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No. 54: The Structure of the Psalter, Some Observations

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 54
Copyright (c) 1997 Biblical Horizons
November, 1997

In this essay, I wish to present some facts not familiar to many Christians, and draw some possible inferences. My purpose is to help us all become more familiar with the Psalter as God has set it out in its final and canonical form.

To begin with, let us consider four pairs of psalms that probably were originally only one psalm each. First, Psalm 9-10. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, made before Christ and called the Septuagint, these are one psalm. It seems clear that they were originally one psalm, because Psalm 9 begins as an alphabetical acrostic, or abecedary, in which each line starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet; while Psalm 10 ends in the same fashion. The abecedary is incomplete, but is obviously present. The signal that this is one psalm also is seen in that Psalm 10 is one of only two psalms in Book 1 of the Psalter not to have a title (except for Psalms 1 & 2). It seems clear that the title of Psalm 9 extends through Psalm 10, and that these are really one psalm. A reading of the united psalm reveals many similar statements.

Second, Psalm 42-43. It is pretty clear that these were originally one psalm, as the Septuagint has it, for the refrain of Psalm 42 also closes Psalm 43. Once again, Psalm 43 is one of only two psalms in Book 2 that does not have a title, and it seems clear that the title of Psalm 42 extends to Psalm 43 as well.

About these two pairs of psalms this is really no question. All scholars affirm they each was originally one psalm. They were broken apart for liturgical reasons.

Two other pairs of psalms have a history of being regarded as one psalm. In each case, the second psalm has no title, and it seems clear that the title of the first psalm applies to it; that is, that the two were originally one. These are Psalms 32-33 and 70-71. Because there are no obvious structural factors linking these pairs, however, it is less apparent that they were originally one psalm each.

Psalm 33 is the only other psalm in Book 1 that has no title. In context, this stands out and alerts the reader that something may be going on. Of course, later in the psalter we find numerous untitled psalms, but not in Books 1 & 2. We naturally think that perhaps Psalm 33 is really the second part of Psalm 32. If we read the psalms together, they make sense as a unity. Moreover, Psalm 33 consists of 22 lines, and while it is not an abecedary, the 22 lines do point to the alphabet (the Hebrew alphabet). This might indicate a closed work, separate from Psalm 32, except that Psalm 32:8 says that God will instruct and show the way to go. This can be seen as setting up the alphabetical allusion that follows in Psalm 33. We do find in ancient sources that these were regarded as one psalm.

Psalm 70-71, again, displays no obvious literary unity, though they read together nicely. Psalm 70, however, is simply a restatement of Psalm 40:13-17. We may ask why such a repetition is found in the psalter. It makes sense if this repetition is the introduction to the untitled Psalm 71. Psalm 40 apparently was composed while David was still relatively young, while Psalm 70-71 was composed when he was old in years, possibly during the revolt of Absalom, which came late in his life and reign. So, David begins by citing something he wrote years earlier, and extends it to his new circumstances. Ancient tradition does unite these two psalms. (See G. H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. SBLDS 76 [Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985], p. 131).

Now, I think all four of these arguments are pretty sound, so that the number of psalms should be 146 rather than 150. With these condensations in place, all the psalms in Book 1 after Psalms 1 & 2 are titled, as are all the psalms in Book 2.

(Does this mean breaking them into two psalms each is wrong? Of course not. The Bible gives evidence of using portions of the psalms. Psalm 108 consists of 57:1-11 and 60:5-12. Thus, there is nothing wrong with using only parts of psalms in worship, or even recombining parts of psalms to make new hymns. Of course, it would be good in worship to use the broken psalms sometimes as unities, reciting Psalm 42-43 as one psalm, for instance.)

Now let us consider numerical structuring. We begin by noting that Books 3 & 4 of the psalter each contain 17 psalms. Seventeen is 10 + 7, and thus is a number of obvious import, communicating completeness and fullness.

Now, as it stands in our protestant Bibles, Book 1 of the Psalter consists of 41 psalms. We must subtract two, however, for the pairs Psalm 9-10 and Psalm 32-33, which leaves us with 39. Thirty-nine is 17 + 22. We have a 17, and also a 22 for the alphabet.

Book 2 of the Psalter in our protestant Bibles consists of 31 psalms (42-72), but again we must subtract two for Psalm 42-43 and Psalm 70-71. This leaves us with 29, which is 17 + 12.

Books 3 & 4 of the Psalter each contain 17 psalms, as we have noted already.

Book 5 of the Psalter consists of 44 psalms (107-150), which is twice 22. Within this book is the Great Hallel (120-136), which is 17 psalms. Psalm 119 consists of 22 sections for the letters of the alphabet; 22 psalmlets, if you will. This leaves Psalms 107-118, which is 12 psalms, and Psalms 137-150, which is 14 psalms.

Thus, numerologically we can set out the Canonical Psalter as follows:

Book 1: 17 + 22

Book 2: 17 + 12

Book 3: 17

Book 4: 17

Book 5: 17 + 12 + (22) + 7 + 7

While my research into this matter has not come to a stopping point, there are few other observations that may be worth sharing at this point.

Concerning Book 1: The first two psalms are untitled, and should be seen as an introduction to the whole Psalter as well as an introduction to Book 1. There follow 37 psalms of David. The center of these 37 psalms (Nos. 3-41) is Psalm 22, which pretty much summarizes Book 1.

I am inclined to see Book 1 as consisting of 17 + 22 psalms, in that order. The first 17 run from Psalm 1 to Psalm 18. (Remember: 9-10 are one psalm.) We then come to Psalm 19, which is a celebration of the Law of God, and thus would fit as the first of a set of 22.

Concerning Book 2: The first eight psalms are by Levitical poets: We have seven by the sons of Korah, with an eighth by Asaph, the leader of David’s Levitical singers. This 7+1 structure ties in with the sabbatical structures in the books of Moses, with an "eighth-day" climax, just as at the Feast of Booths.

The remaining 21 psalms are by kings. The first 20 are by David, while the last (Psalm 72) is given Solomon’s name. Whether Solomon wrote it, or David wrote it for him, it remains that in the sequence of Psalm titles we here move from David to Solomon. This is structurally very similar to the move from the sons of Korah to Asaph at the climax of the first part of Book 2. Indeed, the structure is chiastic: from Levitical sons to the Levite, and then from the King to the Kingly son.

Also note in Book 2 the numerology: priestly 7 + 1 and kingly 10 + 10 + 1. Thus, ten and seven show up again as important numbers.

The Davidic or kingly section of Book 2 is itself arranged chiastically. The first psalm, Psalm 51, is David’s prayer for forgiveness because of his sin with Bathsheba, a sin that threatened his dynasty. The last psalm, Psalm 72, is a prayer for the king’s son, providing the final answer to Psalm 51. Between these two psalms are two sections of Davidic psalms. Psalms 52-60 are called maskils and mikhtams, two words whose meaning we do not know. Psalms 61-70/71 have no such titles. Moreover, most of the psalm titles in the first group (52-60) contain specific statements of circumstances in which David was in trouble, usually with Saul. No such dire circumstances are spelled out in the titles in the second section of psalms.

The first section of ten Davidic psalms (51-60) begins with David’s sin (51) and then nine titled psalms. The second section of ten Davidic psalms (61-70/71) begins with nine psalms and ends with a "memorial" psalm (70/71). To all this is added a 21st psalm, for Solomon.

To make clear what I mean, here is how the nine titled psalms in the first section of David’s psalms looks:

52 – Maskil – Saul

53 – Maskil

54 – Maskil – Saul

55 – Maskil

56 – Mikhtam – Philistines

57 – Mikhtam – Saul

58 – Mikhtam

59 – Mikhtam – Saul

60 – Mikhtam – Wars

Notice that the psalm about conflict with the Philistines is at the center, flanked by two psalms about conflict with Saul on either side.

To summarize Book 2:

Priestly Section

7 of the sons of Korah (42/43-49)

1 of Asaph (50)

Kingly Section

1 dynastic psalm of David (51)

9 specific conflict psalms of David (52-60)

9 psalms of David (61-69)

1 memorial psalm of David (70/71)

1 dynastic psalm of/for Solomon (72)

Concerning Book 3: All but one of the 17 psalms of Book 3 are Levitical; the exception is Psalm 86, by David. The Levitical character of Book 3 has often suggested to commentators that possibly the five books of the Psalter are intended to connect in some general way with the first five books of the Bible. Book 3 would connect to Leviticus. Book 2, with its long section of prayers for deliverance from Pharaoh Saul, would connect with Exodus. It has always been difficult, however, to carry through these analogies consistently.

Concerning Book 4: Most of the 17 psalms of Book 4 are untitled. One is by Moses and two are by David. As Book 3 is Levitical, Book 4 is Kingly, so that Books 3 & 4 simply extend the outline of Book 2. Since I have prepared a long essay on Book 4 for issue 100 of Biblical Horizons , I shall say no more about it here.

Concerning Book 5: Book 5 was discussed at length in the previous issue of Rite Reasons (No. 53).



Psalm 112

Leader: Praise Yah!

Response: H�llelu-Yah!

‘Aleph is for blessing:

Blessed is the man who fears Yahweh.

Beth is for in:

In Whose commands he delights greatly.

Gimel is for might:

Mighty in the land will his seed be.

Daleth is for generations:

The generation of the upright will be blessed.

He is for wealth:

Wealth and riches are in his house.

Vav is for and:

And his righteousness endures forever.

Zayin is for dawning:

Light dawns in the darkness for the upright.

Heth is for grace:

Gracious and compassionate is a righteous man.

Teth is for goodness:

Good comes to a man who is gracious and lends.

Yodh points to the future:

He will conduct his affairs with justice.

Kaph is for certainty:

Certainly he will not be everlastingly shaken.

Lamedh points to purpose:

For a righteous man will be everlastingly remembered.

Mem is for news:

Bad news he will not fear.

Nun points to a state of being:

Steadfast is his heart, trusting in Yahweh.

Samekh is for security:

Secure is his heart; he will not fear.

`Ayin is for until:

Until he looks on his foes.

Pe is for scattering:

He scattered: He gave to the poor.

Tsaddeh is for righteousness:

His righteousness endures forever.

Qoph is for horn:

His horn will be exalted in honor.

Resh is for wickedness:

The wicked man will see and be angry.

Shin is for tooth:

His teeth he will gnash, and he will waste away.

Tav is for desire:

The desire of the wicked comes to nothing.