Reading the Psalms Carefully Means Reading the Psalms Canonically: Six Quotations from ‘The Shape and Message of Psalms 73–89’

carefullyAmong recent studies on the Psalms, one of the most linguistically rigorous is that of Robert Cole, (former?) professor of Old Testament at Southeastern Theological Seminary. His monograph The Shape of the Message of Book III (Psalms 73–89) shows just how carefully the editor(s) of the Psalms arranged the collection of the Psalms. And any student of the Psalms would benefit from his exhaustive study.

Devoting a chapter to each Psalm (17 in all), he shows how every psalm can and must be read in light of its surrounding context. His trench work shows that a canonical approach the Psalms is not just the product of an over-eager imagination that sees connection from a high altitude. Rather, he demonstrates how the grammar of the Psalms is intentionally ‘shaped’ to fit one Psalm into another.

For instance, he shows how Psalm 73, which begins Book III, develops verbal connections with Psalm 72 in the first strophe (vv. 1–12) and how the second (vv. 13–17) and third (vv. 18-29) strophes of the same Psalm anticipate words and events in Psalm 74 (pp. 15–28). In order, he follows this methodology through Book III, showing why a canonical reading of the Psalms is more than permissible. For those who care deeply about literary context, it is necessary.

For any pastor preaching through the Psalms or any student of Hebrew poetics or biblical hermeneutics, Cole’s book is an excellent technical study on how the Scriptures are knit together. At the same time, his opening section provides a number of quotations on recent research on the Psalms. Following Gerald Wilson and others, he provides more than half dozen block quotes arguing for the necessity of reading the Psalms as a whole.

Reading the Psalms As They Were Intended to Be Read

Reading the Psalms canonically simply means reading the Psalms as one unified book.bookAnd since Brevard Childs, most students of the Psalms have agreed this approach is necessary to understand them fully. Here are a few testimonials, if you will, beginning with Robert Cole himself. (All quotations are taken from chapter 1 of The Shape and Message of Book III; bibliographic information can be found there).

Robert Cole

Cole uses James Muilenberg’s term “rhetorical criticism” to speak of a canonical approach. Muilenberg argued that just as parallels and repetitions function at the micro level, they should also be carried out to the macro level. Cole writes,

It has become clear in recent years that the phenomenon of parallelism and repetition in the Psalter must be extended beyond that of individual poems to the surrounding psalms and finally the entire collection. The ordering and shaping of the collection casts the individual psalms in a new light, even beyond that discerned through rhetorical criticism. Such a focus moves from what the individual poem expresses to a meaning implied by the final compilation, the latter becoming a single ‘text’. Consequently, the study of the final shape of the Psalter is simply a recognition that parallelism is not restricted to the individual poem.   (10)

Adele Berlin

Going further with the micro-to-macro extension of parallelism, Cole cites Adele Berlin.

The potential success of rhetorical criticism lies in the fact that the devices and symmetries that are present in a poem are not merely decorations–esthetically pleasing ornaments surrounding the meaning — but are pointers or signs which indicate what the meaning is. To understand how a poem is Constructed is to begin to understand what it expresses. (9)

Gerald Wilson

Wilson’s dissertation, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter was the first, full-length monograph arguing for the canonical approach. Here are six observations that led him to conclude the Psalms are meant to be read as one unified book.

(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 hllwyh 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… Without denying the existence of previous collections, I feel it is possible to show that the final form of MT 150 is the result of a purposeful, editorial activity which sought to impart a meaningful arrangement which encompassed the whole. (11)

Wilson also states, more conclusively, the necessity of reading the Psalms as a unified whole.

Any progress in understanding the purposeful arrangement of the psalms in the Psalter must begin, as in these last two studies, with a detailed careful analysis of the linguistic, literary and thematic linkages that can be discerned among the Psalms. (13)

The only valid and cautious hypothesis with which to begin is that the present arrangement is the result of purposeful editorial acavlty, and that its purpose can be discerned by careful and exhaustive analysis of the linguistic and thematic relationships between individual psalms and groups of psalms. (14)

Joseph Reindl

Just as Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) interpreted the Law, so the post-exilic editor of the Psalms gave us his (or their) interpretation of the Psalms. This is an important point, for it means that the forward-looking hope of a messiah in the post-exilic period is a driving force for organizing and thus reading the Psalms. On his point, German scholar Joseph Reindl notes,

Through the structure given to the book, the redactor of the Psalter has therefore quite clearly revealed his interpretation of the Psalms. In this regard it is worth noting first of all that the Psalter now no longer appears as a more or less ordered collection of individual psalms, but rather has been presented as a book, a whole. (Joseph Reindl, trans. Robert Cole, 12)

Frank-Lothar Hossfield and Erich Zenger

Likewise, in the yet-to-be-translated first volume of their commentary on the Psalms, Hossfield and Zenger also advocate a canonical reading of the Psalms.

The biblical book of Psalms is a compilation of 150 poetic texts of varied provenance and time, which are intended to be read and understood on the one hand as individual texts and on the other as portions of larger ‘Psalm groups,’ and/or of the entire Psalm book. (12)

A Canonical Approach Means Reading the Psalms with Concentric Circles of Context

In the end, a canonical approach is not the only way to read the Psalms. As I’ve written elsewhere, we should approach the Psalms through variety of historical lens. That said, no contextual approach to the Psalms can ignore the canonical horizon of the Psalms. For the lexical and grammatical evidence, as Cole demonstrates, points to the arrangement of individual Psalms. And the historical location of the final collection of the Psalter indicates a theological (and eschatological) motivation for compiling the Psalms. Therefore, a fully grammatical-historical reading of the Psalms begins with the parallelism of each verse and expands to the literary shaping of the Psalter, which follows the redemptive-historical story from David to a New David.

In this way, we must begin to understand the Psalms as we always do. We start with the text of any Psalm, we read it in its surrounding context(s), until we come to its ultimate context—the final collection of 150 Psalms. Then, because the Bible does not end there, we must read the Psalms in light of whole Bible. Indeed, as John Crutchfield another Psalm scholar has argued, we must employ the concentric circles of context to rightly understand any Psalm.

Thankfully, there are many new studies helping Christians to read the Psalms in this way. And though more technical than most, Robert Cole’s volume adds to this body of literature. (See also his helpful, but equally pricey Psalm 1–2).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


3 thoughts on “Reading the Psalms Carefully Means Reading the Psalms Canonically: Six Quotations from ‘The Shape and Message of Psalms 73–89’

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