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.