Twelve Reasons for Reading the Psalms as a Unified Canon That Leads to Christ

bibleTo read something canonically means reading something as a unified whole, instead of fragmenting the book or letter into dozens of independent (or worse, divergent) pieces. Reading canonically seeks to understand the author’s intention, by recognizing the literary shape of his document. It is aware of the genre of the composition, but even more it looks at the internal evidence to see what is there. When reading books in the Bible, this way of reading is challenging, but always well-repaid. By seeing the literary shape of the text, we come much closer to understanding the meaning of the message.

But what if the book is composite, something like Proverbs, which is a collection of wise sayings? Or the Psalms, which is the ‘hymnbook’ of Israel and the Church? Is it possible to such books as a unified whole?

When it comes to the Psalms, I believe the answer is unmistakably, “yes!” And the reasons are manifold. In fact, drawing on the work of other Old Testament scholars, I want to suggest  twelve reasons why you should read the Psalms as a book written as one unified canon. Or to say it differently, here are twelve evidences of intentional arrangement in the Psalter—arrangement that should inform the way we read the Psalms and that should ultimately lead us to a more Christ-centered understanding of the Psalter and its individual Psalms.

Twelve Evidences of Arrangement

Under four headings (e.g., structure, seams, content, stitches), I believe we can list twelve evidences for arrangement in the Psalms. In fact, there are certainly more, but these twelve can be clearly perceived.

A. Structure

While a first-time reader might not see an introduction or conclusion in the Psalter, on close inspection of Psalms 1–2 and Psalms 146–50, it is not difficult to see the placement of an introduction and conclusion to this book.

1. Psalm 1–2 are an introduction to the whole Psalm.

As Mark Futato (Interpreting the Psalms) has argued Psalm 1 is wisdom psalm, which teaches the reader the purpose of the Psalms. Through the lens of Psalm 1, we can see the Psalter is not a hymnbook for the temple, but instruction (torah) for the individual and the community of the faithful. Likewise, Psalm 2, a royal psalm, gives the content or message of the Psalter. From cover to cover the Psalms are about God’s kingdom mediated by his Son—first, the historical David (Books I–II); then, the eschatological Son who comes as David’s heir (Books IV–V) to resurrection the throne that is lost due to the sin of David’s sons (Book III).

2. Psalms 146–50 are a Conclusion of Praise.

As with all other Books in the Psalter and like the collection of Sumerian Temple Hymns described in Gerald Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, these final Psalms conclude by praising God for his finished work. As Walter Brueggemann observes, the Psalms follow “a dramatic struggle from obedience (Psalm 1) through dismay (Psalm 73 after 72) to praise (Praise 150)” (Shape and Shaping the Psalter, 41). In other words, at the end of a redemptive-historical soundtrack, Psalms 146–50 conclude with a Hallelujah Chorus! Such a finale resolves the tension experienced throughout the Psalms and suggests an intentional placement of these psalms at the Psalter’s end.

B. Seams

In between the framework of a Law-Kingdom at the beginning (Psalms 1–2) and the symphony of praise at the end (Psalms 146–50), the Psalms are clearly subdivided to elicit a certain shape. We might call these evidences “seams,” as they highlight the divisions placed in the Psalms.

3. The Psalter is divided into five books.

Probably, the most obvious argument for arrangement is the division of the Psalms into five books. Most English translations denote these divisions with headings: Books I–V as Psalms 1–41, 42–72, 73–89, 90–106, and Psalms 107–50, respectively. In regard to the origin of these five books, they go back to the Septuagint. Traditionally, Jewish rabbis have compared the five books of David to the five books of Moses. For instance, a tenth century rabbinical writing (Midrash Tehillimi) comments on Psalm 1:2, “Just as Moses gave five books of laws to Israel, so David gave five books of Psalms to Israel.” The extent to this comparison is uncertain, but certainly the five-fold arrangement suggests intentional arrangement.

4. Each Book ends with a doxology. 

At the same time, every book ends with a doxology of praise. These doxologies may have been added by an editor, or as Gerald Wilson argues, these doxologies were originally part of the individual psalms and placed in the Psalter because of their words of praise. Either way, the result is unmistakable; every book closes with a word praise:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!
Amen and Amen. (Psalm 41:13)

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen! (Psalm 72:18–19)

Blessed be the Lord forever!
Amen and Amen. (Psalm 89:52)

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!
And let all the people say, “Amen!”
Praise the Lord! (Psalm  106:48)

My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever. (Psalm 145:21)

In the placement of these doxologies, the similarities stand out. Each ‘blesses’ Yahweh with a statement of affirmation, “Amen!” Only the last doxology, which is not recognized by everyone takes on a different form. Still mention of blessing the Lord is suggestive. Moreover, the differences between each doxology may suggest other features of the editing. Still, what is certain: every book closes with a word of praise to God, further indicating the shape of the Psalter.

5. Book II ends with an editorial note.

In addition to the doxologies, there is one book which ends with an editorial note. In Gerald Wilson’s study, this is the only “explicit” evidence he allows for editing the Psalter. All the others, he believes, are tacit evidences (i.e., non-explicit). To be sure, Psalm 72:20 is a unique verse. It reads, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.”

This verse may denote the end of a previous collection of Davidic hymns. But in the Psalter, as a whole, I believe it works to denote the end of David’s life. In other words, as Psalm 71 speaks of David in old age and gray hair (v. 18), I believe the story of salvation transitions from the historical David in Books I–II, to David’s sons in Book III.

Psalm 72 is the highpoint of David’s life, the coronation of Solomon. But thereafter, he is no more. Instead, the rest of the Psalter looks for his son to fulfill Psalm 1 and receive the promised throne in Zion (as Psalm 2:6 anticipates). That’s how I read it, but even if I am wrong, the point remains: Psalm 72:20 is the most explicit evidence for arrangement.

C. Content

Inside these seams we also find that the Psalter is organized around many groups of Psalms. Never do we find any one group by itself, but we do find multiple groupings which indicate intentional arrangement.

6. There are strategically placed groups throughout the Psalms.

In the Psalms there are at least ten subgroups of Psalms, depending on how you count. These include

  • Law and Messiah Psalms (Psalms 1 and 2; Psalms 18 and 19; Psalms 118 and 119)
  • Psalms of David I (Psalms 3–41)
  • Psalms of the Sons of Korah I (Psalms 42–49)
  • Psalms of David II (Psalms 51–65)
  • Psalms of Asaph (Psalms 73–83)
  • Psalms of the Sons of Korah II, with a Davidic Psalm in the center (Psalms 84–85, 87–88)
  • Kingship Psalms (Psalms 93–99)
  • Hallel Psalms (Psalms 111–17)
  • Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120–34)
  • Psalms of David III (Psalms 138–45)
  • Hallelujah Psalms (Psalms 146–50)

Importantly, there is almost no place where any one group has all of its Psalms. For example, the Psalms of David are found in Books I, II, III, and V. Likewise, the Sons of Korah occur in Book II and III. In this way, the arrangement is based on something other than compartmentalization of authors, genres, or themes. Instead, I believe the arrangement is based upon a redemptive-historical story. Either way, what is unthinkable is a randomly arranged Psalter. The subgroups give further evidence of arrangement.

7. Books I–III all end with Royal Psalms.

At the same time, the placement of Royal Psalms also indicate arrangement. Following the observations of Gerald Wilson, he observes how Books I–III all end with Royal Psalms. This is most evident with Psalms 72 and 89 which speak heavily of the king’s dominion (Psalm 72) and God’s royal covenant with David (Psalm 89). However, Psalm 41 also hints at royal themes, though with greater subtlety. On this point, he writes

As for the thematic similarities which may indicate Ps 41’s use as a “Royal Psalm,” it must first be remembered that the ps was supposed (as indicated in its s/s) to have been composed by David. The situation described, therefore, would be associated with his kingship. In this light, the opening blessing (v.1)—“Blessed is the man who has concern for the helpless,—would be taken to refer to the King’s responsibility to protect the poor, widows, orphans, etc., who cannot help themselves. The life-giving protection of YHWH which makes “the man” secure in the land from his enemies (v. 2) is also easily related to the troubles and concerns of kingship.

While the central portion of the ps (vv. 3–8) appears to be a plea for deliverance from illness, the closing verses revert to the theme of deliverance from one’s enemies and the promise of eternal security (vv. 9–12). It seems quite plausible to me that here Ps 41 is viewed by the editor(s) as functioning quite on a par with the “Royal” pss 2, 72, 89. (208)

8. Books I–II contain most of David’s Psalms, but not all of them.

The total number of Davidic Psalms is 73. Most of them come before “the prayers of David are ended,” but not all. Why? Again, I suggest that the reason is that Books I and II follow the historical life of David; the rest of the Psalter proceeds to speak of events after David’s death—namely, the historic exile of Israel (Book III) and the forthcoming establishment of God’s kingdom (Book IV) and the arrival of David’s son (Book V).

John Walton has made a striking argument for such an historical reading of Books I–III, even linking particular psalms to events in David’s life. If he is at all correct, he helps explain why most of David’s Psalms occur in Books I and II.

Still, not all of David’s Psalms do. And this too seems intentional. What is the reason? I would suggest that it may have something to do with Davidic cast of the coming Messiah. When the royal priest who defeats God’s enemies and sits on God’s throne is announced in Psalm 110 (a Davidic Psalms), Psalms 111–17 offer praise; Psalm 118 explains the way his kingdom will come; Psalm 119 tells of the law that will be established by this king; and Psalms 120–32 describe the establishment of the temple ( esp. Psalm 132),. Only then do we find another sizeable batch of Davidic Psalms (Psalms 138–45). I take these to reflect the coming spiritual warfare between the greater David and his enemies, the warfare needed to establish the New David’s throne on the earth. This results in cosmic praise in Psalm 146–50.

I am showing how I read Book V here more than I am arguing for arrangement in general, but what should be obvious is that placement of Davidic Psalms are not haphazard. As with any book, theological understanding can and should be based on exegesis of the literary shape of a book, and in this case the placement of Psalms is crucial for understanding the message (and messianic hope) of Israel. It is not, in my estimation, a mistake that Davidic Psalms continue after Books I and II. Rather, they too have a particular function, and one that should be considered as we read the Psalter.

9. Book II has almost no references to Yahweh.

All the references to God address Elohim. This change is so significant Psalm 53, which recycles Psalm 14, changes “Yahweh looks down from heaven on the children of man . . .” (Psalm 14:2) to “Elohim looks down from heaven on the children of man . . . ” (Psalm 53:2). Honestly, I do not have a definitive conclusion for why this shift was made, but it is recognizable and presumably important for understanding Book II. Thus, showing another evidence of arrangement.

D. Stitching

Finally, not only does the Psalter show evidence of editing at the ‘seams’ and placement of the Psalms in groups with significant arrangement, there also are plenty of places where tag-lines and key words stitch the Psalms together. We can see this within subgroups and in adjacent Psalms.

10. Some of these groups have been carefully ordered.

For instance, the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120–34), displays a remarkable amount of literary shaping. Consider these observations from E. W. Hengstenberg (cited by O. Palmer Robertson) about the Songs of Ascent.

The whole is grouped around Psalm 127, which was composed by Solomon, which stands in the middle between the first and last of the pilgrim poems. On both sides there stands a heptade [a grouping of seven] pilgrim songs, consisting of two psalms composed by David, and five new ones, which have no name. . . . Each heptade contains the name Yahweh twenty-four times. (The Flow of the Psalms, 212)

In this arrangement, it is not only the placement of the collection which displays purposeful ordering, it is also the organization of the collection. Robertson’s work shows remarkable shaping in many places throughout the Psalter, and opens doors to further consideration of the Psalter’s editing.

11. Three times royal psalms are put next to torah psalms.

Starting with Psalms 1 and 2, we find that torah and kingdom are regularly tied together in the Psalter. They occur side by side in Psalm 18 and 19 and again in Psalm 118 and 119. Developing the relationship of the Psalm 1 man with the royal throne, these Psalms show how the king is supposed to be the model Israelite who meditates on God’s instruction day and night.

Indeed, this linkage echoes the instruction to the king in Deuteronomy 17:15–20, who is to write out and meditate upon the Law of Moses. In Psalms, this torah-kingship connection suggests that one crucial element in bringing God’s kingdom to earth is a royal son of David who perfectly keeps God’s law and qualifies himself to remain on God’s holy hill (see Psalm 15 and 24).

12. Key words are used to unite Psalms.

The number of examples where one Psalm picks up and employs a previous word or phrase are too many to count. I will only highlight a couple to show how the arrangement of the Psalter is not only found at the macro-level, but the micro-level as well.

(a) “Blessed” in Psalms 1 and 2

The first example of key words uniting neighboring psalms is in the introduction, where Psalm 1:1 and Psalm 2:12 both speak of blessing. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked . . . and who delights in the law of the Lord day and night” (1:1–2), compared to “Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (2:12). Many commentators, rightly, find these verses bookending Psalm 1 and 2, and hence uniting these Psalms in the introduction.

(b) “Shout for joy” in Psalms 32 and 33

Another example of key words uniting psalms is the command to “shout for joy” in Psalm 32 and 33. It concludes the former psalm (32:11) and begins the latter (33:1). Increasing the chances of intentional arrangement is that both psalms refer to the ones who are righteous.

(c) The Refrain of Hope in Psalm 42 and 43

In Psalms 42 and 43, a refrain of hope permeates both psalms. The first example in Psalm 42:5–6 reads,

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

This refrain repeats in 42:11 and 43:5. It has given some commentators reason to believe this was once a single psalm. That might be, but it shows again how these two psalms are linked together.

(d) The petition of Psalm 106 answered in Psalm 107

Moving ahead to the seam between Book IV and V, we find a strange unity crossing over from one book to another. Psalm 106 ends with a petition for God’s redemption,

Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise. (v. 47)

This petition is followed by the programmatic doxology, ending the book. But the very petition is specifically answered in Psalm 107, as it begins with thanksgiving for “gathering in” of the redeemed of the Lord. The rest of the Psalm recounts four stories of redemption, an answer to Psalm 106. Interestingly, even where these is division between two books, there is unity between these two psalms.

(e) The Right Hand in Psalm 109 and 110

Finally, Psalm 110 sets the Lord at the right hand of the LORD, when verse 1 begins, “The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies  your footstool.” This responds directly to the last verse of Psalm 109:31 and more remotely to Psalm 108:6. Those verses read

That your beloved ones may be delivered,
give salvation by your right hand and answer me! (108:6)

For he stands at the right hand of the needy one,
to save him from those who condemn his soul to death. (109:31)

Together, those petitionary verses, along with some other references to “right hands” (see 109:6) set the stage for Psalm 110. Space does not permit a full explanation of these Psalms. Suffice it to say, there is great importance to reading Psalm 110 in the context of Psalm 108–09 (all Davidic Psalms), and this is because the Psalms are intentionally arranged in God’s inspired order.

How to Read the Psalms—Canonically and Christologically

With these micro-level connections, I rest my case. I am fully convinced there is an intentional arrangement in the five books of the Psalter. And I pray these twelve evidences listed here will convince you as well. Or at least that they will cause you to go back and look more carefully at the Psalter.

In the end, let me clarify a few points that could be misunderstood. To argue for an intentional arrangement of the Psalms does not take away from the personal and devotional nature of each individual Psalm; it simply gives a better context to rightly understand them. If anything, it helps us see how each Psalm fits into the larger story of Israel’s history, which leads us to Jesus Christ. In other words, a canonical approach to the Psalm still touches every emotion of the human soul, but it does so by bringing that emotion into contact with the Christ to whom the Psalms lead.

Moreover, stressing the human arrangement of the Psalter does not deny the divine authorship of the Psalms. If anything, it affirms the fact that only because of the Spirit of Christ was active work to inspire each Psalm and the whole Psalter do we have such a magnificent book. For all of the literary arrangement found in the Psalms, it is the work of God that enabled men to compose their individual psalms, which God intended to eventually bring together in the book we have before us. In fact, I find that the more I consider the work as a whole and see the incredible narrative unity of the Psalter, the more amazed I am at God, and the more desirous I am to keep reading and praying the Psalms.

And this is my pray for you: I pray that you will see how it fits together and how following its contours leads you to the One who wrote the Psalter at various times and in various ways. This ultimately is the purpose of the Psalter—to know the Son of David. To this end we read, therefore, watching how every stream of Scripture winds its way to Christ, and how Christ seated on God’s holy hill invites us to come and join him—in fullness of praise and pleasures at his right hand forevermore.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds