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.

The Psalter’s Structure – An Introduction

For more than two millennia the Psalter (the Book of Psalms) was read as if it was in some sense a whole. Worshipers would sing or read through the psalms in their canonical order. Once this was completed the exercise was repeated. Traditionally the Psalter is seen as ‘the Psalms of David’ which perhaps implies it is a book rather than a collection.

Biblical scholarship over the last two hundred years, or so, has cast doubt on the idea that the psalms were authored and/or compiled by David. Such a view seems reasonable on the basis of diverse evidence. This is not to say that David did not author any psalms, but rather that it is unlikely he was responsible for the majority of them or the final editing of the Psalter. Whilst this result of scholarship seems reasonable, the assumption that the Psalter is not a coherent work seems much more dubious.

In the early twentieth century two scholars made a huge impact on psalms scholarship. Their scholarship has been useful in shedding light on the composition of individual psalms as well as helpfully illuminating the possible background of individual psalms. These two individuals are Hermann Gunkel and Sigmund Mowinckel (a student of Gunkel). Gunkel’s contribution was twofold. He identified the categories (the German word Gattungen is often used) of the Psalms. Secondly, he considered what the situation was that might have given rise to these various categories. Mowinckel went further and argued that most of the psalms originated earlier than Gunkel suggested. He argued that they were composed and used during the time of the first Temple.

The ideas that these two scholars proposed are still the subject of lively debate, but many of their basic principles are judged to be sensible. In particular it is helpful to understand the psalms in categories and to appreciate their origin in the life and worship of ancient Israel. The problem however is that the underlying assumption of both approaches is that the psalms as a whole can be understood by appreciating each of the individual psalms, i.e. no reference is made to the structure of the whole. This is at odds with the traditional use of the psalms within Jewish and Christian worship.

Over the last thirty years, or so, there has been a growing interest in how the psalms function as a whole. The basic idea is that the structure of the Psalter is not random, but rather there is some purpose behind it. Gerald Wilson is often attributed with setting this particular ‘ball rolling’. Wilson argued that there is a large-scale structure to the whole book of Psalms, what is often termed ‘macrostructure’. The next post will look at just what it might mean to suggest that the Psalter has a macrostructure.