‘Psalms – New Cambridge Bible Commentary’, by Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr.

Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2014).

Opening Remarks
It has seemed like a long wait for this commentary. Both authors have a strong track record with Psalms scholarship. Walter Brueggemann’s contribution to Psalms scholarship, in particular, is immense. He famously initiated little less than a new interpretive paradigm with his characterisation of psalms into psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation (see the Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed: Patrick D. Miller).

The commentary opens with a concise, but helpful, survey of key background information on the Psalms. The approach of the commentary is also explained, the use of four interpretive frameworks are singled out:

1. An attention to genre, along the lines of Gunkel’s seminal form-critical insights.
2. An awareness of cultic setting, although not with dependence on any overarching festival hypothesis.
3. Consideration of ancient near-eastern societal issues. This includes matters central to some aspects of Brueggemann’s concern with the dynamics of power within society.
4. Exploration of the placement of psalms within the Psalter during its editing.

There is nothing controversial about the choice of these four areas. They do however, indicate that the commentary’s strength will lie with its exploration of the ancient context rather than the modern use of the psalms. That this is the case is also flagged in a two sentence conclusion on page 8.

I want to confess that I have not read the whole commentary. What I have done is read the sections on specific psalms that (i) interest me, (ii) I know well and (iii) I judge to be especially important. Below I have summarised the findings of some of these forays into the main body of the commentary.

Psalms 1 and 2
Both of these psalms are flagged as being part of an introduction to the Psalter. This is a consensus of modern Psalms scholarship. What is highly puzzling, however, is that essentially nothing is done to explore the consequences of this, except for a short comment on page 34 (see below for more on the nature of this comment). Surely if something functions as an introduction, to a larger whole, care needs to be given in establishing the implications of this for the entire work?

Psalm 1 is ascribed a strong legal function in order to explain the ‘two ways’ described in the psalm. In this way the authors argue that the ‘wicked’, who are said to perish in the psalm, are in fact those in the community that have no place to stand in legal decisions. Such a reading, whilst not unheard of, does not seem convincing. As a poetic device, surely being blown away as chaff and perishing can’t just mean being on the wrong side of communal decisions? A lot of commentators do of course shy away from the traditional connotation of judgement. Yet, however uncomfortable such a topic is, the late date of psalm 1 and the poetic references to the harvest elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Jeremiah 51:33, Joel 3:13) make it difficult to defend anything other than the a reference to much starker judgement.

The exploration of psalm 2 in its cultic setting is very helpful for appreciating its origin and significance. I was however disappointed that the only mention of its Christian re-reading in Christological terms is a passing mention of seven New Testament passages which refer to this psalm. This, I guess, reflects an editorial decision regarding the New Cambridge Bible Commentary to ‘elucidate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures’. Such a choice means that the commentary needs to serve both confessions, but surely the use of the NRSV means that the volumes will be largely used by Christians, many of whom would expect a little more on how we are to use the psalms today. Enriching though it is to see psalm 2 as a coronation ritual, this will not be how it is used in devotion or liturgy by Christians, nor, of course, will it be used in this way by worshipping Jews. The ‘Bridging Horizons’ section singularly fails to bridge horizons as it points singularly points to psalms 1 and 2 as an exhortation to instruction. Many readers will be puzzled by the claim that these two psalms, and indeed the whole Psalter, are primarily a means of instruction. This is indeed one role of the Psalms, but this requires careful explanation, as well as complementing with other dynamics.

Psalms 22-24
The reservations expressed above do not apply to these three psalms. Each of these psalms is explored with verve and conviction in its ancient context and there are some helpful explorations of later Christian theology. For example:

A. Moltmann’s Crucified God is introduced along with the theme of the suffering of the righteous to round off the coverage of psalm 22.
B. Jesus as shepherd is explained in terms of a biblical trajectory.
C. The use of psalm 24 in celebrating the Triumphal Entry and the Ascension is mentioned.

The only disappointment with the treatment of these three psalms is that little is made of the relationship between the three them indicated on page 8.

The Psalms of Ascents (120-134)
The coverage of these fifteen psalms was a delight to read. Each of these songs is unpacked with clarity, and a care to see them in their societal context. This latter point is important for as is pointed out at the outset, these psalms of pilgrimage are, perhaps surprisingly, deeply concerned with community life. Not only are these psalms put into their original context eloquently, but attention is given to just how these songs address the societal challenges of Western culture imposed on those journeying on the Life of Faith. In this way there is helpful insight into topics such as:

Psalm 120 – homelessness (both literal and figurative),
Psalm 122 – a critique of ‘self-centred images of tribal and ideological futures.’,
Psalm 127 – a challenge to the culture of success.
Psalm 134 – carrying the ‘renewing power of the encounter with God in sanctuary worship into the rest of life’.

In summary this commentary has much to commend it. As a single volume manageable and affordable book it successfully covers the ancient context of the psalms with conviction, clarity and insight. In much of its coverage, within the limits of the series, it makes helpful connections with today.

However, I found it a little uneven in how well it re-read the psalms from an Easter perspective – in places this is handled well and in others there seems to be a little reticence to make such a re-reading. In particular I found coverage of a specifically Christian re-reading of the Royal Psalms disappointing, especially as Brueggemann’s previous commentary (The Message of the Psalms) on some fifty psalms did not include any Royal Psalms in it. In my view the issues of the microstructure of the Psalter, mentioned in the introduction to the commentary, is simple not considered fully enough.

This is not the definitive magnum opus from Brueggemann I was hoping for, but given its size I was always setting the bar rather too high!

‘A Journey of Two Psalms’ by Susan Gillingham

Susan Gillingham, A Journey of Two Psalms: The reception of Psalms 1 & 2 in Jewish & Christian tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2013).

Those who follow the more academic literature on the psalms will know that Susan Gillingham has already made some highly significant contributions to psalms scholarship. She is the author of The Poems and the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms Through the Centuries: volume 1. She has also edited Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms, as well as authoring a number of papers on diverse aspects of the psalms.

Her Journey of Two Psalms is important for two major reasons. Firstly, such a thorough attempt at exploring the reception history of biblical material has rarely been attempted. Secondly, Psalms 1 and 2 are increasingly seen as central to the very nature of the Psalter because of the new consensus that they are in some sense a purposeful introduction to the Psalter.

Some people of faith seem wary of reception history because of a largely groundless concern that readers born centuries after the appearance of a text impose an alien interpretation upon the text. Rather, we can turn to reception history as an aid to help prevent us from making precisely this error. By seeing how interpreters have understood and made use of a biblical text we can see what is illuminating and helpful on the one hand and what is perhaps anachronistic on the other. In so doing we can be more alert to our possible misreadings. Reception history also has the wonderful bonus of taking a wider collection of interpretive media than more traditional approaches. In Gillingham’s book, for example, the liturgical use, visual exegesis, musical interpretation and ‘imitation’ of these two psalms is considered. This ensures that a rounded interpretative range, beyond that of just the theological elite is considered. No one, least of all Susan Gillingham, is claiming that reception history replaces more traditional biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, but rather there is much to complement these approaches when we look at the psalms through the centuries.

In the first half of the book, Gillingham looks at the broad sweep of commentary on Psalms 1 and 2. This is broken down into chapters titled: ‘Ancient Judaism’, ‘Early Christianity’, ‘Rabbinic and Medieval Judaism’ and ‘From the Early Middle Ages to the Reformation’. Gillingham examines the evidence for these two psalms being viewed as, in some sense, a pair. She notes that in Jewish works of the earliest periods the two psalms are seen as being united by a concern with the Temple, whilst later they are unified by a concern with Jewish piety and identity against opposition from outside the community. Gillingham helpfully explores how different Christian contexts lead to the use of these two psalms to address the quite different concerns on diverse interpreters.

In the second half, Gillingham notes that psalms 1 and 2 play a very small role in either Jewish or Christian liturgy through the centuries. In visual exegesis, by contrast, these two psalms are prominent. In many cases, so Gillingham argues, the ‘two psalms are often illuminated in a connected, complementary way, with contrasting themes which together open up a visual gateway to the Psalter as a whole’. The selective musical interpretations, examined by Gillingham, almost exclusively focus on these two psalms as individual entities. As Gillingham notes, however, this probably has more to do with the nature of musical composition than a necessary disconnection between these two psalms. To a large extent the paraphrases and translations of these two psalms also tend to see them in their individual light, rather than making much of the literary or potential thematic links between them.

Gillingham’s conclusions are in three areas. The first concerns the importance of the theme of the Temple in Psalms 1 and 2. There are grounds for seeing this theme as important in both psalms, as well as the Psalter as a whole. Interestingly, reception history does not reveal as strong a role for this theme as I expected (and one wonders whether this might have taken Gillingham by surprise too). The second topic coheres with the first – how the theme of the Temple is handled might be perceived as a divisive issue for Christian and Jewish hermeneutics. This has indeed been the case for nineteen hundred years, but more recently there has been a more nuanced and constructive dialogue of this theme. Thirdly, and for this reader most interestingly, is the contribution to the debate over the possibility that Psalms 1 and 2 are a deliberate entrance to the Psalter. This possibility has reemerged over the last thirty years because of the emergence of a canonical hermeneutic to psalms interpretation which has seriously challenged the hegemony of the form-critical approach.

Gillingham should be commended on the clarity of argument in this work, and the shear volume and diversity of the necessary research. This study is essential reading for anyone who wants to keep abreast of the shifting consensus on interpretive paradigms for reading the Psalter.

Gillingham closes her book with a defence against those who suggest that reception history is ‘Biblical Studies on Holiday’. It seems to me that this study makes the case that the refreshment from such a holiday might well stimulate useful work in the study of the Scriptures shared by Jews and Christians.

Psalms of Ascents: Psalms 120-134

Psalm 119 comes as something of a surprise to anyone reading through the Psalter, because of both its vast length and single-minded focus on Torah. Immediately following this remarkable psalm are fifteen psalms, which in different ways are also rather unusual. Psalms 120–134 are known as the Psalms of Ascents because they all have the same heading, literally ‘song of the steps’. No other psalms have this heading. So, we have here a deliberate collection of psalms (see the earlier post on mesostructure). It is not just the common heading that unites these psalms as we shall see below.

Various traditions surround the origin and function of these psalms. They are often said to be connected with pilgrimage. The first three of these psalms, when read as a sequence support this idea. Psalm 120 might reflect the hostility faced by someone starting out on a pilgrimage as they temporary leave the everyday realities of life in their community. Psalm 121 uses language which resonates with a journey and Psalm 122 clearly articulates the joy of arriving in Jerusalem. These psalms are also linked by some interpreters with the steps leading up to the inner court of the temple: there being 15 songs of the steps to match these 15 steps. Whether these psalms were used in the autumn pilgrimage festival as is proposed by some remains inconclusive. That these psalms are intentionally placed together is more clearly demonstrable.

Their unity does not come from their common genre (or Gattungen), although more than half mention Zion (Psalms 122, 125, 126, 128, 129, 132, 133 and 134) and several could be identified as Songs of Zion. Their type is varied and includes Laments (psalms 120, 123, 126, 129 and 130) and Songs of Trust (psalms 121, 125 and 131). There are elements of wisdom too (in psalms 127, 128 and 133). Psalm 132 stands out as a Royal Psalm. When they are read sequentially their ordering often seems naturally developmental, for example, in how the lament of 120 develops into trust in 121 and is followed by the joy and celebration of 122.

So, what unites these psalms other than their common heading? Goulder (1998) helpfully builds on the work of other scholars and singles out four features that mark out these psalms (except 132 which we’ll return too below):

1. They are short psalms
These psalms are on average about 40% the length of other psalms in the Psalter. The exception being 132. All 15 together are shorter than psalm 119.

2. They use step parallelism
The psalms are known for their use of parallelism, but in the Psalms of Ascents this often takes on a style in which whole phrases carry over from one clause to the next. For example:

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Psalm 121:3-4 (KJV)

3. They repeat some short phrases
There are around six phrases that are repeated 2 or 3 times in this small group. For example:

a. Maker of heaven and earth (121: 2, 124:8 and 134: 3).
b. From this time forth and for ever more (121: 8, 125: 2, 131: 3).

4. The use a large number of positive similes
The psalms as a whole tend to favour metaphors over similes. When similes are used they are often militaristic in nature. Here in these psalms (except 132) there is a large density of similes and they tend to refer to everyday objects and events. They are also positive by nature, four typical examples being:

a. as the eyes of servants (123: 2)
b. as grass upon the housetops (129: 6).
c. as a child that is weaned of its mother (131: 2).
d. like precious ointment upon the head (133: 2).

So, what of all these features? Well they are evidence enough that these psalms are a coherent whole, except that Psalm 132 is marked out as exceptional. It is much longer, does not use step parallelism, does not have phrases that are common with the other 14 and does not contain any similes. In this way our attention is drawn to this Royal Psalm. What are we to make of these efforts to highlight this psalm?

The first issue of note is that at the time of collecting the psalms, and at the time of their use, if they indeed reflect the autumn festival, the Davidic kings were long gone. When we remember this, we see that this psalm takes the Davidic story and makes it into an eschatological promise par excellence. Despite Zion being a place of God’s dwelling, despite the pilgrimage to this city, there is something missing. There is no king of the line of David as was promised. There is no anointed one. This psalm, like a number of other prominent psalms in the Psalter, rewrites the promises of an earthly anointed ruler and transforms the meaning from ‘anointed’ to ‘messiah’. It is this hope that makes sense of pilgrimage. It is this expectation that ensures that Jerusalem is not just another earthly city. It is this future which is the horizon that the Psalms draw our attention to. Psalm 132 singled-out like this reminds the pilgrim ‘reader’ that pilgrimage is not just about the now it has a firm future eschatological dynamic too.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Return: Book V, Psalms 107–150, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

The Long and the Short of it: Psalms 117 and 119

Psalms 117 and 119 stand out for being respectively, unusually short and remarkably long. If there is any sense of editorial purpose behind the Psalter it seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that these two psalms are so close together. Their odd length also means they must have been selected with good reason. Despite the fact that Psalm 119 is almost 100 times longer than Psalm 117 they are both equally singular in their focus.

Psalm 119, as was seen two posts ago, focuses on Torah. This focus was also that of Psalm 1. Some scholars have suggested that on its way to completion the Psalter opened with Psalm 1 and closed with Psalm 119. If this was the case this would have given a key place to Torah in the Psalter, however, the final form of the Psalter still places a strong emphasis on Torah, with Psalm 119 dominating Book V because of its massive size and prominence before the Songs of Ascents. In this way, Psalm 119 picks up a key aspect of the Psalter’s opening – delight in God’s Torah or instruction.

Interestingly Psalm 117 also effectively picks up on a key aspect of the opening too. It is worth quoting Psalm 117 in full:

O praise The Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise ye The Lord.

Compared to Psalm 2 something has happened, in Psalm 2 the question raised was: ‘Why do the nations rage, . . . .?’ (2:1). The nations appear many times in the Psalter and here in a positive light. Psalm 2 articulates the problem of particularity, the good news comes first to Israel and then the nations. Psalm 117 in all is simplicity anticipates the gospel having gone out to all the nations. This is the nature of the psalms, they are concerned with ‘the now’, but then there are glimpses forward. The psalms are eschatological and in this context articulate a simple worldview where all is resolved. This is what we find in Psalms 1 and 117. In other places the questions of now are at the fore. Such questions are there in Psalm 2: why do the nations reject Yahweh? Why have the kings of Israel failed. Psalm 119 for all its focus is still asking questions: is devotion to God’s Torah enough? Will the faithful find vindication in the end?

In a way this is what we have in the Psalter, a twofold blessing: (i) permission and language to deal with the troubles and challenges of the life of faith, (ii) glimpses of that perfect future when all has been set right.

Praise ye The Lord.

Psalms 1 and 2 as an Introduction to the Psalter

The idea that the first two psalms are an intentional introduction to the Psalter is not new. A lot of recent scholarship on the Psalms has recognised this possibility and for centuries it was natural to read the Psalms sequentially as a book and so recognise a beginning to the Psalter. Despite the very different style (technically Gattungen) of these two psalms there are a number of literary links between them. These include:

1. They are both untitled, something which is unusual in the first book of the Psalter.
2. There is an inclusio which uses the word happy/blessed at the start of Psalm 1 (1:1) and end of Psalm 2 (2:12).
3. Both refer to ‘the way’ (Hebrew derek)—verses 1:1 and 2:12 again.
4. Both use the Hebrew word hagah in a manner central to the psalm’s ‘argument’. In 1:2 it is often translated meditating and in 2:1 as muttering. In both places it could be translated as murmuring ; in the former case the positive murmuring of torah and in the latter, negative language as in the English idiom of ‘under one’s breath’.

Even the difference between the two psalms might be deliberately complementary in that the first is clearly focused on the individual in the community of faith and the second on Israel and her king among the nations. More can be said on the literary links, see, for example, Whiting (2013) for an outline and Cole (2013) for a full treatment.

Over the last few years I have found it helpful to see Psalms 1 and 2 as a gateway into the Psalter. They raise a number of themes that are developed in later psalms and also raise questions which are addressed subsequently in the Psalter.

A key theme of the Psalter, and indeed much of the rest of Scripture, is the idea that there are two ways to live life. There is a way of blessing which involves devotion to Yahweh, including delighting in his torah or instruction. Conversely there is the alternative of not living in keeping with Yahweh’s teaching. One way leads to blessing often, portrayed in metaphors of fruitfulness like the tree in Psalm 1, and the other judgement often with negative metaphors like chaff blowing in the wind. Such metaphors tend to be ambiguous as to whether the consequences are ‘in this life’ or in the future. This question ‘of when’ is returned to at various points in the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 37 and 73).

That torah is central to following Yahweh is probably implicit in the fivefold division of the Psalter reflecting the nature of the Law—i.e. the Pentateuch. More explicitly the second half of Psalm 19 and the massive Psalm 119 leave little doubt about the importance of law/torah (see the previous post).

Psalm 2 considers the king as God’s anointed, and at the same time the authority of Yahweh over the nations is introduced. These two interrelated themes are found throughout the psalms. The nations are like a recurring character in the psalms. Though the nations rebel, their salvation is a concern of the Psalms (see the next post for more on this). The role of the king is central and if the psalms are read from an post-exilic viewpoint (when the psalms were collected) or from a New Testament perspective then the king, because of his designation as ‘anointed’, becomes the Messiah or Christ. Many of the psalms can be helpfully read as the words of the king or Messiah, including Psalm 1.

Worship is obviously central to the psalms nature and purpose as they are, among other things, a collection of songs. Though the individual roles of psalms in worship is still a much debated issue, that they were used in individual and corporate worship is clear. Psalm 1 focuses on an individual who finds his place amongst the corporate worshipers by opposing other rather less God-centered groups. Psalm 2 is itself very likely, first and fore-most, a liturgy used in the context of a coronation service or celebration of Yahweh’s kingship. It also indicates that the gathering of the people of God marks them out in contrast to the scoffing nations.

A more complex idea that there is a Zion Theology that connects Psalms 1 and 2 and which is found throughout the Psalter. Those interested can refer to Gillingham (2007) and Whiting (2013). A future post will look at the idea of Zion Theology in more detail, when we shall see that such a theology is a key agenda of the psalmist—this doesn’t mean we will be Zionists in the modern sense. What it does mean is that we must take seriously how we interpret the psalmist’s preoccupation with Zion today.


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

S. E. Gillingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the editing of the Psalter’, in J. Day (ed.), Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, T&T Clark, (2007): pp.303ff.

M. J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (2013): 246-262.

Some Initial Thought on Psalm 1 and Psalms Scholarship

At the outset it might appear that Psalm 1 is a relatively simple text. After all it is reasonably short as biblical psalms go and it makes no historical reference. Though it contains metaphors these do not appear to be too obscure to the contemporary reader. Notwithstanding these observations, it will become clear that this apparently simple psalm takes on a much more complex dynamic when broader issues are considered.

Eaton’s Psalms of the Way and the Kingdom provides a useful insight into the plurality of interpretation of Psalm 1. Eaton helpfully surveys ten commentators from the period 1859–1978 who he judges to be the most influential. He draws attention to four key areas on which there is disagreement: (i) dating, (ii) textual criticism, (iii) form criticism and (iv) the thought and piety of Psalm 1.

The proposed date for the authorship of Psalm 1 varies widely because of the lack of clear data. Views on date tend to be made on the basis of presuppositions about the nature of the wisdom teaching found in the psalm. Of course in texts like this any attempt at dating is dependent on conclusions regarding meaning and vice versa—the interpretative circle is just that, a closed circle, due to the lack of firm data.

Many commentators make significant emendations to the text on the assumption that they can detect later glosses or copying errors. Sometimes these are based solely on philological grounds such as comparisons with other Semitic languages. On other occasions it is on aesthetic grounds, for example, Briggs and Briggs make metrical symmetry a priority, so much so that they dismiss verse 3 and thus the tree metaphor as a late editorial gloss.

The discussion in the commentaries surveyed by Eaton regarding the piety of Psalm 1 depends on an exegetical decision regarding the meaning of torah in verse 2. Torah in verse 2 is taken, by some interpreters, to be a reference to legalism in the sense of the application of the Pentateuch to the minutiae of daily life by some. Others see the term in a much broader sense of ‘instruction’—this is its simple meaning in Hebrew. This exegetical decision has arguably more to do with judgements about the nature of the development of Judaism (and of course date). Gunkel, for example, is credited by Nogalski (in the preface to the English translation of Gunkel’s Introduction to the Psalms) with the view that the ‘Israelite religion climaxed in the works of the great prophets, and then degenerated into a legalistic religion overly influenced by the law’.

Closely connected with any decision about the meaning of torah is the understanding of the judgement referred to in verse 5. It might refer to judgement in the present upon both individuals and nations. Others argue that it refers to an eschatological expectation.

This initial focus on the views of critical scholarship until c.1978 regarding Psalm 1 indicates a plurality of views regarding the date of the psalm, its textual integrity, its main subject (what is torah in this context?) and the nature of the blessing and judgement which is the key motivational aspect of the psalm if it is rightly identified as being didactic in purpose. Historical-critical scholarship is, by its very nature, based on the proposal of rival hypotheses and testing their success in explaining the data. This sounds scientific and yet there are some questionable presuppositions inherent in much of the work reviewed by Eaton. Unless the presuppositions are made clear there is little hope of choosing between the plethora of proposals.

For example, Gunkel and several other interpreters held a very negative view of late Old Testament period Judaism which colours their view of the meaning of the word torah and the nature of the piety that is being advocated in Psalm 1. I suggest that Barth had a point when arguing for a ‘hermeneutic of trust’ against the hermeneutics of suspicion of some historical-critical work. This is not to suggest a return to pre-critical interpretation but rather in this specific case to:

1. Hear the text’s spirituality rather than assuming a priori that we have a deficient piety at work.
2. To examine the imagery and metaphors without assuming that we can create a better poetic aesthetic by altering or deleting parts of the received text.

Some aspects of modern scholarship cohere with such an approach. It is no longer the case that historical-critical goals must dominate interpretation—literary and theological aspects of interpretation are no longer an optional extra. For our purposes an open presupposition that our text is Scripture is acknowledged. What do we find if we attempt such a hermeneutic of trust rather than one of suspicion? Is such an approach fruitful? Most importantly of all, is it not that case a hermeneutic is the central claim of Psalm 1 itself?

Some commentators do of course pay close attention to the metaphors and their interplay. Thus Delitzsch, for example, notes the interesting contrast between the static tree and the highly mobile chaff in the wind and is commended by Eaton for his care. The text itself, if it claims anything about interpretation, anticipates that the correct method is lengthy, i.e. day and night meditation. It is often argued that hegeh means a meditative murmuring of scripture. Although interestingly a more ‘negative’ interpretation sees this murmuring as mindless legalism. If we follow the positive trajectory the psalm would appear to commend reflective and imaginative interpretation. This would appear to make the metaphorical language and didactic purpose cohere with reflective readings. Is this perhaps condoning intratextual connections, rather than either naïve devotional readings or modern linear systematic analysis?

It is also important to note at this point that Psalm 1 makes claims (e.g. ‘whatever he does prospers’) that contradict both ‘the life of faith’ and the passionate cry of the psalmist elsewhere in the Psalter. In this sense Psalm 1 needs to be tempered in some way by some sort of intertextual context or dialogue unless we want to argue either that it is paradigmatic in teaching a ‘prosperity gospel’ or it is wrong in its claims.

There is little controversy over Psalm 1’s identity as a Wisdom Psalm. As such it has a clear didactic purpose. Its claims regarding the centrality of meditation upon Yahweh’s instruction beg the question over whether its claim is to worked out in the 149 compositions that follow. Such a view is natural (though not necessarily proven) once we recognise the collection as Scripture, but was this the understanding of the editors of the Psalter? Further, to what extent does the role of editors define our interpretation of the psalms? We will return to these questions in a later post, once we’ve had a preliminary look at Psalm 2.


C. A. Briggs and E. G. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms: Volume 1, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1906.

F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms: Volume I, translated by Francis Bolton from the second German edition, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1871.

J. H. Eaton, Psalms of the Way and the Kingdom: A Conference with the Commentators, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.

H. Gunkel, An Introduction to the Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel, completed by J. Begrich, translated by J. D. Nogalski, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998.

The Psalms have a Structure – So What?

In some previous posts we have explored the structure of the Psalter. We have seen that although much scholarship has denied there is a structure within The Psalms there has more recently been recognition that there is evidence of structure at a number of levels. The combination of an overarching structure (macrostructure), the uncontroversial recognition of groups of psalms (mesostructure) and the long-recognised pairing of psalms (microstructure), begs the question ‘so what’? For the moment, we will set aside the question of the motivation of those who collected and edited the psalms and simply think through the implications for using the psalms.

If at every level, the psalms have been selected, ordered and probably edited to give coherence, this implies that the structure needs to be appreciated as part of the reading process. In other words to use a psalm in isolation, whilst not wrong, runs the risk of missing something. For example, Psalm 1 can give a very different impression if viewed in isolation compared to a reading that notes its role at the opening of the Psalter. We will return to Psalm 1 in a later post, but for now we note two observations that temper the stark claims of Psalm 1.

Firstly, the personal certitude displayed in Psalm 1 is immediately questioned by the difficulties and challenges facing the psalmist in the sequence of psalms 3–7.

Secondly, the simplistic (but eschatologically true) view of the righteous and wicked portrayed in Psalm 1 is questioned and revisited in psalms that use the same language and ideas as Psalm 1, for example Psalms 37 and 73.

In short, what is being suggested is that engaging with the psalms is best done by reading them sequentially. This is of course a recognised practice in many different traditions of spirituality. Virtually all religious orders sing/chant the psalms sequentially in an on-going cycle. Many denominations used to, or still do, practice daily psalms singing in services at various times of the day. Regular psalm reading is also part of many formal and less formal Bible reading programmes, old and new.

Such regular and on-going use of the psalms gets to the heart of the central point of Scripture itself. The Scriptures obviously contain useful information, the sort that is essential for defining the Christian faith. More fundamentally, the psalms remind us that to engage with God’s word is an on-going even demanding practice. The point being that they don’t primarily provide information but they enable transformation. A regular reading through the Psalter enables an honesty of emotion and acknowledged life experience, articulated before God. Surely handling our emotional life before God must be central to any mature spirituality? The psalms also, because of their emotional and ‘real’ dynamic, touch our very being so the truths they contain become embedded in our daily beliefs and actions.

These seem to be reasons enough for reading, praying and/or singing regularly through these God-inspired poems and songs.

If the claims above are correct, this is also a challenge as to how we interpret Scripture (hermeneutics). Many modern approaches to hermeneutics function at the level of information, when reading Scripture is more fundamentally about transformation. This might well be a matter we return to in later posts.

The Psalter’s Structure – Microstructure

In the previous two posts we have seen that there are reasons to think that the whole book of Psalms has an overall structure, sometimes referred to as a macrostructure. We’ve also considered the various collections of psalms that were incorporated into the Psalter, what we have called mesostructure. The finest scale of structure in the book of Psalms is the least controversial of all and we can refer to is as microstructure.

At the outset we should note that the term microstructure is a modern one and we use it simply to make clear our conviction that the Psalter is organised at all scales (although this is not to suggest that all these levels of organisation were made at the same time or in a simple fashion). For millennia those who read the psalms have often noted the many, and varied, connections between neighbouring psalms. Sometimes this is referred to as pairing of psalms—others refer to it as concatenation. This latter term literally means ‘to form into a chain’. One of the challenges of exploring the idea that psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours is the subjectivity of the data. The way in which psalms are said to be paired or linked is varied. Often an unusual word, or an important word, is found in two adjacent psalms. On other occasions psalms are paired by a similar theme of interest. On other occasions a whole phrase may be repeated. Let’s look at an example of each.

1. Word pairs. Psalms 1 and 2, despite being at first glance quite dissimilar, are paired by the use of some keywords. A Hebrew word general translated ‘blessed’ is the first word of Psalm 1 and occurs in the last verse of Psalm 2. The Hebrew word hegeh occurs in both Psalm 1 (verse 2) and Psalm 2 (verse 1) and is central to the theme of each of these psalms. This can be missed in translation as in Psalm 1 the word is generally translated as ‘meditate’, ‘murmur’ or similar. In Psalm 2 it is translated as ‘plot’, ‘scheme’, etc. Finally both psalms use the word derek meaning ‘way’.

2. Common theme. Both Psalms 50 and 51 have a common theme of sacrifice. This theme is not frequently found in the Psalter.

3. Repeated phrase. Both psalms 2 and 3 make mention of the phrase ‘holy hill’ or ‘holy mountain’.

These three examples indicate the variety of these pairings, but also the fact that any one example could be down to coincidence. It is suggested that whilst any single example can’t be seen as evidence of clear intent, the shear number of examples supports the view that the psalms have often been deliberately placed next to each other and possibly some editing has been carried out too.

The next post will explore the implications of the identification of structure within the Psalter as the micro, meso and macro scales.

The Psalter’s Structure – Mesostructure

In pre-critical interpretation of the Psalms one of the most readily apparent indicators of structure in the Psalter were the headings, or superscriptions, of the psalms. Even a cursory examination of the Psalter reveals that a great many psalms have headings that reveal them to belong to what might be termed prior collections, for example:

The Davidic Psalms (3–41, 51–71).
The Asaph Psalms (50, 73–83).
The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88) .
The Psalms of Ascents (120–134).

Even the psalms that don’t have clear headings are often grouped according to opening or dominant phrases:

The Hallel Psalms (113–118, 146–150).
The ‘YHWH Malak’ Psalms (47, 93, 96–99).

As was argued in a previous post many recent studies effectively break-up these collections by focusing on psalm categories and at the same time judge titles as hermeneutically unimportant.

More recently many scholars have reconsidered the possibility that these collections have some inner coherence. For example, Goulder examined the Psalms of the Sons of Korah, and he demonstrates a common vocabulary for these psalms. His attempt to see a festal structure within the collection might not convince all but the evidence that invites such a hypothesis is demonstrable. More recently Mitchell has argued for an eschatological theme to the Psalms of the Sons of Korah collection. In particular he identifies a concern with redemption of the soul from Sheol. This links with the brief narrative information on Korah and his sons in Numbers 16:30–33 and 26:11.

Similar arguments have been made for other collections, for example:

1. Mitchell has argued for an eschatological scheme for the Psalms of Asaph and the Psalms of Ascents.
2. Gillingham identified a focus on Zion theology in the Psalms of Ascents, the Korah collection, the Psalms of Asaph, the so-called Kingship Psalms (93–100) and the Psalms of an Entrance Liturgy (15–24).

This is not the place for an assessment of the detailed claims being made in these scholarly articles. The point is that a level of structure, termed mesostructure, seems to be present in various collections throughout the Psalter.

In closing this brief pointer to mesostructure we note Goulder’s examination of the structure of Book V of the Psalter which seems to indicate how the mesostructure builds into the macrostructure. He suggests the following pattern exists:

105–106 historical psalms 135–136
107 Return from exile 137
108–110 David psalms 138–145
111,112 Alphabetic psalms 145
113–118 Hallel psalms 146–150
119 Torah psalms 1
120–134 Psalms of ascents

S. E. Gilingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter’, in J. Day (ed.), Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, London: T&T Clark International, 2007, 308–341.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1982.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Return: Book V, Psalms 107–150, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

D. C. Mitchell, The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

D. C. Mitchell, ‘“God Will Redeem My Soul from Sheol”: The Psalms of the Sons of Korah’, JSOT, 30 (2006) 365–384.

The Psalter’s Structure – Macrostructure

Don’t be put off by the fancy term: macrostructure. This post and the next two aim to show why it is helpful to look at the different levels of structure within the Book of Psalms. It is only when the three levels (macro, meso and micro) are viewed together that it becomes clear that the collection of 150 psalms is more than the sum of its parts. There is a structure and a purpose to the whole Psalter—thus calling it a book is appropriate. A final post will look at the implications for this structure on reading the Psalms as Scripture.

The term macrostructure refers to the largest scale of the Psalter. The most obvious evidence for structure on this scale is that the Psalter consists of five books. The scholar Gerald Wilson built on this uncontroversial fact to argue that there is large-scale structure and, more than that, there is actually a progression or plot to the whole book. This post will attempt a brief summary of Wilson’s key findings. At the end of the post Wilson’s key publications are listed.

Wilson’s argument for the importance of a macrostructure of the Psalter is founded on two key types of evidence. Firstly, he finds warrant from other ancient Near-Eastern hymnic literature that editorial intent can be discerned in their later collection. Secondly, he claims that the Psalter itself contains different types of evidence to demonstrate not only that it has been edited but that the editor’s, or editors’, intentions can be retrieved and understood.

Wilson examined (i) the collection of Sumerian Temple Hymns, (ii) Mesopotamian Catalogues of Hymnic Incipits, and (iii) the Qumran Psalm Manuscripts, at some length. His aim, in examining these collections, was to find warrant for editorial activity in the Hebrew Psalter from cultic song collections of a similar milieu.

Despite the detailed treatment of the three ancient Near-Eastern collections the insights gained are far from clear in Wilson’s work, because:

1. The Sumerian Temple Hymns are very different from the Hebrew Psalter in that forty one of the forty two hymns ‘share an identical basic form’.
2. The cuneiform Catalogues of Hymnic Incipits are just the titles of various cultic works catalogued for the retrieval of the complete works on tablets from a library system.
3. The manuscript evidence for canonical and non-canonical psalms at Qumran is so complex that any judgement about the relationship between the various documents and the Masoretic text are highly speculative as the disagreement among scholars identified by Wilson indicates.

The gain from this careful study is essentially that purposeful editing of cultic materials is a possibility that should be considered as other ancient Near-Eastern collections seem to have evidence of editorial intent. Essentially, however, it is the evidence discernable in the Psalter itself that will be decisive for any claim for recoverable editorial intent via an identifiable macrostructure.

Wilson’s point of departure in considering the editing of the Masoretic Psalter is recognition that there is only one explicit piece of evidence of clear editorial organisational intent: Psalm 72:20, ‘Finished are the prayers of David son of Jesse’. Wilson considers the possible role that the psalm superscriptions play in the structure of the Psalter. His argument is that their preservation demonstrates that the editors saw them as part of the text they wished to hand on. Wilson examines the occurrence of the titles carefully and argues that there is a complex editorial intent which does not cohere with any singular fully consistent criteria but that variously (i) authorship is an important grouping criteria (especially in books I-III), (ii) genre grouping takes place (based on terms such as mizmor and maskil), (iii) genre superscriptions are used to ‘soften’ transitions, and (iv) a lack of superscripts pairs neighbouring psalms.

Wilson adds to this argument by exploring other techniques for the grouping of the psalms (arguably most famously the Hallel Psalms 145–150). Wilson sees the doxologies that close the first four books (41:13, 72:18–19, 89:52 and 106:48) as structurally important in confirming that the five-fold structure was significant to the editors. Building on this he argues that the use of Royal Psalms at the ‘seams’ of these books not only reveal structure, but also the intent of the editors. These strategically placed Royal Psalms tell the story of the Davidic monarchy from its inauguration through to its failure, and finally to the recognition that it is Yahweh who reigns and is trustworthy rather than human kings.

Numerous studies rapidly followed in the wake of Wilson’s work, and many additional claims have been made about the structure of the Psalter and the intentions of the editors. The next two posts will outline the structure of the Psalter as the next two scales of mesostructure (groups of c.10 psalms) and microstructure (the relationship of a psalm with its neighbours).

G. H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1986.

G. H. Wilson, ‘The Use of Royal Psalms at the “Seams” of the Hebrew Psalter’, JSOT, 35 (1986), 85–94.

G. H. Wilson, ‘The Shape of the Book of Psalms’, Interpretation, 46 (1992) 129–142.

G. H. Wilson, ‘Understanding the Purposeful Arrangement of Psalms in the Psalter: Pitfalls and Promise’, in J. C. McCann (ed.), Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, 42–51.

G. H. Wilson, ‘Shaping the Psalter: A Consideration of Editorial Linkage in the Book of Psalms’, in J. C. McCann (ed.), Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, 72–82.

G. H. Wilson, ‘The Structure of the Psalter’, in P. S. Johnston and D. G. Firth (eds.), Interpreting the Psalms: Issue and Approaches, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005, 229–246.