Our Present Understanding of the Psalms

A.S. Herbert


Symposium: The Old Testament in the Church Today.
The London Quarterly & Holborn Review (January 1965): 25-29.


In the introduction to The Old Testament and Modern Study (Oxford, 1951), the editor, H. H. Rowley, wrote (p. xxiv): 'Of few books of the Old Testament has recent study been so profoundly modified as the Psalter' - a statement that is demonstrated by the contribution to this volume by A. R. Johnson, 'The Psalms' (pp. 162-209). Neither is this a matter of academic interest only. The results of recent study are a matter of concern, and have much to contribute, to all who find themselves drawn to the Psalter, even when at times the language or sentiments in the psalms are difficult of assimilation. Here we may refer to three recent publications which, though they are securely based on sound scholarship, are addressed to the non-specialist reader. They are: A. B. Rhodes, Psalms (Layman's Bible Commentaries), S.C.M. Press, 1960; H. Ringgren, The Faith of the Psalmists, S.C.M. Press, 1963; C. S. Rodd, Psalms (2 vols. Epworth Preacher's Commentaries), Epworth Press, 1963-4. (We understand that S.C.M. Press will shortly be publishing a commentary in the Torch series by J. H. Eaton). Those who have made use of these books will recognize a common approach to the psalms which was hardly apparent in commentaries published earlier in this century. No longer do writers look to the psalms primarily as expressions of individual piety or seek to assign a precise date of composition. This is not to deny the fact and importance of individual piety in Israel, nor their value in the cultivation of personal religion. Further, some psalms are clearly related to a particular historical situation, e.g. 74, 79, 137, which reflect the devastating experience of the Babylonian invasion and exile. The chief focus of interest is, however, on the cultic situation and the ritual purpose to which most of the psalms were


related. Even psalms which have an obvious historical reference were, as the form indicates, used by the community at worship. This emphasis on the worshipping community has important consequences both in the use of the psalms in the life of the Church and for an appreciation of Biblical theology. This last point is attractively developed by Professor G. W. Anderson in the Scottish Journal of Theology, 1963, pp. 277-85, 'Israel's Creed: Sung, not Signed'.

The significant names in connection with recent study of the Psalter are Hermann Gunkel and Sigmund Mowinckel, although many scholars have contributed. A notable example is the commentary by Artur Weiser, a translation of the fifth edition of which, by H. Hartwell, has been published by S.C.M. Press (1962). Gunkel's Die Psalmen and Mowinckel's Psalmenstudien have not appeared in English, but the latter's Offersang og Sangoffer has been translated by D. R. Ap-Thomas as The Psalms in Israel's Worship (Blackwell, 2 vols., 1962). There are naturally differences in the details of interpretation, but the main lines of study have been so widely adopted that we can briefly summarize.

First there is the recognition that the original setting and function of the psalms was in the cultus. They were associated with, and integrally related to, ritual acts and celebrations of important occasions at the shrine. The many references to the king, especially to the Davidic dynasty, indicate the important function of the king in cultus, and further require us to accept a pre-exilic origin of many of the psalms, though some may have been modified to meet the needs of the post-exilic days when the Davidic king ceased to rule. This view is strengthened by the recognition of similarities of form and content with extra-biblical psalmody, notably from Mesopotamia and from later discoveries at Ras Shamra/Ugarit. Psalm material is also to be found in many parts of the Old Testament, e.g. Ex. 15[1-18]; Deut. 33[1-43]; 1 Sam. 2[1-10], frequently in the Prophets, and of course the Book of Lamentations. It is possible in many instances to infer the occasion in the ecclesiastical year for which a psalm was composed, e.g. Psalm 81 at the Feast of Booths. Now this, the supreme public festival in Israel's life, would seem to be the Israelite counterpart of the Babylonian New Year Festival, and a comparison of the language of Hebrew and Babylonian psalms show some points of resemblance. The theme in psalms 47, 93, 95-99, 'The Lord reigns' (Yahweh is, or has become, King) may reflect a ritual, annually performed to celebrate the Sovereignty of God, perhaps dramatically represented in an act of enthronement. With this in mind we may see the significance that the psalms attach to a series of events in history, the events which began in Egypt and culminated in the entry into Cancan. These are presented as the mighty acts of the Lord (Yahweh), the demonstration of His covenant-love for the people He has chosen to be the bearer of His revelation to the nations (cf. Psalm 136, especially in RSV). This emphasis on an historic act of salvation is one of the distinctive features of Israelite psalmody, an intrusive and yet dominating factor in recitals that in other respects have close parallels in the ancient world. That God should act in the world of Nature is a commonplace of religious belief throughout the world in which Israel lived; there are Old Testament psalms which may well have


had their origin in the pre-Israelite religion of Canaan (much of Psalm 104 is strikingly similar to the Pharaoh Iknnaton's 'Hymn to Aton'). But that God should act redemptively and decisively in history is what differentiates Israel's faith. This is what gives its distinctive quality to Israel's New Year Festival; it was primarily a celebration of Yahweh's saving work, and of the wonderful and gracious relationship (the Covenant) that He had made (cf. the credal confession used at a Harvest Festival service in Deut. 265-9). The 'Nature Psalms' would find their appropriate setting in a ritual which celebrated Yahweh's Sovereignty. In terms of faith, the true Israelite thought of Yahweh as ruling from everlasting to everlasting; it was entirely appropriate that that Rule should be celebrated anew at the end of the year, which was also the beginning of the new year (cf. the Christian Good Friday and Easter, or the original significance of Sunday as the Lord's Day, celebrating His victory over sin and death). This would be the occasion at which the Covenant was renewed and reaffirmed, a solemn 'remembrance' of Yahweh's unmerited grace in giving and maintaining that covenant, and Israel's obligation to keep that which was once and for all made (cf. psalms 25, 50, 89, 105). The frequent references to the Temple, to sacrifice (with the same criticism of unworthy sacrifice as we find in the Prophets), to festal procession (68[24-5]) and to music and dancing (149[3]; 150[3, 5]) all point to a cultic setting.

Next we may observe that the psalms can be divided into a number of more or less clearly defined types or categories (Gattungen). This is more than a statistical study, for it throws light on their original usage. Of these we may consider five main types: Hymns of Praise and Adoration, Communal Laments, Royal Psalms, Individual Laments, Individual Thanksgivings. There are some smaller groups and some psalms (cf. 36 and 40) which can hardly be fitted into a clearly defined group.

1. To the first group, the Hymns of Praise, some thirty-two psalms may be assigned; they include 8, 19, 29, 145-150, the Songs of Sion, 46, 48, 76, 87 and the hymns specifically celebrating Yahweh's kingship, 47, 93, 95-99. These, it is suggested, accompanied a ritual drama in which Yahweh's sovereignty over the primeval Chaos, and therefore over hostile nations and iniquitous social conditions which threaten to bring 'chaos' into the life of His people, is celebrated. Such psalms would tend, especially in post-exilic days, to have an eschatological meaning.

2. Communal Laments, i.e. psalms that express grief and distress in the presence, or at the threat, of calamity, famine or invasion, to the society. The normal pattern is an invocation, lamentation over the grievous condition of the society, prayer for help and forgiveness, and a vow of thanksgiving (sacrifice). Examples may be found in psalms 44, 74, 79, 80, 83. About a dozen psalms may be assigned to this category. Since the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year was the occasion on which 'all Israel' was gathered at the shrine, this would be the appropriate setting for the use of such a lament: Chaos threatens to overwhelm the community; only Yahweh can avert the threat (cf. especially Psalm 74 with its recital of the ancient creation combat in verses 13-17, but in Israel's psalm firmly held within the covenant faith, vv. 12, 20. A literal translation of v. 11 may point to some dramatic


action accompanying the words: 'Why wouldst thou turn back thy hand, even thy right hand? Out from thy bosom! Consume!)

3. Royal Psalms, i.e. psalms relating to the king and in which he is the central figure, e.g. 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132. In considering these psalms, we need to remember that the king in the ancient world, and in the life of Israel particularly, was more than a political figure or military leader. He was the focus of the whole life of the people and so in a peculiarly intimate relationship with Yahweh, the Covenant God. Through his 'righteous' rule, the covenant love of Yahweh (Hebrew 'hesed', AV usually 'loving-kindness' or 'mercy') extends throughout the life of the covenant community and maintains its total welfare (shal6m, 'peace'). A very important contribution to our understanding of this whole subject, in which a number of psalms are discussed in detail, is A. R. Johnson, Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel. It will be evident that there is a close relationship between these psalms and the account given in II Samuel of the Kingship entrusted to the Davidic dynasty, cf. especially II Sam. 7[8-29]; 23[1-7]. The king had a central place in the Temple cultus, concentrating, as it were, the life of Israel within himself before Yahweh and receiving for his people the divine blessing by which alone their life could be maintained.

4. Individual Laments; this contains the largest number of psalms, some thirty-nine, to which may be added, as associated with them, seven psalms which express the confidence that Yahweh will hear and act appropriately. These 'Laments' describe the distress in vigorous and (to our minds) extravagant language. Yet the phrases are stereotyped and traditional. Distress of soul, bodily sickness and enemy hostility are referred to within the same psalm (cf. psalms 38 and 102). The description of the suffering is accompanied by the profound conviction that Yahweh hears and knows and will come to the help of the distressed sufferer. The experience of suffering leads to a confession of sin and a seeking of divine forgiveness. It is in these psalms that the fear of death is expressed most vividly (28[1] 69[1-2, 14-15]), yet the fear was of such a kind that eventually fear was destroyed. For the real dread was that death separated from God, the God of life (6[5] 309; 88[10ff.]), and when at last it was recognized that fellowship with God was God's unchanging gift, there arose the confident hope in resurrection from the dead. Normally in the Psalter the hope is expressed that God will act to restore the sufferer to health and renewal in this life; perhaps, though the exegesis of these texts is by no means certain, a larger hope is suggested in 49[15] and 73[24] with the word 'receive'.

5. Individual Songs of Thanksgiving, e.g. 30, 32, 34 and cf. Isaiah 38[10-20] and Jonah 2[2-9]. Such psalms would seem to be related to the individual laments and were appointed to be used by the one whose welfare was restored. The sufferer's prayer would be accompanied by a vow, and the thanksgiving would be associated with the fulfilment of the vow. In this connection we may note that the Hebrew word for 'thanksgiving' also means 'thanksgiving sacrifice'. The point is that thanksgiving, word and sacrifice, celebrates the restoration of a man to the covenant relationship with God which the condition of weakness and suffering appears to deny.

There are, as we have observed, psalms which do not readily fall into


any of these categories, and among them we may note some in which the divine voice appears to break in, or interrupt the movement of the liturgy, and speaks in the first person to the congregation, presumably through the agency of a prophet or levite. Among them we may note psalms 81 and 95, where the AV translation and punctuation obscures the vividness and indeed shock of the original. At 81[5] we should have a full-stop after 'Egypt', and then translate:

'A speaking that I do not know (recognize) I can hear...'

At 95[7] we should translate:

'Today! O that you would listen to his voice...'

In both instances, what follows is in direct speech. The earlier verses of these psalms make it evident that they are a call to worship at the Feast of Booths, and we can almost hear for ourselves the majestic voice thundering through the Temple courts! Psalm 82 is of a somewhat similar character, cf. also Psalm 50. Other psalms are of a more liturgical character, e.g. 15 and 107, while Psalm 24 almost compels us to see the procession of worshippers going up to the Temple with the Ark, perhaps after some victory.

One of the important results of observing the important place assigned to the king in the psalms is to see the appropriateness of many a New Testament reference which to our modern ears seems forced. For the King was Yahweh's Anointed (Messiah), and especially endowed with the Spirit. From him issued righteousness and peace and life for the people of God. He was a kind of extension of the divine personality, and could be called at his anointing 'My Son' (Psalm 2) and 'Priest after the order of Melchizidek' (Psalm 110). Through him the covenant-relationship was maintained and the divine work of salvation actualized. This was the Hope of Israel. That the hope was all too little regarded by the kings in Israel's history, we know. Yet that hope was retained, strengthened indeed by the very prophets who most vigorously brought those kings under judgement. It was precisely that hope that the New Testament writers saw to be realized in Jesus. In a strange way, the psalms were providing language and thought forms for which even the Greeks had no word. Of course, even the language of the psalms is less than adequate. There is no thought that the Anointed, through suffering and death, should be the Mediator of redemption; and taken by themselves the psalms would lead to an adoptionist theology. The inspired hope of the psalmists could only be actualized in Jesus who thus gave their full depth and richness to the inspired words.

Reproduced by kind permission of Methodist Publishing House.
Prepared for the web in February 2006 by Robert I. Bradshaw.