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.

The Psalter’s Structure – Macrostructure

Don’t be put off by the fancy term: macrostructure. This post and the next two aim to show why it is helpful to look at the different levels of structure within the Book of Psalms. It is only when the three levels (macro, meso and micro) are viewed together that it becomes clear that the collection of 150 psalms is more than the sum of its parts. There is a structure and a purpose to the whole Psalter—thus calling it a book is appropriate. A final post will look at the implications for this structure on reading the Psalms as Scripture.

The term macrostructure refers to the largest scale of the Psalter. The most obvious evidence for structure on this scale is that the Psalter consists of five books. The scholar Gerald Wilson built on this uncontroversial fact to argue that there is large-scale structure and, more than that, there is actually a progression or plot to the whole book. This post will attempt a brief summary of Wilson’s key findings. At the end of the post Wilson’s key publications are listed.

Wilson’s argument for the importance of a macrostructure of the Psalter is founded on two key types of evidence. Firstly, he finds warrant from other ancient Near-Eastern hymnic literature that editorial intent can be discerned in their later collection. Secondly, he claims that the Psalter itself contains different types of evidence to demonstrate not only that it has been edited but that the editor’s, or editors’, intentions can be retrieved and understood.

Wilson examined (i) the collection of Sumerian Temple Hymns, (ii) Mesopotamian Catalogues of Hymnic Incipits, and (iii) the Qumran Psalm Manuscripts, at some length. His aim, in examining these collections, was to find warrant for editorial activity in the Hebrew Psalter from cultic song collections of a similar milieu.

Despite the detailed treatment of the three ancient Near-Eastern collections the insights gained are far from clear in Wilson’s work, because:

1. The Sumerian Temple Hymns are very different from the Hebrew Psalter in that forty one of the forty two hymns ‘share an identical basic form’.
2. The cuneiform Catalogues of Hymnic Incipits are just the titles of various cultic works catalogued for the retrieval of the complete works on tablets from a library system.
3. The manuscript evidence for canonical and non-canonical psalms at Qumran is so complex that any judgement about the relationship between the various documents and the Masoretic text are highly speculative as the disagreement among scholars identified by Wilson indicates.

The gain from this careful study is essentially that purposeful editing of cultic materials is a possibility that should be considered as other ancient Near-Eastern collections seem to have evidence of editorial intent. Essentially, however, it is the evidence discernable in the Psalter itself that will be decisive for any claim for recoverable editorial intent via an identifiable macrostructure.

Wilson’s point of departure in considering the editing of the Masoretic Psalter is recognition that there is only one explicit piece of evidence of clear editorial organisational intent: Psalm 72:20, ‘Finished are the prayers of David son of Jesse’. Wilson considers the possible role that the psalm superscriptions play in the structure of the Psalter. His argument is that their preservation demonstrates that the editors saw them as part of the text they wished to hand on. Wilson examines the occurrence of the titles carefully and argues that there is a complex editorial intent which does not cohere with any singular fully consistent criteria but that variously (i) authorship is an important grouping criteria (especially in books I-III), (ii) genre grouping takes place (based on terms such as mizmor and maskil), (iii) genre superscriptions are used to ‘soften’ transitions, and (iv) a lack of superscripts pairs neighbouring psalms.

Wilson adds to this argument by exploring other techniques for the grouping of the psalms (arguably most famously the Hallel Psalms 145–150). Wilson sees the doxologies that close the first four books (41:13, 72:18–19, 89:52 and 106:48) as structurally important in confirming that the five-fold structure was significant to the editors. Building on this he argues that the use of Royal Psalms at the ‘seams’ of these books not only reveal structure, but also the intent of the editors. These strategically placed Royal Psalms tell the story of the Davidic monarchy from its inauguration through to its failure, and finally to the recognition that it is Yahweh who reigns and is trustworthy rather than human kings.

Numerous studies rapidly followed in the wake of Wilson’s work, and many additional claims have been made about the structure of the Psalter and the intentions of the editors. The next two posts will outline the structure of the Psalter as the next two scales of mesostructure (groups of c.10 psalms) and microstructure (the relationship of a psalm with its neighbours).

G. H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1986.

G. H. Wilson, ‘The Use of Royal Psalms at the “Seams” of the Hebrew Psalter’, JSOT, 35 (1986), 85–94.

G. H. Wilson, ‘The Shape of the Book of Psalms’, Interpretation, 46 (1992) 129–142.

G. H. Wilson, ‘Understanding the Purposeful Arrangement of Psalms in the Psalter: Pitfalls and Promise’, in J. C. McCann (ed.), Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, 42–51.

G. H. Wilson, ‘Shaping the Psalter: A Consideration of Editorial Linkage in the Book of Psalms’, in J. C. McCann (ed.), Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, 72–82.

G. H. Wilson, ‘The Structure of the Psalter’, in P. S. Johnston and D. G. Firth (eds.), Interpreting the Psalms: Issue and Approaches, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005, 229–246.