The well-know and beloved poetry of the Hebrew Bible is discussed in this eight-session study. You will learn that this scripture clearly expresses the widest range of human emotions: from anguish to joy. There is truly a psalm for every “occasion”: from hymns to prayers to songs to celebrations to laments. An important writing which makes no claim to divine revelation, that is, it is clearly man’s attempt to communicate with God, not God’s direction to man.
Study note: These studies ordinarily have scripture assignments and optional extra reading with each session. The document, “Psalm Classification List,” contains lists of psalms which correspond to the topics discussed in the individual sessions. Those explicitly mentioned in the session or any selection from the lists (including the complete list) may be assigned as preparatory reading. The “General Bibliography” shows more comprehensive reference material which may also be accessed to delve into deeper study. Some sessions also reference other reading specific to the topic covered. Any combination of reading may be assigned by the group facilitator/accessed by the learner.
Meet Our Professors
Professor of Hebrew Bible
Professor Joel Baden is a specialist in the Pentateuch, Biblical Hebrew, and disability theory in biblical studies. He is the author of the numerous articles, essays, and books on individual pentateuchal texts, critical methodology, and Biblical Hebrew; future projects include commentaries on Deuteronomy and Exodus. He holds degrees in Judaic Studies (BA, Yale), Semitic Languages (MA, University of Chicago), and Hebrew Bible (PhD, Harvard).
John J. Collins
Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation
John J. Collins, a native of Ireland, was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago from 1991 until his arrival at YDS in 2000. He previously taught at the University of Notre Dame. He has published widely on the subjects of apocalypticism, wisdom, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has participated in the editing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and is the general editor of the Yale Anchor Bible series. He holds degrees from University College Dublin (BA, MA, and an honorary D. Litt.) and Harvard University (PhD).
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I. What are the Psalms?
The Book of Psalms appears in the Hebrew Bible as the first book in the third section, known as the Writings. In the Christian Old Testament, it stands in the middle, just after Job. Unlike many books of the Bible, Psalms is often lifted out of its context and produced as a separate volume, a Psalter, for personal or devotional use. Despite the seemingly firm nature of the book, however, Psalms is one of the least stable corpora in the entire Bible.
Modern Bibles generally contain 150 psalms, based on the form found in the traditional Jewish (the Masoretic) text. But the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from approximately the third century B.C.E., contains 151 psalms; in addition, the Hebrew Psalms 9–10 and 114–115 are each combined in the Greek into single psalms, while the Hebrew Psalms 113 and 116 are divided in two in the Greek. The Syriac text of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Peshitta, contains 155 psalms, as does the Psalms scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls—though they are not the same 155. All of this evidence points to the conclusion that in the late biblical period, and even for a time beyond, the book of Psalms had not achieved a fixed form.
This lack of fixity is evident not only in the number of psalms, but in their order. The book of Psalms is divided in the Hebrew into five volumes: Psalms 1–41; 42–72; 73–89; 90–106; and 107–50. Across all versions of the book, the first three of these volumes or so are relatively stable. It is in the last two volumes that we see significant fluidity (as can be seen in the divisions and recombinations evident in the Greek, noted above). In the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular, the last third or so of the book of Psalms is presented in a very different order from what we are accustomed to.
There are a number of further internal divisions or units within the book of Psalms. We find clusters of psalms that are known as the Psalms of Asaph, or the Psalms of Ascent; there is a segment, in Psalms 42–83, which is known as the “Elohistic Psalter,” because it appears that in these psalms the divine name Yahweh has been systematically replaced with the generic title Elohim, “God.” These internal divisions suggest that the book of Psalms should be understood as a second-level collection: a gathering together of previously independent collections of psalms. In this light, the fluidity we see in the textual tradition should not be particularly surprising: since Psalms was a gathering place for certain types of Hebrew poetry, it was possible to add to the collection in line with the traditions of various communities. It is not always clear whether the additional psalms we find in the Greek, Syriac, and Dead Sea Scrolls were new compositions that were added to the collection, or were rather older pieces that had simply not made the initial cut in the Hebrew text. Regardless, we should certainly understand the book of Psalms as something of a rolling corpus, one that was not considered to be closed until quite late in the process of the transmission of the biblical text.
Tradition holds that David was the author of the book of Psalms. In the story of David’s life, he is known to have been a musician: in 1 Samuel 16, he famously plays the lyre to soothe Saul’s troubled spirit. Later in David’s life, after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, he laments their fate by reciting the poem found in 2 Samuel 22—a poem that is virtually identical to what we have in Psalm 18. It was perhaps these traditions that led to the view that David was in fact the author of many psalms, if not of the entire Psalter: 73 psalms in the Hebrew are attributed to David with the superscription le-David. There are good reasons to doubt the authenticity of these ascriptions, however. In the first place, some of the psalms that are ascribed to David could not have been spoken by him for historical reasons: they mention the Temple, which was not built in David’s time but in that of his son, Solomon, or, even more egregiously, they are clearly set in the context of the Babylonian exile—here Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept for thee, O Zion,” is a clear example. Furthermore, the same process of textual fluidity that we see with the scope of the book of Psalms as a whole is evident also in these superscriptions: while the Hebrew text ascribes 73 psalms to David, the Greek version ascribes 85 to him. In other words, the process of connecting David to the Psalms seems to have been an ongoing one, rather than an element of the original poems themselves.
Some of the references to David in the Psalms are quite specific, attributing them not just to David but to David at a particular point in his life: Psalm 3, for instance is said to be a psalm of David when he fled from Absalom. It is generally understood that these specific references are a later development: those responsible for preserving the biblical oral tradition and scribes searched for viable situations in David’s life for which a given psalm might have been an appropriate thing to say. It should be noted, however, that even those psalms with specific Davidic superscriptions do not actually contain any specific references to David or his life in the poems themselves.
Nevertheless, the tradition that David was responsible for the Psalms, or closely connected to them at least, was a strong one. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is claimed that David composed 3,600 psalms. In both the scrolls and in the New Testament, the word “David” is used to refer to the book of Psalms (as in “the law, the prophets, and David”). Similarly, the ancient rabbis declared that David was the author of the Psalms. At the same time, however, there are many psalms that are ascribed to a different figure: Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, the sons of Korah—even Solomon and Moses. Again, we can see that the idea that David wrote the Psalms was one that developed over time, perhaps in direct relation to the tradition that, although he didn’t actually build the Temple himself, he did set up all the aspects of its rituals and service, as Chronicles is at great pains to describe.
Given the traditional ascription to David, the question of the date of the Psalms comes into play. For the most part, it is generally acknowledged that most psalms are difficult, if not in fact impossible, to date. Some are reasonably clear—we can point again to Psalm 137, which obviously comes out of an exilic context. In some cases, we can see in a psalm an idea or a set of ideas that seem not to fit with later biblical or Jewish concepts: for example, the ostensible polytheism evident in Psalm 82, where Yahweh stands in the divine council of El, the chief deity of the Canaanites. Most scholars agree that those psalms that refer to the Torah, or to wisdom traditions more broadly, are relatively late. Most psalms, however, do not contain such clear indications as to their time or place of origin. Thus it is not impossible that David, or a contemporary, could have written some of the psalms; but it is at the same time impossible to prove this to be the case.
Perhaps the most important breakthrough in the study of the Psalms came in the work of Hermann Gunkel, a German scholar from the early twentieth century. Gunkel’s insight was that the Psalms could be broken down into various categories according to their formal features and content. Thus Gunkel identified a number of types of psalms: psalms of lament, both individual and communal, psalms of thanksgiving, royal psalms, psalms of divine enthronement, wisdom psalms, hymns, etc. Gunkel attempted to understand the contexts in which these types, or forms, of psalms could have come into being in the ancient Israelite community. He was interested not in the question of the composition of any given psalm, but rather in what he called the Sitz im Leben, the “setting in life,” of each broader category. When, for instance, would a psalm of thanksgiving have been used in ancient Israel?
For the most part, Gunkel concluded that almost every type of psalm had its origin in the Israelite cultic sphere: these were, in other words, to be understood as liturgical texts, recited at the sanctuary on various occasions. For example, one could imagine that a psalm of thanksgiving would be recited when an individual would go to the sanctuary to make a thanksgiving offering. If one was experiencing some sort of personal crisis, one would offer a sacrifice to the deity, as a means of getting God’s attention, and then recite a psalm of individual lament, asking for divine favor and rescue.
This cultic setting makes eminent sense—and comports very well with the notion from Chronicles that David instituted the reading of psalms as part of setting up the service at the Temple in Jerusalem. Scholarship has almost universally accepted the liturgical function of the psalms. Part of what makes Gunkel’s insight so appealing is that it accounts for the seemingly repetitive nature of the psalms within each category: when one reads all of the psalms of thanksgiving, they appear to be functionally indistinguishable. By placing them within a cultic context, it is possible then to imagine that when an individual went to the sanctuary to make an offering, the officiating priest would provide him with a liturgical text to accompany the sacrifice, whichever text seemed most appropriate to the offeror’s situation.
This idea also provides us with some insight into the interdependence of prayer, in the form of the psalms, and the cultic ritual of sacrifice. In ancient Israel, access to the deity was always mediated through sacrifice: there was no direct means of communication with heaven (the stories of the patriarchs and Moses notwithstanding). Instead, we should imagine something more like what we find in the story of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, at the beginning of 1 Samuel. Hannah is famous in part for her magnificent prayer, found in 1 Samuel 2. This prayer is really nothing other than a psalm of thanksgiving: it begins by saying “I have triumphed over my enemies,” and then continues to praise God’s awesome power in the world. There is, however, virtually nothing in the body of the poem that is specific to Hannah’s situation—with the exception of the reference to God making the barren woman fruitful, and even this is but one of many descriptions of God’s capacity to overturn the way of the world in favor of the weak. And it should be noted that Hannah does not simply go straight to the sanctuary to pray; she is there because she and her family have just been offering their annual sacrifices. In this we can see the sort of liturgical function that Gunkel imagined for the psalms, along with the notion that the psalms were more stereotyped than individualized.
The final shape of the book of Psalms seems to have been determined by the setting of Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm, and by the concluding psalms, all of which are hymns praising God. In theory, this was intended to suggest that the Psalms were a type of Torah—that is, a collection to be read and studied and meditated upon as a whole. It is safe to say that this attempt to give a wisdom coloring to the book of Psalms was, however, a failure. The power of the psalms, the reason that they have been so well-loved for so long, and in so many diverse communities, is precisely because they speak to the emotional aspect of the individual reader. It should be noted that the Psalms are emphatically human in their origin: they do not represent divine speech or revelation. They are expressions of individual experiences and emotions, directed to the deity. As such, they achieve a certain sort of universality: even if a given psalm may not feel appropriate to one’s situation, it is almost certain that another will. And just as life contains constant vicissitudes from happiness to sadness, from success to failure, and back again, so too the psalms contain the wide range of expressions of those highs and lows. The Psalms are a record of how ancient Israel, and individual ancient Israelites, reckoned with their lives in light of their understanding of their relationship with God. This use shines through to the present, and gives the Psalms the lasting power they still have today.
Questions for Discussion:
- How does the shape of the book of Psalms influence how we approach and read it?
- Does the cultic use of the Psalms in Israel’s history have any relationship to our own prayer practices?
- Does David’s authorship of the Psalms make any difference to how we perceive them?
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II. Psalms of Complaint
The most common type of psalm is the complaint, or lament. These appear in two distinct varieties in the book of Psalms: individual and communal. An individual complaint may look like this, from Psalm 3:
O LORD, my foes are so many! Many are those who attack me;
many say of me, “There is no deliverance for him through God.” Selah.
But You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, He who holds my head high.
I cry aloud to the LORD, and He answers me from His holy mountain. Selah.
I lie down and sleep and wake again, for the LORD sustains me.
I have no fear of the myriad forces arrayed against me on every side.
Rise, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God! For You slap all my enemies in the face; You break the teeth of the wicked.
Deliverance is the LORD’s; Your blessing be upon Your people!
This is a relatively simply individual lament, but it is utterly typical in its formulation. The speaker declares himself to be in crisis, “My foes are so many!”, and calls upon God to deliver him from his situation.
On the communal side, we may take as exemplary Psalm 44(8-14):
In God we glory at all times, and praise Your name unceasingly. Selah.
Yet You have rejected and disgraced us; You do not go with our armies.
You make us retreat before our foe; our enemies plunder us at will.
You let them devour us like sheep; You disperse us among the nations.
You sell Your people for no fortune, You set no high price on them.
You make us the butt of our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us.
You make us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
Here, rather than an individual, it is the community as a whole that is in trouble; “my foes” have become “our enemies.” Yet the fundamental complaint remains the same, and the call for God’s deliverance: “Arise and help us, redeem us, as befits your faithfulness.”
What is apparent in virtually every psalm of complaint is the lack of specificity. “My foes are so many!” suggests that the speaker is in some sort of trouble, but we have no access to the particulars of the individual’s situation. We might note that Psalm 3 is the one that is attributed in its superscription to David, when he was fleeing from Absalom—yet there is nothing in the psalm itself that has any direct connection to that historical event. The lament is, in this way, fundamentally reusable: it could be applied to a king escaping a rebellion, but it could just as easily be applied to anyone in any sort of straits. As we have seen, it is this universal nature of these psalms that in part led Gunkel to recognize them as a category to be reckoned with as a whole, and that supports the notion that these were stereotyped expressions that could be employed by anyone seeking divine assistance, in almost any range of personal turmoils.
Psalm 22 is among the most famous of these individual laments, because its opening lines were taken up by Jesus: “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” But even this psalm is quite broad in its litany of woes: “Dogs surround me . . . deliver me from a lion’s mouth, from the horns of wild oxen rescue me.” We are dealing here with the realm of metaphor, not with a specific real-world situation. That the speaker of this psalm, or others from this category, is suffering is not in question. But we can hardly pin down what that specific suffering may have been. Any problem that seemed to demand divine attention—from sickness to financial loss—would be a perfectly appropriate backdrop for these types of laments.
We can see a good example of metaphorically specific language being used to express a universal sentiment in Psalm 69:
Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck;
I am sinking into the slimy deep and find no foothold; I have come into the watery depths; the flood sweeps me away.
I am weary with calling; my throat is dry; my eyes fail while I wait for God.
It is surely safe to say that the speaker of this psalm is not literally up to his neck in water, or drowning in the watery depths. But almost everyone knows the feeling that is expressed by the metaphor of drowning—the utter loss of control and certainty that there is no hope except a miraculous rescue.
A feature that crops up with some regularity in psalms of complaint is a rather abrupt transition, often near the end of the psalm, in which it appears as if the complaint has been successfully addressed:
You who fear the LORD, praise Him! All you offspring of Jacob, honor Him! Be in dread of Him, all you offspring of Israel!
For He did not scorn, He did not spurn the plea of the lowly; He did not hide His face from him; when he cried out to Him, He listened.
Because of You I offer praise in the great congregation; I pay my vows in the presence of His worshipers. Psalm 22 (23-25)
This reads much more like a psalm of thanksgiving than a psalm of complaint; what is it doing here, at the end of Psalm 22?
We may consider here the likelihood that these psalms, used in a cultic liturgical setting, may have been interwoven with some oracular aspect on the part of the priest. We might imagine the speaker bringing his offering, reciting the complaint part of the psalm, and then waiting for the priest to make an oracular determination as to God’s reaction. Upon receiving an affirmative response, the speaker would then continue on with the second part of the psalm, thanking God, in advance, for the divine attentiveness to his pleas. Alternatively, it is possible that the second part of the psalm might have been recited sometime later, after the speaker had in fact successfully escaped from his plight, whatever it might have been. In either case, the almost “call and response” nature of this structure contributes to the scholarly opinion that these psalms, like so many others, were originally for use in a cultic setting.
Many laments not only describe the abject condition of the speaker, but are also clear that the speaker is not at fault. Psalm 69 says, “My zeal for your house has been my undoing; the reproaches of those who revile you have fallen upon me.” The speaker is undeserving of his fate: in fact, he has been nothing but faithful to God, while those who oppress him are enemies of the deity. This is a clear rhetorical move, intended to appeal directly to God’s sense of justice. Generally, psalms of complaint are psalms of injustice, personal or communal. They seek to elicit divine outrage, or at least attention: “Answer me, O Lord, according to your steadfastness; in accordance with your abundant mercy turn to me.” It is often assumed that God has simply been too busy to attend to the individual’s situation, even as it has progressively worsened. The psalm—and, one can safely assume, the sacrifice that accompanies it—are intended to rectify that inattentiveness.
Unusual in this regard, then, is Psalm 51:
Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin;
for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin.
Against You alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are just in Your sentence, and right in Your judgment.
A rarity among the psalms of complaint, here the speaker admits to error, to iniquity and transgression, and appeals less for divine attention and more for divine forgiveness. Indeed, here the speaker is seeking something akin to a conversion experience, in what looks like a recognition that his situation has resulted from a life of disobedience: “Fashion a pure heart for me, O God; create in me a steadfast spirit.” In return, the speaker promises to enter a life of proclaiming God’s ways to others: “I will teach transgressors your ways, that sinners may return to you.”
This psalm also echoes some of the great early Israelite prophets in declaring the ineffectual nature of sacrifice: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices, you do not desire burnt offerings; true sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit.” As with the prophets who make similar statements, we should not imagine here a wholesale rejection of the sacrificial system; such a thing would have been unthinkable in ancient Israel. What we do see, however, is the notion that sacrifice alone, as a rote cultic motion, is not effective in calling forth divine mercy. Sacrifice, like prayer, must always be accompanied by a contrite spirit, by what the ancient rabbis called kavvanah, “attentiveness”: you cannot just go through the motions, but you have to really mean it. The downplaying of sacrifice is a highlighting of the speaker’s authentic spiritual state. It might be noted that this psalm, Psalm 51, is attributed to David in the wake of the episode with Bathsheba. Although psalms of complaint are often spoken by those in externally-imposed difficulty, there is some comfort in knowing that there is also recourse for those who have erred and are now regretful, and seek to reenter the divine presence.
When it comes to communal laments, we see many of the same features as in the individual complaints. Rather than appeal to God’s sense of justice, however, we often find appeals to what God had previously done for Israel, as in Psalm 44:
We have heard, O God, our fathers have told us the deeds You performed in their time, in days of old.
With Your hand You planted them, displacing nations; You brought misfortune on peoples, and drove them out.
It was not by their sword that they took the land, their arm did not give them victory, but Your right hand, Your arm, and Your goodwill, for You favored them.
The rehearsal of God’s glorious deeds in the past is intended to elicit similar acts in the present: God is being reminded of the efforts he had previously gone to for Israel. This is a move straight out of Moses’s playbook, when the people had sinned in the wilderness: “Let not your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against your people, whom you delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand.” Here, however, in Psalm 44, there is no admission of sin:
All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten You, or been false to Your covenant.
Our hearts have not gone astray, nor have our feet swerved from Your path,
though You cast us, crushed, to where the sea monster is, and covered us over with deepest darkness.
If we forgot the name of our God and spread forth our hands to a foreign god,
God would surely search it out, for He knows the secrets of the heart.
It is for Your sake that we are slain all day long, that we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
Rouse Yourself; why do You sleep, O Lord? Awaken, do not reject us forever!
This is very much parallel to the individual complaints: “Why do you sleep?” God has been inattentive to his people’s undeserved suffering.
In another communal lament, Psalm 74, the speaker goes even further, appealing directly to God’s pride and honor: “Rise, O God, champion your cause; be mindful that you are blasphemed by base men all day long.” Again, we can hear echoes of Moses here, as in Numbers 14, after the episode of the spies: “If you slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land he had promised them on oath that he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’”
In the communal laments, but also in the individual psalms of complaint, the constant refrain is that God should come to the speaker’s or community’s aid because, effectively, “we are your people.” The appeal is both to God’s sense of justice and God’s sense of obligation. In this idea too we can see how the psalms of complaint serve a universal function: anyone who considers himself to be part of God’s chosen community can take up almost any one of these and apply it to his situation.
Questions for Discussion:
- What does it say about ancient Israel, or us, that so may of the Psalms are complaints and laments?
- How does the lack of situational specificity in these psalms help or hurt us when we use them liturgically or individually?
- Do we have contemporary equivalents to either individual or communal psalms of lament?
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One of the most prominent types of psalms is the hymn. A hymn is, essentially, a song of praise for Yahweh. Often, though not always, these are marked by the key word “Hallelujah,” in its English rendering. In Hebrew, this is in fact an imperative: hallelu yah, “Praise Yahweh.” A collection of these hymns is to be found at the very end of the Psalter, in Psalms 146–50, all of which begin with “Hallelujah.”
Hymns tend to center around three main themes, which are often intertwined: creation, nature, and kingship. In Psalm 146, we read of Yahweh that “He made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them.” In this we can see the hymnic emphasis on creation, the ultimate expression of divine power. Creation is central in large part because it elevates Yahweh over any other possible deity, over any deities that are worshipped by other nations. It does not necessarily eliminate the possibility that other deities exist, but it does relegate them to a lower order. The creator God is, by definition, the greatest and most important.
A good example of this is in Psalm 148:
Hallelujah! Praise Yahweh from the heavens, praise him on high.
Praise him, all the angels, praise him, all his hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all bright stars.
Praise him, highest heavens, and you waters that are above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of Yahweh, for he commanded that they be created.
Although we think of creation primarily in terms of earthly creation, the bringing into being of the world that we see, this psalm focuses instead on the creation of the heavenly world, including the other divine beings. While there was in ancient Israel, and in the ancient Near East more generally, an accepted view that each nation had its own national deity, here Yahweh is elevated to a higher plane of existence, as the sole deity who created the supernal world (as well as the earthly one).
In many ancient Near Eastern cultures, especially those with a pantheon of various deities, the creator role was assigned to the highest god, often a deity who was understood to operate in the past more than the present: in essence, a god emeritus. The active divine role was turned over to a different god, often the son of the chief god. We can see this in the well-known Greek mythology, where Zeus is active in human life, but his mythical ancestors, such as Kronos, are not. So too we find it in cultures closer to those of ancient Israel, notably in Canaanite mythology, in which El was the head of the pantheon, but his son Baal was the active deity in the world. In the Hebrew Bible, because the ancient Israelites had only a single god, Yahweh, these various divine roles were conflated and combined into a single divine person.
It is for this reason that Yahweh can be seen to have the characteristics of both El and Baal, and the latter nowhere more clearly than in the hymns that focus on Yahweh’s power over nature. Baal, in Canaanite religion, was the storm god, and the deity responsible for everything climatological, including agricultural success. We see the Israelite version of this in works such as Psalm 29:
The voice of Yahweh is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, Yahweh, over the mighty waters.
The voice of Yahweh is power; the voice of Yahweh is majesty;
the voice of Yahweh breaks cedars; Yahweh shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion, like a young wild ox.
The voice of Yahweh kindles flames of fire;
the voice of Yahweh convulses the wilderness; Yahweh convulses the wilderness of Kadesh.
Here the “voice of Yahweh” is thunder, and the “flames of fire” are lightning. What is portrayed here is Yahweh as storm god, moving inland from the Mediterranean, down through the northern hills of Lebanon and Sirion and further into the wilderness to the south. This is a comprehensive picture of divine destruction by means of a storm, illustrating Yahweh’s power over nature: the wilderness itself convulses as he passes through. For anyone who has been in Israel during one of its relatively rare thunderstorms, the attribution of such powerful climatic events to a divine being is readily understandable. One of the interesting aspects of this particular portrayal of that power is that it seems largely to relate to areas that were not Israelite: the coast, and the northern hills, that for much of Israel’s history were held by other peoples (Philistines, for example). It has long been observed in scholarship that this psalm is deeply indebted to the typical Canaanite descriptions of Baal—so much so, in fact, that if one were to simply replace “Yahweh” with “Baal,” it would be no surprise to find exactly this hymn coming from a purely Canaanite context. And, for some scholars, that is just about what happened: they see this as an Israelite version of an originally Canaanite hymn of praise for Baal.
Regardless of whether that reconstruction is true or not, it is certainly the case that Israel borrowed much of the storm and natural imagery in its hymnic psalms from its Canaanite context. In some places, we can see how this sort of natural theology was combined with the more specifically Israelite concept of Yahweh’s working through history on behalf of his people. So we may think of Psalm 114:
When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech,
Judah became His holy one, Israel, His dominion.
The sea saw them and fled, Jordan ran backward,
mountains skipped like rams, hills like sheep.
What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled, Jordan, that you ran backward,
mountains, that you skipped like rams, hills, like sheep?
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of Yahweh, at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flinty rock into a fountain.
Although there are clearly some elements of Israel’s communal history alluded to here—the Exodus event in particular—this psalm moves rather quickly to broaden God’s power beyond the merely historical, and invoke again the sort of power over nature that we saw in Psalm 29.
When hymns invoke Yahweh’s power on earth, they often do so in terms of divine justice. Psalm 146, after mentioning Yahweh’s creative power, goes on immediately to say, “He secures justice for those who are wronged.” This idea is quite common in hymns, and quite often, as here, is aligned with the idea of Yahweh as creator. The pairing of these concepts is intentional. It was understood in ancient Israel, and in its Near Eastern context more broadly, that creation and justice are deeply linked: part of creating the world is establishing its firm foundations, the bedrock on which we all live and move. That bedrock is understood to be founded in justice: if there is no justice from the divine sphere, then all of existence seems to be slipping. So Psalm 96: “The world stands firm, it cannot be shaken; he judges the peoples with equity.”
These hymns are not, however, concerned for the most part with the question of Yahweh’s justice—for that the psalms of lament are more appropriate. Justice is raised, essentially, as a side effect of Yahweh’s creative power. It also dovetails with another major theme of the hymns in the book of Psalms: the presentation of Yahweh as king. In the ancient Near East, it was usually understood to be the role of the king to administer and maintain justice, and thereby to keep the social peace in his dominion. This can be seen, for instance, in the prologue to the famous Code of Hammurabi. One of the innovations of Israelite theology was the removal of that role from the king to the deity—and, in fact, the general downplaying of the centrality of the king in favor of seeing Yahweh as the one true monarch.
Many biblical hymns thus praise Yahweh in explicitly royal terms. Psalm 97: “Yahweh is king! Let the earth exult, the many islands rejoice!” Or, more famously thanks to Handel’s Messiah, Psalm 93: “Yahweh is king, he is clothed in majesty.” Often the image of Yahweh’s throne is evoked. Psalm 93 again: “Your throne stands firm from old.” It is not only Yahweh’s kingship, but the permanence of that kingship that is highlighted here and elsewhere.
A number of these hymns of divine kingship seem to celebrate not only Yahweh’s eternal rule, but the moment of his enthronement in his holy Temple. Psalm 24:
O gates, lift up your heads! Up high, you everlasting doors, so the King of glory may
Who is the King of glory? Yahweh, mighty and valiant, Yahweh, valiant in battle.
O gates, lift up your heads! Lift them up, you everlasting doors, so the King of glory may
Who is the King of glory? — the Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory!
Psalms like this are generally known as psalms of enthronement, and, more so than some others, these have what appears to be a clear liturgical function. It is not at all difficult to imagine this psalm being recited in the Temple. Similarly, we may point to the end of Psalm 29, which, after the reckoning of Yahweh’s power over nature, goes on:
While in his temple, all say, “Glory!”
Yahweh sat enthroned on the Flood; Yahweh sits enthroned, king forever.
May Yahweh grant strength to his people; may Yahweh bestow peace on his people.
The reference to the Flood here is not to the story of Noah, but to the mythic primordial waters, probably picking up on the Canaanite myth of the battle between Baal and the sea god, Yamm (which is also the Hebrew word for sea, yam). Of interest to us here is particularly the first line quoted above, which again we can imagine as being a response from the gathered community, something akin to our modern “Amen.”
Because the liturgical function of enthronement psalms is so pronounced, some scholars have attempted to reconstruct the festival that stands behind such hymns. It has been conjectured that there must have been an annual celebration of Yahweh’s kingship, sometimes associated with the festival of Sukkot, although there is no clear evidence for this. Given ancient Near Eastern parallels, however, especially from Mesopotamia, where the statues of the deity were annually taken out, paraded through the city, and then returned in triumph to the temple, it is not beyond the realm of consideration that Israel might have had some sort of equivalent ceremony.
A nearly complete picture of the typical hymn can be found in Psalm 96, part of which was quoted from earlier. It is worth quoting in full here, however, because it brings together nearly every aspect that we have discussed so far: creation, nature, history, justice, kingship, and enthronement:
Sing to the LORD a new song, sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless His name, proclaim His victory day after day.
Tell of His glory among the nations, His wondrous deeds, among all peoples.
For the LORD is great and much acclaimed, He is held in awe by all divine beings.
All the gods of the peoples are mere idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
Glory and majesty are before Him; strength and splendor are in His temple.
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of His name, bring tribute and enter His courts.
Bow down to the LORD majestic in holiness; tremble in His presence, all the earth!
Declare among the nations, “The LORD is king!” the world stands firm; it cannot be shaken; He judges the peoples with equity.
Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult; let the sea and all within it thunder,
the fields and everything in them exult; then shall all the trees of the forest shout for joy
at the presence of the LORD, for He is coming, for He is coming to rule the earth; He will rule the world justly, and its peoples in faithfulness.
Questions for Discussion:
- In what situations, ancient or contemporary, is a hymn to God’s power called for?
- How do these psalms describe the breadth or God’s earthly power?
- To what extent does the image of God as king still resonate today, and how might it have changed since these psalms were written?
Yale Bible Study
IV. The Royal Psalms
In the ancient world, temples and cult were closely associated with the monarchy. The king was often the patron of the temple, and this was the case in Jerusalem. Consequently, the king figures prominently in the psalms. These psalms are important historical windows on the religion of Judah before the Babylonian exile, when there was still a king on the throne. They display a view of the kingship in mythological terms that is very different from what we find in the historical books and the prophets. A number of these psalms, scattered through the Psalter, are usually classified as “royal psalms” because of the prominence of the king. These are Psalms 2, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 110 and 132.
Psalm 2 is written on the assumption that all nations should be subject to YHWH and his king (called mashiach, or anointed one) in Jerusalem. One might suppose that it was written after an attack on Jerusalem by a foreign power, such as Assyria, under Sennacherib in 701 BCE, when Jerusalem survived. (See 2 Kings 19; Isaiah 37). But this is not necessarily the case. The psalm is an expression of the royal ideology, wherein the rule of the king is guaranteed by divine decree. That decree assures the king: “you are my son, this day I have begotten you.” Note that the king is said to be begotten, not adopted. The idea that the king was begotten by God has its closest parallels in Egypt, in the late second millennium BCE. Egypt had ruled over Jerusalem in the second millennium; and Egyptian traditions about kingship were passed down by the Jebusites, who lived in Jerusalem before David conquered it. Some scholars think that this formula, “today I have begotten you” was pronounced by a prophet when a new king ascended the throne. (Another possible coronation oracle is found in Isaiah 9, “unto us a child is born”). The begetting is metaphorical. No one thought that the kings of Judah were born from virgins. But it is a powerful way of expressing the king’s close relationship with God. Since the king is called mashiach in this psalm, it gives rise to the belief that the messiah is the son of God. This belief is expressed in a heightened way in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the stories of the virgin birth of Jesus.
The theme of divine kingship comes up again in Psalm 110. In this case, the king is addressed as Adonay, “my lord,” using the term that is used as substitute for the divine name in later Judaism. Ancient translations, beginning with the Greek, read “The Lord said to my Lord,” underlining the affinity of the king with the Most High. The king is told to sit on the right hand of YHWH. This is probably a reference to the place of the king’s throne in the Temple.
The Hebrew of Psalm 110:3 is corrupt. The NRSV translates: “From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you.” The Hebrew word that is translated as “your youth” could be read with different vowel pointing as “I have begotten you,” and this is how it is read in the Greek. (The Hebrew was originally written without vowels. The vowel points were only added in the Middle Ages). The verse should probably be translated “from the womb of dawn, like dew I have begotten you.” In this case, the scribes who copied the text in the Middle Ages seem to have been uncomfortable with the idea that the king was begotten by God.
The psalm continues with an intriguing comment: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was the priest-king of Salem (presumably Jerusalem) in Genesis 14, who blessed Abraham, and to whom Abraham gave a tithe of his spoils. Melchizedek was a Jebusite, which is to say a Canaanite. He was priest of El Elyon, the Canaanite God of Jerusalem. El Elyon is identified with YHWH in the Hebrew Bible, but originally the two deities were distinct. The claim that the kings of Judah were priests “according to the order of Melchizedek” affirms continuity between them and their pagan predecessors, and allows that the Canaanite El Elyon was a manifestation of the true God.
Melchizedek appears again as a mysterious figure, without father or mother, in Hebrews 7:3. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, he appears as an angelic figure who executes judgment on behalf of God, in a scroll called 11QMelchizedek.
An even more startling view of the kingship appears in Psalm 45. This is a song for a royal wedding. It begins by telling the king that he is “the most handsome of men. The vss 6-7 read:
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
You love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
With the oil of gladness beyond your companions.
Here the king is addressed as an elohim, a god. Some scholars translate the first line of the quotation as “your divine throne endures forever,” but verse 7 clearly distinguishes between the elohim who is being addressed and “your God,” or the Most High. To say that the king is a god does not mean that he is equal to the Most High. But it implies that he is not on the same level as other human beings either. He is a divine being in some, qualified, sense.
Psalm 45 emphasizes the obligation of the king to uphold truth and righteousness. This obligation is also clear in Psalm 72. That psalm does not address the king as a god, but it prays that he may live as long as the sun and moon and have dominion from sea to sea. Psalm 21 suggests that this prayer is answered: “He asked you for life; you gave it to him – length of days forever and ever” (Ps 21:4; Psalm 20 prays that God may grant the king his heart’s desire). Some scholars take this to mean that the king was thought to enjoy a beatific, eternal, afterlife. There are some parallels for this idea in the surrounding Canaanite cultures, but the evidence is not decisive.
Both Psalm 45 and Psalm 72 associate the king with righteousness. Throughout the Ancient Near East, kings were the guardians of justice. Hammurabbi of Babylon, about 1700 BCE, several hundred years before Moses, said that the gods had chosen him to be king “to promote the welfare of the people . . . to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak.” This was the common idea of justice in the ancient Near East, that the powerful should not oppress the weak. In the Old Testament, this often appears as concern for “the widow, the orphan, and the alien.” We associate this concern especially with the prophets, and with reforming laws, such as we find in Deuteronomy. But it was also the concern of the kingship. So, Psalm 72 prays:
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice…
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
Give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor (Ps 72:2-4).
Needless to say, kings did not always live up to this ideal, but at least they affirmed it in principle.
The covenant with David
These psalms paint a very different picture of the kingship from what we find in the account of the covenant with David, in 2 Samuel 7. There too we are told that God will regard David’s heirs as his sons, but nothing is said of divine begetting, and the king is subject to chastisement if he should sin. This possibility is not entertained in the psalms we have considered so far. There are, however, two other psalms that are closely related to 2 Samuel 7. These are Psalms 89 and 132.
Psalm 89 falls into three parts: vss 1-18, 19-37, and 38-51. These parts may have been composed on different occasions. The first part states the basic point of the Davidic covenant: “I have sworn to my servant David: I will establish your descendants forever and build your throne for all generations. This is an unconditional promise. The rest of vss. 1-18 goes on to praise God as creator, in mythical terms, alluding to a battle with a sea-monster that is never recorded in the Bible: “You crushed Rahab like a carcass.” (Compare Job 26:12; Isa 51:9). The second part of the psalm elaborates the promise to David. The king is promised control over the forces of chaos (“I will set his hand upon the sea,” vs. 25. He will call God father, and God will treat him as his firstborn. This section of the psalm makes provision for sin and punishment: “if his children forsake my law.” This part of the psalm corresponds closely to 2 Samuel 7 and probably depends on it. The reference to “my law” probably presupposes the Deuteronomists reform. The final section of the psalm envisions a situation where God has rejected the king, and apparently renounced the covenant. The most plausible setting for this section is the Babylonian Exile. Taken as a whole, the psalm recalls the covenant with David in terms of 2 Samuel 7, to remind God of his promise and ask him to honor it.
Psalm 132 is a celebration of the moving of the ark to Jerusalem, and also narrates God’s promise to David. It departs from 2 Samuel 7 at one very significant point. It affirms that “the Lord swore to David a sure oath, from which he will not turn back: one of the sons of your body I will set upon your throne” (vs. 11). This time, however, the right of the sons to rule is conditional: “if your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also forevermore shall sit on your throne” (vs. 12). While the psalm does not use Deuteronomic language (such as reference to the name of God) it seems to presuppose Deuteronomy in two key respects: the insistence that the king must keep “my covenant” and “my decrees,” in vs. 12, and the statement that the Lord has chosen Zion as his resting place in vss. 13-14. Some scholars have tried to date Psalm 132 very early, before the royal ideology had been fully formulated, but there is no evidence that the kingship of David’s line was originally conceived as conditional. It seems clear that we have here an extension of Deuteronomic theology that not only makes the kings subject to punishment but allows for the possibility that the whole line could be rejected. This theology only emerged after the Deuteronomic reform in 621 BCE, near the end of the monarchy. The psalmist still expresses confidence that the promises to David and Zion are still valid, and does not show the kind of distress that we find in the last part of Psalm 89. Psalm 132 may have been written in the last years of the monarchy, before it collapsed under the Babylonian invasion.
The significance of the royal ideology
The royal ideology is somewhat atypical of the Old Testament, in the degree of trust it places in a human institution. The prophets were scathing about the pretensions of kings to be divine. Consider the oracle of Ezekiel against the king of Tyre:
Because your heart is proud
and you have said, ‘I am a god;
I sit in the seat of the gods in the heart of the seas.
yet you are but a mortal, and no god,
though you compare your mind with the mind of a god.
At least some of the prophets would probably have felt the same way about the claims that the Davidic kings of Judah were begotten by God, and that they should be called “elohim.” Jeremiah castigated Jehoahaz, the son of King Josiah:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing
and does not give them their wages. (Jer 22:13).
The Book of Deuteronomy, written at the end of the monarchic period, drafted a “law of the king,” which severely limited the king’s freedom of action and made him subject to the Law (Deut 17:14-20). Similarly, Jeremiah said that if the kings upheld justice, and did not oppress the widow, the orphan or the alien, then the monarchy would endure. Otherwise the house would become a desolation (Jer 22:3-5). The right of monarchs to rule would no longer be unconditional.
The royal ideology is extremely important, however, for the development of messianism in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. The promise to David was the basis for the hope that the David kingdom would one day be restored. Moreover, the idea that the king/messiah is the Son of God was crucial to the development of Christian belief. Psalm 110 (“the Lord said to my lord, ‘sit at my right hand”) was taken as proof that the messiah must ascend to heaven (Acts 2:34-36). In Jewish tradition, however, the messiah was first of all one who would restore the kingdom of David. The Christian claim that Jesus was the fulfillment of messianic promises required considerable reinterpretation of the Jewish understanding of messianism. Nonetheless, the royal psalms played an important part in the formulation of Christian belief in the New Testament and later.
See the commentaries in the general bibliography on the particular psalms.
Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 1-24 (“The King as Son of God”).
Norman K. Gottwald, “Kingship in the Book of Psalms,” in William P. Brown, ed., The Oxford Handbook of The Psalms (New York: Oxford, 2014) 437-44.
Questions for Discussion:
- Why does the king play such an important role in Psalms?
- In what sense was the king thought to be divine?
- How does the portrayal of the king in Psalm relate to the way kingship is portrayed in the prophets?
- What is the importance or the royal psalms for Jewish and Christian messianic expectation?
Yale Bible Study
V. Wisdom Psalms
Wisdom psalms constitute one of the more distinctive kinds of palms in the Psalter. These are psalms that reflect on wisdom, on the fate of the righteous and the wicked, and on the Law. They are distinguished by their reflective, meditative tone, and their didactic character. Psalms 1, 14, 19, 37, 73, 91, 112, 119, and 128, belong to this category.
What is Wisdom?
At the outset, it may be well to say something about wisdom as a category. The wisdom books in the Bible (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth, Job, and the deuterocanonical books of Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon) are so called because the word “wisdom” occurs frequently in them. They are distinctive in the Bible because they contain very little narrative. (The framework of the Book of Job is the main exception). The wisdom books in the Hebrew Bible pay no explicit attention to the story of Israel or the Law of Moses. This changes in the deuterocanonical wisdom books. The wisdom psalms also pay a good deal of attention to the Law, and this is usually considered an indication of a relatively late date. The archetypal wisdom material is found in the Book of Proverbs. That book contains two kinds of material: collections of proverbs in chapters 10-31 and longer instructions in chapters 1-9. The proverbs are pithy observations, or sometimes take the form of imperatives. They are mostly concerned with practical wisdom, even such mundane matters as table manners. The instructions are more theological. Proverbs stands in a long tradition of Near Eastern instructional material that dates to the third millennium BCE and is especially strong in Egypt. Wisdom or sapiential writings are thought to have originated in the training of scribes for service at the royal court.
Our first example of a wisdom psalm is the first psalm of the psalter, Psalm 1. This psalm declares happy those who do not follow the advice of the wicked but delight in the law of the Lord. The word translated “law” is the Hebrew torah. This word is commonly used to designate the Torah or Law of Moses, which corresponds to the Pentateuch in our Bibles. But the word torah also has a broader meaning. It can be used for the instruction of priests, on technical matters of temple worship. In the context of wisdom literature, it basically means “instruction.” So, for example Prov 3:1, “my son, do not forget my teaching,” uses the Hebrew word torah. In Psalm 1, then, the “law of the Lord” is really the instruction of the Lord, or even “the way of the Lord.” It does not necessarily refer to the Law of Moses, although such a reference is also possible. Even if it does refer to the Law of Moses, the psalmist is not concerned with the details of the commandments but rather with an attitude of reverence to the Law as the articulation of a way of life. The main point of Psalm 1 is to assure the reader that those who follow “the way of the Lord” will prosper and that the wicked will be blown away like chaff. This is a typical contention of the wisdom writings, and its truth is far from self-evident. In fact, the psalmist, and other wisdom writers, are constantly troubled by the fact that the wicked often seem to prosper, and the righteous seem to suffer. Psalm 1 does not stop to argue the point, but lays down its assertions about the success of the righteous as an article of faith, to be maintained regardless of evidence.
The fact that this psalm is placed at the beginning of the Psalter is significant. It sets the tone for the Psalter as a whole. Some scholars argue that the Psalter had become a book of instruction in the late Second Temple period. The evidence for this is the placement of Psalm 1 and the recurrence of wisdom psalms throughout the collection. Whether this necessarily true determines the way all the psalms were read is doubtful, however. Many were still used in worship, as they are to the present day. But the wisdom psalms point to another use of the Psalter as devotional literature, and object of meditation.
Psalm 14 defines the wise as those who seek after God. The fools say in their heart “there is no God.” There do not seem to have been many atheists in antiquity. Most people seem to have taken some kind of divine control of the universe for granted. But this does not mean that everyone paid attention to the will of God, and of course non-Jews paid no attention to the God of Israel. Here again the Psalmist insists that the fools “will be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.” In this case, however, the psalm ends with a prayer: “O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice, Israel will be glad.” The prayer is a tacit admission that retribution is something one hopes for, not something that is always given in experience.
Perhaps the most famous reflection on the respective fates of the righteous and the wicked comes in Psalm 37. Characteristically, the Psalmist begins by assuring his listeners that the wicked will soon fade like grass. He urges people to be patient: “be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” The most striking comment in the psalm, however, comes in vs 25:
I have been young, and now am old
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
It is difficult to avoid thinking that he should have gotten out more. Anyone who has never see a righteous person impoverished has not seen much of society.
In fairness to the Psalmist, the point is not that the righteous are never poor. He surely knew that that was not the case. Rather, he makes two arguments. One is the argument for patience. Trust in God, and things will improve. This kind of trusting attitude is innate to the religious mentality. It is one of the most basic aspects of faith. The second argument is that the little that the righteous person has is better than the abundance of the wicked. This suggests that people can, to a degree, control their fate by their attitude. It is possible to find contentment in little, and abundance is no guarantee of happiness. This hardly amounts to a solution to the problem of poverty, but it is a way of making the best of a situation. Notably, the Psalmist tells the reader to “refrain from anger,” because it only leads to evil. This attitude is very different from that of the prophets, who saw a place for righteous anger. It is very much in accordance with the conservative mentality of the wisdom tradition.
Psalm 73 is exceptional in the Psalter insofar as it admits the problem:
I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are,
They are not plagued like other people.
They are also characterized by their disregard for God. They ask,
how can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?
Consequently, the Psalmist was embittered, and “like a brute beast.”
He claims to have overcome his doubts when
I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.
In part, at least, his transformation is a matter of trust in the presence of God:
I am continually with you; you hold my right hand, you guide me with your counsel.
He even expresses the hope, atypical of the Psalms, that “afterward you will receive me in glory.” It is not that he actually witnesses the discomfiture of the wicked, but the aggravation of their apparent success is outweighed by the satisfaction that comes from the presence of God:
“For me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge.”
Some of the other wisdom psalms are less concerned with retribution and are meditations on the torah of the Lord, in the spirit of Psalm 1. Psalms 19 and 119 refer specifically to precepts and commandments, and so it is likely that in these cases the torah of the Lord is the Torah of Moses. Nonetheless, these psalms are not concerned with the details of the commandments, but rather with the idea of Torah, which is comparable to the idea of Wisdom.
The older Hebrew wisdom tradition in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes paid no explicit attention to the Torah of Moses. This changed in the second century BCE. Ben Sira (Sirach), chapter 24, is a long poem singing the praises of Wisdom, personified as a female, in the tradition of Proverbs chapter 8. Unlike Proverbs, however, Ben Sira says that Wisdom found a home in Jerusalem in the Jewish tradition. It goes on to say: “all this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob” (Sir 24:23). The Book of Ben Sira remains nonetheless a wisdom book, in the tradition of Proverbs. It does not engage in systematic exegesis of the Torah of Moses. The identification of Wisdom and Torah in chapter 24 is an acknowledgement of the importance of the Torah, and of the fact that wisdom can also be found in the Torah of Moses. To a great degree, however, this acknowledgement is iconic, in the sense that it reveres the Torah without examining it in any detail. This is similar to the attitude to the Torah that we find in Psalms 19 and 119.
It is significant that Psalm 19 does not begin with the history of Israel, but with an appeal to nature:
The heavens are telling the glory of God
And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
The recourse to nature as the revelation of God is typical of the hymns of the Psalter (see especially Psalm 8). When the law of the Lord is introduced in vs. 7, one thinks initially of the law of nature, and indeed the implication is that the law of nature and the law of Moses are one and the same, a point made explicitly by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who lived in the time of Christ. (See the beginning of his treatise “On the creation of the world”). The remainder of the psalm speaks of the law in rather general terms. It is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure. At no point, however, does the Psalmist stop to consider what the law of the Lord actually requires.
This iconic veneration of the Torah/Law continues in Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the Psalter at 176 verses. The Psalmist protests:
I find my delight in your commandments, because I love them.
I revere your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes (vs. 48).
But he never cites the details of any of these commandments. Rather, he keeps mentioning the law as a kind of mantra. It symbolizes a way of life. It is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” But the details need not concern us, at least in this context.
Wisdom and generosity
Psalm 112 is exceptional in associating the wise with a particular virtue, in this case generosity. The psalm accords with the usual assumption that wealth and riches are in the houses of the righteous. But that is not an end in itself. Rather, the righteous
Rise in the darkness as a light for the upright
They are gracious, merciful, and righteous.
We are told that
It is well with those who deal generously and lend,
Who conduct their affairs with justice.
In late Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew word for justice, tsedakah, came to mean “almsgiving.” Psalm 112 is in accordance with this association of justice and almsgiving, and that is probably an indication of a late date.
Psalm 128 also places the emphasis on the fruits of wisdom. In this case the Psalmist speaks of “the fear of the Lord,” which is said to be the beginning of wisdom in Prov 9:19. The fear of the Lord means a religious attitude, whereby one acknowledges one’s dependence on a higher power. Psalm 128 speaks of the blessings that follow from the fear of the Lord not in terms of wealth but rather in terms of family: your children will be like olive shoots around your table, and you will see your children’s children.
The use of wisdom psalms
The wisdom psalms differ from other parts of the Psalter, insofar as they were not designed for cultic use. They are rather didactic material, and they give the Psalter a didactic character. At the same time, they make the point that study is a form of worship, and they testify to the growing importance of the Torah for Jewish religious life.
See the commentaries on the individual psalms.
Jerome F. D. Creach, “The Righteous and the Wicked,” in Brown, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, 529-41.
James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom. An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981) 180-5.
Diane Jacobson, “Wisdom Language in the Psalms,” in Brown, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, 147-57.
Questions for Discussion:
- What is a wisdom psalm?
- Does the Lord always reward the righteous?
- How is the Law/Torah understood in wisdom psalms?
- How is justice understood in the wisdom psalms?
Yale Bible Study
VI. The Human Condition
Life in the ancient world was nasty brutish and short, and ancient Israel was no exception. The Psalms, more than any other book in the Bible, provide a window on the existential experience of ordinary people.
Out of the depths
Many of the psalms of complaint are cries of despair: “out of the depths I cry to you O Lord” (Psalm 130:1). Life is lived in the shadow of death, and of the netherworld Sheol:
For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit . . .
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep. (Psalm 88:3,5b-6)
Human life was not entirely extinguished at death, but afterlife in Sheol was nothing to look forward to. Sheol is imagined as a dark damp basement, a pit from which there is no escape. There is no enjoyment in Sheol. The dead cannot even praise the Lord (Psalm 115:17). Indeed, in Sheol there is not even remembrance of God (Psalm 6:5). Consequently, life is lived in fear of going down into Sheol:
The waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold . . .
Do not let the flood sweep over me
or the deep swallow me up
or the Pit close its mouth over me (Psalm 69:1-2, 15).
A temporary reprieve
When the Psalmist prays to be delivered from Sheol, the request is for a temporary reprieve or for a postponed sentence. Several psalms give thanks to God for deliverance from Sheol. In Psalm 18, the Psalmist says that
The cords of Sheol entangled me,
The snares of death confronted me (vs. 5).
Reached down from on high,
He took me out of mighty waters (vs. 16).
This does not mean, of course, that the Psalmist will not eventually die.
In Psalm 16, the Psalmist expresses profound trust in God:
I keep the Lord always before me
Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices
My body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
Or let your faithful one see the Pit (vss. 8-10).
This passage is taken as a messianic prophecy in the Book of Acts, and used to argue for the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 13:35). In the Old Testament context, however, it simply means that God is keeping the Psalmist alive for the present. Human mortality is not in doubt. The fear is of premature death. A life well lived ends in fullness of days, when a person is gathered to the ancestors.
Only rarely does the Psalmist entertain thoughts of possible immortality. An intriguing example is provided by Psalm 49. The Psalmist declares emphatically that
When we look at the wise, they die;
Fool and dolt perish together
And leave their wealth to others . . .
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
They are like the animals that perish . . .
Like sheep that are appointed for Sheol;
Death will be their shepherd;
Straight to the grave they descend . . .
Sheol will be their home.
Yet he concludes
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
For he will receive me.
Hope springs eternal. Even though death is the common human lot, perhaps God will make an exception for me.
The Hebrew Bible does, in fact, note a couple of exceptions to the rule of mortality. Enoch, before the Flood “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (the same verb “to take” that is used in the psalm). Elijah was taken up to heaven on a whirlwind, and no one knew the place of Moses’ burial. These, however, were very much exceptions. It would seem that some people in ancient Judah entertained the hope that they too might be exceptions to the common fate. We read in Psalm 73: 22-24:
I was stupid and ignorant
I was like a brute beast toward you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand…
and afterward you will receive me in glory (NRSV: with honor).
Belief in the possibility of a beatific afterlife only became widespread in Judaism in the Hellenistic period. The earliest witnesses, in the books of 1 Enoch and Daniel, date to the early second century BCE. It is possible that Psalms 49 and 73 date from this period, but clear evidence of their date of composition is lacking.
What are human beings?
The conviction that life is ephemeral places a question mark after the value of life.
O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them,
Or mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow. (Ps 144:3-4).
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
And my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
They heap up and do not know who will gather (Ps 39:5-6).
These passages are reminiscent of the Book of Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth, with its insistence that “all is vanity and chasing after wind.” (Compare also Psalm 103: 15-16: “as for mortals, their days are like grass…”). Other passages recall the Book of Job, which has an even darker view of the human condition:
You turn us back to dust,
And say ‘turn back, mortals’ . . .
For we are consumed by your anger;
By your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
Our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
Our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
Or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
Even then their span is only toil and trouble;
They are soon gone, and we fly away. (Ps 90: 3, 7-10).
On the one hand, this passages affirms the sentence of Genesis after the Fall, that unto dust we must return. On the other hand, it suggests that the brevity of human life is a punishment for our own sins, imposed by an angry God.
A more positive view
Considering this rather gloomy view of the world, we might expect the Psalms to be somewhat depressing, but this is not generally the case. The psalmists seldom abase themselves. The famous phrase of Ps 22:6: “I am a worm and no man” is atypical. In contrast, the poet of the Thanksgiving Hymns found in the Dead Sea Scrolls typically belittles himself as “a creature of clay, fashioned with water, foundation of shame, source of impurity, oven of iniquity, building of sin” (1QHa 9:22; trans. F. García Martínez and E. J. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition [Leiden: Brill, 1997] 159). The Psalmists fear of death is offset by his trust in the benevolence of the creator, passages like the one quoted from Psalm 90 above notwithstanding. The question about the value of human life posed in Psalm 144 is also asked in Psalm 8:
What is a human being (Adam: the NRSV translates human beings in the plural) that you are mindful of them
Mortals (literally “a son of man”) that you care for them?
But this time the Psalmist gives a much more positive answer”
Yet you have made them a little lower than God (or ‘divine beings,’ elohim)
And crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
You have put all things under their feet.
This passage echoes Genesis 1, where humanity (Adam) is created in the image of God. This ensures the intrinsic value of human life, regardless of its brevity and transience.
The value of life is also ensured by the possibility of a relationship with God. Perhaps the most beautiful expression of trust in divine providence is found in Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (NRSV, the darkest valley)
I fear no evil, for you are with me.
Likewise, Psalm 27:1:
The Lord is my might and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?
The presence of God transcends the fear of death, not by promising an afterlife but by providing deep contentment in the present which is sufficient.
The presence of God in the Temple
Some passages in the Psalms express a desire for a closer communion with God. In Psalm 63:1 we read:
O God you are my God,
I seek you, my soul thirsts for you,
My flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land
Where there is no water.
This desire is satisfied to some degree in the Temple:
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
Beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life
My lips will praise you (Ps 63:2-3).
Similarly Psalm 84 declares:
My soul longs, it faints for the courts of the Lord,
and adds that “a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”
It is apparent from these psalms that the glory of God was somehow represented visually in the temple. Many scholars think that there was a statue of YHWH, and perhaps also of the goddess Asherah, in the Jerusalem temple in the pre-exilic period. The evidence is inconclusive. It may be that the worshipper imagined the glory of the Lord above the throne supported by cherubim, or that the glory was evoked by a cloud of incense. It is clear, in any case, that worshippers could gaze upon the glory of the Lord in the Temple in a way that was not possible elsewhere.
It is also clear that the Temple was the visual expression of the presence of God in Jerusalem. Psalm 46 refers to Jerusalem as “the holy habitation of the Most High,” and adds: “God is in the midst of the city, it shall not be moved.” The belief in the divine presence was a great comfort to the people of Jerusalem in times of trial. When the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, however, the belief in the inviolability of the Temple proved illusory, and gave the people a false confidence, as we see especially in the Book of Jeremiah. (Compare Jer 7:4: “Do not trust in these deceitful words, we have the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”).
The statement in Psalm 63:3 that “your steadfast love is better than life” is the ultimate answer of the Psalter to the problem of death. It points to a transcendent experience, an experience of ultimate value that is not negated by the inevitability of human mortality. A similar value is attached to human love in the Song of Songs, which declares that “love is as strong as death” (Song 8:6). It is this ability to find enduring value in ephemeral life that gives the Psalter its positive tone and offsets the depressing prospect of the gloom of Sheol.
See the commentaries on the individual psalms.
Walter Brueggemann, “On ‘Being Human’ in the Psalms,” in Brown, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, 515-28.
Questions for Discussion:
- What is Sheol? What happens to people after death, according to the Psalms?
- Is there any possibility for a beatific afterlife in Psalms?
- What is the basis for trust in the Psalms?
- How can people experiences the presence of God in Psalms?
Yale Bible Study
VII. The Character of God
The Lord of the Universe
As we have seen especially in the hymns, God is portrayed in the Psalms especially as the creator, whose power is manifest in the world and on whom the world depends. God is King of the universe, and his kingship is conceived by analogy with human kingship. He is assumed to have absolute power, and to be less than fully accessible to human beings. But he is also the guardian of justice in the universe. Psalm 97, one of the psalms that celebrate the kingship of God, sums up the typical view of God in these psalms as follows:
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side.
His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
Before the Lord of all the earth. (Ps 97: 2-5).
It should be noted that the idea that gods were the upholders of justice was not peculiarly Israelite, but was rather part of the common theology of the Ancient Near East. “Justice” (tsedeq) was even the name of a minor Canaanite deity.
But God is not always conceived as the Lord of the Universe. He is also the parent figure to whom people turn in time of distress. As we have seen in the discussion of the human condition, people could even aspire to a relationship of some intimacy with God. Many of the Psalms are psalms of petition, and presuppose that God may be approached and is accessible to human beings.
Slow to anger
By definition, the God of the Psalmists is a God who is expected to answer prayer. Naturally, the psalmists tend to emphasize the mercy of God:
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
And his compassion is over all that he has made (Ps. 145:8-9).
This is essentially the same characterization of God that is found in Exod 34:6 and repeated several times in the Scriptures (e.g. Ps 103:8). The psalmists praise the faithfulness of God. In the refrain of Psalm 136, “His steadfast love endures forever.” The mercy and fidelity of God are the basis for the psalmists’ appeals “from the depths” and the subject of profuse thanksgiving. The Lord sets prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, and upholds the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146). All creation depends on him for its food in due season.
There is, however, another aspect to the character of God that is indicated already in Exodus 34 in the continuation of the passage on his graciousness and mercy:
Yet by no means clearing the guilty
But visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
And the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.
God may be forgiving towards the penitent, but he is vindictive towards those who do not repent. The vindictiveness of God is also a motif in the Psalms.
A God of vengeance
The dark side of the character of God appears forcefully in Psalm 94:
O Lord, you God of vengeance,
You God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth;
Give to the proud what they deserve.
In the Old Testament, vengeance is closely associated with justice. The idea is that people should get retribution befitting their actions. Nonetheless, the idea of God wreaking vengeance is troubling, especially for those who have been taught that we should love our enemies.
It must be born in mind that the Psalms make no claim to inspiration or revelation. They are expressions of human beliefs, hopes and fears. Psalm 94 tells us how one psalmist thought about God, although the view seems to be widely shared. One may reasonably suspect that the psalmist is projecting his own feelings on to God. In that sense, the problem posed by the Psalms is not the vengefulness of God, but rather the vengefulness of those who worship God.
The most vivid, and also the most understandable, expression of human vengefulness in all of the Bible is found in Psalm 137: 7-9:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
In this case, it is not difficult to empathize with the Psalmist. The Babylonians had shown no mercy to Jerusalem. The modern reader balks at the idea of vengeance wreaked on little children, who could bear no responsibility for whatever had been done. In the ancient world, responsibility was often thought of in collective terms. So, for example in the Book of Joshua, when Achan is found to have violated the rules of warfare by taking booty for himself, not only is he stoned but also his sons and daughters and even his animals (Joshua 7:22-26). Nonetheless, the idea of dashing the heads of children against the rocks is troubling for the modern reader.
The Psalms are uninhibited in their desire for vengeance on those who are characterized as wicked:
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
Tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! . . .
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
Like the untimely birth that never sees the sun (Ps 58:6-8).
Or again in Psalm 139:19:
O that you would kill the wicked, O God.
In fact, hatred of such people is deemed a virtue:
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? . . .
I hate them with perfect hatred.
A virtue of hatred?
Some years ago, an orthodox Jewish student named Meir Soloveichik came to Yale Divinity School, to learn about Christianity with a view to understanding Jewish-Christian relations. Soloveichik, a scion of a famous family, has since become a prominent leader in the orthodox movement, who has also appeared at political events. On the completion of his studies at Yale, he wrote a piece for The Christian Century, entitled “The Virtue of Hatred.” He argued that the essential difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Christianity teaches that we should forgive wrongdoers, whereas Judaism insists on justice. He recounted a story about Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi-hunter, who was called to the bedside of a dying Nazi, who wanted to be forgiven. Wiesenthal refused, saying that God could choose whether to forgive, but that he could not. Soloveichik argued that Wiesenthal was right. Forgiveness should not be freely give. It should be earned.
Jesus tells his followers to forgive their enemies, but such forgiveness is hardly characteristic of how Christians actually behave. Equally, many Jews would be unhappy with Soloveichik’s embrace of the virtue of hatred, and no Christian would dare to characterize the difference between the two religions in this way. But Soloveichik’s argument resonates with many people, Christian as well as Jewish. There is a deep-rooted sense that people should pay for their crimes. The Psalms routinely affirm that God will destroy the wicked, even when they are not at all vengeful in tone. So, Psalm 145:20 says:
The Lord watches over all who love him
but all the wicked he will destroy.
The New Testament ends with an orgy of violent destruction in the Book of Revelation, and even the Gospels look for a second coming of Christ and a judgment where the wicked will be assigned to perdition. Nonetheless, the idea that hatred can ever be a virtue is problematic. Even if evildoers deserve to be hated because of their actions, feelings of hatred have a corrosive effect on those who nurture them. Forgiveness is not only a benefit to the wrongdoer. It also helps the aggrieved to heal and to move on with their lives.
Emotion or Instruction?
The problem with the psalms that ask for vengeance is not so much a matter of the character of God, who is always a judge as well as a deliverer. The vengeance of God can even be a reason for human restraint, if it is understood that vengeance is something that should be left to God, not pursued by human beings. Compare Deuteronomy 32:35:
Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip,
because the day of their calamity is at hand,
their doom comes swiftly.
Even the Book of Revelation arguably leaves retribution to God, and thereby deters human violence. The problem in the Psalms is rather the kind of human character they project. It makes a difference here whether we see these psalms as emotive expressions or as moral instruction. There can be little doubt that most of the psalms originated as emotive expressions. Their strength lies precisely in their ability to articulate the full range of human emotions, from anguish to joy. Anger, and the desire for vengeance, are also basic human emotions that cannot be denied or suppressed. For victims of Babylonian terror, or victims of analogous terror in the modern world, Psalm 137 is cathartic. To be sure, it does not express the noblest of sentiments, but it is at least honest and forthright. By providing verbal expression for anger and vengeance, the psalm can act as a kind of safety valve that acknowledges the feelings without necessarily acting on them. If the Psalmist took it upon himself to take Babylonian children and dash their heads against the rock, that would be quite a different matter. There is a big difference between a fantasy and a dirty deed. The power of the Psalms is that they depict human nature as it is, not necessarily as it should be or as we would wish it to be.
That said, the psalms that pray for vengeance must be used with caution. Even if they do not call for human violence, they form attitudes that can be conducive to action. If people are convinced that God will destroy their enemies, it may be difficult to refrain from giving him a helping hand. This problem is by no means peculiar to the Psalms, but is also endemic to the prophetic and apocalyptic literature, which often fantasizes about the destruction of the wicked.
As we have seen in connection with the Wisdom Psalms, many scholars think that the editors of the Psalter wished to present it as book of instruction. The placement of Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm, at the beginning of the Psalter is often cited as evidence for this position. No doubt there is much to be learned from the Psalms. They teach the majesty of God and the needfulness of humanity, and encourage people to trust in the mercy and fidelity of God. Yet the prayers for vengeance serve as a reminder that the Psalms must also be read critically. The Book of Psalms is not a book of moral instruction. It is primarily a record of ancient Israel and Judah at prayer. Countless generations of Jews and Christians have felt the words of the Psalter appropriate to express their own prayers and feelings. The need to express feelings, however, is no guarantee that those feelings are edifying, or that they can serve as moral guidelines.
See the commentaries on individual psalms.
Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996).
Questions for Discussion:
- What are the main characteristics ascribed to God in the Psalms?
- What is meant by the vengeance of God?
- Is there a virtue of hatred in the Psalms?
- Should the Psalms be read as expressions of human feelings or as moral instruction?
Yale Bible Study
VIII. The Psalms as Poetry
Though we have concentrated to this point on the various types of psalms and the ancient Israelite understandings of human and divine nature that they present, we should not fail to remember that the book of Psalms is the most substantial collection of ancient Israelite poetry that we have. We conclude, therefore, with some considerations as to the poetic nature of the collection and the essential mechanisms of biblical poetry in general.
We may begin by noting that biblical poetry, although recognizably poetic, does not conform to many of the features that have commonly been associated with poetry as a genre. Biblical poetry does not rhyme—though it does certainly employ a wide range of phonological features, such as assonance. Biblical poetry is not metrical—though it often does have something like rhythm. Historically, many readers have sought to make biblical poetry conform to the generic poetic standards of their day, by searching for meter in particular, but these attempts are doomed to failure. The essence of Hebrew poetry is expressed, rather, by the term “parallelism.”
Parallelism is, quite simply, the relationship between the two (or more) parts of a single line. Almost every poetic line exists in two halves, which often seem to be saying much the same thing. We might take, for example, the opening of Psalm 24:
The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it
The world, and all its inhabitants.
One basic sentiment is being expressed here, but it is expressed twice in a single verse. The analysis of Hebrew poetry hinges on the reader’s ability to recognize both the structural and the semantic interplay between the two parts.
On the structural level, we may notice lexical variation and pairing: “the earth//the world”; “all that is in it//all its inhabitants.” We may also note that the two halves of the line have a similar syntax and word order. In the Hebrew, we would note that each part contains precisely three words, and that both parts end with the –ah sound. Through this sort of lens we can come to an appreciation of the literary poetic artistry of the author.
On the level of semantics, or meaning, things get somewhat more complicated. Early examinations of biblical poetry, especially by the eighteenth-century British scholar Robert Lowth, to whom we are indebted for introducing the concept of parallelism, tended to divide poetic lines into three categories: synonymous, in which both parts of the line say the same thing; antithetical, in which the second line is rendered in opposite terms to the first; and synthetic, in which the second line completes the thought of the first. What we see here in Psalm 24 is patently synonymous, according to Lowth’s categories. But this observation obscures the deeper interplay between the two lines: they say basically the same thing, but we cannot leave it there; we should attempt to understand how they are not exactly the same, and what we might make of it. In this relatively simple case, we could observe that the words “earth” and “world,” though obviously very close in meaning, are not identical: “earth” is used for the natural world, or for the land, while the Hebrew word for “world” here is most often employed with reference to the inhabited world, to the world of human society. When we recognize this distinction, we can see how it lines up perfectly with the parallel phrases in the rest of the line: “the earth and all that is in it”—the world of natural creation—and “the world and all its inhabitants,” the human sphere.
While Lowth’s categories held sway for many years, centuries even, more recent scholarship has attempted to achieve a better understanding of how parallelism functions by rejecting Lowth’s categories and finding a more abstract and flexible mode of description. The fundamental work on this front was done by James Kugel, in his book The Idea of Biblical Poetry, in which he understands the second line of a poetic verse to be not just repeating what was said before, but to be “seconding” it, in any variety of ways: broadening, specifying, furthering, modifying. Kugel pithily expressed the fundamental relationship inherent in the biblical poetic line as “A, and what’s more, B.” This way of thinking about biblical poetry, at once more abstract and more nuanced, allows for a greater depth of interpretation, and a wider range of questions that can be asked of every individual poetic line.
What an appreciation of parallelism brings to the fore in reading the Psalms is, in some ways at odds with Gunkel’s attempt to view the psalms as generic types, a renewed attention to the individual literary craftsmanship that has gone into each individual psalm. Though the psalms as types may have been used as cultic liturgy, we cannot forget that the psalms we have are written, are literature, and are as driven by aesthetics, and therefore susceptible to aesthetic readings, as any other literature, ancient or modern. We do the ancient authors a grave injustice if we downplay their literary artistry.
This artistry can be seen in a number of facets, beyond just the parallelism on the level of the individual line. Many psalms have verbal and structural elements that span the entire poetic piece, words or phrases that call back to or prepare the way for ideas elsewhere in the psalm. We find psalms that are structured chiastically (same or similar words in the opposite order express the same idea): Psalm 29, for instance. And there are a number of psalms (and this is true of the entire book of Lamentations as well), that are structured as alphabetic acrostics, in which each line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Acrostics have often been understood as mnemonic devices, as aids to a reciter’s memory. Yet this seems unlikely, if only because the vast majority of Hebrew poetry, including some very lengthy poems, are not acrostics. Memorizing them, if that were a concern, does not seem to have been a widespread problem. Rather, we should understand the acrostic structure as a more deliberately poetic choice, one that has real meaning for the psalm in question. The poems of Lamentations, for instance, can be understood to use the acrostic structure as a way of symbolically containing the deep grief that they express. The grief evident in the laments for the fall of Jerusalem is boundless; using an acrostic imposes a structure that makes that grief manageable. It is an artificial constraint that at once permits the expression of grief and simultaneously reminds us that it is being artificially constrained. Similarly, Psalm 119, the longest of the psalms, is a wisdom psalm that moves through the alphabet in eight-line segments: the first eight lines begin with aleph, the second eight with bet, etc. This can hardly be for the sake of memory; rather, it can be read as a means of expressing the totalizing nature of wisdom, covering all aspects of life just as it covers the entire alphabet, and many times over. Wisdom, according to this acrostic structure, is the alpha and the omega, and everything in between.
An appreciation of the aesthetics of the psalms cannot avoid the constant use of metaphor. This is a feature we appreciate in contemporary poetry as well: the poet’s ability to use an image to elicit an emotional reaction, or to illustrate a general point through the use of a specific reference. The ancient Israelite poets who produced the psalms were masters of metaphor; as we have noted already, it is one of the reasons that the psalms retain so much of their power down to the present.
Poetry has been understood, from the ancient Greeks who theorized about it to our modern society, as the highest means of expression. This has to do with the aesthetic pleasure we derive from a well-crafted poem, to be sure, but also with poetry’s ability to concentrate emotions into a concise and accessible form. Perhaps the best known psalm in the corpus is Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
The beauty of this psalm is inescapable. It is notable that this is among the least obviously “parallelistic” psalms in the entire Bible; with the possible exception of “you are with me/your rod and your staff—they comfort me,” almost no line exhibits the clear “A, and what’s more, B” construction that we saw in the line from Psalm 24. Yet Psalm 23 certainly employs metaphor, right from the beginning—“The Lord is my shepherd”—and a wonderful overarching structure, in which the speaker goes from being the sheep led by a shepherd to being the one that is in turn followed, by goodness and mercy; from being outside, in the pasture, through the valley of the shadow, to finally arrive inside, in the house of the Lord. It is not by chance that this psalm has achieved such wide use, both in liturgy and elsewhere. It is not merely aesthetically beautiful; it is also a remarkable, and remarkably concise, expression of a universal emotion.
By contrast, some of the least aesthetically attractive poetry in the Psalms is often that which is most didactic in nature. Psalm 119, although a remarkable technical achievement, is hardly readable. It is more like a lecture than a poem, despite being patently poetic. Where it fails to move is precisely where it seeks to instruct. The book of Psalms as a whole may have been shaped in order to be a sort of Torah, an instruction, but almost every reader, for the past two thousand years, has recognized that it is most valuable not where it instructs, but where it expresses our own feelings and situations in ways that we, not all being poetic geniuses, could not hope to discover for ourselves.
As we noted in the first section, what gives the Psalms so much of their power is that they do not claim to be divine revelation. As this is often how we characterize the importance of the biblical text—as the divine word—this aspect of the Psalms should not go unappreciated. The Psalms, precisely because, as poetry, they give us access to a higher mode of expression, and because they cover such a remarkable range of human experience in so many dimensions, are the part of the Bible where the individual gets to speak back to God. They give us a language for understanding and expressing our relationship with God, and a means to connect our lives with those of the ancient Israelites who began down this religious path. Of all the books of the Bible, Psalms more than any other leaps out from the historical situations of its composition, from its ancient context, and makes itself an essential part of our lives, and the lives of everyone who reads from it.
Questions for Discussion:
- What does it mean to read the Psalms, or any biblical text, as poetry?
- How does poetic structure affect the meaning of the Psalms?
- Is it important that the Psalms be aesthetically pleasing? How are our own aesthetic sensibilities shaped by biblical poetry, and how do we import our own sensibilities into the biblical text?