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What is the Psalter?

March 27, 2009

According to Erich Zenger it’s:

a praise of the divine, universal rule of Yhwh, which he desires to assert in an act of eschatological judgement. This rule is grounded in Tora and creation, and will be asserted by means of both his (messianic) king who Yhwh has established in Zion as well as his messianic people, who exist amongst the nations.

(HT: Phil)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2009 9:16 am

    I would comment here, but I have already left some substantive remarks on Phil’s blog. Of course, I express some hesitancy with Zenger’s definition.

    Perhaps that simply speaks to the nature of the task . . . defining the totality of the Psalter with any nuanced, careful definition is, to be sure, bound to fail.

  2. March 28, 2009 9:48 am

    John, again I would suggest David Mitchell’s The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms which is a helpful corrective to Wilson. Futato notes that:

    The Message of the Psalter is one of several recent additions to the growing corpus of work that treats the purposeful arrangement of the Book of Psalms. Mitchell is in full accord with those who argue that the Psalter is not a random anthology but is a purposefully edited literary whole. His thesis, however, goes in a different direction from that of others who have attempted to articulate the theological agenda that guided the editorial process…Mitchell argues that the agenda is eschatological….The full picture then emerges: the king comes (Psalm 45), Israel is gathered in (Psalm 50), the nations gather for war (Psalms 73-83), the king is cut off (Psalm 89), rescue by the messianic king (Psalm 110), paeans of messianic victory (Psalms 111-118), and the ascent of all Israel to celebrate the feast of tabernacles (Psalms 120-134).

    Mitchell’s “Lord, remember David: G.H. Wilson and the message of the psalter” in Vetus Testamentum 2006 56(4) pp. 526-548 is also important reading.

    I love the following quote by Robert Cole:

    Psalms 1 and 2 were not read as two disparate Torah and royal psalms respectively in the final redaction of the Psalter; rather, both depict the ideal Joshua-like warrior and king who through divinely given authority vanquishes his enemies. From this eschatological perspective the Psalter opens and sets the tone for all subsequent psalms.

    Cole, R. (2002) “An Integrated Reading of Psalms 1 and 2”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, pp. 75-88

  3. March 28, 2009 1:24 pm


    Thank you for this reply. Indeed, I have Mitchell’s book on my to read list. Unfortunately, with prelims then dissertation on the horizon, I fear it won’t be soon that I get to it. But my interest is truly piqued (especially if he interacts with Wilson and others in any sustained way).

    Based upon the brief summary you offered there, of course this reading is a possibility. The understanding of Pss 1-2 being read together is also not new . . . Wilson and others such as Clint McCann argue that point. What I find most appealing, though, about Wilson (and McCann in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, JSOTSup) is that they focus upon the seams of the books, which I think clearly show editorial activity and thus, by extension, would be purposeful places for the ‘intended’ meanign to pop up. I also find Wilson’s wisdom frame around the entire Psalter to be convincing (but, in a critical note, to succeed in seeing this frame one has to lop off Pss 146-150 as a final paeon of praise.

    That said, I will surely not dismiss Mitchell’s book until I read it. And I look forward to it.


  4. March 28, 2009 5:52 pm


    I agree that the seams demonstrate editorial activity, indeed Mitchell is worsking with Wilson’s arguments but contra Wilson’s idea that the Davidic hope is not found in Books IV and V argues that in fact the Davidic hope is central to those concerns, hence Pss. 110 and 132. Wilson arguing that the message of the Psalter is that YHWH is king is set over and against the Davidic hope so Mitchell writes:

    between us [he and Wilson] we indicatedd the way to two quite different understandings of the redactional agenda of the Psalms: I, eschatologico-messianic, pointing to a coming son of David; he, historico-didactic and non-messianic, pointing Israel to a future without the house of David.

    He writes that the David of Books IV and V are bigger than Wilson thinks arguing that

    the David of Books IV and V is not a minor player at all. He is the King Messiah, conquering his foes (cx); entering Jerusalem in triumph (cxviii); to whom the tribes of Israel go up, as in Zechariah xiv, to celebrate the Feast of Sukkot (pss. cxx-cxxxiv) in the city of David (Ps. cxxii) before the messianic throne (Ps. cxxxii; and who conquers every last uprising (Ps. cxliv).

    He then goes on to point out that the kingship of Yahweh and David are not mutually exclusive as Wilson seems to argue; Wilson’s theory does not accord with Israel’s attitude to the house of David at any time noting Pss. Sol. xvii, and a host of Qumran texts; neither 11Ps(a) nor LXX are evidence that Books IV and V were added to an already existing collection of Books I-III.

    Whilst Wilson’s work was indeed ground breaking I far prefer Mitchell’s modification of it though I would modify Mitchell in some key areas.

    Ultimately this is where Mowinckel and John H. Eaton both come into their own, as the eschatological backgound to the Psalter is II Isaiah and Deutero-Zechariah:

    Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain.

    All of which has significance as to how we are to read the NT, an attempt at working this out can be found here and here.

  5. March 28, 2009 7:38 pm


    This is actually quite interesting to me. I would argue Wilson still has a place for David in Books IV and V, it is just a different place. Robert Wallace spins this out well, I think, as do I in my paper on Pss 105 and 106 and the conclusion of Book IV. At bottom, it seems clear to me that the titles used of David in Ps 89 (servant, anointed, chosen) are transferred to the ancestors in Pss 105 and 106 (interestingly, the only places some of these titles occur in reference to the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Wallace’s argument is different than mine, but we agree the titles are stripped from David and given over to another.

    David, of course, still pops up in Books IV and V, but as the one who calls for and leads ancient Israel in worship of YHWH as king. I think this has some merit, especially in light of the texts leading up to the grand paeons of praise in Pss 146-150. A crescendo of praise, if I may.

    I would challenge Mitchell’s statement that kingship of YHWH and David is not mutually exclusive. To be sure, at the outset they appear to be one and the same. Yet I have become increasingly convinced that kingship in Israel was fated for disaster from the outset. If you read the texts where Israel requests a king in 1 Sam, YHWH states that he (YHWH), not Samuel, has been rejected by the people’s request for a king. Similarly, Saul’s kingship is nothing more than a failed attempt, a “false start.” I would venture to assume that Mitchell is taking the oneness of kingship from within the Psalter itself, early on, which is fine and probably right, but as the Psalter develops (and ancient Israel’s historical narratives develop), kingship becomes quite the problem. 2 Sam 7 and the promise of a perpetual Davidic house is just part of the equation . . . 2 Sam 12ff. is the other . . . this latter text seems to mark off very clearly the beginning downfall of David’s own reign and success. Solomon is not that great of a king by Deut 18’s standards (many horses, many wives, etc.), and no doubt the split of the kingdoms, and YHWH’s activity behind Assyria and Babylon’s respective decimations of the two kingdoms seems quite clearly to indicate that kingship was not to be. Indeed, as I mention above, from the very outset YHWH accomodated the people in kingship. I find it difficult to assume YHWH was ever thrilled with the institution based upon the biblical text. Even David, YHWH’s beloved king, a man after his own heart, does not come out so well. Again, having not yet read Mitchell, I am already hesitant if he assumes a oneness of kingship of YHWH and David throughout ancient Israel’s history. I also think, eschatologically, it is YHWH who is to be king, not a Davidic ‘heir’ (and I am intentionally not moving into the NT on this point). In Isaiah 56 I believe (at the end of deutero/beginning of trito Isaiah) one sees the democratization of the notion of kingship, handed on to the people. This is Edgar Conrad’s notion (see his Reading Isaiah in the Overtures to Biblical Theology series); I would trust much of scholarship would share this idea of a democratized kingship. The days of the old Davidic kingdom are more or less done away with.

    I would also be hesitant at his use of Qumran material.
    Hesitant, namely, because it is not altogether clear, I think, just how sectarian/separated the Qumran community was. Depending on what texts he uses here, this may be problematic. For instance, at Qumran you appear to have multiple messiahs (a priestly and a Davidic). How would this inform the picture for Mitchell? Or would it more than likely complicate matters?

    And lastly, the statement that 11QPsa[a] does not attest to a collection of Books IV-V being added to a preexisting collection of Books I-III is fraught with problems, difficulties, and assumptions. Re-read the post on my blog under “methodological particularity . . . or pluralism” for a discusion of the various ways scholars have attempted to understand this material. 11QPsa[a] was not the only Psalms text found at Qumran (though it is the most complete). To use it alone as evidence is irresponsible in my view.

    Nonetheless, I do genuinely still look forward to checking out Mitchell. Perhaps once I actually read him we can continue our discussion more fruitfully!

  6. March 28, 2009 8:37 pm


    Just some quick points:

    (1) Mitchell deals with more than just 11QPsa[a], I just couldn’t face typing them all out when you are going to read his work…my laziness!

    (2) There seems to be an ‘early’ Wilson and a ‘mature’ Wilson, the latter sees a greater role for David in Bks IV & V but that does seem to come after his interraction with Mitchell, and is to be welcome but I don’t think he goes far enough.

    (3) Indeed, a crescendo of praise.

    (4) i. I subscribe to Cross’ dual redaction of the DtrH but and I am still trying to get a grip on it all, however I do like Society and the Promise to David: Reading 2 Samuel 7 by William M. Schniedewind.

    ii. I find the issue in Samuel not God’s dislike of kingship but his dislike about what type of king Israel wanted.

    iii. I would also add that YHWH rules through his annointed so we cannot really divorce the one from the other, I would point to Futato’s Interpreting the Psalms and his
    Transformed by Praise: The Purpose and Message of the Psalms

    Check out:
    1. Clines’ The Psalms and the King
    2. Howard’s The Case For Kingship in The Narrative Books And The Psalms
    3. Jamie A. Grant’s The King as Exemplar: The Function of Deuteronomy’’s Kingship Law in the Shaping of the Book of Psalms

    Once you have read Mitchell do let me know what you think!!

  7. March 30, 2009 7:58 pm

    This is a fascinating and informative discussion. Thanks guys!

  8. March 31, 2009 1:42 pm

    As I reflected on this discussion, it seems to me the crux of the issue revolves around how does one construe and understand the concept and institution of kingship. In Psalms. In the Hebrew Bible.

    I would argue that both the position put forward by Richard, as well as mine (of course, both of us through representative scholars) are in a way true. No doubt some currents within Israelite society and later Jewish contexts (largely those feeding into the incipient Christian movement) maintained an eschatological hope for a future Davidic king. And, it seems to me, within a Persian/postexilic context, the desire to make sense of the situation immediately before them also makes great sense and is attested to in several places.

    So, in good postmodern fashion, I will say we are both right (that is, of course, until I read Mitchell and disagree with him — wink!).

  9. March 31, 2009 4:48 pm

    So, in good postmodern fashion, I will say we are both right.

    I’m happy with that, though I think a diversity of opinion on one issue is fairly Biblical and not just post-modern 🙂

    I should add that Zenger sees the move towards the kingship of the Lord in the Psalter over against the kingship of David. However, he does say that the two categories get progressively blended together in the Psalter. Very Christian, though that doesn’t make it wrong …. (incidently, Zenger recently won an award for his encouragement of Jewish-Christian dialogue). I appreciate your thoughts John and hope to interact with you more!

  10. March 31, 2009 5:58 pm


    Indeed, quite biblical! My teacher in undergrad (who, incidentally, was Jewish) used to always say “two Jews, three opinions.” I think that’s probably about right, and applicable to the Biblical witness.

    The little of Zenger I have read has not been terribly compelling to me personally. Maybe it is a latent hesitancy in me to ‘Christianize’ the Hebrew Bible (though again, as you correctly point out, that in no way makes it wrong). That said, I am pleased Zenger is one of the few who seem to be taking the issue of interfaith relations seriously. That is another topic that fascinates me. I always recall Martin Buber’s statement that Jews and Christians share two things: a book and an expectation. But of course, even in those two items is a wealth of diversity and disagreement.

    I too appreciate and look forward to your comments. Perhaps we will be fortunate enough to run into one another at SBL in New Orleans?

    All the best!

  11. April 1, 2009 1:27 pm

    Hey Richard, I updated the quotation on my post, in case you are interested.


    I’m afraid America is a bit far for me to fly for a conference. I’m based in Germany. I will be at SBL Rome, however … my first ever SBL experience.

    Will either of you be turning up there?

  12. April 1, 2009 2:19 pm

    I could be tempted!

  13. April 1, 2009 3:01 pm


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