Thursday, August 23, 2012

Stephen G. Dempster: The Narrative Structure of the Book of Psalms

Does the structure of the Book of Psalms tell a story? Is there a narrative that can be uncovered? Over the course of the past few hundred years the study of individual Psalms has dominated Psalm scholarship. However, since the 1985 publication Gerald Wilson's pioneering dissertation entitled, 'The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter,' many have begun to see an intentionality in the shaping of the Psalter.  I find the following string of quotes (mixed with a few of my own comments in all caps) from Stephen Dempster's Dominion and Dynasty helpful and convincing. As you read, remember that the Psalms are divided into five books (Book 1 = Psalms 1-42, etc)...

"The first two psalms, 'the doorway into the Psalter,' stress that the blessed person, who meditates on the Torah day and night, will be like a tree of life planted by the rivers of water (1:3). There are allusions to the tree of life in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10-14), and to the eschatological trees of life planted by the river of life flowing from the new temple in Ezekiel (Ezek. 47:1-12). The second psalm stresses the importance of the Davidic king's meditating on Nathan's oracle to David, which now has universal scope. All nations will one day bow before Yahweh's Messiah...Canonically, it is impossible to miss the allusions: a Davidic king (genealogy) will rule over the entire earth (geography)" (194-195).

PSALMS 1-2 - "These texts provide perspective on the storyline of Scripture. The Psalter keeps hope alive by indicating that Israel is still expecting an all-conquering hero who will be anointed by Yahweh to rule the world. The second psalm shows the resistance to this rule, the Lord's sovereign decision to affirm this rule based on Nathan's oracle, the implications of this kingship (universal dominion), the obliteration of all resistance, and the need for submission to the rule" (195)


SUPERSCRIPTIONS - "The psalm titles draw attention to the Davidic king as the one who prays for and represents Israel. It is clearly David who is emerging as the focus of the Bible. Somehow the hopes of the Israelite nation are placed on his shoulders" (195).

SEAMS - "Other psalms, placed strategically at the seams of the Psalter, develop this kingship theme (G. Wilson 1985). The first division consists largely of laments (Pss. 3-41), and the first and last psalms of this division (Pss 3; 41) show that, despite treachery towards the divine king, whether that of his own son (3) or of his closest friend (41), God gives the king triumph over his enemies. After a series of initial laments emphasizing the exile of David (Pss. 3-7), a creation psalms reminds not only the king but all of humanity of its regal destiny (Ps. 8)" (196).

BOOK 2 - "In the second book, closure is achieved with Psalm 72. There are many lament psalms in this collection, but this particular psalm reveals the light at the end of the tunnel: the day when the Davidic king will rule the earth. He will bring an end to injustice, and justice will flower in the land. All nature will be renewed. The extent of his reign is described with an almost exact quote from the Twelve: 'he will reign from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth' (Ps. 72:8; cf. Zech. 9:10b). Echoing Isaiah, his enemies will lick the dust and all kings will worship him, bringing their treasures (72:10-11; cf. Is. 60:1-22). The last line of the psalm proper reaches a thematic climax with the statement that the Abrahamic promise of blessing on the earth is realized in him: 'All nations will be blessed in him and they will bless him' (72:17). The concluding doxology states the consequence: the whole earth is filled with his glory (cf. Is. 6:3; 11:9). And, as is noted in this section, this marks the end of the Davidic psalms of David the son of Jesse (72:20)" (196).

BOOK 3 - "The next grouping of psalms (73-89) points to disaster for the nation. Within the scope of Israelite history it is tempting to understand these psalms as reflecting the judgment leading up to the exile. The call is to hae faith, despite the current bleak circumstances. This is the message of the wisdom psalm (73) that opens this division of the Psalter. The triumph of the wicked is apparent, not real, and this truth can be seen only from the perspective of the sanctuary (73:17). Significantly, this collection of psalms concludes with a poem (Ps. 89) that poignantly contrasts the stark reality of the present situation - exile, judgment and the absence of a Davidic monarch - with the promise of the enduring throne of David (2 Sam 7)" (196-197).

BOOK 4 - "The next Psalter division (Pss. 90-106), like the previous one, begins with a wisdom psalm, whose unique Mosaic title points back to the wilderness experience of the Israelites as a time when Israel was consumed by God's wrath and judgment for their sin. Why? To suggest that, just as the previous exile ended, so will this one. The community is directed to view things from a divine perspective where a human millennium is but a day (Ps. 90:4)" (199).

BOOK 5 - "The dramitic thanksgiving psalm that begins the final book of the Psalter (Ps. 107) celebrates a return from exile from the four corners of the earth. It is a dramatic answer to the plea at the end of Psalm 106 (cf. 106:45-47; 107:1-3). Yahweh's mercy (hesed) is not temporary but lasts for ever. It will gather (qabatz) the people from the nations! Psalm 107 concludes by stating, 'Whoever is wise and regards these things will understand the mercies of the LORD' (43). These words link up with the first half of Psalm 89 and dramatically affirm the reason for the return to exile: the mercies of the Lord are the reason, particularly as expressed in the covenant to David (Ps. 89:1-3) and in the coming Davidide (Is. 55:3)" (200).

"In their own way the next few psalms speak of the hope of the Davidic monarch. Judah is regarded as God's sceptre in Ps. 108 (cf. Gen 49), which will hold sway over the surrounding nations. Psalm 110 depicts the installation of a new ruler with his enemies under his feet and he smites them on the head, a resounding echo of the reclaimed dominion of humanity (cf. Gen. 1:26-28; 3:15). But it also combined royal and priestly motifs: the new king will virtually transcend not only David but also the Israelite priesthood (Ps. 110:6). From this point on there is a group of praise songs (Pss. 111-118) that follow this theme of God's kingship. These songs are continued in Psalms 135-137, which conclude on the bitter note of exile again. But inserted among them are a gigantic psalm of the Torah (Ps. 119) and a group of fifteen Songs of Ascent (Pss. 120-134), celebrating the pilgrimage to Zion. These pilgrimage songs are probably placed here to show that the reason for return from exile is to go up to Mount Zion to hear the Torah in all its wonder and to worship the Lord (cf. is. 2:1-5; Mic. 4:1-5). Israel's ascent can thus point the way to the nations (Zech. 8:23). When such an ascent begins, the ways of war are abandoned" (200).

END OF BOOK 5 - "Psalms 135-137 are probably a coda to the ascent psalms. They return the theme to the praise songs of 111-118, but this section ends with the bitter lament of exiles in Psalm 137, who, in their pain, wish for the destruction of the last vestige of their captors. This almost suggests that exile has the final word in the Psalter. However, a final flurry of Davidic psalms (138-144) provides an answer to this lament, concluding with an acrostic psalm of priase in which David calls for all flesh to praise the holy name of Yahweh (145:21). The answer to the problem of exile is David. The last five psalms (146-150) are not only a fitting conclusion to the five books of the Psalter but also a specific answer to David's call (G. Wilson 1985:193). the key note is 'Hallelujah!' here at last is the goal of creation: all of created reality being directed in praise by choirmaster, King David; or, as Gregory of Nyssa states: 'All creatures, after the disunion and disorder caused by sin have been removed, are harmoniously united for one choral dance.' the canonical structure of the Psalms thus clearly develops the prophetic theme of a renewed earth under a Davidic leader" (201-202)