The “Arranging of the Psalms Was an Exegetical Act”: Further Biblical Evidence for Seeing Arrangement in the Psalms

puzzzleIf I were to put forward one article in defense of reading the Psalms as an intentionally arranged and ordered book, it might be this one by Yair Zakovitch, “On the Ordering of Psalms as Demonstrated by Psalms 136–150,” in The Oxford Handbook to the Psalms (New York: OUP, 2014), 214–227. In it, he shows how the Psalms are not a collection of songs. They are instead songs with hooks and refrains that fit together like puzzle pieces.

In fact, in his chapter Zakovitch provides exegetical evidence for the ordering of the Psalms by excavating the words of Psalms 136–150. Due to space, he only focuses on these fifteen psalms, but his exegetical work provides proof from every one of these fifteen psalms, that their arrangement is not accidental. In fact, just the opposite: careful attention to the Psalms shows how meticulous they are in demonstrating order—something that we should observe as we read and interpret the Psalms.

On this point he writes in his introduction,

The writing of the 150 psalms that constitute the book of Psalms was a long and protracted process, and their arrangement and redaction into five books occurred in stages over many years. The order of the individual psalms within the Psalter did not happen by chance but is evidence of deliberate design. This order may even reveal something of the early development and growth of the Psalter. Similarly, the act of arranging the psalms was an exegetical act: The meaning of a single, isolated psalm differs from the meaning it draws from its context, from our reading it in light of the psalms that precede and follow it.

Form critics, disciples of Hermann Gunkel, were not inclined to question the ordering of the psalms since their interest lay in revealing the poems’ preliterary Sitze im Leben, the sociological contexts in which they were composed and in which they functioned before being put in writing. Interest in the arrangement of the individual psalms grew with the development of redaction criticism and the various aspects of inner-biblical interpretation.

To put it more precisely: liberal interpreters of Scripture atomized and divided Scripture. Those with a higher value on Scripture as God’s inspired word sought to understand the unified message of Scripture. Sadly, many who affirm a high value on Scripture also employ methods of interpretation that are more in line with higher criticism (one of the technical names for the liberal approach to the Bible).

Zakovitch continues by noting the way in which the Psalms have been read with awareness of their arrangement.

In several of my publications I have noted how rabbinic sages, who often questioned the juxtaposition of biblical texts by asking ‘Why is [this] placed next to [that]?’ (e.g., Sukkah 2a) or ‘What does [this] have to do with [that]?’ (e.g., Berakhot 15b), had in fact inherited an exegetical practice that was familiar to them from the Bible. In contrast to the rabbis, who posed and answered such questions explicitly, the biblical writers/editors did not overtly proclaim the significance in their ordering of different stories. A number of interpolations that we find inserted into the text, however, testify to the writers’ awareness of this exegetical device. This rule holds true for a wide variety of literary genres, including narrative and prophecy, wisdom sayings, and even psalms literature. Franz Delitzsch (1984) made an important contribution to modern scholarship on the ordering of the psalms. (214, emphasis mine)

From this introduction, Zakovitch goes on to show some of the thinking that may have gone on “behind the arrangement, any exegesis conveyed by the arrangement, and even something of the various stages through which the sequence developed” (215). In truth, there is some reading behind the text going on here, a practice that must be employed with incredible caution, but there is also plenty of in-the-text exegetical spadework.

Therefore, to those who believe a canonical approach to the Psalms is merely laying framework over top of the Psalms and reading everything in light of that framework, Zakovitch’s study models otherwise. A canonical approach to the Psalms is not less exegetical; it is more exegetical.

Reading Psalms in their biblical location requires careful attention to poetic and grammatical details of the individual psalm, but then it also requires paying attention to that psalm’s neighboring psalms and and any block of psalms it might be related to. To be sure, this approach takes more time, but it also protects the student of the word from highjacking the Psalm for misapplication. Rather, being rooted to the history of Israel, the poetic text of the Psalm, and the unfolding arrangement of the Psalter, the reader understands better what the author of the Psalm and the arranger of the Psalter are communicating. In other words, by paying attention to the final form of the Psalter, we learn through the human authors what the voice of God is saying and leading us to say in lament and praise.

For more on reading the Psalms together as a whole consider these other articles:

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


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  1. Pingback: Resources for Reading the Psalms Canonically | Via Emmaus

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