Theologies of the Psalms


            YHWH reigns! The Psalms record the historical praises and laments of Israel to her God and yet these psalms have become Scripture, the words of God to His people. The Psalms have a rich history of use, which has been adapted to meet the needs of God’s people in a variety of situations. There is much speculation about the original purpose of their composition, but we do know that they became the hymn book of the second Temple[1], accompanying the worship and sacrifices to YHWH. Yet after the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of sacrificial worship, the Psalms were not set aside, instead they were repurposed and incorporated into both Jewish Synagogue worship and Christian Church liturgy. It is necessary for a community to engage in symbolization and re-symbolization of those things which preserve the community’s identity[2] and values in order to protect itself from destruction or assimilation into other cultures[3].  Thus, the preservation and continued usage of the Psalms in individual and community worship serves to preserve the proper, respectful protocol for prayer to give assurance that prayers would be acceptable to God[4]. Wenham proposes that the fact that the Psalms survived the Temple era into the synagogue and church indicates that they must provide an important window into Old Testament theology and ethics[5]. The Psalms thus serve as a microcosm of Biblical theology, preserving the essence of what is truly important in mankind’s relationship with his creator. They serve as a check against improper understanding of God’s desires for His people.

            The Psalms protect us against creating an autonomous religious system where ritual actions or formulas are used to produce the desired results[6].  The laments of the psalmist stand in stark contrast to the prosperity messages so popular in today’s churches; the psalmist reminding God of His promises and then lamenting that he is not receiving the benefits, but is instead experiencing suffering!  The theology of the Psalms teaches that our experience with God is not a binary one, but a relationship of fellowship and an encounter with YHWH where there may be good times and bad times, yet through it all we have the promise that in the end He will be faithful to His word and will bring about redemption and restoration. The declaration that YHWH reigns as king pervades the Psalms and assures the reader that no matter what is going on in his or her life, God is in charge and directing the events. Yet even in this assurance, the Psalms remain realistic; there is conflict, defeat, enemies who prosper, and a perception that God is not taking action. Laments complain about the manner in which God rules the world, but is this reality? Is the psalmist relaying the objective truth or his subjective perspective of the truth? Grogan responds that the “book of Psalms is responsive, subjective and poetic.”[7]  This is part of the distinctive feature of the Psalms that the majority of the individual psalms within have some form of address to God[8], often as a response to Him; they respond with gratitude to God’s grace, question His decisions, cry out for His mercies, extol His virtues and rule, and retell His mighty saving acts.

            The final form of the Psalms is also of great importance for understanding its theology. Like other ancient Near Eastern temples[9], singers were attached to the Jerusalem Temple and they made use of the Psalms to direct worship, yet in its final redacted form, the Psalms begins with a demand of the righteous to meditate (1:2), rather than perform the psalms through song[10].  The final form of the Psalms has been recognized as having been edited, arranging the individual psalms for the purpose of relaying a particular message, since at least the days of Hippolytus (early 3rd century AD), who relays to us that the rabbis of his time recognized the five fold division of the Psalms and considered it to be based upon the five books of Moses[11].  Because of this, in addition to exploring some of the theologies within the Psalms, we will also explore the theology of the final form of the Psalms and consider why its organization was patterned in the manner that exists today.

Kingship of YHWH

            While the Psalms certainly contain a variety of themes and types of individual psalms, there is a common thread which connects them all, the reign of YHWH as king.  This theme of kingship begins with the opening two psalms whose structure indicate they were placed first as an introduction to the book of Psalms. The repetition of “blessed” or “happy” at the beginning of Psalms 1 and end of Psalms 2 serve as an envelope-structure frequently used in the Psalms, thus indicating that these two are a literary unit[12].  The placement of this literary unit at the beginning of the book serves not only to introduce the Psalms, but also to set the tone for the rest of the psalms which follow.  Psalms 1 introduces the concept of the two ways; the way of the righteous (1:1-1:3) and the way of the wicked (1:4-6).  It is those who delight in and meditate on the Torah, or “law”, of YHWH who walk the way of the righteous.  Psalms 2 sets the wicked kings and rulers against the righteous king YHWH and His anointed son, who serves as His earthly regent (2:2).  Thus the tone set for the Psalms is that YHWH is king and blessed are those who serve Him[13]!  With regards to YHWH’s kingship, Mays writes,

All the topics and functions of Psalmic language fit into this collateral pattern of active sovereignty. The people of God, the place God chooses to pre-empt in the world, the Messiah as earthly regent, and the law of God are the principal topics. The prayers are pleas and thanksgivings of God’s servants to their sovereign, the hymns are praise of God’s sovereignty, and the instructional psalms teach how to live in the reign of God[14].

Many of the themes which are found within the Psalms are connected to YHWH’s kingship as well. As king, He brings forth order out of chaos (104:7-9) to form the world as well as bringing order to the human realm through righteous judgments and redemption. God is enthroned over the flood (29:10) just as He is enthroned upon the praises of His people Israel (22:3).  It is the fact that YHWH has graciously created mankind and redeemed Israel which prompts Israel to declare Him to be their king; a response to His initial acts of grace. Because He is their king, blessings flow forth to those who meditate on His Torah. The Torah was given to Israel at Mt. Sinai after God had redeemed Israel from the Egyptian bondage as a law code creating order in the camp. Its purpose was not that of bondage, but of ensuring that every single Israelite, both native born and stranger, could enjoy the freedom of an ordered life. By giving Israel the Torah, God created a nation with enviable laws (Deut 4:8).  The link between creation and Torah is also apparent in Psalms 19, which has been recognized as two separate poems which have been joined together because of the understood connection between their content[15].  Psalms 19A (1-6) proclaims the glory of God by relaying how He created the heavens and earth through His spoken word. It is paralleled with Psalms 19B (7-14) which proclaims the glory of God by describing the perfection of His written word, the Torah. Unlike much of modern Christianity’s negativity towards the Torah, Israelites did not characterize the instructions of the Torah as a strict demand for obedience which encumbered their lives. In the Psalms especially we see that the people praised the Torah as a demonstration of God’s grace, an honor which He imparted to His people to bring life and wholeness[16].  Creation is also tied to redemption in Psalms 147.  Verses 2-3 describe how it is YHWH who will rebuild Jerusalem and gather her outcasts and in the very next verse the psalm speaks of the creation (naming) of the stars. Thus creation, redemption, and the Torah all belong within the realm of the kingship of YHWH.

            As king, YHWH comes into a covenant between Himself and His people Israel. The covenant functions as the administrative instrument for God’s kingly rule, to define the relationship between the two parties[17].  While only twelve psalms explicitly reflect God’s covenant with His people, the psalmist frequently speak out of the context of covenant, on the basis of the covenant relationship between God and His people[18]Chesed (“loving-kindness”) is recognized as a term which speaks of covenantal loyalty and fidelity[19] and it is found within the Psalms 120 times.  It is this covenantal connection between YHWH and His people which is one of the unique features of Israelite religion in the ancient world and it is the covenants which many believers hold their hope in.  Yet the Psalms’ treatment of covenants is quite interesting and unexpected. In Psalms 89A (1-37), the psalmist praises God for His faithfulness to the covenant with His earthly regent David and describes how even in the case where David’s sons forsake the Torah, YHWH will not profane the covenant; He will not remove His chesed from David’s line. But immediately in Psalms 89B (38-52) the tone shifts and the psalmist laments that despite the covenant promises, he is subjectively not experiencing what he considers a guarantee of the covenant with David; an unbroken lineage of David’s heirs upon the throne in Jerusalem. While most readers of the Psalms are not holding out hopes for a personal claim to the Davidic throne, the conundrum presented by juxtaposing promise vs. experienced reality is one that most can relate to. Often when we turn to God’s word we read of the promised happiness that comes to those who put their trust in Him and walk according to His statutes and we are initially filled with excitement. Yet after some time after we have turned to God, our life situation is still, more often than not, filled with problems. Our relationships are strained, our finances have not gotten any better, and we feel like something is amiss. Is God not true to His covenantal promises which we selectively read? When Psalms 89 is read by itself, without taking any other psalms into consideration, the answer would appear to be affirmative. Yet the psalmist (or a later redactor) appears to be aware of something we are not because he ends his lament with “Blessed by YHWH for eternity!” (89:52)[20].  On an editorial level, Psalm 89 is the final psalm in the Book III of the Psalms and it is recognized that Davidic kingship is especially prominent in Books I-III. It is in Books IV-V that the answer becomes apparent to the conundrum of the failed line of David and the apparent failure of God’s covenantal promises to David. In these last two books, the promise is shown to be fulfilled eschatologically by the coming Messiah who will reign as God’s earthly regent[21].  In the interim, it is YHWH who becomes enthroned as king (Psalms 93, 95-100) just like He was king before the time of Saul and David. Many of the enthronement events of YHWH described in these enthronement psalms contain the same elements as do the enthronement ceremonies for earthly kings in the ancient Near East, although with some exceptions such as anointment since YHWH does not submit Himself to priests[22].  Thus, while it appears to the psalmist in Psalms 89 that God has not been true to His covenantal promises, the reality is shown by taking a broad look at the entire book of Psalms that God’s fulfillment of His promises is often beyond our short-sighted vision. While we may think that His promises are lacking, in reality He is in control behind the scenes and is working to provide a fulfillment which is beyond our expectations. For Israel, rather than being stuck with a corrupt earthly king, YHWH works to bring forth a righteous king, His Messiah, who will be from the line of David but will instead rule with equity and justice.  Moreover, while Israel waits for this promised earthly regent, they are assured that it is YHWH who is enthroned over the earth, that the very foundations of His throne are based upon righteousness and justice (97:1-2), and that He establishes righteousness and justice in Israel (99:4).  This pair tzedakah and mishpat (“righteousness” and “justice”, respectively) form a hendiadys that has well-known parallels to the expected practices of proper kingship in the ancient Near East.  It was terminology for the social justice that was the recognized duty of any good king; to protect the poor and oppressed, the widow, the orphan, and anyone else who may be at a social disadvantage and thus susceptible to oppression[23].

            YHWH as the king who establishes righteousness and justice brings assurance to those who cry out to Him. He is not a god who chooses favorites, nor one who can be bribed by the rich with a multitude of sacrifices. He reminds Israel in Psalms 50:9-13 that, opposite to how the other nations surrounding Israel believed about their gods, He does not need humanity to take care of His needs. Instead He asks for the praises of His people, the fulfillment of vows, that they practice righteousness and justice towards one another, and that when they are in need that they cry out to Him so that He may rescue them (50:14-15).  His ultimate mark of kingship (the foundation of His throne) then is not that He created everything and must be obeyed, it is His solidarity with the poor and oppressed of this world; that He will protect them[24].  Yet even in this promise of protection, the lament of the psalmist appears to question its validity when he asks, “why do You sleep, Master?” (44:23).  The Psalms respond to this query later with “Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!” (121:4).  Gerstenberger states that this contrast in Psalm 121 compared to Psalms 44 is “a phrase proving that contradictions are natural to any true (i.e., realistic) theology[25].”  This continues the theme in which apparent contradictions to God’s promises in early psalms are answered by later psalms. The space between the lamenting question and response silently reminding the reader that often God’s answers to prayer are not immediate, but require patient and diligence in one’s faithfulness to His word.  Yet while God’s response may not be immediate, the reader is assured that God will come to judge the whole world with righteousness and equity (98:9).  Sadly, the concept of judgment today has been tainted by a misunderstanding of the Scriptural concept of mishpat (“justice” or “judgment”). Rather than living in fear of judgment as many people do today, the promise of God’s impending judgment was a constant source of joy in the Psalms.  Evil-doers will be powerless against YHWH, His judgments will not be tainted by bribery, and He will champion the cause of the poor and needy.  God’s kingly role as judge is one which brings deliverance to those who cry out to Him[26].

            YHWH’s kingship places the psalmist and subsequently the reader in the role of servant.  Ebed (“servant” or “slave”) is used metaphorically in the Psalms in reference to the worshiper or supplicant and carries the idea of dependency on and loyalty towards the king, YHWH[27].  There is considerable debate concerning the basic concept behind ebed as it is noted that it can be used to describe both the lowest social status, slavery, as well as the highest privilege, such as King David being referred to as God’s servant frequently in the Psalms. The best understanding of the usage of ebed is as “one who is dependent on another and accordingly carries out his will or acts for his benefit[28].”  As a subject of the king, the psalmist is dependent on the king’s good will and this is apparent throughout the Psalms as the majority of the psalms are laments, which function as a petition to the king. Westermann notes, “the literary categories of Psalms of lament and Psalms of praise are not only two distinct categories among others, but that they are the literary forms which characterize the Psalter as a whole[29].”  These laments often take up a tone which may offend modern religious sensibilities since they often complain about how God is running the kingdom, yet the very fact that such complaints have become Scripture portrays an important facet of YHWH’s character; He is not an impersonal force, but is one to whom a person can speak with openly[30].  The reminder that the reader’s role is that of a servant, even if an exalted servant, serves to place the relationship in its proper context. How do humans know what is proper in a lament and what crosses the boundary of proper relationship with God? The Psalms serve as the protocol of proper communication between King YHWH and His servants to ensure that the boundary is not crossed. The language of the Psalms finds counterparts in the courtly routine and royal language used by petitioners to their king in the ancient Near East[31].  These close parallels serve as assurance that the supplicant of YHWH remains respectful while making his or her needs known to the king. This does not insure the desired response, as the Psalms make no such promise and actually show that the response may be quite delayed as discussed above, but it does guard the boundaries of the relationship.


The Lament in the Psalms

            A lament is a type of liturgical song in which an individual or nation expresses bitterness following some calamity which befell the singer(s)[32].  Its complaint is generally directed towards God that He has not been active for His people, that He is not listening to their prayer, or that He appears to have forgotten His word of promise[33].  Yet the lament functions to do more than just to complain about all the things wrong in the supplicant’s life. The expectation is that by using the lament as an appeal before the king, it will provoke YHWH the become proactive and right the wrongs that are being suffered by the supplicant[34]. The laments of the Psalms generally follow a fixed formula and are thus easily identified.  First, the divine name of YHWH is invoked in an introductory supplication for an audience.  Next, the supplicant describes the problem at hand and follows this with a petition for the king, YHWH, to answer by remedying the situation which is often suffering or distress.  Finally, the supplicant gives reason why YHWH should answer. The reason why YHWH should respond is because of the worshiper’s trust and faithfulness or because it such a response will bring honor to YHWH[35].  Notably, the reason is never because the supplicant kept the Torah perfectly, such a notion is foreign to the Psalms as it is to the rest of Scripture. Neither do the laments found in the Psalms directly identify the plight of the lamenter with some sin. Miller notes, “The focus has been on Jesus’ work of salvation’s having to do with the forgiveness of sins rather than ending human suffering, even though the Gospels offer the Old Testament lament, especially Psalm 22, as a reference point for understanding the Passion of Jesus, that is, his identification with the suffering who cry out in the laments[36].”  The Passion of Yeshua[37] is the beginning of the fulfillment of the eschatological promises of the messianic kingdom which the Psalms speak of in answer to the cry of the lamenters.

            The fact that the psalmists give God reasons why He should respond to their cries creates a form of imitatio Dei.  “In the Torah, people are not simply told to obey. They are not coerced. They are persuaded, by negative and positive means, by explanation and appeal to compassion, by rational arguments and common sense[38].”  It is a large part of the Psalms’ message that YHWH is not an impersonal force which must be manipulated by ritual, but He is in fact a God who desires a personal, yet respectful, relationship with His people. The process of keeping a record the psalms which ancient Israel sang to their God and including them as Scripture has also added another dimension to these laments as well. Not only are they a protocol for lamenting to YHWH, but they have also become YHWH’s words to His people. The description of actions of the wicked which brought suffering to the psalmist becomes a warning to Israel to not perform these actions as they are the way of the wicked which leads to destruction[39].  In a fashion, the ways of the wicked become prohibitions after the fashion of the prohibitions in the Torah since both lead to death.

Orientation, Disorientation, New Orientation

Brueggemann presented a theory in his book The Message of the Psalms which provides a valuable insight into the theology of the Psalms. He proposes that all of the psalms can be separated into three categories: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. Psalms of orientation speak of human life during seasons of well-being and satisfaction that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing. Psalms of disorientation speak of human life during seasons of hurt, anguish, alienation, suffering, and death. The disorientation evokes rage, resentment, self-pity and even hatred for the supplicant. Yet when one is experiencing disorientation and there is a turn of surprise and the supplicant becomes overwhelmed by the new gifts from God, light breaks through the darkness, joy breaks through despair. These psalms Brueggemann labels as psalms of new orientation[40].  These categories are based upon life’s experiences and thus guide the reader through their walk of faith. They guide one’s prayer during each period, giving both instruction and hope. They orient the reader to the realities of God’s creation, lament about disorientation, and then provide songs to go along with periods of thanksgiving.

Orientation psalms are written for periods of normality in life and relationship with YHWH. Creation psalms fall within this category and provide a foundational orientation towards life’s regularities. Creation declares God’s sovereignty in which He created order in the cosmos and it is this order which maintains life’s regularities[41]. This order is also maintained by YHWH’s Torah and, as such, Torah psalms also fall into the category of orientation. Torah is more than just a law code and it is more than just Israelite morals, it is God’s will which structures the lives of the servants of YHWH. It is no surprise that most of the Torah psalms (1, 112, 119) employ the term ashrei (“how blessed” or “how honorable”) because these psalms are functioning to orient the reader to strive towards become this “blessed” man[42]. Wisdom psalms express the reliability of a well-ordered world and thus also fall into the category of orientation[43]. Wisdom flourishes in times of stability and it is no surprise that the book of the Bible which focuses entirely on wisdom, Proverbs, was written by King Solomon, the one king of Israel whose reign was characterized by peace, prosperity, and normality. Finally, psalms for occasions of well-being, such as 131 and 133, speak of a world where everything is ordered and reliable, a reflection of God’s blessing upon His creation[44].

Life is also marked with times of disorientation, when everything seems amiss. Chaos envelopes us and we feel as though God’s perfect order has been lost. The psalms of disorientation detail such periods in life[45]. Yet in the midst of such chaos, these psalms give the reader hope; hope because despite the apparent collapse in order, there is assurance that God is still in charge.  Sadly, these psalms have only received minimal religious use in modern times because of the misguided concept that somehow having “faith” in God is incompatible with acknowledging and embracing negativity. Brueggemann suggests that these psalms “lead us into dangerous acknowledgment of how life really is.  They lead us into the presence of God where everything is not polite and civil[46].” These psalms act as a therapist, telling us not to suppress our angry emotions but to bring them before God, to submit them to His will and His plan. They bring solidarity between the reader and all those who have ever had things go wrong in their life, letting them know that others have survived the disorienting experiences that now haunt the reader. These psalms of disorientation can either be individual laments, where there is trouble in the relationship between the supplicant and God, or community laments where God’s relationship with corporate Israel is amiss[47].  Additionally to the lament psalms being about disorientation, McCann suggests that Books II and III of the Psalms function to assist the Israelite community to cope with the disorienting experience of the Babylonian exile and dispersion[48]. If this is the case, it is Books IV and V of the Psalms which serve to reorient Israel to the new grace of God’s kingship.

Psalms of new orientation bear witness to new life which has been granted unexpectedly by YHWH after a period of disorientation[49]. While many of these psalms clearly detail the move from disorientation to orientation, many others can either be psalms of orientation or psalms of new orientation based upon where they are located within the canon of Psalms and how exactly they are used[50]. Thus the positioning of a psalm in relation to its surrounding psalms can serve to change the function of that particular psalm. This means that the theology of the psalms is, in part, dependent upon how the final editor arranged the psalms! This theology will be discussed more in the next section. Brueggemann identifies the several categories of psalms which fit into psalms of new orientation. The thanksgiving songs are those of the individual who is reciprocating God’s grace after a lament by giving thanks to the Almighty. Likewise, the thanksgiving songs of the community function to celebrate God’s awesome power which rescued Israel from a time of disorientation. Lastly, the “once king and future king” songs relate the unexpected establishment of YHWH’s kingship, often based upon a victory just being won[51]. These songs often appear in the genre of ancient Near Eastern victory song and use mythic vocabulary to describe the mighty feats which YHWH accomplished on Israel’s behalf. Grogan states, “some of the most theologically significant literature in Israel appears in poetic form (e.g. the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15)[52].”

Theology of the Canonical Editing

            The compilation of the various psalms into the structure that exists today in the book of Psalms is a subject of much debate.  It is generally agreed that the final form is not a random collection of psalms but instead was organized into a coherent structure. This structure was finalized in the post-exilic period and as such these psalms were given new meaning. It is also agreed that the positioning and grouping of certain psalms as well as certain editorial insertions is crucial for studying the theological meaning of the book of Psalms[53].  Hence, it is not enough to study the Psalms only from the aspect of their original context. Brennan writes, “[the psalms] must all be studied in their relationship to each other, since all of them together convey more than they do if looked at separately[54].”

            The Psalms begin with two psalms that form an envelope structure (discussed above) as the introduction. The fact that both psalms 1 & 2 have no attribution of authorship is highly unusual for the first book of the Psalms and is recognized as evidencing editorial manipulation[55]. This is even more apparent in the Septuagint which carries superscriptions for all psalms except Psalms I and II (compared to the Masoretic text which has superscriptions on 116 psalms)[56]. While many of the psalms originated in the cultic Temple setting, the book of Psalms was finalized in the post-exilic era when the majority of Israelites still lived in the diaspora, thus making travel to the Temple extremely rare for them. By beginning the Psalms with a blessing for faithful meditation on the Torah, this introduces the book as a shift from Temple performance of the psalms to usage as guidance in meditation, whether in private or in a Synagogue setting[57]. This opening setting also introduces the concept of the two ways, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, which sets the stage for a dramatic struggle between the two ways throughout all of the psalms which follow[58]. The Psalms divide humanity into two groups which correspond with the two ways based upon people’s actions, and the Psalms set forth to show the struggles between the two groups. While the Psalms often show the righteous the subject of oppression, it is their ultimate fate which is much of the subject matter of the Psalms; their eschatological redemption by YHWH[59]. This brings a message of encouragement to align one’s life with the way of the righteous but at the same time warns that such a path will be filled with trials and tribulations. It also shows solidarity between those who walk the path of the righteous and YHWH, because it is the divine king Messiah who must also walk this path and face these trials. Because the way of the righteous begins with meditation upon the Torah, the Psalms becomes a source of wisdom and reflection on the Torah to aid in pious interpretation of the Torah[60]. The emphasis upon the Torah also recurs in key places in the structure of the Psalms, Psalms 19 and 119, as well in the fact that the fivefold structure of the Psalms mirrors the fivefold structure of the Torah. By emphasizing the Torah, the message brought forth is that faith in YHWH begins in devotion to obedience to His instructions because this exhibits trust in the kingship of YHWH that He will be faithful to respond[61].

            Wilson puts forward that there is evidence pointing to an original editorial period in which the first three books (Ps 2-89) were compiled and that the final two books (Ps 90-150) were compiled at a later date[62]. Whether or not this is true, there certainly is a heavy focus upon the Davidic line of kingship and its failure in the first three books. Yet the final editing of the Psalms occurred years after the fall of the house of David during a period where Israel was now back in the land yet still experiencing disorientation. This very fact illuminates the possibility that these Davidic psalms were kept not just to lament over the fallen dynasty and seemingly failed covenant, but to also give hope to the eschatological house of David to be restored by the Messiah[63]. Mays notes that the announcement of Psalm 2 of the authority of the Messiah over the nations bookends with the end of Book III in Psalm 89’s lament over the frustrated promise of the Davidic covenant[64]. Thus even Books I-III already are in the process of establishing the hope of the restoration of the house of David through the kingship of Messiah as YHWH’s earthly regent[65].

            Following Psalm 89, Book IV begins the process of truly answering the problem of an apparent failure of YHWH to uphold His covenant with David posed in Psalm 89. Wilson notes that there is a high proportion of untitled psalms in Book IV (13/17) which is an indication of editorial manipulation and thus proposes that Book IV functions as the editorial center of the final form of the Psalms[66]. Book IV’s answer to the problem of Psalms 89, Wilson puts forth, is “(1) YHWH is king; (2) He has been our “refuge” in the past, long before the monarchy existed; (3) He will continue to be our refuge now that the monarchy is gone; (4) Blessed are they that trust in him![67]” This announcement of the kingship of YHWH is hinted at by the placement of Psalm 90 as the introduction to Book IV. Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses and it was in the Mosaic time period when Israel had no earthly monarchy and thus had to trust in the sovereignty of YHWH[68].

Book V then stands to answer the pleas of the exiles to be gathered from the diaspora which they were still experiencing even after the decree of Cyrus that Israel may return to Judea. Much like how the answer to the problem with the Davidic covenant is different than what human logic would expect, so too the answer to the plea for ingathering is different from expectation. The ingathering will occur in God’s time, and during the wait Israel must develop an attitude of dependence and trust in YHWH alone (Ps 107:12-13, 19, 28). This trust is shown by obedience to the Torah of YHWH, as set forth in the central Torah psalm (Ps 119), which serves as man’s guide in the way of righteousness. David also is portrayed as modeling this attitude of dependence in Psalms 108-110 and 138-145[69]. It is up to Israel to maintain her trust through the trying times of diaspora but her guiding light will be the kingship of YHWH and the promise that His kingdom will soon be established upon the earth in the coming of Messiah.

One final interesting note about the structuring of the Psalms is the usage of acrostics. Certain psalms employ acrostic techniques but it is noted that there are several psalms which have a disruption in the order where between 1-7 of the acrostic letters are missing and there is an apparent insertion of a non-acrostic line. Benun has shown that these non-acrostic lines are not scribal transmission errors, but are in fact a literary technique which contributes to the theology of the Psalms! By analyzing the non-acrostic lines found in acrostic psalm in Book I, he has found a pattern which “moves from a state of experiencing the ramifications of evil (9/10), through a process of repentance, learning, and prayer (25), to a state of trust and fear of God (34), and finally ending in vindication that God is true to His covenant (37)[70].” This literary pattern of disruption of order in acrostics matches the general theme and movement of the Psalms from orientation to disorientation to new orientation.


The Psalms have been collected and arranged in a way that brings out more meaning than their individual messages. In order to truly understand the message of the Psalms, we must read it as a book whose individual psalms interact together like an orchestra to bring forth its theology. There are certainly multiple messages, multiple theologies, and multiple usages for the Psalms, but ultimately the Psalms speaks that YHWH is king over all the earth and that we should trust in Him. This trust bears its fruits in praising Him, thanking Him, obeying Him, crying out to Him, and even at times complaining to Him. Its message stands as a testimony to the reality of our relationship with our Creator and at times challenges our notions of proper religious attitude. It orients us towards proper interpretation of God’s instructions for our lives and motivates us to choose the path of the righteous, even if this path is fraught with turmoil because the fact that YHWH reigns as king lets us know that in the end, the righteous will be vindicated.

The setting of the final redaction of the Psalms as post-exilic Israel helps us understand the structure of the Psalms. Israel has been without a Davidic king upon the throne for over 70 years and there is no hope in sight for the dynasty’s restoration. In addition to dealing with the shame of exile, Israel must try to understand why God’s covenant promise to David that there would never cease from being a Davidic king upon the throne has apparently failed. The Psalms asks its reader to remember back to the time before David when YHWH was king to remind them that YHWH is still king and He will remain king for all eternity. Although they are currently suffering under foreign rule, they must maintain faithfulness to YHWH and trust in His promises. When the time comes, the kingship will return to Israel because YHWH reigns and His Messiah will reign!


Reference List

Benun, Ronald. “Evil and the Disruption of Order: A Structural Analysis of the Acrostics in the First Book of Psalms.” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Vol 6 (2006): 2-30.

Brennan, Joseph. ‘Psalms 1–8: Some Hidden Harmonies.’ BTB 10 (1980): 25–29.

Brennan, Joseph. ‘Some Hidden Harmonies in the Fifth Book of the Psalms,’ in R.F. McNamara (ed.), Essays in Honor of Joseph P. Brennan. Rochester, NY: St Bernard’s Seminary, (1976).

Bridge, Edward. “Loyalty, Dependency, and Status with YHWH: The Use of ‘bd in the Psalms.” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 59, Fasc. 3 (2009): 360-378.

Broyles, Craig C. The Conflict of Faith and Experience in the Psalms: A Form-Critical and Theological Study. Vol. 52, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989.

Brueggemann, Walter. “Response to James L. Mays, ‘The Question of Context,’” in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, ed. J. Clinton McCann, vol. 159, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1993): 29-41.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.

Childs, Brevard. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.

De Pinto, Basil. “The Torah and the Psalms.” JBL, Vol. 86, No. 2 (Jun., 1967): 154-174.

Dumbbell, William J. The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

Gerstenberger, Erhard. Psalms Part 1: With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry, vol. 14, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.

Goldingay, John. “The Dynamic Cycle of Praise and Prayer in the Psalms.” JSOT 20 (1981): 85-90.

Grogan, Geoffrey. Prayer, Praise & Prophecy: A Theology of the Psalms. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2001.

Howard Jr, David. “Editorial Activity in the Psalter: A State-of-the-Field Survey,” in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, ed. J. Clinton McCann, vol. 159, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1993): 52-70.

Howard Jr., David. “The Case for Kingship in the Old Testament Narrative Books and the Psalms.” Trinity Journal 9 NS (1988): 19-35.

Kline, Meredith. Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006.

Kraus, Hans J. Theology of the Psalms. Translated by Keith Crim, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Levine, Herbert J. Sing Unto God a New Song. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Longman, Temper. How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Mason Rex. Old Testament Pictures of God, Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 1993.

Mays, James. Psalms, Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994.

Mays, James. The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Mays, James. “The Place of the Torah-Psalms in the Psalter.” JBL 106/1 (1987): 3–12.

Mays, James. “The Question of Context in Psalm Interpretation.” in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, ed. J. Clinton McCann, vol. 159, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1993):14-19.

McCann, J. Clinton. A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

McCann, J. Clinton. “Books I–III and the Editorial Purpose of the Hebrew Psalter,” in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, ed. J. Clinton McCann, vol. 159, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1993): 93-106.

Milgrom, Jacob. A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Miller, Patrick D. “Deuteronomy and Psalms: Evoking a Biblical Conversation,” JBL Vol 118, No. 1 (Spring, 1999): 3-18.

Miller, Patrick D. Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Miller, Patrick D. “The Beginning of the Psalter,” in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, ed. J. Clinton McCann, vol. 159, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1993): 83-92.

Mitchell, David. “Lord, Remember David: G. H. Wilson and the Message of the Psalter.” Vetus Testamentum, Vol 56, Fasc. 4 (Oct, 2006): 526-528.

Mowinckel, Sigmund. The Psalms in Israel’s Worship. Translated by D.R. Ap-Thomas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

Petersen, Allan. The Royal God: Enthronement Festivals in Ancient Israel and Ugarit?, vol. 259, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

Rabbe, Paul. Psalm Structures: A Study of psalms with Refrains. Vol 104, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990.

Sheppard, Gerald. Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct: A Study in the Sapientializing of the Old Testament. BZAW, 151; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980.

Sweeney, Marvin. “Lament.” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. “On Some Aspects of Prayer in the Bible.” AJS Review, Vol. 1. (1976): 363-379.

VanGemeren, Willem. ed. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997.

Weinfeld, Moshe. Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East. Jerusalem; Minneapolis: The Magnes Press; Fortress Press, 1995.

Wenham, Gordon J. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew, Joel B. Green, and Christopher R. Seitz, Studies in Theological Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.

Westermann, Claus. Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Atlanta: J. Knox Press, 1981.

Wilson, Gerald H. “Shaping the Psalter: A Consideration of Editorial Linkage in the Book of Psalms,” in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, ed. J. Clinton McCann, vol. 159, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1993): 72-92.

Wilson, Gerald H. The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. Society of Biblical Literature, Num. 76, Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985.

Wilson, Gerald H. “Understanding the Purposeful Arrangement of Psalms in the Psalter: Pitfalls and Promise,” in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, ed. J. Clinton McCann, vol. 159, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1993): 42-50.




[1] Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 1:2.

[2] Brueggemann, “Response to James L. Mays, ‘The Question of Context,’” 31, cf. Mays, Psalms Interpretation, 8.

[3] Milgrom, Leviticus, 1.

[4] Broyles, The Conflict of Faith, 24.

[5] Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 5.

[6] Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 14

[7] Grogan, Prayer, Praise & Prophecy, 10.

[8] ibid, 46-49.

[9] Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 2:80.

[10] Wilson, “Shaping the Psalter: A Consideration of Editorial Linkage in the Book of Psalms,” 72.

[11] Grogan, Prayer, Praise & Prophecy, 27.

[12] McCann, Theological Introduction, 41.

[13] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 516.

[14] Mays, The Lord Reigns, 7.

[15] Pinto, “The Torah and the Psalms,” 158.

[16] Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 35

[17] Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 4.

[18] Longman, How to Read the Psalms, 57.

[19] Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 2.  Also, compare its usage in Ps 89:2 paralleled to the usage of brit (“covenant”) in Ps 89:3.

[20] All Scripture translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

[21] Howard, “The Case for Kingship,” 34.

[22] Petersen, The Royal God, 16.

[23] Weinfeld, Social Justice, 25-43.

[24] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 44.

[25] Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 36.

[26] Mason, Old Testament Pictures of God, 130.

[27] Bridge, “Loyalty, Dependency, and Status with YHWH,” 376-377.

[28] VanGemeren, NIDOTTE, 1184.

[29] Westermann, Praise and Lament, 11.

[30] Levine, Sing Unto God, 79.

[31] Tigay, “Prayer in the Bible,” 365-366.

[32] Sweeney, “Lament”, NIDB, 565.

[33] Grogan, Prayer, Praise & Prophecy, 75.

[34] Broyles, Conflict of Faith, 14.

[35] Dumbbell, The Faith of Israel, 248.

[36] Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, 10.

[37] Yeshua is the Hebrew name from which the name “Jesus” evolved.

[38] Miller, “Deuteronomy and Psalms”, 9-10.

[39] Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 60.

[40] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 19.

[41] Ibid, 28-38.

[42] Ibid, 38-42.

[43] Ibid, 42-45.

[44] Ibid,47-49.

[45] ibid, 51.

[46] ibid, 52-53.

[47] ibid, 58-88.

[48] McCann, “Books I-III and the Editorial Purpose of the Hebrew Psalter,” 103.

[49] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 124.

[50] Goldingay, “The Dynamic Cycle,” 85-90.

[51] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 125-151.

[52] Grogan, Prayer, Praise & Prophecy, 15.

[53] Whybray, Reading the Psalms as a Book, 30-31.

[54] Brennan, ‘Hidden Harmonies’, 126–127.

[55] Wilson, Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, 204.

[56] Howard, “Editorial Activity in the Psalter,” 58.

[57] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament, 513.

[58] Brennan, “Psalms 1-8,” 29.

[59] Miller, “Beginning of the Psalter,” 85.

[60] Sheppard, Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct, 142.

[61] Mays, “The Place of the Torah-Psalms in the Psalter,” 12. Also see Brueggemann, “Response to James L. Mays, ‘The Question of Context,’” 37.

[62] Wilson, “Understanding the Purposeful Arrangement,” 42.

[63] Mitchell, “Lord, Remember David,” 528.

[64] Mays, “The Question of Context,” 16-17.

[65] Wilson notes that throughout Book III there is an alternating pattern of lament-hope psalms which indicates that the theological reply to the problem of the failed Davidic covenant has already begun. Wilson, “Understanding the Purposeful Arrangement,” 48-49.

[66] Wilson, “Shaping of the Psalter,” 75.

[67] Wilson, Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, 214-215.

[68] McCann, “Books I-III and the Editorial Purpose of the Hebrew Psalter,” 94.

[69] Wilson, Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, 217.

[70] Benun, “Evil and the Disruption of Order,” 22-23.

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search