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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Classifying the Psalms.


Despite some scepticism as to the value of classifying the psalms and then attempting to determine the original situations in which the types of psalm were sung (cf. Rogerson and McKay 1977: 8), no study can neglect this approach. The evidence is quite insufficient for us to discover the original historical contexts (even such an apparently clear reference to the Exile as Ps 137 is not unambiguous), and similarities in structure, content, and mood between groups of psalms immediately suggests that classifying by the type of psalm may be a valuable way of treating them. This does not mean that there were any rigid structures to which each type of psalm had to conform, and those textbooks which set out the supposed forms are liable to mislead. Few psalms manifest the ideal structure of the types which scholars have proposed. Gunkel was right to adopt a more flexible approach than some later advocates of form criticism. Moreover the types are not rigidly distinct, and it is less than helpful to suppose that any development from ‘pure’ forms to ‘mixed’ ones occurred. In this commentary the types will be treated very generally.

2. Laments of an Individual.

These form the largest class of psalms. Similarities with the Laments of the Community (E. 6) have led some scholars to group both types as Laments or Complaints. The worshipper is in distress and calls on God for deliverance. Usually the suffering is described in very general terms, and often different kinds of trouble are included in the same psalm. Illness (e.g. Ps 6; 22; 38; 88 ) and attacks from enemies (e.g. Ps 3; 5; 17; 109 ) are frequently mentioned. Who the ‘enemies’ are is uncertain (see G.2). It has been suggested that some of these laments were prayers by those who had been unjustly accused of some offence, were appealing to a higher court, perhaps the temple priesthood, or were awaiting an ordeal to test their guilt (e.g. 7; 26; 27). In some of these psalms the tone changes dramatically towards the end, and the psalmist affirms his confidence that God has heard his prayer (e.g. Ps 6:8–10; 13:5–6; 31:19–24 ). This has been interpreted in four ways: (1) it may be that a fragment from a different psalm has been attached to the lament; (2) it may be the prayer of the psalmist after his prayer has been answered; (3) it may reflect the alternating moods of the sufferer; or (4) between the two parts of the psalm the psalmist may have received a sign that his prayer had been heard, perhaps through an oracle by a cult prophet, or some indication that his sacrifice had been accepted by God. In some psalms the note of confidence is extended so greatly that the psalm may really be a prayer of thanksgiving, in which the psalmist recalls his suffering and his earlier prayer. Confidence dominates a few psalms (e.g. Ps 11; 23; 62; 131 ), and here it hardly seems correct to count them as laments: some treat them as a separate type of psalm.

3. Thanksgiving by an Individual.

When the psalmist received an answer from God or was delivered from his distress, he would offer thanksgiving, often accompanied by a sacrifice. Such psalms sometimes contain an account of the distress from which the psalmist has been saved, and it is often not easy to determine to which of the two types a psalm belongs (e.g. Ps 30; 32; 34; 66; 116 ).

4. Hymns.

These normally consist of a call to praise YHWH, followed by an account of the reasons for worshipping him, usually introduced by ‘for’ or ‘because’ (e.g. Ps 29; 33; 100; 103; 104; 117; 145–50 ). There seems no need to distinguish between those psalms which describe YHWH's character (e.g. Ps 33:4–5 ) and those which relate his actions in creating the world or saving his people Israel (e.g. Ps 136:4–25 ). The hymn often ends with a renewed call to offer praise. Some of these hymns have similarities with Canaanite religion (see PS 29) or Egyptian hymns (see PS 104).


Within this general class two groups of psalms have been singled out, and have led to striking proposals for reconstructing the worship of the Jerusalem temple:

  • a. Songs of Zion, where the main theme is YHWH's deliverance and protection of Jerusalem (Ps 46; 48; 76; 84; 87; 122 ). Opinion is divided over whether these psalms belong to the Jerusalem cult and express a faith in divine protection of the city, possibly as part of a cultic drama, or were occasioned by a spectacular deliverance of the city, perhaps at the time of Sennacherib's siege (2 Kings 18:13–19:36; Isa 36–7 ).

  • b. Enthronement Psalms which are characterized by a phrase which has been variously translated as ‘The LORD is king’, ‘The LORD reigns’, ‘The LORD reigns (now)’, and ‘The LORD has become king’ (Ps 47; 93; 96–9 ). The different translations reflect different interpretations. Some follow Mowinckel in positing a great New Year Festival in the autumn as part of the Feast of Tabernacles (Ingathering) in which the kingship of YHWH was celebrated and he was enthroned anew. Others question whether such a festival existed in Israel, and argue that to assert that YHWH became king implies that he had ceased to be king, rather like the dying and rising gods of other cultures in the ancient Middle East. But to say that his enthronement was celebrated annually need not imply this, and the psalms certainly gain in vividness if some such annual celebration is imagined.

6. Laments of the Community.

When famine or defeat in war threatened the nation, a fast would be called and the people would express their grief and call upon YHWH for help (cf. 1 Kings 8:33–40 ). Ps 44; 74; 79; 80 are examples of the prayers that would be offered. Whether these were general petitions or were evoked by specific historical events, such as the fall of Jerusalem in 586, is impossible to determine.

7. Royal Psalms.

These are psalms of various forms which have the king as the central figure, either as the one for whom the prayer is offered or the one who makes the prayer. There is intense debate about the number of such psalms. The absolute minimum number is Gunkel's list of Ps 2; 18; 20; 21; 45; 72; 101; 110; 132; 144:1–11 , with doubts expressed about 89:47–52 (Gunkel and Begrich 1933: 140). At the other extreme Eaton (1986 ) argues that in principle all the Davidic psalms belong to this group, which are characterized by ‘royal’ language and motifs, are in first-person form (or use the third person rather like the royal ‘we’), and combine individual and corporate features, indicating that the psalmist is in some way the representative of the community. He supports this by stressing the importance of the king in ancient Israelite society. On this understanding a large number of psalms are held to be certainly royal psalms, with others probably belonging to this category. It is difficult to decide between these two positions. Not all of Eaton's arguments are equally convincing, such as the claim that the enemies are always foreigners or Israelite rebels or that there was a distinctive royal style, and a decision ultimately depends on whether the reader is convinced by the reconstruction of the cultic worship into which the psalms are fitted. (See F for a discussion of the New Year Festival.)

8. Smaller Classes of Psalms.

Besides these main types of psalm a number of smaller classes have been posited.

9. Wisdom Psalms

have similarities with the wisdom writings in the OT (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach) and those from Egypt and Babylon. The exact number of psalms to be included in this category depends upon what criteria are used to define wisdom. Many accept Ps 1; 37; 49; 73; 112; 127; 128; 133 . Like the wisdom writings they fall into two main types, collections of proverbs, mainly optimistic and expressing a philosophy that goodness will be rewarded and evil punished (e.g. Ps 1; 112 ), and meditations on what may be termed the problem of theodicy (cf. Job; Ps 49; 73 . Ps 37 is more like the first group but recognizes that life does not always work out neatly).

10. Torah Psalms.

The great psalm in praise of the law is Ps 119 , an elaborate acrostic, each of its twenty-two stanzas consists of eight lines, each line beginning with the appropriate letter of the alphabet. The law is referred to under eight synonyms. Ps 19:7–11 (or 7–14), which may be a separate psalm or psalm fragment, also praises the law under a range of expressions. Ps 1 is often placed in this category rather than among the wisdom psalms.

11. Entrance Liturgies.

The question and answer in Ps 15; 24:3–6 suggests that these two psalms may have been the catechism of pilgrims as they approach the temple, whether on an ordinary occasion or, perhaps more probably, for one of the great annual festivals. Isa 33:13–16 has similarities with these liturgies.

12. Pilgrimage Psalms.

It is commonly accepted that the title ‘Song of Ascents’ in Ps 120–34 indicates psalms which pilgrims sang as they made their way to Jerusalem. Possibly Ps 84 and 122 also belong to this type, although Ps 84 has some of the features of an entrance liturgy and a hymn of Zion, and Ps 122 seems clearly related to the latter.

13. History Psalms.

Accounts of events in Israel's history play such a large part in Ps 78; 105; 106 that they are often described as history psalms. Each, however, has its own features. Ps 78 has some of the characteristics of wisdom, Ps 105 is a hymn of praise, and the stress on the past sins of Israel in Ps 106 makes it a corporate confession. There is considerable debate as to whether these psalms (or any of them) are dependent on the narratives of the Pentateuch. In the past they were regarded as examples of ‘salvation history’ theology, but some scholars now question whether this is an adequate term, regarding it as ambiguous and meaning nothing more than that Israel survived when the historical circumstances made it unlikely. It is better to refer simply to Israel's history.

14. Acrostics.

Eight psalms are acrostics, each line or verse beginning with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in correct sequence (Ps 9–10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145 ). This is difficult to reproduce in translation, but NJB has followed the letters of the English alphabet in the initial words of each verse of Ps 25 , beginning with ‘Adoration I offer, Yahweh’ and ending with the additional v. 22 , ‘Ransom Israel, O God’. Of the most recent translations only NJB indicates the Hebrew letters in all eight, though NIV does so in Ps 119 . The purpose of the acrostic form is debated. It is unlikely that it was an aid to the memory, or had magical significance. An attractive suggestion is that it expressed completeness, the A to Z, as it were, of the theme. Alternatively it may simply be an artistic device. Acrostics are found both in OT writings outside the Psalter (e.g. in Lam 1–4 and Prov 31:10–31 ) and in Babylon (though these are not alphabetic since cuneiform is syllabic). Moreover, there is evidence of deliberate art in the construction of many of the other psalms. This, therefore, seems to be the most likely explanation.

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