Rereading the Psalms: The example of psalm 2

What is meant by rereading? It is a recognition that biblical texts take on a different meaning over time. Such a claim might make some a little nervous; how can Scripture change its meaning? I suggest that it need not undermine a doctrine of Scripture, but rather it can be a useful way of appreciating some Old Testament texts and in fact might cohere with a healthy doctrine of Scripture.

An example is a good place to get the measure of the idea of rereading. We will consider psalm 2 in this post. Many scholars suggest that psalm 2 originated as a piece of liturgy that was used either in the coronation of the king of Judah or in a rite celebrating, or perhaps renewing, Yahweh’s kingship over Judah. Whilst the details are contested, and are likely to ever remain unclear, the idea makes sense of the form and content of psalm 2. Such a meaning might seem alien to many twenty-first century Christian readers because we often, and indeed uncritically, reread the Psalms.

Returning to the idea that it was originally a piece of liturgy used in connection with the Davidic monarchy, we might well ask what happened when this psalm was ‘read’ after the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Davidic kings. It might be imagined that any liturgy involved with an obsolete practice would be marginalised and lost rather than treasured and preserved. It would appear, however, that the very claims of the psalm raised questions that gave rise to some interesting answers. These answers are a rereading that sees the psalm as speaking of a future messiah; an anointed king who will act on behalf of Yahweh. Whether or not psalm 2 was edited as part of this rereading is a complex question for another day.

The story does not stop there. The inclusion of psalm 2, along with psalm 1, as an introduction to Psalter placed its rereading at the heart of the Psalter (see earlier posts re psalms 1 and 2 and Whiting (2013) for a fuller treatment). The messianic hope of psalm 2 is not only a rereading of the psalm, but it also provides a lens for reading (rereading?) the whole collection. For those who acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as messiah the rereading trajectory continues. Psalm 2 is reread as fulfilled in part, yet also awaiting fulfilment too. This second rereading takes on a strong eschatological flavour distinct from its original Jewish one.

The example of psalm 2 is indicative of a broader phenomena. Rather than Old Testament texts being fossilised, their preservation and collection is part of their flexibility to have ongoing relevance. A value within new contexts was often achieved by rereading. Other texts less conducive to being reread were probably found wanting by the people of God and thus marginalised and eventually lost. Such suggestions of rereading of preserved and ultimately canonical texts is no denial of their nature as Scripture. Rather it is a dynamic view of God’s working in the midst of his people; God speaking in fresh ways by Spirit inspired insights that represent fresh revelation about the God of Israel. This may be more nuanced than a simplistic notion of divine dictation, but this creation bound frailty is typical of a God who works through incarnation and sacrament.

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

Acrostic Psalms

Nine of the biblical Psalms are acrostic poems. The general idea is a simple one: they comprise a sequence of uses of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. So, for example, in the two shortest complete acrostics, psalms 111 and 112, half a verse or less of material starts with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph through tav in turn. In psalms 25 and 34 there is one verse beginning with each of the 22 Hebrew letters in turn. In psalm 119 there are famously 8 verses beginning with each of the Hebrew letters, giving the 176 verses that make this by far the longest of the canonical psalms.

These nine (or eight, see below) psalms are not alone in Scripture. Proverbs 31:10-31, the book of Lamentations and Nahum 1:2-8, all use the same acrostic device.

The acrostic psalms are not of a specific genre (or Gattungen). They can variously have strong elements of thanksgiving (34, 111), wisdom motifs and style (34, 37, 112), they can praise (9, 145), they can lament (10, 25, 119?) or there can be a focus on Torah (119). So what is the point to this literary device, one that in many cultures appears as something of a poetic oddity?

There are probably a number of interrelated ideas going on.

1. There is something here about convention and order. The biblical Psalms obey a number of conventions like all poetry rooted in a linguistic tradition. The acrostic form is one additional convention which gives a further constraint for the poet to work with. One of the challenges of poetry is to achieve something special within a set of rules that provide a framework. The idea of order takes on an especially poignant dynamic in the acrostic poems found in Lamentations 1-4 because of the horrors depicted there. The ordered response to the disorders experienced by Israel is the poets attempt to both highlight the dire nature of events and at least in language terms a step towards order, at least in defining the problem.

2. There is also a sense of completeness, just as in English we think of an A to Z as a compendium on a subject. A particular poem has in this sense made a complete point, argument or appeal. If this is so, then psalm 119 takes on almost manic proportions of completeness. Psalm 119 actually goes further still with its use of eight synonyms for God’s word or instruction. In nearly every verse one of these eight words appears.

3. Convention and completeness of this type also support the memorisation of the Psalms and this seems to have been important to the psalmist as Gordon Wenham has argued in a couple of recent books (Psalms as Torah, The Psalter Reclaimed).

A couple of final points are worth mentioning. Psalms 9 and 10 are not individual acrostics but they actually form a single acrostic. The fact that they belong together is further indicated in their being a single psalm in the LXX and in psalm 10 having no heading in the main Hebrew manuscripts. What is puzzling is why they have been separated and why the perfection of the acrostic has been lost in a couple of places by editing. There is also some disruption of the acrostic pattern in a couple of other cases. For example, in psalm 145 there is no clause corresponding to the ‘letter N’. Perhaps this is a deliberate disruption of perfection to make a theological point about the impossibility of perfection before the eschaton. As with many other aspects of the Psalter we can learn much, but also find some mysteries. It probably shouldn’t be any other way!

Imprecatory Language in the Psalms

Many psalms contain language which seems at odds with Jesus’ instruction that believers should love their enemies. The same language stands in contrast too with basic modern ethics of tolerance, as well as common-sense morality. Because of this apparent incoherence between the Psalms and New Testament teaching, some interpreters use the Psalms selectively. In some cases whole psalms are omitted from official liturgical worship. In other cases psalms are edited whereby the ‘offending’ verses are omitted; effectively deleting them from the canon. What appears to be a solution to modern or Christian sensibilities, however, creates new, and I would suggest ultimately insurmountable, problems for seeing the Psalms as Scripture.

Whatever our detailed theology of Scripture, surely it is meant to be authoritative. How can we preserve its normative role if we allow ad hoc omission of parts of the whole? Once we employ criteria from outside Scripture to limit it we reject its authority over us.

Is there another way? Can we account for the imprecatory nature of some psalms language in a manner which does not deny New Testament teaching or modern, and in this case commendable, sensibilities.

Perhaps our starting point should be to note that there is no necessity to see every word the psalmist utters as entirely just and correct. Though the psalmist appears to claim righteousness, we aren’t naive enough to believe that this was actually always the case! Might it not be plausible to give priority to seeing the language of the psalms as being emotionally honest rather than ethically ideal?

Psalm 137’s call to have infants dashed against rocks is undoubtedly abhorrent, as much as it is perhaps understandable emotionally in the context of the sort of national tragedy described in for example the book of Lamentations. Does our use of Psalm 137 mean that we own the psalmist a wishes? I don’t think so. Can it not instead be seen as an honest recognition that in the most dire of circumstances it is better to commit our darkest and most unsavoury wishes to God rather than suppress our emotions. The articulation of such wishes is perhaps a psychological necessity for dealing with such emotion and allowing God to begin a healing process. Is it perhaps the case that only comfortable Western world-views that inform a spirituality where emotional honesty is suppressed beneath intellectual niceties?

Another useful point that needs to be noted us that the psalmist nearly always looks to Yahweh to carry out his dark wishes. This is ultimately a placing of what we want in God’s hands, thus recognising the provisionality of our wishes as we attempt to align ourselves with God’s wishes.

These initial thoughts are probably not very original and they don’t offer a complete solution to the imprecatory words of the Psalms. They do, however, I hope offer a starting point for more nuanced views on using using language that tends to jar against our attempts to domesticate Scripture.

Some Initial Thoughts on Psalm 2

Psalm 2 is clearly very different to Psalm 1. If Psalm 1 is about personal piety, Psalm 2 is on a wholly different scale. Its concern is with the nations rather than with the individual in their local assembly (but note the individualistic final claim of v.12). Not only is the dynamic different, the whole form is different. If Psalm 2 is didactic, its teaching method is one of the ‘reader’ entering into some sort of grand drama rather than learning from wisdom metaphors and meditation on torah. Commentators frequently note this almost theatrical character to Psalm 2.

The different voices that speak in this psalm not only give rise to a sense of drama but it is frequently assumed that Psalm 2 was read as part of the real drama of the coronation of the Davidic kings of Israel or as part of a hypothetical festival in which the earthly king’s kingship was remembered, or as some suggest, as part of a celebration or enactment of Yahweh’s kingship. Even those that disagree that Psalm 2 dates back to the Davidic monarchy agree that its wording deliberately borrows and mimics such a setting.

So far we have recounted the form-critical consensus. What about the substance of the Psalm? Again commentators agree on the structure of the psalm—almost universally discerning a fourfold structure. Although commentators diverge a little on the precise nature and purpose of these sections the differences are fairly small. A number of commentators helpfully note that this fourfold structure follows an abb’a’ structure. This structure is indicated in the following four summative headings:

Verses 1–3 The nations and their kings conspire against Yahweh and his anointed.
Verses 4–6 Yahweh answers with scorn and anger, and points to the king he has anointed.
Verses 7–9 The anointed king recognises his authority, from Yahweh, to rule.
Verses 10–12 The kings of the nations are warned to fear Yahweh and his anointed.

This structure highlights two related types of question which are central to exegetical studies of this psalm:

1. How do the grand claims for God’s anointed relate to the actual history of Israel? More specifically what was the significance of these words in a time of failed monarchy?
2. Who is the anointed described in the psalm?

Collectively these sorts of questions raise questions about the ideology and eschatology of Psalm 2.

If we consider the opinion that Psalm 2 originated as a cultic psalm which was read and/or performed as part of either the coronation of the king or part of an annual festival celebrating either Yahweh’s or the king’s rule then what would it have meant?

For much of the period of the monarchy the claims of Psalm 2 were essentially hyperbole. Among the nations of the Ancient Near East, Judah (if we rule out the possibility of an origin in the Northern Kingdom as most commentators do) was hardly a dominant force and the claim that other nations were under Judah’s authority (note the chains and shackles of verse 3) seems laughable. Brueggemann doesn’t seem too far from the truth when he sees the psalm’s claims as ideological (p.606 of his Old Testament Theology). He seems to imply that like much civic ritual throughout history this psalm promotes an ideal of the ruling classes that keeps everyone in order as they imbibe the claims of the elite.

The ideology and the warlike language of Psalm 2 challenge the legitimacy of the hermeneutic of trust which we encouraged in our look at Psalm 1. However, we can note that despite this ideological nature, or mythopoetic dynamic, there are two softening aspects within the psalm. The first is the fact that in verse 8 there is something of the anointed’s authority still to be fully achieved at some future point (although this might be a consequence of the original use of the words at the start of the reign of a new king). The second and more certain softening of tone is the conclusion of the psalm: ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him’. Whilst the psalm rebukes the kings of the Earth this final sentence is surely meant either for the audience, if this sentence was part of the cultic version, or meant for the ‘reader’ if it is a later editorial addition or adaption. This brings us to the question of the later interpretation of the psalm and the possibility of editorial work.

If the psalm originated in the monarchical period its interpretation is likely to have changed when there was no monarchy and when the Temple in which the rite was originally performed was no more. What can this psalm mean when the nations appear to have conspired and plotted against the anointed of the Lord and wiped him from the Earth? Where is Yahweh’s wrath at their actions? Where is the king Yahweh installed on his holy hill? One answer to these questions would be to omit or remove the psalm from the collection (along with, of course, a number of other compositions). This was obviously not the response of the compilers of the Psalter. Its very inclusion prevents it from just being interpreted from the standpoint of the monarchy. Like many psalms it demands, simply by its existence, to be reread.

There is much speculation about minor editorial amendments to the text of Psalm 2. Most likely is the suggestion that the very last sentence was added or altered, but unless our intention is to recover the psalm for monarchical ritual use this is really besides the point. If we want to understand the first temple Cultus then such speculation might achieve something, but if we want to see this psalm as Scripture then it is the current text that is key. It seems beyond dispute that this psalm was a relatively late addition to the growing Psalter and as such was given a post-monarchical rereading by the editors. In other words the editorial intention is that it has a clear eschatological dynamic. Such an intention begs the question as to whether its position near the beginning of the Psalter is incidental or part of an overall design for the Psalter as a whole.

The use of both Psalms 1 and 2 as a deliberate introduction to the Psalter is a topic that we will return to shortly.

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.

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.