Psalms 1 and 2: Gateway to the Psalter by Robert Cole

Robert L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

This monograph, I must confess at the outset, is of very special interest to me. I have been convinced for a number of years now that the first two psalms are in some sense a deliberate introduction to the Psalter. Such a view was thought to be ridiculous by many scholars until quite recently. Over the past couple of decades, however, it has been discovered (perhaps rediscovered is more appropriate) that the Psalter is not a random anthology, but has been edited with purpose and intent. Last year I published a paper to this effect: Mark J. Whiting, 2013, Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246. This paper was written before the publication of Cole’s book.

Cole’s work is a meticulous study and is written for the Academy. Fortunately, for those who want to understand Cole’s concerns without all the technical evidence, discussion and indeed cost inherent in this study, he has written a chapter in The Psalms: Language for all Seasons of the Soul, edited by Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard. The non-expert will find this book challenging but also rewarding. Challenging, because of the discussion of the Hebrew text, but rewarding too, because of the fruit yielded in seeing scholarly work which ‘feels’ like a meditation on the text. In this book review, it is not my intention to examine Cole’s technical argument in detail. This is not least because I do not have the requisite grounding in Biblical Hebrew.

Cole’s monograph has a straightforward structure, comprising four chapters whose headings reveal all, 1: Introduction, 2: Psalm 1, 3: Psalm 2 and perhaps more surprisingly 4: Psalm 3. In the first chapter, Cole starts by demonstrating that the idea that Psalms 1 and 2 function as an introduction to the Psalter is hardly novel. His survey covers textual variants of Acts, the works of numerous Church Father, the Babylonian Talmud before moving on to evidence from medieval Jewish commentators. He notes that the Reformation and Enlightenment periods represent something of a hiatus on this topic. Most of the chapter explores nineteenth-century and especially twentieth-century discussion of the role of these two psalms within the Psalter. His survey, and critical appraisal, of this material highlights how Gunkel’s major contribution to scholarship, i.e. form criticism, in Cole’s words, had a ‘stultifying effect’ on the exploration of the Psalms in their canonical order. He follows the well-known story of how first Childs, and then Wilson, challenged the hegemony of form criticism in the academy. More unusually he paints a fuller picture of the important roles played by Westermann, Zimmerli, and others, in asking profound questions about the nature and value of form-critical approaches to the Psalter.

Having thus prepared the ground, Cole works through the text of Psalm 1. He firstly considers the literary shape of the psalm, and then proceeds to commentate on its content. Cole shows a full awareness of the diverse literature on this psalm, from commentators, both ancient and modern, to the important contributions of a wide range of recent scholars. Where his study excels is in considering the rich intertextual links between Psalm 1 and other biblical texts. Cole finds that this psalm has a strong eschatological flavour, an interpretation which seems convincing to me, but has not always been in favour with modern commentators.

Chapter 3, on Psalm 2, differs slightly in structure in that between the exploration of the psalm’s structure and the commentary element, there is a section on its canonical function. Anyone who is familiar with the Psalms will, I think, agree with the case put forward by Cole concerning the reverberations of Psalm 2’s ideas and language throughout the Psalms. In the commentary section Cole carries forward his argument that there is diverse literary evidence in these two psalms which points to the purposeful juxtaposition of these two psalms as a gateway to the Psalter.

In the final, and shortest chapter, Cole continues to argue for purposeful editing of the Psalter as he shows that the concerns and topics of the first two psalms are developed and furthered in Psalm 3. In a sense the monograph then just stops dead. Cole’s thesis has been made clear, but as he recognises he can hardly complete what he has initiated for all 150 psalms. His conviction is that if careful attention is given to the individual texts, then unlike Gunkel we will find that the Psalter is a purposeful work rather than some potpourri of poems and songs. As to the fruit of this new scholarly paradigm for the Church we can only pray that it will be more fruitful in, and sympathetic to, promoting personal devotion and corporate worship than the form-critical approach. For opening up this potential, this reader is most grateful to Robert Cole.

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.


Around one year ago I decided to tweet once a day on the Psalms. The idea was to work through the Psalms, one-by-one, starting with psalm 1 and working through them in canonical order. The main reason I decided to do this was to give me a focus each day for engaging with Scripture as a spiritual discipline. I have missed eight days, one day in sympathy with a twitter boycott and seven days as a mark of respect after the sudden death of a close friend.

Having done the whole Psalter almost two and a half times, I am still fascinated by the task of capturing a psalm in a tweet. What criteria does one go for? There are a number of possibilities and questions behind the enterprise:

1. Do you try and capture the whole psalm in the tweet?
2. Do you home in on a key aspect which many readers will be familiar with?
3. Might you focus on something more obscure in the psalm? Perhaps to ensure your reader goes to the psalm?
4. Could you use captivating and inspiring poetic language?
5. Do you use some key words, or even actual text, from the psalm?
6. Might you just choose a representative verse?
7. Perhaps you should just give a title to the psalm?
8. Should the tweet offer a challenge or ask a question?

Of course none of these are right or wrong, they have different value for different people in the twitter-sphere.

One of the great things is that there are a number of people who are doing this. Many of them adopt #psalmtweets to make their tweets easy to find. Below I have cited some examples to illustrate what can be done with a psalmtweets.

Ben Myers@FaithTheology:
Psalm 1: The bad life is a busy life, full of bluster and bustle; the good life is a reading life, full of the joy of Torah #psalmtweets

This tweet captures much of the point of psalm 1 and what makes it special is that its language echoes that of the original. The bluster and bustle connects with the wind blown chaff of the original, and the ‘reading’ parallels the static rootedness of the tree in psalm 1. If there was a prize for bringing poetic life to psalmtweets @FaithTheology would receive it.

Mark Wagner@DrMarkWagner:
Where’s God when life’s tough?
Bad guys get out of jail free?
Seems so. But God sees.

#haiku #Psalm10

How to make the enterprise really tricky, write your tweet as a haiku. @DrMarkWagner’s tweets tend to capture the heart of the psalm with clarity and verve.

Patrick Hoffmann@HoffmaNomad4:
I lift my voice–in songs of praise and songs of lament. My voice breaks with the effort, passion, and emotion. Until… Silence. #psalm28

This is a great example of a thought provoking tweet when read in conjunction with the original psalm. The tweet ends were the psalmist in psalm 28 has asked not to be, but the silence of the tweet is not the consequence of a deaf deity.

Steven Robertson@OtisRobertson:
Psalm 45: The Warrior-King reigns and rejoices in majesty; He welcomes His glorious Bride into His joy. #psalmtweets

This simple tweet captures what is a tricky psalm with wonderful conciseness, to the point of being a commentary for the confused. It even preserves the two strophes of the original text!

Ben Myers@FaithTheology:
Psalm 56 (for Philip Seymour Hoffman). You seek me in my wanderings. You have counted all my tears; You keep them in a bottle #psalmtweets

They can also be timely; here reflecting on the tragic death of a great actor and a wonderful man. He was in my favourite film Magnolia (not all Christians will be comfortable with this film, but it is ultimately profoundly theological).

Marc La Porte@mlaporte74:
Psalm 21: Look back: celebrate past victories. Look ahead: anticipate future victories. Look up: exalt the LORD of victories #psalmtweets

This tweet recasts the whole psalm in a new and memorable light. This is a good reason for psalm tweeting, a good one can make a psalm memorable.

Robert W Moore@robmoore0330:
Psalm 105 “Seek the Lord and his strength: seek his face continually.” Entering the #Easter season, let’s cling to him daily. #eveningprayer

These psalmtweets can be, not only timely, but can also be an exhortation to prayer. This is sensible as surely the whole point of the Psalms is to help us pray.

Why not join in tweeting the Psalms. Reflect on and retweet those that you find rewarding. Have a go at writing your own. It has to be blessing to meditate on the Psalms day and night.

‘The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary’ by Samuel Terrien

Samuel Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary, A Critical Eerdmans Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

This large single volume commentary has been available for just over ten years. I have only recently read it. I am reviewing it here as I think it merits wider attention than it appears to have received. The author, Samuel Terrien, devoted much scholarly attention to the Psalms throughout his long academic career. He passed away, at the age of 90, in 2001, just before the publication of this commentary. His longevity and scholarly interest mean that he is unusually placed to have experienced first hand a number of key developments in Psalms scholarship. He saw how Gunkel’s form-critical approach all but destroyed the nineteenth century’s scholarly consensus on the late date and origin of the Psalter. He witnessed firsthand the impact of Mowinckel’s call to take the original cultic context of the Psalms seriously. More recently he was able to observe a very different movement for interpreting to the Psalter, as Wilson spearheaded what Terrien, and others, refer to as the canonical approach.

Why is this long period of engagement with hermeneutical approaches important to readers of this commentary? Well, so often scholarship can be coloured by either a resistance to change, or the opposite problem, of a grasping after the latest fad. Terrien is well-placed to offer insightful wisdom on the merits of psalms interpretive paradigms, both old and new.

So often in biblical commentaries, the obligatory introduction, can be a bland rehearsal of the expected topics, but this is not the case here. Terrien’s introduction is detailed enough, and yet also concise and fresh enough, to allow the reader to quickly orient themselves on both the Psalms and Terrien’s approach to them. He starts by pointing out the remarkable longevity and vitality of the Psalms; explaining helpfully that this is all the more surprising given the complex ancient near-eastern cultural background to the Psalms. He helpfully surveys the origin and growth of the Psalter. This is important as it indicates that he gives serious attention to some recent developments in scholarship which explore the formation of the Psalter as an intentional, rather than haphazard, collection. He moves on to look at both the music of the Psalms and what he calls the strophic structure. This detailed attention to structure, where each psalm is examined in its own right, is highly unusual, at least in my commentary collection. Terrien then moves on to discuss the form-critical aspects of the various individual psalms. It is clear that Terrien wants to use the fruit of form criticism, but it is also apparent that such an approach is a backdrop to the individual psalms, rather than operating centre stage as an end in itself.

Towards the end of the introduction is, what I found the most illuminating section, a discussion of the Theology of the Psalms. It looks at the Psalms in a way I have recently found rewarding; as being profoundly theological in what they reveal about the nature of Israel’s God. Terrien is aware that, to a large measure, any such attempt at systematisation of the Psalms, is always approximate and provisional: “On account of their extreme diversity, the 150 Psalms do not lend themselves easily to theological synthesis” (p.44). He offers the following headings as one way in which the theology of the Psalms can be organised without imposing a straight jacket on interpreting them:

A. God’s Presence and Absence.
B. The Creator of Nature.
C. The Sovereign of History.
D. The Judge of the Enemies.
E. The Protector if the Poor and Healer of the Sick.
F. The Master of Wisdom.
G. The Lord of Life.
H. Theology and Doxology.

So what of the commentary proper? How does Terrien organise his work on the individual compositions? This is where we see just why the commentary has the subtitle of ‘Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary’. For each Psalm, he offers a new translation. I personally found these exhibited a good balance of faithful translation and poetic elegance. He also provides a very thorough bibliography for each psalm. This will be particularly helpful for those wishing to follow-up his arguments based on literary and strophic structure, as much of the key literature which supports his arguments are journal articles and monographs. Terrien does, of course, acknowledge the textual differences within the MT of the Psalter. He is, however, generally conservative in avoiding hypothetical emendations of the text, which is commendable in my view.

Terrien then looks at the form of the psalm. This is not a simple revisiting of Gunkel’s form-critical categories, although these are often mentioned. Rather Terrien is keen to ensure that the unique nature of each psalm is not eclipsed by a small number of categories, he therefore pays close attention to the specific, as well as generic form of the compositions. He then moves on to look at the individual strophes (already clearly identified in his translation). I frequently found the identification of these literary units insightful for understanding the psalms and engaging with them. This was true in the vast majority of cases. Some readers, might join me, in being less convinced in some cases. Despite some reservations, I think this focus on structure is a key strength of the commentary and this approach means it makes a fresh contribution to the large number of available commentaries. In this sense, it very much does what a commentary should do, in presenting a proposal that engages the reader in grappling with the actual text.

The examination of each psalm then concludes with a section titled ‘Date and Theology’. Placing the two topics together is a very sobering reminder that to some extent the two issues cannot be easily separated. The theological reflection is very helpful, this is particularly so in an age where some commentaries seem very thin on theological reflection.

The twin features of a close structural analysis of each Psalm and the willingness to look at the theological contribution of each psalm makes this an excellent resource for the thorough teacher and preacher. I would however suggest that it be complemented by a second commentary to see an alternative expert judgement on the shape of the text.

In my view the commentary makes a sensible use of the vast body of form-critical and cult-critical studies. Terrien refers to literary forms and contextual information which is illuminating, and he most helpfully avoids the more tentative overarching hypotheses which do little to help interpret the Psalms for use in the Church. He also helpfully pays attention to the canonical method, although, I am not entirely convinced he has worked out all the implications of this interpretive approach. For example, he alludes to the importance of psalms 1 and 2, as psalms that function as an introduction. He also sees both psalms 73 and 90 as being twin poles within the Psalter. Neither of these ideas is really worked out or seriously referred to within the commentary on individual psalms.

As well as preachers benefiting from this work, scholars of the future will want to address the case for the certainties of identifiable strophic structure that Terrien finds in all the canonical psalms. I am very grateful for the many fresh insights I have gained from this work. This commentary is also available relatively cheaply because if it’s publication date, which makes it am excellent supplement to an existing library on the Psalms.

Brueggemann’s Typology of Function Paradigm

Walter Brueggemann’s essay Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function [1] initiated nothing less than a new paradigm of psalms interpretation. It has much to commend it. In particular it has been adopted by others because of its strength in bridging the often wide gap between scholarship on the Psalms and their contemporary devotional and liturgical use. What Brueggemann aims to do from the outset is to ask questions about the function of the Psalms. He considers the parallels between their original context in ancient Israel and in faith communities today. Much scholarship from the last century has focused largely on questions of literary form and ancient setting. Brueggemann sees no a priori antagonism between his method and the form-critical and cult-critical approaches, like those of Gunkel and Mowinckel. Rather, he suggests that there is ‘a convergence of a contemporary pastoral agenda with a more historical exegetic interest [original emphasis].’ [2] His guiding assumption is a positivistic hermeneutical one; that anthropologically the differences between humanity, across the ages, are narrowed by the extremes of joy and despair.

Whilst others have gone on to use his approach at a subjective, perhaps almost pre-critical level, e.g. [3], Brueggemann attempts to substantiate his convergence of contemporary and ancient function with reference to the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur argues for ‘the dynamic of life as a movement, dialectic but not regular or patterned, of disorientation and reorientation.’ Brueggemann argues that key form-critical categories of psalms seem to match contexts of disorientation and reorientation. In the case of disorientation most notably we have the categories of personal and communal laments. For reorientation we have songs of thanksgiving and those hymns classified by Westermann as declarative hymns. Brueggemann posits orientation as the place to and from which the dialectic movement of life shifts. Here the hymns, which are termed by Westermann as descriptive praise, are placed in this scheme. Other categories of psalms also fit under these three headings, for example, Brueggemann draws attention to Psalm 1 as a psalm of orientation. This aspect of Psalm 1 is something which will hopefully be explored in a later post.

Brueggemann’s typology of function proposal is undoubtedly highly attractive in that it offers a serious attempt at closing the gap between scholarly consideration of the Psalms that has centred on form-critical approaches which have a tendency to focus so strongly on the ancient form and Sitz im Leben (situation in life) so as to create a gulf with much historical and contemporary liturgical, pastoral and devotional use of the Psalter. It is also broadly convincing in its analysis of the two poles of disorientation and reorientation (what Ricoeur refers to as “expressions of limit”) in terms of texts which offer a means to respectively a hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of recovery.

At one level Brueggemann’s approach legitimises what has been the practice of people of faith since the formation of the Psalter. Having a scholarly approach, that can bridge ancient and modern horizons is a vital complement to some academic approaches which offer no way forward from ancient text to life giving Scripture. This is not to suggest that approaches, such as form-critical approaches are illegitimate, but rather a recognition of what is an obvious limitation to appropriation if the Psalms for the life of faith today. Brueggemann is to be commended for addressing this problem.

Other approaches have challenged the domination of form-critical approaches which had prevailed into less than 30 years ago. In particular recent scholarship has drawn attention to the purposeful editing of the Psalter. When such editing is taken seriously this has implications for how the Psalms are read. The Psalter functions as a whole. Such a view not only complements form-critical approaches and their fragmentation of the book of Psalms into individual psalms, but it also complements Brueggemann’s approach too, which also has the potential to break-up the Psalter into a collection from which psalms are selected in a consumerist manner to address an identified need.

A future post, or two, will in due course carry forward this consideration of the strengths and limitations of Brueggemann’s exciting approach to the Psalms.

1. Brueggemann, W., ‘Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function’ in P. D. Miller (ed.), The Psalms and the Life of Faith, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, 3-32.
2. Page 6 of 1.
3. Firth, D. G., Hear, O Lord: A Spirituality of the Psalms, Calvert, Derbyshire: Cliff College Publishing, 2005.

‘Psalms – New Cambridge Bible Commentary’, by Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr.

Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2014).

Opening Remarks
It has seemed like a long wait for this commentary. Both authors have a strong track record with Psalms scholarship. Walter Brueggemann’s contribution to Psalms scholarship, in particular, is immense. He famously initiated little less than a new interpretive paradigm with his characterisation of psalms into psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation (see the Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed: Patrick D. Miller).

The commentary opens with a concise, but helpful, survey of key background information on the Psalms. The approach of the commentary is also explained, the use of four interpretive frameworks are singled out:

1. An attention to genre, along the lines of Gunkel’s seminal form-critical insights.
2. An awareness of cultic setting, although not with dependence on any overarching festival hypothesis.
3. Consideration of ancient near-eastern societal issues. This includes matters central to some aspects of Brueggemann’s concern with the dynamics of power within society.
4. Exploration of the placement of psalms within the Psalter during its editing.

There is nothing controversial about the choice of these four areas. They do however, indicate that the commentary’s strength will lie with its exploration of the ancient context rather than the modern use of the psalms. That this is the case is also flagged in a two sentence conclusion on page 8.

I want to confess that I have not read the whole commentary. What I have done is read the sections on specific psalms that (i) interest me, (ii) I know well and (iii) I judge to be especially important. Below I have summarised the findings of some of these forays into the main body of the commentary.

Psalms 1 and 2
Both of these psalms are flagged as being part of an introduction to the Psalter. This is a consensus of modern Psalms scholarship. What is highly puzzling, however, is that essentially nothing is done to explore the consequences of this, except for a short comment on page 34 (see below for more on the nature of this comment). Surely if something functions as an introduction, to a larger whole, care needs to be given in establishing the implications of this for the entire work?

Psalm 1 is ascribed a strong legal function in order to explain the ‘two ways’ described in the psalm. In this way the authors argue that the ‘wicked’, who are said to perish in the psalm, are in fact those in the community that have no place to stand in legal decisions. Such a reading, whilst not unheard of, does not seem convincing. As a poetic device, surely being blown away as chaff and perishing can’t just mean being on the wrong side of communal decisions? A lot of commentators do of course shy away from the traditional connotation of judgement. Yet, however uncomfortable such a topic is, the late date of psalm 1 and the poetic references to the harvest elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Jeremiah 51:33, Joel 3:13) make it difficult to defend anything other than the a reference to much starker judgement.

The exploration of psalm 2 in its cultic setting is very helpful for appreciating its origin and significance. I was however disappointed that the only mention of its Christian re-reading in Christological terms is a passing mention of seven New Testament passages which refer to this psalm. This, I guess, reflects an editorial decision regarding the New Cambridge Bible Commentary to ‘elucidate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures’. Such a choice means that the commentary needs to serve both confessions, but surely the use of the NRSV means that the volumes will be largely used by Christians, many of whom would expect a little more on how we are to use the psalms today. Enriching though it is to see psalm 2 as a coronation ritual, this will not be how it is used in devotion or liturgy by Christians, nor, of course, will it be used in this way by worshipping Jews. The ‘Bridging Horizons’ section singularly fails to bridge horizons as it points singularly points to psalms 1 and 2 as an exhortation to instruction. Many readers will be puzzled by the claim that these two psalms, and indeed the whole Psalter, are primarily a means of instruction. This is indeed one role of the Psalms, but this requires careful explanation, as well as complementing with other dynamics.

Psalms 22-24
The reservations expressed above do not apply to these three psalms. Each of these psalms is explored with verve and conviction in its ancient context and there are some helpful explorations of later Christian theology. For example:

A. Moltmann’s Crucified God is introduced along with the theme of the suffering of the righteous to round off the coverage of psalm 22.
B. Jesus as shepherd is explained in terms of a biblical trajectory.
C. The use of psalm 24 in celebrating the Triumphal Entry and the Ascension is mentioned.

The only disappointment with the treatment of these three psalms is that little is made of the relationship between the three them indicated on page 8.

The Psalms of Ascents (120-134)
The coverage of these fifteen psalms was a delight to read. Each of these songs is unpacked with clarity, and a care to see them in their societal context. This latter point is important for as is pointed out at the outset, these psalms of pilgrimage are, perhaps surprisingly, deeply concerned with community life. Not only are these psalms put into their original context eloquently, but attention is given to just how these songs address the societal challenges of Western culture imposed on those journeying on the Life of Faith. In this way there is helpful insight into topics such as:

Psalm 120 – homelessness (both literal and figurative),
Psalm 122 – a critique of ‘self-centred images of tribal and ideological futures.’,
Psalm 127 – a challenge to the culture of success.
Psalm 134 – carrying the ‘renewing power of the encounter with God in sanctuary worship into the rest of life’.

In summary this commentary has much to commend it. As a single volume manageable and affordable book it successfully covers the ancient context of the psalms with conviction, clarity and insight. In much of its coverage, within the limits of the series, it makes helpful connections with today.

However, I found it a little uneven in how well it re-read the psalms from an Easter perspective – in places this is handled well and in others there seems to be a little reticence to make such a re-reading. In particular I found coverage of a specifically Christian re-reading of the Royal Psalms disappointing, especially as Brueggemann’s previous commentary (The Message of the Psalms) on some fifty psalms did not include any Royal Psalms in it. In my view the issues of the microstructure of the Psalter, mentioned in the introduction to the commentary, is simple not considered fully enough.

This is not the definitive magnum opus from Brueggemann I was hoping for, but given its size I was always setting the bar rather too high!

‘A Journey of Two Psalms’ by Susan Gillingham

Susan Gillingham, A Journey of Two Psalms: The reception of Psalms 1 & 2 in Jewish & Christian tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2013).

Those who follow the more academic literature on the psalms will know that Susan Gillingham has already made some highly significant contributions to psalms scholarship. She is the author of The Poems and the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms Through the Centuries: volume 1. She has also edited Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms, as well as authoring a number of papers on diverse aspects of the psalms.

Her Journey of Two Psalms is important for two major reasons. Firstly, such a thorough attempt at exploring the reception history of biblical material has rarely been attempted. Secondly, Psalms 1 and 2 are increasingly seen as central to the very nature of the Psalter because of the new consensus that they are in some sense a purposeful introduction to the Psalter.

Some people of faith seem wary of reception history because of a largely groundless concern that readers born centuries after the appearance of a text impose an alien interpretation upon the text. Rather, we can turn to reception history as an aid to help prevent us from making precisely this error. By seeing how interpreters have understood and made use of a biblical text we can see what is illuminating and helpful on the one hand and what is perhaps anachronistic on the other. In so doing we can be more alert to our possible misreadings. Reception history also has the wonderful bonus of taking a wider collection of interpretive media than more traditional approaches. In Gillingham’s book, for example, the liturgical use, visual exegesis, musical interpretation and ‘imitation’ of these two psalms is considered. This ensures that a rounded interpretative range, beyond that of just the theological elite is considered. No one, least of all Susan Gillingham, is claiming that reception history replaces more traditional biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, but rather there is much to complement these approaches when we look at the psalms through the centuries.

In the first half of the book, Gillingham looks at the broad sweep of commentary on Psalms 1 and 2. This is broken down into chapters titled: ‘Ancient Judaism’, ‘Early Christianity’, ‘Rabbinic and Medieval Judaism’ and ‘From the Early Middle Ages to the Reformation’. Gillingham examines the evidence for these two psalms being viewed as, in some sense, a pair. She notes that in Jewish works of the earliest periods the two psalms are seen as being united by a concern with the Temple, whilst later they are unified by a concern with Jewish piety and identity against opposition from outside the community. Gillingham helpfully explores how different Christian contexts lead to the use of these two psalms to address the quite different concerns on diverse interpreters.

In the second half, Gillingham notes that psalms 1 and 2 play a very small role in either Jewish or Christian liturgy through the centuries. In visual exegesis, by contrast, these two psalms are prominent. In many cases, so Gillingham argues, the ‘two psalms are often illuminated in a connected, complementary way, with contrasting themes which together open up a visual gateway to the Psalter as a whole’. The selective musical interpretations, examined by Gillingham, almost exclusively focus on these two psalms as individual entities. As Gillingham notes, however, this probably has more to do with the nature of musical composition than a necessary disconnection between these two psalms. To a large extent the paraphrases and translations of these two psalms also tend to see them in their individual light, rather than making much of the literary or potential thematic links between them.

Gillingham’s conclusions are in three areas. The first concerns the importance of the theme of the Temple in Psalms 1 and 2. There are grounds for seeing this theme as important in both psalms, as well as the Psalter as a whole. Interestingly, reception history does not reveal as strong a role for this theme as I expected (and one wonders whether this might have taken Gillingham by surprise too). The second topic coheres with the first – how the theme of the Temple is handled might be perceived as a divisive issue for Christian and Jewish hermeneutics. This has indeed been the case for nineteen hundred years, but more recently there has been a more nuanced and constructive dialogue of this theme. Thirdly, and for this reader most interestingly, is the contribution to the debate over the possibility that Psalms 1 and 2 are a deliberate entrance to the Psalter. This possibility has reemerged over the last thirty years because of the emergence of a canonical hermeneutic to psalms interpretation which has seriously challenged the hegemony of the form-critical approach.

Gillingham should be commended on the clarity of argument in this work, and the shear volume and diversity of the necessary research. This study is essential reading for anyone who wants to keep abreast of the shifting consensus on interpretive paradigms for reading the Psalter.

Gillingham closes her book with a defence against those who suggest that reception history is ‘Biblical Studies on Holiday’. It seems to me that this study makes the case that the refreshment from such a holiday might well stimulate useful work in the study of the Scriptures shared by Jews and Christians.

‘The Case for the Psalms: Why they are essential’ by Tom Wright

Tom Wright is well known as a prolific author of Christian books. For example, he is working on a massive scholarly project, of which three volumes are in print and a fourth is imminent, on nothing less than the whole of the New Testament and its implications for Christian doctrine. Thus his academic expertise includes first-century Jewish history, the Gospels, the Pauline corpus and biblical hermeneutics. So some might be surprised that a New Testament scholar should publish a book on the Psalms.

The book is not meant to be a piece of Psalms’ scholarship, although Wright is clearly informed regarding diverse recent work on the Psalms. Rather this book is aimed at a popular audience. For this we should be grateful, because Wright’s central plea is a correct one. He argues, as the title indicates most clearly, that much of contemporary Christianity has, to its detriment, neglected the Psalms. I found the book to be both convincing and compelling. His thesis needs to be heard by the Christian community and there is a real need for Christians to champion the Psalms in their local Church setting.

The sheer clarity of the title might seem to indicate that the book’s argument be too clear cut, either in attacking the contemporary Christian songwriting ‘industry’ or promoting a monolithic approach to singing and using the Psalms. I am delighted to say that any such claims are groundless. For sure, Wright has some concerns (in my view entirely legitimate) about today’s Christian songwriting, however, Wright warmly acknowledges the genuine life and vitality in this movement and hopes that there is potential therein to champion the Psalms. Wright’s biographical material, which is presented as a helpful Afterword, recognises the traditional Anglican experience of the Psalms that Wright has enjoyed for his whole life. Having experienced this only to a very limited extent myself, I found this intriguing. I was also pleased to see Wright’s openness to, and recognition of, diverse ways in which the Psalms can be imbibed by the individual and the worshipping community.

If you’ve read this far you can tell I am rather appreciative of this book. The best, however, is yet to come. I expected to find myself broadly in agreement with Wright’s agenda – of, putting it bluntly, promoting the use of the Psalms. What I had not expected was the insightful way in which Wright made his case for what the Psalms contain and teach. I have read a lot about the Psalms over the last few years and have found them rewarding on a daily basis, as a central part of my personal devotions during this period. I have not previously met such a concise yet helpful overarching statement of the Psalter’s content which does justice to both their Jewish origin and use by followers of the risen Jesus Christ.

The heart of Wright’s book are three chapters, which account for around two-thirds of the content, the rest being essentially introductory and concluding material. Don’t get me wrong these parts are helpful, and indeed necessary, too. Yet it’s the three key chapters, and their overall thesis, that make this book not only compelling in its claim but an ideal way into understanding the Psalms. It’s helpful to outline the argument of these three chapters:

At the Threshold of God’s Time
Wright opens with the claim that the ‘Psalms invite us, first, to stand at the intersection of the different layers of time’. He reflects on how our mortality compares rather starkly with Yahweh’s time, and how this connects with the Psalter’s strong eschatological flavour. This is then developed into another key concern found throughout the Psalter: the kingship of God. This theme in turn explains the present context of the reader/singer of the Psalms in terms of the past, and God’s people Israel, and the future restoration of creation. This is what makes the Psalms such a powerful resource. They remind us that whatever is going on here-and-now, Yahweh is a faithful God who started a restorative work long ago in ancient Israel and will bring that work to fruition in the future restoration of all things. Or, as Wright says: ‘Past, present, and future belong to him. We are called to live joyfully and painfully, in the story that is both his and ours’.

Where God Dwells
In this chapter Wright reminds us that all too often we avoid the strangeness of the claims that the Psalms make about where God resides. Many of the Psalms quite unashamedly, without any care for our modern baggage, look to Jerusalem and what might be termed the Temple Mount as the dwelling place for the creator of the space-time universe. To pretend they claim anything else would be dishonest. It is this claim that is so central to other key themes in the Psalter. The nations are referred to many times, from 2:1 through to 149:7, in such a way that only makes sense with reference to Yahweh dwelling in Zion, i.e. Jerusalem (cf. 2:6 and 149:2). Yet despite this central, and vital claim, God can be found in other places too. The same psalms look to heaven as Yahweh’s dwelling place, e.g. 2:4. It is this claim that makes sense of the former. For the story is rich and complex, involving an ‘anointed one’ who is a steward over God’s people (2:6), the departure of God’s presence at the exile and the eschatological hope of his return. It is within this understanding of the divine presence that the frequently misunderstood Jewish understanding of Torah took shape. As Wright puts it: ‘By prayerful and obedient study of the Torah, the blessings that one might have had through the “sacred space” of the Temple could be obtained anywhere by all’. There can be little doubt of this theme in the Psalter when one notes the introductory psalm 1 and the entity that is psalm 119 (see previous blog entries).

All the Trees of the Forest Sing for Joy
In this chapter Wright builds on concerns he has discussed at length elsewhere about Western modernity’s inability to see the physical universe as a creation in which the Creator is living and active. As Wright argues this means that Christians too can miss the biblical affirmation of the essential ‘goodness’ of matter. Despite this chapter’s focus on a key concern for Wright as a theologian and interpreter, there is nothing forced in his claim that the Psalms celebrate creation. Indeed he shows, with ample reference to the Psalms themselves, the beautiful and rich ways in which the Psalter reflects on creation and thereby speaks of the Creator.

Wright’s three-fold use of time, space (place) and matter as a framework for unpacking the Psalms is commendably straightforward and yet doesn’t straight-jacket the Psalter’s rich diversity of form and content. For this insightful approach, as well as the timely message of our need to recover the Psalms, I hope many in the contemporary church will be truly grateful.

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.

The Long and the Short of it: Psalms 117 and 119

Psalms 117 and 119 stand out for being respectively, unusually short and remarkably long. If there is any sense of editorial purpose behind the Psalter it seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that these two psalms are so close together. Their odd length also means they must have been selected with good reason. Despite the fact that Psalm 119 is almost 100 times longer than Psalm 117 they are both equally singular in their focus.

Psalm 119, as was seen two posts ago, focuses on Torah. This focus was also that of Psalm 1. Some scholars have suggested that on its way to completion the Psalter opened with Psalm 1 and closed with Psalm 119. If this was the case this would have given a key place to Torah in the Psalter, however, the final form of the Psalter still places a strong emphasis on Torah, with Psalm 119 dominating Book V because of its massive size and prominence before the Songs of Ascents. In this way, Psalm 119 picks up a key aspect of the Psalter’s opening – delight in God’s Torah or instruction.

Interestingly Psalm 117 also effectively picks up on a key aspect of the opening too. It is worth quoting Psalm 117 in full:

O praise The Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise ye The Lord.

Compared to Psalm 2 something has happened, in Psalm 2 the question raised was: ‘Why do the nations rage, . . . .?’ (2:1). The nations appear many times in the Psalter and here in a positive light. Psalm 2 articulates the problem of particularity, the good news comes first to Israel and then the nations. Psalm 117 in all is simplicity anticipates the gospel having gone out to all the nations. This is the nature of the psalms, they are concerned with ‘the now’, but then there are glimpses forward. The psalms are eschatological and in this context articulate a simple worldview where all is resolved. This is what we find in Psalms 1 and 117. In other places the questions of now are at the fore. Such questions are there in Psalm 2: why do the nations reject Yahweh? Why have the kings of Israel failed. Psalm 119 for all its focus is still asking questions: is devotion to God’s Torah enough? Will the faithful find vindication in the end?

In a way this is what we have in the Psalter, a twofold blessing: (i) permission and language to deal with the troubles and challenges of the life of faith, (ii) glimpses of that perfect future when all has been set right.

Praise ye The Lord.