A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

In Psalms, is the Whole Greater than the Parts?

Does it matter what order you read psalms?  Would it matter if Psalm 22 were really Psalm 122 instead?

Most folks would answer “no” to those questions. The book of Psalms is usually treated as a semi-random anthology of poetry and prayer.  Individual psalms may differ from one another (some are laments, some are praise, some praise the king, etc) but those genres run throughout the Psalter.

Read it front to back 

back to front  

from the middle outwards  ←   →

It really doesn’t matter.

 

—For a while now, some biblical scholars have been challenging this common perception, arguing instead that psalms have been carefully edited to be read sequentially as a book. Here, I’m thinking particularly of Gerald Wilson and the scholars whose work is collected in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter. J. Clinton McCann has a nice summary in his introduction to Psalms in the New Interpreter’s Bible

These folks point out lots of ways that individual pieces of liturgical poetry (as the psalms originally may have been) have been modified for later use.

  • the adding of liturgical instructions and labels (as in Pss. 4-8; 30)
  • the adding of superscriptions (the information at the beginning of a psalm) that set the psalm within the life of David.  These help shift the psalm from public performance contexts to devotional literature.  If I can imagine the psalm being prayed by David as an individual, then I might imagine myself using it in an analogous situation.

david

  • the structuring of the Psalter into 5 books, each with a doxological ending

I 1-41

II 42-72

III 73-89

IV 90-106

V 107-150

  • the placement of Psalm 1 as introduction to the Psalter. Defined as a “wisdom” psalm because of its similarity with the wisdom materials in Proverbs and elsewhere, this psalm lays out the 2 paths available to humans:  the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked.  When this psalm comes first, it invites the reader to interpret the rest of the psalms within this framework.  The praise of the king in other psalms takes a backseat to this guidance for everyone, and the “enemies” that psalms rail against become  those who have chosen the path of the wicked.
There are lots of other examples of how reading particular psalms in a particular sequence changes the hearing of each (78-79; 139-140).
But the scholarly argument that stands out most to me is that of how the description of the king changes over the course of the Psalter.
  • In Ps. 2 (Book I), the Davidic king is described in exalted terms,  as an adopted son of God: “you are my son, today have I begotten you.”
  • In Ps. 72 (Book II), the human king is also lauded, though his role in carrying out justice is underscored.
  • Psalm 89 (Book III) starts out in support of the Davidic monarchy, repeating the promises God made to David, but the mood shifts dramatically in 89:38 (Eng. versing).  God is accused of abandoning the Davidic king:  “you have removed the scepter from his hand and hurled his throne to the ground” (89:44), and the psalmist moans, “How long, O LORD?”
  • After this anguished claim that the Davidic covenant has been abandoned, psalms increasingly describe God as king.  In Ps. 93 (Book IV), the LORD is the one called king and described as robed in majesty.  In Ps. 145 (Book V), the LORD is the king who executes justice.

Based on these examples, the Psalter progressively transfers kingship from the Davidic monarchy to the LORD.  Human kings become increasingly less integral to God’s rule. I find that movement fascinating and compelling.

throne

When I did my own search of “king” in the Psalter, the results didn’t turn out quite that obvious.  God is called king long before Books IV and V, with some frequency.  But, I didn’t find any case, apart from a historical recitation, in which the human king is talked about after the “crisis” of Ps. 89.

If the Psalter was edited to be read sequentially as a book, what does that mean for contemporary usage?  Should churches quit selecting psalms by theme for use in liturgy and instead start preaching from the Psalms?  Should we not read Psalms randomly but instead look for how themes such as kingship change over the course of the Psalter?

3 Responses to In Psalms, is the Whole Greater than the Parts?

  • I cannot speak from the stand-point of a scholar. But as someone who has architected worship services for 20 years, I have found the Psalms to be crucially informative to my understanding of worship. And I have mostly (maybe only) read them in order.

    The order has shaped my understanding of God and how God’s people need to respond to God. And I feel that reading and praying them in order has given me a fuller comprehension of worship. This experience has given me the opportunity to “go to school” on the Psalmists with their prescribed curriculum (so to speak). As an INTJ I love to look for patterns; and I’m not sure I would have been so confident in what I have found over the years if I had plundered the Psalms haphazardly.

    My conviction to read them this way came after reading “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” by Eugene Peterson. He makes a case for how the Psalms of Assent follow a progressive pattern. I simply assumed (perhaps, trusted) that, since Psalms 120-134 were in order, all of them were.

    Simply on the authority of my own human experience, I would claim that people who pick and choose their way through the Psalms based on their own needs without knowing the ‘route’ miss the richness of what can be known and formed in them.

  • you’ve really only read them in order? So your services never use the Revised Common Lectionary?

  • No, we do not use any Lectionary. And I have never been part of a worshipping community that intentionally uses the Psalms in worship . . . unless you count the many songs and hymns that reference the Psalms – and then, yes, that would put them out of order. But I wouldn’t see that as intentionally moving through or around the Psalms. Taking it that far would mean that the worship songs we pick must move linearly through the Psalms . . . that doesn’t seem to be what you’re talking about. (Or is it?)

    The only encounter with the Psalms that I have been given the chance to offer a congregation was a summer prayer guide for a segment of our congregation that had them praying through the Psalms . . . in order.

    Are you suggesting that we worship leaders should have a portion of our service dedicated to the Psalms and that we might consider the value of moving through them 1 to 150? I think this could have powerful impact on the formation of our congregations! Think of what we would discover about worship!

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