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Types of Psalms


Having considered that the psalms are poetic compositions created according to a recognizable set of poetic conventions, we are left to ask "What kinds of compositions did these ancient Hebrew poets write?" In the Western world we find sonnets, and odes, the humorous limerick, as well as other poetic forms. What types of poems are characteristic of Hebrew poetry?

Ancient Psalm Types. If you will look closely at the psalms headings (especially in the original Hebrew), you will discover a number of terms (some eight or ten in all, including: mizmorr, higgayon, miktam, tephillah, maskil, shir, shir hamma’lot, tehillah, and perhaps yedidot and the even more obscure ‘edut) that seem to describe types of psalms. It seems probable then that the ancient Hebrew poets who wrote and transmitted the psalms had some sense of the category of composition each psalm represented and were able to designate them appropriately.

It is unfortunate consequently that we nowhere possess a contemporary Hebrew discussion of poetic technique and psalm types. While the psalmists must have known how to compose psalms of various types, they clearly felt no need to leave us any description of what constitutes the characteristics of a particular type of psalm–a higgayon for example–and what distinguishes it from a miktam or a maskil. As a result, we are mostly left in the dark– having to rely on our own surmises from literary analyses of the psalms themselves and by comparison of psalms that bear the same designations in their headings. A bit of scholarly investigation into this subject has been accomplished with somewhat mixed results.

The investigation of psalms with the same ancient designations fails to uncover any constellation of formal similarities, except in the most general sense. While it may be true (as many suggest) that the fifteen Songs of Ascent (psalms 120-134) are a collection of pilgrim songs, the literary character of these psalms ranges from prayers for deliverance (120, 123, 125, 126, 129, 130) through worship liturgies (121, 132, 134) to a thanksgiving hymn (124), praises of Zion (122), acts of submission (131), and descriptions of the blessings of the faithful (127, 128, 133). While the whole collection bears a stamp of similar themes and language, there is no clear way to distinguish the prayers of deliverance found here from others outside the collection.

Other of these ancient terms apparently do mark out psalms of more consistent character. The term miktam, for example is found in the heading of six psalms (16, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60). Of these six, the five contiguous psalms (56-60) fall within the modern category of laments or prayers for deliverance from trouble. The sixth (the more isolated psalm 16), disrupts this apparent consistency, however, because it is a decidedly different expression of confidence in YHWH. Even if one were to assume that the true nature of the miktam is exhibited by the five grouped psalms, one must admit there is no certain way to distinguish the prayers for deliverance they represent from other such prayers found throughout the rest of the psalter. The same is true of the tephillah psalms (17, 86, 90, 102, 142?) all of which appear also to be prayers for deliverance or healing, but are indistinguishable from similar psalms found elsewhere in the Psalter. So, the comparison of psalms bearing the same ancient designation in their headings has offered no convincing evidence of distinctive structure or content that sets each of these types of psalms apart from other psalms designated differently.

Some have attempted to illuminate these ancient designations of poetic form by relating them to similar terms in the broader ancient near east. The enigmatic higgayon (psalm 7) is sometimes connected to the Akkadian hegu "lament," while others have derived the meaning "psalm of expiation" for miktam from the Akkadian katamu "cover." In all instances, these connections are tenuous at best, far from compelling, and provide little help in determining the formal distinctives that characterize these compositions.

The upshot of all this investigation is that, while we are almost certain that the ancient poets composed psalms in a variety of forms, and knew the distinctive characteristics of each type (it would seem utterly ridiculous if they did not!), we are no longer able to recover with any assurance what those ancient categories were or how they differed from one another. For this reason, modern attempts to categorize the psalms have most often proceeded in a different direction, using literary analysis and comparison to develop a new taxonomy of the psalms, from the inside out so to speak.

Modern Attempts to Categorize the Psalms. One of the most fruitful attempts to understand the psalms in the modern period began in the mid-1800s, and sought to describe various categories into which the biblical psalms could be sorted based on literary analysis of the structure and contents of the psalms, rather than any prior knowledge of the ancient terminology employed in the psalm-headings, or any assumption of authorship and provenance of the psalms. The methodology grew in response to several centuries of historical criticism on the biblical texts with its tendency to disregard or certainly to question the widely held assumption of the Davidic authorship of most of the psalms. As a result, the historical critics had concluded (with a great deal of truth and insight, I believe) that it is very difficult and practically impossible to place each psalm in a precise historical setting that explains its origin and illumines its references. More skeptically (and with less insight, in my opinion) many critics concluded that most of the psalms were very late products of the second temple period and had little to tell us about the period of the united or divided monarchy with which they had always been associated.

By way of contrast and correction, Form Criticism, as the newer 18th century method of enquiry came to be called, drew on increasing evidence of centuries long periods of oral transmission of fundamental traditions and socially significant narratives in tribal societies. The Form Critics held that behind the written literary form of the biblical literature (which may have been fixed at a later date) stood a similarly long history of oral transmission of Israelite narratives and traditions that originated far earlier and much closer to the events described than historical critics had assumed. In regards to the biblical psalms, this suggested that many of the psalms might well date from the divided and even the united monarchy and reflect accurately the social, political, and religious setting of those periods.

Hermann Gunkel and Psalm Types. Early form criticism on the psalms is traced to the the fundamental work of the German scholar Hermann Gunkel. Interestingly, Gunkel was strongly influenced by the earlier work of the Brothers Grimm to collect, analyze, and categorize German folk tales that had circulated for centuries in mostly oral form. What the Grimm brothers discovered was that centuries of oral repetition of these tales had shaped the way they were presented.

Often stories began and ended with formulaic phrases. We may recognize this from our own exposure to childhood fairy tales (many of which are derived from the collections of the Brothers Grimm!). Just ask any child how a fairy tale begins, and she will reply knowingly, "Once upon a time. . . ." How do they end? "And they lived happily ever after!" The Grimms concluded such stock phrases were the result of oral presentation, making the stories easier to remember for the teller, communicate to the audience from the beginning the nature of the tale to come,and heighten everyone’s anticipatory participation.

The literary shape that structured the fairy tales (and other kinds of literary units) were called "forms" [German Gattungen] which explains why the kind of literary analysis and investigation that led to the discovery of more and more new forms was called Form Criticism [German Gattungsforschung]. Form Critics hold that each form develops from a particular setting in life [German Sitz im Leben], serves a distinct purpose, and that both setting and purpose can be perceived by paying close attention to the formulaic phrases, literary structure and content of the various examples of the type.

Compare for example the two distinct types of musical composition known as the March and the Waltz. The former is derived from a military context and is intended to move masses of soldiers forward in unison, enlivening their loyalty, and encouraging and emboldening them for the attack. Marches employ a regular rhythm matching the stride of marching soldiers (hence the name). Some marches are accompanied by lyrics that make their purpose plain.

By contrast, waltzes hardly ever have lyrics. Their rhythm is vastly different from the regular cadences of the march. They are lyrical and romantic, with a certain syncopation. Their distinctives are the result of their purpose: they are whirling dances, intended to heighten joy and romantic excitement. They allow individual movement of couples in concert with others on the dance floor without approaching the mass movement of the marches. Setting and purpose dictate form.

A literary example might be various types of letters. In our contemporary world, most letters conform to a standardized structure or "form." Usually the name and address of the recipient is given, followed by an opening greeting. The latter almost always begins with the descriptive adjective "Dear. . .", regardless whether one is greeting ones lawyer, accountant, grandmother, lover, or an unknown person ("Dear Occupant. . ."). That is an example of a form that has through long usage become standardized, and has lost its original function. We no longer intend to communicate endearment with this greeting as can be realized by its frequent use to address obviously "un-dear" recipients (like creditors or the IRS). Following the salutation, comes the body of the letter and then the whole communication is concluded with a description of the writer’s sincerity (Sincerely yours) or affection (Cordially, Affectionately) and signature.

Almost all letters share these common elements of form: address, greeting, body, conclusion, signature. These would constitute the formal elements that distinguish a letter from say a Will or a Short Story. It is possible, however, to distinguish further categories within the general classification of Letters. These are usually marked out by the content of the body of the letter, or how the formal elements described above are varied for different purposes.

In informal letters between friends, the opening address is often omitted, relegated to the outside of the envelope. The greeting can also vary considerably, depending on whether you are addressing someone completely unknown (To Whom It May Concern) or an intimate associate or romantic partner ("My Dearest Darling…").

When Hermann Gunkel began to apply the method of Form Criticism to the biblical psalms, he opened up what has become almost a century and a half of very exciting and fruitful investigation of these texts. Prior to Gunkel’s work, most of the psalms had been considered the products of individuals in response to specific moments of personal history. Often, where no author was mentioned, David was assumed to have written a psalm, and numerous speculations were made to place the psalms within specific historical circumstances of his life. Such a move was obviously encouraged by the historical notices in thirteen psalm-headings that appear to describe the specific circumstances in David’s life thought to have provided occasion for that psalm (cf. psalms 3, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142). The problem that develops when no such setting is suggested in the heading of the psalm itself, is that attempts to provide a specific connection are always speculative, subject to considerable debate and are, as a result, usually less than fully persuasive. And Form Criticism, despite its support for the early origin of many psalms, has proven little better in achieving consensus in describing the actual, specific historical circumstances of individual psalms.

The genius of Gunkel’s approach, however, is that form critical analysis offers a means to discover a more general "setting in life" that stands behind all psalms of a similar type, while stopping short of claiming to have found the specific historical occasion of the psalm. Even if the author and the specific historical setting of a psalm remain cloaked from view, the more general social setting in life [Sitz im Leben] can be divined through clues in the text, language, and form of the psalm itself. All laments share an experience of a time of "trouble" from which the psalmist seeks deliverance regardless of whether that trouble is disease, oppression, personal sin, military threat, poverty, injustice, or slander. It is the common response to "trouble" that influences the form or shape of the laments and makes them together into a form critical type [German gattung]. It is in fact the lack of extreme specificity about historical setting and its details that frees the psalms to continue to speak powerfully to a variety of settings and circumstances throughout history. It is this adaptability that makes the psalms such an important source of spiritual insight and application even today, and this fact may well explain why a particular selection of 150 psalms came to be chosen out of several centuries worth of psalmic compositions to form the authoritative collection of canonical scripture. The more closely a psalm is tied to a specific historical setting and its attendant details, the more difficult it becomes to employ it insightfully in my own present circumstances.

Sigmund Mowinckel and Liturgical Setting. As a result of his form critical analysis, Hermann Gunkel began to isolate a variety of distinctive psalm types and to define their characteristics. I will return to a discussion of these individual types a bit later. Gunkel further categorized each type of psalm depending on the dominant voice he found displayed in the text. If the voice is first person and singular ("I"), the psalm is an Individual psalm. When the speaker is first or second person plural ("we" or "you"), the psalm regardless of its type is considered a Communal composition, expressing the insights and circumstances of the community as a whole.

Gunkel held that some Individual psalms were just that: private declarations of individual persons to their God. Other psalms while marked by the voice of an individual, nevertheless exhibited clear evidence of having been part of communal worship. Gunkel recognized the liturgy of the temple worship system could represent one important setting behind many psalms, whether Individual or Communal.

Other Form Critics, however, claimed a much more extensive role for temple liturgy in understanding the psalms. One, Scandanavian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel, went so far as to deny the private nature of any of the 150 canonical psalms. Mowinckel was influenced by the Scandanavian Myth and Ritual school of interpretation which held that all religious texts were shaped within the religious worship system of a people. According to this viewpoint, religious texts were used in worship to re-enact significant recurring experiences (proponents called them "myths") of religious faith.

Mowinckel sought to relate all 150 psalms to what he described as a yearly re-enactment within temple worship of the enthronement of YHWH as king of Israel and of the cosmos. The major stumbling block for such a view is that there is no clear indication in scripture (or outside it for that matter) that such a re-enactment ever took place in Israel, nor is there any description of the nature, contents, and structure of such a festival. Consequently, Mowinckel had to draw on the yearly Mesopotamian Akitu Festival celebrating the marriage of the Mesopotamian king (representing the god Tammuz) and the high priestess of Ishtar (representing the goddess herself) as model for the kind of celebration he assumed occurred with each new year in Israel.

According to Mowinckel psalms 93 - 99, with their prevailing theme of the kingship of YHWH, formed the core liturgy of this Enthronement Festival. The Israelite king was assumed to play the role of YHWH in the festivities, and most (if not all) of the 150 psalms could be assigned a role in Mowinckel’s hypothetically reconstructed festival liturgy.

Although Mowinckel’s theory has won a number of supporters, it seems problematic in my opinion. First, there is never any mention or description of such a fall Enthronement Festival anywhere in the biblical corpus, which seems an amazing omission if an event of such proportions and significance ever really existed. Many other festivals are mentioned and described in considerable detail, but Mowinckel’s festival remains hidden. As a result, this theory based on an unproven assumption must be reconstructed according to non-biblical parallels from Mesopotamia. Attempts to place all 150 psalms within the hypothetical framework of the festival are frequently forced and have achieved little consensus.

The claim that full understanding of the psalms can only be gained by rearranging them to fit within a hypothetical liturgical structure has several additional negative results. Such a move erodes our ability to read the psalms separately as models of individual prayer. This flies in the face of the long history of interpretation of the psalms and runs counter to the strong textual tradition maintaining the distinct identity of the 150 psalms within a particular canonical arrangement. This is a matter to which I will return in a later discussion of The Shape of the Psalter [p. xxx].

Also, connecting the psalms to a specific historical festival in the life and worship of ancient Israel heightens the alien otherness of these compositions and increases to an extreme the historical and cultural distance between them and our own contemporary circumstance. This tends to make it much more difficult to interpret the psalms for application to our own lives.

As a result of these difficulties, Mowinckel’s theory and the later developments introduced by those who followed his lead have not gained universal acceptance. However, they have had the positive effect of opening our eyes to the strong rooting that many psalms have within the temple worship system of Israel and have encouraged us to notice and highlight evidence of such usage whenever it is present.

Other scholars, including Artur Weiser, have adopted more modest modifications of Mowinckel’s festival claims. Weiser proposes a yearly Covenant Renewal Festival taking place at the Israelite new year and during which the kingly authority of YHWH over Israel was reaffirmed employing the core psalms 93-99. He did not try to fit all of the psalms into such a framework, admitting many psalms were independent from such concerns. Weiser’s claims are less radical and less objectionable than Mowinckel’s in my mind, especially since Weiser relies primarily on categories derived from Israelite religious tradition and thought–the covenant motif is well established throughout the Hebrew Bible and we do have evidence of covenant renewal ceremonies in several Old Testament passages (although never on an annual basis). His model, however, still suffers from some of the same criticisms as Mowinckel’s, including the silence on such a yearly covenant renewal festival in biblical literature, and the largely hypothetical nature of his reconstruction and the requisite rearrangement of the psalms.

Three Primary Categories. While Gunkel’s analysis of the biblical psalms uncovered a number of distinct psalms types, three categories soon emerged as primary forms: Praise, Lament, and Thanksgiving.

When viewed together, these three primary psalm types exhibit a similar structure. While there are a variety of exceptions to the rule, most psalms of these types begin with an Introduction, continue with a Body, and draw to a Conclusion. This pattern is present regardless of whether the psalm in question is a Lament, Praise song, or a Thanksgiving. It is, however, the specific contents of these structural sections that provide the distinguishing characteristics of each category of psalm. I will make a few general remarks about these distinctions in what follows. For a more complete discussion with examples, see the extended essays on specific types later in the commentary.

Praise. Praise psalms are characterized by an appeal (to self or others) to praise God coupled with numerous descriptions of his praiseworthy name, deeds, attributes, and character. The focus is on God’s role as creator, sustainer, and stabilizer of the universe–humanity’s sole assurance of continued stability and reliability in a chaotic world. For the most part praise psalms admit no hint of suffering or disorder, but express an awe-filled sense of confidence in God’s power, authority, and everlasting character displayed both in the world of nature and that of human affairs. Examples of the type include psalms 8, 29, 33, and 146-150. [See Praise and Thanksgiving, p. xxx.]

Lament. By contrast, the lament psalms direct their appeal to God himself, seeking deliverance from trouble and distress. The world of the lamenting psalmists is fully aware of the possibilities and realities of suffering, disorder, sin, and oppression that are a part of living in the world. Indeed, the laments find their focus in recounting how life has run amuck despite the power and grace of YHWH. Experience of pain often drives the psalmists to question the sure foundation represented by God’s creative power and sustaining authority. They experience God as distant (or even hostile as in psalm 88) and like Job muster their arguments to motivate him to act in their behalf. For examples of laments, consider psalms 22, 74, 88, and 130. [For further discussion, see Laments, p. xxx.]

Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving psalms occupy a territory that lies somewhere between Praise and Lament. Like the laments, thanksgiving songs are only too well aware of the reality of pain in all its forms. The heart of most thanksgiving psalms is a narrative of sin, treachery, oppression, suffering, or threat that characterizes the disordered world of the psalmist. The distinction that sets these narratives apart from those present in lament psalms is one of time. For the lament, suffering describes the present and continuing experience of the psalmist, while in thanksgiving psalms the suffering and pain described lie in the past.

Alongside this very real awareness of pain and suffering in life, the thanksgiving psalms reaffirm a confidence in the saving power and grace of a God who has entered the life of the psalmist (and readers) to redeem and transform. Their grateful response to the experience of deliverance draws the thanksgiving psalms more closely to the language and spirit of the praise songs. As a result, thanksgiving and praise often become difficult to distinguish since they employ a similar vocabulary and explore a similar terrain. Ultimately, however, it is thanksgiving’s deep roots in the pain and disorder of a sinful world at odds with its creator that draws the line between thanksgiving and praise. Examples of Thanksgiving psalms include psalms 104, 107, 116, and 136. [See Praise and Thanksgiving, p. xxx.]

Other Psalm Types. Alongside these three primary types of psalms, Gunkel and subsequent form critics have isolated a number of distinctive psalm types present in the psalter. There is less agreement about some of these categories than in the case of praise, lament, and thanksgiving, but several significant types of psalms ought to be included in our discussion. Some will receive fuller treatment at appropriate points within the commentary.

Royal Psalms. The earlier discussion of Mowinckel’s Enthronement Festival has already remarked the important role envisioned for the Israelite king in the festal liturgy. While Mowinckel’s specific festival of enthronement remains doubtful, a number of psalms suggest the king could exercise an important function in temple worship. These psalms, which clearly focus their concern on matters relating to the king and his political, social, and religious duties are considered a form critical category unto themselves and are regularly referred to as Royal Psalms.

It is generally accepted that this group of psalms were used in "ceremonies whose central figure was the king" (von Rad). There is fairly close agreement on the contents of this category, with most scholars listing nine to eleven compositions (psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144:1-11). While these eleven psalms do share a common concern with the king that sets them apart as a category, they reflect a variety of psalm types, some of which can be fruitfully compared with other psalms of similar type. These psalms include kingly laments (psalms 89, 144) and thanksgiving (psalm 18) quite comparable to those included in the broader contents of these primary categories.

Other royal psalms reflect circumstances and concerns more narrowly related to the role of the king. In psalms 2 and 132, for example, the psalmists celebrate the divine selection of the Davidic dynasty for rulership–psalm 89 laments the apparent demise of the Davidic kingdom in the Exile. Psalm 45 was apparently written on the occasion of a royal wedding, while psalms 20, 21, and 110 are concerned to secure divine support for the king’s military endeavors. In psalm 101, the king pledges to rule justly, while psalm 72 seeks to pass on divine blessing to the king’s descendants and successors.

The number and variety of these royal psalms point up the important role the Israelite kings played in religious life in general and temple worship in particular. A number of Old Testament passages describe the kings acting in priestly ways–offering sacrifices, leading processions–and David and Solomon in particular are revered for their roles in establishing the Jerusalem temple and temple worship system. [For a more extended discussion see Royal Psalms, p. xxx.]

Liturgical Psalms. While it appears unreasonable to claim that all of the 150 canonical psalms were created for use in the temple worship of Israel, it is certainly true that many psalms show clear evidence of having been shaped in this context. These psalms exhibit clear awareness of the ritual activities of Israelite worship, including sacrifice, ritual processions, pilgrimage, antiphonal singing, as well as physical movements of the worshipers and celebrants (prostration, bowing, movement of the hands, etc.).

Particularly clear in their liturgical character are certain of the Thanksgiving psalms that offer evidence of having been recited in the temple as testimony to the deliverance from trouble provided by YHWH. It is likely that Thanksgiving psalms [Heb. todah] were usually recited along with the presentation of the Thanksgiving sacrifice [Heb. todah], which publicly testified to the offerer’s experience of deliverance. In psalm 66:13-15 for example, the psalmist, who has thus far been calling others to praise and bless YHWH for his terrible deeds and mighty acts, repeats the vow made earlier during the time of distress to offer sacrifice in the temple when deliverance came.

I will come into your house with burnt offerings;

I will pay you my vows, that my lips have uttered

and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.

I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,

with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;

I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

Such passages illustrate how recitation of the psalms (and Thanksgiving in particular) could be at once individual acts of worship enacted corporately within the communal setting of temple worship.

Psalm 118 offers a further, yet more enigmatic example of liturgical activity in temple worship when, in the midst of thanksgiving, the psalmist calls out in verse 19.

Open to me the gates of righteousness,

that I may enter through them

and give thanks to YHWH.

This seems to describe a moment in liturgical action at which the psalmist approaches the temple gates and requests admittance. In the following verse, the requirement for entry is set forth as if from the gatekeeper.

This is the gate of YHWH;

(only) the righteous shall enter through it.

A number of psalms speak of entering God’s gates or courts (e.g., psalm 100:2) or of coming into the divine presence (cf. psalms 95:1-2; 109:30)

Even more enigmatic still is the apparent liturgical instruction inserted in the midst of verse 27.

Bind the festal procession with branches,

up to the horns of the altar.

While the verse is notoriously difficult and obscure, it still reflects the kind of liturgical activity in temple worship that stands behind many of the psalms.

Other psalms, rather than describing ritual liturgical activity and ceremony in temple worship, reflect the influence of such activity on their form and structure. The appearance of repeated phrases and refrains, for example, probably reflects the antiphonal singing of the temple choir guilds, or perhaps moments of congregational response to choral singing. See especially the artifully varied repeated refrain that punctuates psalm 107 after each segment describing the plight of various groups of faithful exiles, or perhaps pilgrims wending their dangerous way to the holy city. (Cf. vv. 6-9; 13-16; 19-22; 28-32.)

An even more exhaustive example of antiphonal response is to be found in psalm 136, where every half verse is followed by an identical refrain.

O give thanks to YHWH, for he is good,

for his steadfast love endures for ever

O give thanks to the God of gods,

for his steadfast love endures for ever.

O give thanks to the Lord of lords,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

to him who alone does great wonders,

for his steadfast love endures for ever.

to him who by understanding made the heavens,

for his steadfast love endures for ever. . . .

What might otherwise seem overly repetitious in a written text achieves great energy when recited orally in antiphonal form, drawing the participants into the ethos of thanksgiving and driving home the major theme of the psalm in a powerful way.

One sub-category of liturgical psalms derives from the moment at which the worshiper prepares for entry to the holy space of the temple mount. Before entering the steps leading up to the holy place, worshipers underwent a ritual cleansing by bathing themselves in the ceremonial mikva’ot carved out of the limestone rock near the base of the steps. This ritual washing was a sign of the worshiper’s repentance in preparation for entering the presence of YHWH at the temple. Psalm 15 captures this moment in a challenging recitation of the qualifications expected of those who would presume to approach the holy place.

O YHWH, who shall sojourn in your tent?

Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,

and speaks truth from his heart;

who does not slander with his tongue,

and does no evil to his friend,

nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;

in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,

but who honors those who fear YHWH;

who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

who does not put out his money at interest,

and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

It is possible–evenly likely–that these words were spoken by a priest who challenged worshipers to prepare themselve within and without, ritually and spiritually, to come to the house of God.

Psalm 24 envisions a similar challenge to a group of worshipers approaching the Temple precincts.

Who shall ascend the hill of YHWH?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not lift up his soul to what is false,

and does not swear deceitfully,

He will receive blessing from YHWH,

and vindication from the God of his salvation. . . .

(psalm 24:3-5)

The crowd then calls out twice as they approach the temple gates:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

that the King of glory may come in.

(psalm 24:7, 9)

Those within the temple twice challenge those outside:

Who is the King of glory?
(psalm 24:8, 10)

The psalm concludes with the worshipping throng’s shouted profession of faith:

YHWH of hosts,

he is the King of glory!

(psalm 24:10)

YHWH Malak Psalms. Related to the Royal Psalms by their emphasis on kingship, the YHWH Malak psalms are, however, distinguished by their concern with the kingly reign of YHWH. Rather than the earthly kingship of the Israelite monarchs, this group of compositions celebrate the kingdom and rule of God.

The psalms that make up this category are for the most part found grouped together in the middle of the fourth book of the psalter, and include psalms 93 and 95-99. The group takes its name from the exclamation "Yahweh reigns!" [Heb. yhwh malak] that is repeated at the beginning of psalms 93, 97, and 99. Besides this distinctive phrase, these psalms refer in other contexts to Yhwh as king or mention his kingship or kingdom (cf. 95:3; 98:6; 99:4).

Yhwh’s sovereign kingship is grounded in his creative power and authority. In psalm 93:1-4, he establishes the world and overpowers the chaotic floods (cf. Psalm 96:10). Psalm 98:6 describes Yhwh’s control of the depths and heights of the earth as well as the sea and dry land. Yhwh is rightful king because the creation is his work. The whole earth breaks forth in joyful song in praise of the creator king (98:4, 7-8).

The theme of divine judgment is another repeated characteristic of the Yhwh malak psalms. It is a logical step from Yhwh’s creative sovereignty and kingship to his right to judge the earth and all that dwells in it. In psalm 96:13, the whole creation rejoices because Yhwh is depicted as arriving to "judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth." There is such joy in the face of judgment because the creation, distorted by sin and evil, anticipates being set right by the king who establishes order and justice. (Cf. also psalms 98:9 and 99:4.)

These themes and characteristic language allow us to extend the number of Yhwh malak psalms beyond the core collection in Book Four. At least four such psalms share some of this distinctive phraseology. Three of these seem closely bound to the group, while the other appears more tangential in its relationship.

In the first category, psalms 33, 47 and 149, despite being far removed from the core group, seem to deserve inclusion in the Yhwh malak collection. In psalm 33, we encounter the instruction "Sing to him [Yhwh] a new song" that is characteristic of this group. The psalm is a praise directed to Yhwh and makes references to his justice (v. 5) and creative power (vv. 6-7), counseling the readers to respond in dependence and trust (vv. 12-22). While Yhwh acts in kingly ways throughout this psalm, he is never referred to using the term melek.

Psalm 47 shares with the core group distinctive reference to Yhwh as king (47:2, 6, 7), his exercise of kingly authority (vv. 3-5), as well as a slight variation on the characteristic exclamation "God reigns…" (v. 8), employing the more generic term ‘elôhîm. The psalm further shares with the core group the emphasis on praise. Psalm 149 agrees with psalm 47 and the core psalms by naming Yhwh as king (v. 2) and creator (v. 2), describing the exercise of justice (vv. 4, 6-9), and enjoining the reader to join in praising him (vv. 1-4, 6, 9).

The more tangential psalm (144) shares certain phrases and concerns with the Yhwh malak collection but is clearly set off by virtue of the fact that it is a lament rather than a praise psalm. Psalm 144 employs the characteristic term "new song" [Heb. shîr hadash 33:3; 144:9] in a narrative description of the psalmist’s intent to praise Yhwh "I will sing a new song to you, O God" [Heb. ‘elôhîm shîr hadash ‘ashîrâ lekâ] rather than the more characteristic call to praise. There is no mention of Yhwh as creator or connection to justice and righteousness. Instead Yhwh is called to deliver Israel from her enemies (vv. 5-8, 11), and to bless her agriculturally (vv. 12-14).

The Yhwh malak psalms are an important collection in the theological emphases of the final psalter. They play a significant role in the shaping of the whole psalter collection by providing a refocusing of emphasis from limited human kingship to enduring divine sovereignty of Yhwh. A more extended discussion of this role is to be found on pp. xxx.

Wisdom and Torah Psalms. While a number of biblical psalms have traditionally been considered "wisdom psalms," considerable debate has raged–especially in the last twenty years or so–regarding what in fact constitutes a wisdom text and how one might go about identifying one. It seems appropriate, therefore, for a discussion of wisdom psalms to begin with a brief description of wisdom and those characteristics that are generally agreed to set it apart from other types of literary approach.

Wisdom is first and foremost a way of looking at life–similar to what we might call a "philosophy of life." The sages [Heb. hakam/hakamîm] based their understanding of life on personal and transmitted observation and experience of life at a very practical level. Their concern was to enable themselves and others to understand how to relate themselves to life appropriately so that they would achieve benefit rather than hurt. Out of this desire to observe, analyze, and to teach, are derived several of the most characteristic features of wisdom and its extant literature.

Perhaps most clearly the wisdom literature is intended to teach. It is, therefore, didactic in form, tone, and contact. It often employs brief, memorable proverbs as a means of communicating its findings and conclusions to those who would learn and benefit. The sages’ writings are full of admonitions and exhortations (didactic tools) encouraging conformity to the way of wisdom and righteousness.

Another frequent tool of wisdom is the use of comparison and contrast to illustrate the respective consequences of wisdom and folly, obedience and rebellion, righteousness and wickedness. The proverbs are perfect examples of studied contrasts in their most condensed form, but the longer excursions of the sages–Proverbs 1-9, Job, and Ecclesiastes–are also shaped by contrast. The sages saw only two options in life; two ways that characterized human response to their teaching. There was the way of wisdom that ended in life and blessing, or the way of folly that followed rebellion to its ultimate end of judgment and death. The description of these two ways and their result are a frequent feature of wisdom literature.

An additional feature of traditional wisdom thinking reflected in the biblical wisdom literature is the belief in retribution–that there is an observable connection between human conduct and divine judgment or blessing. Most simply stated the view concludes that "the wise prosper while the foolish perish." While some of the proverbial literature might give the impression that wisdom rather naively anticipated an immediate and consistent operation of retribution in all cases, the biblical wisdom literature, taken as a whole, recognizes and discusses at length the complexity of the issue. Ecclesiastes, Job and some of the proverbs themselves recognize the reality of pain, suffering, and injustice for the righteous, debating at length how a good God of order could allow this to be so. But in the end the sages did not throw out retribution entirely, but allowed the debate to stand enshrined in their literature marking the tensions of a faith that could acknowledge the firm good intent of God toward those who fear him in the face of the clear vagaries of human pain and suffering.

Wisdom vocabulary, while not always a conclusive proof of wisdom origin of a text, is nevertheless a helpful indicator of wisdom interests. One frequently finds the righteous opposed to the wicked, or the wise contrasted with the fool. Explicit or implicit description of two ways, one ending in blessing and life, the other in judgment and death, are strong indicators of wisdom themes. The use of the Hebrew term ‘ashrê "blessed" to describe the anticipated reward of the righteous/wise is common, as well as the phrase "Fear Yhwh" to describe the wise persons’ appropriate relation to God. A final indicator of wisdom influence is the occasional use of the alphabetic acrostic form. [See the discussion of Acrostics, p. xxx.]

In the psalter, wisdom interests and vocabulary are observed to various degrees in a number of psalms. Psalm 1, show clear contrast between the behavior and destiny of the righteous and the wicked. Psalm 37 also reflects interest in two ways and the operation of retribution. It even contains clearly proverbial segments (cf. vv. 16-17, 35-36). Psalm 49 is didactic in tone and purpose, reflecting on the folly of pursuing wealth (similar to Ecclesiastes 3:18-21) while concluding that righteousness and wisdom will prevail.

Psalm 34, like several other psalms, is an alphabetic acrostic that also employs traditional wisdom terminology in phrases such as "Blessed…" (v. 8 Heb. ‘ashrê) and "fear of Yhwh" (v.9). Since acrostic poems are employed on several occasions outside the psalter to conclude compositions (Prov. 31:10-31; Sirach 51), it is particularly interesting to speculate on the placement of the acrostic wisdom psalm 145 which appears toward the end of Book Five and just before the concluding Hallel–psalms 146-150.

Wisdom in its origins appears to have been founded primarily on what might today be called a "natural theology"–in others words, what could be known by observation and experience of the world rather than through special divine revelation. For that reason, wisdom texts often seem to ignore important elements of Israel’s traditional religious worldview. There is little discussion of the covenant with Yhwh and necessary obedience to it. Neither is there much attention paid to worship, sacrifice, or the Temple.

It does appear, however, that at a later point ·(some would pinpoint the Exilic period), Israel’s sages came to equate the demands of wisdom with the covenant commandments of Yhwh. This is most clearly seen in the Apocrypha, where the identification of Wisdom and the Torah (the revealed law and commandments) of Yhwh is complete. As a result, some psalms that are focused on the praise of Torah and exhortation to obedience should be included among the wisdom psalms.

These Torah psalms certainly include: Psalm One with its encouragement to delight in the torah of Yhwh day and night, the continuous contrast between the righteous and wicked, and the acknowledgement of the two way of life and death. Psalm 19:7-11 also celebrates the perfection Torah which, like the creation in the earlier verses of the same psalm, reveal the nature of Yhwh and offer the righteous blessing and reward. Finally, one should not forget the expansive Torah psalm 119, which in each of its 176 verses of its alphabetic acrostic form offers some reflection on the excellence of the divine torah.

Like the Royal psalms, Wisdom and Torah psalms frequently overlap other psalms types. Some wisdom psalms take the form of praise psalms while are aking to the laments others (e.g., psalm 34) or thanksgivings (e.g., psalm 73). With the exception of the acrostics, it is ultimately the content, vocabulary, and thematic concerns that marks these compositions off as wisdom psalms.

In an additional similarity to the Royal psalms, psalms reflecting wisdom concerns, themes, and vocabulary, appear in significant locations within the Psalter, giving rise to the idea that they were purposefully placed to provide a structuring framework to the whole psalter. It is probably no accident that psalm one stands at the beginning of the Psalter as an introduction. Neither is it coincidental, in my view, that wisdom concerns appear in psalm 73, at the beginning of the third book of the Psalter, in psalm 90 at the beginning of the fourth book, and in psalms 107 (vv. 41-43) and 145 (an alphabetic acrostic) at beginning and end of the fifth book. [For a further discussion of this wisdom shaping of the whole Psalter, see p. xxx.]

Miscellaneous types. Other terms are used on occasion to describe categories of psalms less common than those discussed above. I will will discuss these types in conjunction with the commentary on specific psalms. Let me give a brief listing and examples of some of the more significant of these. Psalms of Confidence (Trust) include the familiar psalms 23 and 91, along with 11 and 62. Among the Historical Psalms, psalms 78, 105, and 106 are usually included. Entrance Liturgies usually count psalms 15 and 24 (especially vv. 7-10) in there number. Other less common types are: Oracles, Psalms of Integrity, Vows, and Instructions.

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