Psalms: A Book with a Purpose


Have you ever wondered if the Psalms have any organizing principal or meaning?  If they did what do you think it would be? Selah. For an upcoming seminar on Psalms, I read Gerald Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter.  This is a great book that I hope none of you read.  Let me warn you, this book is a dissertation and as a friend said, “It reads like a dissertation.”  To spare you I have decided to present a few of the highlights from Wilson’s work that I think everyone should consider about the Psalms.

King James Bible 1772 - Psalm 90Wilson’s work was a game-changer in the field of Psalms studies.  For many years critical scholarship viewed the Psalms as a random collection with no overarching purpose.  Form criticism was the most exciting thing in Psalms studies and all it really did was identify seemingly similar types of Psalms.  What Wilson claims in his study is that there is a definite purpose to the way the Psalms are organized bringing out a particular meaning.  To back up his claim Wilson considers all the editorial clues we can identify in the Psalms.  Wilson’s study leads him to consider Psalm 1, the book divisions, the superscriptions and postscripts, the concluding praise psalms, and groupings of psalms by: genre, authorship, function, theme, etc.  Without getting too detailed, here are some of Wilson’s main conclusions:

1. There is good evidence to see Psalm 1 as an introduction to the entire Psalter.  Wilson, as well as others, also believe Psalm 2 to be an extension of this introduction, giving specifics to Psalm 1’s generalities.  Wilson argues that the purpose of the introductory psalm is to help the reader not be concerned with the cultic history and usage of each psalm but rather to prepare the reader to personally consider what the Psalms are saying.

2. There is good evidence to believe that the concluding praise Psalms close out the Psalter as a conclusion.

3. Psalms are grouped by genre, authorship, function, divine names, and theme. Yet all of these groupings seem to be secondary to an overall organizing purpose.  Something cool that Wilson points out is the use of Hallelujah / Give Thanks elements and other differing elements in the psalms that help to signal the closing and opening of books as well as psalm grouping sections (such as the transition between Psalm 106 and Psalm 107.

4. Psalms within the Psalter that have no superscription (Did you know the superscriptions are part of the original Hebrew?) were left that way intentionally by the editor to preserve variant manuscript traditions that may have the superscription-less psalms connected to a preceding or following Psalm.  Psalm 90 and 91 are a good example of this.

Finally, Wilson takes all his research and quickly walks through a possible organizing plan and purpose for the book of Psalms. What does Wilson think the message of the Psalms is?  Here it is:
           
Psalm 1 – Introduction, inviting all to meditate on the book.
Books 1 & 2 – These psalms are meant to celebrate God’s covenant faithfulness.
           Book 3 – These Psalms explore the seeming failure of the Davidic covenant.
           Book 4 – These Psalms give an answer to the questions raised in book three.
           Book 5 – These Psalms urge the reader to trust God because of his many
Works, similar to the way David did.

If I had to summarize Wilson’s organization in my own words, he is saying that the Psalms are organized in a way that help us identify with the experiences of David and highlight God’s covenant faithfulness to David in the face of his and Israel’s sinfulness.  The Psalms urge us to repent, remember God’s work, and place our trust in Him despite our current situation.  The Psalms remind us that God is trustworthy.  David becomes a primary example of what it looks like for a believer to trust God in the midst of life.  The Psalms are focused on God, His work, and how we should respond. 

What do you think the organizing principal of the Psalms is?


Here is a full bibliography of Wilson’s work:

Gerald Henry Wilson. The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. Vol. 76 Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, Edited by Charles Talbert and J.J.M. Roberts. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985.


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