Journeying through the Psalms

This weekend I planned some teaching on The Book of Psalms for a staff and postgraduate Christian fellowship lunchtime meeting at the University of Surrey—this is my place of work. I have realised that the handout I have prepared is self-contained enough to be useful for a wider audience and so have lightly adapted it below.

Getting Started
What role do the Psalms play in your church?

What role do the Psalms play in your life?

The Psalms and the Last One Hundred Years’ of Scholarship
Scholarship on the Psalms in the twentieth century was a complex journey through very different approaches. A German scholar, Hermann Gunkel, initiated a literary approach which still informs scholarship today. His approach was valuable in exploring the various types of psalm found in the Psalter. It was inadvertently unhelpful for the Church in that its focus on individual psalms undermined The Book of Psalms. A Norwegian scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel, built on Gunkel’s work and sought to understand the use of the psalms in Ancient Israel. This sounds promising but the result was built on a historical hypothesis with scant support from the Old Testament.

More recently, scholars have recognised the limits of placing the psalms firmly in the past. Since around 1980 a large number of scholars have explored what many Christians have known for two millennia that the Psalter is a book (Judaism has recognised this for even longer of course). If the Psalter is a book, rather than a disordered anthology of songs and poems, then we might well expect (i) an introduction, (ii) evidence of structure, (iii) a conclusion. We will briefly consider these three things.

The Psalter’s Opening: Psalms 1 and 2
Scholars like Gunkel and Mowinckel largely ignored Psalm 1 because it is unusual and did not fit either a literary form or pattern of worship that interested them.[1] Psalm 1 is a call to study Yahweh’s torah, or instruction. We should ensure we do not make the mistake of seeing this as a call to legalism. Surprisingly, given their very different forms, there are links between Psalms 1 and 2. In Figure 1 their parallel usage of some Hebrew words is shown.

Psalms 1 and 2 comparison

Figure 1 Some of the more obvious literary links between Psalms 1 and 2.

Anyone unconvinced by the suggested literary links between these two psalms should note that there are two other reasons for seeing these two psalms as a pair. Firstly, they are unusual in that they both lack a heading. Secondly, there is a Jewish tradition that links these two verses as a single psalm.[2] If these two psalms are in some sense an intentional introduction to the Book of Psalms, this has some implications:

  • Perhaps the Psalms are meant to be a source of instruction.
  • The idea of ‘the way’, or a journey, might be a key concern.
  • The king/Yahweh’s anointed (= messiah) might be central to the book.

 

The Structure of the Psalms
There are many different features within the Psalter that can be viewed as evidence of structure. Many of them raise puzzling questions. Here we just scratch the surface. One obvious feature is the fivefold structure of the Psalter—the psalms are broken into five books:

Book I: Psalms 1–41

Book II: Psalms 42–72

Book III: Psalms 73–89

Book IV: Psalms 90–106

Book V: Psalms 107–150

It has been suggested that this fivefold structure deliberately echoes the Pentateuch (the five books of the torah). If this is the case Psalm 1’s call to meditation on the torah/law might point to the Book of Psalms as much as the Law of Moses.

Each of the five books in the Psalter ends in what is called a doxology or a call to praise:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting,

Amen and amen. (41:13)

 

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,

Who alone does wondrous deeds.

Blessed be his glorious name forever;

May his glory fill all the earth.

Amen and amen. (72:18-19)

 

Blessed be the Lord forever.

Amen and amen. (89:52)

 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting.

And let all the people say, “Amen.”

Praise the Lord. (106:48)

 

Let every breathing thing praise the Lord!

Hallelujah! (150:6)

 

The attentive reader will also note that the psalms that close and open the five books tend to be especially important in terms of the wider theological issues they address and/or the role of the king.

Perhaps the Psalter’s structure encapsulates a journey that mirrors the journey of so many of the pilgrims and disciples who have found sustenance and encouragement there? Anyone who reads through the Psalter, psalm-by-psalm, will perceive a journey. There is a decisive development through the Book of Psalms. Some have described this as a journey from ‘Plea to Praise’ and others as a journey from ‘Duty to Delight’.

A journey through the Psalter reaches a puzzle when Psalm 53 is reached because it appears to be so close to Psalm 14 as to be the same. The main difference between these two psalms is the words they use to refer to God. This is part of a wider puzzle in the Psalter shown in Figure 2.

Elohistic

Figure 2 The number of occurrences of the words Yahweh and Elohim in two groups of psalms.

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to a journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words in the Table below.

Table 1 Occurrence of words (NRSV) related to a journey motif in Psalm 119.

WORD VERSE/S

 

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage—most obviously Psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimages to Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith.

The Conclusion of the Psalms: Psalms 146–150
Psalms 146-150 have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah, i.e. ‘Praise the Lord’. They all end with this same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups and downs of individual and corporate experience. There is only cause for praise and its execution. Therefore, in this way they are all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the five parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter.

What better way to end a book of songs and poems than with a crescendo of praise? If we have prayed through the Psalms, the cycle of Hallelujahs is the only way it could close. If the Psalter is symbolic of the life of faith, how else should it end—but with an end echoed by David in Cohen’s Hallelujah: ‘and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah’. For those that use the Psalter repeatedly in a cycle from beginning to end, there is a foretaste of closure, ahead of the start of a fresh journey of troughs and peaks.

Conclusion
Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating a journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way.

More on the Psalms
If you have found some value in our journey through the Psalms you might like to read some short posts from my blog. Please see PsalterMark.com and in particular the post titled The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture. You can also find me on Twitter as @PsalterMark in what is usually a daily attempt to promote The Book of Psalms.

If you want to know more about the recent rediscovery that the biblical psalms are a book see the following:

Nancy deClaissé-Walford (1997), Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macon: Mercer University Press.

Palmer Robertson (2015), The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology, Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing.

[1] Gunkel went so far as to suggest its piety was deficient.

[2] The relationship between these two Psalms is explored in Mark J. Whiting (2013), Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246 and in Robert L. Cole (2013), ‘Psalms 1 and 2: The Psalter’s Introduction’ in The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers.

David and the Psalms

This short post was inspired by some tweets I stumbled across which jarred with me. They implied either that David wrote all the Psalms or expressed surprise at the claim that he did not. No scholar has, to my knowledge, defended Davidic authorship of all 150 canonical psalms for well over one hundred years. Not all scholars are hard-nosed critics, there are many who serve Christ and hold the Bible as Scripture; if Davidic authorship of the whole collection could be defended someone would have done so recently. So why do so many Christians want to hold onto the idea that David authored all of them, or even feel that the Bible is under attack if this view is questioned?

Jesus, of course, famously refers to David as the author of psalm 110 as recorded in Matthew 22:43-45 (paralleled in Mark 12:36-37 and Luke 20:42-44). This is one of the 73 psalms that are described in their heading as ‘of David’. We can note three points here:

1. ‘Of David’ does not necessarily imply authorship. It might imply some other type of connection with David.
2. Jesus does imply Davidic authorship of psalm 110.
3. Many psalms are not titled as being ‘of David’ and some are clearly associated with other people or groups of people.

At this very cursory level the Bible seems to claim that the Psalms are in some sense associated with David, with David being the author (some might suggest the implied author) of a number of them, for example note the historical episodes from David’s life in some 13 psalm titles (although again some would see this in different terms). Many individual psalms are, however, not directly associated with him. This does not contradict the label of the Psalter as the ‘Psalms of David’, but simply that the meaning of this description is more nuanced than wholesale authorship by King David.

The psalm headings, which are part of the transmitted and preserved text, give us this more complex picture. Strangely those of a more fundamentalist Christian view tend to ignore the subtlety of the titles and the more critical of scholars also dismiss them as late and unhelpful additions to the Psalms. As a Christian I am compelled to take the psalm titles seriously, but I don’t want to rule out the possibility of editing, including some title additions. One of the aims of this blog is to draw attention to the idea that editing of the Psalms, rather than being hostile to understanding the Psalter as Scripture, opens up an exciting and dynamic view of how these songs and poems were cherished and used by the community of faith and thus became Scripture. To use an old fashioned theological concept we have God’s providence at work in a process of authorship, collecting and editing. This is an exciting and indeed incarnational way in which God’s Spirit worked amongst his people over centuries. Such a work seems more naturally coherent with a God who became a man that we might know him more fully.

To say that David did not write all the Psalms still means he wrote some. Maybe all those that are described as ‘of David’ or a subset, opinions will vary. David’s situation within Israel as the second king, but in a sense the first true king in founding a dynasty, is unique. This together with his role in setting in motion the Temple and thus Temple worship in many senses make the Psalms Davidic. It is the case, I think, that this influence of David is much more theologically interesting than simple authorship of the Psalter!

Some of the psalms date from the time of the first ceremonies in the temple, such as the enthronement of the kings and other royal celebrations. These psalms are the Royal Psalms. Their significance has changed and perhaps this even encouraged editing. Words that celebrated the impressiveness of David and Solomon as they reigned over Israel become hollow words later in the time of the monarchy’s failure. Unbelievable claims about kings in the present became expectations of a new David, a new anointed king, or in other words the hope for a coming messiah. Words that spoke of the grandeur of earthly kings at their enthronement were preserved because they captured the prophetic expectation of God’s people that there would be a return of the king.

This Davidic, and ultimately messianic, thread within the Psalms is important for our understanding and use of the Psalms. There are some words within the Psalms that only make sense when seen as the words of a king of Israel and/or those of the coming king. David is also an ideal in some ways. Like us he is beloved of God, and also shares with us a frailty that can lead to actions abhorrent to God and contrary to His instruction (Torah). The fact that David retained God’s favour is encouraging to us. Similarly we have the good news that the Psalms contain so many words of the most diverse emotional nature. This fits with a king who lived a life before God to the full. The Psalms can serve us well as we attempt to live life to the full with all the potential for blessing on the one hand and the possibility of mistakes on the other. The way of righteousness that the Psalms take us on is not one of dead self-obsessed obedience, but a life lived in honesty before the God who both instructs and yet can also show mercy. The day-and-night meditation on God’s law, or instruction (psalm 1:2), is not legalism. Rather this is devotion to the one who leads and shelters us on a journey which ultimately leads to encounter with the messiah, Jesus Christ.

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.

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.