word, no. David’s friend Asaph couldn’t have written that. The Bible is too complicated to read scientifically and forensically. The Chronological Bible people made a good effort, but they had to make some (questionable) decisions. 

So please excuse my dear Chronological Bible. I don’t hold it against the editors, really. I just want to be careful to read the Bible with both eyes wide open and my mind firmly engaged. When you read, don’t be afraid to ask questions of the text!

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