The Metanarrative of the Hebrew Psalter: On Reading the Book of Psalms as a Whole

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:

Books I-III
   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

Books IV-V
  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?

7 thoughts on “The Metanarrative of the Hebrew Psalter: On Reading the Book of Psalms as a Whole

  1. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    Being the historically-minded person that I am, the question which I have pondered for more than a year now is whether there is a correlation (historically, redactionally, etc.) between its stages of development and those of the B12. I particularly think there might be some overlap regarding the resurgence of the David motifs in books IV and V (and decline which follows) and the davidic expectation/failure as is represented throughout the B12 — especially Amos, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. I think it would be simply marvellous if the same editorial processes (even if not the same timeframes for editing) and historical concerns were at work in the compiling of these two collections!

    I know that’s not a direct answer to your question about Wilson and deClaisse-Walford’s theses, John, but their ideas are what prompted this question in me in the first place. 🙂

  2. John Anderson says:

    It is a very fine answer though, Roy. I think a lot of it comes down on when people are dating the final forms of these texts/collections. As you are well aware, the movement has increasingly been towards seeing the final form the Psalter as attaining its present shape (or the beginning processes of such) shortly after the exile. Genesis specifically, and the Pentateuch more broadly, are now seen as exilic documents with a postexilic emphasis and concern. And of course with B12 you have some very obvious Persian era documents, and some even later.

    It is an interesting question indeed. But the scholarly trend (which I find compelling for a number of reasons) to situate much of the Hebrew Bible as a product of the crisis of faith brought about by exile is surely in favor of such a possibility.

  3. Bob MacDonald says:

    Thanks for the high level summary of the framing. On this matter, Buruggemann adds some comments in his short essay on Solomon the the Praises of Israel, in his book Solomon – a very nice intro to the OT in my opinion.

    I stopped my structural analysis (map here) several months ago – if I get back to it, I will superimpose your summary on it – it is very helpful.

  4. Robert Wallace says:

    Obviously, John, I am sympathetic to deClaisse-Walford’s approach as it gave birth to my own. The closer I look, the more sense it makes. I know the dangers of a hermeneutic making sense, but I am going to risk all and plunge forward.

  5. John Anderson says:

    Dr. Wallace:

    Thank you for your comments. I am very appreciative of your work on the Psalms (do check out his The Narrative Effect of Book IV published by Peter Lang!).

    I first truly read Wilson about a year ago in preparation for my Ph.D. comps. It was, dare I say, revelatory for me. After having read Gunkel and Mowinckel–for whom I have deep appreciation and respect–I was left a bit depressed by the wholly atomistic reading of the Psalter that has seemingly pervaded much of scholarship until twenty or so years ago. Wilson has clearly articulated and carved out a new way of doing Psalms study, and for that I am appreciative.

    I do agree that deClaisse-Walford’s approach makes great sense; there are a few glitches in it that I noted in my SBL paper in Boston (with her in the audience! yikes!) but I still think it is the most satisfactory treatment I have come across yet. I am very much looking forward to her commentary with Jacobsen and Tanner in the NICOT series. A very fine group of scholars there.

    I do hope, Dr. Wallace, that you will continue to check in and comment as time allows. Good to have you around!

  6. Bob MacDonald says:

    I couldn’t find Robert Cole in your blog so maybe you haven’t seen his 1998 article on the overall envelope of Psalms 1-2 and 149. I have found it convincing and did a diagram of it here.

    Reference is this: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament – An Integrated Reading of Psalms 1 and 2 – by Robert Cole

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