Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

Poetry is an art and not a science. Rather than existing by virtue of agreed rules, or laws, it has conventions. The art of poetry is to obey and, at times, break these conventions. Over time, these conventions evolve and change. Some fossilise and are admired at a distance or honoured by the homage of modern poets.

The biblical psalms are many things. Above all they are poems. This comes first, ahead of any other claim on their form and content. I recently explored the implications of this for the preacher, in a short article [1]. Others have explored a psalm’s poetic nature to a fuller extent, and in a more scholarly manner [2].

The Psalms have, at times, had modern poetic conventions foisted upon them. This unhappy situation largely ended with the work of Robert Lowth (1710–1787) [3]. Lowth mercifully rescued the psalms from the anachronism of applying Graeco-Roman poetic ideals to them. This welcome outcome still left the question open as to how we moderns might inhabit and celebrate these ancient poems, given our quite different notions of poetic form. One obvious way in which the psalms are contemporised is through being set to music for corporate worship. This is generally not just a process of translation but a process of transformation too. It is commonly the case that such works not only provide rhythm but also make use of rhyming. A notable recent and accomplished example of this is Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era [4].

Such work is essential for the ongoing recovery and rediscovery of the Psalms. Valuable though this is, it is not enough. Poetry is polysemic and as such, one transposition cannot capture all its possibilities. Given these poems are Scripture we should welcome multiple translations, transpositions, and responses. Even those fluent in biblical Hebrew and culture could not leave these texts fossilised, for they inhabit the modern world, as well as the world of Second Temple Judaism (cf. Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ interpretive paradigm [5]). To make interpretation even more complex we should note that there is not even a singular ancient horizon—the psalms were written, collected, arranged, selected, and edited over hundreds of years [6].

Every translation and every setting of a psalm is a response to that psalm. They vary in freedom depending on the aims of the new poet. There is increasing freedom from strict literal translation, such as that of an interlinear, to readable translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, to paraphrases, such as The Message. The poetic freedom continues as interpreters and poets seek new poetic forms. This trajectory continues as the interpreter breaks free of any notion of representation to aim for re-presentation. Of course such responses can differ in both form and use. They are for study, prayer, sung worship, meditation, or reflection. All such attempts look to the original, and pay homage in different ways—this might range from a meaningful bow to a knowing nod.

Three examples of such responses, in alphabetical order by surname, are:

1. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody [7]. This is a response in the form of poems describing a relationship, between a secular man and a Christian woman, in which aspects of the Psalms and the Life of David are echoed.
2. Edward Clarke’s A Book of Psalms [8]. This is a personal response to each psalm. Sometimes the poetry is very close to that of the original text, sometimes beautifully and even provocatively distant.
3. Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown [9]. Which we refer to below.

The diagram below captures something of the nature of the ‘responsorial’ freedom in translating and presenting the psalms. The scale is not meant to be linear and is presented to enable readers to reflect for themselves. The diagram reminds us that the English Bible versions, even those that are not metrical, are a step away from the original Hebrew. This is true of all attempts to translate, such as the LXX which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. Even today’s critical Hebrew text is a reconstruction using multiple manuscripts, of what is the best effort to match the unknowable autograph produced by the ultimate editors of the Psalter.

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

Once an effort is made to not only translate but to set to music then the freedom of interpretation increases so as to make the task possible. The three responses to the psalms mentioned above are also shown on the diagram. Whilst it is easy to argue that Apichella’s work is the one that has the most freedom, and therefore distance from the biblical Psalter. There is room for debate with the other two. Let the reader make up their own mind.

To conclude this post, we turn to Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown. This is in one sense a live project. Every few days Malcolm posts the next poem on his Blog [9]. On the day of writing he has reached Psalm 29. The complete work will be available as a full response to the Psalter when published by Canterbury Press, hopefully in early 2021. In Malcolm’s own words:

So I have begun a new series of short poems, responding freely to the daily psalms, and drawing on their leading images, as a starting point for Christian reflection. My hope is to weave these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic. [10]

His poems are indeed woven together just like that first crown of thorns. The delightful play on words links not only Christ’s suffering and Covid-19 but additionally they allude to a poetic convention. I had not heard of this convention until his project began. The convention is simply stated, but rather more challenging to deliver. Each poem in a corona, or crown, of sonnets is linked to its neighbours. This is achieved, as Guite explained above, by the closing line of one poem being identical to the opening line of the next. Fifteen sonnets linked in this way can be termed a heroic crown. I am not sure what term might be given to 150!

This remarkable project sublimely conveys the idea of convention and convention-breaking in poetry. In the first instance there is immense discontinuity in this response to the Psalter and the entity that inspired it. Each and every psalm response has the same literary form. This is clearly not the case with the original psalms. Indeed, scholars still spill ink on their categorisation. The continuity is found in some rich connections between the defining convention of a corona and some features ubiquitous in the Psalter.

The intertextual link, of identical closing and opening lines of adjacent psalm responses, is a reminder of the parallelism that is so characteristic of biblical poetry. The richness of parallelism, which goes beyond the three proposed ideals of Robert Lowth [3], is still the subject of analysis to this day [11]. This link also echoes another feature of the psalms. The biblical psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours. This pairing takes on many forms. Sometimes it is simply through the use of headings or repeated opening and closing words. The Hallelujah Psalms, Psalm 111 to 118, exemplify this with their propensity to open or close with Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). Sometimes chiasmus is employed. A good example of this is how Psalms 1 and 2 are linked with a macarism, or blessed/happy saying, see Psalms 1:1a and 2:12. Phrases can also be used. For example, ‘holy hill’ in Psalms 2:6 and 3:4. This linking of psalms forms a continuous chain and has therefore been termed concatenation [12].

The precision of the parallelism in Guite’s project also reflects a peculiar feature of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134) which have the poignant convention of making the same statement twice. Perhaps most famously in Psalm 130:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NRSV

I hope that many readers will join me in waiting for the complete Corona Spina that echoes not only David’s crowning glory, the Psalter, but the glory of the one who bore the crown of thorns for us all and today bears a better crown.



  1. Mark Whiting, ‘Singing a New Song’, pp.3–5, The Preacher, 178, July 2020.
  2. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Poetry of the Psalms’, pp.79–98 in The Oxford Handbook the Psalms, William P. Brown (editor), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  3. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, G. Gregory (translator), Andover: Codman Press, 1829 [Latin original 1753].
  4. Adam Carlill, Psalms for the Common Era: Hebrew Psalms in Modern Metrical English for Individuals, Choirs and Congregations, Independently Published, 2018.
  5. H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (translators), New York: Continuum, 1989.
  6. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macron: Mercer University Press, 1997.
  7. Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016.
  8. Edward Clarke, A Book of Psalms, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  9. Malcolm Guite.
  10. Malcolm Guite.
  11. Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.
  12. David M. Howard, Jr, ‘Editorial Activity in the Psalter: A State-of-the-Field Survey’, pp. 52–70 in Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, J. Clinton McCann (editor), Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, p.54.

Book Review, Part 2—The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre

This is the second, and final, part of this review of The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre, Dennis Tucker, Jr. and W. H. Bellinger, Jr. (editors), Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017. 216pp. hb. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4813-0556-3

Part 2: Theological Themes in the Psalms

Human Transience, Justice and Mercy: Psalm 103, Johannes Schnocks

In this contribution Schnocks uses a combination of approaches which consider both the shape of the Psalter (synchronic methods) and the shaping of the psalms (diachronic approaches) to explore the nature of divine mercy in Psalm 103. He does this by considering the theme of human transience raised in Psalm 90 (the first psalm of Book 4). Psalms 102 and 103 are seen to deepen the intermediate position proposed in Psalm 92. This ongoing dialogue provides a firm context within which Psalm 103 articulates the nature of the forgiveness of sins offered by YHWH. Schnocks shows how the three strophes (vv.6–10, vv.11–13 and vv.14–18), at the heart of the psalm, present a theology of divine mercy which is a rich reflection on God’s nature and his covenant relationship with Israel. This chapter is not only interesting in its own right but it also provides a helpful illustration of the potential for exploring the dialogue between the psalms made visible by synchronic approaches which recognise the shape of the Psalter.


The God of Heaven in Book 5 of the Psalter, W. Dennis Tucker Jr.

Zion Theology has long been recognised as a central theme of the Psalter. Zion Theology is explored helpfully in terms of its key motifs and with awareness that it underwent a shift in emphasis, albeit not a straightforward linear one. The spatial nature of the language in Book 5 which refers to YHWH is explored. Tucker also examines the fivefold use of the phrase ‘maker of heaven and earth’ in Book 5, noting that it is not found in the other four books. The use of this term, almost an appellation, is part of a shift in Zion Theology necessitated by the destruction of the First Temple. The evidence in Book 5 is shown to point to the term ‘God of Heaven’ becoming increasingly important in the light of defending the inviolability of Zion. Interestingly, despite YWHW’s identification as ‘God of Heaven’ the psalmists who wrote and edited Book 5 testify to the nearness of God. Indeed the motif of ‘God of Heaven’ is used in a manner consistent with YHWH as ‘Divine King [who] will intervene into the history of his threatened people’ [pp.98–9).


The Theology of the Poor in the Psalter, Johannes Bremer

Bremer opens by identifying what he sees as five threads of thought that run through the Psalter from a synchronic perspective. One of these is a theology of the poor. It would have been helpful at the outset for more to be said concerning what features of the psalms can be said to constitute a theology of the poor. Notwithstanding this point, Bremer shows that a theology of the poor is a key concept within the first David Psalter (Pss.3–41) in that each of the recently recognised four sections concludes with a psalm (Pss. 14, 24, 34 and 41) within which various elements constitute a theology of the poor. With reference to the work of Hossfeld he argues that the second Davidic Psalter mirrors this theology of the poor. He also points out that all of these Davidic psalms are from a perspective of close familiarity with the poor. This is not the case, however, with the Asaphite psalms in which there is a clear distance between the psalmist and the poor. The theology of the poor in Book 5 is rather uneven. The theme is all but absent from the Psalms of Ascents but important in the various Hallelujah/Hallel psalms (Pss. 104–106, 111–113, 115–117 and 146–150). The chapter closes with a brief outline of the diachronic explanation of the synchronic whole with which the chapter has been largely concerned.


The Elohistic Psalter: Formation and Purpose, Frank-Lothar Hossfeld

The chapter commences with a helpful reminder that Herman Gunkel was not only concerned with form criticism but devoted some attention to the formation of the Psalter. In particular he attempted to explain the existence and nature of the Elohistic Psalter (Pss. 42–83) with which Hossfeld is concerned. Hossfeld suggests that Gunkel was unwise to attempt to account for the shape of the Psalter by giving so much attention to its middle. Hossfeld briefly sketches the legacy of Gunkel’s account of the Elohistic Psalter before favouring some recent studies that have provided alternative explanations for the use of divine names in the Elohistic Psalter. He concludes that the Elohistic Psalter is part of the middle of the story of the shaping of the psalms as well as the middle of the Psalter. More specifically he suggests that its origin lies with the activities of the Asaphites who edited the second Davidic Psalter, as well as some of the Korahite psalms, namely Pss. 42–49. The chapter concludes by building on this with the very specific evidence from (i) two parallel psalm pairs: Pss. 14/53 and 40:14–18/70 , (ii) the inclusion of the second David Psalter (Pss. 69–71), (iii) the content of the second part of the Korahite Psalter (Pss. 84–85, 86–89). By way of conclusion the argument is drawn together with regard to the implications for an understanding of the formation of the Psalter.


The Elohistic Psalter: History and Theology, Joel S. Burnett

This chapter functions as something like a sequel to the previous one. Burnett considers three theological emphases of the Elohistic Psalter. The first, and most obvious, is the preference for the divine name Elohim which seeks to shroud YHWH in mystery whilst simultaneously identifying him as the deity behind other divine names. The second is the clear presentation of the supremacy of Israel’s God among the other gods. Burnett argues that this is not just a static theme, but one that culminates climatically in the penultimate Elohistic psalm (Psalm 82), in the portrayal of the divine council and Elohim’s superiority over its members. The third emphasis is the portrayal of divine judgement on earth as in heaven. In this way a hope is described whereby the calamitous events of Exile can be reversed. With these three themes in mind, Burnett considers how the first Korahite collection (Pss. 42–49) provides a lead-in to the Elohisitc Asaph-David collection and the second Korahite collection (Pss. 84–85, 87–88) cogently follows this literary unit. At a later stage he suggests that Psalms 2 and 89 were added to foster the joining of  the first Davidic Psalter to the Elohistic Psalter.


Part 3: Genre and Theology

The Psalter as a Book: Genre as Key to its Theology, Egbert Ballhorn

Ballhorn starts by recognising both the innovation, and yet also the limits, of Gunkel’s form criticism (Gattungskritik). In particular he laments the effort of some commentators in the 1920s to reorder the psalms. The revolution created by the recognition of the literary character of the psalms as a Psalter is celebrated before he moves on to consider the Psalter’s ouverture. Psalms 1–3 are explored as this ouverture, although rather surprisingly there is no mention of Robert Cole’s 2013 monograph on these psalms: Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter. Ballhorn helpfully adds further insight as to how these first psalms function as a hermeneutical lens by recognising how Psalms 1 and 2 connect with the language of the Pentateuch (Psalm 1) and that of the Latter Prophets (Psalm 2). Psalm 3 is also singled out as the first of the psalms that conforms to the expectation of what constitutes a typical psalm. In this way Ballhorn sees the first three psalms as teaching readers that addressing God in prayer is only possible by building on the twin pillars of torah and trust in the promise of God’s anointed seated in Zion.


Genre, Theology, and the God of the Psalms, Rolf Jacobson

This final chapter, rather appropriately, considers what sort of God it is that the psalms testify to. More specifically the ‘prayers of help’ (individual laments) and Royal Psalms are used to answer this question. Jacobson is aware that some scholars, such as Gerstenberger, view such an enterprise as impossible; decrying the possibility of a singular theology of the psalms—Gerstenberger famously speaks of theologies of the psalms, in no small measure because for him the pursuit of Sitz im Leben eclipses more recent canonical endeavours. In examining the ‘prayers for help’, God’s impassibility and immutability in terms of his being, character and election of Israel is first recognised. At the same time the psalms also assert, however, that when it comes to  more specific actions for Israel and for the individual, God ‘is far from impassible’ [p.175]. The election of Israel in the Royal Psalms is considered by first noting the rich semantic field within the Hebrew Bible which is not fully echoed in the psalms. What the psalms do is rather more specific. They focus on the election of specific people, most notably David. These two threads come together in witnessing that YHWH is a God of  relationships—he hears the cries of the weak and is in covenant with Israel, releasing his people’s divine purpose.


Final Comments

Edited books of this type can often feel rather haphazard but here the twelve contributions have been shaped together well. This results in a sense of common endeavour among the twelve contributors to collectively advance the canonical approach. For me two of the contributions stand out because they not only make the most of the new canonical consensus but they have wider theological promise too. The first is Brack Reid’s paper which offers some interesting possibilities and potential for reading the psalms Davidically in terms of a theology of suffering. The second is Bremer’s contribution on a theology of suffering. These two also cohere in terms of their focus. Several other contributions remind the reader that a theology of the poor is a key concern of the Psalter.

So to conclude this volume is highly recommended to advanced students and scholars with either an interest in the Psalter or the interplay between synchronic and diachronic approaches to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. A knowledge of Hebrew is necessary to get the best from most of the contributions and the collection. This contribution indicates that the synchronic approach has reached a level of genuine maturity and consensus. Undoubtedly scholars still have much to explore. There is also a vital need to ensure that the broad insights of the new consensus can be appropriated within the Church to enable the Psalter to function fully as life-transforming Scripture.



P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

Psalms 1 and 2: Gateway to the Psalter by Robert Cole

Robert L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

This monograph, I must confess at the outset, is of very special interest to me. I have been convinced for a number of years now that the first two psalms are in some sense a deliberate introduction to the Psalter. Such a view was thought to be ridiculous by many scholars until quite recently. Over the past couple of decades, however, it has been discovered (perhaps rediscovered is more appropriate) that the Psalter is not a random anthology, but has been edited with purpose and intent. Last year I published a paper to this effect: Mark J. Whiting, 2013, Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246. This paper was written before the publication of Cole’s book.

Cole’s work is a meticulous study and is written for the Academy. Fortunately, for those who want to understand Cole’s concerns without all the technical evidence, discussion and indeed cost inherent in this study, he has written a chapter in The Psalms: Language for all Seasons of the Soul, edited by Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard. The non-expert will find this book challenging but also rewarding. Challenging, because of the discussion of the Hebrew text, but rewarding too, because of the fruit yielded in seeing scholarly work which ‘feels’ like a meditation on the text. In this book review, it is not my intention to examine Cole’s technical argument in detail. This is not least because I do not have the requisite grounding in Biblical Hebrew.

Cole’s monograph has a straightforward structure, comprising four chapters whose headings reveal all, 1: Introduction, 2: Psalm 1, 3: Psalm 2 and perhaps more surprisingly 4: Psalm 3. In the first chapter, Cole starts by demonstrating that the idea that Psalms 1 and 2 function as an introduction to the Psalter is hardly novel. His survey covers textual variants of Acts, the works of numerous Church Father, the Babylonian Talmud before moving on to evidence from medieval Jewish commentators. He notes that the Reformation and Enlightenment periods represent something of a hiatus on this topic. Most of the chapter explores nineteenth-century and especially twentieth-century discussion of the role of these two psalms within the Psalter. His survey, and critical appraisal, of this material highlights how Gunkel’s major contribution to scholarship, i.e. form criticism, in Cole’s words, had a ‘stultifying effect’ on the exploration of the Psalms in their canonical order. He follows the well-known story of how first Childs, and then Wilson, challenged the hegemony of form criticism in the academy. More unusually he paints a fuller picture of the important roles played by Westermann, Zimmerli, and others, in asking profound questions about the nature and value of form-critical approaches to the Psalter.

Having thus prepared the ground, Cole works through the text of Psalm 1. He firstly considers the literary shape of the psalm, and then proceeds to commentate on its content. Cole shows a full awareness of the diverse literature on this psalm, from commentators, both ancient and modern, to the important contributions of a wide range of recent scholars. Where his study excels is in considering the rich intertextual links between Psalm 1 and other biblical texts. Cole finds that this psalm has a strong eschatological flavour, an interpretation which seems convincing to me, but has not always been in favour with modern commentators.

Chapter 3, on Psalm 2, differs slightly in structure in that between the exploration of the psalm’s structure and the commentary element, there is a section on its canonical function. Anyone who is familiar with the Psalms will, I think, agree with the case put forward by Cole concerning the reverberations of Psalm 2’s ideas and language throughout the Psalms. In the commentary section Cole carries forward his argument that there is diverse literary evidence in these two psalms which points to the purposeful juxtaposition of these two psalms as a gateway to the Psalter.

In the final, and shortest chapter, Cole continues to argue for purposeful editing of the Psalter as he shows that the concerns and topics of the first two psalms are developed and furthered in Psalm 3. In a sense the monograph then just stops dead. Cole’s thesis has been made clear, but as he recognises he can hardly complete what he has initiated for all 150 psalms. His conviction is that if careful attention is given to the individual texts, then unlike Gunkel we will find that the Psalter is a purposeful work rather than some potpourri of poems and songs. As to the fruit of this new scholarly paradigm for the Church we can only pray that it will be more fruitful in, and sympathetic to, promoting personal devotion and corporate worship than the form-critical approach. For opening up this potential, this reader is most grateful to Robert Cole.