ORIENTING DATA FOR PSALMS
Content: 150 psalms of rich diversity, which in their present arrangement serve as the "hymnbook" for postexilic (Second Temple) Judaism.
Date of Composition: the palms themselves date from the early monarchy to a time after the exile (ca. 1000 to 400 B.C.); the collection in its present from may be part of the reform movement reflected in Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah.
Emphases: trust in and praise to Yahweh for his goodness; lament over wickedness and injustices; Yahweh as king to the universe and the nations; Israel's king as Yahweh's representative in Israel; Israel (and individual Israelites) as God's covenant people; Zion (and its temple) as the special place of Yahweh's presence on earth.
OVERVIEW OF PSALMS
The 150 pieces that make up the book of Psalms were originally 147 different psalms (one occurs twice-14 and 53; two are broken into two-9 and 10, 42 and 43). Each was originally composed independently; thus each has integrity and meaning on its own. But the psalms were not randomly collected; rather they have been ordered and grouped in such a way that the whole together carries meaning that further enhances the affirmations each makes on its own. Therefore in the Psalter you can look for meaning both in the individual psalms and in their ordered relationship with each other. The latter is what we especially emphasize in this chapter and encourage you to be aware of as you read.
Although the present arrangement of the Psalter comes from the postexilic period, it also maintains the integrity of smaller collections that were already in use as part of Israel's ongoing history. Besides three collections of Davidic psalms (3 -41; 51 -70; 138- 145), there are also two collections of "Asaph/sons of Korah" psalms (42-50;73-88), plus four topical collections (God's kingship, 93- 1 00; psalms of praise, 1 03- 107 ; songs of ascent [pilgrimage songs], 120-134; and Hallelujah psalms, 111- 113 and 146-150).
The collection in its present form was brought together as five books, probably with the Pentateuch in view (thus "David" corresponds to "Moses"):
Book 1 Psalms 1-41: All but t,2, and 33 titled "of David"
Book 2 Psalms 42-72: Psalms 42-50 "of the sons of Korah" or "of Asaph"; Psalms 51-70 "of David"; concluding with one "of Solomon" (72; note that 71 is untitled), with a coda at the end "This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse"
Book 3 Psalms 73-89: All titled, mostly "of Asaph" or "of the sons of Korah"
Book 4 Psalms 90-106: Mostly untitled except for 101 and 103 ("of David")
Book 5 Psalms 107-150: Mostly untitled but fifteen are "of David," including Psalms 138-145; also includes fifteen "songs of ascent" (120-134) and concludes with five "Hallelujah" psalms (146-150)
You will note that each book concludes with a similar doxology (41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48; and the whole of 150). In the first four instances these are not apart of the original psalm; rather they are the work of the final compiler, and they function to conclude the books themselves. It is also important to observe that, although the vast majority of the psalms are addressed to God within many of them there are words that address the people themselves (thus assuming a corporate setting), while some of the psalms function primarily as instruction (especially the Torah-Wisdom psalms; e.g., 1; 33; 37). In this regard compare Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 (hymns about Christ sung in thanksgiving to God also function to instruct the people).
SPECIFIC ADVICE FOR READING PSALMS
The psalms were written first of all to be sung-one by one and not necessarily in their canonical order; this is also how they are most often read-as songs. Since chapter 11 in How to I is intended to help you read them this way, the contents of that chapter will be presupposed throughout this discussion, especially the information about the various kinds and forms of psalms and the nature of Hebrew poetry. The present concern is twofold: (1) to help you make some sense of the canonical arrangement of the Psalter and (2) to offer a minimal guide to reading the psalms as part of the biblical story. At the same time you should be constantly watching for their basic theological assumptions, viewed in terms of how the psalms fit into the story. (The analogy would be a Christian hymnbook, which is not intended to be read through, but is in fact carefully arranged usually along theological/church-year lines.)
It is important to be aware that, even though the majority of the psalms are themselves preexilic, the collection as we have it was the hymnbook of Second Temple (postexilic) Judaism. When you recall the emphasis in Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah on the musicians associated with the temple, you can easily imagine the present Psalter taking shape during that period and that the arrangement itself had meaning for them.
The five books are carefully arranged so that they mirror the story of Israel from the time of David until after the exile. Books 1 and 2 basically assume the time of the early monarchy, as David speaks words of lament and praise, both for himself and for the people, based on Yahweh's unending goodness and righteousness. Together they are book-ended by two coronation psalms (2 and 72) that extol the king as Yahweh's anointed one for the sake of his people. In book 2, especially in the Korahite collection inserted at the beginning, you also find a
goodly number of royal and Zion hymns, which focus on the king but now especially emphasize Jerusalem and its temple as the place of God's presence and reign. Thus both books concentrate on David as king under Yahweh's ultimate kingship.
Book 3, on the other hand has only one Davidic psalm; instead by the presence of some prominent exilic and postexilic laments, it assumes the fall of Jerusalem. Picking up the mournful note of Psalm 44, the psalmists repeatedly ask "Why?" and "How long?" regarding Yahweh's rejecting them. This book thus begins with a Wisdom psalm that wonders aloud about the "prosperity of the wicked" (73:3); it ends first with the "darkest" psalm in the Psalter (Ps 88), whose only note of hope is the opening address ("the God who saves"), and then with a poignant lament over the present (apparent) demise of the Davidic covenant (Ps 89).
In response book 4 begins by going back to Moses with a psalm that reminds Israel that God has been her dwelling place throughout all generations. Then, after two psalms of trust and thanksgiving (91-92), comes the collection of Yahweh's kingship (93-100). Despite the present
state of the Davidic monarchy, Yahweh reigns! This book then ends with psalms of praise (101-106), whose last word is an appeal for Yahweh to gather the exiles (106:47)
Book 5 begins with a psalm of praise that assumes the gathering of the exiles ( 107:2-3), followed by psalm 108, which acclaims God's rule over all the nations. The rest of this book, more heterogeneous than the others, looks forward in a variety of ways to God's great future for his people. Included are some royal psalms (110; 118) that were used in anticipation of the coming of the great future king, so one is not surprised by the significant role that these psalms played in the earliest Christians' understanding of Christ. Likewise, the psalms of ascent would have been used for present (and in anticipation of future) pilgrimages of God,s people lo Zion-while the final five "Hallelujahs" (146-150) remind them of God's ultimate sovereignty over all things' Thus in the final arrangement of things, the first three books contain predominantly laments, while the final two are predominantly praise and thanksgiving.
In light of this overall arrangement, you will want to read with an awareness of the undergirding theological bases on which these poems (songs, prayers, and teachings) were written. First, even though many of them are individual laments or hymns of praise, the collection itself assumes that even these have a "people of God" dimension to them: The individual is always aware of being part of the people who together belong to God in covenant relationship and who share the same story.
As elsewhere, Yahweh is the center of everything, and the psalmists are fully aware that their own lives are predicated on their covenant relationship to Yahweh. Thus their songs regularly remind those who sing them that Yahweh is the Creator of all that is and therefore Lord of all
the earth, including all the nations-reminders that usually also affirm Yahweh,s character, especially his love and faithfulness (cf. Exod 34:4-6), but also his mercy, goodness, and righteousness. At the same time they repeatedly echo the significant moments in their sacred history as God,s people. Indeed several psalms relate the larger story itself, either in part or in whole, and for different reasons (Pss 78;105-106; 136). So as you read be looking for these affirmations about God (including the marvelous metaphors) and for the echoes of the story itself: creation, election, deliverance, the holy war, inheritance of the land the role of Zion/Jerusalem as the place of God's presence and the abode of his vice-regent the king, and Israel's role in blessing the nations.
Finally, it is important to note that Psalms I and 2, which are untitled and framed by the expression "Blessed are . . " (1 :1 ;2:12), serve to introduce the whole Psalter. Psalm 1 (a Torah-Wisdom psalm) has pride of place because it sets out the basic theological presupposition on which everything else rests, namely, that God blesses those who delight in the law and thus commit themselves to covenant loyalty, while the opposite prevails for the wicked. This serves as grounds for most of the laments, as well as for the songs of praise and thanksgiving, since it is true even when one's experience suggests otherwise. Psalm 2 then introduces the role of the king, who as God's 'Anointed One" and "Son" (Israel as Yahweh's son [Exod 4:22-23] now focuses on its king) is Yahweh's protector of his people. Psalm 2 thus serves as the basis not only for the Zion and kingship dimensions of the Psalter-not to mention the agony of Psalm 89-but eventually becomes the key to New Testament messianism as these psalms are recognized as fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
A WALK THROUGH PSALMS
BOOK 1 (1-41)
Introduction of the Psalter
Five Laments (Pleas for Help)
Praise to the Creator
Lament for Deliverance of the "Righteous Poor"
The Folly of Humankind (see Psalm 53)
On Access to the Temple
Prayer, Praise, and Trust in the King of Creation
Instruction in Godly Wisdom and Appeals against the Wicked
Four Laments: Prayer and Confession of Sin
BOOK 2 (42-72
Thee Prayer and a Royal Psalm
In Celebration of Zion
On the Proper Stance before God
Six Laments: Prayers for Help
Five Prayers with Common Themes
In Praise of God's Awesome Deeds
Three Prayers and a Royal Psalm
BOOK 3 (73-89)
On Rejection and Hope for Zion
On Rejection and Hope for Zion, Again
In Celebration of Zion, and Lament over Its Demise
BOOK 4 (90-106)
Yahweh Our Dwelling Place
Yahweh Reigns, Let People Rejoice
In Praise of Yahweh and in Hope of Restoration
BOOK 5 (107-150)
In Praise of God's Rescue of His People, and Two Davidic Laments
The Coming King, and Festival Psalms
In Celebration of the Law, Yahweh's Faithful Word
Song of Ascent
In Response to the Ascents
The Final Davidic Collection
The collection of psalms, which is the voice of Yahweh's people
singing to him in praise and prayer, functions also to remind them-and
us-of the central role of worship in the biblical story, worship that
focuses on the living God by recalling his essential goodness and love
and his wondrous deeds on their behalf.