The Book of Psalms is a sizable collection of musical poems and prayers of diverse authorship and form. Psalms are independent literary units that have grown out of, and speak to, a wide range of individual and communal human experience. They differ from prophetic oracles, moral imperatives, or propositional statements of doctrine that presuppose a revelatory flow from God to humans. Psalms, on the other hand, serve to articulate the hope and despair, the faith and fear, the praise and invective of those who express themselves to God in the vicissitudes of life.
Although the canonical psalms are poetic and musical compositions authored by humans as vehicles of expression to and about God, they are nevertheless regarded by believers as inspired by God for use in the community of faith in worship and meditation. This realization highlights the validity and importance of such expression in the life of individual believers as well as the spiritual community of which they are a part. The biblical Psalter has been called the hymnbook of the second temple, but the faithful in every subsequent period of history have found something in its hymns and prayers that resonates with their experience of life lived in relation to God.
The continuing appeal of the canonical psalms bears witness to a feature of their composition that contributes to their ongoing usefulness in public and private worship. Ever since the groundbreaking work by Hermann Gunkel and Sigmund Mowinckel on the literary analysis of the Psalter, most biblical scholars have recognized that psalms may be grouped into definite literary types based both on their distinctive structure and content and on the religious settings in which they would have been employed in ancient Israel. It seems clear that psalms were composed mainly for use on typical, cultic occasions, not as reflections of particular, historical ones. Thus the psalmists crafted their poems in such a way as to ensure their continuing relevance for people in covenant with God.
The understanding that the canonical psalms were composed as generalized expressions suitable for cultic use runs counter to the impression given by certain psalm titles that associate the accompanying psalms with events in the life of King David ( 3 ; 7 ; 18 ; 34 ; 51-52; 54 ; 56-57; 59-60; 63 ; 142 ). Most biblical scholars concede that psalm titles in general, and these links with the Davidic narratives in 1 and 2 Samuel in particular, are not to be attributed to the original authors but probably to postexilic Jewish editors and interpreters. Evidence for the secondary nature of these titles may be deduced from the fact that some of the psalms assigned to David presuppose later historical realities such as the existence of a temple (e.g., 5:7 ; 27:4 ; 65:4 ; 68:29 ; 138:2 ) or the Babylonian exile (e.g., 51:18-19 ; 69:33-36 ). As a matter of fact, the expression ledawid is ambiguous and does not necessarily have anything to do with authorship. It could legitimately be translated "to/for/of/by/in regard to/belonging to David" and be intended to associate a given psalm with this son of Jesse, any Davidic king, or a Davidic collection of psalms. Furthermore, an analysis of the original Hebrew and subsequent daughter versions of Psalms reveals that the titles were subject to variation and expansion during the course of their transmission in postexilic times and beyond, in contrast to the poems themselves whose text remained relatively constant. Clearly, those in antiquity whose task it was to preserve holy writ did not regard these titles to have the same stature as the psalmists' own words. The preceding evidence does nothing to undermine David's reputation as a psalmist nor does it disprove that he composed some of the psalms contained in the canonical Psalter. There is no compelling reason not to take seriously biblical portrayals of him as an accomplished musician and poet ( 1 Sam 16:14-23 ; 2 Sam 1:17-27 ; 3:33-34 ; 23:1-7 ; 2 Chron 29:30 ; Amos 6:5 ). This evidence does, however, highlight the fact that psalm titles cannot be relied upon to elucidate the original context and meaning of biblical psalms.
Psalm Types and the Theology of Psalms. There is evidence that the division of the Psalter into five books (1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150) represents a final stage in the process of compiling the Book of Psalms, and that earlier collections were gathered together to produce the Psalter as it now exists. These collections would have included psalms associated in the Hebrew Bible with the likes of David (3-9; 11-32; 34-41; 51-65; 68-70; 86 ; 101 ; 103 ; 108-110; 122 ; 124 ; 131 ; 133 ; 138-145), Solomon ( 72 ; 127 ), the Korahites ( 42 ; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88), and Asaph ( 50 ; 73-83); psalms of the so-called Elohistic Psalter (42-83) in which the generic term for Israel's deity, elohim [yihl\a], translated "God, " came to be substituted for his personal name, "Yahweh, " which Jews were increasingly disinclined to pronounce; the Hallelujah Psalms (105-106; 111-118; 135-136; 146-150) which usually begin and/or end with that expression of praise; and the Songs of Ascent (120-134), ostensibly sung by pilgrims on their way to celebrate the great festivals at the temple in Jerusalem.
But more relevant to the task of working out the theology of the Psalter than these observations is an understanding of the functionality of biblical psalms. The inspired authors composed them to help connect Israelites with their God in worship. Various aspects of worship called for different types of psalms, each of which is represented throughout the Psalter.
Complaint Psalms. There are more complaint psalms in the biblical Psalter than there are of any other type. Exhibiting either the singular or plural number, they provide the individual or the community with the vehicle to speak to God in situations of distress. They are characterized by some or all of the following components arranged in varying sequences.
Complaint psalms usually begin with an invocation of Israel's God. In the Hebrew Bible he is normally (except in the Elohistic Psalter) addressed by the name, "Yahweh, " which is rendered Lord in the English versions. The pronunciation of Yahweh's name implies that complainants are in covenant relationship with the God who has revealed himself to Israel. Attention is thus focused on the only one who can remedy their situation.
The invocation is followed by the complaint in which worshipers, often with great pathos and highly figurative language, communicate honestly the reasons for their distress. Typically, the individual speaks of being falsely accused ( 4:2 ; Psalms 5:6 Psalms 5:8-9 ; Psalms 7:1-5 Psalms 7:8 Psalms 7:14-16 ; Psalms 17:1-5 Psalms 17:8-12 ; 22:6-8 ; 26:1-12 ; 27:12 ; Psalms 35:11-12 Psalms 35:19-26 ; Psalms 38:11-12 Psalms 38:19-20 ; 52:1-4 ; 59:12-13 ; 69:4 ; 71:10-11 ; 109:2-4 ; 120:2-3 ; 140:9-11 ), of being threatened or attacked by foes of various sorts including sorcerers who employ curses and black magic ( 10:2-11 ; 28:3 ; Psalms 55:2-5 Psalms 55:9-15 Psalms 55:20-21 ; 58:1-5 ; 59:1-7 ; Psalms 69:9-12 Psalms 69:19-21 ; Psalms 109:2-20 Psalms 109:28-29 ; 140:1-5 ), of having committed sin ( 25:7 ; 38:18 ; 39:8 ; 51:1-9 ; 69:5 ; 130:3 ; 143:2 ), or of suffering due to some sort of illness or incapacity ( 6:2 ; Psalms 22:14-15 Psalms 22:17-18 ; Psalms 38:3-10 Psalms 38:17 ; 71:9 ; Psalms 88:3-9 Psalms 88:15-18 ; 102:3-11 ). In communal laments the causes of distress include the threat of attack by foreigners ( Psalms 83:2-8 Psalms 83:12 ), the experience of military defeat, invasion, and humiliation ( 44:9-16 ; Psalms 60:1-3 Psalms 60:9-11 ; 74:3-11 ; 79:1-4 ; Psalms 80:4-6 Psalms 80:8-16 ), and natural disasters such as drought, famine, or plague ( 126:4-6 ).
Supplicants also normally express trust in Yahweh, based on such realities as his steadfastness and dependability, his presence with worshipers, and his concern for justice and the vindication of the righteous ( 7:10-11 ; 13:5 ; 28:7-8 ; 31:14 ; 52:8 ; 56:3-4 ; 130:4-6 ; Psalms 140:7 Psalms 140:12 ). Some biblical scholars isolate a whole other psalm type, called the song of trust/confidence, to categorize a group of psalms in which this sort of expression is expanded to become the main theme ( 11 ; 16 ; 23 ; 27:1-6 ; 62 ; 91 ; 125 ; 131 ).
It is this trust that leads complainants to petition Yahweh for deliverance from their difficulty. The use of the imperative mood, which contributes to the sense of urgency, is usually the formal indicator of this component of the psalm ( 3:7 ; 22:19-21 ; Psalms 35:17 Psalms 35:22-24 ; 69:14-18 ; 143:7-9 ).
A feature at times associated with the petition is imprecationthe invocation of curses or the call for divine judgment upon enemies. Vivid examples may be found in 12:3-4; 35:1-8; 58:6-10; 59:10-13; 69:22-28; 83:9-17; 109:6-20; 137:7-9; 140:9-11. This feature serves two purposes. The first is cathartic in that it allows complainants to verbalize honestly to God the anger they feel toward those who have proven themselves to be foes. The second is judicial in the sense that supplicants, rather than acting vindictively, ask God to see to it that covenantal judgment is executed on perpetrators of wickedness. What is called for is just retribution, often envisioned as judgment in kind in which enemies will experience the harm that they had intended to inflict on complainants ( 5:10 ; 7:15-16 ; 10:2 ; 28:4 ; 35:7-8 ; 26 ; 79:12 ; Psalms 109:2-20 Psalms 109:29 ).
Another common feature associated with either the complaint or the petition is the additional argument. It serves to justify the appropriateness of Yahweh's intervention on behalf of petitioners and to provide motivation for him to act in response to prayer. In this connection, supplicants may protest their innocence with regard to false charges ( 7:3-5 ; 35:11 ; 44:17-21 ; 59:3-4 ), confess their sin ( Psalms 25:7 Psalms 25:11 Psalms 25:18 ; 38:18 ; 51:3-5 ; 79:9 ), provide extravagant descriptions of their distress in order to move Yahweh to pity ( 6:6-7 ; 22:12-18 ; 31:9-12 ; 38:3-10 ; 88:15-18 ; 102:3-11 ; 109:22-25 ) or appeal to Yahweh's honor and reputation ( 6:5 ; 58:11 ; 59:13 ; Psalms 74:10 Psalms 74:18 Psalms 74:22-23 ; 88:10-12 ; 109:21 ; 143:11-12 ).
In complaint psalms petitioners typically express the assurance that Yahweh will do what they have asked ( 6:8-10 ; 7:10 ; 13:5-6 ; 22:24 ; 28:6-8 ; 54:7 ; 56:13 ; 71:20-21 ; 109:31 ; 140:12 ). This is somewhat parallel to the articulation of trust discussed earlier. Scholars have struggled to account for the often dramatic shift in mood from despair to optimism that is evident in these psalms. Various hypotheses are put forward. One is that such expressions were uttered after deliverance had been experienced but that they were joined to the original complaint when these psalms were compiled in their present form. If that were the case, however, one might expect a thanksgiving psalm rather than a complaint. Another conjecture is that petitioners may have received a favorable oracle, presumably mediated by a priest or other cult official, in response to their supplication. Unfortunately, no example of such an oracle exists in the canonical psalms. A third proposition is that complaint psalms were formulated in such a way as to bring supplicants to the point of assurance. This was accomplished by causing worshipers to focus on and invoke the powerful name of the God with whom they were in relationship and who could be relied upon to deliver honest petitioners.
Finally, in conjunction with this assurance concerning Yahweh's favorable response to suppliant requests, there is normally a proclamation of praise or a vow that praise will be forthcoming once deliverance has been experienced ( 7:17 ; 13:5-6 ; 22:22-31 ; 28:6-7 ; Psalms 35:9-10 Psalms 35:18 Psalms 35:28 ; 43:4 ; 51:13-15 ; 54:6 ; 56:12 ; 69:30-31 ; 79:13 ; 109:30 ; 140:13 ). Praise is surely the appropriate expression of trusting petitioners who have left their complaints with the Lord.
The complaint psalms teach several significant things to worshipers who suffer affliction. First, servants of God should focus on him rather than despair over their difficulties. Second, God acceptsindeed encourageshonest and forthright expressions of distress from his servants. He does not require sugar-coating or euphemisms. Third, God expects that his servants will trust him to help, a faith to which they are expected to testify in their declarations of confidence and praise even as they articulate their complaints and petitions. Fourth, God does take pity on those who trust him and intervenes on their behalf. He thereby demonstrates his covenantal faithfulness, establishes his justice, and maintains his honor and reputation. Fifth, God is a formidable opponent to those who cause his servants to experience anguish since he vindicates pious complainants and exacts just retribution on their foes. Furthermore, petitioners whose distress is due to personal sin would be advised to confess it and to ask for forgiveness since God's judgments on members of the covenant community can be grievous as well.
Thanksgiving Psalms. Thanksgiving psalms were composed to celebrate Yahweh's answering of complaints and his deliverance of petitioners. The canonical Psalter contains both individual and communal psalms of this type. They exhibit some or all of the following structural components.
Typically, thanksgiving psalms begin with an expression of praise or thanksgiving to Yahweh and a short reference to what it is that he has accomplished ( 18:1-3 ; 30:1-3 ; 65:1-2 ; 107:1-3 ; 116:1-2 ; 118:1-4 ; 138:1-2 ).
A more detailed statementthough often couched in metaphorical imageryas to the circumstances that preceded Yahweh's saving action is usually to be found in the erstwhile supplicants' recollection of their previous distress ( 18:4-5 ; 30:6-7 ; 32:3-4 ; 65:3a ; Psalms 107:4-5 Psalms 107:10-12 Psalms 107:17-18 Psalms 107:23-27 ; 116:3 ; 118:10-13 ; 124:1-5 ). The situations that are recounted are of the sort described in the complaint psalms discussed above. Worshipers will then normally recall the petitions they uttered while in trouble and their ensuing deliverance by Yahweh ( Psalms 18:6-19 Psalms 18:31-45 ; 30:8-12a ; 32:5 ; 40:1-2 ; 65:3b-5 ; Psalms 107:6-7 Psalms 107:13-14 Psalms 107:19-20 Psalms 107:28-30 ; 116:4-11 ; 118:5-18 ; 124:6b-8 ; 138:3 ).
What usually follows is an utterance of praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh and/or a call for others to join in worship of him ( 18:46-50 ; 30:12b ; 32:11 ; Psalms 40:3-5 Psalms 40:9-10 ; Psalms 107:8-9 Psalms 107:15-16 Psalms 107:21-22 Psalms 107:31-32 ; 116:12-19 ; 118:19-29 ; 124:6a ; 138:4-6 ). This expression may be associated with the fulfillment of a vow made in anticipation of his intervention ( 40:9-10 ; 116:14, 18 ; cf. 22:22-25 ).
Thanksgiving psalms serve to emphasize the fact that it is only right for worshipers to give thanks to God ( 7:17 ; 54:6 ; 92:1 ; 106:1 ; 107:1 ; Psalms 118:1 Psalms 118:29 ; 136:1 ). Indeed, thanksgiving is expected of the faithful ( 30:4 ; 97:12 ). They enter God's presence with it on their lips ( 95:2 ; 100:4 ; 118:19 ). They proclaim it in the presence of others to give public witness to his goodness and thereby honor him ( 9:1 ; 26:7 ; 50:23 ; 57:9 ; 75:1 ; 108:3 ; 109:30 ; 111:1 ).
Hymns. The hymnic psalms focus on the praise of Yahweh for his majesty and his sovereignty and beneficence in the realms of creation, history, and human affairs. What distinguishes hymns from thanksgiving psalms is that they make no particular reference to a worshiper's earlier distress or to recent divine intervention. They tend, therefore, to be broader in scope or perspective than thanksgiving psalms.
The formal structure of hymns normally includes three elements. The introduction typically contains a summons to sing Yahweh's praise or an expression of praise to him. The body provides the motivation for praise in the recitation of Yahweh's attributes and actions. The conclusion frequently recapitulates sentiments expressed in the introduction that means a renewed outpouring of praise.
Various themes are addressed in the hymns. Yahweh is glorified as the creator who governs and sustains nature ( 8 ; 19:1-6 ; 29:3-9 ; 33:6-9 ; 104:2-30 ; 135:6-7 ; 136:4-9 ; 146:6 ; Psalms 147:4-5 Psalms 147:8-9 Psalms 147:15-18 ; 148:1-10 ), the omnipotent one in contrast to impotent pagan deities ( Psalms 135:5 Psalms 135:15-18 ; 136:2 ), the controller of the destinies of people and nations ( 33:10-19 ; 100:3 ; 114:1-2 ; 136:3 ; 147:6 ; 149:2-9 ), the lawgiver ( 19:7-11 ), and the one who manifests his goodness through his enduring covenantal love, faithfulness and benefactions toward his people ( 100:5 ; 111:5-9 ; 113:7-9 ; 136:1 passim; 145:4-20 ; 146:5-9 ; Psalms 147:2-3 Psalms 147:13-14 Psalms 147:19-20 ; 148:14 ).
Other psalm groupings that may be included in the hymnic type are the redemptive history, Zion, processional, and enthronement songs. Generally speaking, they exhibit the formal structure of the hymns but are marked by the distinctives in content these designations suggest.
Redemptive history psalms ( 78 ; 105 ; 106 ; 135:8-12 ; 136:10-22 ) focus on Yahweh's dealings with the Israelites, whether in Acts of deliverance and providential care or in judgment because of their covenantal unfaithfulness. Traditions associated with the patriarchs, the exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the conquest, the period of the judges, the career of David, and the construction of the temple are recalled. These psalms were composed to drive home the lessons of Israel's historylessons that were to be passed on from generation to generationand to inspire the people to trust and worship their sovereign God.
The songs of Zion ( 46 ; 48 ; 76 ; 84 ; 87 ; 122 ) celebrate the holy city, Jerusalem. From the time of David and Solomon onward the city is associated with Yahweh's name and habitation among his people because of the sanctuary's location there ( Deut 12:1-28 ; 2 Sam 6:12-17 ; 1 Kings 8:1-30 ). The reality of Yahweh's majestic presence, the beauty and impressiveness of the city and its temple, and the prospect of participation in the festal gatherings inspire the poets to produce hymns that exude anticipation and joy. Because of Yahweh's choice of this city as his earthly dwelling, Zion songs speak confidently of its inviolability. But Psalms 46, 48, and 76 in particular seem to point the worshiper in the direction of an eschatological realization of this ideal when the everlasting kingdom that the prophets envision will finally be established.
Psalms like 15 and 24, which seem to have been composed as liturgies for entrance into the sacred precincts, have Zion's sanctuary as their focus. They are called processional songs. In question-and-answer antiphons they spell out the qualifications for admission into Yahweh's courts. As in the oracles of the prophets, the emphasis in these psalms is on integrity and moral purity as defined by the Sinai covenant rather than merely on ritual purity and sacrifices. Psalm 24:7-10 describes another kind of procession into the templethis one involving Yahweh himself whose presence is presumably symbolized by the ark of the covenant. Psalms 68:24-27 and 132:8-9, 13-16 may provide glimpses of this sort of temple ritual.
The enthronement psalms ( 47 ; 93 ; 96-99) celebrate the kingship of Yahweh. They frequently exhibit the formula yhwh malak, "Yahweh is king" or some similar sentiment. The psalmists emphasize Yahweh's all-encompassing rule by extolling his work as creator ( 93:1b ; 96:5b ), his evident glory and majesty ( 47:1-2 ; 93:1-4 ; Psalms 96:1-3 Psalms 96:6-9 ; 97:1-6 ; 99:1-3 ), his sovereignty and victorious exploits among the nations ( 47:3-9 ; 98:1-3 ), his omnipotence in comparison to the impotence of pagan deities ( 96:4-5 ; 97:7-9 ), and his establishment of universal justice and righteousness ( 96:10-13 ; 98:4-9 ; 99:4 ). Thus worshipers are encouraged to look back on Yahweh's great accomplishments in history and ahead to the emergence of his everlasting kingdom in all its fullness.
Royal Psalms. Another group of psalms deals with the theme of kingshipin this case the kingship of Israel's monarchs. The so-called royal psalms ( 2 ; 18 ; 20-21; 45 ; 72 ; 89 ; 101 ; 110 ; 132 ; 144 ) do not, technically speaking, constitute a distinctive psalm type since they can be associated with one of the three main categories already discussed (complaint, thanksgiving and hymn). They do, however, merit special consideration because of their contribution to our understanding of Israel's worship and the theological significance of the king.
Five of the preceding psalms ( 2 ; 21 ; 72 ; 101 ; 110 ) seem to have been created for use during the king's coronation and/or to mark the anniversary of his accession. The time of transition from the reign of one king to that of his successor was often a dangerous time politically when rivals vied for the throne and subject peoples attempted revolt. But the Israelite king, the heir to the Davidic covenant, was adopted by Yahweh as his son when he ascended the throne ( Psalm 2:7 ; cf. 2 Sam 7:14 ; Psalm 89:26-27 ). Yahweh, who both installed him as king and sustained him in the face of such opposition, granted him the right to rule not only his compatriots but also the nations ( 2:4-12 ; Psalms 72:1-2 Psalms 72:8-11 ; Psalms 110:1-3 Psalms 110:5-6 ). The king was expected, indeed he undertook, to rule with justice and integrity ( Psalms 72:1-7 Psalms 72:12-14 ; 101 ).
Another entitlement affirmed in the royal psalms is the king's role as a priest of the Melchizedekian order ( 110:4 ). This connection with the Canaanite priest-king of Salem = Jerusalem in Abram's day ( Gen 14:17-24 ; Psalm 76:2 ) highlights the sacral nature and privileges of Israelite kingship, privileges that were seldom exercised by Israel's monarchs. It also points to the link between the throne and the sanctuary that was forged for the Judean monarchy by David when he established Jerusalem as the political and religious capital ( 2 Sam 5:6-10 ; 6:12-17 ; Psalm 132 ). The psalmists looked for the king's reign to be an enduring one marked by righteousness, peace, prosperity, and blessing of every sort ( 21:1-7 ; Psalms 72:5-7 Psalms 72:15-17 ).
One of the royal psalms, Psalm 45, was apparently intended for the celebration of a royal wedding. The poet has woven the themes touched on in the preceding paragraphs into a song of praise for the king (vv. 2-9, 16-17). He even calls the king God (v. 6), though his subordination to the God is made clear (v. 7). There is also a description of the beautiful bride, arrayed in rich finery, being led with her attendants in the wedding procession into the palace (vv. 10-15).
Several other royal psalms were likely composed to be recited either before or after the king went into battle. In Psalms 20, 89, and 144 Yahweh is entreated to grant victory of the king's foes. Yahweh's unrivaled sovereignty and power ( 89:5-18 ) and his promise of an enduring Davidic dynasty ( Psalms 89:3-4 Psalms 89:28-37 ) are recalled. The insufficiency of human resources and the need for Yahweh's intervention and enablement are also acknowledged ( 20 ; 89:46-51 ; 144:1-11 ). In Psalm 18 Yahweh is thanked for having responded to the kind of request contained in the preceding prayers. His dramatic intervention on behalf of the upright supplicant is recounted (vv. 6-24, 31-45).
Royal psalms give evidence of the Israelite king's special relationship with Yahweh, Israel's ultimate King. The human king, Yahweh's adopted son, serves as vice-regent over the covenant people and, ideally, the nations.
Wisdom Psalms. A final category of psalms to be considered here is that of wisdom ( 1 ; 34 ; 37 ; 49 ; 73 ; 112 ; 119 ; 127-128; 133 ). Psalms of this type exhibit stylistic forms and techniques commonly employed in wisdom literature. There are proverbial sayings ( 127 ; 133 ), acrostics ( 34 ; 37 ; 112 ; 119 ), "better than" comparisons ( 37:16 ; Psalms 119:72 Psalms 119:103 Psalms 119:127 ), rhetorical questions ( 119:9 ), "beatitudes" ( 1:1 ; 112:1 ; 119:1-2 ; 128:1 ), personalized reflections on life ( 37:25-26 ; 35-36), comparisons with the realm of nature ( 1:3-4 ; Psalms 37:1-2 Psalms 37:20 ; 128:3 ).
These psalms champion the cause of life lived in accordance with the tenets of wisdom through their descriptions of exemplary conduct and its benefits and their delineation of the contrasts between those who embrace, and those who spurn, the path of righteousness. The celebration in wisdom psalms of Torah, which embodies Yahweh's expectations of his covenant partners, highlights the clear connection between wisdom and God's law ( 1:1-2 ; 37:30-31 ; 112:1 ; 119 ). Wisdom is essentially living in compliance with that law.
Wisdom psalms also lead the worshiper to consider some of the themes and problems commonly taken up in wisdom literature. In view of the fact that the faithful servant of Yahweh is often promised rich blessing, considerable attention is paid to the dilemma which that servant faces when confronted with the prospect of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering and hardships of the righteous ( 37 ; 49 ; 73 ). Although it may initially seem as though there is no advantage to living uprightly ( 73:13-14 ), the psalmists assert that Yahweh's ultimate vindication and blessing of the righteous ( 37 ; 49:15 ; Psalms 112:1-3 Psalms 112:6-9 ) and his judgment and destruction of the unrighteous ( 1:5 ; Psalms 34:16 Psalms 34:21 ; 37 ; Psalms 49:13-14 Psalms 49:16-20 ; Psalms 73:16-20 Psalms 73:27 ; 112:10 ) will prove that the way of wisdomcovenantal faithfulnessis the one to follow. Armed with this knowledge, the worshiper is encouraged to trust Yahweh and wait patiently for him to act ( Psalms 37:3-7 Psalms 37:34 ).
The Psalms and Christology. Exerpts from, or allusions to, the canonical Psalter in the New Testament are often associated, either explicitly or implicitly, with the person, life, and mission of Jesus. This fact raises hermeneutical queries with regard to both the intentions of the original Hebrew poets and the uses to which the New Testament puts the passages in question. This is certainly not the place for an exhaustive examin ation of that issue. But suffice it to say that those in the New Testament who quote or otherwise employ the psalms in this fashion often overlay the psalmists' intentions with additional significance in view of the Christ event. This is readily observable when one compares the same passages in their original and secondary contexts.
For example, Psalm 41, either a lament/liturgy for someone enduring sickness, the slander of enemies and the perfidy of a close friend or a thanksgiving song sung after the experience of deliverance, is cited in connection with Judas's betrayal of Jesus ( John 13:18 ). It is clear that the psalmist does not regard his subject to be the divine Son of God because he depicts the speaker readily acknowledging personal sin (v. 4). The same can be said of Psalm 69, a lament calling on Yahweh to rescue the supplicant from enemies, which is used in narratives concerning Jesus' cleansing of the temple ( John 2:13-17 ), his experience of unjustified hatred by others ( John 15:24-25 ), his being offered wine mixed with gall and wine vinegar/sour wine to drink at his crucifixion ( Matthew 27:34 Matthew 27:48 ), as well as in Peter's recollection of Judas's sorry end ( Acts 1:15-20 ). In this psalm, too, there is a confession of personal folly and wrongdoing (v. 5). Psalm 22, a lament for someone suffering great distress because of serious illness and the taunts of those who regard sickness as a sign of divine disapproval, is employed in the description of various aspects of Jesus' passion ( Matt 27:39-46 ; John 19:23-24 ). Psalm 2, a royal psalm celebrating Yahweh's adoption and installation of the Israelite king as his vice-regent in the face of incipient rebellion by Israel's subject peoples, is excerpted by the fledgling Christian community to characterize the opposition experienced by both Jesus and that community ( Acts 4:23-30 ) and by Paul to demonstrate that Jesus' resurrection was accomplished by God in fulfillment of his word ( Acts 13:32-33 ). Psalm 16, a song of confidence/trust in which the psalmist rejoices because of his assurance that Yahweh will not allow him to succumb to the ordeal in which he finds himself, becomes another testimony to Jesus' resurrection ( Acts 2:22-32 ). Psalm 118, a thanksgiving psalm in which gratitude is expressed to Yahweh for his intervention on behalf of the supplicant resulting in victory over enemies, is also applied to God's raising Jesus from the dead ( Acts 4:8-11 ). Psalm 45, a psalm composed for the occasion of a royal wedding in which the Israelite king is greatly revered, is employed to celebrate the divine Son of God's eternal kingship ( Heb 1:8-9 ). From Psalm 102, a lament for one experiencing illness and the derision of adversaries, Hebrews 1:10-12 quotes a hymnic fragment extolling the eternality of the creator to describe Jesus. Psalm 110, a royal psalm that depicts the Israelite king as Yahweh's victorious vice-regent and enduring priest, is transformed into an affirmation of Jesus' messiahship ( Matt 22:41-45 ), post-resurrection exaltation ( Acts 2:32-36 ), and superior priesthood ( Heb 4:14-5:10 ; 7:11-28 ).
Several observations may be made concerning these links between the psalms and Jesus. First, they reinforce the idea that Jesus in his incarnation identified with, and in some ways epitomized, the individual worshiper and the community of faith. The New Testament gives ample evidence that Jesus experienced the pain and joy, the despair and hope of the human condition which is so vividly depicted in the canonical Psalter. Second, such links are not surprising given the psalmists' vision of the establishment of Yahweh's universal and everlasting kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace and its temporal, historical embodiment in the rule of the Israelite king. The often exalted and hyperbolic language of the psalms in which these themes are expressed coupled with the inability of Israelite kings to live up to this ideal fueled anticipation about an anointed one who would fulfill all such expectations and paved the way for Christians to identify Jesus, the divine Son of God, with that messiah. Third, the connections between the psalms and Jesus are, for the most part, typological, not intentionally predictive. That is to say, the inspired Hebrew poets would have been unaware that portions of the hymns and prayers which they composed for use by Israelite worshipers foreshadowed specific aspects of Jesus' life and ministry. The New Testament does, however, testify to a divine purpose and intentionality in this regard so that it can be said that the meaning of the divine author of the canonical psalms exceeds that of the human authors. Psalms then are messianic insofar as they reflect the ideal of Yahweh's universal rule through the agency of his anointed designate and/or are employed in the New Kingdom to chronicle and explicate Jesus' role in bringing God's kingdom to light.
Robert J. V. Hiebert
Bibliography. P. R. Ackroyd, Doors of Perception: A Guide to Reading the Psalms; L. C. Allen, Psalms101-150; A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms; B. W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today; C. F. Barth, Introduction to the Psalms; C. A. and E. G. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms; P C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50; F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms; J. H. Eaton, Kingship and the Psalms; idem, Psalms: Introduction and Commentary; G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; H. Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction; J. H. Hayes, Understanding the Psalms; D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72; idem, Psalms 73-150; H.-J. Kraus, Worship in Israel: A Cultic History of the Old Testament; C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms; W. S. LaSor, D. A. Hubbard, and F. W. Bush, Old Testament Survey; S. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship; H. Ringgren, The Faith of the Psalmists; L. Sabourin, The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning; E. Sellin and G. Forhrer, Introduction to the Old Testament; M. H. Shepherd, The Psalms in Christian Worship: A Practical Guide; L. E. Stradling, Praying the Psalms; M. E. Tate, Psalms 51-100; T. H. Troeger, Rage! Reflect! Rejoice! Praying with the Psalmists; A. Weiser, The Psalms; C. Westermann, The Praise of God in the Psalms; J. W. Wever, VT 6 (1956): 80-96.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Psalms, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".