A Brief History of and Apologetic for Reading the Psalms Canonically

psalmsShould we read the Psalms as 150 individual hymns of praise, thanksgiving, and lament? Or should we read it as one unified hymnbook, written with purposeful arrangement? Or both?

Throughout the history of the church, the Psalter has played a central role in shaping the church at worship. Publicly and privately, these inspired words have fueled faith, directed praise, and expressed lament. Some have used the Psalms as the sole hymnbook for their song services. Others have employed them for counseling and meditation and theological devotion. All who swim in their waters find a glorious taste for God, expressed with the deepest emotions of the human soul. Therefore, like honey, its sweetness is self-evident.

Yet, the question remains: how should we read the Psalms?

Importantly, the answer to that question has shifted over the last one hundred years. And it is worth learning a little bit about the history of Psalm studies to understand why most Christians—of various stripes—read each psalm in isolation for the others. And why that kind of reading should be complemented by an approach that reads the Psalms as one, Spirit-inspired soundtrack to redemptive history.

But to do that, we need to go over oceans and back to the 19th Century.

Missing the Big Picture: Gunkel and Mowinckel

A century ago, when critical approaches to the Bible reigned supreme in Western scholarship, two Germans led the way in research on the Psalms. First, Herman Gunkel (1862–1932) pioneered an approach to the Psalms which classified every psalm into a particular genre (e.g., individual lament, corporate praise, messianic, etc.). Despite his critical approach the Bible, many conservative resources on the Psalms continue to employ his classification of the Psalms. At the same time, Sigmund Mowinckel (1884–1965), a Norwegian Old Testament scholar, argued for the cultic setting of the Psalms. He sought to place every Psalm in its original setting—namely, in the temple worship of Israel.

For more than a generation, the scholarship of these two men informed much of the research on the Psalms. And accordingly, Psalm studies focused on individuals psalms—their genre and when available their historical background. What was not considered (much) was the literary shape of the whole Psalter. This was partly due to the atomistic spirit of the age, the way scholars, especially critical scholars, sought to break Scripture down to its original source (source criticism) or form (form criticism) or historical setting (historical criticism). It was also partly due to the outright suspicion against reading the Psalms (and all the Bible) as a literary whole. As Gerald Wilson reports in his landmark dissertation (The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter),

[Gunkel] is skeptical of finding any uniform principle governing the arrangement of the pss, since the final form of the Psalter is the end product of a long history of development and not the result of the plan and activity of a single editor (or group of editors). (1)

Likewise, with regards to Mowinckel, he observes,

Mowinckel also contributes to this trend toward fragmentation in the study of the Psalter. While he does deal with the arrangement of the [psalms] in more thorough fashion than most, he too is primarily concerned to delineate the major collections within MT 150 [i.e., the Masoretic Text of the Psalter]. At most he speculates on how, in what order and for what purpose these were brought together. Ultimately, however, Mowinckel is unable to conceive of the Psalter as a unified whole with a connected purpose. (2)

For both of these scholars, and the commentators who followed their lead, they sought to address individual psalms and to organize the Psalter to fit their extra-biblical systems—either genre classification or Israelite worship. The result, therefore, of their work was an approach to the Psalms which primarily considered the Psalms as individual units and/or psalms collected into various groups within the Psalter.

Hints of and Hopes for Unity in the Psalms: From Augustine to J. A. Alexander

To be fair and balanced, there has always been an awareness of or at least a curiosity in the unity of the Psalms. Going back to Augustine, we find interest in their unity. He observes,

Although the arrangement of the Psalms, which seems to me to contain the secret of a mighty mystery, hath not yet been revealed unto me, yet, by the fact that they in all amount to one hundred and fifty, they suggest somewhat even to us, who have not as yet pierced with the eye of our mind the depth of their entire arrangement, whereon we may without being over-bold, so far as God giveth, be able to speak. (Expositions on the PsalmsNPNF 8:681)

While Augustine’s take on the Psalms is somewhat allegorical, placing great emphasis on the number 150, his comments reflect an openness, even a hope, to discovering the “mighty mystery” of the Psalms. Centuries later this hope is echoed by Princeton professor, J. A. Alexander. In his commentary on the Psalms, he acknowledged the prevailing mood of historical-criticism, which might lead the “superficial reader . . . to regard [the Psalms] as a random or fortuitous collection of unconnected and incongruous material. (The Psalms: Translated and Explained, 3). In contrast to this, Alexander believed, “the more a person studies the total message of the Psalms, the more convinced he becomes that a greater number of interconnections in structure and theology exist in the book than will ever be fully uncovered” (O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms, 2).

Indeed, a little over a century later scholarship caught up with Alexander. With increasing interest in a canonical approach to the Bible (i.e. to reading the Bible in its final form, as a literary whole), scholars like Brevard Childs began to find unity in the Scripture and in the Psalms—unity that was always there, but hidden to critical scholars who approached Scripture with faulty, anti-supernatural biases. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, canonical criticism (academic jargon for reading the Bible as literary whole) began to look for unity in the Psalter. And not surprisingly, written by inspired authors and compiled by an inspired editor, the Psalms show an incredible amount of unity and purpose in their arrangement.

Gerald Henry Wilson: A Watershed in Recent Psalm Studies

While many voices soon championed an intentional arrangement in the Psalms, it was Gerald Henry Wilson’s dissertation, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, that took the first step toward a positing a comprehensive proposal for the Psalter’s arrangement. In his dissertation, greatly influenced by Brevard Childs, Wilson argues for a canonical reading of the Psalter based on two criterion. First, through a comparative study with various Mesopotamian texts, he makes a strong case that books like the Psalter were typically arranged according to genre, authorship, or some other criteria. At the same time, he shows how texts recorded in one context (Sumerian Temple Hymns) could be “loosened” from their original context and set into another canon. From this kind of comparison, he begins to explain the origin and the plausibility of the Psalter’s arrangement.

He next surveys the Psalms at Qumran to show how the Psalter may have developed over time. While not making final conclusions about the process for arrangement, he again strengthens the case for an intentionally organized canon, one that developed in the latter stages of Israel’s history, after the exile and before the Incarnation. In short, by examining all the material found at Qumran (at least all the material available in the 1980s), he shows how Psalms may have moved from the Temple (see 1 Chronicles 16) to the final form in the Psalter.

Last, from an inductive study of the Psalter itself, he shows many ways in which the Psalms demonstrate order and arrangement. As he observes, there are many tacit (non-explicit) evidences of arrangement, but only one explicit mark of editing—the comment in Psalm 72:20 that the prayers of David are ended. Making careful distinctions, he shows how the Psalms are not organized like other ancient Near Eastern documents. For instance, the Psalms are not solely arranged by authorship, by genre, or by historical setting.

In the Psalms, subsets are arranged by author, genre, and theme, but these do not explain the Psalter as a whole. These observations are significant because they raise questions about the explanatory power of Gunkel and Mowinckel’s approaches (139–45). Wilson also pays great attention to the superscripts (146–81), which begin many psalms. He argues these superscripts function in multiple ways across the Psalter. Even when missing, as in the case of Psalms 1–2, they play a role, for the lack of superscription distances the Psalter from the original setting of the indiviual psalm. In this way, superscriptions are not the sole determiner for the Psalter’s arrangement.

In the end, Wilson argues for the Psalm’s arrangement based on a number of basic features. He writes,

I have focused my attention thus far on demonstrating individual instances of editorial activity within the Hebrew Psalter. The results of the study have been considerable. I have been able to show (1) that the ‘book’ divisions of the Psalter are real, editorially induced divisions and not accidentally introduced; (2) the “separating” and ‘binding” functions of author and genre groupings; (3) the lack of a s/s as an indication of a tradition of combination; (4) the use of pss to indicate the conclusion of segments; (5) the use of hwdw pss to introduce segments; (6) the existence of thematic correspondences between the beginning and ending pss in some books. All of these findings demonstrate the presence of editorial activity at work in the arrangement of the pss. (199)

To these, he adds the function of Psalm 1 as an introduction (204–07), the five book division of the psalter (207–08), and the Davidic Psalms as a thematic element which gives the whole Psalter a royal theme (209–28).

From these observations, Wilson makes his case that the Psalter is a well-ordered book and not just a “storage cabinet” (as Hossfield and Zenger put it). To be clear, he does not believe that similar incipits (the same opening line to a psalm) or the presence of catch-phrases and tag-lines (i.e., words or phrases that repeat from one psalm to the next) are a strong evidence for arrangement. To the latter I disagree; to the former I would suggest repeated opening lines are a function of thematic groupings (i.e., Hallel Psalms like Psalms 111–17).

In sum, the work of Gerald Wilson was a watershed moment in understanding the Psalms as a unified whole. He was not the only one to observe the unity of the Psalms, but his dissertation played a large part in advancing this import part to understanding God’s greatest book of worship.

Looking Ahead: Beholding the Trees in the Forest

Today, most commentators read the Psalms as one unified whole., or at least, in addition to reading individual psalms, they also consider how the Psalter fits together. In fact, many other studies have shown even greater detail in the way that the Psalter is put together than the observations of Wilson. One important missing element from his proposal, for example, is his lack of attention to the eschatological shift from Books I–III to Books IV–V. And this observation is just one example of the way, this area of scholarship continues to develop, and needs to develop.

Indeed, for those who take the Bible as God’s inspired Word, such an approach is both natural and needed. If we believe that God has arranged every jot and tittle of the Bible, it makes sense that the Psalms is a book arranged at every level. It is striking to see how much liberal scholarship seeped into the veins of conservative Christianity. For decades, genre studies and pietistic approaches to the Psalter were the main way evangelicals read the Bible. And certainly, such approaches, when Scripture is taken seriously, bear good fruit. We should know where the Royal Psalms are and how Psalm 119 teaches us to meditate on God’s word.

Still, in the light of recent studies, which is really only a recovery of ancient truths, we can see that Bible-believing Christians should also read the Psalms individually and collectively. These approaches are not at odds, but in harmony. And thus, as we seek to understand the message of David or Asaph in their individual psalms, we should also seek to understand how their psalms fit into the larger canon of the Psalter. In this way, we both admire the trees and the forest, and from the fruits of their branches we enjoy the produce of the orchard. By reading the Psalms as 150 songs and as one redemptive soundtrack, we come to know and adore the God who inspired both the Psalms and the Psalter.

If you are interested in learning more about this approach to reading the Psalms, you can check out Wilson’s dissertation, O. Palmer Robertson’s book The Flow of the Psalms, or you can keep checking this blog. I will be writing more about this subject through the summer.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds





12 thoughts on “A Brief History of and Apologetic for Reading the Psalms Canonically

  1. You might find this interesting: M. J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (2013): 246-262.

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  4. When I preach and teach through the Psalms I try to do a “both/and” approach to studying them. I want to see how the individual poem is crafted, so I can best exposit the beauty which God inspire. Then, I also want to show how that Psalm is used in the context of the Psalter, but more than that, show how it fits into the scheme of the redemptive narrative in the Old Testament. From there I then show how it fits into the greater meta-narrative of Scripture.

    In order to do this I have to use those critical scholars, but I also then will use John Calvin’s commentaries, Charles Spurgeon’s commentaries, and using the patristic’s commentary set. Next time I preach through a unit of the Psalms though I should look into Gerald Wilson and Palmer.

    • Sounds like a good approach. The Psalms are infinitely glorious–individually savored (or lamented) and strung together like a bead of sparkling pearls.

  5. Pingback: Reading the Psalms Carefully Means Reading the Psalms Canonically: Six Quotations from ‘The Shape and Message of Psalms 73–89″ | Via Emmaus

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  8. Pingback: The “Arranging of the Psalms Was an Exegetical Act”: Further Exegetical Evidence for Seeing Arrangement in the Psalms | Via Emmaus

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