In his commentary on the Psalms, Konrad Schaefer shows a “pattern of sevens” that permeates Psalms 96–99. In a section of the Psalter that already demonstrates remarkable structure, these “septets” (a group of seven) add to the unity and message of Book IV in the Psalms.
Let’s hear what Schaefer says about these septets, and then consider the merit of his observations. Why should we care about these groups of seven? (Hint: It may have something to do with the number of perfection).
The composition turns around the number seven and its multiples. Fourteen imperatives invite the assembly to worship (vv. 1–10), and the use of synonyms ‘peoples’ and ‘nations’ (‘ammîm and gôyîm) totals seven. After the proclamation ‘The LORD is king” (v. 10), the effects of this reign are described in seven facets, which encompass the world’s stability, fair government, heavenly and earthly rejoicing, and the echoes through sea, field, and forest. The word kôl, “all,” resounds seven times—all the earth, peoples, gods, trees, and all that fills the sea and field. Everything and everyone is included in the praise, all except the gods, who are mere nothings. (Schaefer, Psalms, 239)
Psalm 96 has five invitations (“let . . .”) which rally creation to celebrate (vv. 11–12); the two invitations of Ps 97:1 complete the septet which began in 96:11. Psalms 96 and 97 are related as the arrival (97:2–6) is to the news of the arrival (96:13). Link words between these two are “his glory” kebôdô, in each case in the multinational arena (“nations,” gôyîm and “peoples,” ‘ammîm, 96:3; 97:6) and ‘elîlîm, “idols” and “all gods,” kol–’elōhîm (96:4–5; 97:7, 9). The land (earth or mountains) reacts before God’s presence (96:9; 97:5). Together in the two psalms the explicit references to God total twenty-one, a multiple of seven, which designates fullness. (ibid., 240)
God is fully present in the text, six times designated as “LORD” and once as “our God”—seven times in all. Like its near cousin Psalm 96, this “new song,” is stamped with seven plural imperatives, invitations to celebrate the LORD as sovereing (vv. 1–6; v. 4b might be translated, literally, ‘break forth [psh], shout joyfully [rnn], praise [zmr]”). In addition, the poet uses three jussives (“[let . . .] roar . . . clap . . . sing,” vv. 7–8) to invite the created world to join in widening ripples of praise. A total of seven verbs invites the whole world to praise, with special mention of the sea, marine creatures, floods and hills, accompanied by three musical instruments (lyre, trumpets, and horn). The motivation for this solemn celebration is expressed in seven action verbs (“done [marvelous things,” “gotten [him] victory,” “made known,” “revealed,” remembered,” “is coming,” “will judge”). What began with Israel, reverberates to all earth’s inhabitants and the natural world. (ibid., 242)
Psalm 99 is seven times punctuated with the name of the LORD, which four times forms part of the phrase “LORD, our God.” The remarkable use of pronouns with reference to God (not required by normal Hebrew syntax), four third person and three second person—seven in all, is also unusual: “he [is exalted]” (v. 2), “[Holy is] he” (vv. 3, 5), “you [have established equity]; you [have executed justice]” (v. 4), “he [answered them]” (v. 6), “you [answered them]” (v. 8). (244–45, italicizes and brackets in the original) (ibid., 244–45)
The Value of Counting Sevens
What is the merit of counting sevens in these psalms? Let me suggest three values.
First, it gives another grammatical reason for reading these four psalms together. As Schaefer states explicitly in his comments on Psalm 97, Psalms 96 and 97 have many related words. This suggests that we should read them together, not separate. But the intentional usage of seven is an even greater reason to read these enthronement psalms together.
Second, it demonstrates authorial intention and poetic precision at the level of arrangement. Just like Psalm 119 indicates the heart of a psalmist, who labored over the alphabet, so that he could produced a 22-stanza acrostic poem praising God for his Word, so here we find the poetic intentions of the psalmist. In his use of septets, we not only find another clue into the arrangement of these psalms, which facilitates understanding, but its lyrical beautiful more perfectly reflects of the manifold perfections of God. Indeed, since seven is the number of fulness and perfection, the abundant use of sevens corresponds to the one who deserves all worship because of his perfection.
Even more, because worship is not a mathematical equation, but an expression of beauty in song, it is appropriate to extol the glory of God and the literary beauty of his Word. These poetic sevens are not mere window dressing, but another means by which God in his glory communicates his grace to us. Music is meant to be beautiful, and in observing these seven’s, we inch closer to seeing the beauty of God’s manifold perfections.
Third, the psalmist’s love for the Lord invites us to join him in praising the perfect LORD who reigns. With appreciation for the artistry of these psalms, our own hearts are enlarged to enjoy more of God’s beauty. Certainly, we can give praise to God without counting the imperatives of the psalms. But when we miss the psalmists numbering, we miss a layer of delight.
Because the psalms are meant to delight us in the LORD (Ps. 37:4), I take it as an imperative to look for every form and facet of literary structure in the text, in order to give greater praise to God. Clearly, such appreciation for the literary structure does not override the message of grace and truth in God’s Word, but in the middle of the midst of God’s revelation, we can and should observe the poetic shape of God’s Word.
For all these reasons, we should continue to see what the Scripture gives to us—both in form and in content. For we when do, we will see more of the God we worship and we will become more like him.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds