Psalm Structures Old and New Part 1

Part one of his three-part exploration reflects on the challenge of discerning structure within the Psalter. It then explores the spiritual significance of two very different structures that have been found within the Psalms.

For much of Church history various scholars, lay people, clergy, religious, and theologians have been obsessed with the structure of Psalter and/or the grouping of the psalms. Recent scholarship has followed a particular variation on this since work by Brevard Childs (late 1970s) and Gerald Wilson (early 1980s). In short, Wilson argued that the Psalter had more than just a structure. He found an overall story arc concerning King David. This proposed metanarrative become a focus of what is sometimes termed the canonical approach to Psalms interpretation. This idea has been refined at every level as scholars have (a) continued to search for links between adjacent psalms (microstructure), (b) sought to establish the connections between collected psalms such as the Psalms of Ascents (mesostructure) and (c) discern variations on the David metanarrative (macrostructure).

Those who pray the Psalter in canonical order have readily discerned hints of structure—most readily microstructure—on the journey through the Psalms. The canonical approach formalises, even crystallise, some aspects of this structure. In doing so this recent scholarship sometimes focuses on the final collection of the Psalms. This is as a synchronic approach with a literary emphasis on the final form of the Psalter. Other scholars give much attention to the formation of the collection with a diachronic method that goes beyond literary concerns. Some see value in considering form and formation as two sides of the interpretive endeavour.

I have found there to be value in discerning the structure of the Psalter. There are undoubtedly features of the Psalter at the microstructural level where neighbouring palms often connect or complement each other in terms of motifs, key words, mood, voice, and heading. At the mesostructural level some collections are readily delineated by their distinct features and more tentatively their function. Again, the Psalms of Ascents come to mind. At the macrostructural—overarching story—level the various proposals have merit as a lens with which to read the Psalms. Nevertheless, there are important caveats to the value of the canonical endeavour.

Critical scholarship has, over some two centuries or so, provided much insight into the biblical text by using an immensely diverse array of methods. Its weaknesses also loom just as large. Both the gains and problems of critical scholarship have been rehearsed many times, and with immense insight. I have found Hans Frei [1], Francis Watson [2] and Michael Legaspi [3] to be stimulating in this regard. One immense problem is the provisionality of critical scholarship which does not sit comfortably with the notion of Scripture. Of course, some would argue that I am muddling chalk and cheese in making such a claim. A second issue is that scholarship is subject to faddism. I suggest that this is found in extremis with the Psalms. In Psalms’ scholarship three paradigms have dominated the last 100 years as scholars have attempted to understand formation, form and nature of the Psalter. Firstly, there was form criticism with twin foci on literary genre and their use in specific situations. This gave rise to new questions about ancient Israelite psalm use. Cult criticism arose partly in response to these questions. Then came canonical criticism, mentioned above, partly in response to the inability of the former method to explain many literary features of the Psalter.

Each of the three methods has been found problematic when developed to the exclusion of other methods. Each raises related yet distinct issues of how these paradigms might relate to contemporary psalm use by the community of faith. All three, however, offer valuable insight when tempered by an openness to other parallel paradigms. The canonical approach has reached, in my view, the end of the road in that ongoing proposals are either (i) such minute variations on a plethora of existing proposals as to add little or no further insight, or (ii) in seeking additional insight are often so speculative as to provide untestable hypotheses rather than fresh data.

The next two post are more positive as we turn now to two valuable structures within the Psalter. The first is demonstrably part of the Psalter’s fabric and the second a later construct. I will argue that both have abiding spiritual value as they enable fruitful faithful engagement with Scripture, albeit in two rather distinct ways.

1. Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics, Yale University Press, 1974.
2. Francis Watson, Text, Church, and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective, Continuum, 1994.
3. Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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