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.

The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul

The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

With an edited collection like this the reader will probably look at who the contributors are as their first engagement not with the book. The list of contributors is encouraging indeed. Whilst all the contributors are based in North America they are some of the very best Old Testament scholars of the Evangelical tradition. Many have already made highly significant contributions to psalms scholarship. Importantly there is also the right balance of some newer voices here too.

Such collections are prone to be somewhat uneven. In my view this is very much the case here. Some of the papers contribute little that is new, with very similar material available elsewhere. This is not necessarily a major problem as the book, quite naturally aims to capture something of a snapshot of the latest consensus on psalms scholarship and thus some overlap with previous work is inevitable. What I found more problematic was the idiosyncratic or cursory nature of a small number of the contributions. I will single out two which I found less helpful, before making some more positive comments on what I found to be the strongest chapters in this collection.

The collection opens with a contribution from Bruce K. Waltke titled Biblical Theology of the Psalms Today: A Personal Perspective. This chapter certainly achieves its subtitle, it is a highly personal account, indeed the word autobiographical springs to mind. I am not sure I’ve encountered something quite like this before in a serious work of this type. The personal approach would not be a problem if it lived up to its main title. Putting the matter bluntly it really does not leave the reader with a clear appreciation of what a Biblical Theology of the Psalms looks like today. Given the very nature of the consultation, of which this volume is the fruit, it is puzzling that so little is made of the canonical approach to the Psalter by Waltke. Michael K. Snearly’s contribution on Book V as a Witness to Messianic Hope in the Psalter is problematic for quite different reasons. His paper is a highly intriguing proposal and yet the use of the five keywords in book V, critical to his argument, occupies less than half a page! The interested reader will have to obtain a copy of his thesis.

I am pleased to say that this book has far more good contributions than idiosycratic ones. Chapter 2 by Willem A. Vangemeren is an excellent overview of some key contributions to the more literary aspects of Psalms scholarship. Anyone embarking on serious engagement with the Psalms would do well to heed his selection and evaluation of some key scholars. His call to an appreciation and use of the imagination in theological interpretation is in my view also of vital importance. Both the older form-critical approach and the more recent canonical approach, championed in this book, can lead to a distancing between biblical text and the present without such an awareness. Appropriate use of the imagination in theological interpretation enables the Bible to be used as Scripture and ensures that the word of the academy is coherent with the life of the Church. Although of course as Vangemeren makes clear some scholars, such as Barton, would see such an approach or goal as illegitimate.

The five chapters on the Psalms of Lament are diverse in nature, and together highlight just how central these psalms are to the Psalter. Each of these chapters contribute to emphasising that any account of the Psalms for today must enable a fuller engagement with the more difficult seasons of the soul. The theme of lament is also ably picked up later in the volume by David M. Howard Jr.’s examination of that most peculiar of psalms, psalm 88.

For me, the two highlights of the book both focus on the Psalter as a book. Robert L. Cole, who has written a magisterial monograph on psalms 1 and 2 (reviewed in my previous post), convincingly explores the role of these two psalms as an introduction to the Psalter. He helpfully highlights how the two psalms have been meticulously integrated and yet remain distinct in their specific introductory roles. The list of verbal parallels is especially helpful for those who are not familiar with Hebrew and would otherwise find it difficult to spot this intentional linking of the two psalms in English translation.

Cole’s chapter leads very helpfully into David M. Howard Jr.’s examination of how the motifs of Divine and human kingship are central concerns of the Psalter. Although a short contribution it demonstrates the importance of the motif of kingship within the Psalter. He shows that the theme goes beyond being just pervasive and, as the title of his chapter indicates, is a key organisational principle. In this way he points back to the seminal contribution of Gerald Wilson, who in a sense initiated the movement of which the current volume is one outcome. Unlike Wilson, however, Howard captures a more convincing overall narrative of the development of the theme of kingship in the Psalter. Indeed Howard helpfully captures the messianic expectation which was so prevalent in Israel at the time of the Psalter’s final editing. In this way the motifs of divine and human kingship understood aright help establish a bridge between the Testaments, rather than the gulf opened up by some adherents of form-criticism.

Coles’ chapter and Howard’s two contributions in this volume, in particular, have made me go back to the Psalter afresh, and what more could a book on the Psalms hope to do for its readers?

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.

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.

Psalms 1 and 2 as an Introduction to the Psalter

The idea that the first two psalms are an intentional introduction to the Psalter is not new. A lot of recent scholarship on the Psalms has recognised this possibility and for centuries it was natural to read the Psalms sequentially as a book and so recognise a beginning to the Psalter. Despite the very different style (technically Gattungen) of these two psalms there are a number of literary links between them. These include:

1. They are both untitled, something which is unusual in the first book of the Psalter.
2. There is an inclusio which uses the word happy/blessed at the start of Psalm 1 (1:1) and end of Psalm 2 (2:12).
3. Both refer to ‘the way’ (Hebrew derek)—verses 1:1 and 2:12 again.
4. Both use the Hebrew word hagah in a manner central to the psalm’s ‘argument’. In 1:2 it is often translated meditating and in 2:1 as muttering. In both places it could be translated as murmuring ; in the former case the positive murmuring of torah and in the latter, negative language as in the English idiom of ‘under one’s breath’.

Even the difference between the two psalms might be deliberately complementary in that the first is clearly focused on the individual in the community of faith and the second on Israel and her king among the nations. More can be said on the literary links, see, for example, Whiting (2013) for an outline and Cole (2013) for a full treatment.

Over the last few years I have found it helpful to see Psalms 1 and 2 as a gateway into the Psalter. They raise a number of themes that are developed in later psalms and also raise questions which are addressed subsequently in the Psalter.

A key theme of the Psalter, and indeed much of the rest of Scripture, is the idea that there are two ways to live life. There is a way of blessing which involves devotion to Yahweh, including delighting in his torah or instruction. Conversely there is the alternative of not living in keeping with Yahweh’s teaching. One way leads to blessing often, portrayed in metaphors of fruitfulness like the tree in Psalm 1, and the other judgement often with negative metaphors like chaff blowing in the wind. Such metaphors tend to be ambiguous as to whether the consequences are ‘in this life’ or in the future. This question ‘of when’ is returned to at various points in the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 37 and 73).

That torah is central to following Yahweh is probably implicit in the fivefold division of the Psalter reflecting the nature of the Law—i.e. the Pentateuch. More explicitly the second half of Psalm 19 and the massive Psalm 119 leave little doubt about the importance of law/torah (see the previous post).

Psalm 2 considers the king as God’s anointed, and at the same time the authority of Yahweh over the nations is introduced. These two interrelated themes are found throughout the psalms. The nations are like a recurring character in the psalms. Though the nations rebel, their salvation is a concern of the Psalms (see the next post for more on this). The role of the king is central and if the psalms are read from an post-exilic viewpoint (when the psalms were collected) or from a New Testament perspective then the king, because of his designation as ‘anointed’, becomes the Messiah or Christ. Many of the psalms can be helpfully read as the words of the king or Messiah, including Psalm 1.

Worship is obviously central to the psalms nature and purpose as they are, among other things, a collection of songs. Though the individual roles of psalms in worship is still a much debated issue, that they were used in individual and corporate worship is clear. Psalm 1 focuses on an individual who finds his place amongst the corporate worshipers by opposing other rather less God-centered groups. Psalm 2 is itself very likely, first and fore-most, a liturgy used in the context of a coronation service or celebration of Yahweh’s kingship. It also indicates that the gathering of the people of God marks them out in contrast to the scoffing nations.

A more complex idea that there is a Zion Theology that connects Psalms 1 and 2 and which is found throughout the Psalter. Those interested can refer to Gillingham (2007) and Whiting (2013). A future post will look at the idea of Zion Theology in more detail, when we shall see that such a theology is a key agenda of the psalmist—this doesn’t mean we will be Zionists in the modern sense. What it does mean is that we must take seriously how we interpret the psalmist’s preoccupation with Zion today.

 

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

S. E. Gillingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the editing of the Psalter’, in J. Day (ed.), Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, T&T Clark, (2007): pp.303ff.

M. J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (2013): 246-262.

The Psalms have a Structure – So What?

In some previous posts we have explored the structure of the Psalter. We have seen that although much scholarship has denied there is a structure within The Psalms there has more recently been recognition that there is evidence of structure at a number of levels. The combination of an overarching structure (macrostructure), the uncontroversial recognition of groups of psalms (mesostructure) and the long-recognised pairing of psalms (microstructure), begs the question ‘so what’? For the moment, we will set aside the question of the motivation of those who collected and edited the psalms and simply think through the implications for using the psalms.

If at every level, the psalms have been selected, ordered and probably edited to give coherence, this implies that the structure needs to be appreciated as part of the reading process. In other words to use a psalm in isolation, whilst not wrong, runs the risk of missing something. For example, Psalm 1 can give a very different impression if viewed in isolation compared to a reading that notes its role at the opening of the Psalter. We will return to Psalm 1 in a later post, but for now we note two observations that temper the stark claims of Psalm 1.

Firstly, the personal certitude displayed in Psalm 1 is immediately questioned by the difficulties and challenges facing the psalmist in the sequence of psalms 3–7.

Secondly, the simplistic (but eschatologically true) view of the righteous and wicked portrayed in Psalm 1 is questioned and revisited in psalms that use the same language and ideas as Psalm 1, for example Psalms 37 and 73.

In short, what is being suggested is that engaging with the psalms is best done by reading them sequentially. This is of course a recognised practice in many different traditions of spirituality. Virtually all religious orders sing/chant the psalms sequentially in an on-going cycle. Many denominations used to, or still do, practice daily psalms singing in services at various times of the day. Regular psalm reading is also part of many formal and less formal Bible reading programmes, old and new.

Such regular and on-going use of the psalms gets to the heart of the central point of Scripture itself. The Scriptures obviously contain useful information, the sort that is essential for defining the Christian faith. More fundamentally, the psalms remind us that to engage with God’s word is an on-going even demanding practice. The point being that they don’t primarily provide information but they enable transformation. A regular reading through the Psalter enables an honesty of emotion and acknowledged life experience, articulated before God. Surely handling our emotional life before God must be central to any mature spirituality? The psalms also, because of their emotional and ‘real’ dynamic, touch our very being so the truths they contain become embedded in our daily beliefs and actions.

These seem to be reasons enough for reading, praying and/or singing regularly through these God-inspired poems and songs.

If the claims above are correct, this is also a challenge as to how we interpret Scripture (hermeneutics). Many modern approaches to hermeneutics function at the level of information, when reading Scripture is more fundamentally about transformation. This might well be a matter we return to in later posts.

The Psalter’s Structure – Microstructure

In the previous two posts we have seen that there are reasons to think that the whole book of Psalms has an overall structure, sometimes referred to as a macrostructure. We’ve also considered the various collections of psalms that were incorporated into the Psalter, what we have called mesostructure. The finest scale of structure in the book of Psalms is the least controversial of all and we can refer to is as microstructure.

At the outset we should note that the term microstructure is a modern one and we use it simply to make clear our conviction that the Psalter is organised at all scales (although this is not to suggest that all these levels of organisation were made at the same time or in a simple fashion). For millennia those who read the psalms have often noted the many, and varied, connections between neighbouring psalms. Sometimes this is referred to as pairing of psalms—others refer to it as concatenation. This latter term literally means ‘to form into a chain’. One of the challenges of exploring the idea that psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours is the subjectivity of the data. The way in which psalms are said to be paired or linked is varied. Often an unusual word, or an important word, is found in two adjacent psalms. On other occasions psalms are paired by a similar theme of interest. On other occasions a whole phrase may be repeated. Let’s look at an example of each.

1. Word pairs. Psalms 1 and 2, despite being at first glance quite dissimilar, are paired by the use of some keywords. A Hebrew word general translated ‘blessed’ is the first word of Psalm 1 and occurs in the last verse of Psalm 2. The Hebrew word hegeh occurs in both Psalm 1 (verse 2) and Psalm 2 (verse 1) and is central to the theme of each of these psalms. This can be missed in translation as in Psalm 1 the word is generally translated as ‘meditate’, ‘murmur’ or similar. In Psalm 2 it is translated as ‘plot’, ‘scheme’, etc. Finally both psalms use the word derek meaning ‘way’.

2. Common theme. Both Psalms 50 and 51 have a common theme of sacrifice. This theme is not frequently found in the Psalter.

3. Repeated phrase. Both psalms 2 and 3 make mention of the phrase ‘holy hill’ or ‘holy mountain’.

These three examples indicate the variety of these pairings, but also the fact that any one example could be down to coincidence. It is suggested that whilst any single example can’t be seen as evidence of clear intent, the shear number of examples supports the view that the psalms have often been deliberately placed next to each other and possibly some editing has been carried out too.

The next post will explore the implications of the identification of structure within the Psalter as the micro, meso and macro scales.

The Psalter’s Structure – Mesostructure

In pre-critical interpretation of the Psalms one of the most readily apparent indicators of structure in the Psalter were the headings, or superscriptions, of the psalms. Even a cursory examination of the Psalter reveals that a great many psalms have headings that reveal them to belong to what might be termed prior collections, for example:

The Davidic Psalms (3–41, 51–71).
The Asaph Psalms (50, 73–83).
The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88) .
The Psalms of Ascents (120–134).

Even the psalms that don’t have clear headings are often grouped according to opening or dominant phrases:

The Hallel Psalms (113–118, 146–150).
The ‘YHWH Malak’ Psalms (47, 93, 96–99).

As was argued in a previous post many recent studies effectively break-up these collections by focusing on psalm categories and at the same time judge titles as hermeneutically unimportant.

More recently many scholars have reconsidered the possibility that these collections have some inner coherence. For example, Goulder examined the Psalms of the Sons of Korah, and he demonstrates a common vocabulary for these psalms. His attempt to see a festal structure within the collection might not convince all but the evidence that invites such a hypothesis is demonstrable. More recently Mitchell has argued for an eschatological theme to the Psalms of the Sons of Korah collection. In particular he identifies a concern with redemption of the soul from Sheol. This links with the brief narrative information on Korah and his sons in Numbers 16:30–33 and 26:11.

Similar arguments have been made for other collections, for example:

1. Mitchell has argued for an eschatological scheme for the Psalms of Asaph and the Psalms of Ascents.
2. Gillingham identified a focus on Zion theology in the Psalms of Ascents, the Korah collection, the Psalms of Asaph, the so-called Kingship Psalms (93–100) and the Psalms of an Entrance Liturgy (15–24).

This is not the place for an assessment of the detailed claims being made in these scholarly articles. The point is that a level of structure, termed mesostructure, seems to be present in various collections throughout the Psalter.

In closing this brief pointer to mesostructure we note Goulder’s examination of the structure of Book V of the Psalter which seems to indicate how the mesostructure builds into the macrostructure. He suggests the following pattern exists:

105–106 historical psalms 135–136
107 Return from exile 137
108–110 David psalms 138–145
111,112 Alphabetic psalms 145
113–118 Hallel psalms 146–150
119 Torah psalms 1
120–134 Psalms of ascents

S. E. Gilingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter’, in J. Day (ed.), Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, London: T&T Clark International, 2007, 308–341.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1982.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Return: Book V, Psalms 107–150, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

D. C. Mitchell, The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

D. C. Mitchell, ‘“God Will Redeem My Soul from Sheol”: The Psalms of the Sons of Korah’, JSOT, 30 (2006) 365–384.

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.

The Psalter’s Structure – An Introduction

For more than two millennia the Psalter (the Book of Psalms) was read as if it was in some sense a whole. Worshipers would sing or read through the psalms in their canonical order. Once this was completed the exercise was repeated. Traditionally the Psalter is seen as ‘the Psalms of David’ which perhaps implies it is a book rather than a collection.

Biblical scholarship over the last two hundred years, or so, has cast doubt on the idea that the psalms were authored and/or compiled by David. Such a view seems reasonable on the basis of diverse evidence. This is not to say that David did not author any psalms, but rather that it is unlikely he was responsible for the majority of them or the final editing of the Psalter. Whilst this result of scholarship seems reasonable, the assumption that the Psalter is not a coherent work seems much more dubious.

In the early twentieth century two scholars made a huge impact on psalms scholarship. Their scholarship has been useful in shedding light on the composition of individual psalms as well as helpfully illuminating the possible background of individual psalms. These two individuals are Hermann Gunkel and Sigmund Mowinckel (a student of Gunkel). Gunkel’s contribution was twofold. He identified the categories (the German word Gattungen is often used) of the Psalms. Secondly, he considered what the situation was that might have given rise to these various categories. Mowinckel went further and argued that most of the psalms originated earlier than Gunkel suggested. He argued that they were composed and used during the time of the first Temple.

The ideas that these two scholars proposed are still the subject of lively debate, but many of their basic principles are judged to be sensible. In particular it is helpful to understand the psalms in categories and to appreciate their origin in the life and worship of ancient Israel. The problem however is that the underlying assumption of both approaches is that the psalms as a whole can be understood by appreciating each of the individual psalms, i.e. no reference is made to the structure of the whole. This is at odds with the traditional use of the psalms within Jewish and Christian worship.

Over the last thirty years, or so, there has been a growing interest in how the psalms function as a whole. The basic idea is that the structure of the Psalter is not random, but rather there is some purpose behind it. Gerald Wilson is often attributed with setting this particular ‘ball rolling’. Wilson argued that there is a large-scale structure to the whole book of Psalms, what is often termed ‘macrostructure’. The next post will look at just what it might mean to suggest that the Psalter has a macrostructure.