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.
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. 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.
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. 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!
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.
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.
||1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
||1, 3, 45
||10, 67, 176
||59, 101, 105
||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.
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.
 Gunkel went so far as to suggest its piety was deficient.
 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.