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.

Democratisation – Psalms for Everyone

The Psalter is the result of a complex process of collecting psalms, probably in the 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. There were probably hundreds, or even thousands, of other psalms written over the same period as the 150 psalms we find in the Bible. The psalms that have made it into the canon must have stood out in order to have been valued and to have ‘survived’.

Some scholars have suggested that the canonical psalms are often those with some real ambiguity in their context—to be valued as a prayer, a psalm needs to be ‘plastic’ enough to be used, or inhabited, by another person or community in worship or prayer. This is termed democratisation, meaning that these poems and songs become the words for anybody and everybody. It illuminates why it is that so many cases the individual psalms have defined attempts to identify their context.

Each psalm will of course have had a context. Some may well have originated with David, as tradition suggests, although scholars debate the titles that ascribe psalms to certain points in David’s life. Some, perhaps even the majority, originated as songs and/or liturgy for worship in the Temple. Some capture a life-changing experience of a now anonymous individual.

Scholars legitimately explore and debate these various contexts. The problem is that such scholarship is subject to both on-going change and the whims of the latest theories. Such discussion is, of its very nature, provisional. The worshiping community and the individual worshiper cannot wait for clarity! The Church and the faithful individual must see this difficulty of discerning context as an invitation to do what followers of Yahweh have done for more than two millennia. In a sense we have permission to make the Psalms our own. This goes against the grain of what we are to do with the rest of Scripture where context is vital in ensuring we do not read into the text ideas, or even doctrines, that are not there.

The key outcome of this line of thinking is that we need to engage with the psalms imaginatively in prayer as a means to transformation. Imagination is required to make these prayers our prayers and it is necessary to ensure we engage at an emotional level rather than just a cerebral one.

It Started with a Tweet

The origin of this blog was a project to Tweet The Psalms. A project that was only 46 days old when this was posted. The blog is not an admission that 140 words is too restrictive, but rather a complementary exercise for those who might want to know the depth that lies behind the Tweets.

So why tweet the psalms? It’s a good question and a number of friends have asked this question in a tone of voice that suggested that they did not expect a convincing answer. I have to say that I was initially sceptical myself, but then saw a number of ways in which my interest in the psalms could form the basis of a regular series of Tweets.

The primary driver was a purely selfish one. I was looking for a way to give some freshness to my daily reading of the Psalter (why I was reading the psalms daily is something I will return to in a later article).

The second reason? Well it seemed a great challenge, could each psalm be distilled into 140 characters and the result still capture something of its meaning? If it could be, perhaps the process of grappling with each psalm would prevent laziness and it might also result in something memorable as an aid to remembering what-is-where in the Psalter.

Once I tried the idea it became clear that the idea worked at a number of levels. Of course the point is not to replace the psalms. My hope was that someone might read a specific Tweet and if they were familiar with the specific psalm it would recall and recapture something of that psalm. Or, perhaps more likely, the Tweet could be read before and/or after reading the specific psalm with the reader working through whether and how the Tweet worked at any level. Even a reader who disagreed with the Tweet would engage afresh with the psalm – and that’s really the point.

I also had a hope that the restrictions imposed by the form of a Tweet would in some way lend themselves to a more poetic content—surely this is appropriate for engagement with these God-given poems written by ancient Israelites. I am less sure that I’ve always succeeded on this count—a Tweet can be frustrating precisely because of its brevity. At one level I was keen to be faithful to one of the key ideas of Tweets—I wanted each one to be self-contained.

The backbone of the original project was a single Tweet per day on a psalm and this was done in canonical order (as per the numbering of the Masoretic text). This seemed nicely counter-cultural to the randomness and responsiveness of so many Tweets. This is not a judgement on the norm but rather a recapturing of a spiritual discipline of daily psalm-reading. This stable reliability has always been there complemented by a small number of retweets relevant to the psalms, or the theological issues they raise. Also, at least once a week, usually on a Sunday there is an extra Tweet – a ‘Pause’ reflecting on a broader aspect of the collection of psalms that form a book. This blog aims to explore these issues at somewhat greater depth.