The Penultimate Step toward Jesus: Reading Psalms 90–106 Canonically

low angle grayscale photo of empty brick stairs

Photo by Ravi Kant on

Anyone who has spent time reading this blog knows that I’ve done a bit of writing on the Psalms and their canonical shape. Seeing the arrangement of the Psalms not only helps us appreciate how Scripture holds together, it also helps us understand the message of the Psalter. In what follows I want to dig into Psalms 90–106 (Book 4) and show a few ways the arrangement helps discern the message. In particular, I am persuaded these Psalms fit with Israel’s return from exile and the construction of the temple (i.e. the Second Temple).

Since I haven’t seen this argument made much in the literature, I’m floating these ideas here as a way of reading Book 4 as a unified whole. Let me know what you think and if these three observations make sense of how you read the Psalms.

The Place of Book 4 in the Psalter

It is recognized by many that the Psalter moves from David, son of Jesse (Books 1–2), to David’s sons (Book 3), to a greater David who would fulfill the promise of 2 Samuel 7 (Books 4–5). As an introduction to the whole Psalter, Psalm 2 puts on alert to see this Son, and the rest of the Psalms should be read with an eye for the son of David who would rule in Zion.

Historically, Book 1–2 tell the history of David, son of Jesse. In fact, Psalm 72:20 makes it clear that the historical David will no longer be in view in Books 3–5, when it reads, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” What is important here is the reference to Jesse. There will be other Davidic psalms after Psalm 72—Psalm 72 itself is probably a Davidic prayer for Solomon—but after Psalm 72 all Psalms of David should be read in a different historical context.

This historical (dis)placement makes the rest of psalms of David typological in nature. That is, these psalms of David will be used to speak of the office of the king more than the man David himself. In fact, I would argue that the placement of these Davidic psalms is highly relevant for understanding books 3, 4, 5.

For example, in Book 3 we find an historical account of the fall of David’s throne. As I argued in a sermon on these psalms, I believe that Psalms 73–89 follow the history of David’s throne as told in the book of 2 Chronicles (see picture). In this Book, only one Psalm is Davidic, and importantly it is found in conjunction with Hezekiah restoration of Jerusalem in 2 Chronicles 29–32.

book-3-infographic copy

Moving to Book 4, what is most important is the way Book 3 ends. Like Psalm 72:20, which tells of the end of David’s life, Psalm 89:39 reads, “You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.” This verse highlights the ending of David’s throne, an event that took place when God exiled David’s royal house in Babylon.

Thus, Book 4 begins with no son of David on the throne in Jerusalem. Israel is in exile and like their days in Egypt, the offspring of Abraham need to be rescued again. So begins Book 4, with a Psalm of Moses, as it tells how God would rescue his people from bondage.

The Man Moses

While Moses has been mentioned previously in the Psalms (see Ps. 77:20), Book 4 is where we find him most. Not only is Psalm 90 attributed to him, but his name shows up in Psalm 99:6; 103:7; 105:26; 106:16, 23, 32. Additionally, as noted by David Mitchell (The Message of the Psalter), many interpreters have assigned Psalms 91–99 to Moses. Because none of these psalms have a name in the superscription, it is plausible they could or should be identified with Moses.

The importance of Moses in Book 4 is twofold. First, as with David, whose life formed a type or pattern for later kings in Israel, so Moses became the type identified with God’s exodus. In Book 4, we find Yahweh coming to rescue his people and to establish his throne in Zion. This follows the historical lines of the exodus(see Exodus 15), but it also follows the historical events of Israel’s return from Babylon. In fact, if we read the Psalms with Isaiah—and many commentators identify the language of Psalms 93–99 with Isaiah—then we have reason to identify Book 4 with the return from exile, i.e., a new exodus, where God brought Israel back to the land.

Second, the focus on Moses also sets up a new Joshua in Book 5. Interestingly, Joshua as an historical figure is “missing” in Psalms 105–06. Although Moses, Aaron, and Phinehas are all mentioned in this historical recounting of Israel’s exit from Egypt, Joshua—their peer—is not. But like his absence in Hebrews 11, Joshua is not just overlooked. Rather, as the one who brought Israel into the land (and shared the name of our Lord), Joshua is the figure greater than Moses who would finish what Moses started.

In Israel’s history, there was a “Joshua” who came during the Second Temple (see Zechariah 3, 6). His life foreshadowed the coming of a greater Joshua and his royal and priestly identification matches up with the royal and priestly designation of the Savior found in Psalm 110. While the name Joshua is not found in Book 5, the Davidic king of Psalms 110 and 118, which Jesus identifies with himself, is clearly the word-saturated man of Psalm 1. Significantly, the Psalm 1 man is a description that perfectly fits Joshua (see Joshua 1).

Put all this together and we find that Book 4 of the Psalter, which trades on the ministry of Moses, is not the final step in the story of salvation. It is the penultimate step. We knew this already, because Book 4 is not the final book in the Psalms. However, what we may not have is a clear understanding of the relationship between these books. Psalms 93–100 can sound like the coming of our Lord or the return of Christ. And there is a genuine connection. But based on its position between David’s fall (in Psalm 89) and the arrival of the greater David (in Book 5), I am arguing that when the LORD comes to reign in Psalms 93–99, he is coming to his people Israel in the days where the exiles return to the physical temple in Jerusalem.

This matches the three Major Prophets, as well as the book of Daniel, all of whom speak of Israel’s physical return to the land before the revival by the Spirit that will come with Christ. Indeed, as many rightly perceive, Israel remained in “exile” when Christ was born. This too matches what the prophets and the psalms give us: that God would return his people to Israel and from that place in the land, he would come to them in person.

Books 4 and 5 tell this two-part story, and this is why I believe the enthronement of the LORD in Psalms 93–100 relates to the Second Temple and why Book 4 should be read as preparatory for Christ. The return from exile follows the shape of the exodus, and is a type of the coming of the LORD, but it is not the final iteration. The final coming is described in Book 5.

The Historical Arrangement of Book 4

With this history of the Second Temple in mind, can we go any further in Book 4? If Book 3 follows the history David’s sons as told in 2 Chronicles (and outlined in the picture above), does Book 4 do the same with the events after the exile? I believe it does. And in this last section, I want to suggest a way of reading these psalms. This way of reading considers the outline of Psalms 90–106 and then the storyline.

1. The Outline of Psalms 90–106

In Book 4, we have five basic sections. They might be outlined like this.

  • 3 Songs of Moses (Psalms 90–92)
  • 7 Songs of Yahweh’s Enthronement (Psalms 93–99)
  • 1 Song of Thanksgiving (Psalm 100)
  • 3 Songs of David (Psalms 101–03)
  • 3 Songs “of Moses” (Psalms 104–06)

These five sections are labeled by  authorship, theme, and content. Let’s consider how they hang together.

First, Moses wrote Psalm 90. Psalm 91 has no superscription, which often indicates, as with Psalm 9–10; 32–33; 42–43, that the second psalm (91) should be read with the first (90). This would group Psalms 90 and 91, which share many themes and words, as two songs of Moses. Then Psalm 92, with its superscription, “a song for the sabbath” would easily be associated with Moses, as his law established the Sabbath for Israel.

Second, Psalms 93–99 form a group focused on the theme “the LORD reigns” (93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). This is how Psalm 93:1 and 99:1 begin and end the section. Also, themes of God’s enthronement pervades these seven psalms. Importantly, Psalm 96 stands in the middle, citing almost verbatim 1 Chronicles 16:23–33. This citation connects Psalm 96 with the arrival of the ark in Jerusalem. And this arrival of the LORD is the same theme as Psalms 93–99.

Surrounding, the center psalm (Psalm 96) are psalms that speak of Yahweh’s rule over the nations (see esp., 95:3; 96:4; 97:9). This is a theme that runs throughout these psalms and helps hold them together too. Yahweh’s kingship will play a key role in understanding the storyline of the LORD coming to Zion.

Third, Psalm 100 is a psalm of thanksgiving. It focuses on the worship of the people in the house of God, and as we will see, its placement comes after the LORD has arrived in Zion (Psalm 99). It also serves as bookend with Psalm 92. Psalm 92 introduces the theme of rest, and Psalm 100 fulfills the promise, as the people are received into the house of God—the place where God’s rest is given. Finally, Psalm 100 makes a bridge between the LORD’s kingship and two (or three) psalms of David, God’s appointed king.

Fourth, Psalms 101–103 are associated with David. This is explicit in the superscriptions of the first (101) and last (103) psalms. Set in between, the psalm of affliction (“A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord.”), may explain something of the experience of the king when he seeks to set up his rule. More on that below.

Fifth and last, Psalms 104–106 round out the section. Going back in time, these psalms trace out themes from creation (Psalm 104), the redemption from Abraham to Moses (Psalm 105), and from Moses to the story of Israel rebelling against God in the Wilderness (Psalm 106). What holds these psalms together is their association with Moses and their historical content. Even more, Psalm 106 ends the same way that Psalm 89 does. Just as Book 3 concluded with a need for Israel’s redemption, so does Book 4.

Highlighting Israel’s ongoing exile, Psalm 106:47 reads, “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.” This verse will set up Psalm 107 and the redemption brought by the true Psalm 1 man. Still, our attention is not on that final book, but on Book 4 and its penultimate step towards Christ.

2. The storyline of Psalms 90–106.

If there is a visible outline to Book 4 of the Psalms, there is probably a storyline too. In the outline, this storyline has been suggested. But now, let me develop it further.

In Psalms 90–92, we find three psalms that suggest a new exodus is coming. Starting with Moses’s psalm, we find the name of the one whom the LORD raised up to bring salvation to his people. And just like before, Psalms 90–100 follow a trajectory where the LORD himself becomes the savior of Israel. Indeed, whereas David received the throne from God, displacing God as Israel’s king (see 1 Samuel 8), now in Psalms 90–100, Yahweh would again be king.

In fact, after themes of Moses, exodus, and Sabbath begin Book 4, Psalms 93–99 explain how the LORD would come to reign. Significantly, the phrase Yahweh Melek occurs four times, but only in the last instance does it indicate the LORD reigning in Zion. In Psalm 93:1, Yahweh’s eternal rule is affirmed. Then Psalm 96:10 reads, “Say among the nations, ‘the LORD reigns.'” This verse indicates his kingdom is coming, but it has not arrived yet. Similarly, Psalm 97:1 speaks of Yahweh’s kingship in terms of Zion hearing that Yahweh is king.

Not until Psalm 99, do we find the LORD present in Zion. To put this in narrative form, Psalms 93–99 tell how the God of heaven comes down to reign on earth. In ways that foreshadowed the arrival of the kingdom when Christ would come, the eternal king of heaven is promising in Psalms 93–99 to reestablish his throne on the earth. Because David’s sons sinned against God, Yahweh departed from Jerusalem (cf. Ezekiel 8–10). Now, however, in these psalms we find the promise that God is greater than the nations and that he is coming back. These psalms recount this enthronement with the final psalm (Psalm 99) describing God residing once again on Mount Zion (v 2).

Once God has come to his temple, which happened when the temple was constructed under Ezra and Nehemiah, God’s people could gather again in his courts and worship him. This is what Psalm 100 describes—the praise of God’s people in the house of the LORD. While song occurs from Psalm 93–99, not until Psalm 100 do we find praise in the temple.

Still, this is not the final step in Book 4. Rather, as Yahweh is established once more as king in Jerusalem, we find three psalms related to David. Only, we should remember that there was no Davidic “king” after the exile. Reading these Psalms with Ezra and Nehemiah, the Davidic son in Jerusalem would be called “governor,” not called a “king.”

Yahweh is the king in Zion and Nehemiah would be his governor (Neh. 5:14; 8:9; 12:26). This unique language of governor helps explain what is going on in the Psalms. Namely, there is set in Jerusalem a human ruler who will enforce the law, but unlike before, this ruler is not taking the place of Yahweh.

Strikingly, in Nehemiah, the book’s namesake re-establishes the law in Israel, just as Psalm 101 describes. In fact, the severity of the rulers actions in Psalm 101 are actually witnessed in the leadership of Nehemiah, as he contends with law-breakers (see Neh. 13:25, 28, 30). While Psalm 101 is difficult to apply directly to Christians today; it application is seen firsthand in the book of Nehemiah.

Additionally, because not all the people in Jerusalem continue in the ways of God, Nehemiah also faces affliction like in Psalm 102. Whenever a true king addresses the wicked, the wicked will revolt. Nehemiah experienced some of this and Psalm 102 may correspond to that challenge. Finally, Nehemiah petitioned God to remember him, as he sought to establish God’s law in Jerusalem. Interestingly, Psalm 103 calls for David to not forget the Lord, a theme that corresponds to Nehemiah’s prayer and desire (see Neh. 13:14, 22, 31).

From this reading of Nehemiah with the Psalms, the terrain of Nehemiah’s life appears to resonate in significant ways with Psalms 101–03. I am not ready to go to print with this thesis; I’d like to see if there are more linguistic connections, but the historical time period and the content of Nehemiah’s life appear to resemble the order and content of Psalms 101–03. Additionally, Psalms 104–06 match in historical detail the contents of Nehemiah 9.

In Nehemiah 9, the Levites (who were taught by Ezra, see Neh. 8:13) offer prayer for the people of Israel. Significantly, this prayer is rooted in the historical sins of Israel. Psalm 106 speaks directly of Israel’s sins in the Wilderness, thus explaining why Israel needed another rescue. In this prayer, the Levites begin with creation (Neh. 9:6) and immediately turn to God’s divine election of Abraham (9:7). These two events—creation and divine election leading to God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt—are what we find in Psalms 104 and 105.

While we know that Psalms 105–06 are citations of 1 Chronicles 16, it is likely that Ezra-Nehemiah was written at the same time as 1–2 Chronicles and the Psalms. As these different books were composed after the exile, perhaps Ezra himself wrote and/or compiled all three. On this point, it would make sense that what the Levites, who were taught by Ezra, pray in Nehemiah 9 would be found in some fashion in Psalms 104–106.

Additionally, in arranging the Psalter, it would make sense that these historical psalms come at the end of Book 4, for in their focus on Moses they balance the Mosaic psalms that begin Book 4. Likewise, if Ezra is involved, we have testimony of his study of Moses’s Law (Ezra 7:10) and his instruction of the Levites—a people in Israel who often wrote psalms (e.g., the sons of Korah, Asaph, Ethan, Heman). Last, the focus on Moses confirms the penultimate step in the Psalms, leading towards the final book in the Psalter—the place where we discover a Joshua.

Bringing the Psalms to Jesus

Indeed, since Psalm 1 introduced a man like Joshua who studied the law (cf. Joshua 1) and Psalm 2 introduced a son of David who would sit on the throne in Zion, the Psalter has been looking for a son of David who was like Joshua. Through four books, this figure has not been found. However, when Book 4 ends, we are ready to see that the LORD who is king will also send a man from David’s line who would perfectly embody the law. And who is the man?

Well, it would be a new and better Joshua. Or as Matthew 1:20–21 records the words of the Angel of the LORD to Joseph: “You shall call his name Jesus [Joshua], for he will save his people from their sins.”

Wonderfully, what we find in the New Testament is a fulfillment of all that God planned out in the Old. And in Book 4 of the Psalms, we see a cohesive presentation of the God’s work in redemptive history, one that points forward to the coming of the LORD. Again, such a forward looking view of Christ requires us to look at Psalms 107–150, but to understand that final book, we must deal with the penultimate book too.

In this post, I’ve attempted to show the outline and the storyline of Psalms 90–106. I admit there is still work to be done, but I think you can see from what is laid out here how these psalms fit together and develop the story of redemption in the days when Israel returned from exile. In this way, we learn how God was at work in Israel and how to better read the Psalms which bring us to Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds