Throughout the history of Psalms scholarship, attention has been placed largely on individual psalms. Form-criticism, championed by Hermann Gunkel, and the cult-functional method of Sigmund Mowinckel (in which he saw the interprter’s task as being to reconstruct, from the various psalms, the religious and worship life of ancient Israel, and to assign a specific cultic Sitz im Leben to each individual psalm) have long ruled the day. Recently, however, a shift in Psalms scholarship has occurred, looking at the larger whole and attempting to discern the meaning behind its shape and shaping. This shift was brought about by the late Gerald Wilson.
In the first half of the 20th century, Gunkel stated in his seminal Einleitung (Introduction to the Psalms) that “no internal ordering principle for the individual psalms has been transmitted for the whole” (2). Recent scholarship has challenged Gunkel’s claim.
Wilson’s Ph.D. dissertation at Yale in 1981 (subsequently published by SBLDS in 1985), The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, argues that Books I-III have a different editorial history than IV and V. He cites the following as evidence:
1) Comparative texts: Mesopotamian hymnic literature (Sumerian Temple Hymn Collection and the Catalogues of Hymnic Incipits)
2) Qumran manuscripts evidence a certain stablility in shape, content, and ordering for Books I-III; Books IV-V, conversely, are much more fluid and unsettled.
3) Differing organizational techniques: Books I-III are broken up by author designation in the psalm superscription; Books IV-V have many untitled psalms and are thus broken up by hwdw / hllyh
4) Content: Books I-III appear concerned with the Davidic monarchy and its failure; Books IV-V witha time prior when YHWH was king.
Wilson has provided a convincing case, in my view, that the Hebrew Psalter has been shaped in a purposeful way. The Qumran material itself is a superlative check in favor of this view. It is point #4, however, that has spawned a great many subsequent reflections and investigations into the overarching metanarrative of the Psalter. If the Psalter has been shaped, what is its shape?
In a later and still formative essay (“Shaping the Psalter: A Consideration of Editorial Linkage in the Book of Psalms,” 1993), Wilson expands upon this earlier argument. He avers that there exists a series of interlocking frames that connect the various collections together. The frames are as follows:
i. royal covenantal frame: Pss 2 and 87, 88, 89
ii. Davidic frame: Pss 3-41, 51-71+72
iii. Asaphite frame: Pss 50 and 73-83 and 86
iv. Qorahite frame: Pss 42/43-49 and 84-85
i. Davidic frame: Pss 107-117, 136-145
ii. Torah: Pss 118-135
iii. Wisdom frame: Pss 107-145
These frames, represented graphically (as Wilson does in the article cited here) evinces a highly intentional structuring of the Hebrew Psalter. Yet, at the macro-canonical level, Wilson sees the shape of the Psalter as clarified through three interrelated, larger frames.
Two segments of the Psalter:
Royal Covenantal Frame (Pss 2-89)
Wisdom Frame (Pss 90-145)
Final Overarching Wisdom Frame
i. ashre in Pss 2 and 144 (Ps 2:12 // Ps 144:15)
ii. Ps 1 and 145 both speak of “two ways”
So, for Wilson, the final shape of the Psalter (expanding upon his connecting it with the failed Davidic monarchy and the return to a focus on YHWH’s sole rule in Books IV-V, noted above) is that of a wisdom collection advocating one to “trust YHWH” and not be reliant upon earthly kings or institutions. Hope lies in YHWH alone. The overarching metanarrative of the Psalter is, then, for Wilson, that YHWH reigns!
More recently, Nancy deClaisse-Walford has taken up and expanded on Wilson’s thesis. She argues that the final form of the Psalter is a post-exilic statement of Israelite identity, and that the five books narrate the history of ancient Israel. She outlines the structure as follows:
Book I: David and Solomon’s reign
Book II: David and Solomon’s reign
Book III: laments over oppression during the Divided Monarchy
Book IV: Babylonian exile and rethinking identity
Book V: Rejoicing in the restoration of YHWH as king
Seminal for Wilson and deClaisse-Walford both is that David returns at the close of Book V, but in a much different manner; he is no longer the king to whom one looks, but rather is the worship leader, encouraging and directing Israel’s praise to YHWH alone as king. For deClaisse-Walford, Israel survives because she was able to shape and reappropriate her traditional and cultic literature into “a constitutive document of identity: the Hebrew Scriptures.”
Wilson’s view has been highly influential. J. Clint McCann has published a piece that extends Wilson’s thesis even further, noting a hesitancy towards the Davidic monarchy already at the seams of Books I-III.
The shape and shaping of the Psalter is a question about which most have thought very little. How does Wilson’s thesis grab you? DeClaisse-Walford’s?