Historical nonspecificity in hymns

As I’m working through Dillard and Longman’s Introduction to the Old Testament, I find a discussion about the psalms.  The vast majority of psalms are “historically nonspecific”, that is, they do not in the text of the psalm detail the historical situation out of which they arose.  The situation may be deduced by reading between the lines, but Dillard and Longman suggest that

Although the psalms arose out of a historically specific situation, they are purposely devoid of direct reference to it.  Thus it is to work against the intention of the psalmist to interpret a psalm in the light of a reconstructed original event.  The psalms are historically nonspecific so that they may be continually used in Israel’s corporate and individual worship of God.  The psalms are always relevant to the needs of the nation as well as to individual Israelites. (216)

A bit later, they try to illustrate this point:

An analogy between the Psalter and a contemporary hymnbook is instructive.  Many modern hymns arose as a result of a specific event in the life of a hymn writer, but the event remains hidden (at least without historical research) from the person who sings the song today.  The hymn was written in such a way that it allows all who sing it to identify with it. (217)

This of course does not rule out references to past historical events such as the exodus or (in the case of our own hymns) the death and resurrection of Christ.  But the point is correct: there will be a certain historical nonspecificity (regarding the hymnwriter’s historical context) to a lasting hymn whereby it may be sung by all the church on occasions appropriate for it.

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