Friday, 27 March 2009

What is the Psalter?

Based on positioning of the "framing" Psalms (Rahmenpsalmen) 1-2 and 146-150, here is Erich Zenger's answer, first in English (my translation) and then in the German original:

It is

a praise of the divine, universal rule of Yhwh, which he desires to assert in an act of eschatological judgement. This rule is grounded in Tora and creation, and will be asserted by means of both his (messianic) king (cf. Ps 2), who Yhwh has established in Zion, as well as his messianic people (cf. Ps 149, who exist amongst the nations (cf. especially Ps 2:10-12 and Ps 150, but also Ps 148).

Es ist ein

Lobpreis der universalen in Schöpfung und Tora grundgelegten Gottesherrschaft (vg. besonders Ps 2,10-12 und Ps 150, aber auch Ps 148) ... , die Jhwh durch seinen auf dem Zion eingesetzten (messianischen) König (vgl. Ps 2) und durch sein messianisches Volk (vg. ps 149) inmitten der Völkerwelt in einem eschtatalogischem Gericht durchsetzen will. [*]
Three questions:

1) How is my translation? This seems to be an example of the marvelous German ability to pack a lot of concepts into one sentence. I had no trouble understanding it but struggled with the translation.

2) Is it true? I certainly want to believe it.

3) How does this quote relate to the image (I don't know who it's by; I just typed eschatological judgement into google image)?
[*] Zenger, Einleitung.
Update: If this topic interests you I'd recommend peeking at the comments. John Anderson's are pariticularly informative, as I'm learning to expect! There is also an very interesting dialogue on this on Richard's blog here.


psalterium said...

Great quote, I am nicking that!

BTW, I've ordered vol. 2 of Erich Zenger's Die Psalmen, a great impetus to practice and develop my German.

Bob MacDonald said...

A praise of rule? Nein! A praise of YHWH certainly.

Of his teaching - yes but in part. Grounded as noted - yes. Asserted yes - but inclusive rather than parochial.


John Anderson said...


I actually do not have as much difficulty with Zenger's description as you may think. Certainly the Psalter is about, I would say, orienting ancient Israel back towards a recognition of the universal and sole kingship of YHWH. And, while I certainly am on board with YHWH asserting that kingship through eschatological judgment elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (and maybe some in the Psalter), and that Israel is a messianic people (see Isa 2, for instance) I do not at bottom think that is all the Psalter is about. Nor do I think his limiting of the rule of YHWH to Torah and creation is adequate. As you might suspect, I am influenced greatly here by the work of Gerald Wilson, Nancy deClaisse-Walford, John Vassar (see his Reclaiming a Story Once Told which treats the intertextual relationship b/w the Psalter and the Pentateuch), Robert Wallace (see his The Narrative Effect of Book IV of the Hebrew Psalter), and Walter Brueggemann (especially in his Abiding Astonishment) as it pertains to this question.

I worry that Zenger's translation is trying to portray--intentionally or not--a messianic (read: Jesus) interpretation to the Psalter, which I cannot accept. I am also quite hesitant about his notion of a messianic king as the one who will have a part in all this, namely because of the strained and problematic relationship attested in the biblical narratives between ancient Israel and her kings (i.e., despite the refrain "people did what was right in their own eyes" when there is no king in Judges, the monarchy appears equally--if not more--chaotic; I am also becoming increasingly convinced that much of the postexilic literature--of which I see the shaping and shape of the Psalter attesting to--is about convincing ancient Israel that kingship got them no where and thus it is to their detriment, not benefit, to reinstate that institution; see Robert Polzin's three volume work on the Deuteronomist on this).

I thus, would nuance Zenger's answer a bit (and this answer still would be inadequate from my perspective as it does not address the historical complexity of the Psalter):

It is . . . a praise of the divine, universal kingship of YHWH, which he has asserted in history (and perhaps will do so again in the future). This kingship is grounded in Torah and creation,but also largely in history, in the past acts of YHWH on behalf of his covenant people (Pss 78, 105, 106, 136, for instance, as microcosms of the entire Psalter), and will be asserted by means of his sole kingship for the benefit of his people Israel, and also--in part at least--not wholly to the detriment of the nations.

psalterium said...

John, again I would suggest David Mitchell The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms which is a helpful corrective to Wilson. Futato notes that:

"The Message of the Psalter is one of several recent additions to the growing corpus of work that treats the purposeful arrangement of the Book of Psalms. Mitchell is in full accord with those who argue that the Psalter is not a random anthology but is a purposefully edited literary whole. His thesis, however, goes in a different direction from that of others who have attempted to articulate the theological agenda that guided the editorial process…Mitchell argues that the agenda is eschatological….The full picture then emerges: the king comes (Psalm 45), Israel is gathered in (Psalm 50), the nations gather for war (Psalms 73-83), the king is cut off (Psalm 89), rescue by the messianic king (Psalm 110), paeans of messianic victory (Psalms 111-118), and the ascent of all Israel to celebrate the feast of tabernacles (Psalms 120-134)."

I love the following quote by Robert Cole:

"Psalms 1 and 2 were not read as two disparate Torah and royal psalms respectively in the final redaction of the Psalter; rather, both depict the ideal Joshua-like warrior and king who through divinely given authority vanquishes his enemies. From this eschatological perspective the Psalter opens and sets the tone for all subsequent psalms."

Cole, R. (2002) “An Integrated Reading of Psalms 1 and 2”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, pp. 75-88

psalterium said...

Oh, also Mitchell's "Lord, remember David: G.H. Wilson and the message of the psalter" in Vetus Testamentum 2006 56(4) pp. 526-548 is also important reading.

John Anderson said...

I responded to the comment about Mitchell's work on your blog, Richard.

I still though express hesitancy with the description offered above. To reiterate, Wilson's (and deClaisse-Walford's, and McCann's) emphases on the seamsof the books in their understanding of the overarching metanarrative of the Psalter is appealing to me. It recognizes purposeful editorial activity and sees meaning and intention arising from that material. That only solidifies the case even more, for me.

But I will peek at Mitchell sometime.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi John,

I'm sorry I can't respond immediately - I hope you get these responses sent to you by e-mail ...

I appreciate a lot of what you have said and have not given it so much in depth thought as you. You mention Wilson, doesn't he have some kind of eschatological dimension to the collection as a whole? I seem to remember him saying (it's been a while) that the Psalter progresses towards a recognition that only the Lord is the adequate king. I would have thought that that kind of recognition would have hermeneutical implications for how we re-read the earlier psalms about David. I'm going to be working through Barbiero's Das erste Psalmbuch als Einheit soon, which also plays up the eschatological dimension. I should hopefully soon be able to give a more coherent response.

I'll have to think about the role of history. You are right that it is there and it is odd that Zenger does not mention that in his quote. There does, however, seem to be some kind of qualitative difference ... Perhaps one could see it as follows: God rules in creation and law, but in order to get there he has to intervene in history. In other words, creation and law/wisdom represent the the orignal arena in which God's rule was intented to be played out, and it will one day be again the case. In order to get from A to B we need the historical acts of redemption. They are a means to something else.

Why can't you accept a messianic interpretation of the Psalter? One argument that occurs to me is the placement of Psalm 2. On most accounts this must have been a post-exilic redaction, but by that time the Psalm could not be anything other than messiance, oder?

Concerning the role of the king: I found Satterthwaite's commentary on Samuel convincing on this score. He draws on an article by Long (1989) and says: "we argue that 1 Samuel 8-12 form a unified but nuanced account of Saul's rise, whose thesis may be summed up as follows: the people were wrong to ask for a king, not because monarchy was intrinsically unsuitable for Israel, but because they asked with the wrong motives; the result was that a wrong sort of king was chosen" (2007, 112). As for the rest of the OT, I would have thought that your comments would apply to only one strand in the OT. What about Jeremiah, for example? I haven't read Polzin, though, so thanks for the tip!


I read Mitchell for an essay I wrote on this subject for my MA about five years ago. Unfortunately I seem to have lost it along with the mountains of notes I wrote! I found it interesting, if somewhat esoteric. Although I'm into "canonical" exegesis, I'm not too much into approaches to the Psalter that try to read a coherent narrative into the placing of the Psalms (I think deClaisse-Walford does this too). It may well be the case, but somehow I think something gets lost in the process ... I'll have to refine my thoughts on this. I'm still new to the game.

John Anderson said...


Please forgive my delayed reply; I just came across this post today.

Briefly . . . you are correct that Wilson sees the Psalter moving towards a notion of YHWH as king, but this is not for him an eschatological kingship. Rather, quite the opposite, for in Wilson it is a return to a prior (pre-monarchic) understanding of YHWH as king. Eschatology plays no part.

Re: messianic reading of the Psalter. I can't see it for two reasons: 1) I just don't see it in the text; 2) Perhaps this is an unfair prejudice, but when I hear messianic interpretation of the Psalms, I hear Jesus in the Psalms, and I struggle very much to see that; 3) the messianic concept in Judaism is by no means clear or monolithic, so set against that backdrop, there are potential difficulties.

Re: kingship and monarchy. I agree that part of the problem was the wrong kind of king, but I think that fails to take into account much of the evidence against the institution itself (i.e., YHWH's statement that in requesting a king--no specific king, just a king, period--is deemed to be a rejection of YHWH). Polzin's three volume set on the Deuteronomist is quite novel in its conclusions, and I by no means share many of his interpretations. It is, however, a worthy read, and does have some important things, I think, to say about matters of kingship in DH.

All the best!

Bob MacDonald said...

"but when I hear messianic interpretation of the Psalms, I hear Jesus in the Psalms, and I struggle very much to see that"

I do not like adjectives. But if we are to read the Psalter as dialogue - the way that the writer to the Hebrews reads it - then there must be a word for such a reading that is not divisive. The writers of the psalms are in dialogue and in covenant with God. They provide the exemplar for any later reader - though there are many ways of misreading too. How does a first century Jew read it - say Jesus himself - and then say those who used the psalter to reflect on his life and death as Anointed?

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks again for responding. I hope you don't mind me pushing you on this ... so feel free to break of the dialogue when you wish!

I should add that I have updated my quote, as I realized that I had left out the Psalms which Zenger originally quoted (I wrote from notes). First of all, he's basing his assumptions on the frameing Psalms 1-2 and 146 to 150. The quote now looks like this:

The Psalter is "a praise of the divine, universal rule of Yhwh, which he desires to assert in an act of eschatological judgement. This rule is grounded in Tora and creation, and will be asserted by means of both his (messianic) king (cf. Ps 2), who Yhwh has established in Zion, as well as his messianic people (cf. Ps 149, who exist amongst the nations (cf. especially Ps 2:10-12 and Ps 150, but also Ps 148)"

This brings me back to your point 1) concerning Messianic readings (I just don't see it in the text): Neither I nor Zenger are arguing that the Psalms were originally composed to be messianc, rather that they acquired a messianic connotation through their editorial placing (ie. a transformation in kingship ideology as Mowinckel imagined it, except registered in the actual literary shape of the text). Psalm 2, as I mentioned above, was placed there after the exile. As such, the Psalm can only have had a messianic meaning, surely ... And this would have provided a lens for reading the rest of the Psalter. In short, the messianic reading of Judaism and Christianity is not just the imposition of an alien doctrine, but rather an interpretation of the text which has been constrained by its present literary shape. To use more theologically loaded terminology, the ensuing relecture enabled the text to be "infused with its full ontological reality" (cf. Childs, "Does the OT Witness to Christ?").

- re: Wilson: Yes, I remember that now. It's been a while since I read him and I lost all my notes. I had another look at Zengers article and he also talks about this movement towards the rule of the Lord. For Zenger, as far as I can see (German is not my mother tongue), the remaining human kingship Psalms in books 4 and 5 get eschatologized (he doesn't say how). In fact, within the book as a whole, he even talks about the kingship Psalms and the divine kingship Psalms being editorially "blended together": e.g. Pss 18-21 (18=human king, 19=divine King; 20-21=human king) and Pss 144-145 (human king and then divine king). I'm not sure now convincing this is, but I think it's a thread worth following.

- re: your point (2): I think a problem with christological interpretation is that it tends to assume that the Jesus of the New Testament is already figured out and so we just have to look for parallels to the NT depiction in the OT. As I've come to learn from Childs, however, the OT has its own voice. It certainly does witness to Christ, but in its own way and independent of the New Testament. The OT witness should be used to critique and shape our interepretation of the New and not just the other way round. I posted on this in my posts Is Christological interpretation OK? and Jesus in the OT?.

Which means I can affirm your point (3): the diversity of the OT witness to this reality provides us with a context for interpreting the reality - spoken about differently - in the NT. The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright makes much of the diversity of the OT on this subject, and he can do because he has a far more subtle interpretation of the identity of Christ than many Christian readers (e.g. he has no problem reading Isa 53 as referring to Israel and not the Messiah because Jesus himself is the New Israel - not that I think his interpretation of Isa 53 is right here!).

I need to get to grips with the kingship question - thanks for sharpening this for me.