Our Christian publishing houses are in rough shape. They are the poor living in the dust, the needy dwelling in the ash heap (Ps. 113:7). They are by no means alone in this predicament, but as a writer I tend to take note of publishing poverty.
I’m not talking about economic or financial poverty, but cultural poverty. It was not too long ago that Christian publishers helped us look up: “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens!” (113:3). Books were about God and our eternal home with him: “He gives the barren woman a home (bayit) making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!” (113:9). Since God is “seated” on high, publishers did their bit to make us “sit” with princes (113:5, 8)—joining God and all his saints in their heavenly home.
Much has changed. Key titles in recent catalogues focus on race and whiteness, refugees and immigration, women and power, poverty and inequality, sexual orientation and identity, indigenous theology. One might argue that this shift in focus is long overdue. We’re finally really reading Psalm 113: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”
I am not so sure. These last words from Psalm 113 are almost word for word a repetition of Hannah’s song (1 Sam. 2:8). And Hannah, in turn, echoes Mary’s Magnificat—assuming (as I do) that Mary is the archetype to Hannah’s type. The psalmist directs us to the Incarnation and therefore also to our deification in Christ.
Of course, Hannah longed for children—and for justice in the dispute with her rival, Peninnah. The economy of Elkanah’s house (bayit or oikos) was compromised. Borrowing from Jon Levenson, Nathan Jennings explains in Liturgy and Theology: Economy and Reality that households in the Old Testament deliver three goods: (1) provision and protection; (2) offspring and continuity; and (3) cultural residue—goods resulting from the oikonomia of the house. Elkanah’s bayit fell short, at least in offering protection and offspring. Hannah’s complaint, therefore, was a natural complaint, grounded in her understanding of how her household economy was supposed to function.
But this-worldly justice is hardly the focus of either woman’s song. Hannah surrenders her firstborn to temple worship: “As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:28). Hannah offered a precious sacrifice, giving the first fruits of her own household to the household of God. God gives to Hannah; she gives back to him. The love of sacrifice is what makes the world go round.
Mary shows not the least concern for natural justice. She neither suffers barrenness nor faces a cruel rival. She consents to the justice of the economy of God: “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). The angel anticipates the spiritual kingdom that we see established in the Book of Acts.
Natural justice matters; but it matters only inasmuch as it participates in the supernatural justice of the kingdom of God. Hannah and Mary don’t seem to fit our cultural moment. They’re hardly woke. (Mary, in particular, seems obnoxiously submissive.) Hannah and Mary both get their sense of identity from the supernatural oikos of the kingdom of God. Their longing is for the provision and protection of God; for the Messiah as the offspring and continuity of Israel; and for the ecclesial residue that Paul’s mission would leave in its wake.
I wonder, frankly, whether our current cultural shift—reflected in numerous recent titles in the Christian publishing industry—is a subtle replacement of the household of God with an economy of this-worldly empowerment.
Ascent and descent (humiliation and exaltation) is what Psalm 113 is all about. First is the sun: “From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised!” (113:3). Next is God himself. He is “seated on high” and “looks far down upon the heavens and the earth” (113:6). Last are the poor and needy. God raises them from the dust and lifts them from the ash heap (113:7).
The sun is able to rise and set only because God is both transcendent (“Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high”) and immanent (“who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth”). The poor and needy can be lifted up only because God stoops down to look and makes them dwell with him up high. The psalmist uses the language of dwelling—yashav—to speak of God being “seated” on high (113:5), of God making the poor “sit” with princes (113:8), and of God “giving” the barren woman a home (113:9). God’s dwelling is up high, and he longs to give us the same high place. Unsurprisingly, there are strong similarities between Psalm 113 and the Philippian hymn that articulates God’s descent in Christ and our ascent in him (Phil. 2:6–11). It is in Christ that God looks down upon the heavens and the earth. And it is in Christ that he gives the barren woman a home.
What’s at stake in the sharp uptick in books dealing with empowerment? At bottom, it’s about how we read the Bible. If Psalm 113 is simply about changing external fortunes of the poor and needy, then by all means let’s pile up the literalism with yet more books that aim to make this world a better place. But if we’re supposed to allegorize the psalm—reminding ourselves that God takes us into his heavenly dwelling in Jesus Christ—then perhaps we need a change in publishing priorities.
Writing is my bread and butter. When publishing houses are in poor shape, I am in poor shape. So the last thing I want to do is offer a broadside against Christian publishing venues. I don’t want them poor and needy. I want them sitting with princes. It’s just that the gospel of Hannah and Mary is not about victimhood and empowerment but about self-abasement and deification.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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