A Review of ‘A Short Dictionary of the Psalms’

Jean-Pierre Prévost, A Short Dictionary of the Psalms, translated by Mary Misrahi, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1997, i–xiv, 90 pages.

This short béook has much to commend it. Its sizes makes it a rather unusual dictionary and it cannot be seen as a comprehensive introduction to the psalms. As its title suggests, however, it is not striving for completeness but aims to facilitate prayerful appropriation of the Psalter. Its strength is that it takes the psalms as they are and provides a manageable amount of technical detail in order to bring them to life. In breathing life into these ancient texts it never loses sight of either their antiquity or cultural and religious distance. As Fr. Prévost notes at the outset: ‘For us as Christians, trying to pray the psalms two thousand years after they were written, a certain effort is necessary to make them ours, even at the cost of some discipline’ [p.xi].

The way these ancient texts are brought into the present, as our fresh prayers, is by the examination of forty Hebrew words. As the author explains others might have been chosen, but these forty are well-chosen—an ideal balance between substance and conciseness. The reader who explores these forty words/roots will find that every psalm now takes on some new depth and clarity. The five excursuses in the book answer some of the most pressing questions asked by those who want to use these poems as their own prayers. These include issues around the inherent violence of some of the psalms, the identity of the psalmist’s enemies, their patriarchal world-view and their relationship to New Testament faith. The book concludes helpfully with seven different ways in which the psalms can be prayed.

Despite being a dictionary this is a book that should be read from beginning to end. Used in this way, this book will be valuable to anyone who wants to simultaneously deepen their technical understanding of the language of the psalms and the richness of their experience in praying them.

Journeying through the Psalms

This weekend I planned some teaching on The Book of Psalms for a staff and postgraduate Christian fellowship lunchtime meeting at the University of Surrey—this is my place of work. I have realised that the handout I have prepared is self-contained enough to be useful for a wider audience and so have lightly adapted it below.

Getting Started
What role do the Psalms play in your church?

What role do the Psalms play in your life?

The Psalms and the Last One Hundred Years’ of Scholarship
Scholarship on the Psalms in the twentieth century was a complex journey through very different approaches. A German scholar, Hermann Gunkel, initiated a literary approach which still informs scholarship today. His approach was valuable in exploring the various types of psalm found in the Psalter. It was inadvertently unhelpful for the Church in that its focus on individual psalms undermined The Book of Psalms. A Norwegian scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel, built on Gunkel’s work and sought to understand the use of the psalms in Ancient Israel. This sounds promising but the result was built on a historical hypothesis with scant support from the Old Testament.

More recently, scholars have recognised the limits of placing the psalms firmly in the past. Since around 1980 a large number of scholars have explored what many Christians have known for two millennia that the Psalter is a book (Judaism has recognised this for even longer of course). If the Psalter is a book, rather than a disordered anthology of songs and poems, then we might well expect (i) an introduction, (ii) evidence of structure, (iii) a conclusion. We will briefly consider these three things.

The Psalter’s Opening: Psalms 1 and 2
Scholars like Gunkel and Mowinckel largely ignored Psalm 1 because it is unusual and did not fit either a literary form or pattern of worship that interested them.[1] Psalm 1 is a call to study Yahweh’s torah, or instruction. We should ensure we do not make the mistake of seeing this as a call to legalism. Surprisingly, given their very different forms, there are links between Psalms 1 and 2. In Figure 1 their parallel usage of some Hebrew words is shown.

Psalms 1 and 2 comparison

Figure 1 Some of the more obvious literary links between Psalms 1 and 2.

Anyone unconvinced by the suggested literary links between these two psalms should note that there are two other reasons for seeing these two psalms as a pair. Firstly, they are unusual in that they both lack a heading. Secondly, there is a Jewish tradition that links these two verses as a single psalm.[2] If these two psalms are in some sense an intentional introduction to the Book of Psalms, this has some implications:

  • Perhaps the Psalms are meant to be a source of instruction.
  • The idea of ‘the way’, or a journey, might be a key concern.
  • The king/Yahweh’s anointed (= messiah) might be central to the book.

 

The Structure of the Psalms
There are many different features within the Psalter that can be viewed as evidence of structure. Many of them raise puzzling questions. Here we just scratch the surface. One obvious feature is the fivefold structure of the Psalter—the psalms are broken into five books:

Book I: Psalms 1–41

Book II: Psalms 42–72

Book III: Psalms 73–89

Book IV: Psalms 90–106

Book V: Psalms 107–150

It has been suggested that this fivefold structure deliberately echoes the Pentateuch (the five books of the torah). If this is the case Psalm 1’s call to meditation on the torah/law might point to the Book of Psalms as much as the Law of Moses.

Each of the five books in the Psalter ends in what is called a doxology or a call to praise:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting,

Amen and amen. (41:13)

 

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,

Who alone does wondrous deeds.

Blessed be his glorious name forever;

May his glory fill all the earth.

Amen and amen. (72:18-19)

 

Blessed be the Lord forever.

Amen and amen. (89:52)

 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting.

And let all the people say, “Amen.”

Praise the Lord. (106:48)

 

Let every breathing thing praise the Lord!

Hallelujah! (150:6)

 

The attentive reader will also note that the psalms that close and open the five books tend to be especially important in terms of the wider theological issues they address and/or the role of the king.

Perhaps the Psalter’s structure encapsulates a journey that mirrors the journey of so many of the pilgrims and disciples who have found sustenance and encouragement there? Anyone who reads through the Psalter, psalm-by-psalm, will perceive a journey. There is a decisive development through the Book of Psalms. Some have described this as a journey from ‘Plea to Praise’ and others as a journey from ‘Duty to Delight’.

A journey through the Psalter reaches a puzzle when Psalm 53 is reached because it appears to be so close to Psalm 14 as to be the same. The main difference between these two psalms is the words they use to refer to God. This is part of a wider puzzle in the Psalter shown in Figure 2.

Elohistic

Figure 2 The number of occurrences of the words Yahweh and Elohim in two groups of psalms.

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to a journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words in the Table below.

Table 1 Occurrence of words (NRSV) related to a journey motif in Psalm 119.

WORD VERSE/S

 

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage—most obviously Psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimages to Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith.

The Conclusion of the Psalms: Psalms 146–150
Psalms 146-150 have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah, i.e. ‘Praise the Lord’. They all end with this same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups and downs of individual and corporate experience. There is only cause for praise and its execution. Therefore, in this way they are all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the five parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter.

What better way to end a book of songs and poems than with a crescendo of praise? If we have prayed through the Psalms, the cycle of Hallelujahs is the only way it could close. If the Psalter is symbolic of the life of faith, how else should it end—but with an end echoed by David in Cohen’s Hallelujah: ‘and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah’. For those that use the Psalter repeatedly in a cycle from beginning to end, there is a foretaste of closure, ahead of the start of a fresh journey of troughs and peaks.

Conclusion
Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating a journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way.

More on the Psalms
If you have found some value in our journey through the Psalms you might like to read some short posts from my blog. Please see PsalterMark.com and in particular the post titled The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture. You can also find me on Twitter as @PsalterMark in what is usually a daily attempt to promote The Book of Psalms.

If you want to know more about the recent rediscovery that the biblical psalms are a book see the following:

Nancy deClaissé-Walford (1997), Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macon: Mercer University Press.

Palmer Robertson (2015), The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology, Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing.

[1] Gunkel went so far as to suggest its piety was deficient.

[2] The relationship between these two Psalms is explored in Mark J. Whiting (2013), Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246 and in Robert L. Cole (2013), ‘Psalms 1 and 2: The Psalter’s Introduction’ in The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers.

What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 1: Poems, Prayers and Songs

The importance of taking the context of any text into account is an obvious part of interpretation. The notion of context with regard to biblical psalms is, however, a rather complex one. This post does not attempt any resolution of the matter, but rather aims to be a starting point for readers to rethink what is an interesting ‘problem’. The headings below perhaps stretch the meaning of the word context into, for example, questions of genre and function. Although, of course, genre and function cannot be separated from context. Which brings me to the first heading of poem.

1. Psalms as Poems
There is nothing controversial about seeing the Psalms as poems. The majority of psalms use the literary device of parallelism which is generally understood to be a defining feature of biblical poetry (although the distinction between poetry and prose is perhaps unhelpful in some other parts of the Old Testament). There are many other features of the psalms that make them poetic, the use of metaphor being especially dominant and important. This is not the place to explore Hebrew poetry, except to say that there is an essential dynamic for interpretation. The key issue is that whatever else we make of the psalms, their poetic nature means that we should not be hasty in equating their poetry to simple propositional truth. This is no lack of confidence in the Psalms as Scripture, rather the opposite. The truth conveyed by the Psalms is rich with emotion. The Psalmist is often speaking from a place of non-equilibrium and trying to find their way back to orientation before God. The poetic vocabulary of the excesses of joy and despair will often stray from straightforward theological description.

I am, however, convinced that the profoundest theological contribution of the Psalms is their doctrine of God. Yet for all this theological description of who Yahweh is, the Psalms seem to question their own claims. Yahweh is a shield, he is a rock, he is a fortress – so the psalmist claims, over and over again. Yet, other psalms by their persistent cries to Yahweh seem to challenge any naive simplicity in appropriating these descriptors. Yes, Yahweh is a fortress, but this claim is best left in its poetic form, along with the rich dynamic relationship it describes. Pinning down the meaning and certainly of our experience of Yahweh in these terms seems to risk straying from the psalms themselves.

Saying that the psalms are poems is not defining their context, as such, but it is ensuring that what we might recognise that understanding their context is tempered by an appreciation of their poetic nature.

2. Psalms as Prayers
Some psalms are clearly prayers. Many psalms do the things that prayers do. Some clearly praise Yahweh; Hallelujah, ‘praise Yah’, is frequently found in the Psalter. The word is also prominent in opening a large number of psalms (106, 111, 112, 113, 117, 135, 146, 147, 148, 149 and 150). This word is just one of many pieces of evidence that the psalms are meant to function as prayers of praise.

Similarly there are many ways in which the Psalms function as prayers of petition. For example, frequently the psalmist petitions God, with the question: ‘How long?’ (e.g. 4, 6, 13, 35, 62, 71 and 74). The psalms seem to be prayers that, as some expres it, are prayers for all seasons of the soul. For all the features that make so many psalms appear as prayers, there are other aspects and indeed whole psalms that do not make obvious prayers. Psalm 1 is a good example. If psalm 1 was encountered halfway through the book of Proverbs there would be no great surprise. If it were encountered there it would be seen as some sensible piece of wisdom literature, rather than a prayer. Because, however, this psalm is not part of Proverbs, its context, by association with what are prayers, suggests that it too can function as a prayer. But is it legitimate, as many Bible readers claim (including me), to see all of the Psalms as prayers? Seeing the psalms as prayers has implications for context. Are they prayers, that in their original form, can only be used in the context of Jewish worship? Are they prayers that can be fully appropriated for modern Christian use? When they are prayers about messianic hope can the risen Christ be an interpretive lens for Christians. How do these areas relate? Do they conflict? Which uses, contexts and interpretations are legitimate and why? We often have quick answers to such questions, but we would do well to ensure we honour these texts, and the God we claim gave them to us, by ensuring we are respecting what the Psalms actually are.

3. Psalms as Songs
As well as being poetic and being, at least in many cases, prayers, the Psalms are songs. Perhaps the very existence of the Psalms originates with a desire by the editors of the Psalter to collect and thus authorise a subset of the then extant psalms. Whilst the details of this enterprise are open to conjecture the fact that it happened is evident in how these specific 150 psalms came to be included, first in the Hebrew Bible and then in the Christian Scriptures. If the Psalms, as a Psalter, were chosen in this way, are they meant to be understood as an end in themselves? This is the understanding of, for example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, who use only biblical psalms for sung worship. Or are the biblical Psalms meant to provide a framework within which worship occurs? Or, for Christians, has the life, death and resurrection of Christ meant we need to go, in some sense, beyond the Psalms?

Having reflected on the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs we are ready to focus more explicitly on the issue of context.

Part 2 coming soon

On Singing New Songs

Anyone who spends time reading the Psalms will notice the common refrain to sing a new song to the Lord. There are six occurrences of this exhortation in six individual psalms. In all but one case (psalm 144) it either opens the psalm or is a central part of the psalm’s opening. All six occurrences are reproduced, from the ESV, below:

Psalm 33:1-3
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 40:1-3
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 96:1-3
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!

Psalm 98:1-2
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

Psalm 144:9-10
I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
who gives victory to kings,
who rescues David his servant from the cruel sword.

Psalm 149:1-3
Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the godly!
Let Israel be glad in his Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!

Psalm 33 is often classified as a hymn. It is a straightforward call to praise Yahweh for both who he is and what he has done. It is, in Brueggemann’s terms, very much a psalm of orientation-the psalmist is in a place of equilibrium where all is well in the life of the psalmist and in their relationship with God. Psalm 40 is a more complex psalm. The opening reflects on an occasion when the psalmist found a new place of orientation from a place of disorientation (the miry bog). So already from these two uses of ‘new songs’ we see that it is appropriate in the context of the steady life of faith or in moments of more extreme experience where life has been transformed.

Psalm 96, like psalm 33, is a hymn, a call to celebrate Yahweh’s person and deeds from a place of communal certainty in the truths being proclaimed. Similarly, psalm 98 is also a hymn focusing on Yahweh’s salvation of Israel and his future righteous judgement of the world. Psalm 144 and 149 are also both hymns, although the former is perhaps not fully a song of orientation as it seems to look forward to singing a new song at a later date, rather than actually doing so (see verse 11).

Many readers, singers and scholars of the Psalms will simply see these references to new songs as a poetic way for the author to refer to his action in writing a psalm. The reason behind the need for a new song has variously been connected with a festival or military victory. Psalms 144 and 149 especially seem to have something of this militaristic feel about them. Either or both of these occasional needs might well be the inspiration for a new song. However, I want to suggest we might be missing the point if we assume that a new song is primarily a matter of novelty within the psalm itself. Many of us live in a culture where new songs appear weekly and even in popular Western Christian culture there is an industry of musical innovation. Perhaps some of those in this industry might even claim a biblical mandate of promoting new songs! I want to suggest that this is not what singing a new song is about. Rather singing a new song is more about the act of being in a new place before God. Whether it is about military victory for a king or the nation, an individual’s recovery from illness (the miry bog?) or recognition of God doing some other new work, this is the focus not the novel words of praise and song that follow.

How do I come to this view? The first piece of information supporting this view is something peculiar about psalm 96. After reading its threefold exhortation to sing a new song to Yahweh, the reader (or perhaps more aptly, the singer) expects something fresh and innovative. What else might a new song be? Psalm 96 is remarkable for the way in which it is anything but a new song. It is a hodgepodge of verses and ideas from other psalms. As Robert Alter puts it:
‘In point of fact, it is a weaving together of phrases and whole lines that appear elsewhere.’

This lack of originality or innovation is not a failure, rather it is precisely the point of a new song – it is newly composed, but informed by what has been there all along.

This alone is rather minimal evidence. In addition to this reuse or recycling (or in more scholarly terms, Midrash), the Psalter contains some other examples of psalm reuse. The two most obvious and extensive cases are:

1. Psalms 14 and 53 are almost identical to each other.
2. Psalm 108 combines large parts of psalms 57 and 60 (verses 2-6 strongly parallel 57:8-12 and verses 7-14 are virtually identical to 60:6-14).

These canonised examples of reuse encourage us to do the same. On the basis of Psalm 96 being anything but a new song in terms of originality and the two examples above, I suggest that the Psalter encourages us to sing and pray new songs; songs and prayers reflecting newness before God, whose words are informed by the Psalms themselves. I am not suggesting that all songs and prayers will simply be a mishmash of psalm verses. Rather I am hoping that we can see that the canon itself demonstrates that the Psalter is a vocabulary and resource for our prayers and worship, not a rigid ruleset. In this way the Psalter is instructional as psalm 1 indicates. Importantly this vocabulary goes beyond just the words to the experiences of the life of faith that underpin them. We are not meant to construct new songs which are just a one-dimensional pastiche of the bits of the Psalter we like. Let’s sing new songs which reflect the movements of the life of faith as we experience all of its offerings of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.

Robert Alter (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, New York: W. W. Norton.

Reading the Psalms: An Appeal for Help and Information

If you have read this blog regularly you will already know that I have an interest in reading the Psalms in their setting within the canon. In particular, I am interested in the impact of the discipline of reading the Psalms daily, in their canonical order.

The Church has, in various ways, treated the Psalms like this, almost since its birth. In particular, in many liturgical traditions, especially in monastic practise, the Psalms are used extensively. Some orders and individuals even sing the whole Psalter each week.

Much scholarship over the past century has examined the Psalms in ways which tend to isolate them into individual texts. At the same time many churches have moved away from giving the Psalter prominence in corporate worship. Additionally, use of the Psalms is often subject to a sort of censorship, whereby certain psalms and certain verses are omitted from the approved liturgy.

More recent scholarship has recognised that the The Psalms are in fact a book, a Psalter. Many of my earlier posts explore this. It is, however, doubtful that this change in scholarship has had any observable impact on either Church practice or personal devotions.

I am attempting to write a book about the value of reading the Psalter as a spiritual discipline. I would really like to hear from anyone who has experience of disciplined reading and/or singing of the Psalter. I am keen to hear about both positive and negative experiences. If you do use the Psalms regularly it would be great to hear why you do, what you do, and how long you’ve done it. If you belong to a monastic order, or know someone who does, I would really like to hear about the pattern of psalm use there.

Please feel free to leave a comment below, contact me at @PsalterMark or email m.j.whiting@icloud.com.