The reformer Martin Luther penned the following introduction to the Psalter:
Where does one find finer words of joy than in the Psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself. There you see what at fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of all his blessings. On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God! So, too, when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for your fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator so portray them.
The influence of the Psalms on the history of the Christ-following movement cannot be exaggerated. The New Testament quotes from and alludes to the Psalms more than any other book from the Old Testament. The Psalter has shaped corporate worship and personal piety for millennia in the Church. This essay will offer a bibliographical review of key resources from the last twenty years that have impacted the interpretation of the Psalter and can help pastors and teachers to deploy the richness of the Psalter in worship, preaching, and teaching.
Contours of the Conversation
Over the last two decades of scholarship, two new avenues for reading the psalms have emergedâ€”the recognition of the shaping of the final form of the Psalter into a book and the function of the lament psalms in the Psalter as a whole and for the life of the Church.
The most significant development in the study of the Psalms was pioneered by Gerald Wilson. Wilsonâ€™s 1981 thesis under Brevard S. Childs at Yale University was published as The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, SBLDS 76. (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1985). Wilsonâ€™s work argued for a two part editing of the Psalter. Wilsonâ€™s research broke new ground by arguing for intentionality in the organization of the various psalms in the Psalter. In other words, instead of viewing the Psalter as a random or haphazard collection of individual psalms, Wilson suggested that the Psalter could be read fruitfully as a book. In fact, in its final form, the Psalter invites persons to read it as such. This invitation is offered in the first psalm. The First Three Books (Pss 1-89) are organized by authorship and genre. Books I â€“ III are dominated by laments and a grouped in terms of authors mentioned in the headings. David, Asaph, and Korah are the most common. Royal Psalms (psalms penned around the theme of the Davidic monarchy, e.g., Pss 2, 72, 89) inserted at key places serve as frames around the other psalms. This deployment of Royal psalms, argued Wilson, pointed to the theme of the first major unit of the Psalter (Pss 1-89)â€”the rise and failure of the Davidic monarchy and covenant. The second major unit of the Psalter (Pss 90-150) serves as the answer for Israel in light of the crisis of Exile and loss of monarchy. Psalms 90-150 comprise Books IV â€“ V of the Psalter. These psalms are generally anonymous and are organized thematically. For Wilson, Book IV answers the problem of Exile and loss of the Davidic monarchy by calling Israel back to its roots, namely the reality of the LORD as Israelâ€™s true king and refuge. Book IV opens with Ps 90 that ascribes authorship to Moses. Moreover the phrase â€œthe LORD reignsâ€ is a dominant phrase in this part of the Psalter. Books IV â€“ V serve to exhort Israel to trust God as the true King and to practice faithful obedience. Books IV â€“ V also are dominated with the theme of Godâ€™s fidelity/steadfast love (Heb. Hesed). Israel is not merely responding to a King but to a King who is steadfastly committed to His people.
The importance of Wilsonâ€™s work is that it focuses interpretation on the text of the individual psalm within the context of the final form of the text. Ironically, pre-critical interpretation of the Psalms as well as historical-critical work had both shifted the locus of authority outside of the text itself. Pre-critical interpretation read the Psalms as commentary on the life of David as revealed in the books of Samuel. In such traditional reading, to understand a psalm one first had to locate the psalm in Davidâ€™s life. Likewise, historical criticism focused on the social setting of individual whether cultic or non-cultic.
Much of the work that has occurred in the aftermath of Wilsonâ€™s initial work has served to expand and nuance his initial thesis and to exploit for theological gain a canonical approach to the Psalter. Students wanting to trace this scholarly agenda further will want to consult The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter (JSOTSup ; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993) edited by J. Clinton McCann as well as the introductory volumes discussed below.
The second key development is an outgrowth of Wilsonâ€™s breakthrough, but also influenced deeply by traditional form criticism. Walter Brueggemann offered a poignant reading of the Psalter as a whole in his The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Augsburg Publishing House, 1984). In this volume, Brueggemann argues that the Psalter moves from a rigid faith of obedience to a faith rooted in extravagant praise. His analysis is based on a rubric that organizes the psalms around three core types: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation. These types serve as broad headings for traditional form critical genres. The lament psalms function for Brueggemann as the driver in this paradigm as they represent a disorienting level in the faith of Israel. The lament genre presents a direct challenge to the worldview established by the psalms of orientation (Torah psalms, creation hymns and wisdom psalms among others). This disequilibrium resolves into a new world of faith rooted in the psalms of reorientation (thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, songs of confidence, and praise hymns).
Brueggemann also penned the influential essay â€œThe Costly Loss of Lamentâ€ for the Journal for the Society of Old Testamanet 36 (1986): 57-71. Lament psalms are those that make a complaint or petition to God for help. In his essay, Brueggemann describes the theological danger of ignoring lament in the Church. He reviews current practices in Church lectionary readings and hymnody by noting the relative absence of the lament psalm in comparison to the fact that they are the largest category found in the Psalter. When the community of faith losses its ability to lament, it risks two profound losses theologically. First, the community loses the opportunity for genuine covenant relationship with God. Apart from the opportunity for complaint and challenge worshippers are reduced to â€œyesâ€ men and â€œyesâ€ women. Second, when the community of faith loses the will or capacity to lament, it stifles its own ability to struggle with the questions of Godâ€™s justice in the face of the injustices of life. In both cases, the psalms of lament model for the community of faith direct dialogue with God over questions of justice that are based on a genuine relationship between worshipper and God.
Â© 2007 Brian D. Russell