The Book of Psalms: Reading Backwards from the Beginning


By Dr. Nancy L. deClaisse-Walford
I have been a student of the book of Psalms for twenty years. During the past ten years I have extensively studied Book Five of the Psalter, Psalms 107-150. I maintain its “shape” provides clues to the overall “shaping” of the Psalter.

What do I mean? Let us read a literary piece, say a book of the Bible, from its beginning to its end and proceeded backward through it–seeking the meaning of the in-between from the way it ends and begins. Might we gain a deeper understanding of its meaning? Thomas Mann, in The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch, writes this about the Pentateuch, “The meaning of a story is often significantly determined by the way it ends.”[1] The Pentateuch ends with Moses' death and the people camped outside the land of promise; the Pentateuch's ending informs our reading of all of Genesis through Deuteronomy. In like manner the ending of the Psalter informs our reading of the entire book.

Two terms are key to understanding this study: shape and shaping. By “shape,” I suggest that every biblical book is a unified whole with a logical arrangement of texts within it; we can read each from its beginning to its end and find coherence. By “shaping,” I maintain that the biblical books are products of communities of faith and that understanding who those communities were is crucial to fully understanding the texts.

Such an approach may seem rudimentary–we certainly read, say the books of Genesis and Matthew as connected wholes. But the Psalter is a collection of individual hymns and prayers, each a discreet unit with its own “story-line.” We study individual psalms with little or no regard for their contexts within the book itself.

But what if we approached the book of Psalms like the book of Genesis, as a connected whole, a story with a beginning, middle, and end? Those who study the Psalter think they have come up with its story-line:

Book One consists of psalms of David (Psalms 3-41) to which Psalms 1 and 2 are added as introductory words. Psalm 1 presents two paths in life—the wicked or the righteous. Its opening words are “Ashre (usually translated “happy” or “blessed,” but better rendered as “content”) is the person who does not follow the advice of the wicked.” The wicked person is like chaff that the wind blows away, but the righteous person, through diligent meditation on the torah, is like a tree firmly planted by a stream; it grows and flourishes.

Psalm 2 introduces the theme of royalty—for ancient Israel, royalty from the line of David. But in Psalm 2 the theme has a twist: God, not humanity, determines who will be king and what role that king will play. Psalm 2 ends with the same word with which Psalm 1 begins–“Ashre are the ones who take refuge in God.”

The remainder of Book One (Pss 3-41) and Book Two (Pss 42-72) recount the Israel's life during the kingship of David and David's naming of Solomon as his successor. The majority of the psalms in the two books are attributed, in their superscriptions, to David. Book Three (Pss 73-89) reflects the time of Solomon, the period of the divided kingdoms, the fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians in 721, and the eventual fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586. Book Four (Pss 90-106) addresses the time of the Exile in Babylon.

Book Five (Pss 107-150) recounts the return from Exile to Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the Temple, and life in postexilic Jerusalem. The Israelites are permitted by the Persians to return to the land; they rebuild the temple; and they are allowed to resume their religious practices, so long as those practices do not contradict the laws of the Persian Empire. Thus, temple and cult are restored, but the Israelite nation is not.

We may conclude, therefore, that the story of the Psalter is a summons to postexilic Israel to review its history, to understand that in its new life-setting having an earthly king like David is no longer possible, and to see that the way to survive in the present circumstance is to acknowledge God, rather than a Davidic king, as sovereign.

Thus we have the shape of the Psalter. But what about its shaping? Book Five (Psalms 107-150), I maintain, holds important clues. Remember the words of Thomas Mann, “You can tell a lot about a story by the way it ends.”

A close reading of Book Five suggests that it is influenced by the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. Let us examine two aspects of wisdom in the Old Testament–content and form. First, content: Kathleen O'Connor, in The Wisdom Literature, writes: “Wisdom is a fluid, mercurial term, difficult to pin down or to contain within set parameters.” But, she goes on to say:

the Hebrew and Greek terms hokmah and sophia refer to a way of thinking, to a way of living. . . to a search for meaning and order, to sagacity about life and human relations akin to “common sense,” to reverent “fear of the lord,” and, not least, to a woman, personified Wisdom herself. In its broadest sense wisdom is an approach to reality, an ethos which shares a set of ideas, assumptions and expectations about life.[2]

The Old Testament and Apocryphal literature present a consistent yet varied view of wisdom. It is consistent in that, except in Job 28, wisdom is depicted as a woman, a divine consort or feminine counterpart to God.[3] Wisdom is described, however, in varied roles. In Job 28, Wisdom is hidden from and inaccessible to humanity; only God knows where wisdom dwells (28:33). In Proverbs, in contrast, Woman Wisdom dwells in the midst of humanity, crying out in the streets and the entrance to the city gates, calling on passers-by to listen to her words (Prov 2:5). She claims, in Prov 8: 22-31, to have an intimate acquaintance with God; she was there at creation, working beside God and “delighting in the human race.”

In the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is sought after as the desired spouse of the book's writer, a pseudonymous “Solomon”; she has knowledge of things of old,” gives “good counsel,” and teaches “self-control and prudence, justice and courage” (7:22-8:9). In Ben Sirach 24, Wisdom states that she “came forth from the mouth of the most high” at creation and was destined to dwell in Israel. The sexually evocative language of chapter 24:19-34[4] equates the pleasures of knowing Woman Wisdom with the pleasures of knowing the Torah. And, Baruch 4:1 says, “She is the book of the commandments of God, the law that endures forever.”

Thus postexilic Israel witnessed a weaving together of the concepts of wisdom as (1) an approach to reality that relied primarily on axioms from everyday life (as in the book of Proverbs); and (2) an aspect of reality that embraced the story of God's relationship with the people (the Torah).

What about the forms of wisdom? Are there “wisdom words” that signal that one is about to hear is wisdom instruction? Are there wisdom “structures” that signal that what one is about to read is wisdom instruction?

One word widely accepted as a “wisdom word” is, “ashre.” The words occurs twenty-six times in the book of Psalms, first as a frame around the opening psalms of the book (Ps 1:1; Ps 2:11). It occurs six more times in Book One,[5]culminating in Ps 41:1's: “ashre (content) is the one who considers the weak.”

Ashre occurs eleven times in Book Five, including Ps 112:1; twice in the opening verses of Psalm 119; and twice in the closing verse of Psalm 144.[6]

An important wisdom “structure” seems to be the acrostic, a literary device in which each unit of a poetic composition begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Alphabetic acrostics occurs twice in Book One (Pss 25 and 34), and four times in Book Five (Pss 111,112, 119, and 145). Why associate the acrostic form with wisdom? Recall that Kathleen O'Connor maintains that wisdom writers were concerned with “meaning and order” in life. Anthony Ceresko, in an essay titled “The Sage in the Psalms,” writes:

For psalmic wisdom, one way in which this concern for order expresses itself concretely, indeed, visually, is in its employment of the acrostic. One of the functions of this convention is to underline the sense of order and symmetry that the psalmist attempts to bring to the subject matter of the poem.[7]

We may also read the alphabetic acrostic as a metaphoric device, signaling the reader that the subject matter has been summed up from A to Z, from aleph to tav. Nothing more need or can be said about it.

Thus, we observe: (1) the content of wisdom evinces an intertwining of “traditional” wisdom (a common-sense approach to life) with “national” wisdom (adherence to the torah), and that the intertwining is presented as embodied wisdom, Woman Wisdom; and, (2) the form (Gattung) of wisdom literature includes certain wisdom words, such as ashre, and certain wisdom forms, such as the alphabetic acrostic.

Might we then posit a shaping of the Psalter by a postexilic wisdom movement? Postexilic Israel faced a dilemma of survival–to be absorbed into the vast Persian Empire and lose all identity, or to find a way to maintain identity, despite the loss of king, court, and nationhood. James
A. Sanders writes:

Why did Israel survive? That is the immense historical question that begs explanation. That which happened to some other victim nations [of Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman expansion] did not happen to Israel. Israel changed rather radically, to be sure, from being a nation with its own government and a highly nationalistic cult, to a dispersed religious community called Judaism, but the point is that Israel survived whereas others did not.[8]

How? Postexilic Israel transformed its traditional and cultic literature into what Phillip R. Davies calls “a massive exercise in self-definition,”[9] what Walter Brueggemann calls an imaginative process of “world building,”[10] and what James A. Sanders calls “a dynamic source of identity.”[11] Yahweh would be king over Israel and the Torah would be the people's order for living.

What would that self-definition, that world, that dynamic source of identity look like? The Psalter ends and begins with the answer. Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm, states that the “content” (the ashre) person is the one who meditates upon and takes delight in the Torah. Psalm 2, a royal psalm, states that God, not any human, determines the course of kingship in Israel.

Book Five of the Psalter contains many wisdom elements. Psalm 107 ends in verse 43 with: “let the one who is wise heed these words and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.” Three psalms, attributed in their superscriptions, to David, follow (Pss 108-110).[12]

Psalm 111 and 112 are alphabetic acrostics: Psalm 111 ends with the words “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, a good understanding comes to all who do it.” And Psalm 112 opens with, “Ashre is the one who fears the Lord, in the Lord's commandments greatly delighting” (note the echoes of Psalm 1).

Psalm 119, the centerpiece of Book Five, is an extended alphabetic acrostic, celebrating the Torah and the one who observes the Torah. Anthony Ceresko states that Psalm 119 “with its predictable and orderly movement, serves to reinforce the psalms' message that life is reliable and utterly symmetrical when the Torah is honored.”[13] David Noel Freedman, in Psalm 119: The Exaltation of the Torah, maintains that Torah becomes, in general in the Psalter and in particular in Psalm 119, “a monolithic presence, consisting of individual laws and teachings, to be sure, but described in only the most general terms . . . Torah has become for the psalmist much more than the laws by which Israel should live; torah has become a personal way to God. In short, Psalm 119 gives torah virtually the status of a divine hypostasis.”[14]

Following Psalm 119 are fifteen psalms, called “Songs of Ascents,” and designated thus because of their frequent references to Jerusalem and Zion. The collection includes three wisdom psalms: Psalms 127, 128, and 133.

Psalm 138-145, another group of psalms of David, culminate with Psalm 145, a masterful alphabetic acrostic. The psalm's superscription states, “Praise. Of David,” and it begins, “I will extol you, my God the King, and bless your name forever and ever.” It ends, “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”

The focus of Psalm 145 lies at the center of its acrostic form. In the kaf, lamed, mem lines (vss 11-13), the Hebrew letters that form the word for king, melek, references to the kingdom of God (from the Hebrew root mem, lamed, kaf) appear four times. David leads the people, and all creation, in a celebration of the kingdom of God.

Interestingly, Psalm 145 appears in the Jewish Prayer Book more than any of the other 149 psalms in the Psalter, and the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berakoth 4b states that Psalm 145, like the shema, is to be recited three times a day and everyone who does so, “may be sure that he [or she] is a child of the world to come.”[15]

How can God be king? In the ancient near East, the king cared for and provided for those who were less able to provide for themselves (Ps 145:14-20). The manner in which God's kingship would be realized in postexilic Israel one of the major issues confronting those of us who study the story of the Psalter today. Some talk about a “democratization” of kingship; all people are to seek the welfare of the community and the good of the nation. Recently, another scholar suggested that the term “communitization” for the concept.

Whether we call it democratization or communitization, the message of the Psalter is that all of us, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, or political persuasion, are called to be the hands and feet, the listening ear and the embracing heart of the sovereign God. And how are we to do that? We must meditate on and delight in the Torah (Ps 1) and to embrace the presence of Torah among us, now interwoven and indentified with the concept of Woman Wisdom (Ps 119). The Torah is not a strict set of rules and regulations, but a vibrant, enlivened manifestation of God among us–what David Noel Freedman calls a “divine hypostasis”–a mediator between God and humanity, who “delights in humanity,” according to Proverbs 8:31. Wisdom is practical knowledge and experience; technical knowledge; lived life; an intellectual tradition; an ordered world; a moral concept; an appropriate orientation to God; and a divine gift. May we all seek it–seek her–diligently.

[1] Thomas W. Mann, The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch(Atlanta; John Knox Press, 1988), 157.

[2] Kathleen O'Connor, The Wisdom Literature (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988), 23.

[3] Proverb, Ben Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, and Baruch.

[4] See also 51:13-20.

[5] See 32:1,2; 33:12; 34:9; 40:5; 41:2.

[6] See 112:1; 119:1,2; 127:5; 128: 1,2; 137:8-9; 144:5; 146:5.

[7] Anthony R. Ceresko, “The Sage in the Psalms,” in The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 224-25.

[8] James A. Sanders, “Adaptable for Life: The Nature and Function of Canon,” in From Sacred Story to Sacred Text(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 18.

[9] Phillip R. Davies, In Search of “Ancient Israel,” JSOT Sup 148 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 116.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, Israel's Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 13.

[11] James A. Sanders, “Adaptable for Life: the Nature and Function of Canon,” in From Sacred Story to Sacred Text(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 18.

[12] Interestingly, David, who is virtually absent in the superscriptions in Books Three and Four (Pss 42-106), reappears in Book Five in the superscriptions of fourteen psalms.

[13] Ceresko, “The Sage in the Psalms,” 225.
[14] David Noel Freedman, Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), ??
[15] S. D. Goitein designated Psalm 145 as the shema' of the Book of Psalms in Biblical Studies (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1957), 228.

This is an abbreviated version of the paper delivered in a public lecture at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, on November 9, 2011.

Dr. Nancy deClaisse-Walford is Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Mcafee School of Theology.